Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Leora-Skolkin Smith talks about Edges, the culture of celebrity, the legacy of Grace Paley, the Israel and Palestine conflict, and more

The wonderful thing about books is that they can have second, third, and multiple lives. They can be reprinted, put into different formats, and made into movies (every writer's dream!).  Leora Skolkin-Smith's Edges has just been reissued, and the timing is important, because it's a novel that explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award by Grace Paley; a National Women Studies Association Conference Selection; a Bloomsbury Review Pick, 2006: “Favorite Books of the Last 25 Years”; a Jewish Book Council Selection, 2005; and won the 2008 Earphones Award for an original audio production narrated by Tovah Feldshuh.Her other novel, Hystera was selected by Princeton University for their "The Fertile Crescent Moon: Women Writers Writing About their Past in the Middle East." It was also the winner of the 2012 USA Book Award and the 2012 Global E-Books Award, as well as a finalist in the International Book Awards and the National Indie Excellence Awards.

I'm so honored to host Leora here! Thank you, Leora!

1.    The writer Oscar Hijeulos said: “Edges is an elegantly written, quite moving novel that has a lot to say about love, identity, history and the meaning of nationality.” Can you explain why he chose those words to describe Edges?

What I was trying for was to present Jerusalem to the reader through the eyes of a young woman whose mother’s grew up in Palestine, now vanishing, but never talked about it. After my character, Liana’s, father commits suicide she is left to this wild and fascinating mother who fought in the Jewish underground and who holds a very unknown past. The mother returns to Israel with her daughter after the father’s death. For the  daughter, it began to feel that this young Israel and Palestine were coming of age at the same time she was and the geography and canvas of Jerusalem became a silent guide to how each was experiencing their growth, reflecting each other in interesting ways. The language of the body and nature is always important to me. The landscape became a story-teller  all unto itself. What brings in the meaning of national identity and history is that the mother, though Jewish and part of a family that had been in Palestine for generations, can’t find her old home, Palestine when she returns, taking her daughter with her. The turbulent changes, the wars, the buried history of early Palestine is repeatedly held hostage to the border hostilities between Arab and Jew, and the effects of the formation of the state of Israel and all that came with that. So in a sense the mother is stateless. Identity for both mother and daughter had to be an internal one, sexual identity of the daughter was also confused by the lack of borders between her mother and herself, as boundry-less as the land itself. In this sense, I wanted to ask questions about nationality, identity, history and of course, love, as the bonds of mother are daughter are broken by the emergence of an American diplomats son into the story who take the daughter away from her mother.

2.    I always want to know what generates a book for an author, so what inspired this one?

For me, this novel was really the work of more than twenty-five years of failures. I could not understand how to write through my own personal experiences with Israel and Palestine, the conflicts I had with a troubled mother who was taken from Palestine to affluent New York and was an outsider there. But when the Persian Gulf Crisis broke out and the situation for the Palestinians and Israelis became severely inflamed, I felt had to integrate all I had heard as a child, if only for myself. The drive was there all along, though when I was taken as a young child to such a mysterious and often frightening country as Israel was back then. But when the Persian Gulf Crisis happened, I felt more urgency for some reason. I don’t think I’m a political person, so that wasn’t it. It was that I was witnessing the erasure of a whole tribe of people virtually forgotten as history rang its self-righteous bells. One doesn’t read much about Palestinian Jews, so I felt like was working from blanks in my own education too but not in my sensual and very real memory banks which held all those family stories of early Palestine vital and sensually alive for me.

3.    After all critical attention Edges won (and I understand Grace Paley nominated it for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award) was it difficult to write the next book or did it make it easier? Did you find that the whole process of writing the book was different somehow, and if so, how?

Yes! It was terrible. I really didn’t have another book to go to! It was hard when Grace died because I lost all that stalwart support, I felt lost in some forest of others who scared and intimidated me without Grace. But now, ten years later I’m finishing my new novel and pleased.

4.    You worked closely with Grace Paley. Tell us a little bit about what that was like.

      I wrote an essay about her for the Quarterly Review a few years back, after she died. I think it told what I knew of her as the writer. It was called “The Legacy of Grace Paley”. What I most remember about her personal is her vaudevillian sense of things. She could make the world's horrors and your own grimest moments, all the dark places luminous, and jokes weren’t just jokes, but a power to not feel like a leaf in the wind, thrown to the world’s chaos. Humor was very important to her. And she was quite a vaudevillian, a real performer. Everything was for the work of either living, working or writing, just that you came by things honestly. Grace, she could turn words into a flip and make them tumble around. She was a tumbling expert I always thought. There were also many Interruptions whenever I visited her but then she made the interruptions seem fascinating. She was a woman who wrote about women’s lives, ordinary lives, she wasn’t interested in the famous, and she was among the first to ever reveal women’s lusts, inner lives, feelings about family obligations and dailiness with such a clear eye. And no one wanted to read such stories before Grace! Much more. There will always be much more to say about Grace.

5.   What's your writing life like? How do you plan your books, or do you?
          I’m all over the place, I write doing the dishes. I write when I’m supposed at a social gathering and paying attention. But I have absolutely no routine.

5.    What’s obsessing you now and why?

    I’m obsessed with the culture of celebrity and consumerist art and writing find myself in. And with the feelings of, being an outsider and trying to not feel that, but also asking what is an outsider? Can that be mire meaningful and gratifying in a way? I ’m writing a book set in the literary 80’s, which I saw as the time when writing books really changed, and the celebrity cults began. I’m also writing about de-institutionalization, which happened under Reagan and was tragic. My character is a mentally ill women who feel ill in her mid twenties and keeps having multiple hospitalizations but truly finds the people in the hospital and the homeless she “socializes” with in the streets more meaningful than the places she can’t belong to or feel comfortable in outside society

7.  What question didn't I ask that I should have?

       None, and thank Caroline for having me!

Amy Impellizzeri talks about Lemongrass Hope, writing, and so much more

 Amy Impellizzeri knows the terrors of being a first novelist, and she's written a wonderful essay about dealing with them. Her first novel Lemongrass Hope was called a "layered, bittersweet romance" by the notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews, and New York Times bestselling author, Jacquelyn Mitchard called it "a truly new story. Impellizzeri is a bold and tender writer, who makes the impossible feel not only real, but strangely familiar."  

Lemongrass Hope, about love, time travel, and what lasts, is haunting, mesmerizing and unforgettable. Thanks for writing an essay for the blog, Amy!

I was sitting on my bedroom floor with the pages of what would later become my first novel strewn all over the place like they were auditioning as a new carpet. 

On any given day, I loved them and I hated them.

But on that day, I hated them. 

They were staring at me like lost children.  Like I should somehow be the one in control.  Like I should know. 

But, instead, it was they who were controlling me.  Taunting me with their 143 occasions of the word “whispered” (Wait!  There’s another one.  144.   And counting.)

Taunting me with their mistaken uses of lay/lain.  With their “something is not quite right here with the structure of your story” – they chided me petulantly and I rubbed my eyes, as I thought about how easy it would be to just.give.up.

We went on like that, day after day, week after week, month after month.  The pages and I.   No – the words and I.  A dance for control.  We got into each other’s heads.   We danced some more.  Got into each other’s heads some more.

I started to believe something about the pages – about the words.

The end.  It’s the end that’s bothering me.

The end was haunting me.

One night I woke from a dead sleep at 2 am, and I wrote and wrote as if I was possessed. For weeks and then months, I wrote, and re-wrote and edited. 

The words and I danced and I no longer even tried tried to control them.  I let them take shape.  The way they wanted.  The story unfolded in ways I never realized it could.

It was at that point - oddly enough – that the end stopped haunting me.

I wrote and wrote, and re-wrote and edited.

But not the end.

I left the end alone. 

Because I realized that it was the beginning that had been haunting me all along.    

And one day, I said to my publisher “Should I-?”

“No,” she said.  “It’s finished.  It’s ready.”

“Not even the end?”

“Especially not the end.”

Yet, despite her words, her assurances, and the fact that the novel has been sent to print, I’m still haunted.

I write more words, and I sit with them on my bedroom floor, pages strewn all over the place like they are auditioning as a new carpet. 

I love them and I hate them.

They are the beginning of something new, and I am starting to realize that the beginning will always be what haunts me.

Not the end.

Because when you write – when you have to write, of course,  - there is no end.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sheila Weller talks about The News Sorority, humanity, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Christiane Amanpour, sexist news, and so much more

 Sheila Weller is truly one of the most interesting women I know.  After I devoured her book GIrls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon and the music industry, I couldn't wait to see what she was going to do next. And it turned out to be The News Sorority, about three more fascinating women: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour.
I asked Sheila a bunch of questions, and she's written her answers in a fascinating riff that doesn't require my questions repeated here at all. I can't thank you enough, Sheila!

 I love your questions, Caroline. Like me, you’re super-curious and enthusiastic.

  Here’s what happened: After Girls Like Us was such a gratifying critical and commercial success, people said, You should do another three-woman book, but I resisted. I confabbed with an editor I’d had in the past and we came up with first one, then a second, single-living-woman biography idea. The first was to do a biography of Gloria Steinem. But there were already two biographies of Steinem out – one, an authorized one by an esteemed (now dead; she committed Kervorkian-like self-chosen suicide) feminist, and, though the early chapters were good, it was teeth-achingly hagiographic and  cheerleaderly. But there was a second, by a virtually unknown writer (and the book got almost no attention --- or sales), and it was GOOD. Really good, and thorough. So it seemed like there was nothing fantastically new to say . Also a close friend of Steinem’s essentially talked me out of it, by saying: It’s all  been said. I took that as polite code for: And, anyway, people won’t talk without Gloria’s permission and that may be hard. Idea nixed. (And, by the way, Sheila Nevins’s HBO special on Steinem – a fantastic hero/she-ro – was great.

    Second idea with this same editor (see, I’m telling you more than I’ve told anyone else, because we’re writer-to-writer shop-talking): Michelle Obama biography. HarperCollins actually gave me a contract for it just before the election. The money was kind of “If you can pull this off, great; if not, we won’t lose our shirts on the gamble” kind of money. Liza Mundy’s biog of Michelle had just come out, and it was both good and also…slightly nervously hagiographic., or inhibited, or both. I said to myself, “I just don’t think a white woman can – or should -- do this particular book.” When a very big-deal political writer friend of mine said, “The Obamas have signed Bob Barnett” – the DC mega-lawyer-book-agent who EVERY DC bigwig hires for book deals – “and he never lets his clients, who may be doing memoirs years down the line, give access to people in their inner circles to other writers,” that’s when I realized it couldn’t be done well. (But I will say this: The White House responded to my e-mails more quickly than the network executives and producers I subsequently begged to talk to.)

    So I turned that book contract back, unsigned, and, with a new agent (whom I adore), decided that the whole idea of how women re-made the concept of what news IS was a juicy topic. I have been a writer for lots of years, and I have seen how many things -- feminism, the human enlightenment movement, the diversity movement, popular psychology, the elevation of celebrity news to a place where it’s seen to MIRROR our lives, the proliferation of upscale tragedies and scandals (the Menendez brothers, OJ, JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy) and political sex scandals (Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill, Clinton/Lewinsky), the elevation of family dynamics and work-life issues to respectable news-worthiness: how all of these things, which would never have been “news” in the mid’60s has become what news is, along with politics and war. So I thought of a book about three women who rode that wave and helped MAKE that wave. And it was clear that the three most charismatic, distinctive, influential, and years-long successful women in TV news were Diane, Katie and Christiane.

    But as I began interviewing for the book, and researching their lives, and discovering how something as seemingly “liberal” as TV news was so hide-boundly sexist, the focus changed from the women riding the wave of a changing conception of news to three women who woke up every morning of their lives never taking NO for an answer.

   Gee, I’ve been talk-typing a lot. Did I answer your question?

   Oh, no I see I didn’t – you asked me about their “humanity,” and I am really glad you did, because there’s been so much cherry-picking by the tabloid media (not that we don’t sometimes love the tabloid media) about their “catfights” (when women are aggressive, they’re indulging in cat fights; when men are aggressive, they’re doing their jobs), that the humanity which all three of them have brandished personally and professionally throughout their careers has been lost.

   Their humanity. Some examples: Women in general intertwine their aggressive work lives with responsibilities to their families and abiding alliances to their friends…also with charity and philanthropy to strangers. All three of these women, as busy as they were, did that. Family came first to all three – Christiane dropped her CNN work (just as she was finally ascending) on a dime to rush from NY to England when her youngest sister had a leg amputated after a bike crash…and she risked life and limb for 15 years telling some of the most poignant, urgent stories of crises and brutal unfairness to women and children in ignored parts of the globe on CNN and CBS. And, while she was nabbing her exclusives with Mubarek and Ghadaffi during the Arab spring, she was simultaneously planning the details of a book party she was throwing in New York the minute she arrived home for a good friend.

   Katie? For Katie, family and friends always came first. She’s had the same girlfriends from childhood. She once interrupted an interview with General Petraeus in his helicopter over Afghanistan to call a doctor in New York to make an appointment for a friend’s college-aged son, whose cold seemed, to Katie, suspiciously trenchant. She’s saved hundreds of thousands of lives, literally, by telling a reluctant and squeamish America about colon cancer ---  how easily it can be avoided, a sad reality she and her late husband Jay Monahan did NOT know in time. Katie’s anti-cancer activism is among the strongest of any celebrity, in any field – and she has had a key hand in raising $230 million in cancer treatment and research (including funding clinical trials) over 15 years. And she’s funny as hell! And hates pomposity. When she was the Princeton commencement speaker, in the first line of her speech to the cap-and-gown’d graduates, she slyly offered the fact that the National Enquirer called her a “cougar.” Who the F else sitting in Walter Cronkite’s “hallowed” chair would do that? That’s humanity…and with wit.

    Diane? Diane is first of all so close to her mother, her mother is still the most important judge of her life. Diane is under  her urbane glamour and life with her husband, the ultra-sophisticated Mike Nichols, a good Southern Methodist girl who believes in “purpose,” in doing good. Diane is an extraordinary compassionate friend and giver  – and most of it is anonymous. From my book:

 “Diane’s generosity has been quietly known within her circle of colleagues for years. She is such a good friend that “if you get sick, forget about it—she’s calling a van to the rescue,” says someone. [Producer]Ira Rosen concurs: “She is simply the best foul-weather friend in the business. If, God forbid, something bad is happening in your life, she will go through every doctor she knows. When Anthony Radziwill was dying of cancer, she spent days on the phone [calling doctors and] tryingto save his life.” She did the same for a colleague who had pancreatic cancer. Private school tuitions for kids of single moms she barely knows, beach camps for children who never saw an ocean, surgeries for family members of a studio tech and an elevator operator, all done anonymously, with the recipients not knowing the source: “You could fill a stadium with the people she’s helped,” says Mark Robertson. On long international flights, she’d often force her first-class seats on her young producers while taking their coach seats. Eventually, when she took over the anchorship of ABC World News, she bought the whole staff gym memberships, each one including a trainer.” In addition, her ten or so years of specials on impoverished and at-risk children in America – award-winning, policy-influencing --

   And, as I say at the end of the book, summing up their humanity:

“There’s a flip side of resilience, and that is vulnerability. says, “All three of these women are strong, but they’re still very vulnerability.” As Jeff Zucker” [long Katie’s producer, then head of NBC-Universal, now head of CNN] says, “All three of these women are vulnerable. It’s a very hard business, to put yourself out there” where millions see you daily, “every day, on the line. And be graded every day by people who have never had the courage to do this. Having the courage to put yourself out there every day: it says something about all three of these women.”


Ginny Vicario, the first female camera operator ever hired by a network, who has collaborated with them all, takes it further. She says: “Diane, Katie, and Christiane have worked their asses off. But with that hard work has come compassion, in the stories they’ve told, in the stories they’ve chosen to tell, and in their lives. Power has not taken that away. If anything, it has increased it.”

     All three of these women modeled a reality of success that was different from past models. The more powerful they became, the more interested in people they became. They remained profoundly committed to telling the stories of ordinary Americans, unfairly besieged victims, people in cataclysms and crises, fascinating celebrities both worthy and spoiled, world leaders both benign and heinous. They passionately kept up their commitments to their families, friends, and needy strangers through both improvised

and formal philanthropies. They remembered what they had pushed past—grief, danger, tragedy—and the more they saw and reported, the more they folded the new experiences into those primary lessons. As intensely competitive as they have been, each of them had a moral brake on runaway power. They asked, “Where’s the heart?” (Diane) or they considered their network colleagues their cherished “family” (Christiane) or they knew that that “other side”—the “payback” side—of their luck and bounty existed (Katie). Whatever their idiosyncrasies, whatever their egos, whatever their aggressiveness and ambition, they retained an experienced kernel of humbling reality, and it controlled their choices and their consciences. From Three Mile Island to the Arab Spring, from the Gulf War to Bosnia to Iraq to Syria, from Columbine to 9/11 to the Haiti and Japanese earthquakes, from Matthew Shepard to Whitney Houston to Hosni Mubarek, from cancer awareness to corruption to genocide to childhood poverty, we got the news from them. And we also got from them what is underneath the news, what is underneath all news: We got humanity.”



Katie and Diane declined to be interviewed and by the time Christiane assented to be included and give me access to her friends and family – and she was in England, anyway – I didn’t want to unbalance things by asking her alone.


 You get more from people’s intimates than you do from very “managed” (as these would be) interviews with women who are the most sophisticated interviewers in the world.


I suppose I could have wrangled and wangled and begged to get some questions answered by them, but after five years of begging most of the other 200 people for interviews, I was exhausted. And I felt, from the interviews they gave to others (celebrities --- even in news – will always give selected interviews to magazines and newspapers, because it helps sell and promote their shows; the PR departments are in favor of this; but they do not want to give interviews for someone else’s BOOK about them), that they would be charming, facile, guarded, articulate…and that I would not get anything new. While also, in the bargain, having to make certain promises or give certain access/information to their publicists in exchange.


I didn’t interview any of my GIRLS LIKE US except Carly (and she came to ME, bless her), and, at that, in a limited way.


     Not much of anywhere. These three women;s prominence coincided with what you might call the Golden Age

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bill Roorbach talks about The Remedy for Love, being "the poet of hopeless tangles," writing, being a judge on the Food Network, and so much more

 I first met Bill Roorbach at an Algonquin Books Party,  amidst party chaos. When I really met him was at the Tucson Book Festival, where we got to hang out and talk, and I realized what a smart, hilarious, and truly wonderful guy he is.  Of course I stalk him on FaceBook, and of course, I've a huge fan of his work, which is brilliant, blazingly alive, and full of surprises.  His newest, THE REMEDY FOR LOVE is about two lost souls, struggling to survive a blizzard--and each other.

Bill's self-written bio is so funny, I'm going to just post it here: Bill is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend , Into Woods Temple Stream, and Life Among Giants. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. 

Recently, Bill was a judge on Food Network All Star Challenge, evaluating incredible Life Stories cakes made under the gun, so to speak. Bill knows nothing about cake, but he knows a lot about life stories! 

His work has been published in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His story "Big Bend" was featured on NPR's "Selected Shorts," read by actor James Cromwell at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Bill has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington, Colby College, and Ohio State. His last academic position was the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts. He has now retired from academia in order to write full time. A comic video memoir about his tragic music career, "I Used to Play in Bands," and all kinds of other work, including a current blog on writers and writing and just about everything else (with author David Gessner) is online at www.billanddavescocktailhour.com.

Thanks Bill for being here! Next time you're in NYC,  I am so buying you pie.

I have to ask you about your being called by Kirkus, in a starred review,  “the poet of hopeless tangles.”  Explain yourself, please!

I think Kirkus needs to explain that!  I do love it, not even sure what it means.  They loved Life Among Giants, too, which is a mess of love and other knots.  And Remedy, a very different book, really is a tangle, a ball of string, all these loose ends to pull on, everything connected, or maybe not.  Knot.  I think is what they’re saying.

 I seem to remember seeing different titles for The Remedy of Love. Is that true or am I hallucinating? And if so, how did you come to call it The Remedy of Love?

The working title was Storm of the Century, but Kathy Pories, my editor at Algonquin, reported that people there thought it sounded too non-fiction-y.  Plus, I’d given it a Google and someone named Stephen King (also a Maine author), had already used it.  We kept thinking and trying titles and falling half in love with one or another idea before rejecting it, even as time was running short. Then, middle of the last possible night, I remembered that my friend Liesel Litzenburger, who is a novelist herself (Now You Love Me, The Widower) and an all-around genius, is also a kind of title savant.  You can tell her in a few words about your characters and story, and without skipping a beat or taking a breath she’ll calmly tell you your title.  So, even though we hadn’t been in touch for a few years, I sent her a very brief description of the book via email, plus a title idea we’d gotten from Thoreau.
Not four minutes later she shot back a reply, mostly tongue in cheek, but not entirely: “Well... yes to Thoreau, but you have to get the word “love” in there to double your sales as you are male, so the HDT quote from his journals, after being shot down in  a marriage proposal: ‘The only remedy for love is to love more.’  So then you have A Remedy for Love…”  I knew that was it, and tried it on Kathy, and with a quick adjustment to the article, we were done.  Thanks, Liesel!

I always want to know what sparked a particular book, so what generated this one?

A few winters ago I went grocery shopping before a snowstorm.  As I was driving out of the parking lot, I spotted a young woman carrying, like, ten bags of groceries along the verge of the no-sidewalk commercial strip in our rural town here in Maine.  I recognized her slightly from her job at one of the thrift stores and stopped to offer her a ride. That’s all. She was grateful and explained that she was newlywed and that their truck had broken and they didn’t have the money yet to fix it—transmission.  Those stories about the pressures of being newlywed, of just starting out in the world!  I found it touching, this new couple with their private struggles, doing their best, living on cuddles and Pop Tarts and minimum wage.  I dropped her at her incredibly tiny house (several miles from the store, what was she thinking?).  But when I got home, snow starting to fall, I realized her groceries were still in the back of my car!  I’d driven off with them!  I roared back in the snow fifteen minutes to her house and popped the hatchback and gathered all ten bags by their plastic handles as she had done and knocked on her door with my forehead.  So, not like what happens in the book, but it got me thinking.  What if she really didn’t have a home to go to?  We have a problem here called rural homelessness, much less visible than city homelessness, and winter turns it into crisis.  Pretty soon I was inventing my characters…

 Both Eric and Danielle are so distinct and fascinating. They never act as anticipated, and they have so many layers to them. How do you go about building a character? 

Really, truly, I just write.  I start with a thin premise, get the people moving and talking, talking, and pretty soon they begin having deep reality, real presence, and whole complex lives, nothing to do with me, certainly to do with all I know about the world, but characters have their own lives, and often I’ll have to do research, both formal and conversational.  Making a character is like meeting someone new and gradually getting to know them as you draft.  By the end of a rough first go, you know enough to go back and get all the early stuff right. 

After all the accolades Life Among Giants won, was it more difficult to write your next book? Or did that make it easier? Did you find that the whole process of writing the book was different somehow, and if so, how?

It was harder and easier both.  Harder just because the new book was so different from the old, easier because I had the sense that there were readers out there…  And of course these are my 8th and 9th books, respectively…  The process for each book has been different, and each book very different from the last, I can’t explain it…  I’m always trying to do the thing I can’t do, and just making it harder for myself.  Life Among Giants was a big, sweeping narrative.  The Remedy for Love is more intimate.  Life Among Giants had dozens of characters operating over several decades, The Remedy for Love is two people, one location, a few days, though back story fills it out considerably… 

You’re in the astonishing position of being involved in the making of an HBO TV series of Life Among Giants. How amazing is that? What surprises you about all of it? And what did you expect? 

It’s so fascinating and really fun, bringing my characters into a new medium and a new reality with the help and full collaboration of some really brilliant people.  I hadn’t watched much TV at all in life, and never any of these great premium cable dramas.  So I did my homework, which was watching complete sets of all the great shows.  I was really impressed with some of them, stuff everyone I know had already seen years before, like The Sopranos.  It’s not uniformly great, but much of it is great indeed.  I found myself saying, This is where narrative has gone to live! And it’s where people go—the masses, I mean—for their daily human requirement of stories.  Who knew?  My hope is to make a great show.  We just finished the pilot script.  Of course there are many more hurdles to leap, such as, will HBO actually order the pilot.  We shall see.  I’m feeling awfully good about it, and hopeful.  But I haven’t quit my day job, which is writing novels.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Home maintenance.  This is a creaky old place, and I’ve been working on it twenty years, long enough that stuff I built—I was in construction for some years when I was young—now needs upkeep!  Plus, we have embarked on yet another a major renovation, this time with professional help: tearing the old deteriorated porch down and building a new one that will be useable year-round, effectively making our house bigger, but in fact not changing the shape or look much at all.  And the whole house will be warmer and dryer and prettier.

Will you be touring?  Where can people see you?

Here’s my tour schedule, with warm thanks to Algonquin, the best publisher in the world, for putting it together.  And if your readers come see me and mention your name (and give the secret handshake, like this), they will get a valuable free prize.  Or at least a drink at the nearest watering hole:

Tuesday, October 14th, 7 p.m: Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine

Thursday, October 16th, 7 p.m: Jesup Library, Bar Harbor, Maine

Friday, October 17th, 7 p.m:  Emery Center, UMF, Farmington, Maine

Wednesday, October 22, Noon:  Portland Public Library

Thursday, October 23, 7 p.m: Lithgow Public Library, Augusta, Maine

Friday, October 24th, 7 p.m: Magers and Quinn Books,  Minneapolis, MN [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Saturday, October 25th and 26th, Texas Book Festival, Austin, TX [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Monday, October 27th, 8 p.m: Books and Books, Coral Gables, FL [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Thursday, October 30th, 6 p.m: Watermark Books, Wichita Kansas

Saturday, November 1st, 2 p.m: Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, Denver, CO

Monday, November 3rd, noon, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

Tuesday, November 4th, 7:30 p.m: Book Bar, Denver, CO

Wednesday, November 5th, 7:30 p.m: Booksmith, San Francisco, CA

Thursday, November 6th, 7 p.m: Rakestraw Books, Danville, CA

Monday, November 10th, 7:30 PM: Powell’s Books (Hawthorne), Portland, OR 97214

Tuesday, November 11th, 6 p.m: University Books, Bellevue, WA

Monday, November 17th, 7:00 p.m:            Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, NY

Tuesday, November 18th, 7:00 p.m:            RiverRun Books, Portsmouth, NH 03801

Monday, November 24th, 7:15 p.m: Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library

Tuesday, November 25th, 7:00 p.m: Politics and Prose Washington, DC

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tour de Blog: My leg of the "My Writing Process Blog Tour!"

I was invited to participate in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR by the most wonderful Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner who run the smart, hip and funny blog, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. I know Bill personally and he's not only hilarious fun to be with, but he's generous, smart, and a truly extraordinary writer. Not only did he write the sublime Life Among Giants, (winner of the Maine Prize), but his newest, The Remedy for Love, will be coming out this October, and I plan to have Bill on my blog. He’s the author of eight novels, including the Flannery O’Connor Prize and O’Henry Prize winner Big Bend, Into Woods, and Temple Stream, 

I don't know Dave personally, but any friend of Bill's is a friend of mine. Dave Gessner is the author of nine books, and his latest All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and The American West will be out in April. He’s won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012.  And he’s a sure bet for winning the national championship in ultimate Frisbee.  

Not only do you want both these guys hanging out with you over dinner, you want to buy all their books.

So without further ado, here are the questions, my answers, and my nomination for the next log of the blog tour!

1. What are you working on?

I’m trying to let go of my novel Cruel Beautiful World and get it to my agent and then to Algonquin, even though I’m six months early on deadline, which never happens. Then I need to immediately start on something else because otherwise the paranoia, fear, and anxiety over letting a novel go will begin to eat me alive. It's better to focus that obsessiveness on something new.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I never understand what the word genre means, unless a book has dragons in it (then it is sci-fi), or Fabio on the cover with a woman in a tight dress (then it’s romance).  I try to write what feels truest to me, and trust that I'm odd or unique enough to give whatever I'm writing about my own spin.

3. Why do you write what you do?
If I didn’t write, I’d probably need a constant IV drip of Valium. I write about the questions that haunt me. How do you find community when you are an outsider? How do forgive the unforgivable? How do you live with yourself when you can’t make things right?  I never know the answers until I finish the novel, and it’s not always the answer that I hope to see. I write about my deepest fears in an attempt to understand and defuse them. (Doesn’t always work, but I keep trying.)

4. How does your writing process work?

Ha. I wish I knew. I always start with something that obsesses me, and it’s almost always around character. I always feel that people dig down and struggle to find their best selves when they are in the midst of their worst disasters. I am big on story structure. I know some writers hate making outlines and synopsis and all of that, but to me, without knowing something of the shape of my novel, I might as well be driving from New York City for miles not knowing where I am going. At least if I know I am headed to San Francisco, then I have a destination. But I plot and plan by what I call moral structure. How does the character change by being forced to make difficult choices? I often call this the Rolling Stone’s method, because I am always thinking in terms of the character “not always getting what he or she wants, but if he or she tries hard enough, maybe, he or she can get what he or she needs.”

I do about 20 drafts. Not kidding. I show to three trusted readers. Then I rewrite. Then I show again. Then I rewrite. Writing is re-re-re-rewriting.

For the next stop on the Blog Tour...
 I nominate Bill Wolfe, whose blog Read Her Like An Open Book celebrates women novelists. He not only reads many novels by women writers, but often prefers them. His blog is genius, writers are devoted to him, and I’m honored to send you to his blog.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kerry Cohen talks about her hilarious series, Bad Reviews: Writers Read Their Shit Reviews

Sigh. We've all had them. The kind of review where you want to curl up under the bed and never come out.  But what if you could defuse the shame and the hurt?

Kerry Cohen started this hilarious series called Bad Reviews: Writers Read Their Shit reviews, and it's causing a sensation. I was thrilled to be invited to read and I took on one of my worst reviews ever, for my third book, Jealousies, which I had been pressured to write by my then publisher, who wanted me to be more commercial and less literary. I beg people NOT to buy it, but still, did it deserve the vitriol flung its way?

I had a great time making an idiot of myself over this review, and Kerry wants to invite any other writers who want to do this to make their own little film and send to kerry@kerry-Cohen.com

 Kerry Cohen is a psychotherapist, writing faculty at The Red Earth Low-Residency MFA, and the author of Loose Girl, Dirty Little Secrets, Seeing Ezra; and the young adult novels Easy, The Good Girl, and It’s Not You, It’s Me. Coming soon are Spent, an anthology of 30 astounding essays about women and shopping, and The Truth of Memoir.  Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Kerry, and thanks so much for inviting me to read a bad review!

This is so inspired and such genius!

Thank you! I’ve been wanting to do it for months. I think it’s pretty awesome too :)

Where did you come up with the idea of this amazingly wonderful series?

I was visiting Stacy Pershall’s memoir class in NYC as a guest speaker. Stacy and I found each other through our memoirs a while back. She’s such a great person and wonderful writer - her memoir is Loud in The House of Myself about her struggle with borderline personality disorder. As female memoirists we connected about some of the horrible things people had written about us in reviews. I’m serious. You want the world to simultaneously love you and hate you really quickly? Be a woman and write a confessional memoir. While we were commiserating and laughing, we came up with the idea, kind of like the mean celebrity tweets read by the celebrities.

Did you find that authors were reticent about doing it or did they--like me--want to do it. There is something so vulnerable and winning about hearing these authors, plus it made me want to go and buy up multiple copies of all of their books.

I know! I am finding indeed that writers want to do it. It really is cathartic it turns out. Possibly the biggest obstacle, other than that needing to spread the net wider, is that so many authors are insecure and don’t want to get on video, at least not without a shower. You know how we authors sit around unbathed all day at our computers. Or is that just me?

Somehow, listening to these authors reading the reviews diffuses the pain of the review. It's actually really, really therapeutic and lots of fun.  Where do you want to take this? A reading series of bad reviews?

Ooo that’s a great idea! I hadn’t really thought beyond trying to get about 100 authors and their bad reviews and perhaps make a website. Right now I just want it to be a thing that people have heard about. I love that while initially I simply thought it would be funny, I’m quickly seeing how meaningful this can be. It’s so helpful as authors to take power back over something that can be so hurtful. It’s a way for authors to feel less alone too. But, perhaps the biggest thing that’s happening that I hadn’t foreseen is that aspiring authors feel so hopeful from it. I mean, look at you, Caroline! Author of a gajillion books, most all of them bestselling, and here you are, human, HUMAN!, crying in your apartment because you got a bad review. Just the fact that you got a bad review seems unbelievable, but then your reaction makes aspiring authors feel like you and they are the same. We’re all the same!

How can authors contact you if they want to do one of these?

Please please yes, the more the better: send as a .mov to kerry@kerry-cohen.com

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m working on two memoirs at once. Why must I always be working on more than one book at a time? It’s a horrible idea and very highly not recommended. This started happening to me at 40. Suddenly I was like, I HAVE TO WRITE ALL THE BOOKS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Hmm. Maybe what I’m working on now? That’s so boring. And I answered it above. How about, what are you in love with today? Answer: my children, my husband, writing, my bed, the smell of early autumn.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What's in a name? Alexandra Watkins, founder of the naming firm, Eat My Words, talks about "Hello, My Name is Awesome," why the wrong name can be ruination. Plus, name a cowboy boot store and you could win her book!

Who came up with the name Scrabble? (Unforgettable and fun to say, right?) Who thought that Svbtle was a good name? (Can you pronounce it? How about trying to find it online?) The right name for a product--or a book--can snag someone's attention or make bile rise in a throat. That's where professional namers come in.

Being a professional namer is one of the coolest jobs around. And I'm lucky enough to be able to work for the coolest company around, Eat My Words, a nationally recognized naming firm featured in the Wall Street Journal and Inc, with a client list that boasts Disney, Microsoft, Wrigley, Turner Networks and Fujitsu. Founder Alexandra Watkins is a genius. Really. And to celebrate the publication of "Hello, My Name is Awesome. How to Create Brand Names that Stick," she's offering a give-away of three books for the lucky winners of a naming contest. The naming brief? Imagine a store set in the heart of a big city that sells nothing but cowboy boots for women. The imaginary client wants something playful, easy to remember and would prefer that the word "boot" not appear in the name. A name of a real cowboy boot store that the client likes: Space Cowboy. Ideas or words that the client would like you to explore: kick, fun, cowboy, range, wrangle.

Put your name choice or choices in the comments section and Alexandra will choose the three best next week! (And yes, those are my beauties in the photograph!)

Why is the right name so important?

Your name will last longer than any investment you make in your business. Look into your crystal ball… will you have the same computer, cell phone, printer, and office furnishings twenty years from now? Not likely. But you will have the same name. That’s why it’s important you spend the time to get it right. And like a tattoo, you better love it and be proud to show it off.

Why can the wrong name be a disaster?  

The wrong name can be a disaster because it can make your brand unapproachable because it annoys, frustrates or confuses potential customers. The random names are the worst. One name I wonder about a lot is Vungle. I have no idea what this company does. I don't want to know. (Please don’t tell me.) It sounds like an STD. Likewise, can you guess what companies Qdoba, Magoosh, Iggli, Kiip, Zippil, or Zumper do?  Me neither. And I don’t care to find out.

Tell us about the SMILE & SCRATCH Test…

The Eat My Words SMILE & SCRATCH Test is my proven 12-step name evaluation method based on my philosophy, “A name should make you smile, instead of scratch your head.” With this simple checklist, anyone can objectively evaluate names.

SMILE: The 5 Qualities of a Super Sticky Name

Suggestive – evokes something about your brand

Meaningful – resonates with your audience
Imagery – is visually evocative to aid in memory
Legs – lends itself to a theme for extended mileage
Emotional – moves people

SCRATCH: The 7 Deadly Sins

Spelling-challenged – looks like a typo
Copycat – similar to competitors’ names
Restrictive – limits future growth
Annoying – forced, frustrates customers
Tame – flat, descriptive, uninspired
Curse of Knowledge – only insiders get it
Hard-to-pronounce – not obvious or is unapproachable

My book breaks down the SMILE and SCRATCH Test into two chapters, giving detailed examples for each.

What are the biggest mistake people make in choosing names?

The biggest mistake people make when choosing a name is asking everyone they know to weigh in. Asking people what they think shows a lack of confidence. They are not experts on your brand. You are. They are not knowledgeable about what makes a great name. You are (if you have read my book). Imagine if Richard Branson had asked others to weigh in on the name Virgin. It would have never flown. Trust yourself on what feels right to you. When you ask your friends and family, "What do you think of this name?” they interpret it as an invitation to criticize. It's better just to tell people, "I’m excited to tell you about my new company, _________..." Please trust me on this. If you ask everyone to chime in, you will end up with a mediocre name that met with the least resistance rather than the very best name.

This blog has a lot of writers, so can you tell us all what's a big mistake in naming novels?

Copycat titles are the worst. You know the ones I’m talking about…

Hijacking another author’s original idea isn’t good for your reputation or for building trust with your readers. Copycat names are lazy, lack originality and blatantly ride on the coattails of another book’s success.

Book titles need to not only be original, they need to make powerful emotional connections with readers. Like brand names, they need to resonate with your audience. Titles should pique curiosity and arouse interest – and you can’t rely on the cover to do all the work because often times your title will appear naked, in black and white, listed in print (hopefully on the New York Times Best Sellers list). Be sure to imagine your book title will be a movie title, as well. Here are some innovative book titles, which all were made into movies. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Girl, Interrupted

The Accidental Tourist

The Hunger Games

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

The Shawshank Redemption

I personally think that your book can be helpful beyond the simple art of naming things or companies or books. It pushes you to start thinking in a more creative way about everything and how to brainstorm so it's fun as well as productive. Would you talk about this, please?

 The internet is a goldmine for brainstorming solo. When you brainstorm online, you’ll find yourself clicking on unexpected links and going down all kinds of rabbit holes. You never know where a good idea will come from. Of course online dictionaries and thesauruses are great for this. One of my riches resources for brainstorming is looking at images. A picture says a thousand words, right? Stock photo websites such as bigstockphoto.com and gettyimages.com are fantastic places to get fresh ideas especially because you can search by concepts (e.g. “happy”) to find related imagery. I personally like to use Google images because the amateur photos are more fun to look through and it’s endlessly entertaining.

The whole concept of your company, the name, and your office, are all so playful…

Thanks. I came up with the name Eat My Words because I started out by naming things that make people fat and drunk. When I expanded from potato chips to microchips, the name still fit. The theme of “food” is also highly extendable, as we’ve discovered at Eat My Words:

·      Blog name: “The Kitchen Sink”

·      info@ email: hungry@eatmywords.com

·      Service packages: “Snack,” “The Whole Enchilada,” “Just the Meat.”

·      Client parking sign: “Eat My Words’ client parking only. Violators will be eaten.”

·      Business card: pink retro refrigerator, a replica of the one in our office, which we use as a bookcase

·      Wireless network name: “Candyland”

·      Meeting materials: toast coasters, pens that look like licorice sticks, “Food for Thought” notepads

·      Corporate workshops: “Spilling the Beans”       

What's obsessing you now and why?

Next Monday, September 15th is my book launch so I am obsessing over Amazon sales rankings and what it will take to crack the top 10 in my category and achieve “best seller” status. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?....

Do authors need to get the domain name for their book title?

No, no, no! This is so not important. My publisher told me that one of their authors dismissed a fantastic book title because they couldn’t get an exact match domain name. That’s ridiculous! Major motion picture studios always use a domain name modifier for movie websites, (e.g. ___movie.com, ____themovie.com) and you can do the same for your book title, (e.g. ___book.com, ____thebook.com). If you have a long title, you may want to shorten your domain name to something memorable. HMNIA.com would be a horrible domain name for my book, Hello, My Name is Awesome. Since I had a microsite built off my regular website, I just made it awesomebook.eatmywords.com.