Friday, March 27, 2015

Alfred DePew talks about A Wedding Song for Poorer People, creativity and commerce, taking risks, and so much more

I met Alfred DePew at the Virginia Festival of Books and we got to talking after my reading. When I found out that he was also a writer, I snagged him for my blog. He's been a bookseller,  theater press agent, social worker, and advertising copywriter, a short story writer and a coach, and he's taught in France, Spain, England, Estonia, and Russia, as well as at the universities of Vermont, New Hampshire, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and the Maine College of Art. Now he leads writing, creativity and leadership workshops throughout Maine and the United States. His first book won a Flannery O'Connor Award, and his second book, A Wedding Song for Poorer People (great title) is all about the longing that exists in all of us.

Alfred and I had a hours long conversation by phone. I typed out notes! I wrote them by hand! We were both laughing and engaged!

And I lost the notes. 

But there is always something that remains, and here it is. And I'm absolutely thrilled to have Alfred here!

For most writers I know, every book presents a new challenge. The writing process is almost never the same. How did that process differ for you in writing A Wedding Song for Poorer People?

After my first book was published in 1992, I thought I should know a thing or two about writing a story. I thought I could probably write the kind of story (what the hell does that mean?) that gets accepted by The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. So I set about to write new stories, and everything felt flat. Never before when I wrote had a given publication a thought, much less a particular magazine. I wrote to find out what my characters would do next. Period. So I was stuck. Everything I wrote felt flat because I was writing for the wrong reason. There was no joy, no discovery, no messing around. I was trying to be competent. Deadly. So I signed up for an oil painting class Thursday evenings, and I was in heaven. I didn’t know the hell I was doing. Everything was a risk and a mystery. I was learning again, discovering again, and that experience helped me back into writing.

I’d been given a fellowship at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico for 1995, and I’d made 3 trips to Russia (1990, 91 & 93) which had given me an idea for what I thought might be a novel, and which turned out to be the title novella, A Wedding Song for Poorer People. So I was working in a different form which changed everything really—the number of characters, time, pacing, context, scope, the shape of the thing. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I was happy again, messing around, free to take big risks.

Your stories are full of longing, a painter who can’t paint, a man who is tormented by his wife’s friendship with her gay hairdresser, and so many who do “what they need to do stay alive.”  But all do, and what impressed me so much is that no matter how dire the situation, your characters always find that thin line of hope. Could you talk about that please?

I guess my characters always find that thin line of hope because I believe it is there.

I want to ask you, why short stories or novellas and not a novel? 

I wish this were more of a conscious decision, but even when I think I’m heading into writing a novel and type pages and pages and think I have a really BIG thing with lots of moving parts, it always gets compressed down into a shorter form.

You also teach--how does that impact your own work?

The risks my students took almost always inspired my own. I miss that. I left college teaching in 2003. Sometimes I run small writing workshops in my office, and I still like coaching writers through long projects like a novel.

I have to say I was fascinated by your bio. Not only are you a Flannery O’Connor Award-winner, but you also have a private consulting practice in dream work and spiritual direction. I’d love to hear more about that, and I’d also like to know how that informs your writing.

In many ways, I feel I’ve kept my various professional lives separate from my writing life, but we both know that’s pretty much impossible. They knock up against each other, compete with each other, feed each other in ways I don’t recognize until much later. I wrote about a massage therapist before I became one myself. I wrote about Roger’s religious crisis a good six years before I joined the Catholic Church. I don’t think of myself as an autobiographical writer, but in some ways, my fiction prefigures parts of my life, as if I were trying out various roles through my characters.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Contemplative prayer. Why? I guess that’s for a longer conversation.

Jan-Philipp Sendker talks about Whispering Shadows, China, crime novels, and so much more

I first met Jan-Philipp Sendker through his book, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, which was one of those life-changing reads. To my delight, I was able to meet him at Booktopia, which cemented my reverence for his art. Born in Hamburg in 1960, he was the American correspondent for Stern from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999. In 2000 he published Cracks in the Great Wall, a nonfiction book about China. He lives in Berlin with his family, and his latest book, Whispering Shadows, set against the seamy backdrop of modern day China, he melds a love story and a crime story to create something original, thrilling and moving, giving us a ravishing murder story. I'm thrilled to have him here! Thank you so much, Jan-Philipp!

Every novel has a moment of origin, which I always find fascinating. What sparked the writing of this particular book? And why a trilogy?

I don’t think there was THE moment which sparked this particular book. I used to live in Hong Kong as a foreign correspondent covering China and was endlessly fascinated by it. This time in history, the huge changes, the transformation, it is a gold mine for a novelist. After countless trips to China over the years I had so many stories, so much material that I wanted to turn it into a novel. There is so much anger, pain and grief in China. I wanted to give some if the people I had interviewed a voice I could not as a journalist. At the same time it always surprises me how little we one in the West about China, its culture, its history, the difficult situation the country is in at the present. So if my books help the reader to understand China a little better I would be more than happy. The reason for the trilogy is simple. I fell in love with my main characters and could not let go…and still had so many China stories to tell.

What’s fascinating to me is that although this is a suspense novel, it still is deeply thoughtful, and the writing, as always with you, is just gorgeous. It’s truly much more than a detective story. Did you feel any constraints while writing it? Were there any surprises?

I am glad you say it is much more than a detective story because that is they way I see it as well. I am not a great reader of crime or detective stories myself. I kind of use the suspense angel to move the story but I think it is much more about the characters and their stories and the pain and grief and drama in the Chinese society in transformation. But I am very happy when people say they like the crime aspect as well. It should also be an entertaining read.

The surprise was how difficult it is to follow the crime aspect without contradictions, that it all makes sense in the end. It increased my respect for the genre.

You write so richly about the old China verses the new--and how new is not necessarily better. Can you talk about this please?

Uhh-- that is a very good question, I have been writing three books about it. In many ways the new China is much better. The living standard of hundreds of millions of people have improved. It is a much freer society at the same time the country, the people are paying a very high price. The destruction of the environment and the emotional burden and issues, nobody knows the outcome of this process of transformation. I have been visiting China for twenty years now and recently I have become much less optimistic.

I’m always fascinated by the way writers write, but writing a trilogy is something different. Do you know what each of the books will do and cover? Or are you about to discover that in the writing?

I did not plan the trilogy from the very first moment. While I wrote Whispering Shadows. I really fell in love with the characters to an extend that I cried after I had finished the last sentence. I did not want to leave them. I did not want to leave Hong Kong and China. And I still had so many stories to tell. Therefore I decided to write a trilogy. I sat down and thought what are the most important issues in Chinese society today and for China's future. First: The long shadow of the past. That is one of the key issues in Whispering Shadows. Second: The legal system and the environmental pollution. Those are the main issues in the second book Dragon Games. which will be published in the US next year. (It is kind of a legal thriller) Third: The total lack of ethics, of values, of trust in China today. A society without any of it is doomed. That is the main topic in the third book which I am currently writing. But that is just the topic. How the story how the characters evolve is different. That is always a surprise to me. Writing is like a journey I take myself onto. I don’t know the outcome. Luckily, otherwise I might be bored.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Finally a question which is easy to answer. I am writing the third book in the trilogy and I am obsessed with Paul and Christine and their journey. As always it is a fascinating process and I enjoy it tremendously, even though it s a bit exhausting at times...

What questions didn’t I ask that I should have?

How do you feel about the release of Whispering Shadows in the USA?

As with all my books: I am incredibly thrilled and anxious at the same time. Will my readers be moved by Paul's journey? Will they find it interesting, entertaining? Will they love him they way I do?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

It's time for a Sara Gruen-packed post to celebrate AT THE WATER'S EDGE

Come on, who doesn’t worship Sara Gruen? Not only does she live in pajamas (and post photos of it), but she’s warm, generous, hilariously funny, and a brilliant writer. And she’s also a friend. And to celebrate her new book and mostly to celebrate her, I decided to do something different and have a Sara-packed blog post filled with interviews and photos.

Sara, of course, is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Water for Elephants, Ape House, Riding Lessons, and Flying Changes. Her works have been translated into forty-three languages, and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Water for Elephants was adapted into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon, Rob Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz in 2011 and it’s soon to be on Broadway! And it just got on the April Library Reads List!

Her latest novel, At The Water’s Edge,  is about  class and monsters (Loch Ness and Nazis) and a young woman’s learning to peel back the layers of life to see what is really there. Set against a tiny Scottish Village (Sara’s a master of story world. All you have to do is read the first page of Water for Elephants to have already known that.) 

Let's pause for praise:

“If I needed a reminder why I am such a fan of Sara Gruen’s books, her latest novel provides plenty. Unique in its setting and scope, this impeccably researched historical fiction is full of the gorgeous prose I’ve come to expect from this author. And even after the final page, its message still resonates with me: The monsters we seek may be right in front of us. In fact, the only fault I can find with this book is that I’ve already finished it.”—Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Leaving Time

“Sublime . . . a natural for the book-club set.”

“I devoured this book. Once again Sara Gruen has proven herself to be one of America’s most compelling storytellers. You might be tempted to rush to get to the answers at the end—but don’t, or you’ll miss the delectable journey that is Gruen’s prose.”—Kathryn Stockett, New York Times bestselling author of The Help

“Magical . . . At the Water’s Edge skillfully transports us to a small, tenacious Scottish village in the grip of war, and into the heart of Madeline Hyde, a woman who is a stranger to herself until forces convene to rock her awake. Sara Gruen is a wizard at capturing the essence of her historical setting, and does so here in spades, but it’s Maddie’s unexpected transformation that grounds and drives the novel.”—Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife

Hey, so what about interviews?

Here's one from Publisher's Weekly:

Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel, Water for Elephants (Algonquin) created a huge buzz among independent booksellers for the tale set in a Depression-era circus that catapulted Gruen to literary stardom. Algonquin sold five million copies, a movie adaptation hit theaters in 2011, and just a few weeks ago, it was announced that the novel was being adapted into a Broadway musical. Gruen’s latest tale, At the Water's Edge, also involves animals: this time, it’s the Loch Ness monster, as an American trio’s search for it in rural Scotland at the height of World War II changes their lives.

You’ve said that a vintage photograph in The Chicago Tribune inspired you to write Water for Elephants. Did a similar event inspire At the Water’s Edge

Although the seeds were sown decades earlier (I first visited Urquhart Castle when I was twelve), the catalyst that turned it from fond memory to book fodder was an online article I stumbled upon four years ago. It was about government secrecy, but what really caught my attention was a 70-year-old declassified letter from Scotland Yard stating unequivocally that the government believed the monster existed. Before I knew it, I’d fallen down a Nessie rabbit hole. At some point over the course of the afternoon, it dawned on me that I was setting my next story.

At the Water’s Edge is set against a backdrop of World War II. What kind of research did you do before writing?

I spent five weeks in the Highlands, scouring the archives at the Inverness Courier, interviewing people who lived in the area during the war, researching the 1st Special Service Brigade, even trying to persuade the equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard to throw me into the loch. I prowled around the castle, got lost in the Cover, and found myself on the wrong side of the law while exploring WWII ruins that I later discovered were on an RAF field that still contained undetonated bombs.

There is much here about class, both in the U.S. and especially in the U.K. Was there anything about class during that era in either the U.S. or in the U.K. that surprised you?

I wanted to juxtapose how the war affected ordinary people, for whom it was inescapable, with how it affected the privileged, who could choose to watch from a distance. While upper and lower class divides in the U.S. and Scotland appear outwardly similar, contextually they are very different: in the U.S., social status can be inherited, earned, and or bought. For most Scots, the class system is deeply personal and an insulting reminder of the final defeat of the Jacobites in the Battle of Culloden and the forced end of the clan system that followed. I was surprised at the level of hurt that remains to this day over an event that occurred nearly 269 years ago.

Class distinctions are also important in understanding the characters’ motivations. Maddie’s open-mindedness leads to fundamental reevaluations of principles she had previously accepted. Her friendships with Anna and Meg allow her to recognize class distinctions for what they are—artificial barriers that provide one subset of society with a codified justification for feeling superior.

At the Water's Edge and Water for Elephants both feature love triangles. What is it about this dynamic that fascinates you?

Love triangles are a mainstay of storytelling in all its forms—novels, movies, fairy tales, legends, folklore, even religious texts—because conflicting passions are ubiquitous to human nature. Whether that excuses acting upon such impulses is an age-old and oft-revisited question, as is whether there are any circumstances under which it’s acceptable to break with what is a basic tenet of most human societies. This is certainly one of the reasons we explore it so often in fiction, along with consequences and whether they’re always deserved.

Maddie feels much more of a kinship to the Scots women she meets than she does to her own husband. Do you feel that gender trumps all else when it comes to true friendship?

In a word, no. Maddie has never had friends before—she’s never really had anyone at all—so her friendships with Anna and Meg are a turning point in her life. She spent her childhood under the control of her parents: a narcissistic mother whose mission in life was to elicit attention and sympathy from others, and a disinterested father. When Maddie goes to boarding school, the rumors follow her, scuttling any chance she has of making friends. Ellis and Hank befriend her because she’s a novelty; their association with her is an act of rebellion.

It’s not until she is ripped from everything she knows that she starts to see things clearly. Until this point, she has viewed herself through the prism of other people’s perceptions. When she realizes that her former life “was nothing but a pretty, pretty fraud,” she begins to examine who and what she really is. In Scotland, for the first time, Maddie meets people who judge her on her own merits rather than by what she can do for them.

Do you think Loch Ness monster really exists? Why or why not

I plead the fifth.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times!


Marisa de los Santos talks about The Precious One, why her dogs are in the book, and so much more

Family secrets, obsessions (my middle name), and lost love. The Precious One, the latest stunner from Marisa de los Santos is already racking up raves.  (Booklist, in a starred review, called it "Emotionally potent, painfully honest, and delightfully funny.")  Marisa  began as a poet (From The Bones Out), and is the author of the novels Love Walked in, Belong To Me and Falling Together. I'm so delighted to have her here. Thank you, Marisa!

 You write so beautifully about families--in all your books--that I wanted to ask you, what is it about families that is so compelling to you?  And why do you think that when women write about families, it is often called “domestic drama,” but when men do it, they are Jonathan Franzen?

Thank you, Caroline! That means the world, especially coming from you; I return the compliment over and over. You know, I think of myself as a person with a lot of interests, but nothing fascinates me as much as human interaction: conversation, touches, looks, inside jokes, what people say to each other, what they withhold, the little cruelties, the moments of wild generosity and love, the lies they tell and why. I’m particularly fascinated by the why of it all. And family interaction is human interaction turned to full volume. There’s so much at stake. There’s so much complicated, tangled history behind every word and gesture. People in families can be breathtakingly kind to each other and also breathtakingly awful, sometimes in the same day. In my experience, the stories that arise from these relationships are almost always strange and funny and moving and full of twists.

As for the “domestic drama” thing, well, I have tried to let go of my anger about it and just write my books, but if I’m honest, it bothers me. For one thing, why should the domestic sphere, the sphere nearly all of us, female and male, spend so much of our time in, be trivialized or branded as saccharine or quiet or bland? Anyone who has lived in a neighborhood or in a family knows that as much high drama, tragedy, violence, heroism can take place inside a house as on the Australian outback or Wall Street or anywhere. And why do women always have to be seen through the lens of our gender? Why “women’s fiction” when men just write “fiction”? So maddening. So so so maddening.

I loved that this book is told in the voices of the two sisters. How difficult was it to give each a unique voice?

All of my books are told from multiple perspectives, but this is the first with more than one first-person voice, and I was pretty nervous about it. In the end, though, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I lived with the Taisy and Willow inside my head for a very long time—months and months—before I wrote a single word. So by the time I had to speak in their voices, I knew them both incredibly well. I knew all kinds of details about them that don’t appear in the book, the tiny things that add up to individual personality, to character, and their voices just rose naturally out of that intimacy.

What I loved most in The Precious Ones was the dynamic between the sisters, how they misread each other, and came to reconfigure their relationship. When you started writing, what did you know about their relationship? What surprised you about it as you continued to write?

I knew that they were strangers, that every single thing they thought they knew about each other was either something someone had told them or was a product of their own imaginations. And I knew that they were threatened by each other, Taisy because she’s lived her life wanting her father’s love and never getting it and Willow because she’s gotten so much of it that she cannot imagine a world in which she isn’t the absolute and only center of his life. What I didn’t expect was that Taisy would feel an odd and immediate tenderness toward Willow, and I don’t think Taisy expected it either! Once that happened, the surge of tender protectiveness, there was no going back from it. It was a kind of seismic shift. Yes, she was jealous and sometimes petty, but her immediate empathy for Willow caused me to shift gears and rethink all of Taisy’s behavior and emotions from that point on. It happens all the time, doesn’t it? You think you’ve got it figured out and then your characters throw you for a loop and you have to re-envision the rest of the book!

For most writers I know, every book presents a new challenge. The writing process is almost never the same. How did that process differ for you in writing The Precious Ones?

Fewer than 100 pages into the book, I found myself in an odd position, not so much blocked as enervated. I’d lost my joy in the process and also had sort of lost my nerve, neither of which had ever happened before. This made me crazy because I believed in the story and the characters wholeheartedly; I wanted to write the book, yet I was feeling tired and bogged down. As this was going on, my husband and I started to casually discuss what we’d write if we ever wrote a book together, just toying with the idea in our spare time, and eventually it became very clear that we had a book to write, so we put together a proposal and a couple of sample chapters, and—boom—we sold it. And suddenly, we were on a very tight deadline. Because it was a co-written book, with each of writing alternating chapters in alternating voices, and because it was a pretty complicated plot, the first thing we did was put together a highly detailed, chapter by chapter outline, something I had never tried before. Unexpectedly, I loved writing with an outline, and I had so much fun doing that book with David. I remembered all the things I had always loved about writing. Once we were finished, I went back to THE PRECIOUS ONE with renewed energy and passion and with my new devotion to outlining, and I wrote like a person on fire. It was a good thing, too, because I hadn’t left myself much time to finish!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m starting a new book, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I am giddy with excitement about it. It continues with some of the characters from my first two books, LOVE WALKED IN and BELONG TO ME, and particularly focuses on Clare Hobbes, who is all grown up and has just graduated from college. Cornelia, Teo, Dev, Viviana—they’re all in there—and I am cherishing being in their company again. I’d hoped for a long time that it would happen, but you just never know. Half the book is in Clare’s voice in the present, and half is set in the 1950s, so I’m just beginning to be consumed with researching that decade.

What questions didn’t I ask that I should have?

Here’s the big, burning, all-important question: So, Marisa, are your dogs in THE PRECIOUS ONE?

Why, yes, Caroline, yes they are! This is my first book with dogs in it—I didn’t have dogs while I was writing the others—and while their names have been changed (from Finn and Huxley to Roo and Pidwit), they are my own sweet Yorkies, from their ears to their tick-tocking tails. People always ask if my characters are based on real people and the answer has always been no—until now. Since most of the book was written with Huxley on my lap and Finny in his little bed next to my desk, it seemed only fair to put them in the book!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Leslie Lehr talks about Wife Goes on, a joke book, and second and third acts in life!

 Leslie Lehr is not only one of the best friends anyone could hope to have, she's also a talented writer whose latest novel, Wife Goes On, now has a superb second life--with an amazing story to go along with it--and a joke book!  Just take a gander at some of this praise! 

"A modern mix of “Sex & the City” and First Wives Club, this is serious fiction wrapped with a chick lit bow. Lehr keeps the plot moving with madcap hijinks and tender moments." ~ Publishers Weekly

"Wife Goes On is a tantalizing romp through the world of the newly divorced..." ~Hope Edelman, Motherless Mothers

"Leslie Lehr has done the impossible: She's made divorce into a winning, funny and inspiring activity... Wife Goes On isn't fictionalized self-help or mundane chick-lit; it's about loving, escaping and living again… Just like real life." ~Tod Goldberg,Gangsterland

"Leslie Lehr is a truth teller - a rare writer who untangles the realities of women's lives without flinching, while making you laugh, cry, and nod in understanding with every word." --Leslie Morgan Steiner ~ The Baby Chase.

I'm thrilled to host Leslie here--the only thing better would be to sit down and have tea and pie with her!

Tell us about what's different about the reissue of Wife Goes on--what a story!

When the original book came out, I got hundreds of letters from women. They were inspired by the story and felt there really was a sisterhood, that friends had really helped them through. At the time, divorce was still shameful and the news shows were promoting divorce parties focusing on revenge. But real women had children to consider and bills to pay. Book clubs went crazy for the book, but it was a tough topic even when I met with HBO and sold a script to Lifetime. Now there’s a popular TV show about divorce – I’m a fan– but it’s about rich, skinny friends.
     Wife Goes On is about complete strangers from every walk of life whose friendship makes a real difference. There’s humor and sexy stuff, too, but the characters are more diverse.
    Also, the first edition was orphaned – my editor went on maternity leave before the magazines got copies, my agent left for a different agency – so it never liked the cover, so it didn’t get the release it needed – and I hated the cover. I finally got the rights back, so I have a sexy new cover, and as an ebook I can price it so that the women who need it most can afford to splurge on a little humor, heart and hope. 

What's the free joke book like--which I think is pure genius? Can you tell us some? Did you make them up?

When I went through my divorce I felt like I was joining a club I had avoided for years. It seemed horrible, and yet there were little things that were actually funny. Or, at least they made me smile again.
I came up with 121 sayings: You Know You’re in the Club When… that told the story of how it really is being alone, with kids, with dating, with starting over. I Xeroxed pages of them and handed them out to women I met at the gym and everywhere – it was like we had a secret handshake. I saw it as a little gift book to buy at the register for yourself or a friend. But the consensus in the publishing world was that divorce was too dark of a subject for humor. With ebooks, I can afford to offer it for free, but to more people than from the trunk of my car. Why not? Women going through this are not rich like the ones on TV. And as Solomon said, ”Laughter is the best medicine.” Here are some examples:
  • You wish you had married for money.
  • The man in your bed is nine years old.
  • You start checking for wedding rings – on women’s fingers.
  • You start to judge men by whether you would want to have sex with them.
  • The expression, “I gave him the best years of my life,” no longer sounds stupid.
  • You never have to cook his mother’s pot roast again.
  • You stop pretending to be happy and learn how to actually feel that way.
What's your writing life like now these days?

Wife Goes On is just the beginning – I plan to revise and republish my earlier books that current readers might have missed. With ebooks, I get to control so much more – I may even change my first novel to have a happy ending. I’m also doing lots of consulting for other novelists through Truby’s Writers Studio.

What's obsessing you now and why?
I’m happily remarried, but my husband and I had to delay getting a new home together because I got breast cancer before our first anniversary. Now that I’m better, we just bought a home together – a condo with an ocean view!  So right now I’m obsessed with the idea that life ain’t easy, but we really can make our dreams can come true. We can live happier ever after.  Wife goes on!

What did I forget to ask?
The price. It’s a new release, on sale for $2.99. A few hours of fun for less than a latte. The price goes up on April 1. No foolin’.

You can buy it from my website,, or from any of the usual ebook outlets!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Because a vegan writer has to eat: Chicago Vegan Foods MARSHMALLOWS!

Ah, my second entry into Because a Vegan Writer Has To Eat.

I know, I know. I put up two photos of the vegan marshmallows, but that's not a mistake. It's because I am totally addicted to them. I wander around thinking, "Can I have two more? Or is six enough?"

Chicago Vegan Foods uses no dairy, so soy, nothing harmful to animals or humans. They also make a delicious vegan cheese called Teese, which melts like crazy, and acts and tastes just like the real thing.

And now to wax rhapsodic about the marshmallows some more...They're gluten and peanut-free, non genetically modified, and air-puffed, and they melt and create Jackson Pollack masterpieces in your hot chocolate.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My rapturous mini-review of Skip Horack's masterpiece, The Other Joseph--and you get to hear Skip talk about skiffs, oil rigs, writing, and so much more

I absolutely was enthralled by this novel, The Other Joseph, by Skip Horack. I just loved it.  It does what the best novels do--it makes you think about the world, and family, and legacy, differently. It changes you. About lost brothers--and lost selves--about oil rigs and Russian mail order brides, and the disconnection of love, it's one of the most masterful and haunting novels I've read all year. I'm honored to host Skip here.

He's a former Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where he was also a Wallace Stegner Fellow. The Southern Cross, his short story collection won the Brad Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize, and his novel, The Eden Hunter was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

I always want to know what sparks a particular novel, what were you trying to discover in writing it? And what surprised you instead?

“Sparks” is a really good way to describe how it is typically some tiny flame of inspiration or interest that compels me to attack any new story or novel, as there’s usually not much more in my head going in than some small, private excitement or imagined situation. And then I get writing—and, as years pass, trying to recall what that genesis flicker might have been becomes more and more difficult for me. And that certainly applies to The Other Joseph. I know I was living in San Francisco at the time, a fish-out-water Southerner, so an exploration of that displacement was certainly an initial attraction I had. And the work of finding compelling reasons to get my main character—Roy Joseph, a somewhat reclusive Gulf of Mexico oil rig worker—from Louisiana to San Francisco led to the piece-by-piece construction of the novel’s plot. And because I work that way, without a blueprint, problem-solving as I go, dreaming up unpredictable yet believable ways to write myself out of whatever corner I’ve written myself into, there winds up being very little that doesn’t surprise me during the creation of a book.

Right from the opening pages, your novel structure is fearless.  Instead of being a novel about Roy looking for his mysteriously dead brother’s daughter, it becomes a kind of circular journey, where Tommy is also searching for Roy.  Both brothers are gone to each other, yet they communicate to each other. Go, they say. Speak. Tommy is actually telling Roy’s story from the journal he found, which give his brother life.  How and why did you decide to structure the novel like this?

The decision to bookend Roy’s narrative with a foreword and afterword from Tommy came very, very late in the game. In previous drafts, Tommy was a completely absent character remembered only in flashbacks—a revered ghost who haunted the novel, basically. And I suppose in the end I just couldn’t resist the urge to give him a voice . . . and also to let him speak on how much Roy meant to him. Originally, Roy—kid brother to lost Navy SEAL hero Tommy—was solidly the “other” Joseph in my eyes, stature-wise, but then I came to realize that the manuscript I’d written was as much of a tribute to him as it was to Tommy. So it is with brothers, and by adding those aforementioned Tommy sections I hope I was able to help drive that idea home some.

So many of the details, especially about oil rigs, are so vivid. What was your research like?

I really enjoy the research aspect of fiction writing, and plenty of that was necessary for this book. Particularly with regard to the oil industry and military features of the novel. Being from south Louisiana, I have a pretty good, albeit mostly superficial, knowledge of the former—but I also have quite a few friends and contacts with much more direct ties to that world, so I was sure to lean on them. As for the novel’s military aspects, I’m fortunate to have a retired (and patient) Navy SEAL cousin who spent more time answering my questions and steering me straight than I had any right to ask of him. And then there was all the traveling and wandering necessary to create an authentic and memorable sense of place, visiting and revisiting the novel’s various settings as I attempted to view them through the lens of my narrative. Finally, of course: so many books, articles, etc., and so many websites. What a gift that us fiction writers don’t have to keep tabs for a bibliography.

What I so deeply admire about this novel is the way that grief soaks every page, but so does hope, and the power of imagination.  The truths we expect are not the ones we are given, and nothing is like it appears.  We are all haunted, but perhaps, just for a moment, a light can be turned on in the darkness. So much is lost in this extraordinary novel, but there are glints of things that might be found.  Can you talk more about this please?

Wow, I just want to keep reading the question! I really appreciate those kind words, here and throughout, and I’d love to think that—despite the sad and tragic aspects of the novel—readers won’t read The Other Joseph as pessimistic or nihilistic in its worldview. To quote one of the characters in the book: “Triumph without struggle means nothing.” And regardless of outcome, I’ve always seen much to celebrate in the way our ability to hope, and even the power of our imaginations, can help us fight that fight.

I always want to know about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you plan things out or wait for that pesky muse?

As I touched on earlier, in the beginning I don’t create from an outline—though as the draft progresses I’m certainly always on the lookout for scenes or moments to write toward. Which isn’t to say that I wait around for a muse to sing me to work either . . . more like I sit down at a computer every morning and don’t let myself quit until I’ve hit whatever particular word-count goal I have for the day. The only thing I have a pretty good sense of at the outset is approximately how long I want the book to be, as anticipating that helps me with the plotting and pacing of things. And as always when I’m speaking of my process, please note that this is just how I do things. I know many good writers who work very, very differently.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I bought a little skiff not so long ago, nothing special, but as spring arrives in northern Florida I’ve been having a ball exploring all the rivers around here. Waters have always captured my imagination—that’s pretty obvious from the novel, actually—and after several years of being boat-less it’s been fantastic getting to pour over maps and scratch that itch again.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

First off, thank you for all of these questions. I’m such an admirer of your work, so it means so much to me that you enjoyed the book. Now, I can’t think of a question you should have asked—but I’d love to suggest that you check out a debut story collection by a friend of mine: Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans. When I read her book last year I was reminded quite a bit of your wonderful novel Is This Tomorrow, so I definitely recommend her to you and your fans.

Marcia DeSanctis talks about 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go

Put together the words France and "100 places" and I am ready to buy my plane ticket instantly.
Marcia DeSanctis is the New York Times bestselling author of 100 PLACES IN FRANCE EVERY WOMAN SHOULD GO (Travelers’ Tales/Solas House). She is a former television news producer who has worked for Barbara Walters, ABC, CBS, and NBC News.  An award-winning writer, her work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue, Marie Claire, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, More, Tin House, and The New York Times. Her travel essays have been widely anthologized, including four consecutive years in Best Woman’s Travel Writing, and she is the recipient of three Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, as well as a Solas Award for best travel writing.And her book, is wonderful. I asked her if she'd write something for the blog, and I'm honored to host her here. Thank you. Marcia!

My book has the title of a guidebook, but it’s not that, not exactly. The New York Times described it as “essays on where to go in France and why”. That was accurate. It’s a book of essays and reported stories about place with quite a bit of travel advice mixed in.  I had to choose 100 places (or in some cases, experiences) about which I could do some deep writing, and hopefully, in the spirit of France, do it with a light hand, that integrates history with lots of descriptive detail about beautiful things.
            What I chose to include had to fit one of several criteria. First, is there a story of a great woman in history around which I could build the piece? An example of that is the chapter on Château de Grignan, a place that is interlocked in the history of Madame de Sevigné, one of France’s great writers and most famous mothers, who has a pretty remarkable story herself. Second, is it something so beautiful that it causes our hearts to stop? The chapter on three stunning hikes in Provence is an example of this, as is Château Vaux le Vicomte. Etretat in Normandy. The Mer de Glace in Chamonix, which, by the way, is what inspired the climax of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Third, is it a place where I have deep personal history, such as St. Tropez, from which I can cull memories and use as a bridge across time? And is also deeply, poetically, femininely French? Fourth, is it en experience so iconic that it had to be included – something like sampling chocolate in the Basque Country or celebrating Bastille Day on the Champs Elysées?

                  This book was an opportunity for me to crystallize lots of profound feelings for a country I know very well, a country that changed me. To try to express the transformative powers of France.  To put down on paper, in effect, all that I loved in France’s geographical and historical diversity, while trying to impart some wisdom and bon mots about traveling there.  Not just where to shop in Paris, but why. Not just my recommendation to snorkel on Porquerolles, but why. Not just to visit Versaille, but why. Versailles is not merely an extraordinary excursion from Paris. Rather, it is a place to understand why Marie Antoinette continues to fascinate us. It has little to do with her diamonds and wigs, and more to do with her story, on royalty and birthright. These are big, big themes – female ones – about marriage, family, aging, selflessness and selfishness, and we are confronted with them at Versailles.
    Everything in travel can conspire to enlighten -– the architecture of devotion, the majesty of green spaces. I try to convey my awe wile sparing the details of how to get there, and where to eat.  I try to say, here is the bigger story. Sure you should go to that pretty lighthouse off the coast of Brittany. But when you’re there, try to decipher the metaphoric possibilities of a giant structure whose purpose is to help mortals weather storms. They are overpowering. 
            Most inspiring was the country’s rich history of powerful, brilliant women, and I enjoyed having the chance to unpack some thoughts about why we should care about them and the places where their memories are kept vital and vibrant. Catherine de Medicis, Joan of Arc, Colette, whose book Earthly Paradise was my go-to inspiration while writing this book. As was Edith Wharton’s A Motor Flight Through France. George Sand – the bored housewife turned rockstar romantic writer and lover of Chipin.  The painter Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, poet Louise Labé, Marie Curie. These women are giants. Eleanor of Aquitaine. There was never a woman with her stature and power, and there probably never will be. Much to my surprise, it’s possible to feel amazingly close to a long-departed queen when you are standing in her castle.
I was also motivated by the challenge of trying to create a sort of hybrid travel writing genre. France as a subject that has been covered to smithereens, so my challenge was to have an entirely different take. To take the country I lived in, worked in, was married in and which I love, and try to combine memoir and narrative with advice, and hopefully, to carry the reader along with me on this journey. My goal was not to overemphasize the girly tropes of champagne and perfume and fashion. I really attempted to forge some fresh language (in fact, tacked up on my wall, I kept a running list of words and expressions I wanted to avoid. No to “hidden gem”, “verdant”, “ooh la la” and “city of light” or “golden”).  I was quite inspired by this quest: to convey my love for France and even its inescapable clichés and to do so in a respectful and hopefully original way.

Come on, how can you resist a title like THE REAL DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU SHORTLY: A PHYSICIAN'S FIRST YEAR? Matt McCarthy talks about writing, doctoring, and how he checks his email way too often

I found this book absolutely irresistible. Brave, funny, and full of truths, The Real Doctor Will see You Shortly, offers an insider's look at what it means to be a doctor. Matt McCarthy is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He has a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale and a medical degree from Harvard. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Slate, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Deadspin, where he writes the Medspin column. His first book, Odd Man Out, was a New York Times bestseller. Thank you for being here, Matt!

 I'm always interested in what made you decide to write this book at the particular time that you did? What was the spark?

I was having dinner with my editor three years ago and he said, “Have you thought of writing a book about medicine?” It wasn’t something I’d been thinking about, but the next day I went for a walk with my wife in Central Park and we started talking about why we don’t enjoy medical books, despite the fact that we’re both doctors. The short answer is that it’s not easy to write about a job that can make you so frustrated without sounding like a bit of a jerk.

The book is so brave, so candid, and so funny. What surprised you in the writing?

Thank you. The big surprise came when I read the completed manuscript for the first time. There’s a shift in tone that occurs between parts 1 and 2 that I wasn’t expecting, and another shift between parts 3 and 4. When I put the manuscript down, my first thought was of the Radiohead song “Paranoid Android” which has four distinct parts that are played in different keys and with different tempo. Somehow that song holds together beautifully. I wondered if my tonal shifts would hold together, or if readers would find them jarring. I also thought paranoid android was an apt description of how I felt as a first-year doctor.

You talk about having had a mentor who helped you move from scared young doctor to seasoned pro?

Most people are familiar with a hierarchy in medicine, but they don’t know that first-year doctors learn almost everything from second-year doctors, not from the senior physicians. I was fortunate to train at a place—Columbia University Medical Center—that had a number of brilliant, funny, talented young doctors to show me the ropes. I will remember what I learned from them for the rest of my career.

When your own health fell apart, you began to see being a doctor from the viewpoint of a patient. What do you think more doctors should be aware of when they treat patients? And what do you think patients should be more aware of when it comes to their doctors?

Doctors don’t realize how often they use medical jargon that confuses people. We have to remember that medicine is a foreign language, and it’s important to simplify things in a way that doesn’t oversimplify. I get very worried when a patient is quiet for more than fifteen seconds, because it usually means they’re not following what I’m saying. It’s kind of like being on a date: if one person is doing all of the talking, something’s wrong.

Patients should be aware that we want you to speak up if you’re confused, and we won’t take it personally if you want a second opinion.

How do you see the medical profession changing?

I’m concerned that morale in medicine is low. Almost every doctor I know is a good person who cares deeply about patients, yet there’s an endless stream of stories written about what’s wrong with medicine and the people who practice it. There just seems to be less incentive to become a doctor than there was ten or twenty years ago. My guess is that more of the top minds will go into other, more lucrative fieldsconsulting, finance, etc.instead of medicine. Students at my school, Harvard Med, spend more than $80,000 on tuition and living expenses. And that’s just for the first year.

What's obsessing you now and why?

As an intern, I spent a lot of time obsessing about my patients and not screwing up. Turns out that feeling never goes away.

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

You’d have no way of knowing this, but for one week during my intern year, my wife was my direct supervisor. At the end of the week, we were required to give each other feedback. I told her that she was great to work with and she told me I check my email too much. I do.