Sunday, July 26, 2015

J. Ryan Stradal talks about his exhuberantly wonderful novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, wanting to write a book his mom would have loved, being a foodie, writing, and so much more.

The title of Kitchens of the Great Midwest is as glorious as that cover. You can't help but become engrossed. 

J. Ryan Stradal is an editor Unnamed Press, fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, advisory board member at 826LA, and co-producer and host of the literary/culinary series Hot Dish.
His work also appears appears in Hobart, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, The California Prose Directory, and Midnight Breakfast, among other places. He likes books, wine, sports, root beer, and peas.

Publishing a debut is always exciting--and a little nerve-wracking, yet people are already buzzing about your book. Does this make it harder or easier to write your next book, and if so, why?

No—at least not yet, anyway. The new book feels like a completely different entity. It’s like everyone is talking about what I made for lunch, and meanwhile I’m busy cooking dinner.

To some extent it already feels like someone else wrote Kitchens. I’ve heard that this could happen. I love all of the characters in that book, but I love my new characters too, and they’re the ones I’m thinking about every day and obsessing over.

What was the idea that sparked this book, the thought that haunted you so you had to write it out?

Great question. I wanted to write a book that my mom would’ve loved had she lived to see it exist. Beyond that, I was driven to write a book set in my home region, with characters that resembled the kinds of people I knew growing up. I hadn’t read anything yet that really nailed that for me, so I figured I’d better write it myself. This one really was heavy with my mom’s influence, though. I thought of her every day while I was writing this. It was like she was sitting behind me.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or do you wait for the muse?

Somewhere in the middle of those two, but skewed towards the latter. I don’t outline before I start working, but I do have some idea of what ending I’m working towards. I write into a story, and depending on the work, once I discover it, I may make some kind of structural schematic when it’s far enough along that helps me keep track of what’s happening and what still needs to happen.

I deeply admired the structure of this book, with all the different points of views, all of them forming a kind of tapestry allowing us to see a more complex Eva. Did you know this was going to be the structure when you began writing or did it seem to evolve organically? And how different was your first draft from your last?

I devised this structure in my head pretty early on. I started with the notion that I’d tell the stories of the guests at a dinner party, explaining how each knew the chef, and work backwards, with each chapter telling the story of a different guest. I veered from that pretty quickly once the personality of the chef became so strong, and she, not the dinner, became the focus.

The first draft was about 80% the same. Initially there were more chapters like Venison and Bars that barely involved Eva. I quickly decided that I didn’t need so many of those. One character was wiped from the book completely when the two chapters that prominently featured her were both cut. There was more time spent with Ros Wali and his company in one of them. Every chapter, in my mind, had to tell the reader something new and important about Eva, so the ones that failed that test had to go, regardless of their other merits.

Of course, the book is about food, so I wanted to know if you, yourself, are a foodie?  And are the recipes in the novel yours?

I’m an enthusiastic eater of food, but not much of a chef. I follow recipes, I don’t come up with them. The ones in the novel are largely inspired by recipes in a book compiled by a group of women at my great-grandmother’s Lutheran church in 1984.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next novel. It’s what I’m working on even when I’m not working on it.

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

Who else has helped since I wrote the acknowledgements section last fall! So many people mattered to me so deeply while I was writing the book, and so many people have continued to astonish me with the amount of hard work and generosity they’ve brought to my life in the intervening year between completion and publication. These folks require my eternal gratitude in print: Thank you, so much, to Joel Arquillos, Stefan Bucher, Ellen Byron, Ann Friedman, David Gonzalez, Chris Heiser, Carolyn Hutton, Rosemary James, Pamela Klinger-Horn, Cathy Langer, Steven Salardino, Kate Stark, and, significantly: Tom Benton, Jude Swenson, and Brian Tart.

Joshua Mohr talks about ALL THIS LIFE (alert: it is the most haunting, moving, fierce novel), technology's enriching or destorying us, and why he needs help for his Taylor Swift addiction

 I had heard that Joshua Mohr has a cult following, which always makes me a little nervous, but after reading his brilliant first chapter, I must say I would have donned a robe a followed him anywhere. This is a bold, fierce, genius book, and I can't tell you how dazzled I am to have Joshua Mohr here. I'm going to read every word he has ever written, and I think all of you should, too. Thank you, Josh, for being so amazing and for coming on the blog.

Holy Moly mother of God, I’ve said this to you before, but this book was like lightning sparking in my whole body. It’s genius. So I always want to know, what sparked this story (sorry for the lightening metaphor). What was it that was haunting you that made you need to write this?

That word, HAUNT, is perfect because this book came from ghosts: The apparitions of San Francisco, a city I love so much.  I wanted to write about the tech boom and gentrification and displacement and the way in which our digital lives can so often dominate our analog ones.  So various ghosts are all over this book, informing each other, crying, screaming, pleading, kissing.  "All This Life" is a book about the various interpretations of connection.  And I'm interested in legacies (another ghost-approved word): The things that live on in our brains like YouTube clips, looping endlessly.

All This Life is the perfect title because so much is about life being “lived” online and off, about having followers, and fame virtually, about recording life, and about TV screens that actually look better than life itself.  As one of your characters remarks, why comment on someone’s update when you’ve walked past twenty real, living people, and never said a word to them?  Do you think there is a solution to this? And where do you see this all going?

I have a 2 year old daughter so I think about this all the time, how to teach her to use technology to enrich her real life, rather than to dominate it, anesthetize her from this beautiful sloppy world.  I wonder if since these screens and gadgets are so new to us that we don't know how to sip them, instead guzzling their nectar like frat boys.  Maybe my daughter's generation will have an easier time moderating, as all the tech will be ubiquitous their whole lives.  That's what I hope happens, but it's easy to envision some grim future, all of us sitting in dark rooms, pallid and hungry, having the time of our online lives. 

What I also loved so much were all the characters and how you slowly and expertly begin to make the connections between them, building to one of the most startling and satisfying endings  I’ve ever read. There’s Paul and his troubled son Jake. Rodney, suffering from an accident and yearning for the mother who abandoned him, Sara who might actually love him, Wes the mysterious--and so many more. Which brings me to the question of craft. So how do you write? Did you plan all this out first? do you outline a little or not at all? Do you believe in the Muse or not?

I love the muse!  I'm not a planner; you could say I'm an anti-planner.  I only want to know the opening image of a narrative and nothing more.  Then I spend three or four years diving down every single rabbit hole I can find.  Some lead to nothing useful. Others lead to magic.  But it's never boring making art that way.  You just have to be a willing explorer.  I'm leery of things I think I know about a story.  I want the story to whisper in my ear, rather than any authorial superimpositions.  The best material, at least in my process/experience, comes from organic discovery.  It’s not efficient or elegant, but that’s how I do my best work.

All This Life isn’t just about the damage living virtually can do. It also explores San Francisco and gentrification, something that is horrifyingly happening everywhere. In The West Village, stores are being shuttered because rents are being increased by the 20 thousands. Brooklyn, which was once a joke, is now inaccessible to anyone who isn’t wealthy. Hoboken, where I live, is a one 10 minute stop to the Village, and homes are going for 3 million.  One character says, we always change neighborhoods when we move in--and that’s true. You pioneer a place that is filled with gunshots and violence, and the next thing you know there is an artisan cheese shop.  It actually seems to me the same thing as virtual living--i.e. there is a price with both, and we had better figure out how to change it, or at least lower it. Can you talk about this please?

Well, the tricky thing is that the book can't read like a polemic, some didactic rant in which the author skyscrapes on a soapbox.  No one wants to listen to me sermonize, so my task in this novel was to make these issues character-specific.  That way, it isn’t me going through these debates, it’s the main characters, and ultimately, the reader.  I want my reader to be drawing her own conclusions as the romp unfolds.  Reading is a lovely collaboration between author and audience.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that books are in a state of suspended animation until a reader generously brings it to life in her mind’s eye.  Has the tech money harmed San Francisco?  Well, it’s pricing out ethnic families, artists, anyone who isn’t making six figures is barely scraping by.  SF is on the cusp of becoming homogeneous, a bunch of rich people, mostly Caucasian, patting themselves on the back, and that’s dangerous.  This town has been THE destination for those rejected in other spots.  We have an invisible Statue of Liberty and it’s clad in the diversity flag.  We love everyone.  Or we used to.  That’s one of this book’s chief driving questions: What happens to a city that only values commerce?

What’s obsessing you now and why?

It’s my daughter, Ava, always Ava.  She is the best obsession.  She just started waking me up in the morning by saying, “Let’s play, daddy,” and it’s the most touching and profound and perfect way to begin a new day.

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

I always like to know secrets about other writers, so in that spirit I’ll tell your readers something that I keep on the sly: Ava already loves Taylor Swift, which means I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift, which means I’m spending every hour of every day singing/humming/whistling Taylor Swift, which means I hate myself, but I can’t stop.  It’s a situation.  Please send help.

Kristin Tsetsi talks about Inside The Writers studio, The Year of Dan Palace., her Five On! interview series--and hey, I am an honorary PaperRat!

Tell us about 5 On! It's a different sort of interview series and I want everyone to know about it. Why do you think here's such a need for something like that now?

I started the 5 On series (which posts every two weeks at with the intention of doing a few different things:
-                Entertain, by providing some insight into the person being interviewed, whether that person is a well-known author, a struggling writer, a selective editor, a bookstore owner, a literary agent, or a publisher.
-                Create a platform where people with experience finding agents, navigating the self-publishing world, or developing marketing plans can speak directly (in a sense) to people who can learn from that experience.
-                Encourage those (and depending on the day, I’m one of “those”) who are getting impatient, disheartened, or anxious. Writers who have kept going in spite of devastating rejections ultimately have great success stories, too. Victories.
-                Provide a reality check. Part of your question was about the need for something like this right now, and there’s a *great video circulating on Facebook that documents how much time it took successful people – Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Michael Faraday, Stephen King, John Coltrane – to become the figures we know now. Typically, several years of hard work and plenty of rejection. But the video also explains why the prevailing belief is that a certain level of achievement must happen immediately. However, as readers of **your 5 On interview will learn when they read your story, it’s a long, difficult (and just as rewarding) process. Or, as the video’s narrator calls it, “The difficult years,” and “The story that never gets told.” 5 On seeks, in part, to tell that story as a way to combat the Immediate Success Fantasy, a fantasy which is not only unrealistic and tinged with entitlement but also destructive to creativity. How can a person consumed with anxiety over not having “made it” within a very short time expect to keep imagining, practicing, even enjoying their passion?

You can find a complete list of all interviews here.

There is a growing awareness now of the fact that female writers just aren't reviewed as often as males. They don't get the attention. There are people doing something about it--including you and Bill Wolfe, whose wonderful blog, Read Her Like An Open Book, focuses just on women writers. What else do you think we can do to encourage men to read women?

Pretend to be men.

I wish I meant that tongue-in-cheek. I adopted the pen name Chris Jane in small part because my real name is a hassle for others to spell and pronounce, but in large part because I wanted to be gender ambiguous to the average cover-scanning reader. I explain why at Bill Wolfe’s website in my essay Right, Like a Man, but in short, my female name and the female protagonist in my first novel turned away potential readers and, as a bonus, inspired one male non-reader to recommend I approach the Hallmark channel if I wanted to sell the story as a film. You know, because girls.

Robin Black, in her fantastic essay On Learning to Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book for their Wives (also at Bill Wolfe’s website), writes that men’s lack of interest in what we call “women’s fiction” has implications beyond an innocent preference for male writers:
If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say? 

The problem is so deeply rooted in a history of women being perceived as superfluous but for baby-rearing that getting more men to read women would first require a drastic shift in the overall value women are assigned by men. In the meantime, deception by pseudonym seems legitimate enough.

Tell us about your own life as a writer. You write both novels and journalistic pieces. Do you feel you have to get into a different frame of mind to do so? And I certainly want you to talk about the smart, witty, and oh-so-wise The Writer's Studio and the Paper Rats videos!

I didn’t know how right-brained the journalistic pieces were – and these were features, even, which I’d thought were pretty creative – until after my editor assigned a paint bar story. A new paint bar, called The Muse, had just opened and he wanted me to do a first-person experience piece.

It turned out to be a great date night (not with my editor), but it was also a revelation. The only word that will do justice to how painting made me feel is “giddy,” and looking back now I can compare it to having a passionate (if short-lived) affair.

I literally (literally-literally, not figuratively-literally) dreamed about things I wanted to paint. During conversations with my husband, I would accidentally zone out because I’d have an idea for a painting I wanted to try. Every weekend, after five days of writing about other people doing the things they loved, I’d fly to my basement painting station so I could do something I loved. (Writing creatively after a 40-hour week of writing for work wasn’t appealing.)

I didn’t understand where the sudden passion for painting had come from, but once I quit the newspaper and got back into creative writing, the painting frenzy stopped. I’d still paint on weekends for a while, but the urgency was gone. It took my husband saying it for me to see it, but it turned out I’d just needed a creative outlet. Desperately. Feature writing was educational and interesting, but it was still reporting rather than creating.  

And about the PaperRats’ Inside the Writers’ Studio! We – author R.J. Keller and I – haven’t made an episode in a while (I think it means we’re both busy writing, which is a good thing), but for those who haven’t seen the series, it’s just good, mostly-clean comic relief that laughs not only with, but at, writers (and as writers, ourselves, we’re allowed to make fun of us for taking ourselves too seriously, sometimes). We acknowledge and poke fun at writer stereotypes, make light of the darker side of writing life (which includes receiving terrible reviews), and in one of the two episodes featuring the Fabulous Caroline Leavitt as a guest star and honorary PaperRat, we question the logic of writers approaching other writers in an effort to sell their books. (This happens all the time, and I think we make a pretty strong case against it in Self-Promotion: FAIL.) Our most popular video is “$#!+,” Writers Say. (It’s not viral, or anything. But it should be!)

What's obsessing you now and why?

In addition to 5 On, I’m working on a story I can’t talk too much about but that I’m in a hurry to finish. I have this irrational (or is it rational??) fear, because the topic is timely, that someone else has had a similar idea and is working on their own version of my story right now. I don’t want them to finish first. I’m a little freaked out daily.

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

“What’s your latest publication?”

Thank you for allowing me to ask myself this. I’d resolved to let it be in the world without my help so I can focus on the “now” project, but I owe it one last little push.

The Year of Dan Palace, available in most places one buys books, answers the multi-part question, “Why don’t more people break routine, escape a moderately satisfying but in no way gratifying position of security, to live the life they really want to live? And if they did, how would that affect the people closest to them?” Dan Palace finds the motivating force he needs to leave his comfortable life and fine-enough wife in pursuit of something more, including the forgiveness of his ex-wife, who’s hated him since their wedding night almost a decade before.

It was a fun challenge to write. Modern stories, and I’m probably thinking primarily of movies (my first love, and almost the subject of my MFA thesis before fiction won out), seem to miss a quality of the movies made in the ‘80s and prior, which was a perfect balance of humor and gravitas. The World According to Garp, St. Elmo’s Fire, Working Girl, and even Dream a Little Dream. Just beautifully choreographed moments of darkness and light, meaning and entertainment. The Year of Dan Palace strives for, and I hope succeeds in managing, that kind of balance.

* Disregard the inaccurate and inflammatory title assigned to the video at the website.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The fabulous Susan Shapiro talks about her new book WHAT'S NEVER SAID, lost love, memory, and so much more

 I first met Susan Shapiro through her book, Five Men Who Broke my Heart (the title got me). As soon as I finished (I fell in love with that book), I quickly bought up everything else of hers that I could find. And I quickly found that I couldn't go to any sort of literary party or event without her name coming up--and people smiling. Her new novel, What's Never Said is about all my favorite things, loss, love, and the quirkiness of memory and you can pre-order it RIGHT NOW. (What are you waiting for/)

So here is the scoop: She's an award-winning journalism professor, has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times and Newsweek. She's the New York Times bestselling author of 9 books including Unhooked, Speed Shrinking, Overexposed, and the acclaimed memoirs Lighting Up, Only as Good as Your Word and Five Men Who Broke My Heart. Her recent coauthored memoir The Bosnia List was published in 2014 by Penguin Books and Heliotrope publishes her new novel What's Never Said in August 2015. She and her husband, a TV/film writer, live in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular "instant gratification takes too long" classes at the New School, NYU, and in private workshops and seminars. You can follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or reach her at 

AND NOTE: I will be appearing with Susan at the WRITER'S DIGEST CONFERENCE PANELS
Saturday August 1, 2015 from 2:00-5:30pm
Roosevelt Hotel in midtown NYC
Switching Genres

I always have to ask, what sparked this book? What was the thing haunting you so you felt you had to write this?

The first scene in What’s Never Said, where a 50-year-old woman sees her old flame –her former professor - and he doesn’t remember her – really happened.  It freaked me out.  I thought: I exaggerated our connection in my mind all these years.  I  overestimated my place in his romantic lexicon. I’ve lost my looks completely if the  older suitor who’d exalted my beauty didn’t even recognize me.

 In real life, my husband Charlie was with me.  On the way home in the cab, I told him what happened, in tears.  Charlie laughed and  said my ex knew exactly who I was because he was staring at him weirdly the whole night, pacing around us.  Charlie was wondering what the guy’s problem was  and now he knew.  It fascinated me that  thirty years after our breakup,  my ex might still be upset.   I was actually thrilled because it meant #1) he remembered me #2) Maybe I hadn’t totally gone to seed  #3) if he was still holding a grudge that long, he’d obviously had deep feelings too and had been hurt as much as I’d been.

I love the whole idea of lost love, and actually I think it’s never lost. We always love the people we once loved, even if we don’t want to be with them or can’t be with them anymore, don’t you think?

 Yes! I had several intimate intense  relationships early on, from age 13,  and didn’t know what I was doing pre-therapy.  I  didn’t marry until age 35.  Now that I’ve been monogamous with the same (awesome) man for 25 years, I’ve often wondered about the past.  An early poem I published in my twenties  started, “If all your old lovers lives in a row of dark houses on the same street…”

 Though I was a failed poet, I stayed obsessed with the topic.  In  my first comic memoir, as a 40-year-old journalist, I  went back to re-meet  my top five heartbreaks of all time, to do ex-it interviews and find out what really happened. And I wrote about how I never really got over anything.   The way I describe the two books is:  “In Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Susan Shapiro  spilled all the secrets of her  lost loves. But there was one secret  she could never tell, until now. And in fiction.”

I  admire the way you write about memory--what we choose to remember, and what we force ourselves to forget, or...even more interestingly, what we think we remember. Can you talk about this please?

I address this in a scene in Five Men Who Broke My  Heart, where I’m given a Holocaust book to review.  “I finished reading the Holocaust book, a posthumous memoir by an Auschwitz survivor who had blocked out the evil he witnessed in the camps. Fifty years later he dredged it up. After completing the memoir, he’d had a heart attack and died. His memory killed him. I was enrapt, not about the atrocities of the Third Reich, but with the lines debating whether he should have relived what he experienced. The author was issuing a warning: Don’t look back, the past can kill you. Getting assigned this book right now was an omen, I decided.  My review focused on the dilemma, the treacherous deep-sea dive of memory, the twisted search for vanished footsteps, the perils of digging too deep.”

In Five Men,  I would have told anyone: go back and re-visit your exes – for creative energy, for closure. It was a great experience. But I  think What’s Never Said is the darker sequel. Maybe what’s cute and funny at  40 isn’t so adorable in  your fifties.

On the other hand,  a reader named  Michelle Mead, contacted me to say that  Five Men had inspired her to reach out to an ex she’d had at 21.  She sent him a letter and at age 57 she finally would up married to him. I’m a romantic. I was fixed up with my husband and I’ve fixed up thirty marriages, with about 25 kids. But that’s another book…

How difficult was it to traverse thirty years and three different settings?

Everything about What’s Never Said was difficult.  It took six years to finish.  It was my first book that was third person, half in a male’s head, which I’d never done before.  I had a brilliant Philip Rothian or Woody Allen character in mind but some critics from my writing group didn’t like Daniel.  I finally decided you didn’t have to like Daniel for the book to work, you just had to understand him.

  My great agent Ryan Harbage found me  a young editor I loved at a big publisher  who was going to publish the book in 2009.  But she gave me a choice and I picked another novel I’d spent thirteen years on, Overexposed, sure she’d take What’s Never Said as my  next book. But then Overexposed  tanked, selling about five copies, and she left the job and her state. And What’s Never Said  was orphaned. Since then a  lot of editors said “This is great. Can you just not make it about  New York poets, writing and shrinks because that doesn’t play in Peoria.” That was 90 percent of the book. It seems I  don’t play in Peoria either.

Anyway, it was a miracle this spring to  find  Naomi Rosenbaltt  at Heliotrope Books. She’d published my student Royal Young’s great memoir Fame Shark and had just started taking fiction. She’s this awesome Village hipchick, my age, and she’d had a flirtation with her own teacher, so she just totally got the whole book. I had a shrink appointment, depressed that I didn’t get a big advance from a big publisher. And for some reason I was jealous of my cousin Molly Jong Fast’s beautiful purple cover for her last book.  My shrink asked,  “What will make you happy about this?” I had a boring summer planned, just working, with no classes, work, or  shrinks around in August.   So  I said, “If this novel came out in August, in hardcover, with a purple cover.” And Naomi gave me everything I wanted. I dedicated the book to her and to my first editor Danielle Perez, who bought three books of mine from Random House. They both live in Greenwich Village, where my book is set, so it felt poetic.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline and map things out, or do you just sort of follow your pen? Have you noticed a difference in writing in each of your books? Does it always seem hard to you, the way it does for me? (And if not, what’s your secret?)

A colleague joked  that I’m a memoirist writing a novel about poetry.  But  I never understand writers who say “I am a short story writer,” or “I am a book reviewer” because most others  I know have to switch genres to make a living.  I certainly have to.  I seem to pick a genre, fail, and then have to reinvent myself every five years. 

While I couldn’t sell the novel for six years, I actually coauthored two memoirs by men I was close to – The Bosnia List I wrote with my physical therapist, who was a Bosnian war survivor.  And Unhooked, an addiction book   I wrote with my addiction specialist, became a surprise New York Times bestseller last year. Plus  teaching at night has been a miracle: I show up, they pay me. The same time every month.

Every book  has been  different. Five Men and Lighting Up came out fast and furiously. I’d just quit smoking, drinking and toking so books  became my new addiction.  Novels are much harder for me.  My colleagues say my nonfiction is better than my fiction and my family says my nonfiction is fiction.  First person nonfiction comes easiest. But there are certain books – like What’s Never Said,  I couldn’t write as a memoir.  The story –a year long romantic relationship doesn’t work out, I’m sad - wasn’t dramatic or unusual  enough.  I’m working on another memoir now.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Whether anyone is going to read,  review or write about What’s Never Said.

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

What book  events should we come to? Oh so  glad you asked. I’m doing a Speed Shrinking for Love charity benefit at Housing Works on August 4, a “Secrets of Publishing Panel” at the Strand bookstore on August 5 and a “Shrinks Are Away reading” at the great St. Marks Bookshop on Tuesday August 4 with Royal Young, Kate Walter and my Bosnia List coauthor Kenan Trebincevic. They’re all open to the public. I’m listing them on my website and on Twitter at

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Megan Feldman Bettencourt talks about her incredibly important book, TRIUMPH OF THE HEART: FORGIVENESS IN AN UNFORGIVING WORLD, how the world sees forgiveness--and how it should see it, and so much more

What's more important in the world than kindness? Maybe it's forgiveness. But how do we come by forgiveness and what does it really mean? That's the cornerstone of Megan Feldman Bettencourt's astonishing and provocative new book, coming August 11, which explores forgiveness through memoir, stories and science. She is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in publications including The San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, Glamour, Details, and Southwest: The Magazine.  Learn more and pre-order the book here.

You can also hear her wonderful Ted Talk here.

Thank you so, so much, Megan!

I love the whole topic of forgiveness, especially in a world as hard as ours. What can the average person do to jump start forgiveness in his or her own life?

The place to start is to consider whether you’re harboring resentment or bitterness against yourself or someone else.  At whom are you flinging nasty insults, even if only in your mind? You can write that person a letter (without necessarily sending it). I’m endlessly surprised at what happens when I sit down to write in my journal about something that’s bothering me. It’s like going through a box you’ve kept in the garage – you’ve had that niggling annoyance and anxiety about the gathering dust and lack of space, but you don’t even remember what the hell is in there anymore. Taking ten to twenty minutes to write out – unpack, essentially- what’s bothering me about myself or someone else and letting myself feel however I happen to feel about it is the beginning of letting it go. That’s something I learned from the experts in my book, as well as the extraordinary people I profiled. With trauma or a big loss, you have to let yourself notice and feel the hurt or anger first, before you can get to a place where forgiveness is possible. There’s no skipping ahead to forgiveness or “zenny peace,” as a friend of mine jokingly calls it. That’s why therapy and meditation, while roads to peace, can be hell. It’s also why one man I write about in the book, who lost his son and forgave the killer, loves the Rumi quote, “There’s no cure for the pain but the pain.” Now, when it comes to ourselves, we can be utterly merciless, thinking awful thoughts about ourselves that we would never unload on another person. The first step is simply noticing our grudges and criticism, and the second is to begin practicing more kindness and compassion with everyone, including ourselves. One of the many techniques I discovered to make that easier is to explore the possible reasons someone did something that pissed your off or hurt your feelings, or why you yourself did. The organization I profiled that unites Israeli and Palestinian girls at summer camp, Creativity for Peace, their slogan is, “An enemy is a person whose story you haven’t heard.”

It seems to be that honesty is so much a part of forgiveness. I’m thinking of the letter you mentioned where a son wrote to his father, I could be a better son if you’d come to one of my ballgames. It takes incredible courage to write something like that, to be that honest--and you can imagine that only the worst sort of father wouldn’t apologize and respond--and be forgiven.  Can there ever be forgiveness without honesty?

That’s very astute, and very true. I saw this in so many of the stories I write about in the book. There can be no forgiveness – and no redemption – without honesty. Because at its core, forgiveness is about connection. It’s about recognizing that we’re all flawed human beings in need of compassion and understanding (some would argue that’s not true of sociopaths, but they comprise a small percentage of the population). Dishonesty and pretense kill the opportunity for vulnerability and connection. They throw up walls. Also, so much suffering comes from the explanations we give to things. Take that boy you mention. He assumed that his father didn’t go to his games because he didn’t love his son and/or wanted to hurt him. That interpretation is brutal, and it may not even be true. Without honesty, there’s no way to sort those things out – truth versus perception, intentional actions versus unintentional ones. Another man with an absentee father told me that when – as an adult - he asked his father why he wasn’t around much when he was a kid, his father replied, “I didn’t want you to be like me.” That kind of honesty is heartbreaking, but it also deflates the storyline of the uncaring or malicious father who just never really gave a shit or wanted to ruin his life.

How is self-forgiveness different than forgiving others? Which is more difficult to do and why? Can you forgive someone else if you haven’t forgiven yourself first?

For most of us, self-forgiveness is harder (minus the small percentage of true sociopaths and narcissists). In part that’s because if we’ve made a hurtful mistake, we usually avoid providing an authentic apology for our part in the situation and then doing what we can to repair the damage. That’s uncomfortable, and we don’t like to be uncomfortable. But we know from research that redeeming ourselves makes it much easier to forgive ourselves. When it comes to forgiving self and others, I don’t like to get too caught up in some sort of “step by step” chronology. Often these things aren’t linear. When we’ve been hurt, blaming ourselves and the person who hurt us is a common response, and often we blame ourselves most. We tend to expect that if we do things right and behave well and are generally good, the world – and other people - will be kind to us.  If they’re not, we assume that we fucked up or happen to be terrible worthless people. And of course it doesn’t work that way. As Hemingway put it, “the world breaks everybody,” so it’s about applying the lens of kindness and compassion to other people and ourselves, at the same time.

You mention how meditation alters the structure of the brain, but would you say that cognitive behavioral therapy would also be helpful in terms of becoming more empathetic and forgiving? What also fascinates me is the science, the whole idea that emotions can heal or harm us physically. What was it like researching this, and what surprised you the most and why?

Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy can have similar effects if instead of going round and round attached to and identified with your negative perceptions and storylines, you’re noticing them as a neutral observer.  Researchers at UCLA found that when subjects were shown a picture of an angry face, electronic activity rose in their brain’s amygdala, preparing the body to respond to what seemed like a threat. Yet when people labeled the emotion they felt upon seeing the picture—“I feel angry,” for instance—activity lessened in the amygdala and increased in another area, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences, processing emotions, and inhibiting behavior. So just noticing and labeling our emotions turns down the amygdala alarm response and the adrenaline-fueled reactions it triggers. That makes it a lot easier to be calm, rational and forgiving. I’m not sure how linked CBT is to empathy, but certainly taking the time to question our judgmental tendencies and kneejerk rush to blame leads to more empathy – for others and ourselves.

What surprised me most were the stories I encountered where people forgave unrepentant offenders, and their forgiveness lead to a remorseful apology. We expect it, we want it, to be the other way around. It’s harder to forgive someone who hasn’t apologized or seems oblivious to the impact of his actions. But meeting people like Jean-Baptiste, who found it within his power to show compassion to the man who murdered his mother during the Rwandan genocide, that was amazing to me. And what really struck me was when those acts of mercy and forgiveness were the one thing that made an unrepentant offender actually acknowledge what he did and then apologize.  That phenomenon could radically change our world if we let it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

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

What obsesses me is that so many people write off forgiveness, or condemn it, without even knowing what it is (to their own detriment and that of others). An Op-Ed in the New York Times after the Charleston families forgave shooter Dylann Roof railed against the concept of forgiveness, but based its points on an antiquated, unhelpful perception of the word that conflates forgiveness with patronizing religious jargon, condoning an act, and foregoing justice. So many people are stuck in bitterness, resentment and blame merely because they think that forgiving would mean excusing an offense or having to be besties with someone who has unjustly hurt them. It does not mean that. And as long as we as a society operate under that faulty perception, peace – inner and outer – will be hard to come by.


Erika Swyler talks about her astonishing debut, THE BOOK OF SPECULATION, having her fortune told, 18th Century circuses, and so much more

 I love, love, love debuts. What is more wonderful than watching a star take off? I felt that way from the first pages of Erika Swyler's wonderful The Book of Speculation, and I'm thrilled to host her here. Thank you, Erika! (And how can you not adore an author who gets her fortune told?)

 I always want to know what sparked an author’s book, what was obsessing you so you absolutely had to write The Book of Speculation?

I'm a person who obsesses. I'm obsessed with books, circus, water, erosion, family, and folklore--all of it. At the heart of those things is an obsession with inheritance. I was fixated on what gets passed down through generations of families--land, values, history, love and trauma. It manifested in this story, which is ultimately a story about what we do with our inheritance.

So, the novel has gotten all kinds of praise. It made the June Indie Next List, it was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, a Library Journal Editors Pick and an Amazon featured debut and Top Pick of the Month.  How does it feel, seeing as this is your new debut, and how does it make writing the next novel easier--or harder?

I'm insanely lucky, and this is very much a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Still, the great thing about books and reviewers is that for every person who tells you you've done something amazing, there's another who says your writing is awful for the exact same reasons the initial person loved it. (I wonder if they've picked up on that yet.) It keeps my head from getting too big. The next book is quite different, so I feel like I'm learning to write a novel all over again. It's more difficult in the sense that I'm no longer writing in a vacuum--people know what I'm up to. Inevitably, that means there's someone who's disappointed that I can't churn out a book in two months. At the same time, there's someone who's disappointed that I'm not writing more quickly because they want to read it. That's wonderful.

There’s this wondrous traveling circus in your book at the turn of the 18th Century and it spans 250 years. How did you research that? What surprised you in your research?

I spent so much time in libraries that I really should have brought a tent. I dug through journals and books to find whatever I could about the period before Barnum came on scene. Incidentally, librarians were fantastic at accessing journals that I, as independent researcher, would have had to pay for. "I'm writing a novel," isn't always enough to hop a paywall. "I'm with the library," works well. I also dug through archives of historical societies from the towns my circus moves through. Burlington, NJ, and Charlotte, NC, have an incredible number of documents available to the general public.
It was surprising to discover how far back some circus families' histories go. The Wallendas have essentially been touring since 1780s. That's practically half of circus's recorded history. That's difficult to really wrap your brain around.

Your book has been compared to The Night Circus. But tell us what’s different about yours?

The Night Circus deals more heavily with fantasy than I do. The Book of Speculation is a tango between reality and folklore that infuses the ordinary with elements of wonder. I don't see why we can't mythologize the everyday. Then there’s scope. The Night Circus is essentially constrained to one lifetime. The Book of Speculation jumps through 250 years of a family’s history. For me that was great fun because I got to ask the reader to look for overlaps and play with allegory in a way that smaller scope doesn't often allow. I'm also shamelessly bending genre. The Book of Speculation borrows elements from historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, mystery, family saga, fairytale, and literary fiction.

What kind of writer are you? Did you map this all out and do you wait for the muse?

I'm a messy writer, a terrible slob, really. I rely heavily on inspiration for that initial push on a project. I can't settle in for a long haul unless my brain is itching for it. The other part of me is quite business-minded and knows that inspiration is more likely to strike if I always have a notebook on hand and regularly stare at the pages. I'd love to say that I'm an outliner, but I'm not. I write endless drafts, keep ten percent, toss the rest, and then do it again and again until a book takes shape. It's inefficient, but it leaves the door open for unexpected moments. When I have a working draft, I outline. Yes, that's backwards, but sometimes you need a map to get through your pages. With The Book of Speculation I had a notebook where I kept a family tree. That tree helped me organize plot points. It was far too unwieldy for the book, but it was essential framework for shaping the story.

I absolutely fell in love with the feel of your book. The pages have a ragged edge and they look mysteriously weathered, and you’ve included your own drawings in the story as well. Was this something you wanted to do right from the start?

The illustrations happened late in the process. Bizarrely enough, I submitted my manuscript to editors as the old book in The Book of Speculation. I bound and aged copies, and included tarot cards and the illustrations mentioned in story. I thought that seeing the book and drawings would make for an interesting interactive reading experience. It never crossed my mind that I was illustrating a novel. I was floored when St. Martin’s bought the art as well as the manuscript. As edits went on, it was clear that it always was an illustrated novel. As ever, I was just slow on the uptake.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

At the moment I'm obsessed with time, more specifically different experiences of it. It's a common thing to fixate on as you age. It's also quite a bit like water, so I guess it's a natural progression. I've been thinking a lot about protracted time and what a stretched second might feel like, particularly if someone is aware of it, or what it might feel like for time to suddenly pull backwards. I guess that means I'm thinking about getting older and the chaos of it all. Oh, and tall ships. I've got a thing for tall ships so I'm always up for obsessing about tall ships.

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

Oddly enough, considering the book, no one has asked me if I've had my fortune told. I did recently have my palm read. The palmist looked at my hand told me that my life was ruled by water, and that all my creativity came from it. I blinked at him for a while, and then left to find a stiff drink.

Cliff Hudder talks about PRETTY ENOUGH FOR YOU, writing while teaching, unrequited love, relatable characters, and so much more

Every once in a while, a writer I admire, in this case David Samuel Levinson (Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence) suggests another writer I might like to host on the blog. I always listen, and I tore through Pretty Enough For You, by Cliff Hudder. I'm thrilled to have him here, and I'm even more delighted that he sent in snaps of his writing spcae (I love seeing how and where writers write!) Thank you so much, Cliff.

What was the spark for this book, the thing that haunted you so much you just had to write about it? 
“Haunted” is such an interesting way to think about it.  I suppose at its core the book tells the story of a man driven by unrequited love.  It’s tawdry love, but that doesn’t make it less of a driver.  Heartbreak often fuels my writing, although it’s more those heart ripped out and eaten in front of me moments that are truly inspirational.  I do try to use humor in my work, too: laughter is so effective when dealing with the serious.  But aside from the haunting pain, lovesickness, and laughs, the book in its present form began to come together in my mind as I was commuting long hours to graduate school.  (I’ve gone back, slowly chipping away at a PhD in my 50’s.)  I decided I’d use that time to catch up on audio versions of great literary classics. Listening to The Scarlet Letter one day I started to daydream: “Geez, this needs updating.  Ought to take place in a law firm.”  Then: “Kind of dragging, right?  I could do better than this.”  Such thinking is, of course 1.) wrong, and 2.) still . . . not a bad attitude to adopt for a big project.  So in my mind Pretty Enough for You is Hawthorne’s novel as twenty-first century office romance: a triangle involving a passionate young woman, a Dimmesdale-like milquetoast who’s the object of her affection, and a manipulative jerk who wants control over them both.  When it struck me how fun it might be for the Chillingworth-character to narrate the whole thing, I was rolling.  As it developed, I don’t think any of the Hawthorne connection is obvious in in the final product, unless it’s in a certain letter of the alphabet artistically rendered by the heroine’s tramp stamp. 

It drives me crazy when people carp about “relatable” or “likable” characters, because I think those can be the most interesting characters of all. You’ve created Bent, who behaves really badly (uh oh, unlikable to some) but still he’s so fascinating we would follow him to the grocery store and back, just to see if he’d have a fainting spell or do something else that was interesting. How do you see him?

I agree with you that “relatable” characters do hold interest.  In fact, the whole anti-hero approach can easily become an overdone cliché.  I worried about that with him, so I’m glad to hear you’re willing to follow him to the store.   I have to admit, I’ve found characters that get things wrong to be very productive in my stories, and I enjoy them in my reading, too.  Figures like Will Self in Martin Amis’s Money, for example: a character I revel in on the page but would never care to meet in the flesh.  I suppose fiction always does its work via conflict of one kind or another, and Bent proved to be a great conflict provider: a representative of the “bad choices make good stories” school of fictional narrative.  An early reader of the manuscript called him a “hot mess,” which I like, but that might be too benign.  Another reader called me out.  “He’s an immigration attorney, but can’t remember if his client is Indian or Pakistani?  Some people might see that as racist.”  I thought: Some people?  Might?  He’s racist, culturally insensitive, a misogynist, a manipulator, lazy, not terribly competent, abuses prescription drugs . . . if there’s a thread that connects him at least tentatively to the world of the likeable and relatable it could be that he appears to have a genuine concern for his autistic son.  That and the fact that he realizes he’s a problem.  He’s as hard on himself as he is on others, hopefully to amusing effect.    

There’s a lot about deportation and immigration. What was the research like?

I was a law student back in the eighties but did not, as they say, “learn to love the law,” so bailed after a semester and a half.  But I don’t think law school is very illuminating about real world legal practice.  Later I worked for an audio-visual firm as a photographer and video editor, and many of our clients were attorneys.  I think some of that experience went into the book: it was a good opportunity to observe without having to take part.  I actually admire lawyers a great deal, good ones at any rate.  I got to experience a taste of the quagmire that is the present state of American immigration policy while obtaining a green card for my Japanese-born wife.  Then I did quite a bit of library research more specifically for the book.  But I encourage my students who want to know about their characters’ careers to go to the source, because none of what I gleaned from printed material proved as valuable as obtaining an appointment and sitting down for forty-five minutes with the managing partner of one of Houston’s larger labor and immigration firms.  He’s interested in writing and when I explained my project he graciously agreed to tell me a lot about the darker aspects of the practice: how things can go wrong.  When I described Bent to him he said he felt like, unfortunately, he knew the guy, so that was gratifying.  Then finally I ran the completed manuscript past a friend who I consider to be one of the city’s premier immigration attorneys to check for gross impossibilities.  She makes a kind of cameo appearance in the novel, the lawyer who works as if she were her clients’ “second mother.”  My friend and the managing partner mentioned above I consider the best in my city, but they filled me in on the worst, and it’s quite grim.  These days, immigrants—documented and undocumented—can fall prey to all kinds of unscrupulous types.   

What kind of writer were you for this particular novel? Did you use the same methods as your debut? What surprised you in the writing?

Whether I’m writing fiction or an article or anything, really, there usually comes a time after research when I go spatial: I arrange my notes and slips of paper and bev naps on some flat surface and begin to rough in the sequence.  For Pretty Enough for You I’m lucky that I work at a college as I was able to spread my scraps across twenty tables in our teaching theater.  It was, like I say, a pretty big project.  From those sequenced parts I knitted together a rough draft over the course of a summer: about 250 pages that were, however, more like a rant than a narrative.  It had no pauses or chapters . . . or even dialogue.  When someone other than Bent spoke I just capitalized the words.  It read like the universe was shouting him down while he screamed back. 

I was still doing coursework towards my PhD at Texas A&M and saw that the novelist Angie Cruz had an advanced fiction workshop I could fit into my requirements, so I went in there with my pages of screed.  That was a fascinating and valuable experience.  I’d been teaching creative writing workshops myself for fifteen years, but promptly began to make all the mistakes and strike all the defensive postures I continually warn my students against.  Once I got my ego set aside, I could see my classmates were right: what the narrative delivered in energy it obscured in incoherence, so I spent the next three years structuring, polishing, plotting, and trying to dial back and organize the voice without losing it completely.  I am pretty satisfied with the results; or, at least it doesn’t make me cringe when I read it.  What surprised me is what always surprises me when a story of whatever length starts to work—those unexpected things the characters seem to come up with themselves.  It’s when an action or a line of dialogue or a plot twist appears that wasn’t in my original conception at all, but that fits perfectly with the rest of the novel’s ecology.  I love it when characters start doing that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Honestly, I’m heading into my graduate comprehensive exams and thinking about my dissertation after that, so am spending a lot of time these days obsessing over place as a geographical, cultural, regional and literary concept.  And the place I’m mainly worrying over is Texas: more specifically Houston.  My dissertation concerns four Houston authors.  I’ve lived in this region all my life, but—like the fish that can’t see its bowl—mostly I ignored my immediate surroundings.  I only recently came to believe that the state even has a literature.  Houston in particular is situated at the peripheries of the American South, the American Southwest, and what Américo Paredes called “Greater Mexico”—the influence of Mexican culture that crosses the political boundary.  That overlap makes it a wonderfully hybrid cultural region—some geographers have called it a “shatter zone”—and my theory is that a willingness to weigh, transgress and mix zones and boundaries of all kinds shows in its authors.  I look at a writer like Tony Diaz, the “Librotraficante” who took a caravan of “contraband” Latino-authored books into Arizona to protest that state’s banning of high school Mexican American Studies, and to me it makes perfect sense that he’d come up with that idea: he’s a Houstonian!  In fact, I think Houstonians who leave and write about other places—Rick Bass would be an example—take some of that hybrid, border transgressing framework with them. 

I could go on and on about this, I’m afraid.  The late Tom Pilkington used to say that Texas writing, like American literature in the mid-nineteenth century, is poised at the cusp of a Renaissance: a turning away from outside models towards some other, new expression, all its own.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I enjoy believing it.  I’m also working on another Bent novel for when the dissertation is finished, this one set nearer the border, and when I say I’m working on it I mean I’m thinking about it.     

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

Gosh, those were such good questions, and I really appreciate you asking.  How about this: I work and teach at Lone Star College-Montgomery in Conroe, Texas, and many of my writer friends who teach at four year colleges and universities ask: “How can you teach community college and still have time to write?”  In fact, I have colleagues here at Lone Star who ask the same—the teaching load is rather heavy.  It’s a challenge, but I’ve come to this after many other kinds of jobs.  In addition to the photography mentioned above I’ve been an electrical lineman (apprentice), an air-tool mechanic, an archeological laborer, along with several different kinds of construction work, and none of those gave me summers off, four weeks off at Christmas, a computer, a Xerox machine, access to research databases and interlibrary loans, students who are enthusiastic and full of bright ideas, and colleagues a few paces away eager to talk fiction, poetry, Shakespeare or Dante at the drop of a hat.  Having returned for that PhD I encourage the younger grad students I hang out with to go ahead and aim big if they want research careers or Tier One writer-in-residence gigs, but—the academic market being what it is—not to forget community colleges.  There are far worse places for writers to support themselves, and we’ve all pretty much got to support ourselves.