Friday, August 28, 2015

Three award-winning women: filmmaker, producer and photographer Gail Harvey; actress, screenwriter and novelist Katie Boland (her daughter); and the great singer songwriter Rickie Lee Jones talk about their new documentary The Other Side of Desire, how and why they work, rap and feminism, being a parent, and so much more

Today, I have three powerhouse women to talk, too, and I’m really excited. I’ve known award-winning filmmaker and photographer Gail Harvey for years, and the only person I might adore as much as her is her daughter Katie Boland, who is an award-winning actress, screenwriter and novelist. The two of them have paired together to form Straight Shooters Productions, which is developing television series and feature films. They already have four optioned properties in development for TV and one I'm truly excited about is the documentary Rickie Lee Jones: The Other Side of Desire. 

Rickie Lee Jones is an American vocalist, musician, songwriter and producer. Over three decades she’s recorded music that includes blues, pop, soul, jazz standards, and more. She is a two-time Grammy Award winner and she was listed on VH1 as one of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll (she was number 30!) Her latest album is The Other Side of Desire, and she is the subject of Straight Shooters documentary of the same name.

Truly, each of these women are incredible and please visit their websites, because if I had listed all their many accomplishments, this interview would be ten thousand pages. Thank you so much, Gail, Katie and Rickie!

Wow. So first I want to ask about Straight Shooters Productions. Why start your own production company and how did this amazing thing come about?

GH: After the success of our webseries, people were asking Katie and I what else we had. So we decided to come up with a company and called it Straight Shooters because we are both very honest and we love shooting film. Cameras are my life!  Katie, who is the genius behind the show ideas came up with some great ideas for TV series and I started shooting the Rickie Lee Jones documentary. Two shows were picked up the CBC immediately!

KB: It sort of came out of necessity because people kept asking my mom and I what we were doing next. But it’s also really, really fun. When you start working on projects you truly believe in and see them come to life, it’s addictive. I wanted to start our company because I wanted more control in my career, to work with my mom, who is my best friend and greatest support, and to use some of the skills I don’t get to use as an actress--being a business person, a writer, being the person who gets to make decisions.

I also want to ask about Centrepunch. I love the whole idea of looking at the police from the viewpoint of a young woman born into a family like that. Katie, you are writing this series along with Carlum DeHartog. What sparked this idea? What was haunting you that made you want to write this?

KB:  I am obsessed by families. I wanted to investigate families and the realities we are born into. The main character haunts me. I hear her talk to me in my head all the time. I remember I just had this idea for this woman, how she dressed, her attitude, how inappropriate she was. I kept seeing her fake nails. I also wanted to talk about policing. I find procedural shows so frustrating because I don’t think anyone is a real person and I don’t think they truly look at the minutiae of being a cop--how much paperwork you really have to do, how sometimes you have to arrest your victim to get them to show up at court, that no one can really explain what mental health training is. My partner, Calum, is a cop, as well as a very successful writer. It’s amazing to have this inside look at a world I haven’t seen on TV before. Also, I was sick of how strong women were portrayed on TV. Why do they have to be so emotionless? Why is that their strength? The people I know who are the most fearless and the most vulnerable. Female cops don’t act like Gillian Anderson on The Fall, or the women on CSI. They act like people. In fact, they are probably more vulnerable or “off” because they are crazy enough to be fearless. I wanted to make a strong woman who wasn’t some two dimensional version of what we think feminine strength really is.

I can not think of anything more amazing that a mother and daughter working together on a project. How and when did you realize you would make the perfect team?

GH: Well, Katie is the young, hot, exciting new talent, and I am the 30 years of experience, so it is a good combo. We’ve always been close, and Katie was a child actor and we worked together doing our first feature film together when she was 15, called “Some Things That Stay,” based on a novel by Sarah Willis.

KB: We’ve always been a perfect team. My mom is so talented and so supportive. I just thought, we’ve always worked together, so why not do it officially? Also, we’re getting to work on our dream projects now. We’re really lucky. I think we are better and more useful together!

I was delighted to hear you had made a documentary on Rickie Lee Jones, who has been one of my favorite singer-songwriters and actually a heroine of mine. I notice that you talk about the documentary having a vinyl feel, meaning honest--even brutally honest. So I’d love to ask Rickie and Gail and Katie, what scared you the most about this project?  (And thank you, Rickie for being here. I have a list of people I want to invite to dinner and you are always on it. Except I don’t cook, so we’d have to eat out.)

GH: I didn’t feel afraid really. I just felt excited that Rickie agreed for me to come to New Orleans to film her. The minute we met, I felt a huge connection and we have become great friends. But it is always hard making a film and I shot most of the film myself, so that was an added pressure. My first film was a short documentary about a musician named Wayne Pronger, who had cerebral palsy. It was called Uphill in a Wheelchair, and it screened at the Toronto Film Festival when I was pregnant with Katie. Since then, I’ve directed drama. With a documentary, it always like a Rubrik’s Cube when you edit, but Rickie’s honesty, poetry, kindness, coolness, intelligence show through. I hope people love the film--so far so good!

Recently, I told Rickie this is a dream of mine, this film, and it will be out in the universe,  so no matter what happens, it is a success. Her life was a story I was driven to tell after I saw her perform in Toronto two summers ago. She was so amazing and spoke about turning 60 and her dreams. I also thought it was strange that my brilliant daughter Katie had never heard of her, because she knows a lot about music. I knew Rickie's manager  and when he called me the day after the concert, I told him that I thought there was a movie there. It was perfect timing, because she was recording her first original album in ten year.

KB: Nothing about this project scared me. I was worried when I traveled with my mom to New Orleans and Los Angeles to help her and carry the camera bags that I would drop them, but that’s about it. I was just so proud of my mom for going out and making the film she wanted to. Her ability and confidence is the most inspiring thing about her.

RLJ:  Nothing scared me about the project, but I was aware of one very important thing--the film belongs to the filmmakers. They reflect their face in yours. If you are in a state of change, if you are wanting to raise the banner of your age and your strength, you might see that reflected in me. If you are a former Anything, you might want to paint me as that, too. Gail came in at just the right moment and she and I really inspired one another on an artistic level. I could feel her respect as she realized the strange predicament of my career--such a great and important artist, who seems to have fallen in the cracks. How could that be, she kept asking.  As we spoke, it seemed to us that women, as they age, seem to be swept away by far less Gail’s film is kind of the like the songs I wrote. We both say what we need to say succinctly, quickly with imagination and hope. I don’t like to be goal oriented. It messes with everything and can make things very hard. So Gail and I agreed we would just do what we do and trust in God.

I think the movie is an inspired representation of my work and a spiritual--yes--a spiritual offering of me. I look at it and see myself with compassion and humor. She showed a musician trying to do her work. We are not often shown as professionals.

When will the documentary be out?

GH: It’s screening at the Raindance Film Festival in London the first week in October, and we have high hopes for the rest of the world!

Rickie Lee Jones’ career has taken her from ballads to jazzy blues—she’s impossible to categorize. Do all of you consider that a plus? (I do.)

GH: Rickie is the most amazing artist I have ever heard. her voice touches my soul.

What is most fascinating about Rickie Lee Jones is that she dropped out of sight to raise her daughter, which in this music business tends to be out of sight, out of mind. What did that cost you, Rickie and how did that change you in ways you never expected?

I’d love each of you to answer this: How do you approach your art? (I have a specific method for writing novels and scripts.)

GH: I approach my art from an instinctive place. I try not to overthink, try to connect with people, to put a mirror up to the human existence. I guess my rituals are trying to take care of myself so I can be open to things and not get bogged down in the problems of life. I try to eat well, do yoga, meditate, love. I don’t worry the muse will leave because I still have a curiosity about the world. I create my art for myself and hope people like it. You have to have a thick skin, though because of course, not everyone will. But you do it because you can’t not do it.

KB:  I just do it and that part isn't hard for me. When you’re in development with a network, there are certain steps you have to follow. You have to write an outline, get it approved, then write the script. I wish I could just go to script stage. I think I don’t procrastinate as a writer because there is so much waiting around as an actress. Now that I can finally make what I want to and not have to let anyone give me permission, I usually go full speed ahead. The way I work is unhealthy. I don’t pace myself. To be inspired, I try to read a lot of great classic scripts and watch really good TV, so I can be surrounded by the standard I’m aiming for. Even if I don’t get there, at least I know where the bar is set.

RLJ: I start the engine by saying, okay, let’s go. I listen to my thoughts, the rhythms, what is pulling me to it? Why am I writing, what is my intention? I then begin to write down things, but the writing is sacred. I wait before I write words on paper, and once I do, it’s a doorman opening the door for what follows. If I’m really moving in a direction, I might collect things--pop bottle tops, sea shells. I read books. I listen to what the universe seems to want me to say, what strikes a chord in me. Sometimes I think of one person who might need to hear what I’m saying. Sometimes I never let anyone hear what I wrote.

I have worried in the past that “it” (the muse) would leave me, but now I think I just take as long as I like. I have to be prepared for change, for the wisdom of the higher view.  

I want to ask Rickie about a quote: “I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be loved. But evidently, I wanted to be a singer more.” Do you think you cannot have both?

RLJ:   Ah, quotes. Well, I guess when I said I wanted to be loved, I meant on a personal man and woman kind of thing, but since I live alone and have been alone most of my life, my choice to sing was the choice to live alone as well. I guess that’s the sense I make of that. In any case since I didn’t have both, I couldn’t have both. If I make room for both, and can enjoy it...well maybe I could have both if I wanted them both. Maybe. Yes.

What’s obsessing each of you now and why?

GH: I’m obsessed with my kids Rejane, Katie and Michael, my grandson Jesse, my boyfriend Kerry, my parents, and obsessed with getting this film finished in time for the screening at Raindance in London!

KB:  I am always obsessed by Rap music and feminism. It’s a weird dichotomy. I listen exclusively to Rap and predominantly read about feminism. Also, all I think about are the shows I’m writing and the other projects I have on the go, so I guess I am always obsessed with work. 

How do we grapple with Fear? Ellis Avery has a single all about it.

I love Ellis Avery. And I'm honored to let you all know that she has a new Kindle Single  and she's here to talk about it. The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery is the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and out of her home in the West Village.Thank you so, so much, Ellis.   

In 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare uterine cancer and given a 26% chance of five-year survival.  As of this summer, according to my doctors, I am a full year out of the woods!

I would be honored if you would consider buying my new essay, ON FEAR, about how I learned to navigate the bleak months after diagnosis, now available from Kindle Singles/

After three years on a drug called Humira, prescribed for a crippling autoimmune condition, Ellis Avery was diagnosed in 2012 with leiomyosarcoma, a rare uterine cancer, and given a 26% chance of five-year survival. When Avery learned that there was no evidence to show that the radiation and chemo she was offered would save her life, she turned down treatment.

But even brave decisions can be terrifying: suddenly, Avery had to learn how to cope with constant fear – that she had made the wrong choice, that her doctors would call with bad news, that her time was limited. ON FEAR, the second essay in a series on Kindle Singles, tells the story of how Avery learned to live one moment at a time, from meditating to singing in the shower to befriending a black cat named Fumiko. While most readers will never face leiomyosarcoma, all of us sometimes face fear: Avery's essay offers hard-won wisdom, tools, and hope.

ON FEAR is the second in a series of essays on grief, illness, and food entitled THE FAMILY TOOTH.  A third essay from THE FAMILY TOOTH is forthcoming from Kindle Singles, and a paper edition of the memoir-zine is coming this fall: you can see the cover, which features a certain black cat named Fumiko!



PS: If you like my essay, I'd be so grateful if you'd consider reviewing it (on Amazon or elsewhere) or mentioning it on your Facebook page!

PPS: If you know anyone who might be interested in reviewing or promoting THE FAMILY TOOTH, please let me know!

Advance praise for THE FAMILY TOOTH--

Ellis Avery writes from the depths of loss and fear with emotional precision and visceral sensuality. But it’s her ability to attain a graceful, benevolent perspective on it all that makes these essays soar.
--Alison Bechdel

Ellis Avery uses her novelist's powers to tell the true story of her life in crisis. She faces her mother's death and her own near-death with an artist's intelligence and imagination--and humor. Reading THE FAMILY TOOTH brings tears of grief and laughter.
--Maxine Hong Kingston

Ellis Avery captures the stillness and the drama of everyday life with elegance and poetry, never shying away from the struggles that make us human.
--Michelle Tea

A sharp, tender memoir about illness, daughterhood and food, THE FAMILY TOOTH dares to explore the most frightening parts of the experience of illness – the threat of death, and the threat of losing one's identity as the body changes radically. A foodie denied the ability to eat almost all the foods that Americans take for granted, a healthy young woman suddenly "disabled" by medical complications and her social environment, Avery must learn to "adjust." She had a difficult relationship with her alcoholic, obese and often critical mother, who Avery comes to learn suffered from one of the same painful conditions that she herself does. Fiercely self-questioning and intelligent, curious even in the face of her own suffering, Avery comes to see the roots of her mother's parenting in long-untreated pain.
--Donna Minkowitz

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Diana Sperrazza talks about MY TOWNIE HEART, growing up blue collar, writing and so much more

As someone who grew up in a once-blue-collar town, I was immediate drawn to My Townie Heart, especially when I discovered it was set in Boston, where I'm from. But it was the writing, the story, that soon eclipsed that familiarity and plummeted me into a whole different world. Haunting, gritty, masterful--it's a wonderful debut and I'm thrilled to have Diana here.

What I loved so much about My Townie Heart is that you got the class differences in Boston exactly right. (I’m a Waltham girl). But I read that you also came from that type of situation, and I’m wondering, as you wrote about it, did it feel healing at all, or did some of the hurt come back? Did you see anything differently or feel that there was anything else you could have done?

 Initially I wanted to write a memoir, but honestly didn’t think my life was interesting enough to pull that off. Writing the story as fiction began as sort of an experiment, and I think I was at least partially motivated by believing it would be easier to deal with emotionally. I also thought that I was finally “strong enough” to write about this material. Of course I wasn’t. I had to realize – and this is where the healing began – that I would never be “strong enough” to write the book. I had to go back and feel very vulnerable to write the story and that launched me on a course of deeper spiritual and psychological seeking.  Not that I was any stranger to therapy, but I knew I needed to do more. 

So much of this achingly honest book is about how we see ourselves and how we think others see us. Laura thinks she has escaped her small town by going to college, but she doesn’t fit in there, either and flunks out. She can’t let herself love the one guy who loves her because he’s a townie and she wants something better for herself, yet she also can’t get herself to leave her working class town. Why do you think we can’t always know what is the right thing for ourselves?

I can only speak for myself and the times and circumstances that I grew up in, but I think I felt such a need to be someone – that is, a strong someone - that it was difficult for me to allow myself to be loved. When I was younger, the desire to achieve seemed to literally burn a hole in my psyche. It was hard for me to learn how to take care of myself beyond surviving and pushing forward. I think that was due to two circumstances: Being a child of an alcoholic, and being tremendously influenced by the social changes of the 60s and 70s. Both of these things propelled me into a different life than the one I was born to. I won’t even speculate whether it was the right life, but it was a better life for me.

Laura’s sister Jane, the victim of a vicious attack when she is younger, offers a counterpoint to Laura, in that Jane has made a kind of peace with the town and with herself, while Laura is still struggling.  How do you think we can best survive trauma?

I think that in Jane’s character, you see the limits of what being tough can give anyone. Jane’s peace has occurred because she is willing to live with the way the town sees her. She has taken those demons in and they have, in fact, made her stronger. But Jane can’t live any other kind of life. She has mastered a very specific and horrific situation, but she is still bound and limited by it. One of the great things about Jane is that she understands that Laura is different than she is and, in the end, helps her. 
What kind of writer are you? Did you outline this book or wait for the pesky muse? Do you have rituals?

Here’s how I wrote this book, and I’m being totally honest. I had the same job as I do now, which involves going into an office most mornings. I knew I had to write before I went to work, if I wanted to get anything worthwhile done. So I’d get up every weekday morning, make coffee and then get back in bed with my laptop. At that time, there were Buffy the Vampire reruns on TV in the morning, and I would watch a few minutes of an episode to sort of rev myself up as I drank coffee. Then I would turn the sound down but leave the TV on, and get to work on the book for an hour or two until I had to go to work. There was something about having the TV on that made me feel indulged enough to face writing. Plus, Buffy was a very heroic and stoic character. It was good to get a little bit of her each morning. That was my ritual. I never really outlined the book. I’m sort of a fast and furious writer, probably because of all the journalism I’ve done.  But I also had a writing partner, Janice Gary (author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance). We’d get together once a month to critique each other’s work after trading chapters, and that turned out to be a great ritual, too! Janice is a more lyrical writer than I am, and she made me slow down and develop a better ear for the actual sentences, which was enormously helpful.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The growing disparity between those who have money and those who don’t is something I think about a lot. It’s so much harder now for a younger person if they want an education and their family doesn’t have a lot of money.  Although I struggled because of my background, it was still possible to get grants and loans and go to school if you were motivated. We’ve launched a new Gilded Age in this country and the gate is closed pretty tight for too many young people. It’s simply not fair. 

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

You didn’t ask me what the pluses are, coming from a blue-collar home. So, here’s my list. Certainly, you learn the value of hard work above all else. You don’t expect others, especially your family, to pave the way for you.  You are humble, since you worked plenty of menial jobs yourself and know better than to judge anyone by their occupation. You never, ever, feel entitled to anything you didn’t work for yourself. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Nick Holdstock talks about THE CASUALTIES, the kindling that becomes a novel, photos in his pages, and so much more

Nick Holdstock's gripping debut novel The Casualties is unlike any other novel you've read. (Trust me on this.) About the moments leading up to disaster, it's also very much about human connection--and disconnection.

 Nick's also the author of two non-fiction books, China's Forgotten People, and The Tree That Bleeds. His articles, reviews and essays have appeared in the London Review of Books, The Independent, N+1, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Dissent, VICE,, Literary Review and The Dublin Review. He's the recipient of a 2012 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and a 2014 Willesden Herald Short Story Competition.

I always want to ask, what sparked this novel? What was it that was obsessing you that made you know you had to write this?

I think that sometimes we, as writers, are surrounded by a lot of great material without realizing it. We’re too stuck in our various ruts and complacencies to wonder why, for instance, our Italian neighbour calls loudly out of her window at almost the same time every day but never receives an answer. A lot of the elements of this book were part of my life without me thinking they might fit together. Like Sam, the book’s main character, I was working in a second hand bookshop, and was thus exposed to all kinds of different people, both the customers and the volunteers who staffed the shop. Like him, I opened many bags and boxes of books that had been donated by the public, and on each occasion made some automatic (and probably unfair) judgment about them based not only on the books they had given away, but on the photos, letters and other personal items that were sometimes left inside. And as a long-term resident of Edinburgh, which is a very small (even intimate) city, I was used to seeing the same kinds of unusual characters as those depicted in the novel. I saw a woman who always wore a bridal veil, a man with a beard so long and matted that birds could nest in it. My friends and I would talk about these people as if we knew something about them, but for the most part we were guessing.

So you could say that there was all this kindling around me. The spark that made me think all this could combine was Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio, a book about a small town in the 1920s populated by people that the narrator calls ‘grotesques’, but then depicts as anything but. Though apparently eccentric, even extreme, they are better seen as people so gripped by certain ideas – those we all believe in to some degree – that they have become distorted. In Anderson’s novel the reader gets to know these grotesques through George Willard, who works as a reporter; I thought that working in a bookshop in a small community might be just as good way for a character to learn the secrets of people.

I love the whole idea that your story leads up to the exact moment of disaster, and then we are left to ponder what happens next.  But it’s also much more than that, because it’s really about the people in the town, their inner depths and complicated connections. Can you talk about that please?

I had no interest in writing a post-apocalyptic novel, and so for anyone who comes to the book expecting this, I can only direct them elsewhere – probably to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In my novel, the future functions mainly as a place to look back on our present from.  I thought having a full account of what life is like in 60 years’ time would be too much of a shiny distraction from the events based in our present; I leave that sort of thing to bona fide science fiction writers. The reader will, I’m afraid, have to take my word for it that in the little fictional universe of this book the future is considerably better than our present, and certainly not what I’d call a dystopia.

So much of this fine novel is also about the way we tend to think we have time to do the things we want and need, too, but anything can happen at any time. So, I want to ask, did writing this novel change your world view at all? And what in the writing surprised you?

I’m not sure I have anything fully developed enough to merit being called a world view. I do admit to having a broad streak of pessimism that I further fuel by reading history and watching the news. But I must also have some degree of optimism or else I wouldn’t write journalism or non fiction books about China – I must believe on some level that if people are better informed then there’s a greater chance they’ll elect better leaders, be more tolerant, and consider altering their consumer habits so as to lessen their carbon footprint.

What surprised me in the writing of this was that I allowed myself to put pictures in the novel. Though there are a number of fine writers that have done this – I’m thinking mainly of WG Sebald – in general I’ve not been a fan of this practice. It’s often seemed gimmicky and unnecessary, and in a lot of cases having a photo, rather than its description, has added very little. But I thought having photos in my book made sense because they are like relics of the world before the disaster. The narrator includes them for the same reason that the story is being told: it’s as an act of preservation, a kind of remembering.

I want to talk about the haunting sense of time in the novel, the way we cannot let go of the past or free ourselves so we can have a different future.  And at the very end, there is that lovely moment, when each second is a world. Do you think it takes tragedy to get humans to realize the importance of every moment?

While I think that adversity puts things into perspective, the interesting thing is that I doubt this feeling lasts long. There’s probably something unhealthy about focusing on the importance of every moment. And now I think about it, I wonder if this is even true. It seems to suggest a kind of competitive counting up of precious moments, as if twenty years spent loving a person is twice as significant as ten.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, use maps, or do you just wait for that pesky muse to appear?

I tend to write down fragments of plot or character that gradually breed into a loose plan. Before I start writing I need to at least have the illusion that I know where the story might go, though often it will veer in some other direction along the way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

If Satan was real, and speaking to people in English right now, how would His voice sound? I’d like to pretend that I’m just theologically curious; the more mundane truth is that I have a story for Him to tell.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How do the people in Edinburgh feel about you having written a book in which their city is destroyed?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Jonathan Evison talks about THIS IS YOUR LIFE, HARRIET CHANCE, his obsession with football, how he gave up on one novel to find another, and so much more

 Jonathan Evison is one of the funniest--and most talented--writers around. Really. You've never met anyone so warm and welcoming, so gracious and generous. And such a hoot! He's the acclaimed author of Lulu, West of Here, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (soon to be showing on your local movie screens, guys,) and coming up--Mike Munoz Saves the World (the great landscaping novel.) But I think his most profound novel yet is, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, about life, faith, a cruise, a widow--and so much more. Johnny, my blog is your blog. Thank you for doing this.

What I especially love about Harriet Chance is the voice. There’s an omniscient voice commenting to Harriet, as if it were life or fate or both, but there is also Harriet’s indelible voice.  How did you decide on this structure?

JE: Well, after a few terrible drafts, the structure imposed itself on the story, which was very linear in its early stages. You know, seven day cruise: day one, day two, day three (yawn) etc. I had to frustrate that linearity for a number of reasons. For starters, by peppering the narrative with critical events in Harriet’s evolution--at opportune moments, prompted by relevant triggers--I was able to make Harriet a more sympathetic character. Also, I was able to reveal the stakes in a rising manner, so that the reader could feel more invested in Harriet as the novel progressed. And most importantly, frustrating the timeline allowed me to bring the story to life off the page. It just wasn’t swinging the way it was. It was like a Leonard Cohen song with no lyrics.

You play with time in this novel in a way that’s exciting--and which is also sort of quantum physics--with the notion that there really is no time, that everything is happening all at once.  Can you talk about that?

JE: In my experience, memory and association are non-linear processes with triggers that are difficult to foresee or predict. Harriet’s cruise to Alaska’s “Inside Passage” (see what I did there? wink-wink) is full of unforeseeable and unpredictable triggers that will ultimately rewrite her entire history. Because so many of Harriet’s recollections of her past suddenly take on new shape and significance given the entirely unforeseen new context thrust upon them. I can’t be any more specific without spoilers. But there’s this passage near the end of the book that speaks to your question:
“While the days unfold, one after the other, and the numbers all move in one direction, our lives are not linear, Harriet. We are the sum of moments and reflections, actions and decisions, triumphs, failures, and yearnings, all of it held together inexplicably, miraculously, really, by memory and association. Yes, Harriet, our lives are more sinew than bone.”

Harriet is full of tragedy, but it’s also a novel that’s shimmering with hope. Is that your own life view?

JE: Sure, why not? I’ve always been a hopeful guy. The alternative is the slow, incremental death of your ideals, your faith, your hope, and ultimately your appetites. If you’d have met me when I was a 38-year-old landscaper with 8 unpublished novels no, they weren’t good), you probably would have walked away asking yourself: “Hmph. Wonder what he’s so happy about?”

I’m always fascinated by the way you talk about your process.  You threw out a whole novel, The Dreamlife of Hunting Sales, but then proceeded to crack its code, and may go back to it. I think I read on FB, where you had a different format for Harriet Chance, too. So how did Harriet Chance reveal itself to you?

JE: This harkens back to your first question. The new pinballing structure allowed me better opportunities to disseminate and organize certain information about Harriet’s life in a way that was evocative and revelatory, and at the same time felt organic in its placement, given the circumstances. The call-and-response between the two voices made the novel more of a dance. I’m not sure if anyone will pick up on it, but it’s in there: I conceived the second voice as an alternative Harriet, one whose life path diverged from Harriet’s own at an early stage of development. I think the second voice still works, even if people don’t get that, though I wonder where they think that voice is coming from? You mentioned fate, and I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

As far as The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, it was a titanic disaster. The center simply would not hold. The novel incorporated some very—ahem—diverse themes: schizophrenia, commercial logging, country music, global conspiracy. If that wasn’t enough of a clusterfuck, the story was told from sixteen separate limited points-of-view, each and every one of them unreliable. Are you starting to see the picture yet? I figured out finally how to re-invent the novel by stripping it down to two points-of-view, but by that time I never wanted to lay eyes on the thing again, so I started writing Mike Munoz Saves the World! It’s the great American landscaping novel. And when I talk about it, I don’t get a headache.

You’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to watch your novel, Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving turn into a movie. How weird was that? What surprised you about the story, and did seeing movie making make you think about story in a different way?

JE: Extraordinary is the right word. Film options are a total lottery. Actually, a scratch ticket might afford you better odds. I’ve done a half dozen film options previously, but none of them ever came to anything. It was kinda heartbreaking, because in each case there were points where things looked hopeful. But I’ve seen many of the pitfalls and obstacles firsthand. So, this time, I was determined not to get my hopes up until they started shooting the damn thing.

I talked to a few people who were interested in optioning it. Rob Burnett totally won me over. He was funny, and kind, and he earned my trust pretty quickly. At that point, I relinquished all expectations, along with any real sense of ownership with respect to whatever became of it. That worked out really well, as I was never seen as a threat. My participation has always been invited on some level, though since day one  of the option I’ve really seen the story as Rob’s baby. I wasn’t gonna be that author who whined that it wasn’t that way in the book, or whatever. I was gonna be the author that shut up, cashed his check, and bought a hot tub. Hell, the dictates for a 300 page novel and a two hour film are so radically different, how could one expect to do justice to any novel given the restraints? But the good adaptations manage to, and they usually do it by capturing the tone and the spirit of the thing, rather than adhering to any strict loyalty to the text. From what I saw on set in terms of the repartee between Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts, I’m very hopeful that they did that relationship justice. And I know it will be funny. Anyway, yeah, the whole experience has been fun.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

JE: Football, and I’m not proud of it. I know all the arguments against it, and they’re all convincing. But I’m obsessed with the strategic nuances of the game. For a sport that looks so blunt and overstated, it’s fascinating once you start breaking down the xs and os. I’m a baseball fan at heart, but man, I just haven’t got the time for 162 games a year, though I do my best. I need the experience of being a fan, an impassioned observer of events I cannot control, because it feels like I spend the rest of my life trying to manage and control things, whether it’s unwieldy novels, unruly kids, or the demands of my career. It feels good to care passionately without having to do anything but reach for pretzels and yell.

Mary Kubica talks about Pretty Baby, being an early bird, and so much more

 Mary Kubica is going to keep you up at night. Her newest, PRETTY BABY, begins with a woman in the rain, seeing a young homeless girl holding a baby. Got you, yet? She's also the author of The Good Girl, and she's just signed another contract for two more books. I'm thrilled to have her on the blog. Thank you, Mary!

I always want to know what sparks a book? What question was haunting you that propelled you into this particular story?

I began writing Pretty Baby shortly after I sold my debut novel, The Good Girl, to MIRA in a two-book deal.  I’d love to say there was some great inspiration for the book, but what I remember is this: being slightly terrified by the prospect of writing a second novel, and not feeling convinced I could do it.  I spent a tense afternoon trying to no avail to summon an idea (any idea!), when suddenly an image of a young, homeless girl popped into my mind.  She was standing in the rain, and, in her arms, there was a baby.  I had no idea who she was or what her story would be, but whatever it was, I knew this girl was at the core of my second novel.  

The basic premise of your novel is so fascinating--a woman tries to do the right thing, and it ends up becoming a tense psychological nightmare.  There’s a whole web of lies and denials. Why do you think that what was Heidi’s greatest strength becomes her weakness--and do you think this is often the case?

Heidi is a wonderful, compassionate woman.  She will do anything for anybody, regardless of whether or not it’s the best decision to make, and in the case of Pretty Baby, she puts the needs of a complete stranger before that of herself and her family.  By trying to do the right thing, she ends up doing the wrong thing and yes, her greatest strength – being an overly charitable human being – becomes a weakness when her family is left exposed and in a vulnerable position.  For Heidi, she is so focused on helping those in need that she doesn’t see the potential threat of the situation.  She tries hard to see the good in people and, in turn, overlooks the bad.  She is a kind, decent woman, who makes an emotional rather than logical decision, and it gets her in trouble.  I think many of us are driven at times by emotion rather than logic, and like Heidi, this can get us into trouble at times.     

I deeply admire the structure of the novel, how you keep the tension garrote-tight, and the characters’ psychologically gripping. What did you know when you started writing this book, and what surprised you?

All I knew when I dove into Pretty Baby was the very basic premise: a woman stumbles across a young, homeless girl waiting with a baby in the rain.  I had no idea who all the characters would be, or how their story would unfold.  What surprised me the most were the changes the characters would undergo throughout the pages of the book; who they seem to be at the beginning of the novel, is not necessarily who they will become.  I love to create complex characters in my novels, and the characters are Heidi, Willow and Chris are quite complex.

What kind of writer are you? What’s your daily writing life like?

I’m an early bird, for one.  My most productive writing comes very early in the morning, around 5am.  I spend the morning hours writing before the computer with my first cup of coffee: my favorite time of day.  I am not someone who outlines, but prefer to dive right into my manuscripts and figure it out as I go.  I need some time to get to know my characters and their motivations before I can put together the pieces of the storyline.  This is one of the parts I enjoy most about storytelling, especially as an author of suspense: figuring out the details, and how I can throw those big surprise twists into the narrative for the reader to discover.   

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve signed a new contract with MIRA for a third and forth book, so these days I am editing the third and writing the forth.  Writing is the kind of career that you can never quite pack up at the end of the day and tuck away until morning.  The characters like to haunt us authors at all hours of the day and night, and so I find that I’m always obsessing with my characters and their lives, whether or not I’m actively writing.  I’m also, of course, busy promoting Pretty Baby, which is so much fun, getting to travel around and visit with readers.  One of my favorite parts of the job!

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

These are such great questions, Caroline.  Thank you so much for including me!  The one thing that I’d love to add is how warm and welcoming the writer community has been to me.  This was something I didn’t expect, but am so grateful to have discovered.  In the last year or so, I’ve been able to connect with so many authors who have helped guide me through the journey, and I feel extremely fortunate for these connections and friendships. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The sublimely talented Julianna Baggott talks about HARRIET WOLF'S SEVENTH BOOK OF WONDERS, awaiting her pub date (August 18!), "having your vision blocked by the veils of your own fiction," and so much more

 Some writers you love just for their books. Others, you worship because not only do they write brilliant books, but they're big-hearted, big-souled, funny and smart people, and you want to hang out with them over wine and pasta. That's Julianna Baggott for you, and I'm thrilled to have her here talking about her new novel (coming August 18), Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, about a reclusive author, a manuscript that may or may not exist, and the difference between the real world and the fictional one---one more could you want?

 So let's move on to the shining credits: Julianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books written under her own name as well as pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. The first in a trilogy, Pure, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and ALA Alex Award-winner. Her latest novel, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, was published this year by Little, Brown. There are over one hundred foreign editions of her novels. Baggott's work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Best American Poetry series, and on NPR's All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, and Here and Now. She teaches in the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University and holds the Jenks Chair of Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross. 

Thank you so much, Julianna!

So how does it feel leading up to publication? Even though you're already an acclaimed author, do you still get nervous?
I do. This novel has been with me, in the works, for nineteen years! And so letting loose feels particularly strange. But I'm always anxious when a novel comes out. I don't do it gracefully.
What feels different about this novel than any of your others? And how will that change your next book--if at all?

This novel took so long to write because I lost my footing. I would dig in and then feel like I wasn't a strong enough writer to keep going. What I'm working on now is nothing like HARRIET WOLF'S 7TH BOOK OF WONDERS. It's more in line with my recent work in THE PURE TRILOGY. I'm often push off from one kind of book into the next.

What's the best--and worst--part of book touring for you? Got any funny stories? (Bet you do!)

I once wrote a love letter for a stranger on a plane. A guy was flying cross country to win back the girl of his dreams and I helped him make his case. (It's worked its way into fiction already, something that's not yet out in the world.)

I always find it very strange to go from being a hermit who writes a million hours alone every day and then has to go out and interact constantly. Do you? And if you, how do you manage--and do you you still write while you are on tour?

Funny, HARRIET WOLF'S 7th BOOK OF WONDERS is about a writer who becomes a hermit, a decision that follows an incident while she's on tour! I can't write and tour at the same time -- not a novel. The architecture is too large to haul around in my head. But I can write essays a bit. I absorb people's energy so being public makes me feel pretty wired.

Sometimes, it isn't until after I've completed a novel that I realize what it truly is about, what issue had been haunting me. Is that also true for you? And if so, can you talk about that please?
Yes, agreed. Sometimes I don't know until the Q and A that what I've written is deeply rooted. It's very strange, having your vision blocked by the veils of your own fiction.

I always have to ask what's obsessing you now and why?
(The wording of the question is a little compulsive sounding. Ha.) Currently, I'm at work on a very strange novel that entails a lot of world building. So my mind is trying to experience the texture of that world, which means that my brain doesn't have much downtime.

And I always have to ask, what question do you wish that I had asked?

Oh, I don't know. I guess I could say that HARRIET WOLF'S 7th BOOK OF WONDERS is full of characters who have very serious obsessions and anxieties and fears. It's not just that you mentioned the word hermit earlier -- and Harriet is a famed reclusive novelist with a mystery surrounding her 7th and final book -- but all of your questions about obsessions and anxieties, well, they fit with the book so very well, and, for better or for worse, with how I navigate! (Kindred spirits here.)


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Clea Simon talks about CODE GREY, library theft, salted caramel, and so much more

 I first met Clea Simon in some weird online writers' group years and books ago, and we quickly became fast friends--we see each other at least once a year, and I can't tell you how many times she's come to my rescue!

 She's the author of three nonfiction books and three mystery series. The nonfiction books are Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings(Doubleday, 1997), Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads (Wiley, 2001) and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). The Theda Krakow mystery series was launched with Mew is for Murder and continued with Cattery Row and Cries and Whiskers, and Probable Claws (Poisoned PenPress). Her Dulcie Schwartz series launched with Shades of Grey, and continues with Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, Grey Dawn, Grey Howl, Stages of Grey and, in summer 2015, Code Grey (Severn House). The Pru Marlowe pet noir series started with Dogs Don't Lie and continues with Cats Can't Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, Panthers Play for Keeps, and Kittens Can Kill (Poisoned Pen Press).

Her essays are included in several anthologies, including Cat Women: Female Writers on Their Feline Friends, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance, and He Said What? Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed (Seal Press). Her short mysteries are included in Christmas Cats: A Literary Companion (Chamberlain Bros.), Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Authors (Level Best), Cambridge Voices (Friends of the CPL), and Tales from the House Band, Volumes 1 and 2 (Plus One Press). She has also written new introductions for two Agatha Christie classics, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary, published by the Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading.

Clea, the only thing more fun that this interview would be conducting it in person!  Thank you!

What was the spark that led you to writing this book?

I was reading about a horrible and daring library theft in Naples, at the Girolamini library. Basically, it seems, a former director of the library conspired with antiquities dealers to raid a priceless collection of books and prints. He’s been arrested, but the authorities are still working to restore the collection. My Dulcie Schwartz series has an academic setting, and Dulcie is a scholar and a book lover, so it seemed like a natural fit. Who would steal rare books – and who would work to save them?

You've written so many fine mysteries--what was different when you approached this one? What surprised you in the writing?

Thank you! I loved researching this one, I have to say. Learning about book restoration – it’s a topic I’ve written on before, but I really got to indulge this time. In terms of the writing, I decided that I wanted to isolate my protagonist. This is the ninth book in the series, so Dulcie has acquired quite a coterie of friends and acquaintances. For this book, I sent them all away – it’s set during spring break on campus – so I could have her on her own. That was great fun.

Have your writing habits changed since you first started writing? How and why, do you think?

I think I have become more accepting of my writing habits. For example, I no longer fight the fact that I do my best work between four and nine p.m. That’s just the way it is. I wish I were a morning person, but I’m not. And dinner is always late. I do worry a little less, though. I’ve now written enough that I believe I can probably finish just about anything I start. That’s encouraging!

I deeply admire the way your story world (the world of academia) winds its way into the plot. You have a knack for having smart heroines AND savvy cats. Why is that combination so perfect?

Thank you! As a cat person, I’d say that any story is improved by the presence of a cat. As for smart heroines, well, we’re all book lovers, right? So who else would I write about?

What's obsessing you now and why?

Who the murderer is in my next Dulcie. I have a great victim and a ton of folks who have motive to kill him. He’s a petty, womanizing, nasty little man - a recent (unwanted) addition to Dulcie’s thesis committee who is questioning her research, so even Dulcie might be a suspect. But which one did it? I’ll let you know when I know!

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

Chocolate or salted caramel? Only, I don’t know if I can answer that one. Oh, you could ask me about “The Ninth Life.” It’s a darker book than I’ve ever written and it will be published next spring by Severn House. It has a cat in it! I’ll tell you more next time!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Meg Waite Clayton talks about THE RACE FOR PARIS, the pleasures and perils of historical fiction, the amazing women correspondents, and so much more

 I've known and loved Meg Waite Clayton for years. She's the kind of person you can call in the middle of the night if you need to, and the kind of person who always has a brow pencil ready when you need to paint on freckles to complete a clown outfit! To me, what is so wonderful is how Meg, after writing four critically acclaimed novels, suddenly changed paths and wrote her first historical--The Race for Paris, and it's incredible. I'm not the only one singing The Race For Paris' praises. Not only is it an Indie Next Pick, a Glamour Magazine recommended read, one of the BBC's Ten Best Summer Reads of 2015, a Bookreporter Bets On Selection, but it's about to enter the world and rack up even more raves. 

Meg is also the author of The Wednesday Sisters, one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all time. Her first novel, The Language of Light, was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (now the PEN/Bellwether). She's written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Runner’s World and public radio, often on the subject of the particular challenges women face.
The only thing more thrilling for me than hosting Meg here would be to sit down and have lunch with her. Thanks, Meg!

I always ask writers what the “spark” moment was for his or her book. What was haunting you that led to this story?

 The idea for The Race for Paris actually came to me while I was doing research for my first novel, The Language of Light. I read photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography, Portrait Of Myself. Something she said in that—about motherhood, I think I can say that much without spoiling the plot—really moved me. I had to read the autobiography in the stacks of the Vanderbilt library because it was out of print and couldn’t be checked out, so you can picture me sitting in the stacks, weeping.

The story really began to take shape when I read about how Martha Gellhorn got to cover the Normandy invasion. Only male journalists were allowed to go. (The excuse: “no women’s latrines there, and we aren’t about to start digging them now”—never mind that the press camps were generally set up in lovely big French chateaus with running water and sometimes whiskey literally on tap.) Martha stowed away in the loo of a hospital ship and went ashore with a stretcher crew, one of the very few correspondents to cover the invasion from French soil. nAnd her reward for her bravery? She was taken into custody on returning to England, and stripped of her military accreditation, her travel papers, and her ration entitlements. She was confined to a nurses’ training camp until she could be shipped back to the U.S.

So here’s what she did: She hopped the fence, hitched a ride on a plane to Italy, and covered the war without the benefit of her swanky military credential, sweet-talking wireless operators into send her work out, while all the time looking over her shoulder for the military police charged with apprehending her.

While the male correspondents went wherever they wanted, and returned to nice warm press rooms in chateaus and 5-star hotels, the women correspondents who managed to get accredited to France were largely confined to hospitals. They worked at tables they set up in fields when the weather wasn’t terrible, which it mostly was. While men were able to negotiate changes to copy with on site censors at the press camps and send work by wire, women journalists’ work went by pouch—much slower, so not as timely—and was censored in England, where the journalists had no ability to make changes to accommodate the censors. Whatever was left after the censors did their dirty deeds—often not quite the truth and sometimes pure gibberish… well, off it went to their editors anyway, with their names on it.

For many women, the only option if they wanted to cover the war in a meaningful way, was to go AWOL—absent without leave—leaving them without resources, often in danger, and with the added challenge of having to evade military police send to take them into custody. Several who did so, including Lee Miller, Catherine Coyne, and Dot Avery, were taken into custody and held at Rennes, and so missed covering the liberation of Paris.

When you just look at what these women did during the war, they seem daring and risk-taking and sort of superhuman. But if you peek behind the curtain… Well, let’s just say that as a child attending fortnightly dance classes, Martha Gellhorn hid with a friend in the coatroom rather than have to stand unselected by the boys. One of the things I wanted to do in The Race for Paris was explore how very human and like the rest of us these women really are. I’m not saying they didn’t do extraordinary things—they did. But a lot of women in a lot of circumstances in WWII did, too, and I like to think that even if I might not have, many of my readers would.

I always want to know about process. The Race for Paris is richly drawn, multilayered, and gripping--and it’s also your first historical novel, right? How daunting was it to dip into the past?  What was your research like? Did anything surprise you? Did any of the research turn the story you thought you were writing into something completely different?

Thank you, Caroline. That is high praise coming from you!

Daunting, yes—absolutely. I just didn’t want to get it wrong, and I wanted to do these extraordinary folks justice. The women especially, because they are less well known. I suppose that’s perhaps why this book took so much longer than anything else I’ve written. I started it literally before the turn of the century! I’ve written three other novels in the time I’ve been working on it, but this is the one I kept always returning to.
The Race for Paris is my first novel being marketed as historical fiction. But because The Wednesday Sisters was set in the 1960s, when I was a child, I’ve always thought of it as historical, too, and the process of researching for this book was much like that in some ways.For this one, I did do the really fun stuff, like spending a month in Paris not once, but twice. I really enjoyed learning about how the press operated during the war, and all the details of what they did. I stayed in a chateau that was a press camp in Normandy, now owned by a man who was born there during the war. That was amazing, to sit by myself and watch the sun come up in a room where extraordinary journalists like Ernie Pyle wrote during the war.  And I covered the path my characters cover in the book—an excuse to see a lot of Europe!

I also immersed myself in books about the time, and in primary source materials. Letters and journals of real WWII correspondents. The pieces they wrote and, in the case of Lee Miller, some earlier drafts of pieces she wrote. For me, seeing the world directly through their eyes that way makes their world come alive. I loved gathering the little details of the everyday lives: for example, that they washed their laundry in their helmets, and often stopped menstruating due to the stress. And funny things like that the photojournalists—because it rained all the time in Normandy—would put their spent film in condoms and tie them up to keep them dry.

The problem wasn’t finding the interesting bits to include in the book, but choosing which to include, because there was so much great material. And then knowing when to stop. I love the research. I was a history major in college with a focus on 20th century American wars, so this is a real sweet spot for me.

There was one thing that I found well into the writing of the book that … well, it didn’t exactly turn the direction of the book, but it was just the thing I needed to make it all line up, and it was not the thing I was looking for. I don’t want to say too much, but I read about something that really happened in a cave during World War II, and that led me to an ending that was quite different than I’d envisioned. Who was it who says that an ending should be the “inevitable surprise”? Aristotle? I suppose if an ending doesn’t surprise the writer, then perhaps it can’t be the inevitable surprise that is so satisfying in literature.

I love the totally empowering characters of Liv and Jane (and Fletcher), who are determined to be the first to get to Paris and photograph the city’s liberation from the Germans. And I love it even more that she’s based on real-life characters. How did you go about crafting these characters?

I have to say I just loved drawing from the real experiences of women correspondents who covered the war. I couldn’t have made up some of the things that really happened. It might have been fun to do nonfiction, but the form of the novel allowed me to collect the most interesting of their experiences into one narrative arc that I hope will appeal to readers, but isn’t always there in real life.The way I develop character is generally in a sort of character scrap book, where I gather all sorts of bits until they start to take shape as a whole character. I pull photos from magazines, add poems, little snippets of things they might say, where they might be from, what their backstories might be. And just writing.

This story started with Liv, my ambitious photojournalist who carts her Speed Graphic to France intent on covering the liberation of Paris and in the process making both history and her own career. She’s not uncomplicated, no one is. And she’s far from perfect. Perfect in a character is boring. But I think it’s a hard thing for women to embrace ambition. It ends up leaving us considered “bossy” or “unfeminine,” “undesirable.”

I wanted to explore the challenge war presents for love, in part because many correspondent marriages did not survive the war. Many marriages didn’t survive the war, for that matter. The Race for Paris isn’t primarily a love story, but it’s not exactly not, either, if that makes any sense. So Charles, Liv’s husband, came along with Liv, and Fletcher sort of showed up in a scene in London that I long ago pulled from the book. (After learning a whole lot about the tea service at the Palm Court and what robot bombs sound like just before they fall!)

Jane—my journalist with her lovely foldable Corona typewriter who narrates the novel—actually started as a bit player who disappeared after the early chapters, and was a small homage to my Aunt Annette, who was in Normandy with the Red Cross. When I asked my aunt why she chose to go to war, she said, in a southern accent I can’t replicate, that she was twenty-something, “and the boys were all over there and I was going to be an old maid before they came home, so I thought I’d better get on over to Europe and find me one!” As befitting any character modeled on my Aunt Annette, she eventually took over the telling of the story, and that’s when it all starting falling into place finally.

Although these characters are dashing for “the scoop of their lives”, there’s much more to be gained than career goal. Can you talk about that please?

While Liv comes to Normandy intent on making her career, what she finds is that that isn’t what she needs or wants after all. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that she finds that “making her career” means something completely different than she thought it did. And I think that is so often true in life, that what we think we need and what we find we do are not the same.

So I suppose on one level that is what the book is about: the importance of leaving ourselves open to the possibility that what we need isn’t what we want.The book is very much about what we do in war, or on the excuse of war. All my characters come to the war with an idea of our humanity that gets challenged. That is a very important aspect of this novel. I think that like other extremely difficult times—children in hospitals, loved ones dying—being at war scrapes us down to exactly who we are.

So much of this fascinating novel is about the limits put on women, and the few who dared to defy them.  It works brilliantly for the time period, but I think it also has a lot to say to women today, don’t you?

I do, absolutely. One moral of this story is that if the rules get in your way, go around them or over them, or just break right through them. And that remains so true for women today.Women war journalists still face a whole lot of complications that men don’t. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over seeing photos from Afghanistan of my friend Masha Hamilton…in a headscarf. But what is true for women journalists is still, sadly, true in pretty much every walk of life. There are so many ways in which our expectations for women are shaped in ways we don’t even realize—what I can our embedded gender presumptions.

No one thinks twice if a male journalist (or soldier, or businessman) leaves his family behind for a week or a month or longer for a job, but if a woman does the same, her maternal instincts are suspect, right? And on the flip side, a stay-at-home dad is suspect, too. I think very few of us thing we discriminate based on gender, but in fact every study ever done shows indisputably that we all do.So I’m a big proponent of “name it change it.” Not that it’s that easy, but I think the more we call out the different ways we see each other based on gender, race, and the like, the more likely we are to be aware and to therefore change. I don’t set out to write on a theme, I start out to write a story, but I can see now over the course of five novels that this is turf that stirs my passions, which is I think where I do my best writing.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been working on this book for so long that I find myself absolutely obsessed with helping it make its way in the world. But I’m also really longing to get back to the writing. That is the happy place for me, at my little computer with my pretend friends and my fictional worlds that I hope will make readers feel understood. (And then there is the coming election. I’m definitely obsessing about that already!)

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

 Perhaps, “Why Paris?” Why not, say, “The Race for Berlin”?For this story—WWII—Paris was … well, it sort of felt like the liberation of Paris would mean the war was won. The war didn’t end there, of course—the fighting continued to Berlin—but the liberation was symbolically so important. The epigraph I use for the novel was written by Martha Gellhorn in late 1943, shortly after she was accredited as a war correspondent and headed for London:

I would give anything to be part of the invasion and see Paris right at the beginning and watch the peace. The two were intertwined in people’s minds: Paris being liberated was the peace.

And Paris is such a romantic, evocative city, even in war. Or perhaps especially in war. If you can walk along the Seine, or just sit out on one of the bridges at night with a bottle of wine … the lighting is lovely, the reflection off the Seine. Now you have the young kids gathering at the tip of the Isle de la Cité just to be together. The warm colors of the sunset and that very fun moment of the Eiffel Tower lighting up. The Hôtel de Ville at night—where the novel opens—is just stunning. Really, if you can’t fall in love in Paris, then you’re probably doomed. If you can’t write in Paris, or about it, you certainly are.

Monday, August 3, 2015

John Truby and Leslie Lehr talk about story structure (otherwise known as my obsession) for novelists, and so much more

About five years ago, I discovered John Truby's story structure. A student of mine at UCLA was going on and on about what a genius he was, so I bought the tapes of his classes, bought his book--and had my first New York Times Bestseller. Along the way, I became fast friends with his wife, the novelist and screenwriter, Leslie Lehr, and attended John's classes as well.

John and Leslie approach story differently from all the other story people. There's no three-act structure. There's no rising and falling action. Instead, the Truby method goes much deeper, focusing on the moral choices of the characters and the impacts of those choices on everyone. His first book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller is a bestseller--and I have my own dog-eared copy on my desk at all times. Usually focused on films, John and Leslie are now having an upcoming class, STORY FOR NOVELISTS, starting in San Francisco, September 2015 and I cannot wait until they bring it to New York.

Over the past 25 years, more than 30,000 people (including me!) have attended John's sold-out Writers' Studio seminars around the world.  He's been a story consultant for major studios and a script doctor on more than 1800 movies, sitcoms and television dramas from Sony Pictures, HBO, Paramount, BBC, and more.

Leslie Lehr writes about what-ifs of modern motherhood. Her debut novel, 66 Laps, won the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal. Soon after, her screenplay, Heartless, was produced as an independent film. The romantic thriller financed five other films for Santa Monica Pictures, aired on USA TV and has been screening in Europe for eight years. Her next books were the nonfiction tomes, The Happy Helpful Grandma Guide, excerpted on; and Wendy Bellissimo: Nesting, featured on Oprah.

Her second novel, Wife Goes On, was a featured selection for the Pulpwood Queens Book clubs, with 250 chapters of tiara-wearing, book-sharing readers. She next wrote the screenplay, Club Divorce, for Lifetime. What a Mother Knows, her literary thriller is a Recommended Read at Target and is currently in development for film.  In addition to private manuscript consulting, she teaches at the world-renowned Writer's Program at UCLA Extension and mentors writers to publication as the Novel Consultant for Truby’s Writers Studio.

I'm so completely thrilled to have both John and Leslie here. Both of them have literally changed my life. Thank you, John and Leslie!  (Note: John Truby is answering these questions, but Leslie's input is in them, as well!)

What made you decide to take your extraordinarily brilliant (trust me, it is) story structure program and rework it for novelists? 

Novelists are so concerned with the right word that I think they sometimes forget about story. Sure, readers love words, and love what beautiful language can do. But the main reason they read is for story. In fact, the single most important element for success in any written medium, including novels, is strong narrative drive. I see too many novelists who don’t know this or don’t know how to get it on the page.

You'll be presenting seminars on this along with the superb novelist Leslie Lehr. What's she taught you that you didn't know already?

More like what hasn’t she taught me. My expertise is story, in any medium. She’s very strong on story structure, and knows how the novel medium changes the requirements for a good story. She’s also an expert on prose techniques that are unique to narrative fiction.

How do you go from one form to the other? (When I first started writing scripts, I was told that they read like novels!)

 That’s a big subject we will cover in the class. How do you go from script to novel, and how do you go from novel to script? Both have to tell a good story but they do it in different ways. The biggest differences between novel and film are structure and point of view. You have to know how to translate these elements above all.

What's the biggest difference between structure for novels and films?

 Plot. You need much more of it in novels, but it doesn’t have to have the same dramatic punch that plot has in movies. It’s a very special skill to be able to weave a complex plot, but also stretch it over what is typically a much longer time frame.

What's the biggest mistake you think writers make in writing novels? 

They think they can just start writing and figure out the story as they go. Novels need story structure even more than films because the reader has no visuals to rely on, only imagination. Most of all, writers often have no idea how to create narrative drive.

Many novelists I know are resistant to structure, no matter how much I praise it. They think they have to "follow the muse." They also are sure that if there are no surprises for the writer, there won't be surprises for the reader. And, of course, once I get them to try structure, they love it, and they realize that's not true at all. But what do YOU say to writers?

I tell them, go ahead and “follow the muse.” Here’s what’s going to happen. You’ll get about 40 pages into your novel and find out you’ve written yourself into a story dead end. You stop writing the book and then repeat the same process with the next book.

Story is all about seeing the big picture, along with the major story beats, as a whole. If you get the right structure up front, you’ll have plenty of surprises writing the scenes. But you’ll also have a scaffolding that will tell you which creative surprises will work and which ones won’t (and the vast majority won’t). As Leslie puts it, how can you hit the bullseye if you can’t see the target?

I'm curious, I've been applying your seven steps--which are extraordinary on target--for my novels. Are there additional steps and issues novelists should be aware of?

 Oh yes. The seven steps are great for figuring out the anchor steps of the entire story. But for really great plot, you have to know how to use many other steps. And that’s a big deal for novelists, because you have to string a lot more plot over the 300-400 pages in a typical novel. For example, one of those additional plot steps is Revelation. Novels have 3 to 4 times as many reveals as a screenplay. We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about this all-important element in writing novels.

Are the starting points for novels and scripts pretty much the same? Writing something that will change YOUR life? Have a character with a strong arc and a moral dilemma?

Absolutely. The fundamentals of great story are the same for every medium. But novelists also have to know the unique ways of setting up narrative drive, beginning with a strong desire line. We’ll explain how to do that in the course.

Many novels--and films--have experimental forms or ensemble players. There is no straight through line--or is there? I'm thinking about films like Momento or Grand Canyon (which had multiple points of views, much like novels), and novels that play with form like Louisa Meets Bear--which is a series of interconnecting stories that all flow back to two initial characters.  Do the structural components still apply? 

Yes they do, but as you can imagine they apply differently. These are multi-hero, multi-POV stories. This is a major part of the novel world, much more so than Hollywood film. Above all, you have to know how to connect all the story strands to get that through line. We’ll talk about a number of techniques you can use to do multi-strand stories correctly. You do it quite well in your writing, Caroline, and Leslie will talk about a technique you use in IS THIS TOMORROW in the class.

What are you most excited about in teaching this upcoming class in Story for Novel?

I’m a big believer in writers going for greatness, which is why I’m so excited about sharing 10 techniques common to all Great American Novels. Obviously, no one can teach someone how to write the Great American Novel. But I believe these 10 techniques, which are extremely detailed, can give a writer a tremendous advantage if he or she wants to take on this immense challenge.

I've been told that if you are a good screenwriter, you'll be a lousy novelist--and vice versa. I refuse to believe this is true. Why would someone think this?

This is nonsense. Yes, if a novelist doesn’t learn the unique elements of the screenplay medium, he or she will fail, and vice versa. But that assumes writers can’t master new techniques. If a writer learns how to tell a good story, along with the special techniques of that form, they can be great in both mediums.

Will there be a book on this, I hope? I use your Anatomy of Story for all my classes.

That’s a great idea, Caroline. I was busy last year creating my Myth Class, which includes the beats for three new Female Myth stories I think will be huge the next few years. But Leslie has been talking about a Story for Novel book as well, since she uses Anatomy of Story in her work as the TWS Novel Consultant and adds a lot of focused information when she works with writers individually. Now that I know you’d be interested in that book too, it may just be a matter of time. Stay tuned.