Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A marriage, a murder, yoga and more--the whipsmart and hilarious new novel SOULMATES from Jessica Grose

Where genius creates

Portrait of the writer lounging in the sun

Who says writers can't have gleaming, gorgeous wood floors?

Jessica Grose is an editor at Lenny, also the author of Love, Mom. Her latest, Soulmates is a smart, funny and intensely readable story about what unmakes--or remakes--a marriage,  the trials of yoga, and so much more. I'm thrilled to have Jessica here. Thank you, Jessica!

I love the structure of the book, the way we hear from Ethan and then from Dana, and because I am always curious about craft, I want to know why you decided to do the book that way? This is your second book, and I also want to know if it felt harder or easier to do than your first?

Thank you! I decided to do the book from alternating perspectives because I wanted to show how a relationship—particularly a relationship that’s falling apart—can be interpreted so differently by each participant. At first, you hear Dana’s side, and you think Jeez, Ethan’s a philandering prick. But then you hear Ethan’s side of the story, and you start to empathize with him, and see how their worldviews just became more and more incompatible as he becomes enmeshed in his yoga world.

In some ways this book was harder to write. Logistically it was harder, because I wrote the first book before I had kids, and I wrote the second one after my first daughter was born. But I had more fun writing this one. When I wrote Sad Desk Salad, I was pretty insecure about the whole thing. Like: am I even allowed to write a novel? I’m a journalist, not a novelist, etc. etc. Once I had written and published a first book, I was more confident. I started thinking: Even if I’m a bad novelist, I’m officially a novelist now.

As someone who once walked out of a yoga class after being told I “wasn’t challenging myself and what a shame” because I wouldn’t do a headstand in my very first class—I don’t have kind thoughts about yoga. Do you?

I have complicated thoughts about yoga! I have enjoyed it, particularly prenatal yoga, as there’s something really warm and communal about being in a room full of other cranky ladies in your particular physical condition. I really hate some of the sentiments yoga teachers express, which can be a mishmash of faux Buddhism and something I think of as tea bag wisdom (i.e., the saccharine, uplifting sentiments sometimes printed on the side of tea bags). I know some people really get succor from what their yoga teachers say, but I can’t help but roll my eyes so hard it hurts my sockets. There are certainly yoga teachers out there who have studied Buddhism or Hinduism deeply and have something wise to impart. But I’ve never experienced them.

The novel’s is hilariously funny—and in the smartest way possible.  Do you make yourself laugh while you are writing, or is it serious craft time for you, instead?

I definitely make myself laugh, although that is so cringeworthy to admit! Above all, I want my books to be entertaining. And if I’m not entertaining myself, I probably won’t be entertaining my readers.

I have to ask about the ending—without giving anything away—because it was so tragically hilariously perfect and it gave birth to what I always call “the never ending story” where you wonder what is going to happen to these people beyond the pages.  Did you always know this was how things were going to end up?

I knew that was what would happen to Dana, but what would happen to Ethan changed a lot. And the way Dana got to where she ends up changed dramatically along the way.

I’m fascinated by gurus or all kinds (there is a famous story where Dennis Wilson was telling two girls he had picked up that his guru was the Maharishi, and they said, “Oh, our guru is Charlie Manson.”) Why do you think we are all so desperate to find our answers from anyone other than our deepest selves?

Because getting answers from our deepest selves is difficult and painful, and it’s a lifelong process. It’s much easier, especially if you’re young, or you’re lost, to look to someone or something else to give the answers to you. In some ways, Ethan just traded Dana for a yoga guru. Like when they got married, she was always the Alpha and he just let her decide their lives. And then when they stopped really connecting, he felt adrift and for various reasons didn’t have the ego strength to chart a path for himself.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin, about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. I love pretty much any history of the early 70s (Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, about how planes used to get skyjacked All. The. Time. in the 70s, is also a favorite). These histories are particularly comforting to read in this moment, because with the rise of Trump everything seems so crazy, but then you read about the violence and social disorder of the early 70s and you think, nope, not so crazy after all.

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


Friday, September 23, 2016

And now for something completely different, Alexander Maksik, author of SHELTER IN PLACE, writes something short and brilliant for the blog

The author's book shelf and book, and the phenomenal LOVE ME BACK

Portrait of the writer's reading chair

The incredibly talented author

The novel you need to read RIGHT NOW

Sometimes books undo you as you read them. Alexander Maksik's Shelter in Place did that to me. About mental instability, prison celebrity, love, loss and desperation, it's shockingly original. I raved about it in the San Francisco Chronicle because it was so audacious and original. A few days ago, I met him at the New England Independent Bookstore Association Reception and he was gracious, funny, brilliant, so I asked him to write something for my blog. And he did.

He's the author of A Marker to Measure Drift, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for both the William Saroyan Prize and Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; You Deserve Nothing, and SHELTER IN PLACE, which I tell you is like nothing you have ever read. Truly, a favorite book of the year for me. He's also a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, his writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications. Maksik is the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He is the co-artistic director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. 

Alex--thank you, thank you, thank you.

At Night We Slept Beneath the Stars
by Alexander Maksik

“How are you?”

“I am fine,” Hélene answers, biting at her bottom lip.

I am fine. No contraction. Emphasis on the verb.

Hélene is sixty-four years old, soon to retire from her job as a mid-level bureaucrat in a government agency. Hair thinning, complexion of someone who’s spent much of her life beneath fluorescent lights. 

“Do you go out to lunch?”



“Yes, I do.”

“Yes you do?”

She lets out a frustrated sigh.

“Yes I do go out to lunch.”

She knows the drill but does her best to avoid it. 

I smile at her. She shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

“Do you have a favorite restaurant?”

She narrows her eyes. Purses her lips. Is she thinking or does she not understand the question? A silence passes.


I raise my eyebrows.

She sighs. “No, I don’t have a favorite restaurant.”

“Nowhere that you love? Or that you like very much?”

She shakes her head.

I let her slide.  She taps the tip of her pencil against a pad of yellow paper making small dark marks on the page.  She looks up at me. Eyes so flat.

“Where do you eat at lunchtime?”

“A bistro.”

I smile. 

“I eat at a bistro near the place where I am working.”

“Where you work? Near your office?”

“Yes, I eat at a bistro near my office where I work.”

“Do you eat there every day?”

Her cheeks take on new color. She scratches at her neck.

“Yes, I do.”

She pauses.

“Eat there every day.”

Does she think I’ve trapped her? Forced her to reveal something she finds shameful about her life?

“Is it a good bistro?”

“It is fine. The bistro is fine.”

We’re stuck. I’m stuck. I want to talk about what is good, what is better, what is best. That’s the lesson. 

“Why are you studying English, Hélene?”

“It is interesting to me.”

“Really?” I laugh. “Is it interesting now?”

“Yes it is.”

“It isn’t boring?”

She suppresses a laugh as fast as it comes. 

“No, it isn’t boring.”

Her eyes are brighter now. I try another tack.

“Do you like to travel?”

“Yes, I like to travel.” 

She surprises me. She’s sailed across the Indian Ocean, traveled through the Baltics, Patagonia, Easter Island, Senegal, Kenya, India, Tanzania, Botswana, Sri Lanka, Mali. 

She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, what did you expect? Some frightened old lady?

“What was your worst trip?”

“My worst trip was south of France.”

“To the south of France?”

“Yes, my worst trip was to the south of France.”


“I didn’t feel good with my sister.  It wasn’t nice with her.”

She glides her palm over the desk, looking past me.

“You didn’t get along with your sister?”

“Yes. I did not get along with my sister.”

“What was your best trip, Hélene? The very best trip you ever took?”

She watches her hand moving from side to side across the table.

“Tanzanie,” she says, but not to me.


“Yes, Tanzania.  It is the best trip I ever made.”

“Why? Why was Tanzania the best trip you ever took?”

“Why. Why. Why. You always say it.” She shakes her head.

We both watch her hands, her fingers spread out across the Formica, still now, as if to hold the table down.

“We climbed Kilimanjaro mountain.”

“You did? You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro?”

She nods, smiling again. 

“It was very enormous.”

I try to imagine this woman climbing nineteen thousand feet into the air.

“Is that why it was your favorite trip?”

She shakes her head.

“No, it is that we were sleeping outside. In night.”

“At night you slept outside?”

She nods. There’s depth now to her expression.

“At night we slept outside.”

“That’s why it was your favorite trip?”

“Yes. Because we could see the stars.”

I nod. 

“You slept outside under the stars?”

She’s nodding.

“Yes, we slept under the stars.” 

“It’s a beautiful sentence isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.  It is a beautiful sentence.”  Now she seems gleeful. 

I stand up and uncap a thick marker.  There’s a large tablet of blank pages fixed to an easel. 

I write in full, black letters across the center of the page:


Her eyes are bright. 

“At night we slept beneath the stars.  Will you say that?”

She writes the sentence into her notebook.  She frames it carefully with an elegant rectangle.

“At night. We slept beneath. The stars.”

“At night we slept beneath the stars,” I say, moving my hand as if I might know something about music.

“At night we slept beneath the stars,” Hélene says. 

“Yes,” I say.

“At night we slept beneath the stars.”


“It’s a small poem,” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “It’s a beautiful poem.”

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A biblical heroine, an empire of Jewish warriors, miniskirts, and so much more. Emily Barton talks about her amazing novel, THE BOOK OF ESTHER

"Raises complex questions about history and mythology." The New Yorker

 I love books with a historical background. Emily Barton, in the richly praised The Book of Esther, gives us a Jewish heroine, a tribe of Jewish warriors, Hitler, and more. I'm honored to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Emily.

I love the premise, changing history so that the Jewish warriors of the Middle Ages actually succeeded. What was haunting you into writing this particular book?

Partly the enigma of the historical Khazars themselves. We know that they were a Turkic warrior tribe whose ruling classes converted to Judaism, but we don’t know why, though there is speculation. Then, the whole idea of a warrior Jew! Michael Chabon has written about how incongruous the idea seems to contemporary people, who see before us “an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a sabre: the pirate Motel Kamzoil,” though in fact, lots of Jewish people have been badass warriors, all the way back to Judah Maccabee. And part of it, too, is reimagining the myth of origins. When my family got pogromed out of Ukraine and Russia, they left their history behind them. We don’t know what boats they came over on, or the names of the villages they left. Imagining a glamorous and daring past for my ancestors is a definite part of it.

The research involved must have been amazing. What surprised you? Did anything derail the book from the track you had intended for it?

Topography. To keep myself from getting bogged down in research, I seek things out as I need them, or sometimes later. So I went ahead and wrote the whole first draft without consulting a map, basing my geographical understanding of the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian on memory. The first draft had 180 pages of battle plot that involved climbing a mountain range and descending the other side; which, if you think about it, is pretty much the definition of plot, at least the Freitag’s Triangle/five-act structure version. Then, I looked at a map. Guess what? Those mountains don’t exist. So I had to rethink a big, central chunk of the plot. I managed to make use of some of the scenes, rewritten to take place on flat ground.

Some of the most interesting things I learned may not show as “research” to a reader. For example, I don’t personally know any Karaite Jews, and I wanted to represent them fairly and sympathetically. Through a friend of a Facebook friend, I managed to get in touch with the Chief Rabbi of Karaism; I was moved that he took time to answer questions. Then: pigeons. As someone who lived in Brooklyn for many years, I took pigeons—and anti-pigeon prejudice, “flying rats” talk, etc.—for granted. But once I started to learn more about them, I came to understand how remarkable they are. With my new knowledge, I was able to distinguish some of the pigeons on my block. That was cool. Maybe the most surprising thing I learned along the way was that the historical Khazars were Rabbinical Jews, which means that although they lived more than a thousand years ago, on the Asian Steppe, they would recognize some of the ways people practice Judaism today.

But, on the other hand, you’ve reimagined history and told an alternate story altogether. What was that like?

I like writing in and around history. While writing The Book of Esther, I had taped to my wall a handwritten timeline on which one line represented the progress of the Battle of Stalingrad and a second represented the novel’s plot. A third line marked the progress of the Hebrew calendar, since all the book’s dates are given in Hebrew, rather than Gregorian, terms. The moments where there were synergies—where real and imagined history veered close together, or connected in some way with an important moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar—felt charged, magnetic. On the other hand, there’s great freedom in making things up, in writing into the lacunae of history. You get to explore the what-ifs and the might-have-beens, which are so rich with possibility.

What kind of writer are you? Did you map this all out before you began or did the writing just flow? (Ha, as if that ever happens to a writer! We can always hope, though.)

\Because I’m preoccupied with plot, some of the story’s main points existed from the beginning. I knew Esther and Itakh would set out on a dangerous journey; I knew she’d seek transformation; I knew there had to be a climactic battle scene. But other plot points unfolded along the way—some the natural consequences of earlier events; others seemingly gifts. I’ve never had a whole project mapped out from the beginning, nor have I ever experienced that total, inspired flow you speak of. Like so many other writers, I oscillate between the two poles while I’m working.

This isn’t your first novel where you reimagined history (There is the fabulous Brookland), but how did writing this novel differ?

A few ways. One is that I had two children in between Brookland and The Book of Esther. So my whole life is different: my workday, my expectations for how much I can get done, apparently the structure of my brain. Another difference: All the time I was writing Book of Esther, I was thinking of it as a side project, as a break I was taking from another novel. This took away some of the pressure one normally puts on oneself to “succeed” or to do things the right way, whatever that is.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Miniskirts, because they’re back in style, and fall outfits in general. Dark dresses, deep-colored nail polishes. Siamese kittens, because my eight-year-old “solemnly promises” me one for my birthday, but I’m a) uncertain we should get a second cat right now and b) feeling that if we do, I’d prefer to adopt one than to buy it, so there are levels of complexity to letting him fulfill his promise. The cost of various repairs our house needs; how tenuous the babysitting arrangement is that will allow me to teach my graduate class this fall. Kids in Miami having to be protected against Zika to attend school. Floods, wildfires. The election, the election, the election. The lemonade stand my kid wants to set up to support Zephyr Teachout, our local Congressional candidate.

All of those things are on my mind, to varying degrees at different times, every bit as much as the writerly obsessions related to my new book: typography and letterpress printing, kabbalistic arcana, how to tell a certain kind of story, write a certain kind of plot. It’s interesting to me how writerly obsessions reflect part of a person, but not the whole person; and how that person has to learn to put other things aside in order to get work done. E.B. White said in his Paris Review interview, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” It’s true; those circumstances never aris e. I’m interested in how we learn to work despite and around that.

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

EB: You’ve asked such great questions. Here are some ideas:

“Do you like teaching?” Yes.

Would you be interested in running a creative writing program?” Yes.

“If someone reading this interview happened to be thinking, ‘I'm interested in singlehandedly funding the launch of an overtly feminist/progressive MFA program. I wonder if Barton would be interested in being the founding director,’ what would you say to that?” Yes all day.

“If you had to change careers right now, what would you do?” I’d be the CEO of a textile company. My next choice after that would be to be an urban planner, working on traffic patterns and flow.

“Have you ever ghostwritten?” Yes.

Christine Reilly talks about SUNDAY'S ON THE PHONE TO MONDAY, rock and roll, family, sanity and so much more

"A sharply observed and bittersweet family romance with a rock and roll heart." Elle 

You all know how much I love debuts, so I was thrilled to come across this one. Yes, it's been out for a while, and yes, I was so overburdened with work, I forgot to get to it. But that doesn't mean I can't get to it now! I'm thrilled to have Christine here!

I always think authors are compelled or haunted to write a book—what compelled you? 

My biggest passion, tied with writing, has always been listening to people.  Human behavior fascinates me – when I was younger, I knew I’d either be a writer, a teacher, or a psychiatrist.  (Reading is a type of listening to people.)  I started Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday with a set of stakes, and challenged myself to answer them.    What happens to a family during and after the worst possible circumstances – death and illness -- occurs?  What happens to a woman when her sanity slips away?  What would a brother who would do anything for his sister act like?  What happens when “anything” results in destruction?

I loved all the music references in the book—is it your taste, too? Do you listen to music as you write?  Thank you!  It is, though I honed in on one particular area – rock and roll.  I too love folk, rap, soul, and blues.  I believe that passivity with art is important if you want to succeed in your particular craft – reading, listening to music, watching plays and films and dance, looking at visual art.  A muse has to be born somewhere.  I listen to all music when I write, and instrumentals when I edit.  Editing requires an extra ear.

I’m a sucker for novels about families, particular with sisters involved. Why do you think it is that families cause us the most grief—and yet, sometimes, if we are lucky, give us the most benefits? 

Well, they cause us the most grief and give us the most benefits because they’re the first ones to teach us about love.  Adulthood’s luxuries are choices – the free-will to choose our friends, our jobs, our homes, and what we do with our time, but family is the one thing we carry our entire lives, along with what family taught us about love and morality.  So family is inextricably linked with our childhoods, and the intense, unmediated feelings that accompanied our childhoods.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or try to wait for that pesky muse?  I studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence, and wrote two books of poetry before I finished my novel.  This has its advantages and drawbacks.  I’m a pretty stream-of-consciousness writer, but I edit on a very small scale.  Which is to say, I’d typically perfect one hundred pages sentence-by-sentence before realizing that the story has no plot.  But I’ve learned and am humbled by my failures, and now I outline as I produce content.  This is not my natural way of writing, but I’ve found it helps, even if I typically edit the outline alongside the book. 

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

David Foster Wallace: I’m in the middle of reading his biography, just taught his short story “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Very Bad Thing” to my high school fiction class, just watched The End of The Tour, and am about to begin his last book The Pale King.  I love everything about him – his sincerity, his deliberateness, his imagination.

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

I’d actually love to ask you a question!  I’m a huge fan of your books – when you start a story, do you know what the end’s going to be?  If not then, when?  And are you ever torn over how to reveal it?
BONUS ANSWER: Sort of know. Always torn. ALWAYS.

The 1950s, the Barbizon Hotel for Women, mystery and more. Fiona Davis talks about her steller debut, THE DOLLHOUSE

Come on, who doesn't love anything about the 1950s? (I do, I do).  Fiona Davis's debut is already racking up the raves, and rightly so. She began her career as an actress and moved on to writing, and I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Fiona!

"Rich in twists and period details...impossible to put down." People Magazine 
"A page-turning debut." Real Simple Magazine

I always think that a writer is haunted into writing a particular book. What sparked The Doll House?

A couple of years ago, my real estate broker showed me an apartment in what used to be the Barbizon Hotel for Women and is now called the Barbizon 63 condo. Back in the day, the place was 700 tiny guest rooms spread over 23 floors – one guest who stayed there in the 1960s described it to me as a “beehive.” But in 2005, the place was converted into luxury apartments that featured Bolivian rosewood floors, Viking appliances and white-glove service. During my tour, I learned that a dozen or so of the long-term residents still lived there, all on the fourth floor in rent-stabilized apartments, and was intrigued. What was life like for them then, and now? I wanted to learn more.

So I left letters with the doorman asking the ladies of the fourth floor for interviews. As a journalist for the past fifteen years, I’ve found that people love to talk about their lives, their work, themselves. But I didn’t hear a peep back. Turns out they are very private, and not interested in doing any press. But I couldn’t shake the idea, and in a way their reluctance was a gift, as the novel began to take shape and my imagination took flight.

The research must have been absolutely fascinating, especially talking with people who had actually lived at the Barbizon. What did you learn that surprised you the most?

I did interview women who’d lived there in the 1950s and 1960s, and was struck by how many rules they had to abide by. For example, to be a guest, you had to provide three references to prove that you were a good girl from a good family, no men were allowed beyond the public areas of the hotel, and you had to obey certain rules of conduct. One ex-resident said she was stopped from leaving the hotel because she was wearing pants – you could only cross the lobby in a skirt or dress.

Yet they were out there forging careers in journalism, acting, modeling, publishing, and business at a time when women were expected to marry and have children and settle down. It was a coddled kind of independence, living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women.

I loved the structure of the book, the differing time frames and women, from the 1950s up to today. What was the whole writing process like for you?

I’m not the kind of writer who starts at page one and sees where she ends up. Authors who can do that amaze me, as I know that the minute I hit a roadblock I would find any excuse to get up and do something else. (Pay bills? Eat a block of cheese? I have no discipline at all.) And with this book, because there are two timelines, I knew the complicated interweaving of plots required a lot of ground work. I started with figuring out the two main characters’ backgrounds and personalities, then brainstormed scene ideas and created an outline of what I wanted to happen when. It was tricky because I couldn’t let one storyline give away a clue before the other storyline was primed for it, so that the tension for the reader held throughout. There were days my head spun.

From there, it was a matter of the actual writing of scenes. But because I knew where I was headed, I became excited as I drew to the end, to see if I could actually make it work. There were multiple revisions, but the bones of the book were set.

You're a critically acclaimed writer, but this is your debut novel. How was the process unexpected for you? What did you learn?

As a journalist, I’m used to doing something every day that has to do with shaping a narrative – writing, editing, interviewing, researching. And that discipline was very helpful when working on the book because the tools were so familiar. Also, I love being edited. Whether I’m working on an 800-word story on heartburn or an article on a ballet dancer-turned-Marine, I know that my editor will help tweak it and make it really sing, and that definitely happened here, working with both my agent and my editor.

I was thrilled at how supportive and welcoming the author community is. Whether someone has published twenty bestsellers or is a new voice, the writers I’ve met the over past few years go to great lengths to promote each other’s work and celebrate good news. And I have been very, very lucky in finding my agent and working with my editor at Dutton and that was unexpected – to land such a remarkable team.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Great question. At the moment I’m obsessed with another landmark building here in New York City, as I’m basing my next novel in and around it. And that’s a lot of fun: reading about its history, getting tours inside, and learning everything I can. But I won’t mention which one, as I don’t want to give too much away!

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

If I was a guest at the Barbizon back in the 50s, which group would I want to be hanging out with: The Katharine Gibbs secretarial school girls, the Ford models, or the Mademoiselle guest editors? This may sound crazy, but I would have loved to be a Katie Gibbs secretarial school student. It was a way in to a world that typically excluded women, other than in administrative positions, but many of the students who studied there went on to powerful jobs in business and the arts. Who knows where I would have ended up?!

Marisa Silver talks about transformation, wandering around thinking about what to write, scandal, magic, fairytales, and her brilliant new novel, LITTLE NOTHING

I've been continually haunted by Marisa Silver's novels. And I'm not the only one. Mary Coin was a New York Times Bestseller and a South Carolina Independent Booksellers Association Award for Fiction; The God of War, a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize; No Direction Home; Babe in Paradise, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Little Nothing is about how we survive, how we transform, and truly, how we live.

Thank you so much, Marisa for being here and for writing this great response.

Despite the fact that I spend much of my life wandering around and trying to think of what to write next, the idea for almost everything I’ve ever written has come to me not after long contemplation but in the flash of a single moment. The same was true for Little Nothing. I was perusing the obituary page of The New York Times one morning (yes, this is something I routinely do,) and I read the obit of a man whose claim to fame was that he was one of the last surviving munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz”. The focus of the obit was, naturally, his association with that iconic film, but what caught my attention, was a brief sentence that revealed that, as a child in Eastern Europe, his parents had tried to have him stretched.

And there was that flash, that thing that happens each time I stumble on an idea. I back up, I take another look, and my mind begins to see that this small nugget of information has implications for me that are broad and deep and somehow emotionally resonant. I didn’t understand why that particular detail meant something to me, or what kind of story I would fashion, and I didn’t really know until two-and-a-half years later, when the novel was finished, until I could look at what I’d made and think about why I might have made it.

At precisely the moment that my previous novel, Mary Coin, was published, my father passed away. His death was sudden, surprising, a rupture. Trying to understand what it means for a person to be absent is difficult, I think, and it certainly was for me. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what nothingness was. How could a person be here and then not here? And what exists in place of their absence? It is something different from actual presence, but something just as palpable, just as weighty. In its own, often fanciful, sometimes deadly serious way, Little Nothing is an exploration of transformation, transcendence, enduring love and the materiality of nothingness.

Little Nothing is also about the body, the female body in particular. It is about all the transformations the body goes through not only as a result of normal maturation, but also because the female body is an historic subject of violation. During the time I was writing the book, two hundred schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. In the U.S., the abortion wars continued to rage. In some parts of the world, a woman could be stoned to death for committing adultery. The female body continues to strike fear and outrage in people who need to quash its possibilities for pleasure, for learning, for existence. I kept thinking about what happens to a woman during the course of her life as she is told that who she is, what she looks like, the very form she takes — her body— is unacceptable.

And, despite that, or maybe because I was thinking about these somewhat dark themes, I wanted to write a tale that would be filled with life! With the earth, the body, with humor, and scandal, and improbability, and a touch of magic.


Something I was thinking about when I began the book was Sophocles’ riddle of the Sphinx: What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? The answer, of course, is Man, who crawls as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane, a third “leg” as an old man.

We all change throughout a lifetime. Some of those changes happen as a result of time, some are self-imposed. Still others are imposed upon us. We are always in the act of becoming something else. Little Nothing takes an allegorical approach to exploring this central fact of life. Because I situated my story in a real world where strange and impossible things happen, I had the latitude to physicalize the emotional transformations we go through in fantastical ways. Once Pavla made her first, incredible alteration, I just kept going, and tried to imagine what form she would take as she developed both as a woman and as she suffered the slings and arrows of her particular fortune.


I have now read more fairytales than I ever read as a kid! I was not a reader as a child. I was a daydreamer. A champion one, at that! But when I wrote Little Nothing, I took a deep dive into the world of folk and fairytales, especially those out of Eastern Europe. I also read Bruno Bettelheim, Maria Tatar, and Philip Pullman, all of whom write about the form in fascinating ways. One of the things I love most about fables and fairytales is that, although the most weird, unlikely, and violent things happen, the telling is invariably simple and straightforward. The brutality of what occurs is somehow made all the more frightening by this lack of artifice. Once upon a time a woman had a child who she hated, so she sent her out to the woods to die. No imagery. No lyricism. And certainly no psychological realism. The narrative frankness freed me up to make certain leaps of the imagination.

The challenge for me was to make sure that the story always felt emotionally truthful and that what happened to the characters, no matter how surreal, felt, in some metaphorical way, accurate to our experience of being alive. I want a reader to believe in the changes Pavla goes through even as those changes are impossible to believe. That’s what fiction is all about, isn’t it? Drawing the reader into that liminal  space where the real and the imagined mingle and what is mere fabrication feels utterly true.

What surprised me was how much of life really hews to the contours of fairytale. Read the newspaper. We have an ogre running for president.

The Last Line:

Well, I think that if all time exists, as it does, and if nothing truly disappears, which it does not, than all stories are there. It is my job, through observation and imagination, and the application of language, to give them shape.

Obsessing me now:

Besides the election, you mean? Oh, I’m wandering around trying to figure out what I’ll write next.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Reinvention and running away: Gayle Forman talks about her Indie Next Pick LEAVE ME, and going from writing uber-successful YA books to her adult debut

Come on, how can you not adore an author who says that when "I grow up, I want to be the sun"? You can't. Gayle Forman is the author of 8 YA novels, including If I Stay, which was made into a socko movie. Her adult debut, Leave Me, is smart, witty, moving and multi-layered, about running away from things--and running to others. I'm delighted to host Gayle--and even more excited to be reading with her October 5th at the Clinton Book Shop in Clinton, NJ, at 7. 

Gayle, thank you, thank you so much. And can I borrow your fantastic hair?

I always say a writer is haunted to write. Was anything haunting you when you started Leave Me?

I started the book twice, so I suppose I was haunted twice. The first time, I was haunted by chest pains, and by fear. My mother had bypass surgery at 48, even though she had none of the risk factors (save crappy genetic luck) and when one week I started having terrible chest pains, I was convinced, this was it. It was my turn. I was freaked out by the prospect of that intense surgery, but more freaked out by the prospect of the recovery. I helped my mother recover from her surgery, but my own daughters were young (3 and 6 at the time) so I kept wondering who would take care of them if I needed surgery? And, really, who would take care of me? That was what was haunting me when I first started the book, almost as a revenge fantasy.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t my heart. Once I found that out, I put the book away for five years. I’m still not entirely sure why I pulled it back out again, this time with a new character (Maribeth) and family. I was haunted by many things, or maybe furious about many things—gender inequity, the ongoing taboo of women putting themselves first, ever—but as I got deeper into the novel, I understood something else was going on. I was haunted, and Maribeth, too, by all the unsaid things that pile up in a relationship over time and how they lurk beneath the surface, masked, sometimes, by the more prosaic fights (who’s turn is it to do the dishes?) until something comes along to shake up the foundations.

 The idea of starting new, of reinvention is so powerful. Maribeth has a heart attack and takes off, hoping to be brand new in body and spirit, but things are much more complex than that. Care to comment?

Maribeth doesn’t really know why she’s running away. She’s exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally, not just from her health crisis but her life. She fears, as so many mothers do, what will happen to her young children if something happens to her. She leaves home in panic, not really understanding where she’s heading until she’s on the train, and not really understanding why she’s headed there until she has the space and strength and time to actually assess her life honestly.

Wherever you go, there you are. And that’s true of Maribeth. Running away changes the scenery, and gives her a bit of breathing space. But it’s really

How different was it to go from writing YA to writing for adults? And what do you see as the differences? (I know so many adults who read YA..)
In some ways, not different at all—it’s the same process of excavating character, draft by draft. In other ways, very different. I was a 44-year-old mother of two when I  wrote this book—in fact, I finished a draft on my 45th birthday—and Maribeth is a 44-year-old mother of two, so there are more obvious similarities between me and her than between me and my younger characters. That felt mildly terrifying, to expose myself like that, especially because I show Maribeth being bratty and immature and churlish and stubborn (all things I have a tendency to be now and then).

I also decided to worry less about how readers will judge her. Teen readers can be very unforgiving if they don’t agree with characters’ choices. When you’re young, and maybe haven’t fucked up as often as you will when you’re older, it’s harder to sympathize with characters who aren’t outwardly noble or heroic. I am very curious to see if older women judge Maribeth harshly. I’m not sure. We are often on our own harshest critics.

 What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or just wait for the muse?

Waiting for the muse? Does anyone actually do that? I don’t wait for anything. Nor do I map. These days, when I’m trying to get a novel off the ground, I’ll usually work on something else, something that is never going to go anywhere (I call it a nurse-log novel, like nurse logs, the fallen trees that decompose and give life to saplings). But I have to be working on something for the idea to come. I’m a big believer that inertia breeds inertia and momentum breeds momentum. (Which isn’t to say you should always be working. I’m also a big believer in a fallow period though I will refrain from making any more botanical references.)

I don’t outline books. I love the surprise factor of not knowing where a character was going and then figuring it out. I have found that the more I know about a book going in, the harder it is. That said, I get terrible insomnia when I’m drafting, which turns out to be rather handy because I just lie in bed and think about where I want to take the story the next day.

I also want to ask about the film of If I Stay. What was that experience like? What do you wish they would have done that they didn't in translating your book to the movies?

Overall, I was quite happy with the adaptation. By the time the film went into production, it had gone through the usual Hollywood tribulations–this director attached, then not, this actress to star, then not. It had been greenlit and pulled back. And at certain points there was discussion of it going into a direction that seemed really, really wrong. But then director RJ Cutler came aboard, and Chloe Moretz and their visions lined up with my own. The project moved to MGM, and it was nothing like I expected.

The thing I love most about the film is the music. The book is so much about music, how it animates and defines these characters, but there’s only so much you can do to describe music on the page. The film really soars when in its musical sequences, be it Mia’s Juilliard auditions (which makes me cry) or Adam’s live shows.

If the film lost anything, it was more about Mia’s family. But I understood how the love story would become a focal point.

 What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m a Gemini. So on one hand, I’m obsessing about the Brexit and Donald Trump and Bernie or Busters and global warming and gun control and the complete dysfunction of our government and wondering if we are frogs in a pot that’s about to boil.

On the other hand, I am obsessed with Beyonce’s Lemonade, which took the place of my Hamilton obsession. Oh, and also wallpaper. We just renovated our house and I could look at wallpaper all day long.

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

You could ask if I ever fantasize about running away?
The funny thing about this is that every mother I have spoken to about Leave Me has told me that she sometimes fantasized about running away. Without exception. They often confess this to me in hushed tones, as if this is so transgressive, when my experience shows, it’s pretty damn universal.

I used to fantasize about running away. But these days, not so much. You know why? Because I do run away. In my family, we call it book tour. As you know, book tours can be grueling. They are not vacations. And yet, when they go well, I get to spend my days talking about interesting things, without being screamed at because someone can’t find her favorite shorts. I get to complete a task, without interruption. I get to wear nice clothes and have room service and take a break from cooking or cleaning or packing lunches for a few days. Last year I was in the UK for five days on a really insane tour (two cities a day for four days!) and at the end of it, someone said to me, “You must be missing your children so terribly.” I didn’t answer. I just smiled.