Thursday, December 7, 2017

Caroline Preston talks about her extraodinary memorabilia-as-novel, THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK

I'm not sure how or where I met Caroline Preston, except I've known and loved her for a long time. She's is the author of three previous novels, Jackie by Josie (a New York Times Notable Book), Lucy Crocker 2.0, and Gatsby’s Girl, and her first scrapbook novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. She has collected antique scrapbooks since she was in high school, and has worked as an archivist at the Peabody/ Essex Museum and Harvard University. Her latest book,  THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK is both a fascinating exploration of a long gone time, and a very personal narrative that reads like a novel. I loved it, I love Caroline, too.
      This is your second scrapbook novel. What first gave you the idea of creating a novel in the form of the scrapbook?

I like to say that the idea of making a scrapbook novel was 40 years in the making.  As a little girl, I used to pore over my grandmother’s flapper scrapbook filled with dance cards, ocean liner tickets, and even long curls snipped when she got her hair bobbed.

My first three novels were what I guess you’d call “conventional” format—i.e. just words.  My third novel Gatsby’s Girl was inspired by the meticulous scrapbook F. Scott Fitzgerald kept about his first love, Ginevra King.  Later he would turn the story of his unrequited crush into The Great Gatsby.

When I was casting around for the idea for my fourth novel, I wanted to create something that was as visual and powerful as a scrapbook.  And then I had a crazy idea—why not make a novel that WAS a scrapbook. Not a digital scrapbook, but an actual one made of real stuff that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue.  And so I created The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.

The War Bride’s Scrapbook is a scrapbook kept by a young bride while her husband fighting overseas. What inspired you to make a WWII era scrapbook?

I have a large collection of vintage scrapbooks.  Some of the most fascinating ones are the scrapbooks kept by wives while their husbands were overseas during WWII. They are an odd combination of touching love letters, cheerful home front memorabilia such as ration stamps, grim war clippings about battles and casualties, and  military souvenirs such as dog tags and discharge papers. 

These “bride’s scrapbooks” provide an interesting glimpse into the reality of wartime marriages. Many couples had gotten married only a few weeks after they’d met and then were separated for years. Letters were often their only means for getting to know one another and forming an actual relationship.

The scrapbooks kept by war brides are often sweetly hopeful and aspirational. They draw an idealized image of what their marriage and life will be like when their husbands return from war-- babies, new houses, new appliances and cars, domestic routines and jobs picked up again.

Most WWII scrapbooks tend to end abruptly in August, 1945 with headlines about the atomic bombs. It seems like the scrapbooks were put away, never to be looked at again until they turned up on eBay.  We don’t know what happened when (or if) the husbands returned home after the war.

In The War Bride’s Scrapbook, I’ve tried to write the whole story behind one of these bride’s scrapbooks. Why the bride (Lila Jerome) started to keep it in 1943, why she stopped keeping it in 1945. And what truths her daughters discover about their mother when they find the scrapbook 70 years later.

Are Lila Jerome and Perry Weld based on your own parents?

Not at all.  My father was 4-F because of terrible eyesight and spent the war in San Diego as a Navy Jag throwing drunken sailors in the brig. My parents didn’t get married until 1947. But Lila and Perry’s story was inspired in part by real people and real events.

 My last surviving WWII-generation relative, an aunt, dropped out of Vassar at 20 to marry her college boyfriend before he shipped out.  She wrote me some very candid emails about how she came to regret her wartime marriage almost immediately but felt economically and socially obligated to stick it out for 20 miserable years.

I had Perry serve with the much-decorated 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. The 291st managed to halt Nazi assault in the Battle of the Bulge by blowing up bridges. It also built the first tactical bridge across the Rhine River.

How did you go about creating Lila’s scrapbook?

The War Bride’s Scrapbook turned out to be a much more complicated and time-consuming undertaking than I originally imagined.  I spent four years collecting WWII ephemera and doing research.  I was fortunate to interview several WWII veterans including combat engineers and the author James Salter. Many friends shared caches of their parents WWII letters, and I research 291 Combat Engineer records at the National Archives. I went to WWII reenactments and befriended combat engineer reenactors who educated me about supplies and equipment used in the European Theatre. My husband and I toured sites visited by US combat engineers including Normandy. I interviewed orthopedic surgeons and trauma doctors about Perry’s war wound and recovery.  

Are the items in the scrapbook original or are the images from the web?

Almost all the items in the book are original. I collected hundreds of WWII-era publications and objects to create my scrapbook.  My office looks like something out of the Hoarders show.

The primary sources that I started out with were magazines from 1940-1946. Life and Time  provided a weekly timeline of war headlines and everyday life on the home front. Women’s magazines (McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal) were chock full of wartime illustrations, advice columns, fashion spreads, and ads.

I collected boxes of V-mail stationery, picture postcards  and telegram paper for Lila’s and Perry’s correspondence. I assembled all the “scraps” that a bride in the 1940’s would glue in a scrapbook: menus, movie tickets, ration stamps, book jackets, train timetables, war bonds, maps, and matchbooks.

I found military memorabilia such as combat engineer manuals, k-ration boxes,  uniform patches, and the French phrase book the army handed out to soldiers on their way to the Normandy Beaches (with handy phrases such as “Please don’t shoot me.”.)

 Where’d you find all this stuff?

A lot of oddball places. A retired couple down the road from me in Charlottesville had built an entire Home Front museum in the basement of their ranch house and lent me things from their collection, such as the French phrasebook. One of my favorite vintage stores is Whiting’s Old Paper in Mechanicsville, Va. which has over one million pieces of ephemera. There is a huge military flea market at the annual Battle of the Bulge reenactment. (Yes, such an event really happens--in January in the Pennsylvania woods!) And I was almost always able to track down something I needed on eBay—from a knitting pattern for GI sweaters to 1946 Chevy manual. I got so many packages my mailman started to complain.

How does a scrapbook create a different narrative of World War II than a conventional novel?

I really see The War Bride’s Scrapbook as containing three separate narratives. The first is the story of Lila and Perry’s marriage, told through Lila’s captions and their letters.  The second is a timeline of the war from Pearl Harbor to J-V day told through magazine articles and newspaper headlines. The third is a social and cultural history of the WWII era revealed in magazine art and ads. Cigarette, girdle, and appliance ads tell us as much about the role and expectations of a wartime bride as a 300-page novel.

Without giving anything away, I have to tell you that the ending gobsmacked me. I was weeping and shocked and yet, it felt like the exactly right ending. Did you always know it would be that way?

When I started the scrapbook, I didn’t know how Lila’s and Perry’s story would end after the war and I struggled over it for almost 3 years! I found my ending in the WWII letters of some of my friends’ fathers. These were men I had known growing up—silent, remote, strict 1950’s dads. In their letters, I saw glimpses of their younger selves—full of passion and optimism—that had been extinguished by war. They were probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.

I was also inspired by James Salter’s description of a reunited wartime couple--What would they be like now…? ..there was the power of all the letters, of being  apart, the denied love that reality cannot equal.

The addition at the end of the American Studies material is also pure genius, and I think could be used to study this book , and it asks the question, what really is the truth? Is it the artifacts we leave behind? The stories? Or how we choose to tell them?
Lila’s scrapbook is an ahistorical artifact, like a diary. It’s found by her daughters after her death and it upends everything they knew, or thought they knew, about their parents. I had a lot of fun writing the daughter’s email and interview at the end. She has the same smug, know-it-all tone that I once used with my mother!

What are you working on now?

An illustrated history of dogs in American culture.  I’ve already found some treasures at vintage stores and, of course, on eBay. A Simplicity pattern for plaid dog coats, postcards of dog cemeteries, publicity stills of Rin Tin Tin performing on the radio…

Eric Rubin talks about his brilliantly unsettling novel SCHOOL OF VELOCITY, playing piano as an amateur, and so much more

Writers know writers know writers. I met Eric Beck Rubin through my screenwriting partner and fellow novelist Gina Sorell (If you haven't read Mothers and Other Strangers, what the heck are you waiting for?)  Eric sent me his book, SCHOOL OF VELOCITY and I went crazy for it.

 He is a cultural historian who writes on architecture, literature, and psychology. SCHOOL OF VELOCITY is Eric's first foray into fiction, and he is currently at work on a second: a family saga spanning several generations, from pre-World War II Germany to present-day Los Angeles and Western Canada.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disturbed or unsettled by a novel in years and years. Were you unsettled writing it? Did you know what was going to happen?

Oh, I’m very happy to hear that. I wanted this book to churn up those kinds of feelings in the reader. From my side, though, I wasn’t unsettled while writing. I adopted the narrator’s demeanor: deliberate, reserved, on guard for the surprise that might be around the corner (not that it helps him see what’s coming). As for the ending – I always had a vision of the final scene, and stayed faithful to it. But in one of the later drafts I added something. It took me by surprise, and I figured it would probably do the same for the reader.

What kind of writer are you? Can you tell us about your process?
I learned to write by imitating what I read. I adopted styles and forms from others and gradually the edges softened enough for me to develop something different. The way I see it, fiction closely resembles life, except that while there are no limits to what happens in life, there are limits to what you can put in a novel. So I start by trying to remember as much as possible about ‘what happened’, to take in the full spectrum of life, then shave the corners when pace and plausibility call for it.

I always want to know the why now moment when you felt you absolutely had to write this book. Can you talk about this please?

That I can answer. I was in the Netherlands, at a language school, when a Dutch friend told me to visit his old friend, who was living in the city of Maastricht. All I knew was that the two of them used to be best friends, and this person (in Maastricht) was the one who initiated my friend into music, girls, life, etc. When I went to this person’s apartment, what I saw was a version of my own friend’s apartment, but a pathetic and impoverished one. Bookshelves, but half empty. Art, but poorly framed. A piano, but missing keys. It was like an illustration – or x-ray – of what goes into a best friendship: closeness, competition, striving, failing. It was fascinating, and I didn’t sleep at all that night because I thought I had the heart of a story.

I love all the music material. Are you also a musician, and if not, what was your research like?

I’m an amateur pianist; all I play is classical music, off a sheet, as my ear is terrible. In all the practising I did, though, I learned to love that kind of music, and one of the pleasures of writing School of Velocity was re-acquainting myself with my classical music collection and memories. I also sent the manuscript to a friend who is a professional musician, to get his two cents. As for the other type of music in this book – funk and soul – that was something I was introduced to as a teenager. It still has a strong effect on me – as it would anybody, I think. James Brown, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Curtis Mayfield – hello!
(Both sides of the novel’s soundtrack can be heard here:

The novel is also very cinematic. Do you write with images in your mind?

What you’re getting is the strong impressions that landscapes make on me. In the case of the Netherlands, it’s the perfectly flat fields, the hoarfrost, the fog. It’s all very suggestive – the story emanates from it.

What is obsessing you and why?

If I can go off to the side, what I’m thinking about most right now is form. The story I’m currently writing is in many ways the opposite of School of Velocity: many characters, generations, locations. So how do all these pieces fit together? What does the shape say about the content, and vice-versa? Once again, I’m looking to others to see what they’ve done, and how I might find room in it for something new. 

What question didn't I ask that I shoul
d have?

A-ha. There are general questions – can you name some of those authors you admire? There are particular questions – what have you read lately that’s been great? There are questions related to SoV – do you think a true best friendship can outlast the time in which it was formed? Do you think the ‘other side’ of School of Velocity, which is written in first person, will ever be told? But I’m not feeling short-changed.

Christina Adams is a leader in Autism and Camel milk and the author of A REAL BOY: A TRUE STORY OF AUTISM, EARLY INTERVENTION AND RECOVERY. You KNOW you want to read this interview


Christina Adams first attracted my attention on Facebook because she was just so freaking fascinating. And be prepared. She gets even more incredible.

Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in the LA Times, The Washington Post, NPR, OZY, Open Democracy, Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County Register, Global Advances in Health and Medicine and literary magazines. Perhaps more unusually, her work with autism and camels has been featured by Dubai One, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Tata Sky Channel, Epocha, GOOD, Farming, radio and more. She’s spoken at Sarah Lawrence Writer’s Program, CSULB Distinguished Visiting Writer’s Program, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, international health and disability conferences, and just spoke at the Marwar Camel festival hosted by HRH The Maharaja of Jodhpur. She wrote A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery.

You’re a writer, but you have this other side. I’ve seen the photos.  You’re in India or Dubai or Cuba, or on some Amish farm. Is this related to your writing?

Yes, and it’s all because of my bedeviled writer’s mind. After writing in the corporate and government world, I got an MFA in fiction and wrote a novel. It won an award, but before I could publish it, my son was diagnosed with autism. So I worked hard to get him better and wrote a memoir about that (A Real Boy).  After it came out, I was at a children’s book fair. I got bored and my mind started turning when I saw a camel there, but no kids were riding it. I went over to chat with the owner and got an intuition that camel milk might help my son. After a lot of research and guesswork, I flew in some frozen milk from Bedouins in Israel. He drank it and got better overnight. That set me down the path into this strange world. Sort of my own Silk Road.

That’s an incredible story. How do you balance being a writer with your research and advocacy work? Do your two lives get along or conflict with each other?

I’m a literary writer at heart—I wrote my first short story at nine. I was so devastated when my son was diagnosed, and I swore that autism wouldn’t stop me from writing, but slowly you turn toward your lived story. Autism became a window on the world and informed my writing—it taught me biology, nature, law, psychology, medicine. And I had to try to help others. So I’ve written memoir, essays and reported pieces and do TV, radio and conference speaking. My first piece about camel milk and autism went viral and helped start the industry. Then I published a medical journal article on it. It’s cited a lot, but it’s a weird success for a writer since only scientists see it (it’s cute how many assume “MFA” is some kind of scientific credential!). That piece led to international speaking and advising. I’ve always had a knack for putting advanced concepts into explainable terms. I guess the takeaway is that life happens and since we chronicle life as writers, we have to chronicle what it does to us. Whether it’s overt or unconscious.

So your work energizes your writing?

Definitely. I just returned from a month’s speaking tour in India, and had overflow crowds on the topic of autism, camel milk and the value of camels to society.  Being barefoot in the TV studio was a fun new thing, wearing glam Indian clothes but no shoes. I wrote an essay for the Rajasthan Patrika (newspaper) and got a lot of press, which triggered a lot of interest. Being treated like a celebrity was really unexpected. A policeman showed up at my hotel at night, and I asked, am I in trouble? Turned out a VIP wanted to talk about camel milk!  Having people drive so far to meet me, being honored at a village temple, seeing my work in Hindi and Portuguese, was all gratifying, but once I got back home it was humble pie as usual. My favorite part was hanging out with the Raika camel herders, a reclusive camel caste I’ve gotten to know as we try to save their camels. Blowing smoke from a bedi (leaf cigarette) out my nose, like they did, won me some points--a guy wanted to trade rings with me. 

Camels are amazing creatures and more useful to humans than you could dream, almost sci-fi stuff. They have unique abilities found in no other creatures. Now the price of a pregnant camel has doubled in the US since I started, but camel cultures are under pressure. I just read my new piece about this at Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute’s series on Democracy and Education. These herders have never shared their ancient wisdom, so I help bridge the two worlds. Camels can help human health conditions like diabetes, STDs, snakebite, and cancer now, so I work with scientists and spend time with Somali, Tuareg, Amish, Indian and Arab cultures. I’ve seen 2,000 pampered camels gleaming in red desert sand, and fed bottles to bleating, curly-haired baby camels. My videos were translated into Malay this month. Some things you just can’t see coming.

Maybe not! So what stories have yet to come from all this?

I’ve been on this wild ride for over 10 years, so now I have a book proposal I’m finishing. It’s a great emotional subject. The camel world is super visual, hidden, magical and political. Camels mean different things to people: family member, heritage or ego symbol, currency, luxury pet or work animal. Also, this year I published print magazine essays, one about my “divorce apartment,” a place I rent to divorced people, framed by the story of my own divorce and remarriage, as well as a long feature on an autism school. Other things I want to write are about being an Appalachian that breaks tradition to leave home but finds out you never really can, with some sensitive family history about the Civil War and its aftermath. And one about marriage and divorce, a subject I finally mastered in real life.  But so many of my readers want this camel book, and I hope I can get it out there.

What are you obsessing about now?

Indian fabrics. I wore Indian clothes for my events and I’m missing getting up and choosing a dupatta (scarf), embroidered tunic, leggings and sparkly jewelry every day. I love the care women take with their daily style. I visited female sheepherders who wore ruffled bodices, armloads of bracelets and pink toenail polish.

Also people give me camel statues, art, chocolate and hats. So I’m facing ‘creeping camelization’ in my life, but trying to keep it micro.

What question did I fail to ask you?

The word ‘fail’ doesn’t apply to you! I love how real and friendly you are on Facebook and the NYC vibe is a bonus. People often ask how my son is. He’s doing great. Got a job without help, at a big employer. Taught a lesson in class. He even asked me what I wanted for Christmas. He never ends a call to me without saying, “Love you.” So that’s what it’s all about. A producer just finished a short documentary about him. He even did a radio show, discussing the ‘toxic masculinity’ of frat culture and why guys with autism are more logical than that. Like they say here in Orange County, Dude, that’s sick! (A compliment.)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The luminous Gayle Brandeis talks about her profound memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS: SURVIVING MY MOTHER'S SUICIDE, which is gorgeous, important, healing, astonishing, and every other great adjective I can think of

THIS  book. This book. This book.

Portrait of the artist as a gorgeous person

Gayle was wearing this jacket the first time we met at BEA

Some people you just know you have a bond with. I first met Gayle Brandeis on Readerville, and I felt that bond. That I got to meet her at BEA, and as soon as I saw her walk in in a green leather jacket, I felt this flood of warmth. Over the years, we've deepened our connection, in person, by phone, by email, by every bit of our cells.  I've watched all the amazing changes in her life--and in her writing. When she sent me THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS  to read, I was gobsmacked. I had never read anything so profound, so powerful, so brave and so gorgeously written. About love, about the mother/daughter relationship, about mental illness, about the things we do to ourselves to protect ourselves--it's an extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary person.

Gayle is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage and Delta Girls, and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns  which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin, and the e-book, .The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015.  Gayle is currently editor in chief of Tiferet Journal and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit.

I love you Gayle. Thanks for being here. Now let's have dinner together.

How did you manage the courage to write this extraordinary memoir?

Theres a moment in Brene Browns TED Talk on vulnerability where she says that the original meaning of courage was to tell ones story with all ones heart. I love this. This definition resonates with me so much. It did take every ounce of my heart (and my gut and my head) to write this story. There were definitely times I had to back away, times I didnt feel capable of going to those painful places, but then I eventually regrouped and threw all of myself back into the endeavor.

What was the why now moment when you realized that you had to write it right now?

Really, as soon as my mom began to exhibit delusional behavior 16 years before her death, I knew that I would have to write about her. Writing is how I best make sense of things, and I couldnt make any sense out of these delusionsthey came out of the blue and turned my world upside down. She explicitly asked me not to write about her while she was alive, and I didnther words held great power over me. Even after she died, when I realized I was free to write about her, when I knew I HAD to write about her, it took me a while to unknot the gag order she had placed upon me (plus I was grieving and post-partum, so it was hard to do much of anything), but I could feel the words gathering steam inside of me and eventually they started to pour out.

What did you expect to heal by writing this--and what happened instead or besides, that was healing?

I wanted to write my way toward understanding my mom and her suicide, even though I knew total understanding wasnt ever going to be possible. I think I wanted to write my way toward a sense of peace. I wanted to build a container for my pain, to give shape to what felt so big and chaotic in my life, to gain some power over a story that had held so much power over me. What ended up being most healing, and was really unexpected to me, is how much compassion I gained by writing thisI started out really quite angry with my mom and ended it with my heart cracked wide open.

Our mothers are almost always a loaded subject. Especially when you are a mother yourself, as you are. How did writing this memoir change your mothering?

I think that as I started to feel more compassion toward my mom, I started to feel more compassion toward myself, as a mother and a human being, as well, started to be a bit more forgiving of both of us, to acknowledge that we each tried to do our best to our capabilities at any given time (and some times were more capable than we are at others). I definitely feel very conscious about wanting to avoid certain aspects of my moms parentingthe way she made everything about her, for exampleand wanting to emulate othersthe way she exposed me to the arts, the way she encouraged my creativity, the way she made me feel limitless (at least in certain ways.)

What is obsessing you now and why?

The thing I really wish I wasnt obsessed with is the news. I feel like I have to stay on top of it, have to know whats happening in the world so I can respond to it, so I can resist in the most effective way possible, and its exhausting. I dont step away from it enough and I know Im risking burn out. But voices like Roxane Gays and Rebecca Solnits and Lindy Wests keep me going, writers who respond to current events with such intelligence and fearlessness. Im definitely obsessed with reading good smart takes like theirs on whats happening in the world. And jellyfish. Im obsessed with jellyfishI love how beautiful and graceful they are, and am fascinated by how they can exist without a brain or heart. I was stung by one twenty or so years agoIm still waiting for my jellyfish superpowers.

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

Who is one of the most generous and amazing writers you know? Why, Caroline Leavitt, of course! I am so very grateful to know you and thank you for all you do of promote books and writers. You give so much and I hope you know how deeply it is appreciated, and how beloved you and your books are. 

If your mother had been able to read this book, what do you think her reaction would have been?

She would either never speak to me again or we would finally have the relationship I had always hoped to have with her, one in which we could speak openly to one another, one in which we didnt have to be on guard around each other. I very much would like to think it would be the latter. I know I feel close to her now in a way I wish I had when she was alive; Id like to think that feeling would be mutual. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Acclaimed writer Joan Silber talks about IMPROVEMENT, books being pains in the neck, writing stories, and so much more

"There is something so refreshing and genuine about this book, coming partly from the bumpy weave of its unpredictable story and partly from its sharply turned yet refreshingly unmannered prose. A winner." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

I first met Joan Silber through her novel HOUSEHOLD WORLDS, which was so breathtakingly brilliant, so alive with the troubles of a family, that I was underlining passages. I still have that copy, though it is dog-and-cat-eared now. Since then, I've met Joan for lunch, run into her as I, too, was trying to escape the madding crowd of a book festival, and I'm so, so honored to know her.

She's the acclaimed author of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, is the author of Lucky Us, Fools, In My Other Life, In the City, and Household Words, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award. Her work appears in the current O. Henry Prize Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and in Norton's The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, and other magazines. She's received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Improvement, her newest novel is about the choices we make and the costs we bear, a single mother, an eccentric aunt, and so much more.

Thank you so much, Joan, for being here. You're my heroine, literary and otherwise.

You have such an acclaimed career, that I am wondering if you feel that every new book builds on the last one? Or do you feel that each book is a brand new work with its own ideas?

I think my writing has especially felt like a continuing project since Ideas of Heaven  (2004), when I began writing long stories linked in a particular way, where a minor character in one is major in another, and characters are circling the same ideas.  Improvement is a novel, so I had to find new ways to unify the elements while getting the range I wanted.  I wanted to write something with the intensity of a line carried through, while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.
That said, each new book is a pain in the neck in its own way.  I think I know what I’m doing and then I don’t. 

What was the why now moment of writing this novel?

I just looked at my old notebooks before answering this, and I had entirely forgotten how long it took me and how many false starts I made.  I had made a third trip to Turkey and it was much on my mind.  And then Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and I heard a report on the radio about older people in housing projects who were managing just fine with no electricity or water.  (My own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, was in the dark zone so I knew what they dealt with.)  I’m always interested in self-reliance, and I began to develop the character of Kiki, unfazed by the blackout, and I gave her a past in Turkey.  I had a younger character, her niece, narrate her story, to get a sharper angle.  Once I gave the niece a boyfriend at Rikers, I saw the story heightening.
I wrote the first chapter as a short story—to my great joy, it got picked for Best Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories.  I didn’t know it would turn into a novel that I’d spend the next three or four years grappling with.

Improvement bursts back and forth from the 1970s to present day, and employs more than a few narrators.  Was this always your plan or did the book unfold this way organically?

I knew I wasn’t going to stick with one narrator.  But I didn’t know who the various characters would be or where in time I’d want to move them.  As it turned out, there are eight chapters and Kiki and her niece are only in three of them.  I wanted to follow a constellation of characters whose lives bear the results of what the niece decides, and I wanted to tell about the aunt’s past, with its own trails.   I liked moving the settings—I’m sort of against fiction being too parochial--I could do New York, parts of Turkey, and Berlin (where I have friends), and it was my luck to have a student who’d taught high school in Richmond. 
When I wrote cycles of stories in the past, I always just made them up as I went along, and I recklessly thought I’d been writing long enough to do that in a novel.  It was much harder than I thought.  I’m not doing that again!  But I did know early on how the book was going to end.
I did write a craft book on Time in Fiction, and I’m always interested in fiction’s powers to move through time.  I learned a huge amount from Alice Munro—I can’t tell you how happy I was when she won the Nobel Prize.  I think she has many admirers but not so many followers, and I am proud to be one of them.

I’d love for you to talk about the title Improvement. Reyna makes a decision for the good of her child, which sets off a kind of train wreck. What does it really mean to improve your life, or at least to give it a chance?

I love your summary of Reyna’s decision—that’s just right.  She is able to make a kind of recompense in the end—she can’t fix things but she can improve them.  I think she’s quite resourceful about it, actually.  People joke that for once I’ve come up with a cheerful title, and I think I do want the story to end with a feeling that the effort Reyna makes, the stretch to generosity, is what a reader would wish for her.  It’s my version of a happy ending, though there’s plenty of disaster and loss in the book.
I also thought of her boyfriend’s cigarette-smuggling scheme as an attempt at improvement as well, a form of hope (hope can get a person into trouble).  And I wanted reparations to have other echoes in the book—Monika works at compiling records of art bought in the Nazi era, Teddy the truck-driver is trying to be re-paid by his insurance company.   Teddy’s wife tells him, “It’s just a big mistake to think you ever get paid back what you deserve in this world.  You’re not dead, that’s the main thing.”  Not only is the wife giving good advice, but this is the dilemma of any fiction writer:  portraying an unjust world while allowing for right conduct.   

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am very aware, as we all are, of the catastrophic changes in our political world--I feel it as a time when the worst of human nature is rising to the surface.  I really didn’t expect to be alive in such an era.   Of course, I’ve marched in protest (I’ve been marching all my life) and signed many, many petitions.  I think I probably work at not letting it take over my thoughts—I guess that’s the opposite of obsessing.  My escapes have taken different forms.  I went through a spell of re-reading Dickens, I’ve taught English as a volunteer to novice monks in Laos and Thailand, I’m traveling on vacation to Sri Lanka in March.  The idea is to remind myself of what else there is. 

What question didn’t I ask?

Ask me what I’m doing next.  Stories again.  I’ve got four done, and they’ve been very demanding, though I’ve loved working on them.   I don’t know why I thought writing would get easier—no writer has ever said that, that I’ve heard.  But I’m happiest when I’m working and a simmering malcontent when I’m not.

A wild, gorgeous holiday gift: Carolyn Turgeon talks about The Faerie Handbook: An Enchanting Compendium of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects

It was the boots that did it. I was at Kathy L. Murphy's Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend, when I saw the ones belonging to Carolyn Turgeon--embroidered, black and gorgeous. "They fit like slippers," she told me. We became friends that weekend, and we've stayed in touch ever since. Her new book, THE FAERIE HANDBOOK is truly one of the most beautiful books I've seen, and it's filled with recipes, fashion, fascinating facts, and lore, all faerie-centric, too. The pages are silver tipped. There is a lovely lilac ribbon to mark your page. The illustrations and photographs are breathtaking. (Just take a look at the photos above!)

Carolyn is also the author of Rainvillage; Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story; Mermaid, The Fairest of Them All. She's the editor of Faerie Magazine, too.

Thank you so much, Carolyn for being here, and I hope to hang out with you really soon so we can compare boots.

I have to ask, though I know the answer, what is about Faeries that draws you? As a child did you believe in them and devour all the Fairy Tale books like I did? (And do you think they are around now?)
I did love fairy tales and myths and magic as a kid, and books full of pretty stories—and of course I still do! I like the idea that the world is full of magic, if you know where to look, that there’s tremendous beauty just out of sight. In the book’s introduction I describe an old story of a country midwife who’s taken to a cottage that seems normal and cozy until she accidentally rubs her eye with a strange ointment; then the cottage becomes an ancient oak tree and the fireplace, a hollow, mossy tree trunk. To me fairy stories are about all those hidden things. Whether fairies are around now? I don’t know. There have been stories about the fairies leaving us as long as there have been stories about fairies, it seems, but I like to think that there are all kinds of things out there that we can’t see.

This book is so completely gorgeous that I want to know if you had a hand in the design? It’s an exquisite gift book, too.
Actually, for months before we even signed a book deal and agreed on what the book would be exactly, my editor Liz Sullivan and I went back and forth discussing the book’s sumptuous, ornate, storybook design—and salivating over fancy Victorian-y book covers we used as inspiration. Like this one, with this insane gilded floweryfont: ! Isn’t that gorgeous? So we knew from the beginning that this book had to be like a treasure chest, from the silver foil to the stained edges to the purple satin bookmark and the inset image (by Kirsty Mitchell, who does some of the most elaborate and stunning fairy tale photography out there). As for the images inside the book, Grace Nuth (who is a senior editor at Faerie Magazine and helped me write the book) and I spent many hours finding the most wonderful images we could to illustrate each section, and Liz and the design team narrowed down the final images from those choices. In the past, I did not really have a say in how my novels were presented (and didn’t always love the way they were!), so I really appreciated that Liz discussed every step with me and was dedicated to making something so, so beautiful.

The Faerie Handbook has literature, lore, art, recipes and even projects. How did you decide what you wanted to put in here? Did anything not make the cut (and you wish that it had?)
I made the initial list by sitting down and brainstorming with Kim Cross (who founded Faerie Magazine) and we refined it as we went. Initially, it was twice as long! But we had to make room for all those lush images, so lots of things were cut. Originally there was going to be a whole section on fairy tales, including some actual stories, and a bit about moss, and sections on berries and tree houses and fairy gardens and Hans Christian Andersen’s paper cut-outs…. All kinds of lovely things! But we narrowed it down and actually expanded the book by thirty-two pages over what it was supposed to be originally. Of course I’d have loved another ten, or hundred, but the ones we have are pretty good!

What’s your favorite part of this book and what is up next for you?
I love all of it, to be honest, but I have a particular affection for the image of the 80-year-old fairy lady featured in the “Fairy Beauty” section written by Grace. That image actually originally came to our Faerie Magazine submissions folder and was from photographer Marsha Steckling, who did the shoot to celebrate her mother Sharron Rhoads. “We both have always loved the theme of the Fairy Queen,” Marsha wrote, “and put together her costume and created the photographs in a park near my home.” When we posted the images on our Faerie Magazine Facebook page, it was insanely popular, one of the most beloved images we’d ever posted, so it was important to me to include it in the book! The most popular image we’ve ever shared was from Tricia Saroya, a brilliant stylist we’ve worked with many times, of a Midsummer Night’s Dream garden party she created for our summer 2015 issue. You see this long candlelit table with an arbor draped in fairy lights stretching over it, and that image (taken by Vince Chafin) had something insane like 150,000 likes when we first posted it online and was seen by many millions of people. We actually shared that image the other day on a panel we did at FaerieCon, and a couple in the audience was astonished—they’d based their wedding on that image and had no idea it was from us! So that’s in the book as well, along with Tricia’s tips on how to throw your own enchanted soirée. I loved being able to include a few of those treasures.

Next up is The Mermaid Handbook, which is the same thing but with mermaids, out in May 2018! I’ve had a long history with mermaids by now, ever since I wrote my novel Mermaid and started a mermaid blog and ended up doing things like attending mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee Springs and going on a mermaid dive trip in the Bahamas, etc. So doing that book felt like a good way to pull all that mermaid expertise together.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’ve turned back to a novel now, one I’ve been working on for years (off and on), about Dante and Beatrice (I studied medieval Italian lit in graduate school), so in every spare moment I’m reading about all things medieval and carrying around suspicious-sounding tomes like Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella or Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy. Our winter issue of Faerie Magazine is medieval-themed, as it happens (we’re just finishing it now) and we recreated Dante Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, a portrait of Dante’s Beatrice, for the cover, which was shot by Steve Parke (who is brilliant photographer; he has a book of photos of Prince just out, Picturing Prince, from his 14 years as Prince’s art director!). Doing a magazine can be incredibly stressful, but being able to do something like that is pretty great.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Well, if you’d asked me about a particular challenge we had with the book, one is that I’d written this bit about taking a fairy bath but couldn’t find the right image to go with it.  I spent hours searching for the perfect shot! It didn’t exist, so we had to make one. I live in a beautiful apartment building in Baltimore but the tubs are ordinary, and everyone knows that fairies never do anything ordinary, so I put out a call for an extraordinary clawfoot tub, and a friend of a friend of a friend ended up having one we could use. So Steve Parke grabbed his camera and we bought a pile of flowers from the local florist and a jug of milk and showed up at this lovely house, where the husband of the friend of a friend of the friend was waiting on the charming front porch. He greeted up graciously and watched as we filled that clawfoot tub with milky water and flowers and then took a zillion photos, rearranging the flowers as we went, adding in new ones as the old ones sunk. When we were done, I offered the fairy bath to the husband, but shockingly he turned us down, so Steve and I cleaned the tub and filled a basket full of milky flowers, which we returned to the florist in case they could put them to use.  After all that, the image in the book doesn’t even show the tub!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Clea Simon talks about her brilliant new novel WORLD ENOUGH, Boston's 1980 punk rock scene, cats and crime, and so much more

 Oh yes, I first met Clea Simon on a website and we soon formed a fast friendship. We've been to each others' houses, held each others' hands through various personal and publishing disasters, and no one makes me laugh as much as Clea does. I've read all of Clea's books, from nonfiction like 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).Her new, darker Blackie and Care mystery series starts with The Ninth Life and continues with As Dark As My Fur (Severn House).

The Theda Krakow mystery series was launched in 2005 with Mew is for Murder and continued with Cattery Row and Cries and Whiskers, and Probable Claws (Poisoned Pen Press).

Her Dulcie Schwartz series launched in 2009 with Shades of Grey and continues with Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, Grey Dawn, Grey Howl, Stages of Grey, Code Grey, and Into the 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, Kittens Can Kill, and When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press). She's also a regular contributor to The Boston Globe.

Clea's new novel WORLD ENOUGH is unlike any of her other books. And I went absolutely nuts for it. She catapults you into Boston's burgeoning punk-rock scene. And I'm not the only one:

With a colorful cast of characters, a gift for detail, and intricate plotting, Simon takes her readers deep into the esoteric world of the Boston music scene.
– Lisa Unger

WORLD ENOUGH is excellent – a twisty, bittersweet trip back to the glory days of the Boston club scene, with just the right mix of edge and nostalgia.
– Joseph Finder

And yo, New Yorkers! Clea will be at Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren St., NY on Wed., Nov. 8, at 6:30!

Thanks Clea and see you soon!

Why this book now?

I have two answers for that. The first is horribly prosaic: This is my 23rd mystery,  and my first mystery to not feature cats somewhere in the mix.  And on the most basic level, it came about because Edwin, the publisher of Severn House (which has published 12 of those cat books in two different series), wanted me to write something different. We were having drinks in Bristol, at the Crimefest conference, and he said, “Why don’t you write romantic suspense?” Well, this is not romantic suspense, by a long shot, but it did get me thinking of something outside of what I had been doing. Something darker, sans cats.

The deeper answer is that I was probably ready to write this book. I first started writing one version of it about 20 or 25 years ago, not long after my stint as a rock critic. I wanted to capture that feeling of excitement I remembered. I specifically recalled the feel of the frozen earth crunching beneath my shoes as I ran across the median strip toward the front door of the Rat so vividly – the brittle quality, the urgency, like the earth was rushing me toward the club. But back then – I’m talking early ‘90s – I had neither the distance nor the skills. I’d been writing professionally, both as a rock critic and a journalist, but I wasn’t a novelist yet. I kept reworking the first 100 pages and then it all just petered out. 

Then, about ten years ago, I went out to hear a band I used to love and wrote a version of the opening scene. But still… I was writing mysteries by then, but even if I had started to develop the chops, I didn’t have the emotional distance.

So that first scene – which takes place ten years ago – was you?

Well, I was in a similar place as Tara, my protagonist. That’s probably why it took me another ten years to write! I needed to be well past that time, able to look back. Tara isn’t me, obviously. But she is in a place that I recall. She’s still nostalgic for “the scene,” and, of course, for her own youth. Over the course of the book, she gets some perspective.

But not just on the scene, I think.

No, I don’t think so. She unravels the mystery aspect – what happened and who was involved – but in the process, she learns to see herself and the people around her more clearly, too.

One of the comments about World Enough is that it’s about a middle-aged artist looking back on the scene. Does that make sense?

Yes, among other things. When we’re young, we don’t have a sense of limits – of where our art will take us or what it will mean if it doesn’t change the world. I like to think that as we age, we learn to value our arts simply for themselves. I mean, fame and fortune – or being able to earn a living doing what we love – would be wonderful. But do they still have value without these measures of success? Does their value change?

This is probably your first morally ambiguous book.

Yeah, more realistic, I guess. I mean, I hope that the ending makes the “what happened” part clear. But as to what will happen next for Tara … I don’t know.

What will happen next – for you?

I’m returning to cat mysteries for a while! I’ve got the next dark cat mystery (literally, the next book in my dystopian black cat Blackie and Care series) Cross My Path coming out next summer and another Pru Marlowe pet noir, Fear on Four Paws, scheduled after that (think snarky/funny amateur sleuth) – both are in various stages of editing and production. And I’ve signed with Polis Press to write a truly cozy series about the witch cats of Cambridge next. I think it will feel good to get back to whimsy and sweetness for a while. But, yeah, there’s another dark rock noir on the horizon. I’m taking notes and part of me is itching to get back there.

In another ten years?

No, this will be sooner than that! I promise!

Friday, November 3, 2017

How does one death inform all the others that follow? Anne Edelstein talks about her magnificent new memoir, Lifesaving for Beginners

 I first met Anne Edelstein a million years ago. She was starting out on her own as a literary agent. I was starting out on my own in New York City, and we became friends, and then life intruded and we didn't reconnect until recently! I'm thrilled to host her here (we share the same extraordinary agent, Gail Hochman). Her book, Lifesaving for Beginners is a deeply personal and profound exploration of grief, love, and how one death impacts every other death that follows. Thank you so much for being here, Anne.

“Anne Edelstein’s remarkable debut is an unforgettable―and unputdownable―portrait of a singular American family. Reminiscent of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Daphne Merkin’s This Close to Happy, this slyly powerful memoir reads like a conversation with your kindest, funniest, most incisive friend. ―Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year and A Fortunate Age

“Loss, grief, and ‘the proof of love’ are at stake in this poignant and penetrating memoir of a daughter’s quest to understand her elusive mother, the suicide of her beloved brother, and the mystery at the heart of the will to live.”―Jill Bialosky, author of History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished life

What was the ‘why now’ moment that jump started this memoir?  What made you feel brave enough to write it?

On one level I knew immediately after my mother died suddenly while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef that I had to begin taking notes in order to make sense of her death and understand my conflicted feelings about her. But the real turning point that made me know what the core of this book would be, and that actually got me to start writing came two years later, when a man with MS intentionally drowned himself in the pond where I swam every summer in Maine. That act that was the catalyst for the book.

What was the writing like?  Was it strange to be on the other end of the agent/writer relationship?  The book, which is magnificent, feels as if you were healing yourself through the writing.  Would you say this is the case?

The writing allowed me to revisit scenes of my life that were difficult, but at the same time it was good to be in those scenes again, a way of holding onto them and contemplating as I let them go.

Writing the book was very separate from my work as an agent.  I isolated myself on certain days or partial days of the week, and over longer periods of vacation, as writing was a very different state of mind from the everyday workings of the literary agency.  I did come to understand the notion of, ‘I have changed through writing my book,’ something I that had always believed happened in the process of writing a successful work and something I had long repeated to my authors.  After completing my own memoir, I came to comprehend this in a more literal way.

At the end of the memoir, you have a scene with you telling Eli that you will talk more about your mother when he is older.  Have you?

Both of my kids read my memoir some time ago when it was in manuscript form, and both were very moved by it.  This is not so surprising, because really they are the heroes of the book!  But before reading the work, over the years they already had come to know most of the details about both my mother’s and my brother’s deaths. The thing that both of them told me struck them most when they read the manuscript was that even though they already sort of knew most of what was in it, they hadn’t understood just how much the family had kept quiet for so long. 

The title Lifesaving for Beginners is so evocative, and yet I found it so hopeful, too, as if there is no time limit for saving ourselves.  Can you comment?

Lifesaving for Beginners at its most literal is a swimming term.  Even after achieving my badge as a ‘Senior Lifesaver’ I questioned whether I would ever physically be able to save someone’s life. Today I still don’t know if it’s possible to save the life of another person, and by that I mean spiritually more than physically. But it is possible to begin a conversation about it.  By looking into what has been kept quiet in the past, it may be possible to shift family patterns that haven’t been acknowledged, and with this some lives might be saved, especially one’s own.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

In one word, my biggest obsession is ‘time.’  And it will undoubtedly be the subject of what I write next.  By time, I don’t mean only the passage of time, but more a sense of the meaning of ‘timelessness,’ although I think it may be understanding one that helps solve the other. 

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

Your questions are impeccable, and allowed me to say just what I wanted to about my memoir.  Thank you!