Sunday, February 26, 2017

Danielle Younge-Ullman talks about EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS NOT RUINED, the wilderness, mothers and daughters, more

I first heard about Danielle Younge-Ullman's new novel, Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined from her agent, who spoke about it with such admiration that I instantly said, "Send it to me." And she was right. It's a fantastic book, both YA and for adult. About addiction, running away, and finding yourself even as you are your most lost, it's a dazzler. Danielle is  also the author of the adult novel, FALLING UNDER, and I am thrilled to have her here.

I always think that something must be haunting an author to jumpstart a book. What was haunting you?

I was haunted by:
-the wilderness trip I was forced to go on as a teenager, and how it had become a funny story that people in my family would ask me to trot out, that we would all laugh over…without anyone seeming to realize that underneath the funny story was actually a deeply miserable experience that nearly broke me, but that also transformed me
-artistic failure and/or loss. So many books have stories about gathering the courage to pursue your dreams to do something artistic, and this is, in part, one of those stories. But the flip side—the side of failure, loss, giving up—that is tremendously painful and very real for so many people. This is something I wanted to delve into via the character of Ingrid’s mother, Margot-Sophia.
-the experience of having seen loved ones go through depression

I love the juxtaposition of the wilderness and music, the mother and daughter. It all works seamlessly and powerfully.  What do you think being out in the world teaches us?

The strands that are Ingrid, her mother, and music, are so intertwined and entangled, and I think being out in the wilderness helps Ingrid start to disentangle some of those strands. And any time someone is forced outside their comfort zone there is a potential for extremes, for finding out where they are weakest, and where they may have surprising strength. In the context of this book, all the time out in the wilderness also forces Ingrid to really push herself, to reevaluate herself in relation to her fellow adventurers, and to reflect on her life and everything that has led her to this point, and start to come to grips with it.

I love the phrase “order on the outside will bring order to the inside.” Please, will you talk about this?

Feeling out of control of her circumstances is something Ingrid struggles with throughout the book. This is most obvious on her wilderness trip where she quickly loses all of her creature comforts, including access to toilets, privacy, clean clothing, a dry place to sleep, and mosquito-free food. This really puts her off balance, and she spends much of the trek trying to pull herself back together, physically and emotionally. Her increasingly filthy clothing becomes kind of a symbol of how out of control she feels, and how exposed.

Of course, Ingrid, she has it backwards—the order on the inside is what needs to come first, but it takes a lot—in fact it takes “order on the outside” being completely unachievable, to get her to that realization.

What kind of writer are you? How do you like to work? And what do you do when you hit a snag?

Well, I always feel like a mess of a writer, but somehow I get the job done. The beginning usually leaps into my head after an initial period of mulling and researching. I take it and run with it, and then at a certain point I have to stop because I don’t know what happens next. (I think this qualifies as a snag, but it’s also my process.) At that point, even though I HATE doing them, and never stick to it, I write some kind of outline. I follow that outline for a while, then something pulls me off course, and I let it, because that’s where the best, most unpredictable stuff often happens. After I’ve followed this uncharted path for a bit, I inevitably have to stop again (snag!) and re-outline. I just keep doing that until the book is done. I wish I could find a more ordered, efficient way to do it, but this seems to be my way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am always obsessing over seemingly unsolvable problems between people—especially people who love each other. Related to that, I am currently obsessed with conflict resolution. I don’t have very many tools for this myself, (unless you count being a referee between two kids). I’m good at preventing conflict or steering around it, and very skilled at pretending it doesn’t exist, but not great when it explodes in front of me. I just never learned what to do, and so I tend to freeze, and only later on do I realize what I could have/should have done or said. I don’t want my daughters to be this way—I want them to be able to face things head-on and work through them, and so I am a little bit obsessed about how to help them learn that skill, and how to teach it to them when I don’t have it. But, actually they’re pretty fierce and they have each other to practice on, so maybe I’m overthinking it. 

Also, I’m obsessing about politics, world events, chocolate (see politics and world events), skiing, reading, and trying for the umpteenth time to learn to meditate.

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

 As soon as I’ve sent this, or more likely on the day you post it, I will come up with something fantastic…and of course it will then be too late. But for now…I’ve got nothing. Thank you so much for reading the book and for having me on the sit

Why We March: Artisan Books Publisher Lia Ronnen talks about Signs of Protest and Hope

Anyone who knows me knows that I am political and I protest and I was a fierce marcher in the NYC Women's March. Artisan books is now putting out WHY WE MARCH: Signs of Protest and Hope, Voices from the Women's March, and all royalties are donated to Planned Parenthood. As Gloria Steinem says so eloquently in one of the book's first quotes: "The Constitution doesn't begin with, "I, the President." It begins with "We the People."

Artisan Books publisher and editorial director Lia Ronnen was generous in talking to me here. Thank you Lia,  for coming here to talk about the book and for producing such a great and important work.

I usually ask the why now question--why the reason for a book, but it's obvious for this particular book. And I think we need to get this book everywhere. What can people do to support you and the book? 

Let me go back to the original question— why this book. The obvious answer is that the Women’s March was a momentous day that has set off a kind of revolution, and we wanted to commemorate that moment. But this is not entirely a book about the Women’s March— it is a book about the signs of the Women’s March. The voices of the Women’s March. As an illustrated book publisher, I’m obviously interested in the power of imagery in communicating information. I marched in D.C., and was astounded by the breadth and artistry of the signs. In truth, I think I spent the majority of my time at the March taking pictures. Being lost in a sea of signs proclaiming our beliefs, our intelligence, our humor, our fears, and our pride in our country was an extraordinarily powerful moment. And when I got home and flipped through the nearly hundred photos I took, I knew that seeing the images collectively—in book form— would make the ultimate rallying cry for those who protest the new administration.

All of the book’s royalties will be donated to Planned Parenthood, so buying the book is both a way to spread the message and to give back. Buying books is the best means of support, of course, but we are happy to share imagery and information with anyone who would like to write about the project. And if you want to help, here are things you can do. given by Lia Ronnen, the publisher and editorial director of Artisan books:

Who are the voices from the Women's March? How did you go about choosing which ones to put in the book? 

The voices are as varied as we the people are. More than 3 million participated the Women’s March and sister marches in the U.S., and an estimated 2 million additional participated worldwide. Women. Men. Mothers and daughters. Friends. Families. Partners. Kids. Elderly. Black, white, brown. The diversity of people and messages was astounding, and we sought to capture that as best we could. We wanted to replicate the experience of encountering the signs and the people who carried them in real time. Some were shocking, some were funny. Some were devastating, and some were full of hope. 
We focused on the diversity of the messages: Women’s rights. Immigrant’s rights. The right to health care. LGBTQ equality. We made sure to include the most popular messages of the day, as well as some wonderful viral photos, such as those that came out of Antarctica. While marches in the U.S. were our primary focus, we also included images from around the world— from Kosovo to Kenya, France to Australia. It’s hard to overestimate the power of seeing so many people from all over the world marching in solidarity. 

What surprised you about talking to these marchers? 

We actually didn’t interview anyone for the book. We included some excerpts from the speeches at the events, but otherwise the voices are represented through the signs.

I love the idea of a postcard writing event. Why do postcards work so well?

I think most people want to be active, but life can easily get in the way. Postcards are a no-fuss way to share our thoughts with our elected representatives. This is also a time when people are eager for community. We want to talk to each other about what is happening and share ideas for how we can get involved. So a postcard-writing event creates both an instant community and an easy way to implement action.

When everything seems so dire, the hope of this book is a call to action. Because this situation seems so unprecedented, do you think we need to take actions that are unprecedented? Do you have a sense of what works and what doesn’t?

I absolutely do. I grew up in a family that encouraged protest. Elie Wiesel’s famed Nobel peace prize acceptance speech was like doctrine in our home: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” 

I’ve heard a lot of people say that we should be careful about being too partisan. That we need to focus on coming together instead of spending our time protesting. I disagree. These are not normal times. People’s basic rights are already being threatened daily. I don’t think I’m in a position to say what works and what doesn’t. But I do believe it’s necessary to stay informed and to communicate what we believe in. And to never question if any action is too small. Many local groups are forming to help make sense of all the information coming at us and to guide us in the many ways we can be helpful. I’ve always believed that getting involved at a local level is the best way to start. And sometimes, the answer is right around us, in the work we already do. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to use one’s own work to make a difference. I feel awfully lucky to work for an independent company that green lights and embraces projects like WHY WE MARCH. 

When is the book coming out and where can people get it?

It will be in stores and online by February 26.

Portrait of the artist as a VERY young man: Owen Evison, son of acclaimed novelist Jonathan Evison, talks about writing his first novel

Proud Papa and genius-in-the-making son

The young artist at work

Every once in a blue moon, we hear the word wunderkind, which of course, means a young prodigy, a person so masterful in his craft, that he inspires everyone. Such a young writer is Owen Evison.  And what makes Owen Particularly interesting is that he’s the son of famed and acclaimed novelist Jonathan Evison.

Owen's novel is still being written, but there is an exciting excerpt at the end of this interview. And famous writers, you may want to blurb this opus, as well as buy many copies when it is ready!

I’m thrilled to host Owen here to talk about his life as a writer. Thank you so much, Owen!

I’m always curious about how stories and writers get started. What made you want to write?  What was easy about it? What was hard—and did you mind that it was hard?

OWEN: Minecraft made me want to write, because it captures my imagination, and my mom and dad only let me play a half hour a day, so writing a book about it was a way to have more Minecraft in my life. The easiest part was the typing—because Dad does it all. The hard part was thinking of what to write. Also, it was hard finding some of the pictures.

What kind of writer are you? Do you think about the story and then write it, or does it just fly out from you? 

OWEN: I make things up as I go along. Sometimes Dad helps me think of creative ways to say things, so that the reader gets blown away. I like writing the action scenes best, but now we are working on character development. Dad calls me Action Jackson.

What would you like readers to say about your work after they’ve read and loved it?

OWEN: It was awesome.

What’s it like learning about writing from your dad?  What’s the best thing he’s taught you?

OWEN: It’s fun. The best thing I’ve learned is not getting frustrated when you have to throw your whole novel away, because you’re always learning. I learned this from Leggos too, since my little sister sometimes breaks what I make. It’s the building part that matters.

So, do you have to have certain things around you to write? Like candy bars, or special music? And what kind of music do you like?

OWEN: My chewy, so I don’t chew on my shirt when I’m thinking. Some of my favorite music is Queen and Mudhoney and Motorhead.

What do you want to do next?

OWEN: I want to bring my book to life in minecraft. And write a book with my sister, Emma, who is four.

An excerpt from “The City at Night.”

I rushed to my chest and grabbed my bow, and quickly joined the villagers in mounting a wall. I had shot twenty ice creepers, when a fleet of zombies assaulted us, some with shovels, and some with swords. I jumped off the wall and bull rushed a gang of zombies, fists flying. One of the zombies got ahold of me and began pounding my head with a shovel. I managed to squirm lose from the zombie’s grip, and backpedal. I reached for my sword and charged the zombies, waving my sword wildly. I beheaded three of them.

By now, night had fallen, and the villagers had both the zombies and the ice creepers contained. I took the opportunity to eat some rotten zombie flesh for dinner, before returning home to catch some zs.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Brilliant artist Josef Zutelgte talks about the creation process, the fragility of life, human behavior, and so much more

Josef in front of Grand Central Net



Ways of the World

Double Face

For Aleppo
Josef Zutelgte is a working artist and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York . I love his work so, so much that I wanted to host him on the blog.You can see his work now at:
Sculpture Space NYC
47-21   35th Street
Long Island City, NY 11101

Show runs through March 4th.
The artist will be there Saturdays from about 12 -6.
Otherwise by appointment.

Thank you so much, Josef, for being here.

I always think that creative people are haunted in some way that pushes them to produce art. Is that true for you? Can you talk about that please?
If I am haunted, it is by the responsibility I feel that I take on when I create work. I want my work to touch the viewer and evoke reactions, such as a contemplation or an emotion.
I allowed myself to go down the road of being an artist, working on and producing ideas that are uncertain to begin with. Being “haunted” I think is more of a calling or a drive, a feeling of excitement, about exploring my interests from any angle. I make work because it’s what I like to do. Once I start working, I know that the materials and the process will guide me and I can simply trust my work. That is not to say that I don’t have clear ideas and goals, but there is play and discovery involved in the creative process. In the beginning of any work, I enjoy the excitement of exploration, but as I go deeper into a subject, I develop a sense of what the work is about. Once things start to take shape, I develop a feeling of responsibility to the work, the way a writer feels a responsibility to a character. Of course, it is also a reflection of my own consciousness—whether it is a commentary or a question using my vocabulary as a sculptor.  I always want the work to affect or move the viewer, and that might be how I am haunted.

I absolutely love your sculptures, which have this bristlingly alive quality to them, almost as if they are breathing in front of us. Is there a moment when you are creating that you know that you have achieved this?
When I begin work on a sculpture, I have a general idea of where I want to go with it. I make sketches, which help me figure out basic compositional or structural aspects, but usually my drawings are intentionally not too detailed, because I like elements of surprise and the option to change while I am working.  I actively encourage these unanticipated moments. I develop a relationship with my work during this process, and the work and I have a kind of reciprocity; I can manipulate the work and the materials but it also dictates sometimes what it wants to become. It is like a developing friendship. Usually the work goes through many phases and builds up layers of history—and in the whole process, the work becomes itself. At some point, I just know that it is right.

How do you approach your art initially? Do you have it planned out or does it spring alive in your hands?
As I said, I always work with a general idea in my mind, but I try not to have a rigid path to the goal. I like the surprises that can happen on the way and enjoy discovering the things I could not have planned. Sometimes I want things the way I planned.  Other times, when accidents or surprises happen, this new turn expands the idea and gives me a new and better direction.  So I don’t avoid the unexpected. But this is not random. When I draw for example, I may try to draw a straight line, but I will place the paper onto a rough surface. This gives me several options; I follow the plan and fight for a straight line, despite the rough ground, or I accept and adapt to the newly discovered line initiated by the rough ground. This is probably the most exciting part of my working process.
My most recent exhibition is a good example of this. It is the culmination of a residency at the Sculpture Space NYC, where I worked with clay for the first time. I had some concrete ideas about sculptures that I wanted to create, but clay and the kiln process has a mind of its own. It is not always predictable and created some difficult challenges—but they were challenges that forced me to reinvigorate my process, and the results were rewarding for me.

I know with writers, that our writing changes as we change. I imagine it is the same with art?

Yes, I agree. My relationship to my work is very much determined by my environment and the world I live in. This world elicits responses that I express through my work. Sometimes the world asks for very specific responses.

I am not so much interested in representing life, I am more interested in creating things that stand on their own and function like living things. When I make works, I try to infuse them with their own sensibility and language. Once they are finished, I can step back, and the works generate their own energy, and I discover new things in them.

What do you want viewers to feel and experience when they look at your art?

My work is very labor intensive. I spend a lot of time with each sculpture while building it. During this period, many different thoughts and emotions influence the process. The construction of a sculpture or a drawing involves layering and creating history; it can show trial and error, successes and misses, and I like to involve the viewer in this process. Ultimately, I want to create something that has mystery, creates wonder, and invites the viewer to reflect on it.

I couldn't take my eyes off your Double Face drawing. There was something about it that at first glance looked normal, and then unsettling, and then almost as if there were a secret something that was pulling me in. (Also, on its own, it is very, very beautiful.) Can you talk about your intent?
Double Face is a work from a series of drawings, prints and sculptures that began with the simple investigation of facial expressions but quickly developed into a contemplation of human behavior in general. People often say that the face is an open book, a view into the human’s soul. My work explored what it can reveal and at the same time how it can become a mask. What does the face actually show when we are using it to hide something? How do we relate to that? In one sense, this series was intended to look at and analyze expressions, but at the same time it reflects back on ourselves.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Change is something I am thinking about a lot lately. Two major experiences in my life catapulted me into a situation in which things I took for granted, stable institutions, laws, traditions and beliefs lost stability and made me aware how fragile and vulnerable the structures of life are. The death of my mother and a new government. When my mother died, it seemed as if my anchor to my past was gone. That sense of stability was gone. At the same time, the political situation here had changed dramatically. The interdependency of our natural systems and our manufactured systems seems beset with a domino effect of instability as a result of these changes. How do we, how do I deal with this? It is like a crazy balancing act and that is why I called my show “Balancing Act.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dan Chaon talks about his brilliantly unsettling new novel ILL WILL, his green chile stew recipe, and why the election is nudging him to write

 Oh yes, you read Dan Chaon and you think your skin is being flayed off and you are so unsettled you have to make sure the front door is locked, but you cannot stop reading or admiring the diamonds of his prose. But maybe you didn't also know that Dan Chaon is also hilarious funny, with a warped sense of humor and a heart so generous, you sort of wish he could be knighted.

 Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and You Remind Me of Me, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. Chaon’s fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and he was the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chaon lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.

I'm completely jazzed to have Dan here. He's one of my favorite writers--and people--on the planet.  Thank you so much, Dan. Now to make your chili recipe!

I always think there is a reason for writing a novel at the time that the author writes it. What was going on in your mind or haunting you before you started?

The most obvious thing was the death of my wife in 2008.  I went a little crazy for a few years afterward, and I was trying to raise two teenaged boys as an insane widower, and when I started my new novel, I thought to myself, I AM NOT going to write about any of this crap.  I'm going to write a book about serial killers and satanic ritual abuse and it's going to be creepy and weird and it will take me out of my own life and my own head. 

Then I began to realize that the main character was a widower with two teenaged sons, and I was like, N-no! No!  NOOO!

But it was too late! Picture me at my sister's house over Christmas,  having a discussion about it. My sister said, "Why did you make me into a lying ho-bag?"  and my oldest son said, "You made me into a doomed asshole!" And my youngest son said, "At least you guys didn't get murdered."  My brother-in-law shrugged. "I think there should have been more about the drownings I told you about!"  

"It's fiction!"  I said.  "That's how it works.  There's a little kernel you take from your own life, and the rest is invented."

"I will say this," my sister said.  "I was impressed by your self-awareness! You were really brave in the way you portrayed Dustin so honestly."

"I'm not anything like Dustin!" I said curtly.   And everyone laughed.     

Ill Will is so fabulously unsettling, so beautifully dark, that I am wondering--was there any moment during the writing where you felt, what am I doing? I can’t go there (and then you went there, anyway?) Did you ever feel physically distressed? (All of these, by the way, are compliments of the highest order.)

There were. We're probably thinking about the same thing--the thing at the end with the tank, right?  But it would be a spoiler to talk about.  But, yes, when I got to that part I was like, I can't believe I'm doing this, nonononono

That's one thing that has always interested me about the fiction-writing process--it's so beyond the control of your conscious mind. We know we have two brains--a left and a right--but I'm never so aware of it as when the left brain is working and the right brain knows nothing about it.
I didn't even know that X was the killer!  But when I go back and re-read, it's clear that a part of me must have known.     

How was writing Ill Will different than writing your other books?

It was the first book that I wrote without my wife, Sheila, as the first reader.  It was also, coincidentally, the first book that I let my sons read as I writing it, the first book I wrote while they were adults. So much is different because of where you are in time.  This is definitely a book written by a fifty-year-old man, which I couldn't've written when I was in my twenties.

Perhaps also related to turning 50:  It's the first book where I felt mostly free of anxiety about what people would think.  I felt freer to experiment with language and form, and I felt freer to do crazy stuff with plot that my more conservative younger self probably would have talked me out of.

Picture me:  toothless oldster cackling wildly as the speedometer pushes past 100 mph.   I swing my hat in a loop above my head.   Wooo-hooooooo.

Ill Will takes up familiar Dan Chaon themes--adoption and what it can do to you, family and bottomless grief--but it adds serial killings--but all of these are all multi-layered themes, and have much deeper meanings than mere surface. Are you aware of these deeper meanings when you write, or do they startle and unnerve you when you have finished a few drafts?

Most of the time I don't know what the deeper meanings even are until someone points them out.

There's a lot in fiction writing that's invisible to the conscious mind, and to me the most important thing is being able to trust in images and scenes.  I still don't know why one of my characters hallucinates a tiny man dancing in his underwear, or why the same character seems to appear, unaged, during three different time periods, or what the string of emojis means.

I like that there are things that I myself can't explain about my books, that the world of the novel somehow exists outside of "me"-- in some other realm.    

The publisher’s letter in the arc calls your novel crime fiction--but I don’t think it really is.  Do you?  I believe it’s deeply literary, brilliantly genre-bending, and unlike anything else anyone else is writing. Yes, there are crimes in it--but it’s really more about the stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves from coming against the truth of our lives, in a way. Can you talk about this? How do you categorize your own work?

I really do feel like I'm always on the borderlands, and that's the way I like it. I'm definitely in the "literary" tribe--I'm a National Book Award nominee, I've been in Best American Short Stories, I got a thingee from the American Academy of Arts and Letters--but at the same time, I've never worn that label comfortably.

In the past few years, I've made inroads into being accepted by the fantasy/horror community--I've been in a couple of straight-up horror anthologies, and I'm teaching this year at the Clarion SF/Fantasy Workshop.  I'm proud of that, and I'd be very glad to be considered a Crime writer, or a Thriller writer, too. My plotting isn't quite good enough or direct enough to place me firmly in that category, but I definitely feel a kinship with those writers who are considered Mystery, Horror, Fantasy, Crime, Thriller, etc. Many of the writers I most admire are those who are stubbornly stuck in-between:  Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Peter Straub, Kelly Link, etc. Those are my people.

I used to feel a little bitter that The New Yorker wouldn't publish me.  Now I feel like they probably did me a favor.

You’re critically-acclaimed-highly respected-famous, but you don’t seem to own that label. In fact, you are down-to-earth-regular-guy, hilarious, smart-generous--and you seem to take nothing for granted and to be incredibly grateful. How do you manage this?

Oh, Caroline!   Thank you!  Picture me delivering a curtsey. 

I am grateful.  In a lot of ways, I'm one of the luckiest people I've ever known.  I grew up relatively poor, in a rural Midwestern American trailer-park sort of way, but now I'm a fairly
well-to-do college professor/writer dude with a house and sense of security that many people would kill for.  I have nothing to complain about.

Yet I often don't feel like the guy you describe. There's a part of me that's full of squirming black eels--not nice, not funny, not generous, not optimistic. That cold, angry shadow person who had a large hand in writing this poisonous book.  

Is there anything that you wouldn’t want to write?

I almost hate to say this, because it sounds obnoxious, but I wouldn't want to write something that made people forget their troubles. I don't think I'd enjoy writing light entertainment that cheered and amused folks.  I wouldn't want to write commercials for anything.  That seems kind of stingy and mean, I guess. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

This is February 2017, and we're only three weeks into the new presidential administration. The news has sort of taken over my life and brain, and I've got to figure out a way to get out of the circular maze it puts me in.  I'm obsessing about finding some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.  I think maybe the only way to get out of it is to write,  but I haven't started yet.      

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

My recipe for Green Chile Stew! 

1 lb of chorizo sausage, browned.
1 lb. of pork chop, cut into cubes and browned in the chorizo grease.
3 large potatoes, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
3 tomatillos, diced.
2 poblano peppers, chopped
2 anaheim peppers, chopped
1 (or more) jalepeno pepper, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped garlic
1 12 oz jar of Goya brand Recaito
3 tbs. cumin
6-7 cups of chicken or vegetable stock

Combine all ingredients and bring stock to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for
1 hour, until potatoes are soft. 

How do art and life mesh? Number 1 NYT Bestselling author of Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline talks about her ravishing new novel A PIECE OF THE WORLD, wearing Uggs, writing, and so much more

You know that magic moment when everything comes together and not only do you adore the writing--but the writer as well? That’s the way it for me with Christina Baker Kline. I first met her for lunch before Orphan Train was even published! We quickly bonded and I’ve been so ecstatic to see her star zooming into the stratosphere. She’s kind, funny, supportive, and every wonderful adjective I can think of.

Christina is the author Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and she’s written or edited five works of nonfiction. Her 2013 novel Orphan Train spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of Orphan Train for young readers is Orphan Train Girl (2017).

In addition to her novels, Kline has commissioned and edited two widely praised collections of original essays on the first year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and edited a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, and Psychology Today, among other places.

Kline was born in Cambridge, England, and raised there as well as in the American South and Maine. She is a graduate of Yale, Cambridge, and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow in Fiction Writing. She has taught fiction and nonfiction writing, poetry, English literature, literary theory, and women’s studies at Yale, NYU, and Drew University, and served as Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University for four years. She is a recipient of several Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellowships and Writer-in-Residence Fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She is on the advisory board of Roots & Wings, a foster-care organization in NJ; The Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, ME; and the Montclair Animal Shelter, and supports a number of libraries and other associations.

Kline lives in an old house in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, David Kline, and three sons, Hayden, Will, and Eli.  She spends as much time as possible in an even older house in Southwest Harbor, Maine.

AND SHE IS MY FRIEND!  AND you can see her speak this Friday (see the poster above) where I am lucky enough to interview her for part of the event. As always, a thousand thank-yous, Christina.

How did the research you did change how you felt about the painting--and about Christina Olson?

Perhaps surprisingly, I never got tired of looking at the painting. The more I learned about the real-life Christina Olson, the more I saw in it. Christina was a very private person. She was also obstinate, eccentric, wickedly funny, and extremely smart. Though some of the things she did –sabotaging her brother’s relationship with a woman he intended to marry, for example – might seem selfish and even mean-spirited, I came to feel a great deal of sympathy for her. She was taken out of school at the age of 12 to run the household; she had a painful and debilitating degenerative neurological disease; she was betrayed by a cad who strung her along for years. As I wrote this novel I thought about Flaubert’s response to a critic who chided him for writing about such an immoral woman: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” It’s my hope that by the end of A Piece of the World the reader deeply understands why Christina acted the way she did.

Was it difficult to let Christina Olson go when you were finished writing? Did you have any sense of how she might have felt about your book? (New Agey, but I want to know!)

I don’t feel I’ve let go of her. It was such a difficult book to write, and required such immersion, that I feel her presence still – almost as if she’s a living person. (How New Agey is that?!)

What was the most surprising thing about writing this novel?

That I managed to finish it, that it’s actually a novel. I was terrified I wouldn’t pull it off. I was determined to be as historically accurate as possible; the story – such as it is – really happened. I wanted to do the real-life story justice. Furthermore, I had to conjure a plot and a structure out of the air; Christina Olson barely left her house. I had to imbue ordinary moments with weight and meaning and create a kind of forward motion that was often internal. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wracked with anxiety. It was so stressful. In the course of writing the first draft of this novel I got a third-degree burn on my hand, 18 stitches in my forehead, and broke my shoulder. I think I was subconsciously becoming a disabled person. I was channeling Christina Olson.

I loved the whole idea of the muse being as important in a way as the artist himself. Wyeth and Christina had this definite bond. They understood each other. Do you think Wyeth's wife was jealous?

Betsy first met Christina when she was nine years old and Christina was 37. She adored Christina and spent hours helping her around the house. Eight years later, the same day that Betsy met 22-year-old Andy, she brought him to meet Christina -- as a kind of test, she later said. It was his habit to immerse himself in the lives of his subjects; he did so throughout his life. I think Betsy was glad that he’d found a subject that obsessed him, and I also think she appreciated Andy’s friendship with Christina, in part because she knew Christina was lonely.

What's obsessing you now and why?

It’s hard to turn away from the debacle that is the Trump administration, I must say. I’ve marched and signed petitions and sent postcards and posted about the ongoing atrocities, and now I’m determined to settle back into my work. (And keep my activism on a low boil.)

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

“What are you wearing?” I’m so glad you asked: my writing outfit of leggings, a long t-shirt and Uggs. It’s not beautiful but it sure is comfortable!

Can you talk at all about what you are thinking of doing next? I'm always fascinated!

I’m researching a new novel that takes place in Glasgow, London, and Australia in the 19th century. I love doing research and taking notes, shaping my story. It’s exciting to learn about other ways of living and other time periods. Writing is such seriously hard work, as you well know, Caroline – sometimes it goes very well, but even when it does, I wrestle with self-doubt. Research is a pure delight.

Is it ever to late to dream a new life? Novelist Leah DeCesare says no

I'm so happy to host novelist Leah DeCesare here today to talk about her debut novel, Forks, Knives and Spoons. Thank you so, so much, Leah for encouraging everyone to follow their dreams.

If you think it’s too late to go for your dream, you’re wrong. I took the circuitous path to write FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS but I can now proudly say, I am a debut novelist.

I mulled and pondered how to take the concept of labeling guys as forks, knives, and spoons and turn it into a story for literally decades before ever writing more than a few notes.

The kernel of the story, the Utensil Classification System, began in 1988 when my own father gave me a silverware lesson in guys before I left for college. At school, I shared it with my new friends and the labels expanded and grew, becoming very detailed. The way it caught on and multiplied stuck in my imagination and waited.

I had always wanted to be a writer, from the time I was in the early elementary years, I wrote: poems, diaries, short stories, essays. In fifth grade, I even typed out five chapters of my first novel attempt and sent it off to a major New York City publisher receiving my very first badge of being a writer — my first rejection letter — at 11 years old.

Fast forward through a college degree in business, a career in retail buying, event planning and public relations, leap ahead through three babies, too many volunteer jobs, and a second career of being a doula, parenting and birth educator, and arrive at me in my forties. It had been decades of me not pursuing my childhood dream.

In a reflective moment, I asked myself what I was waiting for to finally become a writer. I knew that if one day I looked back at my life I would regret not having done this and I jumped into action. I fulfilled volunteer obligations and chose not to re-up my appointments, I found a successor to lead a non-profit I’d founded, I stopped saying “yes” to everything someone asked me to chair/manage/facilitate. The kids were getting older and I made intentional decisions to find time and to make writing this book a priority. I put this abstract “become a writer” on the top of my to-do list and made it concrete. But even then, it took years.

First drafts are crap and mine was no different, but it was a completed first draft and that, in itself, felt monumental. From there, the book has changed dramatically through work with editors, beta readers, and even a casual conversation over cocktails at a writers’ conference with best selling authors Ann Hood and Jackie Mitchard. They asked about my book then, without reading a word of it, offered ideas that made so much sense I reworked the manuscript again after their impromptu masters class.

Now, I’m working on my second novel and am approaching it in a whole new, better way than I did with FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS. I’ve learned so much from writing this book and I feel the most thrilling sense of personal accomplishment and joy. So if there’s a dream you’re sitting on, waiting on, thinking on — stop imagining it and do it! Believe in yourself and make your heart’s desire a reality.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

New York Times Bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore talks about the paperback addition of June (just out!), being a mom and so much more

I told you she had a gorgeous family, didn't I?

The sublime paperback cover

The sublime author

I had the best time one day walking around Central Park talking to New York Times Bestselling and critically acclaimed author Miranda  Beverly Whittemore about writing, life, kids, publishing, ourselves. She's the loveliest person, with the most wonderful family, and truthfully, I'm honored to know her AND to post about her ravishing novel JUNE, which is now in paperback. 

Miranda is also the author of the Effects of Life, Bittersweet, and you really need to buy all of them to keep in your Miranda library! 

Thanks for being here, Miranda! And for everything

For me, having a baby made me more creative. It really did. Has this been the case for you? Has your world view changed with this second child?

My daughter was someone the three of us desperately wanted- and it took a long time for her to show up (there's almost eight years between my children)! So having baby number two has taught me an enormous amount of patience. 

There is nothing like falling in love with a baby, so on one hand, I'm very much centered in that delicious hormonal rush of love, and on the other hand, given our current political climate, it's been a really hard time to have a new baby- especially a daughter- come into the world. I'm so fearful for her future- for the planet we are leaving for her, the bigotry being exposed in our midst. I'm trying to focus on giving her and my son love and hope and joy, which I do believe are active forms of resistance, and which fuel me to action on their behalf. 

As for writing, I'm very much still in mommy-brain mode, but I have a few new novel ideas that I'm excited about. And in the meantime, I'm writing a long-form essay about the long journey towards her joining our family, which has been therapeutic and thought provoking, though not necessarily what I'd call fun. 

How do you find the time to work and be a new mom?

It's all about grabbing bits of time when you get them. Baby is happily playing alone? You take the five minutes to scribble an idea down. You've got an hour of childcare? Put your fingers to the keyboard and don't lift them until the timer goes off. In the two years after my son was born, I was more productive than I'd ever been up until that point, because I no longer had an excuse not to be working when I was given the chance. 

Do you feel differently about having a paperback come out that you did your hardback? Why or why not?

It's definitely a different kind of excitement. In the case of June, I'm thrilled that it's got a sexy new cover, and filled with all kinds of new goodies-- a Q & A with me, a recipe guide, a book guide that I enjoyed writing-- which I hope will appeal, especially, to book groups. And there's less pressure with the paperback, because the book has already made its mark in the world. I'm always a mess before hardcover publication, but, at least so far, I seem to be faring okay (that could just be the sleep deprivation talking). 

Mary Ann Henry talks about Ladies in Low Places, fate, story structure, and that fabulous Hell Hole Swamp Queen 2nd Runner up tee-shirt

The infamous book promotion tee-shirt that EVERYONE wanted at Pulpwood

Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Nation party

Mary Ann Henry traveling solo

Know why we bonded? We each had similar necklaces. This is Mary Ann's

The boo

So there I was at the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Nation weekend, when this woman came over to me because we had the exact same necklace. Everywhere I looked among the hundreds of attendants, people were wearing this t-shirt that said Hell Hole Swamp Queen, 2nd Runner Up. Of course I wanted one. And of course, it was the brilliant promotional idea of Mary Ann! But that wasn't all we shared. Over fireballs at the Liberty Cafe in East Texas, we talked about everything from food to books to our lives and were fast friends by the middle of the drink.  Born in Charleston, Mary Ann has been described as "Turning the archetype of the Southern Woman on its head." Ladies in Low Places was awarded First place in the Fiction/Short Story Collection from Chanticleer Reviews. 

So happy to host you here, Mary Ann. Hope to share a glass of wine and talk with you again!

I always think that authors are haunted by something, which propels them to write their novels. What was haunting you with Ladies in Low Places (great title by the way.)

During my daughter's wedding, which I hosted at my house, my best friend's crack-addicted son broke in and stole more than twenty thousand dollars worth of antique jewelry which my daughter had inherited from her grandmother. Plus, thousands of dollars in cash. Never got the jewelry and cash back. But, the worst part? My friend was advised by her son's lawyer to never discuss it with me. We were best friends for twenty-five years and we never spoke again. 

it was a betrayal on many levels. I realized that women have experiences unique to our gender: mother-daughter, mother-son, and friend relationships that are complex and, sometimes, wounding. I took the heart break and funneled it into stories about women of all ages, and the real things that happen to us. People often expect short stories to be edgy and dark. I'd had enough edgy and dark in real life. And, because I'm Southern and I'm me, I laced it all with a dose of Southern humor. So, yes, the stories are about losing virginity, family alienation, disappointing husbands, searching for the authentic self...and humor. All with a somewhat hopeful ending.

What inspired you to do a T-shirt giveaway at the writer's conference where we met?

It was a risk, leading with my quirky humor, when the book has a lot of heart and soul and sadness as well. But, I thought: What the heck? We're all here to have fun. So, I took a character from one of the stories in Ladies in Low Places, who is forced to compete in the Miss Hell Hole Swamp, SC beauty pageant (it's a real thing) by her grandmother, who was a former Miss Hell Hole, and I put it on the t-shirt. I can't wait to hear from readers, as I've asked them to write and tell me what stories they make up when someone asks them, (when they're wearing their shirt), why they only made 2nd Runner-Up.Tell us about your creative process. Do you outline or fly by the seat of
your pants? 

I am obsessed with story structure. So, I like to write the story all the way to the end. Then, I go back and, in layers, concentrate on one thing at a time: plot, character, setting, timing, etc. I try to strip the character down to his/her essence. If they feel too shallow, I talk to myself while I'm driving or exercising, asking, 'But, why? Why would she do this? Why?' (laughing here). And, just because I write to the end, it doesn't mean the characters don't decide on their own what they're going to do. 

Do you have rituals?

Sort of. I avoid my office. Let everyone else's needs come before my own. I let all manner of distractions take me away from what I really should be doing (writing). And then, when I can no longer make excuses...I write!  I am also, finally, learning to regard writing as a spiritual practice. 

You mentioned you are working on two novels now. Is this a "Torn Between Two Lovers" situation? How do you manage this?

I realized at least two of my short stories from the collection could/should be novels or screenplays. I was half-way through a novel based in Charleston, SC, where I now live, when, last winter, I accepted a writer's residency on a mountain top, alone, in West Virginia. I took a train. I had no car. Snow everywhere. Isolation. I was Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But, that same mountainous region was one of the settings in a coming-of-age novel I'd written and hidden in a box years ago. I re-read it and wanted to give the main character and her supporting cast of characters, a chance at life. So, I took advantage of being back in the novel's setting and began re-writing and am presently polishing it. Hope to get an agent and a publisher. The other novel waits patiently. Perhaps readers will accept that I am both an Appalachian writer and a Southern one.  

You and I both share the same necklace, which we both think is fate. How else has fate impacted your work?

Other than the fact that I won a Women's Fiction award for the collection and flew to Seattle to accept it; and happened to be trapped on a bus for hours, in a traffic jam, going from the Seattle airport to the awards ceremony where I met Kathy Murphy, the head of the largest book club in the world, the Pulpwood Queens; and then, Ms. Murphy read Ladies in Low Places and invited me to be a featured author at their event in Texas, where, last weekend, I met one of my favorite authors, Caroline Leavitt, who happened to be wearing a small, bronze, antique compass on a long chain, nearly identical to my own, fate, I feel, is still waiting out there; ready to strike and make my writing dreams come?  All editors are welcome to completely change the punctuation in that sentence. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed with solo and adventure travel for women. I've traveled to study with shamans, backpacked around Ireland; participated in a private ceremony inside the stones of Stonehenge; studied on a Lakota reservation; am headed to the Outer Hebrides this summer. I post about travel tips for women on my Author website and really can pack for 30 days in a 21" tall and 15" wide backpack. I am always obsessed with gardening because I have to be in contact with nature. I'm obsessed with dogs because I put my soul friend/black lab, Bentley, down last year and I have not yet met the Next Dog. I've been single for a long while and I wonder when the Next Man will appear. As a writer, I am obsessed with finding the perfect marriage of writer/author/publisher for my next two books, the novel set in West Virginia and the one set in South Carolina. 

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

Do I like fresh peas, walnuts and olive oil? Yes! Actually, I also love to teach writing. I used to teach young, creative geniuses at a School of the Arts, who would go to Carnegie Hall every year and pick up writing awards. I especially enjoy teaching a Finding Your Voice workshop where I get to unlock the writer-within in adults, usually women, who have been holding back all their lives. The flood gates open. It's amazing. I've put these workshops on hold to concentrate on my own projects. But I will teach again, someday.