Friday, March 31, 2017

Want to know a fantastic book festival to go to? Long Island's Word Up Lit Festival is amazing and award-winning author, journalist and founder Claudia Gryvatz Copquin is here to talk about it

The phenomenal Claudia Copquin runs the Word Up Festival

I was so happy to be here!

There are tons of book festivals, but what I loved about Word Up was that it was all in one huge auditorium, so whether your were Gail Sheedy or Dave Barry, Barry Dougherty, Alan Zweibel, Cathi Hanauer, or me...we all had the same huge audience. How great is that? I fell in love with Claudia Gryvatz Copquin, an award-winning journalist, author and book lover, who was on top of  every detail, even with her arm in a sling, and she's here to talk to us about the fest.

What gave you the idea for Word Up? How difficult was it to bring it together? 
As an avid reader, I’ve been to literary festivals and book fairs and was always questioning why we didn’t have these on Long Island.  We have great indie bookstores and libraries, so I know there are other readers here, as well as people who want to meet authors and see them reading their works on a stage.  Also, a few of my writer friends and I had begun touring around Long Island, Manhattan and even Brooklyn, reading our personal essays under the name, “Living, Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears.”  Those readings were very well received, so that was the impetus for creating a larger forum and a broader event, which became Word Up: Long Island LitFest.  The first year we were strictly a non-fiction event, but we have since opened it up to fiction, so our audiences could enjoy seeing writers like you!  In terms of difficulty, I have an amazing and giving Advisory Board on hand. But this is really a labor of love so I enjoy the whole challenge of putting together a festival each year. 
I was amazed at the crowd, and the warmth and the camaraderie of everyone. How did that come about so easily? 
That’s organic. The audience is well read and cultured and interested in ideas and so they really appreciate this unique event on Long Island.  I think the vibe also comes from our motto:  This is a day to disconnect from gadgets and connect with each other via the written and spoken word. 
What is the best experience you've had from Word Up? 

There are so many!  Of course, it’s a thrill for me to meet authors and get to schmooze with them all day behind-the-scenes.  These are my heroes, so what a perk!  But I also really value audience input. People stop me in the lobby at LitFest and tell me face-to-face what a great time they are having, and how fantastic it is to have this event going on and how great the authors are – that immediate feedback is priceless, and is what keeps me going!
Can I ask what was the worst? 

Sure.  I think the worst was our first year. Dick Cavett was our keynote and we had Susan Isaacs, Arlene Alda, Henry Alford, Julie Klam and other incredibly talented writers, and it took place at the end of May.  Well, we were in a historic castle on the North Shore of Long Island and the air conditioner broke.  There was about 120% humidity that day and the venue didn’t have enough fans on hand so you can imagine the angst…..
What's obsessing you now and why? 

Do you mean in general or in regards to Long Island LitFest? In general, I’m obsessed with the news. Where are we heading …??   In regards to LitFest, I’m obsessed with starting the process all over again of booking best-selling authors for LitFest 2018! 
What question didn't I ask that I should have!  

Well, I want to include that in addition to our signature event, a full day of author readings, book signings and workshops, we also host single-author events throughout the year under “Long Island LitFest Presents…”  In November we hosted Wally Lamb and in December Alice Hoffman.  We are hosting Anna Quindlen on June 8 at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington and there will be more as the year progresses so I invite your readers to subscribe to our website for up-to-date info on these great events.  

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hannah Lillith Assadi talks about Sonora, coming of age in both the desert and New York City, love, sex, and so much more

“A lyrical meditation on the confusion and awe of growing up that is made beautifully strange by the desert’s haunting presence . . . both typical and painfully, relatably fresh . . . Lyrical, raw, and moving.”
—Kirkus Reviews

See the high praise above from the notoriously cranky Kirkus? Sonora is a fever dream about coming of age, that moves from the desert to New York City. About fleeing the past, finding your present, and change, it's a remarkable narrative that frankly keeps haunting me.

Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She was raised in Arizona by her Jewish mother and Palestinian father

I always want to know what was specifically haunting you that led you to write this luminous novel?
The origin of this novel is in a final assignment for a seminar I took during my MFA years with Rivka Galchen themed around James Joyce’s gorgeous story “The Dead”.  I had known many people who passed away tragically at my high school and wrote a piece about those we lost in those years as a backdrop to a story of a failed relationship with a man I loved then. I finished that very short piece in one night. The next morning I received a message from a friend from high school informing me that an old classmate of ours had been killed in a car accident (the accident happened at the same time I was writing the piece). It was eerie and that’s when I knew I had an obligation to the material. From that kernel, it developed into a fuller length narrative which I submitted as my MFA thesis. Six months after submitting my thesis, the man I mentioned (the love object of the original piece) passed away suddenly. And then I tore the thesis apart and began to shape it into more or less the form it holds now. All to say, there are a lot of ghosts contained in the novel’s pages, though none appearing as they did in life!
What kind of writer are you? Was there ever a moment when you felt you couldn't keep writing, or you had taken a wrong turn? And if so, how did you deal with it?
Aside from every day? HA. But seriously, I have just arrived into the book writing career, and if I am fortunate that career will be long, and Sonora is only my debut. Definitely, though, I was more assured writing it than I have been say in the new novel I am working on now. I am more hesitant, more doubtful. As for process I tend to write very quickly and then go back over my work many times over. There are hundreds of drafts of Sonora.
So much of this gorgeous novel is about coming of age even as you are haunted by the past.  Can you talk about the dangers of coming of age, what we lose sometimes in doing so?

I think youth, if we are open to its experiences, is absolutely terrifying. Thankfully when we are young we don’t know how dangerous and vulnerable we are. This novel happens to take place in the narrator’s life between her childhood and her early 20s, but in my own life it was in my early 20s that I took the most risks. Coming of age is in most cases a necessity. The alternative is early death? But it saddens me that as we age we lose our brazen ability to fall in love, walk into a night with passion and excitement. We lose a lot growing up. We also gain a lot, and I wouldn’t exchange the calmness and wisdom accompanying it for all the wild days in my past.

Your language is so strikingly poetic. Which comes first for you--the words or the character? 

Thank you! Actually dreams come first for me. I need to have a visual in mind to write anything at all. I’m very reliant on my night time imagination and dreams have this way of communicating our emotions into such vivid pictures. Once I have a scene in mind, then I use the best words I can find to describe it. For instance much of the inspiration for the prose in Sonora revolves around a dream I had as a child of a girl hanging upside down from a cactus in the middle of a monsoon. In the book, I wrote that as a vision the narrator has of Laura on the mountains. That visual became the seed I relied on when I didn’t know where to go next.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Like many others right now, I am pretty consumed by the state of this country, and trying to combat feelings of imminent doom. But in my writing life, I’m working on something set by the ocean which surprise-surprise has an end of the world vibe. It delves a little further into magical territory. So once I’m done with a few of the book engagements I have for Sonora, I am very much looking forward to getting back to working on it and being in its watery realm.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Maybe what advice would I give to other writers trying to get their first books published?
My answer would be never give up, and never compromise (too much) on your vision!
Caroline, such an honor to chat with you. Thank you.

A circus that hides Jews during WWII, two astonishing women, and the power of hope over despair. Pam Jenoff talks about The Orphan's Tale, our political climate, and more

Of course I knew of Pam Jenoff and her brilliant work, but I was so happy to meet her at a book festival! She's down-to-earth, funny and you should know that this is a woman who can do the Lazy River five times in a row. And her new novel, The Orphan's Tale, set in WWII, about a traveling circus that hides Jews and the intersecting lives of two women, is both mesmerizing and heart-wrenching.

Pam Jenoff has worked in both the State Department and the U. S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. She's a lawyer who now teaches law school at Rutgers, but more importantly (at least to me), she's the author of the international bestseller, The Kommandant's Girl, The Winter Guest, The Diplomat's Wife, The Ambassador's Daughter, Almost Home, A Hidden Affair and The Things We Cherished.

The only thing better than hosting her here would be having another dinner with her. With wine. Thank you, Pam.

What was haunting you that made you write this book?

I discovered two true stories out of Yad Vashem. One was a horrific account of a train of unknown infants, taken from their parents too young to know their own names and headed for the concentration camps. The other was of a German circus that had rescued Jews. What further fascinated me is when I was researching the circus, I discovered Jewish circus dynasties that flourished for centuries before the war. These stories twisted together to form the The Orphan’s Tale.

What was the writing like? What surprised you? What disturbed you?

I refer to The Orphan’s Tale as the book that it broke me to write, largely because of the scene with the boxcar of infants. I knew it would be the opening scene in chapter one, but I waited forever to write it. I felt that I had to metaphorically put my own three young children on the train in order to do it justice. After, I had almost a post-traumatic stress feeling and it was very hard to write anything at all.

The thing that surprised me the most was the circus. I didn’t go into this book loving the circus and I was not sure I wanted to spend a year writing about it. But ultimately I discovered that these were not circus stories, but human stories of hope and perseverance, that parallel not just ordinary life back then but also today.

What kind of a writer are you? Outline? Fly by the seat of your pen?

Total pantser (by the seat of my pants.) I have an idea, turn on the computer and go “blah” for about 60,00 words. Someone described it as, “throwing up on the page.” Then it gets unwieldy and I have to start making chapters and outlines. The editing is hell. It is the very worst way to write and I recommend it to no one, but it is the only way I can do it.

What's obsessing you now and why?

The ways in which the themes present in The Orphan’s Tale, of refuge and sanctuary and the moral responsibility we all face, have become more pressing than ever in light of the current political climate.

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

What drives you to write about the war? I spent several years living in Poland and working on Holocaust issues and becoming close to the survivors. I regard my books as love stories to the people who lived during that most difficult and important of eras.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

We pause to celebrate creativity in clothing--ThackerNYC's Toni Hacker talks about inspiration, narrative in clothing design, classic films, OCD, Bette Davis, hanging out with other designers, and those indispensable clothing kits

My new go-to designer for all my clothes: the brilliantly creative Toni Thacker

Oh! The showroom!

Portrait of the artist at work

A bit about the company

Oh black! Oh glorious shimmer!

Yes, I wear all black, but I'm making an exception for this gorgeous dress

I think everyone should have these

I always interview writers because I'm fascinated by process--by any creative process--and so I've also interviewed filmmakers, directors and clothing designers. Anyone who knows me knows that I dress in black. If there were a darker color, I'd wear it. But I also, like many women I know, have a terrible time finding clothes that speak to me, classics with just a little bit of something unique. I first saw a link, "12 black things every woman should own"--and I went nuts. Everything was perfection, including the things that were rich with color. Unusual, classic, different, and--and actually wearable! All by ThackerNYC, who is really Toni Hacker. 

I promptly wrote the company to express my devotion and because I wanted to interview Ms Hacker, to see how she works and how she comes up with designs. And I plan to wear my ThackerNYC clothes on tour.

Thank you so much, Toni, for agreeing to answer my questions, and thank you even more for creating such glorious, absolutely perfect clothing.And also, the lipstick tips. I bought the Mac.

Every woman I know knows how impossible it is to find wearable won't go-out-of-style pieces that you can dress up or down. When I saw your collections, I felt they were so perfect I could not stop staring at them and yearning for them. Can you please talk about the philosophy behind these incredible clothes?

Thacker was created after years of listening to women (customers, friends, and family) vent their frustration about finding well-made, versatile wardrobe essentials that aren't boring...I was having the exact same problem finding what I was looking for in the market, even though I'm in the fashion industry.  My takeaway was that women over size 12 and the age of 40 are often ignored in the contemporary market and that finding versatile, unfussy wardrobe pieces was becoming just another chore in an increasingly busy world. I decided to try and tackle the problem by creating a collection of modern-meets-classic 'forever' wardrobe pieces that work together for endless looks and that work with everything you already own. I want the brand to be the hardest working 10% of your closet that you love and reach for every day.

What I also love are the details that make a very simple piece special, like subtle blue sparkle on a dress or a gorgeous gold on a classic bootie. Where does your inspiration come from? And how do you choose the fabrics and the designs?

I love classic design, but for a piece to be truly special it has to have personality...a bit of narrative. My background is in studio art and industrial design, so I fell into fashion in sort of a sideways manner.  A lot of my inspiration now, for Thacker, comes from thinking about the platonic ideal of an item and then tweaking the line, cuts, or fabric so that it feels simultaneously modern and timeless. I love unexpected details, fabrics, and color. Classic film is a huge inspiration (I live and die by the Criterion Collection), as well as art. I'm a bit of a method designer and can be seriously OCD when I'm working...I'll watch the same movie or listen to the same album repeatedly until I finish a collection. I think I do a lot of problem solving in my sleep...sometimes I dream about the collection or specific pieces and wake up to sketch them. 

How did ThackerNYC get started? What are your backgrounds? The name is really fun to say, by the way!

 launched Thacker in late September of 2016 after I exited my previous brand, Hayden-Harnett, in August of 2015. When I left I did some freelance design and consulting work and then decided to create a new brand dedicated to amazing, kickass women everywhere. The name, Thacker, came from abbreviating my name. It's how I sign my letters.

I also love your kits (as everyone knows I live in black and you are making dressing stress free for me!) what other kits are you thinking of?  

I'd love to do a beach kit! We have some really fun pieces coming out for spring/summer 2017, including our first swimsuit and a really amazing coverup.

I am fascinated by how creative people work, especially in industries different from mine. What is a typical day or so like for you? What is the best part? The worst? 

I do a lot of different things within the company (design, marketing, and graphics), so I try to be pretty scheduled with my day and work so I don't get overwhelmed. I wake up at 6, make coffee, skim my emails to reply to anything super urgent, and plan our Instagram post for the day. I just moved to Beacon, NY after living in NYC for the past fifteen years so I'm loving my new commute on the Hudson line...the river views are crazy beautiful, inspiring, and relaxing. Our office is located on the west side near Hudson Yards, and I usually get in around 10am. My day in NYC involves working with my assistant to plan social, reviewing samples and fabrics, designing graphics for our site and newsletters, and meetings. I leave the office at 5:30 and wrap up any outstanding emails on the commute home.

We writers hang out together and discuss our work-in/progress and exchange ideas all the time. Is it that way in the fashion world? And do you test drive ideas?

I think everyone in fashion is too busy to hang out! Joking...and not joking. Fashion seems glamorous, but it's a LOT of work (physically, emotionally, and mentally). You have to be a great multitasker to survive and the pace can be a bit frantic because you have to work on-calendar. Fashion folks definitely reach out to each other for help finding specific materials, or if they need help with sourcing, freelancers, web designers, photographers, etc. 

I always try to personally road test what I create before it goes into the line. I have to know that it's going to work in real time, not just when you're sitting behind a desk.

What is obsessing you now and why?

Immediately, right this second, I'm obsessed with Bette Davis. I've been watching 'Feud' with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange...I would give anything to be on set and see those costumes and feel those laser vibes in person. Just watched Bette in 'Jezebel' last night. Classic.

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

Favorite pieces in the collection! The Ren pants, Beau blazer, Riva shirtdress, Georgina bag, and Pippin coat are absolute must-haves. Every woman should own these pieces. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

An epic love story that begins on 9/11, the meaning of love and how it changes, writing and more. Jill Santopolo talks about THE LIGHT WE LOST

Lucy and Gabe meet on the morning of 9/11, and through the years, come together and apart in a moving, insightful epic love story, which is also a debut, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo.

Jill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of three children’s and young-adult series and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.
I'm ridiculously thrilled to have you here, Jill. Thank you so much1

What was the backstory for The Light We Lost? I always think authors are somehow haunted into writing their books. And what is it like for you to be a debut author?
I love the idea of writers being haunted into putting their stories on paper. I don’t know if I was quite haunted into writing The Light We Lost as much as I cried my way into it. This book exists because of a horrible break-up, which is a bit of a sad backstory for a novel. I’d been writing books for children up until that point, but what I was experiencing couldn’t really be explored in children’s literature, so I started writing vignettes for an adult audience, about a woman who has her heart broken and what happens afterward. Those vignettes eventually became a novel. (And I eventually stopped crying.)

But while that was the spark that ignited The Light We Lost, it took me four years to write this story, and it morphed and changed along the way. While I’m not Lucy and my story’s not hers, the things she thinks about: love, loss, ambition, regret, desire—those are all things I was wondering about in the years during which I wrote this book.

And as far as being a debut author—it’s been incredible! The Light We Lost is actually my fifteenth book (I’ve written fourteen books for young readers), but this is my debut for an adult audience, and I feel like I’ve entered a different world. The Light We Lost is being translated into more than thirty languages, it’s gotten incredible advanced praise (thank you for your blurb!), and one review has come in so far, and it was starred. This all has been making me think that perhaps I should’ve been writing for adults all along.

So much of The Light We Lost is about first love--the power of it, how we never forget who we were when we had that love. But do we stay the same in that love?

That’s such an interesting question. I have cousins who first met and fell in love in junior high school and then married and stayed together for decades. In observing them, my guess is that the love grows and matures as people do, and hopefully as people who are in a relationship change, they grow together and not apart.

In The Light We Lost I think that there are things about Lucy and Gabe and the way they interact with each other that do stay the same in the thirteen years that they know each other. But at the same time, they change as people, they both grow up a bit, and that maturity informs how they act toward each other and the choices they make.

9/11 also figures in the book, changing your characters. How were you yourself changed by the force of that event?
 Just like Lucy and Gabe, I was in my last year of college in New York City when the towers fell. And I think it made me realize in a deep, powerful way how a life can change—or end—in the blink of an eye. That none of us know how long we have on Earth, and that we should strive to live the lives we want and be the people we want to be, because there may not be a later.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out? Have rituals?

I do map things out. A friend had told me about the computer program Scrivener just as I decided to try to turn those vignettes into a novel, and I think that program is part of what made the writing of The Light We Lost possible. I could use the outlining function to synopsize every vignette that I knew I wanted to write, and then could move them around if they ended up feeling like they were in the wrong place.

I don’t have rituals, but I do give myself deadlines—word count deadlines—that I have to hit each week. Because writing isn’t my only job, I try to be very disciplined about my writing time and my productivity.

What's obsessing you now and why?

The concept of “alternative facts” and the way that the truth no longer seems unassailable. I keep trying to puzzle through how we can find a common ground as a country, but if we can’t even agree that facts are facts, I’m just not sure how we do it.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hm. I think you asked all the best ones. The only other one I can think of that people have asked and I’ve found interesting to answer is what I’ve learned from the writing and publication of this book, and I think the answer to that is how universal love is. When we fall in love or have our hearts broken, those experiences feel so personal, but now that people have read early copies of The Light We Lost, so many readers have been telling me that they dated someone just like Gabe, or married someone just like Darren, or felt the same way about their children that Lucy feels about hers. Maybe that’s actually the answer to what I’m obsessing about right now—to somehow use the universal feelings we all have about the people we love to connect in a larger way. Perhaps love does make the world go ‘round?

Jessica Strawser talks about marriage, secrets, mystery and her stunning debut, ALMOST MISSED YOU

 “Once in a great while, along comes a novel that defies the odds … leaving the reader both deeply moved and thoroughly astonished. ALMOST MISSED YOU is just such a book, by a writer’s writer with talent to spare. You may not have heard of Jessica Strawser today, but by tomorrow, everyone’s going to be talking about her and about this story.” —Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean

 Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer's Digest Magazine and--my favorite--a debut novelist. I'm so honored to host her here. Thank you so much, Jessica!

I always think writers are haunted into writing their books. Was this the case for you with this one? Can you talk about it?

I suppose I do find the question of fate to be a haunting one: People talk a lot today about leaving things to the universe, about wondering if things are meant to be. Sometimes it’s hard not to wish or imagine things had turned out a different way; other times we really do thank our lucky stars. I wanted to write a story that brought these ideas to the forefront and made characters question whether they’d put too much—or too little—stock in the stories they’d told themselves (and each other).

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, fly by the seat of your pen?

I like to try to have a general idea of where I’m going, but I can’t say I know how I’m going to get there. I write things as they come to me, when they’re most vivid, even if they’re out of order, and try to have faith that I’ll be able to fill in the blanks and pull it all together in the end. I do often wish I was more of an outliner—that seems like a far less anxiety-filled approach.

What I so deeply admired about ALMOST MISSED YOU is how you navigated three very different points of view to unfold your story--and you kept the suspense at fever pitch. How difficult was this to do? Did you ever hit any wrong turns (that you obviously corrected?)
I approached the story with the idea that we’re all unreliable narrators, to a certain extent, simply by virtue of the fact that our perspectives have limits—not to mention bias. In order to get the whole story in ALMOST MISSED YOU, we need all three perspectives: There isn’t a single character at the start of the story who knows the whole story. It was great fun trying to discern which points of view were key to reveal certain pieces and to put them all together like a puzzle. I did have some different turns in earlier drafts, but I don’t know that any of them were wrong—as the story could have been told in a number of different ways. (My next novel has a more linear structure and it’s not nearly as forgiving!)

You are the Editorial Director of Writer's Digest, the virtual Bible for writers. How did that job impact your job as an author, if at all?

Oh, goodness, how did it not? Consider that in the course of editing Writer's Digest, I’ve read each issue cover to cover no fewer than five times—that’s earnest, thorough repetition of written instruction and inspiration that has fueled my writing in ways both intentional and subconscious. Likewise, it’s made me feel a part of a community that shares a dream, from the bestsellers I’ve interviewed to the readers I’ve met at conferences or connected with online. The many conversations I’ve had for our cover stories—just think of it, forty-five minutes on the phone with David Sedaris, an hour with Alice Walker, with Lisa Gardner, with David Baldacci, with Debbie Macomber, with some of today’s most successful writers in virtually every genre—has given me access to some of the best insights into the writing life around, straight from the sources. When I close the door to my writing room every night, I don’t just remember their words—I hear their voices. Though I’m always the last one awake in my house, without fail, it makes me feel less alone.

You've been getting some amazing buzz for your novel! Does this make it easier or more difficult to write your next book because of the expectations? (Forgive me if I just added to your anxiety!)
I first turned in my next book a few months back, and am just now wrapping my revision addressing my editor’s comments, so there’s been a lot of overlap during which I’ve tried to just stay focused on whatever is in front of me, which has been one novel or the other consistently for the past 18 months, since I first received the two-book offer from St. Martin’s. I will say that writing a book under contract for the first time did bring with it an inherent pressure in the sense that people who I greatly respect—namely my editor and my agent, but also my publisher, my publicist, my marketing team, and an ever-growing list of supporters--have put their faith in me, and I don’t want to disappoint them.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Sleep—I’m getting less and less of it these days! Though with a five-year-old and a three-year-old, they are the focus of my energy and my joy most every “free” hour of the day. Recently my youngest has reached an age where she has the attention and the grasp of enough basic rules that we can begin to enjoy family game nights, and all four of us are loving this new phase. It’s the simple things: to light a fire and settle in with a silly deck of cards, or Connect Four, or this hilarious Horton Hears a Who game we got for Christmas. Even at this early stage I can recognize how fleeting these days are, when mom and dad are the preferred Friday night companions, no arm twisting involved, and I soak them up as best I can.

The incomparable Meredith Maran talks about her sublimely funny and moving THE NEW OLD ME, desperation, taking chances, crafting a new life, and more

You know the kind of friend who you can call at any hour, sobbing into the phone, and not only does she dry your tears, but she gets you laughing? That's Meredith Maran.

She's the author of  a dozen nonfiction books and an acclaimed novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, as well as being a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the MacDowell Fellows West. She writes features, essays, and book reviews for People, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Simple, Mother Jones, Good Housekeeping, and other publications.
And she is totally and completely cool, and her fierce, feisty and very, very funny new memoir The New Old Me really is required reading for anyone who feels there are no such things as second acts. (There are! And 3rd, 4th and 600th acts!)

Hugs to you, Meredith and thank you for being here!

What is it about sixty that brings about such radical change?
In a word: it’s WTF time. Instead of counting forward, at 60 I started counting backwards: how many more Fourth of Julys, Thanksgivings, hikes, trips to exotic places, orgasms, new pairs of shoes (you can relate, dear cowgirl!) I had left to enjoy. Once that number becomes somewhat finite, the urgency to “Get it while you can,” as my girl Janis put it, becomes a siren’s call. I’ve never been a fan of delayed gratification, and it’s definitely too late to start liking it now.

Also, I used to be a big negotiator about every little thing—“Not that restaurant, not that hiking trail, not that movie”—and now I’m a big “yes” girl. Living in a new and thrilling city, I quickly learned to say “yes” to every invitation I got. As long as you surround yourself with great people, which I’ve been lucky enough to do, saying “yes” opens the door (and my heart) to the best kinds of adventures.

Moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles is such a radical move—were you expecting radical change? Or was this simply desperation?
Desperation, baby. I’ve lived in a lot of places—Washington Heights, the Upper East Side, Lower East Side, Upper West Side, the Village in New York, the mountains of northern New Mexico, London, San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose—and there was only one place on earth I swore I’d never move to, and that was Los Angeles. I saw LA as a polluted Armageddon, the worst of human nature versus nature writ large. But La-La-Land was also where my only option was located and I was too broke and too broken to say “no.” Now I can’t imagine having landed in a more perfect place. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve gone “La-La.” LA and I are in a similar phase of life. We started out big and brash, lost it, and now are struggling to come back.

No one I know is as honest or brave and candid as you are—and you seem to have this almost steely resilience for refusing to give up. Where’d that come from?

Thanks for noticing! Although I must say wasn’t feeling resilient at all during my first year in L.A., the first year I write about in the book. I was lonelier and more defeated than I thought possible. I didn’t think I’d ever feel joy or excitement or optimism again. Eventually, I felt better. Moving into my little Bungalito made a huge difference—a Silver Lake womb of my own! GPS helped! Most of all, friends helped.

I certainly can’t attribute my resilience to my New York Jewish heritage! I come from a long line of pessimists. One thing I’ve got going for me is that I'm open to being surprised. In fact, I’m determined to be surprised. So when I’m down, I remind myself that although I’ve had some pretty terrible surprises, like the end of my seemingly perfect marriage, I’ve also had some pretty great surprises, like meeting the people I’ve met and seeing the sights I’ve seen in LA.  It sounds corny, but I’m really into gardening, growing food and flowers, and seeing what lives and what dies and how each flower and artichoke smells and tastes—it's all about rolling with the disappointments and reveling in the good stuff and most of all, learning what works and what doesn’t.

How scary was it to write this book? What surprised you about it?

The scariest thing about writing another memoir was that in the course of telling my own truth in my previous memoirs, I’d hurt people I loved. I wasn’t willing to do that again, and yet I love writing (and reading) memoirs best of all. I thought there had to be a way, so I interviewed 20 successful memoirists for my last book, Why We Write About Ourselves, and got some tips. Mostly, the writers recommended writing a memoir through one’s own point of view, not vilifying or idealizing others. It was surprisingly hard to keep that perspective while writing a memoir, and to keep the focus on my responses to other people and not on the other people (my ex-wife, for example). But I welcomed the challenge and I think it worked.

I have to ask, where do you see yourself in ten years? (Since you have the most amazing, surprising life of anyone I know!)
Post-Trumpocalypse, all I see in my future is a whole lot of fuming, marching, letter-writing, and Congressperson-calling. But I imagine there will be other things, too. If Pence gets his way, I’ll be sent for conversion therapy, and if it works, maybe I’ll be married to a man in ten years. Or, if I get my way, I’ll still be loving the things I love now—my daily ass-kicking workouts and hikes, writing books and book reviews, growing pomegranates and artichokes and roses, having adventures with fun, funny friends. I’m not sure I’ll end up in La-La Land, but I must say, it’s a hard act to follow!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Amusement parks. The Ramones. Friendship. Loss. Memory. Alex George talks about SETTING FREE THE KITES

 “A warm, relatable—at times heart-breakingly so—story of two boys becoming men in 1970s Maine... George authentically relays the dynamic, difficult nature of families.”
—Columbia Daily Tribune

Alex George is wonderful in a whole variety of ways. First, there's his writing. He's the author of the sublime A Good American, a national and international bestseller, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Alex has been named as one of Britain’s top ten “thirtysomething” novelists by the Times of London, and was also named as the Independent on Sunday’s “face to watch” for fiction in its Fresh Talent feature. 

Second, he's a guy of many talents. In addition to writing, he also runs his own law firm and is the founder and director of a new literary festival, The Unbound Book Festival.

And third, he wrote Setting Free the Kites, which is so haunting, so moving, so gorgeously crafted--and I'm excited to be talking to him about it at the Unbound Book Festival.

And finally, of course, what matters most--he's kind, funny, smart and I'm thrilled to have him on the blog.

I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to propel him or her into writing the novel? What was it for you?

From the very start of thinking about this book I had a profoundly visceral image in my head of the climactic scene in the novel – which I can’t really talk about at all without giving the whole thing away! But you’ll know what I’m talking about. “Haunting” is precisely the word for it. It was an image that has echoes of another, real-life event (sorry to be opaque, but no spoilers!) which made it resonate even more for me. So all the way through the book I was writing toward this final image, which gave the story its own kind of internal momentum. I wrote that scene and finished the first draft of the book in a frenzied ten-day rush tucked away in a tiny cottage in L.A. It was very intense, and exhausting, but satisfying.

I loved the way the past informed the present—haunted it really—haunted me, as well.

Thank you! One of the things I wanted to examine was how youthful friendships leave a legacy that endures for decades afterwards. By bookending the narrative with scenes from the present I was able to provide a sense of perspective to the events that constitute the heart of the book. The protagonists are teenagers when the action of the novel takes place. I wanted to be able to provide a measure of distance from that – and, of course, the knowledge that comes from maturity and experience.

I have to tell you, I just adored the amusement park. Was this one of your hang-outs? Or based on one in particular? I don’t know why but as happy as amusement parks are supposed to be, they also serve as a backdrop for the tragic. Why do you think that is?

The amusement park was a lot of fun. I never used to hang out in one as a child, but – and I know this sounds wildly improbable! – I actually ran the largest outdoor water park in central Missouri for four years, and much of what is in the novel is based on my experiences working there. For example, during the summer in Missouri the park still runs TV advertisements that feature a furry shark dancing by the side of a wave pool. That’s me in the shark suit. So naturally the amusement park in the novel had a mascot – in this case, a dragon – and I had one of the boys wear it. Write what you know, and all that.

Amusement parks are fun to write about. They are rich with potential for authorial metaphor. For example, behind every nicely painted panel there is usually a grimy, oil-encrusted motor on its last legs. The line between fantasy and reality was never thinner. And for all that we relish the collective having of fun in public, I think you’re right – there is something inherently tragic about amusement parks, too. If you go online you can find countless photographs of abandoned parks, and they are haunting to look at. The motionless Ferris wheel, the silent carousel – the ghosts of their joyful pasts still linger palpably in these images.

I put this in my blurb: As one character says, loss can destroy us, but it can also create us. You could also say that about the bonds and fissures of family, too. Can you talk about this please in the context of the book?

I wanted to examine the impact of profound loss, not only on individuals, but also in the broader context of family. For example, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to tell the story of my own childhood without telling the story of my parents, too – at that age (maybe at any age) family narratives cannot be neatly extracted and presented in isolation. So I began thinking about how cataclysmic events affect the family unit more generally, in addition to how individuals respond to such things. It brought the boys’ parents – Robert’s parents in particular – much more to the forefront of the story. Perhaps that’s just a function of where I happen to be – I have two children, fifteen and eleven, and telling this story forced me to confront some of the very worst fears that all parents harbor somewhere deep within them, and so I wanted to tell that part of the story. When you start wondering: how would I react to this, or to that? – well, that can make for some interesting material.  But – to come back to your point about the bonds and fissures of family – our reactions to such things do not happen in a vacuum, no matter how personal they may be. I say in the book, “Grief did not bring people closer. Loss turned you inward and shut you down.” And that’s true, I think, but it doesn’t mean that in turning inward, and away, family dynamics are not dramatically affected. The sad fact is that terrible loss can be a catalyst for yet more loss, of a different kind.

How fun was it to write about the 70s?

It was very fun, especially researching the music. There’s always lots of music in my books, but I wanted to explore something different this time – which is how I ended up writing about 70s rock – the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Iggy Pop and the like. I didn’t know much about the music before I started (I’m more of a jazz person) but I’ve become quite fond of it now. And of course the iconography of all that is wonderfully resonant. I know I’m going to sound like a terrible old fogey, but back then rock stars really knew how to be rock stars. There’s a moment in the novel when I talk about the anarchy of shows at the famous punk club on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, CBGB’s, when the bands spent as much time fighting with the audience as playing their instruments. I can’t imagine the manufactured pop stars of today contemplating such a thing. OK, I’ll stop now.

One of the great things about writing about the 70s was that I was able to unshackle myself (and my characters, more importantly) from all the technological advances of the past forty years. These days Robert and Nathan would have spent all their time playing on an X-Box and texting each other. Back then they got on their bikes and went off looking for adventures. As a novelist, the latter works much better.  

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Paris! I mean, Paris has always obsessed me. I went to school there when I was 13 and worked there as an attorney for a year when I was in my 20s. I’ve tried more than once to set a book there, and I’ve finally managed it (I think.) My new book, which I’ve almost finished, is set in Paris over the course of one day in 1927. I’ve been reading about Paris for years and now I get to call it research. It’s been blissful, these past few years, waking up every morning and going over the Atlantic in my head to tell these stories.

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

You didn’t ask me about all the stories in the novel. Joan Didion wrote a book of essays called, “We Tell Each Other Stories in Order to Live,” which is a fantastic title in and of itself, but it’s really true.  There are all kinds of stories in the book – ghost stories, war stories, love stories, histories of people and places. These stories give heft and vitality to the novel (I hope!) and provide fuel for Nathan and Robert’s young imaginations. And there are books, as well, both ones I made up and The Great Gatsby. Books are (or should be!) a formative part of any young person’s growing up, and so I wanted to include them here.

Kurt Baumeister talks about his jazzy new political thriller Pax Americana, spirituality, God, gods, writing and so much more. Plus, read an excerpt!

 I'm always thrilled when someone I know writes a novel that knocks my socks off--and Kurt Baumeister's knocked my shoes off, too. It's a political thriller and trust me, it's that good.

Kurt Baumeister’s writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Good Men Project. His debut novel PAX AMERICANA will be published in 2017 by Stalking Horse Press. A graduate of Emerson’s MFA program, Kurt lives in Virginia. Find him at Thanks so much Kurt for being here.

I always want to know what was haunting the author enough to write a particular book—so, what was haunting you?

Religion, philosophy, spirituality, God, gods, the concept of the metaphysical—those are some of the things that animated my thinking about PAX AMERICANA. Over time, I’ve come to see these sorts of issues as simultaneously significant and absurd. Which probably explains why this book is satirical. I don’t see the metaphysical world as non-existent necessarily—though I am a skeptic—but to the extent that world does exist, I see it largely as unknowable. As far as religion itself goes, my feeling is you should go with whatever gets you through the night.  If believing in a God (or Goddess or gods or goddesses) makes your life easier, that’s a good thing. As long as your belief doesn’t impose itself on the reality of others. Which, I think, is where the trouble usually starts. That’s the line we walk in America. How do you allow people to believe what they want without burdening others as a result of those beliefs? I think America’s founders were mostly inclined to favor religion, to see it as a good (even necessary) thing in and of itself. I also think they would have very different opinions today, knowing all we know. That’s not to say that a constitution written today would not have freedom of religion as a guaranteed right, but the ability to proselytize, to control the public square with your religion, the tax exemptions for simply being churches (rather than doing material good) would probably be curtailed. Other book-related hauntings: America, the corporate state, fast food, theocracies, advertising, the conservative bubble, nuclear war, New Orleans, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, animals, sports cars, silly names for products, people, and just about everything else. Man, Caroline, I am haunted by a lot.

Writing a novel is like trying to get your way out of jungle with only a dull-edged butter knife instead of a machete. But there are surprises along the way. What were yours? And what kind of writer are you?

Well, based on this example, I’d say I’m clearly the sort of writer who’d bring a butter knife to a machete fight. And I did. My god, did this book take me a long time. I wrote PAX AMERICANA as a more experimental novel first (though, it wasn’t called PAX AMERICANA then). By the time I was done with that draft, I had 130K words, 111 chapters, and seven narrators. So, basically, a pretentious mess. I cut the manuscript without much mercy, got it down to the 50K range then built it back up into something I hoped would be a bit more commercial but still retain some of the spoofy, satirical, metafictional feel I wanted.  I suppose the most surprising thing about the book is how much of a transformation Diana Scorsi underwent from the first version to the final. Besides having a different name and a much more elaborate back story in earlier drafts, she was one of the book’s villains. Though, in my (fictional) world I try to muck around with concepts of heroism and villainy. And regardless of where I personally come down on each character, I try to give them enough autonomy to see themselves as the hero of their own story, even if they might not be the hero of mine.

Your political thriller is so innovative, so fresh, that I’d love it if you’d talk about what is wrong with the traditional thriller (and what might be right.) And did you ever feel like you were breaking rules (and did you take great glee in that)?

Thank you so much for saying that. Words like ‘innovative’ do my dark little heart good. I have a difficult time categorizing this book: lurching from literary fiction to slipstream, spy novel to satire, thriller to science fiction when I do try. I guess the best thing to say is that it’s a combination of all these; though that doesn’t make for a very concise pitch. To the extent this is a political thriller, I see it as a sort of anti-thriller. It’s not that I dislike the genre. I grew up watching James Bond save the world, and reading about it, too. This is more an anti-thriller in that many of the genre conventions serve satirical purposes and also in that the tropes of the hero serving God and country are very much in doubt. One of my great interests is politics. I suppose on some level this is an attempt to create a real political back story for a thriller, to fully engage with the politics that are usually held at arm’s length. Even though, ultimately, the politics here are satirical, too. The things I think the thriller genre does absolutely get right are its pacing, attention to plot, story, and dialogue. I think these more “mundane” literary virtues are often completely forgotten in “literary” fiction. A lot of people can write great sentences. (By a lot of people, I mean a lot of serious, professional writers.) But, can you do that, make the machine move, and still make people feel something (even if that something is only laughter)? That’s the real trick.

What advice do you give other writers?

I love giving advice to people. When they ask for it.  But, as far as writing is concerned, I’ve come to believe the best thing we can do is accept that each person must walk their own path. This doesn’t mean you refrain from giving writing advice (and especially for teachers, this would be silly), but it does mean accepting your rules or precepts, or whatever you call them, may not work at all for someone else. For me, this particularly applies to art and craft (prose style, artistic vision, use of symbolism, etc.) as opposed to the business side of things (how to deal with submissions, agents, publishers, and booksellers, etc.). In my experience, the worst writing teachers are, unfortunately, also the most dogmatic. Like tourists lost in a foreign land, they shout the same words louder and louder in the careless certainty everyone will eventually understand. And they may, in fact, have cracked the code for themselves. Which is something to applaud. But the truly universal in the teaching of art? The inviolable, infallible truth? To me, that doesn’t exist. Except for one thing: “Does it work?” This makes for a lot of trial and error, but for me, it’s the only way to go.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The election, no question. It’s miraculous how every four years
we forget everything we’d learned four years before. During primary season, we spend so much time fighting over relatively small differences, making them out to be far greater than they are. Then, during the general election every candidate heads for the middle at light speed. Probably the most interesting part is how obvious things seem in retrospect and how unobvious they are as they happen. Obama didn’t beat Romney by a lot. He didn’t beat McCain by a lot. The country is fairly evenly divided. So, even though a candidate like Trump or Clinton may seem so absolutely ridiculous, so unsupportable, to those of us on the other side, it doesn’t necessarily seem that way to the small group of people in the middle, the ones who actually decide our elections. Even landslide elections (Nixon-McGovern, Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis), results that seem so certain in retrospect, really weren’t. If we accelerate the timetable for something like Watergate or Iran-Contra, those elections’ results might have been starkly different. The idea of alternate histories fascinates me and no doubt an alternate reality in which the George W. Bush Administration was a complete success (for all the most horrible reasons) is central to PAX AMERICANA.

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

KGB (as CL): Are there more where this came from?

KGB (as KGB): More books, you mean? Please mean more books.

KGB (as CL): Sure, OK…

KGB (as KGB): Definitely. Right now I’m working on a mythocomic crime fantasy called LOKI’S GAMBIT. You’d rightly draw the conclusion that it has something to do with Norse mythology, that the god Loki is, in fact, the narrator and protagonist, though it’s set in the modern world and there are a few twists (most important Loki’s “good,” sort of). The challenge has been to write away from AMERICAN GODS, a book I hadn’t read until long after I started working on LOKI’S GAMBIT. I do think I’m accomplishing that—writing away from Gaiman’s book—though to make that work I’ve had to move most of the story to Europe. Which makes sense since the story was always about World War II, Nazi gold, modern conservatism, and the evolution of the Norse gods. As for PAX AMERICANA, this book is indeed the beginning of a trilogy. The other volumes, for which I have plenty of material, are tentatively entitled VIRTUAL JERUSALEM and THE GODS OF HEROES AND VILLAINS. I’m also about halfway through a ​poetry collection.

(c) by Kurt Baumeister

Hunter’s office was its usual seventy-two degrees, arid, and suffused with the same bronzed mixture of subterranean darkness and simulated daylight, the artificial shadows, that permeated HQ. Tuck sat in one of Hunter’s rust-hued, industrially-upholstered, government guest chairs staring across a desk arrayed with official gifts, piles of paper, and—he knew—more than a few camouflaged weapons. One in particular had caught his eye—a brass chimp just a little taller than the Captain Christianity action figures he’d played with as a boy.
        Armed with a scimitar in one hand and an American flag in the other, the little guy looked fully capable of striking with either mitt. Gas might pour out of his mouth, a poisoned dart shoot from his belly button…You never knew, and that was the point. Abu Yashid was always trying to take out Hunter, and there were security features everywhere. It made sense to stay alert, to make sure one of those security features didn’t go off in your frickin’ face.
          Still, Tuck couldn’t help feeling a little wistful as he looked at the chimp, as he remembered that grand, old Captain Christianity set-up he’d had in his second playroom at Black Briars—the dark castle of Christo Antares, the mountain fortress of Diabolus, and the sparkling citadel of the Captain himself. He thought of the tiny wars of good and evil he’d waged in that room, preparing for the day when he’d be able to begin the real war of good and evil, his crusade to reclaim his father’s memory from the jihadis who’d murdered it.
“Again?” Hunter scowled as she looked up from her tablet.
         Even though she was in her late fifties, Tuck had always found Hunter compelling. She radiated power, raw strength and the will to control it. What might once have been the face of a cheerleader was scored with lines now, the only thing you might still call pretty Hunter’s blue eyes. Like a deep sea somehow brimming with light, they always distracted Tuck, left him thinking of America and feeling as though Hunter was special. And she was. Even though Hunter wasn’t a true Traditionalist, she’d survived and kept her power through many administrations. Tuck was sure she knew where plenty of skeletons were buried. He was also sure that Raglan and Thunder Vance, his Secretary of Homeland Security, wanted Hunter out. They just hadn’t figured how to do it yet.
“Again?” Tuck parroted, careful to keep the chimp in his field of vision.
        “As in: what have we spoken about, Squires?”
         Tuck scanned his memory for anything important that had happened lately. All there’d been was Brussels—a flight there, a flight back, and a lot of babysitting in between. He raised his eyebrows, smiled a little more fully, and waited.
        When Hunter didn’t add anything, Tuck considered the possibility that she was messing with him. Maybe her scowl was just a trick to cover the fact that she was going to give him his promotion. He decided to take a chance, backing his chair out of the chimp’s line of sight just in case. “You mean my promotion, ma’am?”
        “Promotion?” Hunter took off her glasses, angling her gaze away from Tuck. Her eyes scanned the walls of her office—the watercolors and oils, the flag, the antique sidearms, and gleaming blades. She nodded slightly, as if arriving at a decision. When she turned back to him, her expression lay somewhere between disbelief and bemusement. All things considered, Tuck felt like it could have been a lot worse. Still, the pitch of her voice rose, “Which promotion was that?”
Tuck fought the urge to scoot again, eyed Hunter warily. “Senior Special Agent.”
        “Normally, you have to make Special Agent first.”
        “Yes, but I thought—”
        “You thought?”
         He nodded.
        She smirked. “You thought what you’ve thought all along. That because your last name is    Squires, you might get a bit of special treatment, a little boost.”
        “No, ma’am.”
       “Honestly, Squires, you’re lucky I don’t suspend your ass.”
        “Suspend? I’m still not following you, ma’am. But may I say you’re looking particularly youthful today?” He eyed the lapel of her suit. “Red really is your color.”
        “Save it.”
        “Save what?”
        “Whatever part of your dignity you haven’t squandered already.” Hunter said, depositing her glasses on the desk. “I’m talking about the fucking Mossad agent on your last assignment.”
Tuck cringed. He hated it when people cursed around him, especially people he couldn’t call on it like Hunter. “That’s not ringing any bells, ma’am.”
        Hunter glanced at her screen. “The name, Hadara Telka, doesn’t mean anything to you?” She slid her hand across the desk, rested it near the chimp’s base, and smiled.
Tuck’s gaze fell back to the monkey. Had one of his eyes just opened? “Oh, OK, yeah, I think I remember someone with a name like that. She didn’t say she was Mossad though.” When Hunter didn’t add any more details Tuck asked, “What’d she do?”
        Hunter snorted.
        “They say you asked her if she was ready to meet Jesus.”
        “I asked her if she knew Jesus.”
       “Either way, they’re construing your comments as a threat to her person.”
          “She’s a Jew.”
         “She’s still got a soul, doesn’t she?”
                                         “I just got off the phone with Thunder. She was not amused by any of this.”
         “I don’t know what to say, ma’am. I was just exercising my Constitutional rights. What are we fighting for if not religious freedom?”
        “We’re not fighting for anything anymore, Squires. I guess you didn’t get the livelink, but we’re not at war for the first time in thirty years.”
         “Unfortunately,” Tuck said, nodding sadly.
        “Unfortunately what?”
        Hunter sneered and tapped the voice button on her tablet. Her assistant, Lexus, picked up.       “Ma’am.”
        “Send in Clarion.”
      "Clarion?” Tuck watched as former top agent and current disgraced desk jockey, Ken Clarion, entered the room.
         Well into his fifties, Clarion was several inches shorter than Tuck. Good looking in a menacing way, he reminded Tuck of a seventh banana from one of those 90s gangster comedies, the vaguely charismatic one who winds up being a secret psychopath. Salt and pepper hair, at least a day of beard; black, rack suit—Brooks Brothers at best—and gas station Wayfarers. His look might have been right for the manager of a nightclub in the 1980s, but it was all wrong for a representative of the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.
        “Director,” Clarion said. He crossed the room, gave a curt nod as he took the seat next to Tuck.
Tuck and Clarion had met before. First, in an Advanced Procedures seminar at the Academy when Clarion had given Tuck a B- on his final, left him sweating for days about being thrown out. Next, they’d crossed paths in the cafeteria; Tuck nodding coolly, Clarion with that bemused expression on his face, as if he was surprised Tuck was still with the Bureau.
        Still, Tuck knew enough not to discount Clarion. He’d been good, maybe more than good, once upon a time. But a series of divorces, wrecked cars, and drunk tanks had killed his career as a field agent. Clarion was tight with Hunter, and had been for decades—they’d gone to the Academy together in their twenties—that was the only reason he’d managed to stay with the Bureau.
       “Clarion’s your new partner,” she said.