Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gail Godwin's magnificent new blog, Looters, Grifters, and Givers-Back

How can anyone not love and admire Gail Godwin?  And now she has a fascinating new section of her website, called Looters, Grifters, and Givers-Back, which I love, about life, writing, and how we live today.

She has an incredible pedigree. Three of her novels, The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, and A Mother and Two Daughters, were National Book Award finalists and five of them (A Mother and Two Daughters, The Finishing School, A Southern Family, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and Evensong) were New York Times best sellers.Godwin has lived in Woodstock, N.Y. since 1976 with her long time companion, the composer Robert Starer, who died in 2001.  Together they wrote ten musical works, including the chamber opera The Other Voice: A Portrait of Hilda of Whitby, available from Selah Publishing Company:  Evenings at Five is a novella based on Godwin’s and Starer’s life together.  Godwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment grants, one for fiction and one for libretto writing.  Her archives are in the Southern Historical Collection, the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But the best thing about Gail Godwin, beside her genius writing, is her huge heart, her incredible kindness. The last time I posted an interview with her, I had many writers emailing me, telling me how she had changed their lives.

I know she's changed mine.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Insane obsession? You know I am so THERE. Larry Baker talks about his latest novel, FROM A DISTANCE, writing from the point of view of a dead woman, and so much more

I can't remember where or when I started to know Larry Baker, only that I'm glad that I do. Maybe we grew up together in an alternative reality, because it really feels that way. And I'm thrilled to host him here for his gripping new novel FROM A DISTANCE.  Larry's the author of The Education of Nancy Adams, Love and Other Delusions, A Good Man and Athens, America.

I'm so jazzed you are here!  Thank you, Larry!

Q:  What’s FROM A DISTANCE about?
A:   Love, Sex, and Death? The usual trifecta of life. Not just love, but insane obsession. Not just sex, but illicit and sometimes violent sex. Not just death, but the voice of a dead woman. Alternating chapters tell the story of a 30-year affair between a man and woman who met as children in Charleston. From different social classes. Bobby was a pampered only child. Ellie was a sexually abused step-daughter. She lies to him, but he finds out about her brutal home life, and he tries to rescue her, only to be left beaten and physically scarred for life. His father has her institutionalized, and Bobby flees to New York City. But they never stop loving each other. She remains his secret, even though she comes to live with him in the mythic Windsor Building in NYC. It is left to Bobby’s assistant editor Sally to uncover the truth as she reads the thousands of journal and diary pages that Ellie has written over her life. At the end, it is also left to Sally to literally write the final chapter of Bobby and Ellie’s story. 
Q:  What compelled you to write FROM A DISTANCE?
A:  I’ve always wanted to do a story about the publishing business. Not the writing business. Writers are not the main characters in this book. Hell, writers as characters show up too much in modern fiction anyway. Mine is a story about an editor, the most famous editor in America, a dying man with a secret. And I make no claim about my story being a realistic view of publishing. It is pure myth. Publishing as a noble pursuit. (My writer friends laugh when I tell them this.) I lived through the German takeover of Random House, and that is the backdrop for my story. Adding to that impulse was another long-time interest of mine...a clash of cultures. Specifically, Northern Commerce versus Southern Gentility. Finally, my writer fascination with how point of view can be used to both reveal and conceal the truth about characters. Half the book is written from the point of view of a totally unreliable narrator, but her “voice” is the most compelling thing I have ever written.
Q: And the title? Where did that come from?
A:  The original title was Windsor House, based on the name of the publishing company. But, as I was literally writing one of the last chapters from Ellie, I realized that she had provided the best title. She was trying to explain to Bobby how she had arrived at some final wisdom about their relationship, and she referred to the song by that same title. They had always been too wrapped up in the passion and drama of the moment, that they had failed to truly see themselves. Time had finally become the distance they needed. And it was too late.
Q:  I know you have said that this was your most difficult book to write. Why?
A:  This was definitely my most difficult book to write, and the final version is a stark contrast to the first draft. I gave up on that first version and set it aside for five years. As you know, the story is set in alternating chapters, opening with the first person pov of a dead woman, which then alternates with the third person pov of the story of a her lover’s public life. For most of the story, that dead woman is not part of her lover’s life. But as her private story starts to parallel the man’s public life, everything the reader knew before has to be re-interpreted with this new knowledge. Finally, in the last few chapters, the two versions come together and a reader has to figure out which version of reality is actually true---the public or the private.
The problem? I was happy with the public story, but the private story---the tale as told by a dead insane woman---simply did not work. It was a mess. And the woman eventually became totally incompatible as a character to fit with the male character. I had to create a new love affair that would still work with the “public” half of the book. If you think you are confused now, imagine how confused I was as the writer. And it took five years to have one of those “light-bulb” moments. And the light-bulb illuminated a thirteen year old girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Charleston who is caught stealing books by a Southern blue-blood boy who grows up to be an editor in New York City. Knowing his public story, I was able to write Ellie’s story to mesh with his...finally.
Q:  Critics have commented about how you seem to write intriguing and memorable female characters. Alice Kite, in The Flamingo Rising as well as A Good Man, and Nancy Adams, from The Education of Nancy Adams, are remarkable. How would you describe Ellie and Sally as compared to your other female characters?
A:  Of all my characters, in all my books, Ellie was the most interesting one for me to create. She is the only character for which I had to do some real research...into the mental issues related to sexual abuse, compounded by schizophrenia and border-line bi-polarism. I talked to counselors and people who had to deal with such issues in their real life. And I also had to write from the point of view of a voice that begins at age thirteen and ends at age 40-something. She must have a child’s voice that slowly grows into an adult voice over time. The result? A very few early readers hate her and stop reading. The overwhelming majority are drawn into her mind, as I intended, and stay. So, an insane thirteen year-old girl grows into an insane 40-year old woman. The expression of that insanity becomes more coherent over time, and often profoundly insightful.  Which leads to my goal for the Sally character, the ever faithful assistant to Bobby, who has never understood why her love for him has never been reciprocated. Reading Ellie’s version of her life with Bobby, Sally finds herself wishing she had been Ellie, with all her baggage, if she could have experienced the love that Bobby felt for Ellie. All in all, I think Ellie and Sally are the best female characters I have ever written.
Q:  Any interest from Hollywood about this new book. As I recall, your first was a Hallmark movie in 2001.
A:  I wish. And so do my children. All I know for sure is that this is definitely not Hallmark material.
Q:  What’s obsessing you now, and why?
A:  Well, my first grandchild is at the top of that list.  An incredible experience, and more and more (happily) time consuming for me. But as for my writing, I think I have one more good book in me. Almost a Biblical saga, set in the South in 2016, mixing politics and murder. The story of a family that took root in Florida in the 1860s but which, by 2016, has devolved into jealous factions. Two cousins, each pushing 70, one the patriarch of the town, the other the Sheriff, and each thinks he knows a secret about the other. Their wives were sisters. One disappeared forty years earlier; the other died in a bizarre accident about the same time. I have always wanted to do a Cain and Abel story. This is my attempt.

Monday, September 11, 2017

And a news flash! The reissue of a book: Damian McNicholl's A SON CALLED GABRIEL

Pegasus has published two of Damian McNicholl novels this year. A SON CALLED GABRIEL, an IndieNext selection and Lambda Literary Awards finalist when it first released in 2004. Now, it's republished with an entirely different ending and an Author Afterword explaining why he felt compelled to rewrite parts of it, which is always a fascinating thing for a writer to consider.

A 12-year-old boy raffled off as a prize at the 1909 World Fair--who else could make this a mesmerizing, insightful novel but Jamie Ford? And here, he talks about it: Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Jamie Ford is both hilarious, warm, generous--and a fantastic storyteller to boot.  Let's take a look at the huge praise his novel is garnering:

“In this sweeping, bighearted novel—inspired by the true story of a twelve-year-old boy raffled off as a prize at the 1909 Seattle World Fair—we encounter a cast of colorful characters, fascinating historical details, and (in typical Jamie Ford fashion) insights about morality, race, and culture that deepen and expand the story. . . . Utterly charming.”—Christina Baker Kline, author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train

“Ford is a master at shining light into dark, forgotten corners of history and revealing the most unexpected and relatable human threads. . . . A beautiful and enthralling story of resilience and the many permutations of love.”—Jessica Shattuck, author of The Women in the Castle

“All the charm and heartbreak of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet . . . Based on a true story, Love and Other Consolation Prizes will warm your soul.”—Martha Hall Kelly, author of Lilac Girls

“A gripping story about the unpredictability of life and, above all, the incredible power of love to heal even the most shameful wounds . . . Ford has created a fascinating world, bookended by Seattle’s two world’s fairs, and peopled it with colorful, brave characters we care deeply about in this masterful job of storytelling.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue

“Soaring, heart-wrenching, troubling, funny . . . Ford has masterfully used a strange, tragic footnote from history to transport the reader back in time.”—Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

 AND Jamie's bio is so hilarious, I am reproducing it here.

My name is James.
Yes, I'm a dude.
I’m also the New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—which was, in no particular order, an IndieBound NEXT List Selection, a Borders Original Voices Selection, a Barnes & Noble Book Club Selection, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller. It was also named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.
In addition, Hotel has been translated into 35 languages. I’m still holding out for Klingon (that’s when you know you’ve made it).
My second novel, Songs of Willow Frost was published September 2013. 
My latest novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, will be published September 12, 2017.
On the personal side, I'm the proud father of more teenagers than I can keep track of. Yep, it's chaos, but the good kind of chaos.

What was the “why now” moment that made you feel that you just had to write this book?

As much as I’d like to appear brilliant and sage-like, unpacking the issues in the book: immigration, human-trafficking, prostitution, women’s suffrage, and feminism in the early 20th Century—the truth is, I wanted to write another noble romantic tragedy. Which is a literary way of saying that I wanted to write another love story, and explore the decorum of the time—to turn over the rocks and look at the squishy things underneath.

Plus, starting with a real character that was raffled off as a prize sets the tone for the world, circa 1909, when the cord still hadn’t quite been cut between humans and commerce. In many social circles, people were still regarded as commodities. Heck, in many social circles today, people are treated that way (Hello, Tinder?)

I’m always interested in stories inspired by other stories. What surprised you about fictionalizing this one?

In Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe, he posits that fifty-percent of our political beliefs are genetic—that’s to say, we can’t quite out-nurture our nature. In looking at human behavior from a century ago and comparing it to today, that theory is manifest.

Despite technological advances all around us, our personal beliefs and cultural biases change at glacial speeds. One hundred years ago we were demonizing immigrants and marginalizing women, and…today, we’re, um…Making America Great Again.

I love the details about the World’s Fair! What was your research like?

Luckily, there were some amazing photographers like Frank H. Nowell and Max Loudon who documented Seattle’s first world’s fair. Their collections now reside in the University of Washington’s Digital Library—one of the great holdfasts of northwestern culture and history.

Speaking of libraries, since much of the new book takes place in a brothel, I interviewed a woman, Maggie McNeill, who is an expert on that particular subject. She is both a sex-worker and a librarian, and she changed my perception of both of those occupations.

I love that you are always at the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys festivals! Can you talk about that, please?

Who knew that this annual book club gathering in East Texas would become such a part of my life? I blame my mom. She was born and raised in the Ozarks, so heading down south every year somehow satisfies the part of my DNA that yearns for grits.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Podcasts. I’ve become a podcast junkie (or perhaps zombie?) You’ll rarely find me without my earbuds in, listening to…someone blather on about something.

So, like everyone else on the planet, I’m starting a podcast with friend and fellow author, Luis Alberto Urrea. We’re even having someone design a custom decoder ring. Stay tuned, kids…

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

How about, what’s the best book you’ve read this year?

I’m gonna go with The Burning Women of Far Cry by Rick Demarinis. Darkly comic, this is one of those books that defies categorization. Like a richer, more textured version of Confederacy of Dunces. Its your classic, coming-of-age tale, like the journey of Holden Caufield, but in a warped, blue-collar Twilight Zone.

I loved this book and am saddened that it's been out of print for 30 years.

Death Be Not...Scary. Laura Pritchett talks about Making Friends With Death, angst, afterlife thoughts, and so much more

Laura Pritchett is amazing. When she felt near to death, she began to investigate and even make friends with it. And she's an astonishing writer. Her novel The Blue Hour, about passion and small town, is extraordinary. I blurbed it! So are her novels: Stars Go Blue, Red Lightning, Hell's Bottom Colorado; and her non-fiction Pulse of the River, Great Colorado Bear Stories, Homeland and Going Green. And she's also a writing coach.

Since I have had my own near-death, which changed the way I saw life, I was particularly fascinated with her book. And it is so great. Thank you, Laura, for being here!

So, what was the why now moment that made you want to write this book about death?

About a decade ago, in my mid-30s, my life changed. To make a long story short, my neck and skull and face suddenly felt like they were being electrocuted at high voltage. 24/7. A roaring something was taking over my neck and head and eye muscles—diagnoses were plentiful and colorful and ranged from Multiple Sclerosis to infections to Trigeminal Neuralgia to Cervical Dystonia. The brain MRIs and the repeat-brain-MRIs and the shots and blood draws and pokes and dizzy spells and neurologists testing got more and more plentiful. So did my despair, because at one point, it ceased to matter. It just felt like I was going to die.

I really started to go deep into a scary space within myself—which alternated between a “dead/in-shock” space and a panic-attack space. I didn’t know what was wrong with me—and wouldn’t for several years—but I kept thinking ut-oh, I better get ready here. Of course, I didn’t want to die. I had young children, a writing career that was just taking off, a good life.

I found myself suddenly seeking some wisdoms, and fast. But there was no help. At least, not that I could find that were really practical and applicable.

I basically put this book together for me – I had to write it then because I thought I was dying. But then I wasn’t. I was diagnosed with Trigeminal Neuralgia, which totally sucks, but which isn’t killing me (any faster than any of life is going to kill me). Now, after several years of chronic unrelenting pain, I feel much better. Not totally better, but much much better. Which means, of course, that it all seemed much less imminent. But did I let it go? No. By then I was hooked and wanted to finish and publish this book. Because the one thing that this mess taught me was this: It’s absolutely contingent upon us to prepare while we are healthy and calm—so that when the shit hits the fan, we are better prepared to work with the mess. I truly believe that it’s slightly irreverent, sometimes-awkward, but totally honest about getting ready for death might help some others, too.

Did writing it make you feel less scared? How so? (If you were scared that is.)

Oh, I was scared. So very scared. Scared of living in pain, scared of dying, scared of leaving my children behind, and scared of the afterlife (I had been raised a strict Catholic, and although I left the faith a long time ago for a lot of good reasons, and have been to therapy for a long time to get some of that remnant after-life fear out of my body, that whole hell thing really had firm footing in my mind—which is why I believe that some religion, or the way its taught, is most certainly a form of child abuse). Anyway, I started to get less scared the more I faced my fear. I read a lot of books, I talked to people. I attended seminars and retreats of various sorts. I talked to those who volunteered in hospice work, I talked to folks who had serious diagnoses, I talked to people who were dying. I talked to my therapist a lot. With all this reading, interviewing, list-making, home works, journaling, therapy-ing, and so on, well, I was making some progress in facing my fear. I still don’t wanna die. And sometimes I’m still scared. But I certainly feel more peaceful about going. 

Please tell us about confronting The Grim Reaper and how that changed you?

“Use death as your advisor,” I heard someone say – and that’s how it changed me the most. I used death to advise me on how to live life. And I made some pretty big life decisions based on the fact that I was contemplating my death. I got divorced, for example—because I was in the wrong marriage and I had to confront that. I also really slowed down my life. I started living a life that I simply enjoyed more. That isn’t to say that I don’t make an effort to be responsible for the future (socking away a bit of money, paying my taxes, planning for retirement, etc.). It means I was able to reassess my life—so that I could be better prepared for death.

What is a good death?

That’s such a good question, and I’m not sure many people have thought about it at all—I know I hadn’t. But now I basically think a good death is simply one that has been claimed, to the extent possible, and that will be different for everyone. For me, will involve:

My medical wishes and decisions are respected – for example, I have a DNR, and I don’t want long-term life support.

I would like to die outside, or with a view of nature.

I’d like to be with my children and loved ones, if possible. There are certain people I don’t want in the room, and I’ve made that clear in my own “My Dying Book” that I’ve done (a version of the book now for sale) and set in a place where it will be found upon my death.

I’d like to be surrounded by the color blue, the smell of basil or roses, and some of my favorite songs (I have a whole list).

I want pain relief; I’d like to be comfortable as possible.

I’d like to be as fully informed about what’s going on (to the extent possible).

I want people to be honest with me. I want to be honest with them.

Would this work also work for people who believe in the Afterlife or a specific religious belief?

Yeah, thanks for asking that. Because that’s a big deal for many folks – your decisions about death are highly contingent on your religious beliefs. In this book, I don’t presume to tell anyone what death is, or what comes next. I, for one, would immediately distrust anyone who said they did know with certainty. All I do know is that there are better and worse ways to die. So: This book is for the religious and nonreligious, the spiritual and the not so much so. We all have to take that last breath.

I will say: Of course it matters what you believe comes after death—eternalism or nihilism being the two polar opposites, with a whole exciting and strange range in between. I myself was raised a Catholic but now call myself something along the lines of a Humanist Agnostic with Strong Buddhist-Practice Leanings, or, rather, Someone Honored To Be Seeking. Religion and death are pretty darn intertwined, of course—in fact, religion is about death, seeking to explain where you go after you die, coming up with ideas about what comes after, and guiding you to that particular spot. Surely your faith, if you have one, will guide your own process. My book doesn’t address or assume any particular Afterlife Scenario; it just takes us up to that last on-Earth breath. In other words, I think it respects all beliefs.

What was the writing like?

At the beginning, it was rather angst filled, because I thought death was immanent, and it was more like a crazy dash to make some peace. Later, it became super fun, because it included doing weirdo things like a class called “Facing Death and Partner Yoga,” and learning the basics on how to fly a Cessna, and going to New Zealand. Writing books takes you on all sorts of adventures!

What's obsessing you now and why?

Death, still. Death. Love. Communication. Nature. Those have always been my core themes. My obsessions.

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

Heh. I love that question. But I’ll throw one back at ya, just for fun. Question to Caroline Leavitt:
Have you done your Advance Directives and let someone know the basics of what a good peaceful death looks like to you? ANSWER: YES WE HAVE! I bet you have. Because you’re awesome. But for those who haven’t, mark your calendars-- APRIL 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day.

It’s funny. Most of us have homeowner’s insurance or renter’s insurance, but only a few of us (only 20%, in fact) have done advance directives and other helpful paperwork, even though for sure you are going to die (whereas your house or apartment might be fine forever). It blows my mind that a recent Pew Research Center study on end-of life issues found that less than half of people over 75 had given much thought to the end of their lives, and incredibly, only 22% of them had written down or talked to someone about medical treatment at the end of their lives. And that’s folks who are, statistically, getting close! We all – even if we’re young and healthy and got a ton of life stuff going on – we gotta get this stuff down on paper. So can perhaps gracefully do what is going to happen someday . . . . . hopefully far in the future.

Thanks so much for having me on! Yay death!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sharon Harrigan talks about her devastating memoir, PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, about her search for the strange truth about her father


Sharon Harrigan has written a thrilling memoir, PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, about searching for the truth about her dad, a man who blew off his hand with dynamite before she was born and died in a very, very weird accident.Both about the danger--and relief--of finding the truth, it's also a gorgeously written page-turner.

Sharon teaches  memoir writing at WriterHouse in Charlottesville. Her work's appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Slice, Narrative, Pearl, Prime Number, Silk Road, Mid American Review, Louisiana Literature, Apercus Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Hip Mama, Fiction Writers’ Review, Streetlight Magazine, Passing Through Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus. She is a contributing editor at The Nervous Breakdown and at Silk Road Review.

Thank you so much for being here, Sharon!

What was the why now moment which had you write this book? What surprised you in the writing of it?

“The thing you need to know about me is my father died when I was eight.” That’s the opening of Mary Gordon’s memoir, Shadow Man, but it could have been the first line of Playing with Dynamite, if I changed “eight” to “seven.” My father’s death was the defining event of my life, and his mysterious accident haunted me. He went hunting for a deer and a deer killed him? That never made sense.

So I was always obsessed with my father’s story, but for a long time I didn’t know how to approach it. I first tried by writing a novel, but I had too many unanswered questions, questions I was afraid to ask. Without the answers, I couldn’t get deep enough beneath the surface, so I put that novel aside and thought I was done trying to write about my father.

Apparently, I was wrong.

After my daughter’s eighth birthday party, I wrote a blog post that began, “My father never got to see me turn eight.” My brother responded, and I used his memories to write an essay. After my mother read it, she seemed compelled to tell me her memories, things she’d been waiting my whole life for me to be ready to hear. And so many other people responded so strongly to that essay—more than to anything I’d ever published before—that I knew there was something about my father’s story. Something universal. Something everybody seemed to respond to.

But to get to your question: Why now? It was now or never, since I had to rely on the memories of others, and I needed to interview people while they were still alive. One person, in fact (my father’s best friend) died shortly before I was able to talk to him.

What surprised me was how much the book turned into my mother’s story. She, like so many other women she’d grown up with, had been silenced, as if her story didn’t matter. What I discovered was her incredible resilience. Here was a woman who’d had every obstacle thrown at her, and yet she developed into such a strong and resilient person.

The other “why now” question I’ve been thinking about is, What makes this story so timely? In one of my many conversations with my mother in the book, she tells me that my father was “a man of his time.” I began to see that his story might be the story of a generation—at least a generation of white working-class men, blue-collar Midwesterners juggling two or three jobs to support their families in a changing economy. Men who, as my mother put it, “thought if they changed a diaper they’d grow breasts.” These are the kind of men everyone wants to know more about now, especially after the election.

This memoir is so much about family secrets—has this made you more open yourself? Or do you see the value in keeping some secrets secrets?

Yes to both of your questions.

I’ve become more open, for sure. One of the big emotional take-aways from the research I did for Playing with Dynamite was that openness can create intimacy. It’s always possible, of course, that revelations can upset people, but I think it’s worth the risk. I don’t want to live my life only on the surface. I want my relationships to go deep.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in keeping some things private. For example, I have a personal essay coming out in Real Simple magazine, and I had a hard time telling the story I wanted to tell without bringing readers into my bedroom. If I hadn’t figured out how to avoid the X-rated parts while keeping the fundamental narrative intact, I wouldn’t have submitted the piece.

And I’m not going to post embarrassing things about my kids on Facebook or reveal things people ask me not to. So, you know, your secrets are safe with me.

Was there ever any moment when you felt unnerved in the writing—as if you were going too deeply back into the past?

Lots! My mother’s story about what happened to my sister on the night my father died. The story of my parents’ wedding. My father’s driving record. The saga with the Harrison Township Police. . .  I could go on. It was unnerving to hear people tell me about these things, in the moment. But now I think they’re beautiful stories that have a lot to teach me, and I’m grateful for them.

What did you learn that you didn’t expect to learn in writing this?
I had no idea what I was going to learn, so everything was unexpected. I started Playing with Dynamite kind of like a detective starts a case, hunting down a few clues.

One thing I learned was that the act of writing requires empathy, so to be able to write about my father, I had to see the world through his perspective. I had to try to get in the heads of all of my characters, including those I have a hard time understanding, like my sister. Because you can’t write fully rounded characters unless you imagine what life is like for them.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next book is a novel about identical twins who are so closely bonded they speak in the same voice, so that carries forward my obsession with sibling relationships. My brother and I aren’t twins but we’ve always been super close, so I take that idea and stretch it to its furthest extreme. Researching this book has been fascinating, since there are so many twin studies out there.

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

I always like to talk about the books that inspired me. Probably the first memoir I read was The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster, which was a revelation. It’s about how he coped with his father’s recent death and his struggles to father his own son after divorce. But it’s also a tour de force of style and wit, and I was fascinated by the way he let us see a mind at work, thinking on the page, bringing in a whole world of ideas and literary references. Joan Didion is another writer who does that so well, which is why I like to assign The Year of Magical Thinking to my classes.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been fascinated by father memoirs, so, in addition to Mary Gordon’s Shadow Man, I loved Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. And there are so many others.  Kirkus Reviews compared Playing with Dynamite to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club, which were seminal books for me and are also about larger-than-life fathers.

But the two most important books were Benjamin Percy’s novel The Wilding and Michael Hainey’s memoir, After Visiting Friends. I couldn’t have written Playing with Dynamite without them.

So I guess I’m also answering your first question, about what made me decide to write my memoir. The answer is, partly because of things that happened to me and partly because of things I read. I’ve always been a voracious and grateful reader. That’s another thing you need to know about me.

The incomparable Celeste Ng talks about LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE; class, hope and what we think we deserve; why she's political on Twitter and how you can be, too; and best of all, she asks herself 3 most wonderful questions!

How excited am I to host Celeste Ng? She is a master. Her first novel Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications.  Everything I Never Told You was also the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the ALA’s Alex Award, and the Medici Book Club Prize, and was a finalist for numerous awards, including the Ohioana Award, the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.

Her new novel, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is perhaps the most wildly anticipated novel of the fall--and with good reason. I'm not the only one stunned by its depiction of families caught up in class, privilege, ownership and secrets. Look at these advance reviews:

 “This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright…With her second novel, Ng further proves she's a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.” Kirkus Reviews

"A magnificent, multilayered epic that’s perfect for eager readers and destined for major award lists.” Library Journal

What I also love about Celeste is her Twitter presence, which is political, profound, and so, so generous to other writers. I cannot thank you enough for being here, Celeste.

By setting Little Fires Everywhere in Shaker Heights, we know this is a novel about privilege. And you’ve set your own small fire in the novel by focusing on a custody battle. Where did this idea come from?

As in Everything I Never Told you, I was interested in exploring issues of class and race, but this time I wanted to do so from the opposite direction. I was curious about the ways that even the most well-meaning people can still have blind spots and biases.

It’s interesting: we tend to assume a novel isn’t about race or identity if it focuses on white characters, but that assumes whiteness isn’t an identity! I wanted to kind of take a hammer to that idea. The custody battle came to the novel after I had started to sketch out the two families: it brought all the elements I found myself thinking about—race, class, culture, privilege—together.

 In the novel, the custody battle is over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby.( I remember when I wrote a novel about open adoption, I had to hire a media coach to deal with the vitriol that was being hurled at me. “You shouldn’t even be allowed to adopt a puppy,” was one of my least favorite complaints.) But in a way, it’s really a battle about class, race, ideals and ownership, about who deserves what and why. Can you talk about this please?

I love the way you put that—“who deserves what and why.” That’s really the question at the heart of the book. Call it entitlement or call it privilege: it’s all about the idea of who deserves what. Do the McCulloughs deserve to keep the baby because they love her, because they have the resources to provide her a good home, because they couldn’t have children of their own? Conversely, does the baby’s mother deserve to keep her simply because she gave birth to her—even if she made serious mistakes in the past, even if she can’t provide the best possible life for this child? Is what you deserve somehow based on what you’ve done in the past?

That idea of “deserving” is fascinating to me, because it suggests there’s a right way and a wrong way for the world to run, that there’s some kind of merit-based system. Many of the characters in this novel believe they deserve something—based on their expectations of how the world is supposed to work. But of course those expectations are deeply rooted in race and class. Maybe it goes back to the Puritan work ethic: if you work hard, God is supposed to reward you; conversely, if you’re wealthy, it must be because God blessed you and your work. So often we assume that those who don’t have privilege or power have done something wrong or are somehow lesser—and that those who have privilege and power have done something right or are somehow better.

We know intellectually that’s not true, but we’ve been trained to make those correlations. It’s when we have counterexamples—when we’re faced with cases where people aren’t getting what they “deserve”—that we’re forced to reconsider our ideas of how the world works.

Your story lines intersect effortlessly. How do you do this? What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?

I’ve never been an outliner, but I spent a lot of time thinking about this novel while I was on book tour for Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t have time to write, but I had a lot of time in the car, on airplanes, etc. where I just sat and thought about the characters and the events of the book, so when it came time to actually write it, I had a rough idea of where the book was going to go. I jotted down the major events I knew were going to occur, and I used that as a guideline for what to write next. It was like going on vacation with a very, very general itinerary: I knew where I was headed next, but I still had to figure out what route to take and how long I was going to stay in each location and what I was going to see at each stop.

As for mechanics: I do most of my composing on my laptop, because I can type way faster than I can hand write, and otherwise I tend to lose phrases and ideas. But when I get stuck, or if I’m out and about and get an idea or a line, I write in my notebook. I always have one with me.

I converted to Scrivener just after starting this novel—about 10 writer friends were evangelical about it and finally convinced me to give it a try. I don’t know why I waited. Scrivener is a word-processing program that’s designed for writers, and it made it much easier to manage such a large project—it makes it really easy to move pieces of it around, to make comments on stuff I wanted to fix, and to keep my research, including photos, in the same document. There’s a snapshot feature that lets you save a document and then revert later on if  you change your mind—that made me braver about making big changes, like rewriting sections or reordering things. (Interestingly enough, I almost never do revert!)

Your first novel, Everything I Never Told You, which I absolutely loved, was critically acclaimed and made you a household name. Did that great success daunt you as you were writing Little Fires Everywhere? Or did it give you a kind of security that allowed you to take such wonderful writing risks?

Whenever I write, I have to do my best to take off the “reader”/”critic” hat and not think about how the book will be received. Otherwise I tend to get paralyzed, thinking about audience. In order to write Everything I Never Told You, I had to basically tell myself every day that no one would ever read the book, so I should just go ahead and take risks. But in the case of Little Fires Everywhere, I was fairly sure that it would go out into the world—so I tried to spin that anxiety into a plus. I hoped that with Everything I Never Told You, I’d have built enough trust with readers that they’d follow me into this new world and give it a try. I hope I succeeded.

You’re quite a force on twitter, which is absolutely wonderful. Can you talk about #smallacts and why you believe it is so important for each of us to speak out, even when it seems we are not changing things?

When I started on Twitter, I thought I’d try and stick to my “professional” areas: writing and literature. Every now and then I’d speak up about Asian American issues, because they related to my first novel, and because they’re important to me personally for obvious reasons. Then, as my profile rose, I started getting more and more harassment—from people calling me racial slurs to people drawing racist cartoons of me (really) to people threatening me. The rule online is “Don’t feed the trolls”—just like you’re supposed to ignore bullies in grade school. The problem is, bullies and trolls usually don’t go away, and if they do, they just go on to harass someone else. I tried a lot of different techniques and eventually started speaking up about harassment: I would publicly share what they’d said and respond to them briefly—as empathetically as I could—and then I’d block them and get on with my life.

And once I started doing this, a few surprising things happened. First, a number of people contacted me and said, “I get harassed like this too, and I thought I was the only one, and now I feel less alone!” Second, a lot of people said, “I’m using you as an example of how to respond!” And third, a LOT of people said, “I had no idea this even happened, and now I see this is a huge problem.” So I realized that I could have a very small ripple effect in this way, but that the ripples could spread incredibly far. (Actually, I’d learned that technique of dealing with harassment from watching other people online, so really I was just extending their ripples.)

By the time of the 2016 election, I’d begun speaking more publicly about so-called political issues as well, because they mattered so much to me. Like most people of color—and women—my existence is politicized whether I like it or not; these aren’t academic issues. I’m also a child of immigrants, I have a sister with a disability, I’m a mother of a biracial child and would like the earth to still exist when he’s older—the list goes on and on. I felt overwhelmingly disappointed and furious at Trump’s election, and I had to do something. But the only things I could think of to do were small. So I started there. And I hoped that small ripple would spread outward as it had before.

There’s a Zen parable about a man on a beach that’s covered with stranded starfish. He picks one up and throws it into the water, then throws back another, then another. There are hundreds more. Someone passes by and says, “Why are you doing that? There are too many starfish—it won’t make a difference.” The man picks up yet another starfish and throws it back into the water and says, “It made a difference to that one!” That’s kind of how I look at it. We change things on the small scale in an effort to change things on the large scale. Even if the only things we can do are small, they make a difference that ripples outward. Call me an optimist, but I have to believe that to keep going.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I have a bunch of hobbies that I do when I’m not writing—most of them are wordless and all of them involve using my hands. I cook; I plant things in my yard. I crochet—over the last two years I slowly crocheted an afghan that I now like to nap under. I make paintings for my friends, and I recently bought a Remington 5 typewriter and have been typing out my favorite poems on it. I’d like to try pottery next—maybe when I get back from book tour.

I should add that I’m terrible at all these things—except for the cooking, which I’m pretty good at. My crocheting is quite lumpy and my paintings are goofy and my typing is frequently inaccurate and misaligned. But that’s part of what I like about these things. I think what draws me to all of these is the desire for traces of the human hand—the sense that these were made by a person, not a machine, that they’re imperfect and therefore human. I’ve been drawn to handmade things by others for the same reasons—hand-formed sculpture and jewelry, well-loved books and objects, drawings made by my kid. It’s the human touch made visible.

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

Here are some questions I’ve always wanted to answer in an interview, but no one’s ever asked them, so I’ll ask them myself:

Q: What item of clothing from your childhood would you still wear now, if you could?

A: When I was about 3, I had red patent leather Mary Janes that I called my ruby slippers. I’d take those back in a heartbeat.
Q: What’s a fact very few people know about you?

A: As a pre-teen, I was obsessed with the Pony Express. I have no idea why, but I read every book about it I could get my hands on, and I went to see the end of the Pony Express route in Sacramento, CA.

Q: What’s a guilty pleasure for you?

A: My 6-year-old son recently got into Minecraft, and in helping him figure out how to play, I’ve now gotten into it too. I have my own Minecraft world in my phone and use it as relaxation: I go in and harvest my crops, shear my sheep, and build fancy houses.

EVERYONE adores beloved book queen, Nancy Pearl, and how lucky am I to have her here talking about her incredible novel, GEORGE & LIZZIE, secrets, being playful while writing, and so much more

The New York Times calls her “the talk of librarian circles.” Readers are devoted to her book recommendation. Book Lust was a 2003 bestseller and she even has a Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness!  She's been a bookseller, librarian and developed "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," which is now across the country. She has a monthly TV program, Book Lust with Nancy Pearl on the Seattle Channel, talks up reads on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa.
In 2004, Pearl became the 50th winner of the Women’s National Book Association Award for her extraordinary contribution to the world of books. Her novel George & Lizzie is sublimely smart, funny and unforgettable, about secrets and the winding path to love, and Nancy has been talking about it and reading about it to standing room only crowds.

And I want to say, she's funny, warm, supportive gracious--and she has GREAT taste in clothes, too. Thank you, Nancy. 

First, I absolutely adore the inventive playfulness of your writing. You alphabetize what either George or Lizzie likes. You tumble back and forth in time. Even the chapter headings alone (“What George Loves about Lizzie”) are quite wonderful.  How did you come to structure the novel like this?  Did you ever worry that the chances you took might not pay off (They do, they do.)?

At the beginning, I didn’t even think I was writing a novel.  Book people know me as someone who recommends good books to read, but when I was (much) younger I defined myself by my writing.  In high school and college I wrote a lot of poetry, but sometime in my late twenties the lines started coming as prose rather than poetry.  I started writing short stories, one of which, “The Ride to School,” was published, in Redbook in 1980, and the line that came to me was “My mother talked to us all the time,” the first sentence in the story.  (It didn’t seem to be at all workable for a poem.) That’s similar to the way George & Lizzie began.  While I was recovering from minor surgery and under the influence of a moderate dose of painkillers, two characters appeared to me. It was clear (although I don’t know how or why) that their names were George and Lizzie and that they met at a bowling alley in Ann Arbor when Lizzie accidentally lofted her ball into the lane where George was bowling, ruining his possibly best game ever.

(Incidentally, I’m sure it was in Redbook that I first read “Meeting Rozzy Halfway,” and began following, with great pleasure, your writing career.)

That’s all I knew at the beginning, but I found myself thinking about them, pretty much all the time.  Slowly I got a sense of their lives, both separate and together—it  almost felt like they were telling me their stories.  At some point I just felt a need to write down what I’d discovered about them both.

I didn’t have any particular writing strategy or even a plan.  I’d just write down scenes, or snapshots, as I came to think about them whenever they occurred to me.  For example, I’d be lying in bed before I fell asleep thinking about George and Lizzie, and something specific about their lives would seem so especially significant or interesting that I’d get out of bed, go to my computer, and try to capture it on paper.  I gave each of these sections a simple descriptive title (like, “How They Met”) to remind myself what snapshot I was describing. 

Eventually, I discovered that I’d written a novel of the sort I most loved to read: very very character-driven, filled with references to things I love (poetry, novels, football, mandel bread, for example) and a little bit quirky.  It never occurred to me that I was taking chances – I was just writing about George and Lizzie’s life for my own entertainment and pleasure. 

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or follow the characters? Do you have special rituals?

I think I’d call myself an intuitive writer; a less kind description I might use of myself as a writer might be haphazard.  Basically, I followed George and Lizzie and went where they led me.  I’ve always been interested in people’s lives and would happily spend hours listening to them describe their backgrounds and upbringings.  So it makes sense to me that I wanted to know everything about George and Lizzie: all the big and little details of their childhoods, their friends, their families, what books they loved, what people they loved, why they made the choices they made.  Really, it was like falling in love with someone and wanting to be inside their skin to discover how he’s put together.  What made him the person he became and who he is right now.

Sometimes I wish that I had outlined the novel. I think then it might have been easier (and taken less time) to write.  As it was, I had to wait until I learned something about G and L’s relationship to finally sit down and describe it on (virtual) paper.  And at the point when the question that had to be answered was whether their marriage was going to endure, it seemed like I had to wait for them to decide and then let me know, and it seemed to take months and months for them to figure it all out.

I love that your characters talk books. Lizzie loves Edna St. Vincent Millay, there’s talk of A.E. Houseman and Lord Byron. It truly makes me love the characters even more. How did you go about choosing what books you thought each character might love?

It’s probably no coincidence that the authors and books that Lizzie loves are the same ones that I love.  I had a very different sort of unhappy childhood than Lizzie’s but books were always the place I went for comfort and sustenance.  I think that Lizzie turns to reading for the same reasons that I did. 

Lizzie suffers with “announcers in her head” that chastise her for ruining things in life or for deserving punishment. Since I have those in my head, too, I’d love to know about the birth of that idea and why you think some people just need those announcers.

I have those voices, too, constantly, and they’re never saying anything positive about me:  I always assumed that everyone did until a youngish woman, a writer, who read the novel in its completed form, asked me if I thought that Lizzie suffered from incipient schizophrenia. I never thought that Lizzie had schizophrenia – that would make it a totally different sort of novel (and a vastly different Lizzie), but it was surprising to discover that there are evidently some people who aren’t being beat up by these critics in their head.  Like almost everything that happens in the novel, Lizzie and the voices never seemed to be a decision that I made: it was just a fact of her life. 

This jubilant novel is a lot about secrets, but what’s fascinating to me is that the person who suffers from the secrecy is the secret keeper, and not the one to discover it. Can you talk about that please?
I think that the secrets Lizzie keeps from George—about the Great Game and her feelings for Jack—are emotionally paralyze her.  It’s as though she never got past the way she felt when she was 19: Her primary feelings are shame and regret, and she’s furious with herself that she could have been so stupid back then.  (But in Lizzie’s defense, weren’t we all pretty dumb when we were nineteen?)  When George tells her that she has the emotional age of a three year old, he’s clearly exaggerating in the heat of the Difficult Conversation that they’re in the midst of, but he’s also not that far wrong.  And keeping those secrets from George isn’t doing their marriage any favors, is it?  It’s created an insurmountable wall between them, making it impossible to really have an intimate relationship.  I couldn’t imagine what would ever cause Lizzie to tell George anything really important about herself, especially about the Great Game or Jack.  And honestly, I don’t think she would have ever told George about Jack if he hadn’t seen the letter from Marla.  She was pretty much forced into it by circumstance.  And I think that the cause of Lizzie’s greatest shame – the Great Game – is something she’ll never tell George about.  I’d say that the secrets hurt both of them, but in different ways. Can a marriage survive these sorts of secrets?  I’m still not sure.

 What I loved most about George was that he believes in the possibility of happiness. At one point, he tells Lizzie that a particular death is not a tragedy,  that things sometimes just happen in life. And meanwhile, Lizzie is obsessed with someone from her past and in a way that clouds her real future.  Again, I’d love for you to talk about this.

George’s beliefs about happiness are completely foreign to Lizzie: it’s as though he’s speaking in a language that not a huge number of people know, something on the order of Esperanto or Balto-Slavic.  At the same time, I’m pretty sure that Lizzie knows that her life would be a lot happier if she accepted George’s worldview.  It’s very hard for her to do so, mostly because of her parents.  It’s hard to think you’re a worthwhile person when you’re being treated as though you were a lab rat, constantly under scrutiny.  I think when readers look at Lizzie and George’s marriage, or the failure of their marriage to achieve real intimacy, they’ll blame Lizzie.  And I can’t deny that Lizzie is not at all easy to live with: she’s prickly and depressed and keeping those secrets from George.  Worst of all for a marriage, she sees everything in terms of black and white, a zero-sum game – someone’s always right and therefore the other person is wrong.  Someone’s good and someone’s bad.  Someone wins and someone loses.  But George also bears some responsibility for the state of his and Lizzie’s relationship.  He assumes that Lizzie would be happy if she only accepted his optimistic view of the world. Though he does that with the best of motives—because he genuinely wants Lizzie to be happy—it seems to me to reflect a lack of understanding of how and why people change and (oh George, I am so sorry to say this) maybe also a lack of sensitivity to who Lizzie is.  I don’t think you can argue someone into making changes – they have to come to a decision to change on their own.  It’s not until the end of the novel that I see Lizzie acknowledge that maybe the past, or part of the past, anyway, has too strong a hold on her and if she lets some of it go, she’d be happier.  But I hope at that point that she realizes that giving that part of herself up doesn’t make her the loser or the bad one in the marriage.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Like many people, I am obsessed with the current political situation, which I find both frightening and incomprehensible.  I have an M.A. in History and still can’t understand how we got to this place where the cornerstones of our democracy are threatened and it’s impossible to find Republican senators and representatives who will put what’s right for the country above their party affiliation.  All that being said, I spend a lot of time avoiding reading the news because it’s so depressing and instead I am listening to many sports podcasts and following many sports teams and figures on Twitter, especially those devoted to basketball and football.   I am also obsessed with my grown children’s happiness and what I will wear on my book tour.

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

None – I loved these questions – they really made me think.