Friday, October 20, 2017

Who isn't enamored of Joni Mitchell? David Yaffe talks about his brilliant new bio, RECKLESS DAUGHTER, one of the best bios I've ever read

"Dazzling . . . A shimmering portrait of one artist's life, illusions and all." ―Booklist (starred review)

"The essential biography of Joni Mitchell." ―Now Toronto

I love Joni Mitchell. I can't hear one of her songs without being catapulted back to a specific time in my life. And I absolutely devoured David Yaffe's brilliant new bio about her, which not only delves into her relationships with people, but also explores her bonds with the music, in a new and fascinating way.

Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University and a 2012 winner of the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, Slate, New York, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, and Bookforum. He is the author of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown and Fascinating Rhythm.

I was thrilled to read this bio, and I'm even more thrilled to have David here. Thank you so much, David!

I always want to know what was the “why now” moment when you decided to write a book on Joni? Did the book turn out the way you expected?

My agent asked me, “What are your feelings about Joni Mitchell?”  The book is, in a way, my complicated answer to that question.  Everything I had learned up to that point—about jazz, about poetry, about the craft of songwriting, about Nietzsche, the Great American Songbook, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Debussy, Dylan, Cohen, and so on, they all led to this.  As did everything I learned and would learn about brilliant, complex women, and everything I had learned and would learn about the life cycles of romantic relationships.

What I particularly loved about your book was about how deeply you got into her music—and her music influences. I was wondering if you knew why she seems to be having a resurgence of interest now?

I hope she is!  I hope my book plays a role in that.  I loved how Lena Dunham used “Free Man In Paris” in its entirety on the final season of Girls.  And I see it with musicians in their 20s who have been downloading and streaming music of various genres and seeing them come together so beautifully in Joni’s oeuvre.

I was really interested in her veering into jazz, how she was warned that she would lose her audience, how Mingus wanted to work with her—and yet, he hated what she did. Do you think this was simply resentment that a young blonde popular singer/composer was venturing into jazz (or, as Rickie Lee Jones says in your book, “Joni didn’t live the jazz side of life”)? Or, was it something more?

Mingus was specific in his instructions of using his musicians and using acoustic instruments.  Joni tried working with some of those musicians and was unhappy, so she worked with Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes and Jaco Pastorius on electric fretless bass.  He hated those sounds and those were not his musicians, so he did not approve.

I’ve heard that Joni Mitchell often says one thing and means another, that she distorts things to suit her purpose. And what I loved in your book was that although you clearly and deeply admire her, (as I do) you get at the whole story, and the truth.  In your book, David Crosby cheerful says that, “Joni hates everyone.” But there is a difference between deliberately distorting truth and believing a truth because it makes you feel you understand what happened to you in your life. Can you talk about this please?

She was sincere in getting across what she wanted.  Is that evasive?  She has her accounts and other people have theirs, but she remembered better than they did.

What surprised you the most in working on this book?

I was surprised that Joni had such little interest in poetry, yet wrote such beautiful lyrics.   Most people learn by imitation, or what Aristotle called mimesis.  But with Joni, as Leonard Cohen put it, it just emerged from the god’s head.  She produced such incredible, genius level work without any models.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Other music?  St. Vincent, Radiohead, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann  Recent writing?  I am loving Jeffrey Eugenides’s Fresh Complaint

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?How could I have worked so hard on this masterpiece while remaining so strikingly handsome?

Could you leave behind your friends and family and religion? Tova Mirvis talks about her exquisite memoir, THE BOOK OF SEPARATION

"Luminous,unsettling and fiercely brave, Mirvis's memoir insists on a simple but earth-shattering truth: "There are other ways to be." Shelf Awareness (Starred review)

"Introspective and fascinating." Publisher's Weekly

Tova Mirvis is spectacular for so many reasons, the first being her wonderful books, including the novels, Visible City, The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in many publications including the New York Times Modern Love, Real Simple, Psychology Today and the Boston Globe Magazine. But I also am drawn to her warmth, her humor and her absolute brave honesty. I'm so honored to have her here. (Plus, as you will notice, she has the best curly hair in the world.)

Thank you Tova.

Were you worried at all about any repercussions from your book from your previous community, or were you hoping this might encourage others to explore their faiths and what it does or doesn’t do for them? As of now, do you have contact with any of your previous friends?

I was worried! Writing this memoir felt very different from writing fiction where there’s always a place to hide, a way to say this is me and this isn’t me. But in memoir, there is such a sense of vulnerability and exposure. I worried how people would respond, how people I portray in the book would react, how I would feel to have such a private story out in the world.

But I worked through that fear by making use of what I have learned as a fiction writer – to write from a compassionate stance, from the most open, expansive place inside myself; not to castigate or attack or tear down but to write out of a desire to understand. I hope that my being honest on the page will help others to be honest as well -  honesty invites honesty, and I hope that those who read it feel a space to explore their own questions about who they are and who they want to be.

I do remain connected to some of my former friends, and very closely connected to my family, almost all of whom are part of the religious world that I have left. One of the questions I was most interested in exploring was what happens when you don’t match the people you love, and with my immediate family, I have found that it might be complicated but you can maintain that sense of connection.

What was it like writing this book? Where there different pleasures and concerns from writing your wonderful novels? Was there any fear about seeing this through to publication or was it simply relief?

Writing this memoir pulled on a different aspect of my creativity. It wasn’t that sense of invention that is at the heart of fiction writing.  I didn’t struggle with the question, as I always do in my novels, of what happens next?? Here I felt like I was excavating rather than inventing; trying to get at the story underneath the story, to unearth my own self.

But one of  the pleasures (as well as the craft challenge that was the hardest and most rewarding) was coming up with the structure to tell the story – and this is true for me in writing novels as well: How to build a shape that will hold the story I want to tell. How to move between past and present, how to create a feel of seamlessness.

And in finishing it and sending it out into the world there was both fear and relief. One of the themes I wanted to explore in The Book of Separation was how we navigate through fear, how we do things even when we are afraid of them. So in some sense, writing the memoir was an experience in doing the kind of thing  I was exploring on the page.

So much of this exquisite book is about how we navigate our lives when our lives are no longer mapped out for us—as yours was. How did you ever handle your doubts, and can you talk about the moment when you knew you had made the right choice?

In The Book of Separation, I wanted to explore what happens when we decide to leave the path that is mapped for us. I was born into an Orthodox Jewish community, and though I sometimes heard the quiet nagging voice of doubt, I thought I could make it through without really listening to it. I got married at a young age, very quickly, and thought that if I pushed aside my doubts, they wouldn’t be able to find me. But I think no one gets to make it through unscathed, and eventually I was ready to face those doubts, both about my religious community and my marriage.  Change can be enormously terrifying but sometimes it becomes necessary. In this memoir, I wanted to look at the cost of change and also the freedom and possibility it brings. I know I have made the right decision every time I no longer have to censor myself – my ideas, my thoughts, just who I am. I feel freer, in life and on the page. I don’t have to  tuck away the messier parts of myself.

Is there anything you miss—besides certain people—from your past community?

I miss the sense of community, the feeling that there is a place I am supposed to belong; I miss the sense of continuity between the way it used to be and the way it is now –that feeling that there isn’t a diving line between then and now.

What advice would you give anyone in any sort of closed system?

I know that many people are happy inside these closed systems. But what happens when you don’t match the world you are born into? What happens when you don’t believe in a religious world you have been raised inside of? What happens when you feel that you have to hide your true self in order to belong? To those of us who do not belong inside these closed systems, I would say that you are allowed to choose your own life. You are allowed to decide what you believe.  It feels both simple and impossible, but there are many ways to be.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Besides the (bad) news of the world which is always consuming me ... what’s obsessing me is the small fragments of ideas that are the very early stages of a new novel I want to write. I’m starting to assemble those pieces in my mind even though I haven’t started to write it in a serious way. I’m trying to let the book take shape in my head before I really sit down and do the hard work.

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

Ask me about my favorite memoirs! Before I started writing this memoir, I decided that I was going to spend the first year only reading memoir. I usually read fiction almost exclusively but I wanted to immerse myself in this form. I read and took notes and fell in love with memoir. In particular: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff; Drinking: a Love story by Caroline Napp; Not that Kind of Girl by Carlene  Bauer, Devotion by Dani Shapiro; Aftermath by Rachel Cusk; This is the Story of  a Happy Marriage (An essay collection but I adored this) by Ann Patchett; The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong; Lucky by Alice Sebold. These books helped me learn the craft of writing memoir, but they also helped me feel a little less alone on my own journey of setting out.

Hey writers! Emily Homonoff, daughter of one of the patron saints of writers, Robin Kall Homonoff, talks about her small but mighty communications firm for creatives, Little Lion.

Every writer knows that promotion, marketing and publicity can make or break a book. That is why I personally worship at the feet of these professionals. We cannot do this by ourselves, no matter how much of a control freak we are. We writers need patron saints. That's part of why I love Emily Homonoff, who now has an incredible business that writers will love. Fun fact: Emily is the daughter of Robin Kall Homonoff, who runs the incredible and always packed Point Street Reading Series, creates fascinating podcasts and would probably help you go grocery shopping if you really, really needed it.)

Little Lion Communications (small but mighty!) is a company every creative should look into.  I'm so delighted to host her here, and the only thing better would be to give her a hug in person. Thank you, Emily.

Tell us how your company came about.

Not too long into my time as a publicist at William Morrow it became clear to me that eventually I would have to go out on my own. Publishing houses were cutting back on their resources and I was constantly being told that I didn’t have time to implement the ideas I had that would make a book campaign unique. Time after time I saw authors not getting the detail and care they deserved, and after not being able to effect any change, I was truly frustrated. After leaving my position I spent a lot of time thinking about what meaningful next steps would resemble and nothing felt more right than starting my own business. Not only would it allow me to do all of the things that I couldn’t in my past job, but it would also be very empowering and gratifying as a young woman in the world.

 I am a professional namer, but I can never name my own novels satisfactorily. I love the name Little Lion. How did you come up with it?

Ha! Thank you! I would say that I’m actually pretty terrible at naming. I definitely have my strengths but this just isn’t one of them. That said, when it came time to name my business, Little Lion Communications was the first name that popped into my mind and I just knew it was right. I chose to name my business in honor of my beloved childhood dog and cohort Aristotle, Ari for short. While he was initially named for a line in Legally Blonde, Ari is also Hebrew for lion and as a Mumford & Sons fan, I took to calling him my little lion man from the moment I heard the song. Once I spent a little more time thinking about the name I had chosen, I realized that there was even more symbolism behind it. As someone who’s small in stature, I’ve always felt like I surprise people by the ferocity I bring relative to the package they see. For me, being a little lion is about defying expectations, being your authentic self, and making a bunch of “roars” in the process. And since I’m a fan of the tagline, I felt that “small but mighty” summed things up pretty well, and it also paid homage to my home state, Rhode Island.

Tell us about what you can offer that is unique, please.

There’s a lot of competition out there for ancillary publicity and there are definitely people who have put in more years than I have, I’m not delusional about this. But the fact is that most of them do things by the book and with a myopic view of how publicity works. While this has its place, it’s not my style. While I can certainly cast a wide net and focus on traditional follow up, where I really excel is in my creativity, attention to detail, honesty, and love of collaboration. On a more logistical note, a lot of these companies don’t offer social media strategy (nor do the publishers) and that’s one area where I have a lot of personal and professional experience.

Can you talk about what creative types do that they shouldn't?

I’m a very compassionate person, so at the risk of sounding a little harsh, I think that the creative type can sometimes guard the idea of their work too closely. You can’t control the way that someone is going to interpret your book or where they’re going to shelve it. But possibly the biggest issue I’ve faced is that of expectations. From my experience this comes from a lack of transparency, assumptions, and ego with everyone involved. What no one wants to hear is that this whole thing [enter Jewish wide-circling hand gestures] is a mystery, and while I can’t promise results, I can promise my effort, tenacity, and dedication to a project.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Right now I’m obsessing over my impending hair color choice (stay tuned!) and my upcoming role as an ovary actor in Rhode Island’s 20th Anniversary production of The Vagina Monologues!

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

What are you reading?! In addition to my role as a publicist, I also work very closely with one of my favorite people…my mom, Robin Kall! I’ve been reading a lot for our Point Street Reading Series and booking up through the Spring. Some of my favorites have been: Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, and Greene by Sam Graham-Felsen.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Marcia Butler, author of The Skin Above My Knees (Read it!) talks about her terrific new series on the CREATIVE IMPERATIVE

Marcia Butler is video interviewed by me for her incredible series on the creative imperative. She talks to writers, artists, musicians, more!  Check it out here.

AND you can hear me answer her questions here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Oh. My. God. One of my favorite actresses of all time, Karen Allen, talks about her latest film, Year by the Sea, yoga, fiber arts, making movies--and so much more.

If you are anything like me, you worship Karen Allen. And not just because she's made so many extraordinary films--and refused to be the damsel in distress in any of them. Karen Allen Year By The Sea. She's acting and directing in A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.--which she adapted. She was Kay in National Lampoon's Animal House. She was in Cruising, Manhattan, and of course, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Shoot the Moon, Starman, and so much more. 

I am so thrilled and honored to host her here. Thank you, Karen!

I want to say that you are a heroine to so many people I know, especially women. You fought for your character in Indiana Jones not to be a typical “damsel in distress” and turned in a nuanced, powerful performance. You were the character who walked away from a relationship in A Small Circle of Friends to have a better relationship with herself. You left the lunacy of Los Angeles to run a fiber arts shop in Massachusetts.  But best of all is your making a film that features women over 50—and celebrates them.
When was the moment when you knew you had to make this film?

The script was sent to me by the casting agent and director. I read it and was instantly drawn to Joan's story. I went out that same afternoon and got a copy of Joan's first book A Year By the Sea and read it that same day. From that moment I wanted to be a part of the film. I met with the director, Alexander Janko. We had a great meeting and then I waited to hear back as to whether I would be asked to play the role. When they asked me to play Joan, I was already committed.

"I'm beginning to think that real growing only begins after we've done the adult things we're supposed to do," says Joan Anderson the author of the memoir, A Year By The Sea. As someone who did everything late, late, late in life because I found the “supposed to” things baffling, that line really resonates with me. We can change society by refusing to buy into that idea and become fierce examples! But is there anything else we can and should do?

I think we have the potential to raise our children to not buy into the concepts of the "shoulds" and  teach them how to stay true to themselves from the beginning of their lives so that there is nothing to recover from or to reclaim. There are educational systems that encourage children to think for themselves, to speak out, to respect their own ideas as well as the ideas of others, and to be on a journey of authenticity from very early on. Education, as well as parents,  has such an influence on young children and on the adults they become. I think schools that are anti-endoctrination and that encourage young people towards their own awakening,  should get our support and can become models for more widespread educational goals.

I think reading is a collaborative art in that the reader brings their experiences into what they are reading and that colors the story a bit. (For example, if you just went through an angry divorce, you might not respond to a book about a peaceful divorce as well as someone who had never been married at all.) How did you make the story particularly yours? And have any of the responses (everything I’ve read has been a rave) surprised you?

I always saw this as Joan's very specific journey and story, although I do think it has also many universal aspects to it. From my knowledge of Joan and her books, it was clear that she was always committed to her marriage, but needed to find a way to rediscover herself after giving so much of herself to her family. She didn't know how to do that without stepping outside of the day to day world she was so much a part of and giving herself a chance to break with those traditions which had so established themselves in her life as a partner and parent. Yes, I do think that depending on where someone is in their own life when they read or see the film of her story, they might not understand her feelings and her struggles, but that is as it should be. Most people who have raised children and been in marriages for a length of time will find a lot to relate to in what she goes through. 

To me, the film world is so much harder than the publishing world. Once things are in motion in publishing, it’s really difficult for them to stop, but there are so many stops and starts with film. How did you keep your determination and never give up? Was there ever a moment when you knew, okay, this is going to be a go?

Well I'm not really the person to talk with about this. I came on board a month before the shoot began and went home 6 weeks later to start a new project of my own.  I have given my support during the film festivals by being there to help promote the film and as we move to commercial screenings in terms of helping with promotion, but the determination and stamina and sheer non-stop fighting power that has kept this film afloat has come from Alexandar Janko and Laura Goodenow, our director and producer.

I know that I am always profoundly changed in unexpected ways when I am finished with a novel or a script. Can you talk about how this film changed you?

I think as an actor the film gave me the opportunity to play a woman my own age who wasn't worn down and discouraged by life. The role of Joan allowed me to feel all the dimensions and optimism of a life moving forward. A sense of discovery and adventure and power to learn still about myself and the world around me. I don't think there are a lot of films for women in their 60's and 70's where the characters are fully developed and have aspirations in their lives as they look to their future. That affected me in a very positive way.

You also have a short film that you directed—can you talk about that to us?
It's based on a short story by Carson McCullers that I have known and loved for many years. It's called "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud" and is about the passing of wisdom from an older man to a young boy who meet by chance in a cafe in 1947. It's about the nature of love and how when we come to understand the nature of love as this man has come to experience it, it can change the world we live in.

What’s obsessing you now and why—besides the film?
Oh, I have many obsessions. Finding a diagnosis and cure for Lyme disease is one. Getting back to my discipline of yoga and meditation is another. I've been so busy for the last few years that I have lost the thread of some things that I like to stay tuned into. I'm about to begin shooting a new film as an actor so am obsessed with this role at the immediate moment. I also have a play by playwright Joan Ackermann that I would like to turn into a film and that is also obsessing me. We won't even talk about politics or the environment because it's too long of an obsessive conversation to get into. Needless to say, I'm besides with seeing Trump get impeached and the sooner, the better.

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

Here's yet again another obsession....I have a wonderful store that I opened in 2005 called Karen Allen Fiber Arts on Railroad St in Great Barrington, MA. It is a celebration of all the phenomenal textile and fiber artists that I know of in the world from Japan to France to England to India and  all over the US. I have loved textiles since I was a young child and to bring so many of these artists together in a shop for other people to see and wear and enjoy has been a blast.
Karen Allen

The Iraq War. Disability. Women on and off the battlefield. AND WOLVES! Helen Benedict talks about her extraordinary new novel, WOLF SEASON

"[Helen Benedict] has emerged as one of our most thoughtful and provocative writers of war literature." ―David Abrams, author of Fobbit and Brave Deeds, at the Quivering Pen

"No one writes with more authority or cool-eyed compassion about the experience of women in war both on and off the battlefield than Helen Benedict. . . . Wolf Season is more than a novel for our times; it should be required reading." ―Elissa Schappell, author of Use Me and Blueprints for Building Better Girls

 I first wrote about Wolf Season for Parnassus Books and I was so jazzed about the book that I wanted to get a chance to interview the author, the great Helen Benedict. She's the the prize-winning author of twelve books, the last three of which are about the Iraq War. Thank you so, so much for being here, Helen!

I loved Wolf Season and I always want to know what the "why now" moment was, the springboard that made you feel you just had to sit down and write this book.

My short answer to what inspired me to write Wolf Season would be an interview and a hurricane.

The interview happened while I was researching my nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, and talked to a veteran of the Iraq War who lived in the woods with several wolves and her child. I never met her, only spoke to her on the phone, but her life sparked my imagination. Out of that grew the opening line and the voice that was to become Rin.

The hurricane happened while I was in my house in upstate New York, forcing me and my husband to hide in one room for a day and a night while nature went haywire. That was Irene, the one that destroyed upstate towns while leaving New York City virtually untouched.

But I also knew I wanted to bring the war home after my previous novel, Sand Queen, which was set in Iraq – that is, I hoped to explore how war affects not only those in the midst of it, but those who love them. Somehow, the hurricane, the wolves, the woman and the war all converged into the first chapter, launching the book.

How was writing this novel different from any of your others? Did anything surprise you (and did you wish it had not?)

I have never written about disabilities or wolves before, so both those subjects yielded surprises to me; a voyage of discovery. But this book also has a slightly magical quality to it, which was a total surprise, as I have never written in that style before. As for unwelcome discoveries, I found that even though this is my seventh novel, it was no easier to write than the first. I keep thinking this art form will become easier with experience, and keep finding out that it doesn’t! If anything, it is harder because I am more aware of all the traps and tropes into which I could fall. I wonder how many other writers find this.

So much of this sublime novel was about women and war--on the battlefield and off.  What was your research like? What I especially was moved by was your insistence on the very human cost of war, before, during and after. Can you talk about this, too, please?

I spent many years interviewing American military women who fought in the Iraq War, as well as Iraqi refugees. I began this work to write journalism, but soon realized that what I was learning about how war affects the human heart could not be adequately plumbed without turning to fiction. War forces us to come face to face with how courageous, altruistic, and resilient we really are – or aren’t. It reveals the best and the worst in us as almost nothing else does, and thus opens a fascinating door to the human soul.

I also wrote Wolf Season because I don’t think we civilians spend enough time actually thinking about, let alone imagining, what war does to a human being. The U.S. is constantly waging war somewhere in the world, but we rarely consider the suffering this causes to those on the receiving end. At the same time, I have been extremely moved by the courage, generosity, resilience, and even tenderness, I have found in people who have been through the horrible trauma of war. I wanted to capture this, too, because it should give us all hope. As awful as we humans can be, we can also be astonishingly noble.

Of course, I want to ask about the wolves. Did you spend time with wolves yourself? (I remember taking my son, when he was 6 to a wolf game preserve. They were amazing.) 

Yes, aren’t they splendid? I did indeed spend time with wolves. I found a wolf rescue center and sanctuary tucked away on a small mountain in northwestern New York State, where I spent a day alone, watching several wolves close up. There was a fence between us, but because no one else was around for hours at a time, they were comfortable coming right up to me. I was also able to watch how their keepers interacted with them, fed and petted them, and saw how very cautious those keepers remained at all times, even though they had raised some of the wolves from pups. A pure wolf remains somewhat wild no matter what training it might get; they are too smart to be otherwise.

I also, of course, read about wolves, who have been studied extensively, people having been fascinated by them for centuries. I love the way wolves play so many roles in human stories – noble, savage, mystical, deadly, spiritual... They are also extraordinarily intelligent, and the social structure of their packs in complicated and eerily human.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Ever since the last presidential election, I have been obsessed with the administration’s persecution of refugees and immigrants, and of women. As a sort of migrant, myself (I grew up in the UK and various islands in the Indian Ocean, and came here for good in my mid-twenties), and as a writer who has been extremely moved by the refugees I have interviewed, and as a half Jew and a New Yorker, I cannot bear to see the suffering being inflicted on those who have fled here for safety and for the sake of their children’s futures. This, plus my lifelong work as a journalist on violence against women, might just possibly be the subject matter of a future novel.

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

Perhaps you might be interested in why I felt compelled to write about Muslims and Iraqis, being neither myself. After Bush invaded Iraq for no good reason in 2003, I was struck by how little attention the U.S. was paying to Iraqi civilians, who have suffered beyond measure under our actions. So, I set out to read and meet any Iraqis I could find who could speak English and would be willing to talk to me. With their help, I was able to learn their side of the story, their views of the war, and some of their stories. No one person ever represents an entire nation or people, of course, but their generosity of spirit and deep wisdom in the aftermath of tragedy and violence – every Iraqi I met has had at least one family member killed – moved me deeply, and helped me inhabit Naema, Khalil, and Tariq.

I also wrote Wolf Season because I believe this is a time in history when it is essential to write across the very borders that supposedly separate us: religion, race, culture, ethnicity. It’s a time to look for our common humanity, not for our differences. War tends to reveal much of what all humans have in common, for when we lose a person we love, our health or our minds, the suffering is the same, no matter who we are. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Love Mozart in the Jungle the way that I do? Marcia Butler talks about playing the oboe professionally, opera, and her ravishing memoir THE SKIN ABOVE MY KNEE

I've been addicted to the show Mozart in the Jungle, about an orchestra working in NYC--especially the oboist. I was thrilled to read Marcia Butler's astonishing memoir about her life as a professional oboist, which is an inside look at the music world, at ambition, at life. And even though Butler and purists say it has nothing to do with the real world, how can anything that supports classical music be anything but rapture?

I'm so thrilled to host Marcia here! And trust me, you need to buy and read her book.

CL: What was the catalyst for writing your memoir?

I’d never intended to write a memoir. Even when I was in the thick of writing the first 20,000 words, I was calling it something else: a book on creativity. All of this determined avoidance was, of course, subconscious. I see it so clearly, now that my memoir is out to the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A bit of back story is needed.

I was a professional oboist for 28 years in NYC. My memoir is about my experience as a musician woven together with my personal narrative. But interior design was my second career in the arts. As a designer, I’d discovered much about my views on art, architecture, and style and aesthetics in general. I was eager to share my thoughts with clients and perhaps the world, so I began a design blog. I didn’t know it at the time, but these short pieces were seedlings of ruminations on creativity.

Though I’d never written before – not even in personal journals – in just one year I’d produced over 50 blog posts. Shortly into writing these blogs, a shift began to assert itself. I wrote a few essays about performing music – those occasions I’d remembered as unusual, or difficult, and had pushed my boundaries; when I’d suddenly become a better oboist and deeper musician. Or, where music brought me to a closer understanding of my place in the world. In essence, when I’d found higher ground. Writing about the aesthetics and fundamentals of design seemed to open a portal to understanding how I’d developed as a musician.

Then came the pivotal elision: I wrote my very first personal essay about when I’d heard music for the first time. My four-year-old self lay on the floor as I listened to the music of Richard Wagner. As I wrote the story, I realized that this music, which I certainly didn’t understand at the time, was a profound expression of love. As a young girl, I was eager to wallow in that sound and feeling. Simultaneously, I yearned for my distancing mother. The sensation of my body on the carpet, the need for mother connection and this exceptional music all fused together in my heart. Placing the memory on paper represented that hard cube of sugar which began to melt into an authentic writing journey. Still, on the surface, I told myself I was writing principally for my design blog and about creativity.

It wasn’t until I went to a writing conference, essentially to pitch this book on creativity, that I realized I was actually writing my life story. This was not an easy realization as I’d never spoken about the particular abuse I’d suffered and all that came from my difficult childhood or how it had then played out in my adult life. And honestly, there’s not a memoirist out there who doesn’t wonder, for a long time, who’d ever be interested in my silly life? But I continued on with a singular mission: to write my life story, no matter if it got published or not. That eventuality was not even on my radar at the time.

CL:  So now that you've been a hardcover debut author, how has your life changed? Does it make it easier to write your next book, or harder somehow?

MB: That’s such a great question because as with every big event in one’s life, such as publishing a book, it may change the external experience of living day to day, yet one is still the same person inside. And I’ve discovered this odd thing about writing a memoir: people now have a very public window into my mind and heart and life in a way I’d never considered, much less thought possible or even anticipated. (That sounds naïve as I write these words.) I revealed many difficult events that even close friends were not aware of. Indeed, musicians whom I sat next to in orchestras for years have commented that they had no Idea I was struggling with such terrible personal travails which I detail in the book. Yes, I have been exposed!

At the same time, writing the book has given many the idea that I have somehow overcome hardships by virtue of the fact of writing my memoir. That the tough stuff is over and done with; digested and conquered. After all, I’m walking, talking, making decent sense, carrying on with life. I’m a highly efficient and disciplined person. But I’m still that young woman who was abandoned by my family when I had cancer and who longed for a mother who rejected me over and over. I’m still a person who faces demons and struggles often as I continue to live with my past and manage my ideas of who I am as a woman. To this day.

Yet, writing this book has opened a wonderful portal to possibility. Throughout my life, I’ve never shied away from “the next thing”. I was an oboist, and then I was an interior designer. So, what the heck – now I’ll be a writer! Once my memoir was sold, I immediately got back on the page – sage advice that was given to me by another author as a way to stay sane throughout all the months leading up to the publication date. Over the last two years I wrote a novel called The Optimistic Voices, which my agent currently has out for sale to publishers. And I continue to write personal essays because non-fiction is still very much a sweet spot. In general, I am by nature very proactive. Similar to when I was a musician: I never spent time thinking about the concert the previous night because there were concerts coming down the pike that I needed to prepare for. Music is immediate and ephemeral. I approach writing that way as well.

CL: What kind of writer are you? Rituals? Process?

MB: Oh goody – I get to talk about my weirdness! But first, some necessary grit. When I was performing, practicing hours a day was second nature and a pretty much a given in order to stay vital on the oboe. I had to learn new music constantly and the competitive nature of the music business keeps you mentally hungry, and kind of scared, for the most part. I bring that rigor to my writing practice. Mornings are my best time and I am up anywhere from 5am to 6am. After I deal with emails and business concerns, I begin writing by 9am and try to stay on the page for 3 hours. Then I usually go back for at least 2 hours in the afternoon. Before bed, I might take a quick peek at what I’ve written that day because I often dream about my characters and wake up thinking about them. The sleep state is a gestation period, and the brain is operating in a non-critical way. I’ve solved certain problems regarding character and plot by sleeping and I’m convinced that the imagination is active at all times.

I tend to write “through” for the most part. By that I mean that I get content down quickly. And I like to “not know” too much as I write, because I’ve found that staying within a predetermined plot actually limits what the characters themselves want to do. Another activating device I use is walking. While I’m aimless in Central Park, I’ll email ideas to myself that arise in the moment. And I take a lot of pictures because I’m extremely visually oriented as well. These images give me ideas for world building on the physical plane. I rely heavily on my senses, which seems obvious, but I’ve made my living through my eyes and ears for many years.

I never drink or eat while I’m writing because the belly has a secondary brain center which is very powerful and just as complex as the primary brain in the skull. And I like all my energy to be focused in my head. Staying slightly hungry somehow feels correct while I write; I feel more acute and present when I’m slightly in need. Weird, but true. I wash my hands a lot. I organize my small apartment before I write. I line everything up. Things must be centered and all square. Yes, I am a tad compulsive.

CL: I read your book about the same time that I was obsessed with Mozart in the Jungle--and its oboist star. How realistic is that show?

Okay, full disclosure. I’ve never seen the show! Mainly because I don’t have Amazon Prime (or Hulu or HBO for that matter). The other, more secret reason is that my TV habits are probably the weirdest on Earth. (No sitcoms, ever. Or serial dramas like West Wing, sorry. No Game of Thrones, cannot do it. Just as examples.) And here is the next disclosure: I know the author of the book on which the TV show is based. She was a freelance oboist in NYC for some years and I performed concerts with her and read her book back in the day.

But I’ll dig deeper here, possibly where I’m not wanted. We all know that books are totally different animals from the TV shows they become. I’m told that this is certainly the case with Mozart in the Jungle. My musician colleagues tell me one of two things, the purists abhor it, and others adore it. My Hollywood friends tell me that the writing is very good, with sassy and crisp dialogue. We all know that the producers are pros: The Coppola family and Jason Schwartzman. I love that a Broadway star, Bernadette Peters, is in the cast (I played lots of Broadway shows back in the day). And Malcolm MacDowell! What’s not to love about a guy who was in A Clockwork Orange, has acted in most Shakespeare plays and also played Caligula? All of these ingredients must bring great things to the program – I’m sure it’s a gas. The real plus is that MITJ brings the world of classical music to a mass audience and nothing but good can come from that. If someone is inspired to attend a classical concert for the first time in their life after watching that program – well, that is a very good outcome. Is it an accurate depiction of the life of a freelance musician? Since I seem to be critiquing something I’ve never seen, I’ll just jump in again and go for it: my sense is no. But neither is Law and Order, when Sam Waterston makes a speech during cross examination, which we know is never allowed in a real trial. But do folks care? No. That show has been on for over 30 years and will be in reruns forever. It’s entertainment and when we entertain, the truth is not so important.

CL: What's obsessing you now and why?
The Metropolitan Opera. Always and forever. Because: singing, dancing, acting, melodrama, death, suicide, betrayal, switched at birth, incest, women dying for love (what else is new?), men surviving love (what else is new?), crazy assed sets – and that’s in the first 30 minutes.

CL: What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Why have you been watching the 1980’s TV show, Dallas, (on DVD – 14 seasons) for the last 10 years, literally every single day? No joke. Because: singing, dancing, acting, melodrama, death, suicide, betrayal, switched at birth (or in this case an illegitimate son), incest (well, not really but if they’d had a 15th season, I’m sure), women dying for love, men also dying for love (but of course they survive by coming back on the show via a season-long dream sequence). Shoulder pads! J. R. EWING.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Why is the word "bitch" so empowering? Cathi Hanauer talks about The Bitch is Back (Older, Wiser, And (Getting) Happier), now in paperback!

Come on, who doesn't adore Cathi Hanauer? She's smart, provocative, profound--and a whole lot of fun to do a book event with. I'm honored to host her here for the paperback of The Bitch is Back, Older, Wiser, and (getting) Happier, which is important new. She's given a Ted Talk about this, too, and trust me, this is the kind of book that sparks conversations. You want to buy more than a few copies to give to your friends--because that's what friends do.

Cathi Hanauer is also the crackerjack author of the novels, Gone, Sweet Ruin, My Sister's Bones, and the editor of the #10 NYT Bestselling THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE. tShe has written articles, essays, and/or reviews for The New York Times, Elle, O, Self, Glamour, Whole Living, Mademoiselle, Parenting, Child, Redbook, and other magazines; she was the monthly books columnist for both Glamour and Mademoiselle and wrote the monthly advice column "Relating" in Seventeen for seven years. She has taught writing at The New School, in New York, and at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, as well as privately. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, writer and New York Times 'Modern Love' editor Daniel Jones, and their daughter and son.

Thank you times a million, Cathi!

Q: What's different about "The Bitch is Back," or Bitch 2, from your wildly successful The Bitch in the House?

A: Bitch 1--"The Bitch in the House"--was about anger, because it was written at a time when I, and a lot of the women I knew in my situation or similar ones, were angry; we were working women juggling careers and motherhood with, we felt, not enough help from our husbands and from society, and we were angry that our expectations of what this time would be weren't what was happening in reality. Bitch 2, in contrast, is not angry; it was compiled at a different, much easier time in my life--kids older, marriage calmer (or, for some of the contributors, now over), sometimes more money--and it's a more content, more sophisticated book, more mature and "existential," as one reviewer put it, with more moments of grace, i think. It's about choice and enlightenment and having done the work that leads you to happiness, or at least contentment; about how smart, bold, enlightened women choose to age at a time when just about anything is possible--from having a baby on your own to choosing not to have children to choosing to caring less--or even more!--about your appearance, to transitioning from one gender to another. It's about asking yourself what you want and what you need, and then getting that: About either throwing off the old ways and fighting for a new self/life/identity….or finding a different way to look at yourself, or your life, once you realize that you're already living the life you want. It's about the wisdom of age--not the anger and exhaustion of juggling two full-time jobs.

Q: Why do you think the word "bitch" is both empowering and derisive? It's almost a mark of pride now for women, don't you think?

A: Women have reclaimed the word; when we use it about ourselves, it suggests strength and toughness and not being afraid to speak up for what you want; the opposite of Virginia Woolf's "angel in the house," who, "if there was chicken, took the leg; if there was a draft, she sat in it." As Olympia Dukakis said, "You say I'm a bitch like that's a bad thing?" At the same time, it's still not okay for someone else to call us bitches, b/c there's still a nasty connotation to the word when used in that way--think of Trump calling Hillary a "nasty woman." When we reclaim it, we can turn it into something positive, something we're proud of. But you don't want other people saying it about you. It's for us to say about ourselves!

Q: What startled you the most about this book?

A: I was surprised, I think, by the bravery of the writers, what they were willing to reveal--which is what makes the essays so powerful and exciting. Sarah Crichton, for example, talks about regaining her sex life after her husband dumped her for a younger woman. She does not hold back, and the result, since she's also a brilliant writer, is an absolutely stunning essay about midlife sex after a sex-less marriage--funny, smart, bold, just fantastic. Some of the women from the first book talk about leaving their marriage, or how their marriage has evolved, if they stayed. Debora Spar, at the time the president of Barnard College, now the head of Lincoln Center, talks about her decisions to use botox and other methods to keep herself looking young and thin, while Ann Hood talks about saying fuck-it to trying to stay thin, and letting herself relax into middle age. Both choices equally valid, of course. So many really smart women, truly excellent writers, revealing things in the interest of bold, honest, writing--and of debunking the myths that we all live with.

Q: What do you think changed you just in reading everyone else's essays?

A: Putting together both of these books was so much fun, so enlightening. With Bitch 1, I learned so much--that i wasn't alone, that other women were feeling much as I did, and that it wasn't just women being "spoiled"--there were, and still are, real problems with the way many of us are expected to combine motherhood and challenging work, sometimes work that brings in half or much more of the income, in a country that doesn't have good maternity and family leave policies, that doesn't support working mothers or women who leave the work force to have kids. With Bitch 2, i was mostly just amazed at the trust these women put in me, and how generous they were. It made me want to do the same for others in their anthologies--to want to really dig deep and speak out about these experiences. It also made me feel lucky. People have suffered some really difficult things--and come through better for them. My life has been relatively tame, in comparison. But it's all good. Wisdom comes from tragedy as well as education and deep thought--from a life fully lived.

Q: What's obsessing you now (beside politics...) and why?

A: I think these days we're all asking ourselves how we can help make the world a better place. I've had such a great life--I've been so lucky. How can i help others who haven't had as easy a time? How can i be a better person, here in midlife? And what, as a writer, do i have to contribute? Hope that isn't too political an answer! It is the truth, though.

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

A: Maybe this: If there's one lesson you learned from doing Bitch 2, what was it? And the answer would be, i learned that it's so important to lead an examined life--to think about what you want and what you need and whether you're getting that and, if not, what can you do to change this? Is the problem with your external life, or with yourself? If the former, how can you fix or change that? If the latter, what will you do about it? Are you depressed? Do you need a career change? Or do you just need to learn to look at your life differently? Figure out what you want and need and how to get it, and then do it, and own it. No apologies. Lizzie Skurnick writes about deciding to have a baby on her own--and then doing just that. Jennifer Finney Boylan writes about realizing that she couldn't live another minute as a man, and so transitioning from male to female. Kate Christensen writes about realizing she needed to leave her marriage--and then doing that. Pam Houston writes about her decision to simply stop caring about being "smart" anymore, and instead to think more about "wisdom"--and to stop caring what people think. And how that was her path to contentment and joy.

    I hope this book helps others, though reading these astonishing essays, find their own paths to midlife contentment. That's my wish for this book!

How can you not love a writer who obsesses? Matthew Lansburgh talks about his prize-winning collection of stories, OUTSIDE IS THE OCEAN

First, there is that knockout cover. Even better is the knockout fiction inside. Matthew Lansburgh's collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Electric Literature, StoryQuarterly, Guernica, Ecotone, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Joyland, and has won awards from Columbia Journal and the Florida Review. Matthew earned an MFA in Fiction from NYU, where he received a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellowship. Kirkus described Outside Is the Ocean as "arresting" and said "Lansburgh’s prose offers stunning moments of tenderness amid its stark depictions of loneliness." I loved this collection—and so did Andre Dubus III, who picked it for the award.

I'm so jazzed to have Matthew here. Thank you so much, Matthew!

How does it feel? Does it make it easier to write your next project, or in some ways, harder? And are these linked stories pushing you to write a novel?

First, I want to thank you for inviting me to do this interview and to appear on your blog. It is a tremendous honor to be interviewed by a writer whose work I admire so much.  Getting the news that I won the Iowa Short Fiction Award changed everything. At least that's how it felt at the time. Suddenly, I went from seeing myself as an imposter to feeling like someone who could legitimately call himself a writer. I know that getting the award shouldn't make a difference—I'm still the same person, still have exactly the same amount of talent and ambition as I did previously—but after having spent so many years devoting myself to an undertaking that seemed to be bearing very little "fruit," I suddenly feel like it's okay to fully embrace myself as a writer.

I think that early on in their literary endeavors a lot of writers feel a certain degree of fraudulence.  For many years, I questioned whether I had enough talent and drive to publish a book. Like so many aspiring writers, I've faced a lot of rejection along the way, and I've often wondered whether making yet more revisions to this or that story was really worth it.

As for whether this stamp of approval is making it easier to pursue my next project, the answer is yes and no. Over the past few months, I've been spending a lot of time revising some of the stories in my collection for publication (as part of the book and in journals), and I've also spent more than a few hours addressing some of the non-literary aspects of publishing: setting up readings, sending out galleys, working with Iowa on the cover, etc.  In the long term, however, I have no doubt that getting this good news will give me more confidence to finish my next project.  I've been working on a novel for a few years now, and Iowa's stamp of approval gives me a bit more confidence that with enough patience and work I might also be able to publish it one day.

Outside Is the Ocean is the story of Heike, a young woman who leaves Germany to find the American dream and when she doesn’t seem to find it, she adopts a disabled child from Russia. But it’s also about the things we yearn for, the things we imagine have happened (and they haven’t). Can you talk about the origins of this astonishing book?

How long do you have? Your question taps into a very deep vein!

I'd be lying if I said Outside Is the Ocean is pure fiction. The book grew out of an ongoing desire to try to understand my childhood and my parents, who are both very complex people.  I've worked on the book, on and off, for over a decade. "California" and "House Made of Snow" were some of my earliest pieces of writing. For many years, I worked on various parts of Outside Is the Ocean without thinking they would ever come together as a book. I wrote them simply because I enjoyed the process of writing, of putting words on the page. I liked how that process allowed me to examine certain events from my life as well as characters I'd grown fond of from different perspectives.

Over time, as I showed some of this work to various readers, people encouraged me to let my imagination run free and to remember that simply because something happened in real life doesn't necessarily make it interesting.  I began to fictionalize the people and situations more fully and to try to shape them into what some people might call—at the risk of sounding pretentious—"literary artifacts." The end result is almost entirely fiction, though some of the relationships and emotional undercurrents still bear a close connection to my life.

I have to ask about the cover, which I just love (love the title, too.) I know that covers and titles are notoriously difficult to get right, and they are often changed ten million times by publishing houses. What’s the story behind yours?

I love the cover too! Iowa asked me for some examples of covers I like and sent me some possible mock-ups.  When I saw the somewhat blurred image of the mother and son, I knew immediately that this was the one. I still don't know who the artist is, but I will be forever indebted to him/her.

There’s so much about love and connection—and you treat your characters with such compassion. What was it like to write Outside Is the Ocean? What kind of writer are you?

Writing the book was part therapy, part meditation, part catharsis. Some of the material was difficult to confront. Some of it was painful. Each story went through many revisions.  "The Lure" probably went through a hundred drafts. Often I made revisions and then put the new version aside for months, sometimes even years.  At certain points along the way, I felt like it was a lost cause, like I'd done everything I could do with it, and I would never touch it again.

Then, eventually, I'd circle back to it and keep tinkering.  The process was extremely iterative. I think what kept me going, at the most primal level, was the hope that by making the work as good as it could be I would reach some kind of understanding or truth or reconciliation that I felt had eluded me in real life.

Thank you for saying you think I treat my characters with compassion. I care about the characters in the book, and one of my biggest fears is that I haven't been compassionate enough.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm an obsessive person. I obsess about everything. Constantly.

I think a more productive question might be: "What isn't obsessing you now?  What feels okay in your life?"  The answer to that is easy—it's my partner, Stan.  He's the one part of my life that doesn't cause me anxiety or angst.  He's a good egg.

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

"Have you shared all of the stories in the book with your mother?" [No; she's only read a few of them. How best to navigate this issue has definitely been keeping me up at night.]

Wiley Cash talks about his devastating, gorgeous, profound new novel, The Last Ballad, fame, memory, Appalachia, 1929, and so much more

Wiley Cash is a master. Who else writes such breathtaking prose and such stunners of stories? His newest, The Last Ballad, is set in Appalachia in 1929, about a single mother struggling in a textile mill--and it's nothing short of extraordinary. Plus, honestly, Wiley is one of the kindest, most generous souls around, which only makes it even more of an honor to host him here.

He's the New York Times best selling author of the novels The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA.Thank you, thank you, Wiley.

Your sense of place, the hardscrabble existence some people eke out, is just  astonishing. There is so much desperation in this book, that it made it feel so timely  and so real. What was your research like? Was there ever a time when you got up from where you write feeling discombobulated?

My research was three-tiered: First, because I’m always teaching at one university or another, I always have access to databases and reference collections. While working on The Last Ballad I was teaching at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and their library had an extensive North Carolina special collection. I was able to find resources there – first person accounts from Ella May Wiggins’s family, a memoir by labor organizer Fred Beal – that I would not have been able to find anywhere else.

Second, I’m from Gastonia, North Carolina, where The Last Ballad is set, and I was familiar with the mills that were affected by the strike, and I was familiar with the areas and neighborhoods and parts of town that I wrote about in the novel. It was an amazing thing to be able to return home and walk the same ground my characters had walked. I even had the opportunity to visit the mill where Ella May worked a 72-hour workweek for only $9. The mill, while dilapidated and dangerous, is still in operation. A man who offered me a tour said the mill had employed around 200 people when he began working there in the late 1970s. On the day of my tour there were two women employed.

Finally, I was able to immerse myself in the cultural moment of the 1929 strike by listening to the music that came out of Gaston County in the year before the depression. Many of the mill workers were from Appalachia, and when they headed east after being lured by great promises of easy life in the mills they brought with them their songs and stories and instruments. Much of the music that came out of the strike, including the protest songs Ella May wrote and performed, was based on early ballads that had gained popularity in Appalachia. To listen to that music now is to hear the defiant spirit of a people who were lied to and double-dealt, but who refused to give up.  

Part of the beauty of this novel (and it is absolutely gorgeous) are the different voices threading together, unspooling the tale. How did you go about ensuring that each voice was different, that each arc carried all the way through? (Which you did exquisitely.)

I kept reminding myself that history and the events that comprise the history of an event or the collective memory of a town are not single, fixed things. Each of these characters has her or his experience of the events surrounding the strike. While Ella’s is the central perspective, especially because she’s the heart and moral center of the novel, the experiences of others are necessary in order to give the reader a true estimate of what the summer of 1929 felt like. I adhere to the facts and dates of the strike as they unfolded over that violent summer; those were automatic when writing, and I eventually internalized the facts to the point that I no longer thought of them. What I focused on was the experience of living through something like this and how I could best offer readers a glimpse of the many facets of that shared experience. This is a novel about an historical event, but it’s portrayed through several histories. Too many histories have been and are continuing to be erased in the United States. In this novel I tried to gather and hold together as many as I could.

Can we talk about fame? This novel deservedly has a huge initial printing (100,000) and so much buzz, you could start your own hive. How does that feel? Does it interfere with what you are writing now—or with your image of yourself as a writer?

Honestly, it doesn’t really mean anything to me because nothing matters until the book goes on sale, and even then you want know anything about the success of it for weeks. And what does success mean? For me, success means that my hobby has become my career, and I’ll feel successful as long as I can continue on while supporting my family.

Another thing that makes it all feel relevant and less overwhelming is the fact that my book no longer belongs to me once the manuscript is out of my hands. Publishing, even at the smallest publishing house, is a group effort. Many hands touch a book before it arrives on the shelf, and many hearts wrap themselves around it. There are a number of people who have worked very hard on this book, and I want it to succeed for them as badly as I want it to succeed for my family and me. I’ve learned to stop calling them my books once they leave my desk. It becomes our book, no matter whether I’m talking to my editor, agent, the sales department, or a bookseller somewhere in Middle America. Everyone is invested. Everyone has something at stake.

Ella, a civil rights activist, is murdered in 1929, but it falls to her daughter years later to tell the ramifications of the story. Do you think—especially now in this awful political climate—that we can finally learn from the past and set things right?

I don’ know. I hope so. I was wrapping up The Last Ballad during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here I was writing a novel about a strong, independent woman standing up to the forces of greed while watching a campaign that pitted a strong independent woman against the forces of greed. And then, in 2017, we see the rise of white supremacy and the invocation of the confederate relic as a way forward for racist white America. Readers will find this exact worldview perpetrated by violent white extremists in The Last Ballad. I thought I was writing a novel about 1929; it turns out that I was writing a novel about 2017. I gave a voice to Ella May Wiggins, a woman who was murdered for taking a stand against white supremacy in Gastonia, North Carolina, and years from now someone will give a voice to Heather Heyer, a woman who was murdered for taking a similar stand in Charlottesville, Virginia.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Lately I’ve been really obsessed with memory, both its layering over time and its slow sloughing off. I lost my father to a brain tumor last summer, and in his final months we watched his memories and his grasp of language peel away from his mind in a way that felt physical. At the same time I was watching our two-year-old daughter gather language about her and hold on to memories and find ways to use language to share with us what she remembered and what she wanted to hold on to. The two events were tragic and beautiful and magical. I can’t stop thinking about it.

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

Perhaps what I’m most excited about on the upcoming tour for The Last Ballad? At several tour stops I’ll be in-conversation with authors whose towering reputations and immense talent both inspire and overwhelm me. I’m so honored that they agreed to join me on the road. A few of them are Charles Frazier, Lee Smith, Randall Kenan, Jill McCorkle, Bronwyn Dickey, Daniel Wallace, and Kevin Maurer. These are people whose work ethic and worldview I admire very much, and I can’t wait to talk with them about The Last Ballad, the books they’re working on, and anything else audiences would like to know about. An in-conversation event that I’m really looking forward to will be with my wife Mallory in our hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, on October 6. I have no idea what we’ll talk about, but I know it will be funny, heartfelt, and real.