Thursday, November 16, 2017

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

THIS  book. This book. This book.

Portrait of the artist as a gorgeous person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is obsessing you now and why?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the why now moment of writing this novel?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s obsessing you now and why?

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

What question didn’t I ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

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

 Oh yes, I first met Clea Simon on a website and we soon formed a fast friendship. We've been to each others' houses, held each others' hands through various personal and publishing disasters, and no one makes me laugh as much as Clea does. I've read all of Clea's books, from nonfiction like Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings (Doubleday, 1997), Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads (Wiley, 2001), and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).Her new, darker Blackie and Care mystery series starts with The Ninth Life and continues with As Dark As My Fur (Severn House).

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

Her Dulcie Schwartz series launched in 2009 with Shades of Grey and continues with Grey Matters, Grey Zone, Grey Expectations, True Grey, Grey Dawn, Grey Howl, Stages of Grey, Code Grey, and Into the Grey (Severn House). The Pru Marlowe pet noir series started with Dogs Don’t Lie and continues with Cats Can’t Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, Panthers Play for Keeps, Kittens Can Kill, and When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press). She's also a regular contributor to The Boston Globe.

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

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

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

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

Thanks Clea and see you soon!

Why this book now?

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

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

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

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

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

But not just on the scene, I think.

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

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

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

This is probably your first morally ambiguous book.

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

What will happen next – for you?

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

In another ten years?

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s obsessing you now and why?

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

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

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

Wendy Werris talks about AN ALPHABETICAL LIFE: LIVING IT UP IN THE WORLD OF BOOKS, escorting authors, being a sales rep, writing her memoir, and so much more

When it comes to books, Wendy Werris has done just about everything you'd ever want to do with books: she worked in a bookstore; she was a sales rep, she was an author escort, and she writes for Publisher's Weekly, and she writes! An Alphabetical Life: Living it Up in the World of Books is flat out wonderful, and so is Wendy.  We talked on the phone as if we had grown up together (and maybe we have! You never know, right?) I'm thrilled to host her here, and I cannot wait for her new memoir. Thank you, Wendy! (Let's talk soon.)

I absolutely loved your account of working in a bookstore at 19. (Are we sisters? I got my first job at 19 being the actual book buyer for a tiny bookstore in Ann Arbor. I looked sixteen.) I loved that you got hugged by Bukowski.

I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, working in the early 1970s at Pickwick Bookshop in Hollywood. Everyone who was anyone shopped there, and as a teenager I was still susceptible to the glamour of show business. One story I left out of AN ALPHABETICAL LIFE, because it didn’t happen to me but to the assistant bookbuyer Joni Miller, is about the day Elvis Presley came into Pickwick. The front counter was in an L-shape, and Joni got up from her desk and frantically ran to the other side of the counter to find a book for a customer. She had her head down, and ran right into Elvis, and they both fell to the floor. His bodyguards swarmed around both of them, thinking Joni was out to hurt Elvis in some way. After Joni collected herself, she looked up and saw Elvis. She was shocked. He apologized to her, and she to him, and Joni (who moved to New York later and worked for years at Workman Publishing) was a wreck for the rest of the day. Right or wrong, I don’t think Elvis would have shopped at the tiny Ann Arbor bookstore where you worked. This was Pickwick, though. I never knew what to expect from day to day.

I loved your tales of escorting authors on tours. Without mentioning names, can you tell me the most scandalous story?

I was too professional to act on any sexual feelings I might have had towards an author, so nothing scandalous there. But I can tell you about the most humiliating experience. I went to LAX to pick up Simon Winchester, the author-historian, who was an Oxford author when I was their rep. I parked my car and walked to baggage claim to meet him and his MUCH-younger girlfriend, who was having a princess hissy fit about something. It was most unattractive. We walked to my car, and I put their luggage in the trunk, and when I looked up, Simon and girlfriend were sitting in the back seat together. They thought I was their chauffeur. And the fact that I was driving a VW Jetta at the time, not a limo or some luxury car, made it all the more absurd. I was pissed, but got them to their hotel without incident. The next morning when I picked them up, the girlfriend wasn’t with Simon. I said to him, “please sit in the front seat today,” and he did, and every time after that. I suppose I put him in his place, but in a kind way. We then got along swimmingly. I enjoyed his company.

The book business has changed so much. What do you miss most—and do you think we can ever get it back?

I miss all of the indie bookstores that were forced to close during the last 20 years. Amazon e-books are responsible for that, and I make no bones about it. I miss the people who worked in those stores, many of whom became dear friends. So we can never get back that important part of the book community in Los Angeles and other cities. Yet the indies that survived and are still going strong provide the same warmth, personal touch, and knowledge of books they always have. That is something to be cherished and supported. A few months after the death of a family member in 2015, I took a part-time job at the local Barnes & Noble to get out of the house and stop isolating. Huge mistake. I lasted two weeks before quitting. It was not so much a bookstore as a merchandising business that focused on books. Of course there’s more to this story, but will save it for another time.

I loved hearing about your job as a sales rep—I remember at 19 having a sales rep actually ask me, “So, you like looking at the pictures?” he was so rude, I didn’t order anything from him. You are still deeply in the world of books and publishing. What do you want people to know about it that they most likely don’t know?

People aren’t really aware of the essential role publisher’s reps play in their reading experience. When you walk into a bookstore and find the book you want, it was a sales rep that made it happen. A rep came in, sat down with the buyer, and presented the new list of books for hundreds of publishers. Thus the buyer becomes aware of what books they need to stock, will place an order, and then a bookseller unpacks the cartons when the order arrives and places the books on the shelves in the right sections of the store. Most people never think about this, but if not for the rep, the books readers want to buy wouldn’t be there! I quit repping several years ago, but will always admire and support the reps who do a sometimes difficult job, simply because they love books!

I also loved your talking about John Irving. He has this great quote about writing: If you don’t feel you are on the edge of humiliating yourself, then you’re not writing hard enough.” I loved it so much I tracked him down. He wrote me a lovely handwritten letter, but he said he never wrote it. “Though it sounds like me.”

What a privilege it was to sell John Irving’s break-out novel, The World According to Garp. To participate in the success of a book you personally love . . . nothing comes close to that degree of literary satisfaction.

What I loved about this book so much, besides all the bookish material, was how deeply personal you made it. You talk about having a refrain of sadness, which I have come to believe that all deeply funny people have.  Would you agree?

Certainly, Caroline. My own father, a comedy writer, suffered from depression on and off for much of his life. I have the sadness gene in my soul as well. Most of my dad’s comedy writer friends were the same way – with deep, heavy souls, and insecurities. To turn tragedy into comedy is not disrespectful in any way. In fact, it is the buoy that makes it possible to go on living . . . and writing. Joni Mitchell said, “Depression is the sand that makes the pearl.” I believe this has made me a better, and funnier writer. Why bother writing if you don’t dig deep and tell the whole truth about yourself?

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My obsessions are all political these days. I want to see Trump impeached, assault weapons banned, and our environment protected and respected above all else.

And what is your next book, because of course, there has to be one.

I’m writing my second book now. The title is SOME NERVE: A MEMOIR. It’s hard to believe my first memoir came out eleven years ago! Now I have so much more to share with readers, experiences they can relate to and hopefully learn from, and stories that will make them laugh and feel good about who they are.