Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Australian outback. The pull toward and against dangerous adventure. Janet Clare talks about her extraordinary debut TIME IS THE LONGEST DISTANCE, obsessions, and her appearance at MY local Little City Books on Feb. 6th--and you all have to come!

I love debuts. Just addicted to them. Janet Clare's TIME IS THE LONGEST DISTANCE is set against the remote Australian outback and features a heroine as startling as the terrain. I called her novel a "phenomenally moving experience." And I'm not the only one knocked out. Look at this:

 “When Lilly, rocked by a family secret, agrees to trek through the Australian outback with her newly-discovered father, brother, and niece, the terrain is as remote and unfamiliar as her traveling companions. There in the crowded vehicle, the torment of past relationships pursues her—wanting adventure while wanting safety, feeling cramped and yet never close enough. A poignant and witty story of survival, trust, and awakening.” Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams

“In deft, clear prose that reminds of both Cheryl Strayed and Michael Ondaatje, Janet Clare’s debut explores—in riveting, unflinching detail—a woman’s search for connection and meaning. In Lilly’s journey, with unfamiliar family in unfamiliar territory, we have a protagonist wanting in the ways we are all wanting: to find that thing that will make us complete. There are depths in these characters and I loved every word.” Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals 

"An impressive debut. A taut, compelling adventure, exploring little-known landscapes and the depth and breadth of a woman's yearning." David Francis, author of Stray Dog Winter 

I so loved the book that I contacted Janet, and we became long-lost friends and I'm going to be interviewing her at LITTLE CITY BOOKS in Hoboken, NJ on Feb. 6 at 7:00. Come because we are going to be laughing and talking and because her book is amazing.

Thank you, thank you, Janet Clare 

What was it haunting you that got you to write the book?
 Years ago, I heard about a man who, having spent most of his life in the United States, returned home to Australia for his father’s funeral only to find he had a whole other family living on the other side of the country. It started me thinking about that vast land, and all the spaces where we hide ourselves. How separate we can be from people--often family and those we love—who we see every day. And, too, the longing for those lost from our lives. I’ve always said I hate losing anyone still above ground.

What kind of writer are you? Do you make maps, or just follow that pesky muse?
 I make notes. Scraps of paper, post-its. Some that have nothing to do with what I’m writing, but nevertheless may work their way in. Never an outline. I admire people who do it, but I can’t. I have an idea, a point of view, and a place, which is very important to me, and obvious in Time Is the Longest Distance. My protagonist might come from someone I see, which was the beginning for my second novel. I’m always curious about interesting strangers, what their story might be. So, I try to listen, (I confess to being a terrible eavesdropper, though I also ask questions if it’s appropriate), then I just make it up. Start and see where it goes, which is often never where I would have thought at the outset.

What surprised you in writing this book?
The way these people come up against what I consider the big questions we all face in our lives. Love and loss. Thoughts of morality and mortality, and, how capable we might be of actions that surprise and terrify us. How differently we might act if we find ourselves out in some far-reaching emptiness, that sense of being gone from our lives. And, of course, the human imperfections from which we all suffer.

You mention the thrill of transgression. Could you talk about that please?
I think many of us are drawn to a certain danger, especially when presented with opportunity. The idea of breaking away, of chance, and going against the norm. I believe it is often women who a have a true sense of adventure, perhaps even more so than men. Women like Beryl Markham. Her book, West With the Night, has stayed with me forever. I’m not talking about climbing Everest or hand gliding, but stepping off the edge of your everyday life, taking a risk. Nothing quickens the blood more.

What's obsessing you now and why?
I have to admit getting this book out has been all consuming right now, talking about it. It’s all so new to me, but really wonderful. Reaching out to people, saying please, and someone, like you, Caroline, you’re amazing, who just grabs on and connects in a way that’s astounding. It’s the absolute icing, and I’m having a grand time. But I’m really looking forward to getting back to work on polishing my second novel, and a third that needs more time. All I want is enough of it.

What question should I have asked that I didn't ask?
Why didn’t we meet sooner? Though we’re 3,000 miles away, I am beyond thrilled to know you and so happy that you’ve read my book. The friendship and support of other writers, of people I respect, is truly gratifying.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Barbara Shapiro talks about her latest critically acclaimed, mega-seller, THE COLLECTOR'S APPRENTICE, story structure, fraud, art and so much more

 I first met Barbara Shapiro when she was newly signed to Algonquin Books and we were going to their BEA party together. To say I liked her instantly  is an understatement. How could you not like someone raucously funny, smart, and with excellent taste in cowboy boots and jewelry?  I watched her star ascend with absolute delight, from the NYT Bestseller status of the Art Forger, to awards after awards for The Muralist, to standing room only events. But even better than that, we've become fast friends.

Her latest, The Collector's Apprentice, is, like all Shapiro books, racking up the raves and packing in the events, and I'm just delighted to host her here.

Thank you, Barbara!

Let’s talk about art. Were you always interested? How difficult is it to translate how art makes you feel—and the intention of the artist in the medium of writing? And do you look at art differently now? Do you paint?

 When I was a little girl I wanted to be an artist. My parents were very supportive, clearing a corner of the basement for my “studio” and sending me to art classes. Unfortunately it became clear very early on that this was not where my talents lay. So I became an art appreciator. I travel a lot and the first thing I do in a new place is to go straight to the art museums.
 It’s hard to translate how art makes me feel, but because I feel it so strongly it’s probably easier for me than for others. And I love to pretend I’m an artist, to get inside the head of someone with the power to transform what they see into something someone else sees too. The more I learn about art, the more I study the works and the artists, the more I’m amazed and fascinated and overwhelmed by both the process and the product.

I‘ve always been a huge admirer of the way you play with time. Do you do that in real life? I’m also someone who structures everything right down to the way I spell my name, so I’m always fascinated with how other writers get their novels together.

I love to play with time, knotting and braiding multiple stories and multiple characters, but it does get to be quite a handful. And yes, I’m a plotter: I have to know that I have a beginning, middle and an end before I can begin to write. Of course, this always changes—in some books it changes completely—but I still need an outline even if I know it will probably be thrown away. I’m a statistician by training, and I use statistical methods to plot out my novels: normal curves, bubble graphs, tension charts, etc. Then I use the tried-and true multicolored file cards and graph paper.

 This third novel of your art trilogy is about collecting art, and not simply making it. But it’s also about fraud, which figured in your previous novels. I think it was you who told me that many of the paintings displayed are actually forgeries!  But people are also forgeries in a way, because they create new identities for themselves, especially Vivienne.  I want you to talk about this, but also, wouldn’t you say that this is what we writers do, too? We take on the skins of our characters and become them in so many ways?

Fraud is the best. I have a Ph.D. in sociology—because every fiction writer needs one—and used to teach a class called Deviance and Social Control at Tufts University, which explored groups and individuals who are considered to be deviant in different societies or in a single society at a different time, and this turned me on to all of these fascinating ideas. In The Collector’s Apprentice, my favorite shape-shifter is George, aka Ashton, Benjamin, Istvan, Tex, etc. He slides in and out of different personas the way other people change clothes. I love him and hate him, and I’m completely fascinated by the workings of his mind—and by the emptiness of his soul. Hopefully I haven’t taken on too much of his skin.

You’ve said that this was an art trilogy, that your next novel, is in present day, and set in a storage unit.  What made you decide to go back to the present, and how does that feel? Is the writing of this new novel any different than your usual process?

Historical novels have their own set of difficulties and complexities above and beyond all the difficulties and complexities involved in writing a novel, so I decided to give myself a break. This is freeing, but I also discovered that in some ways it’s harder—I use the historical research to give me ideas, storylines and characters, and now I have to make it all up myself.
And yes, my process started out very different, but didn’t end up that way. This story has seven viewpoint characters who are linked through the self-storage units they rent in a medieval-style building in Cambridge, MA. They are rich, poor and in-between, they are black, white and brown, they are Christian, Jewish and atheists, and they would never have come in contact with each other without the randomness of their storage units. It’s a novel about class in America, and I decided I would abandon my usual super-structured methods and just write chapters about each character until I figured out who they were and what was going to happen to them. I did this for about six months and was incredibly frustrated. I felt like I was getting nowhere. So I got out my normal curves, tension charts, graph paper and multi-colored file cards and plotted the whole thing out. Then the ideas flowed, the story took shape and the characters did too.

Glenda Burgess, author of the sublime THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, talks about writing and music.

GLENDA BURGESS is a winner of the Rupert Hughes Award for Fiction and a short story finalist for the New Century Writer Award. Her literary memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, was named a Ten Best Books of 2008 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a finalist for the 2008 Books for a Better Life Award.

I loved her book so much, I asked her if she would write something for the blog. Thank you, so much, Glenda!

Music and Writing

Debussy was said to have painted music, Sibelius heard compositions as a symphony of color. As I worked on my country music novel, SO LONG AS WE’RE TOGETHER, I realized I was beginning to hear unspoken words within the music, not just the music in words. Language has always possessed musicality—and naturally and effortlessly transforms into the lyric, the song—but for me it was a unique experience to think about songwriting, melody, and a novel’s narrative all from the point of view of a musician. What story does a line of notes tell when there are as yet no lyrics, when the song says nothing at all? When words do partner with a melody there is a dance between meaning and feeling. We understand words, however we feel music. What becomes important? What is said, or left unsaid? Conveyed through language or simply through the notes of the song? 

I determined to make a deliberate effort in my narrative to infuse in the landscape, scenes, and in dialog, echoes of the musical performances of my country music duo, Marley and Andi Stone. I felt the twin sisters’ music was as much a character in their story as the lake in the novel, or Donna, their mother. That for some characters, what they seek speaks their piece in the world.  Marley leaves heartbreak at the keyboard, finds hope in an inspired melody. Andi defines a world for herself by singing it into being. Donna pushes back a hard and disappointing life listening to the jubilation in the notes and verses of others. I found that the more I listened to the novel’s narrative as a musical composition between all the parts of their story, an original melody took root in the pages, from the opening note to the last.

Many writers read their work aloud in draft to catch a lagging clause or repetitive word, dull sections, or run-on sentences. But I read this entire novel aloud, by scene and section, and in series of chapters at a time. Multiple times. Listening to the narrative was quite literal for me. I paced my small study as I read, pausing to look out the large window at the maple tree in all its seasons, listening for the music in the words. I had found a pace, a beat, and a pitch for this story. The lake country as well as country music defined The Stone girls. I listened for that thread on every page. My hope is that when you read this novel, it will sing for you too.

May the music of your own words carry you through.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Love books, reading, writers? The Book Report Network has been a best friend to writers (I love them) and readers for so many years and they are expanding. Come and help them on Go Fund Me!

 Who doesn't adore The Book Report Network and Carol Fitzgerald? This is from Carol and she cna say it all so much better than I can. I just donated and you should, too.

Over the last 22(!) years, we have built a loyal audience of more than half a million readers across the country via our websites ---,,, and --- and our well-read newsletters. Our goal every day is to connect readers with the books and authors they love.

After very early rounds of angel investor funding, all of our expansion plans have been self-funded. Today, we find ourselves at a point where we need additional support to expand, so we are reaching out to the publishing community to ask for help. Our plans outlined below include:

*   A Totally New and Modernized Network of Websites
*   A Bookreporter Podcast...with an Ear Towards a Series of Podcasts
*   Support for Live Events

We have reached audiences of all ages who share a love of reading. From features like Sounding Off on Audio and Word of Mouth on, What’s Your Book Group Reading on to curated lists like the Ultimate Reading List and Guy-brary on Teenreads and our Series feature on Kidsreads, we have successfully delivered relevant and entertaining content.

We have launched a GoFundMe campaign ( with a goal to raise $100,000 by December 31st. I would be so appreciative if you would consider a contribution! I am thankful for any amount you can give. If you are able to help, here is our GoFundMe page.

The Book Report Network’s Expansion Plans

An Upgraded Network of Websites 
We plan to move our present websites to a WordPress multi-site platform (which is a big project!!). After a months-long planning process, we have identified the outside developers we want to work with on this project.  
A redesign will mean that we can implement ideas both new and overdue: 
•  Our websites will be responsive across all devices, easily accessible from anywhere.
•  We will improve search and internal functionality to give readers new ways to discover books.
•  We will offer new opportunities for sharing content, and for readers to note the books that they want to read.
•  You'll see better, fresher layouts with more visuals, giving us the opportunity to showcase books and authors more vividly.
•  We’ll be able to present more and new content offerings on all of our websites, including a top-to-bottom refresh of
Important Note: Our websites currently are built in Drupal 6, which was the platform of choice when we started our last redesign back in 2010. Drupal 6 is no longer supported. This upgrade is a necessary change, not an indulgent redesign. Without it, we are restricted in functionality and speed of content delivery. This has been frustrating for us, and from the emails we get, we know it is for our loyal readers as well.

 A Bookreporter Podcast...with an Ear Toward a Network of Podcasts 
Digital audio is exploding, and our readers are ready to listen. In fact, they have already begun to share ideas on what they would like to hear from us. 
We’ll start with a Bookreporter podcast, hosted by Carol Fitzgerald, where she will interview authors and talk about books in a lively format. Also, she’ll host conversations with our reviewers, many of whom have strong followings on our websites, and other guests. We already have a producer lined up and are finalizing plans for a show that will have broad appeal.
 Carol is known for her informative and entertaining interviews at conferences, reader events, industry panels and book festivals. The opportunity to share author interviews, as well as the kind of book information that we know readers across the country want to hear, is a natural expansion for us. Of course, we plan to drive traffic to our websites from the podcast.
We already are thinking about the next step --- to expand our reach --- with a series of podcasts for the rest of the brands in our network. 

Support for Live Events 
Carol has been a guest speaker, moderator or presenter at events across the country, including book festivals, and library, bookstore and book group presentations (among them Book Expo, the Miami Book Fair and the Morristown Festival of Books). In 2019, we will host the Book Group Speed Dating Session at Book Expo for the 8th year; prior years have had 200+ attendees at no fee to either participants or presenters. Going forward, the plan is to increase the number of these programs.

Grateful for Your Support!  
Help fund our expansion so that we may build upon our already strong foundation and deliver what we need to do to grow and build our audience! 
Contributions at any level are graciously appreciated. We accept any and all support to take this huge next step.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Can family estrangement ever be a good, healthy thing? Yes says Harriet Brown in her exquisite memoir, SHADOW DAUGHTER.

Harriet Brown writes about the essential issues--you know, the things that haunt us so much that sometimes we fear even thinking about them. And she does it beautifully. She's the author of BODY OF TRUTH, BRAVE GIRL EATING and the anthology FEED ME (I wrote a toxic ex who wouldn't let me eat, but I couldn't leave him because I was grieving someone I really loved.)

Shadow Daughter is especially gorgeous and relevant during the holiday season, because it asks, how can we deal with family relationships that no longer work and that hurt us? Can estrangement actually be healthy? I'm not the only one to go nuts for this brilliant book. Take a look at the praise:

“Harriet Brown has written a very personal book about a difficult thing. Shadow Daughter is candid, thoughtful, complex, and well-researched. It will be useful to anyone trying to understand what went wrong.”  —Audrey Niffenegger, author, The Time Traveler’s Wife

“Digging deep into a subject so taboo we didn’t even know it was a subject, Harriet Brown has gathered many painful tales of estrangement, but it is her own personal history that gives backbone and emotional power to this courageous, thorough work.” —Mary Norris, author, Between You & 

“Brown's research and anecdotes help readers understand the many dilemmas involved in engaging in estrangement and offer support for those balancing on the edge of making this life-changing decision.” —Kirkus Reviews

Thank you so much for being here, Harriet!

What was the moment when you felt haunted into writing this memoir?

On some level I’ve been waiting to write this book for years. Long before my mother died, even before our final estrangement, I knew I wanted to write about our relationship and about the larger issue of family estrangement—for myself, for the catharsis I hoped it would bring, and for other people who might be going through similar experiences and who felt alone with those feelings and problems.

 Do you feel that you personally changed in the writing?

One thing that changed for me in writing this was that I had to—chose to—articulate to myself and on the page some of the inchoate thoughts and feelings that had been swirling around in my head for my whole life. Another thing was that I got to connect with so many other people who had struggled or were struggling with estrangement, and that was intensely instructional and liberating.

 Did anything surprise you in the writing?

What surprised me most, and continues to surprise me, is just how common estrangement is. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to about it has mentioned a similar issue in their own family. Surprisingly often they bring up core relationships—a mother or father they don’t speak to, a brother who doesn’t speak to them. And just as often it’s the first time they’ve talked to anyone outside their immediate family about it. There’s so much stigma and shame around estrangement, and that isolates those of us who have been through this.

 Why do you think the mother/daughter bond is so difficult, in particular? Do you think cultural changes have made it more difficult or less?

I think all of these close bonds are difficult. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters—we are social animals who can’t live without these close relationships but sometimes can’t live with them either.

We don’t get to choose our families, and it’s actually surprising that sometimes being estranged actually frees you and makes for a better life. But guilt, grief and regret still hang on. How do you learn to live with that?

 What a good and tough question. I think everyone must find her own way to work through these issues. For me it took a lot of repetition and years of very good therapy to help me understand on a deep emotional level that a) I was better off estranged and b) guilt just kept me enmeshed in a toxic situation. I do feel guilt and regret on occasion, of course, like any other human being J, but they don’t plague me the way they used to.

 What's obsessing you now and why?

 What’s obsessing me now is a story I hope will be my next book, which is about families that use cannabis to help medically fragile kids. It’s a story about love—the love of families that go against the medical mainstream and risk not just censure but jail to help their children. These are kids and families that deal with unbelievable obstacles and unimaginable situations. I’m deep in the reporting for that and it’s intense and life-changing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A marriage. Grief. Running toward something new. Jaclyn Gilbert talks about her incandescent debut novel LATE AIR (great title, right?)

Come on, don't you just love debuts? The notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews does, calling LATE AIR, "elegiac...a carefully plotted and cautiously hopeful novel about the ties that outlast marriage."Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University.  She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub.  

I'm so jazzed to host her here! Thank you, Jaclyn!

I always want to know about process. I understand that this brilliant novel was a short story first. (That was my experience, actually, with my first novel!) How did you transform it into a novel? How difficult (and exhilarating) was that?

A very good question that goes right into the heart of the process.  I started this novel as a story for my first fiction writing workshop as an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.  Around my class schedule, I began a habit of running along the Bronx River greenway.  One October day, I ran past a park golf course and wondered about the possibility of a stray ball hitting me or another runner nearby.  I thought suddenly of all my years of college running on the Yale campus golf course, and how never once I had considered these risks.  Something about the terror of that hypothetical asked me to sit down when I got home to try and write it as a scene.  I felt something lock in through the moment of writing—something about my past experience intersecting with my imagination as my pen scribbled over the page.  When I shared the work with my class, I received several emails from readers wanting to know what happened—asking me what my plans for the story were.  I began to consider the character of Murray as part of a larger work, or one that circled his own journey into his past around the inciting incident of a golf injury his star runner, Becky Sanders

At the time, I knew very little about traumatic head injury, but began reading as much as I could on the topic, studying regions of the brain, and the speed and distance required for a golf ball to incur severe damage.  I also knew that the narrative felt too confined to the coach’s experience of his athlete’s accident, and I wanted to weave in a female perspective that could look at larger questions of grief and recover.  At Sarah Lawrence, I had the good fortune of working with David Ryan as my thesis advisor, who was the first person to get me to think deeply about what stories Murray might have repressed from his past.  He helped me think of trauma as an echo split into tiny fragments that could erupt out of the coach when triggered by a sound, smell, or image.  I spent weeks meditating over the color and shape of Becky’s wound, and through drafts of endless free writing, I began to see where its echoes might resurface in the present narrative, through the blue of a swimming pool for instance, or the color of the sky around dusk, and I began to imagine a deeper trauma running parallel to that of Becky’s.  I began to imagine Murray’s runners as extensions of the daughter he never had, and this understory became a constant source of interrogation for me.  I have never had a child myself, so I began immersing in research around what it might feel like to give birth to a child in my late thirties.  Over time, I was able to develop the character of Nancy, someone whose literary and perfectionistic neuroses I can identify with, as much as I can Murray’s obsession with running and the body.  Transforming this story into a novel was very much a process of trying to marry and reconcile different aspects of myself through characters that were as much parts of me as they were points of departure through their lived experience as new parents.

Their own opposite journeys around grief, or the opposite ways they needed to heal in the aftermath of an unfathomable loss, in many ways allowed me to grieve the greatest loss of my own past.  My father and I no longer have a relationship, and my own struggle to redefine my relationship to running as not something I need to use to control and order my life to the point of injury, but as something that allows me to be present in my body and more compassionate toward myself as a whole, ultimately fueled the writing and recovery process driving this book. So much of Late Air’s emotional arc required questioning what it means to grieve as a means of survival—and what it means to forgive oneself and those you love in the process.  The opposite nature of my characters’ journeys also helped move the plot forward; while I knew they each had to find their own way through time and memory back to one another, I didn’t know how they would, or how many pages it would take.  My revision process was about constantly finding that balance, shaping their paths in a way that felt most organic to their humanity, and the trauma that fractured their lives, but also joins them together at the end in a search for lost time, love, and wholeness.

One the things that moved me the most is the idea of how marriage changes—how it can grow.  I always used to think that the best relationship was when it was new and passionate and sparking with excitement, but after 25 years, I’ve discovered the best, truest, deepest love is when you’ve been through so much together, when you can actually learn to see each other. Even so, I was surprised and moved at how the novel ended. Did you always know it would end that way?

I think my answer to this question is embedded in my answer to your last one, but in short, I suppose I didn’t always know the novel would end this way.  I think this is true largely because it took me time to understand the scope of the story I was trying to write.  At first, I thought it was the story of one coach and his runner, but when I began layering in his past and realized it was really a story about a marriage and the death of a dream, I began to see more clearly where it could end.  I vividly remember the day an image of the ocean came to me, with a couple sitting on a bench looking as gulls dove in and out for fish, and something about that image felt right.  I kept the image vaguely in my head, writing toward it as best I could, and in time, images of blue and water began to recur.  In this way, I began to see that blue was both a source of pain and healing for my characters.  That the ocean of breath, or the life force that is taken from Nancy and Murray, is also the thing that they share and are looking for through running.  I think it was this image that allowed me to imagine Nancy becoming a runner toward the end of the novel too—even though it is the last thing she imagines herself becoming after she blames Murray’s obsession with running and coaching as the reason behind their failed marriage.  

I am convinced that this image of the shared void between Murray and Nancy as a body of water helped me find the ending most completely, to explore all of its reverberations through the color blue in Late Air as a dual means for learning to sit inside our wounded bodies, as well as transcend them through a shared experience of love and loss in the end.

I was also fascinated with how you wove the past story in with the present story, the story of Nancy and Murray’s marriage in with their respective careers. For me, it’s always so difficult to know what to put in and when. How did you do such alchemy?

One of the most helpful tools I learned was through my thesis advisor, David Ryan, who told me about kernels and satellites.  In this craft idea, you decide which thing had to happen in your book to make it the story you are telling, and you decide that, you have to be very selective about which details, scenes, and images will be most effective at circling that core moment or truth.  Once I realized that I was telling a story about two traumas, I had to think about all of the ways those two traumas were working in echo; I had to figure out which key aspects of Nancy and Murray’s characters would be most effective in establishing their love for one another and their hope for their first child, as well as reveal all of the ways that dream had been shattered through the past and present narratives.  I would say that none of this came easily.  So much of it relied on telling the surface stories of both Murray and Nancy’s lives, both apart and together, and then deciding all of the ways they overlapped, and what scenes would allow me to most effectively create depth and sub-text around what I know, or at least think I know, to be true about them.  This whole process required a lot of cutting and reshaping.  It required a lot of patience and diligence in trusting that layers would be able to weave themselves together through the magic of memory, imagination, and time—or through the process of revision itself, since it allowed me to deepen my connection to the story I was trying to tell, allowing the story to form its own memory and pool of subconscious I could call forth in moments of intensive rewriting. 

I know you were a runner yourself, which acts as a superb metaphor in the novel i.e. what are we running from and why aren’t we running to? Can you talk about this please?

In writing this book, I realized that running is a double-edged sword.  In one way, it can be something that allows us to run away from our emotional pain, as a practice that allows for the adrenaline rush, or the high, that can let us escape what we don’t want to feel or re-experience.  For me, it was my father’s critical words when I was a teenager.  The last thing I wanted to feel or hear were these words, and running allowed me flight from the idea of the woman I feared becoming in his eyes.  Running in this way was a means to control my body, to focus on racing times and my weight instead of the question of my father’s love, which proved to be conditional when I was in college.  The conditionality of his love set in motion a grieving process that I think Late Air seeks to reconcile or find peace with.  I realized that my writing process was very much tied to my identity as a runner; I realized I needed to find a way to affirm myself through the experience of writing, as much as I did in my experience of running, so that both writing and running could serve as paths of salvation, and not destruction. 

In this way, the book became about running toward what I was most afraid of feeling, so that I could ultimately transcend and heal from that loss.  The death of a child is, I think, in many ways a metaphor for the death of the child in me, or the child I felt my father couldn’t love unconditionally in the same way I was trying to find a way to love myself unconditionally in this life.  Nancy’s journey took the shape of my own through her own desperate search to sit in her body again.  Her running chapter offers a source of healing that can redirect her journey as one that seeks not to forget her pain, but that which accepts it and lets it go so that she can forgive herself as a wife and mother.  It is what allows her to have compassion for Murray by the end of the book.  Through Nancy, I ultimately found greater compassion for myself; all the long runs I took while writing this novel helped me learn to sit in my body just as she had to; Nancy also taught me to sit through the most uncomfortable aspects of the writing process.  Rather than flee the scene, I had to write through conflict, feel what my characters were feeling in their bodies in order to make their experiences most whole.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

 I am obsessed with a lot of things, I would say.  But one thing I realized I am particularly obsessed with is the psychology of repression: how we can spend our whole lives repressing a given story or feeling like a secret that leads to a continual cycle of trauma.  In our current political climate, I often think about how many stories have been repressed through the whole of human history to give priority to other stories that do nothing but incur further violence and destruction.  I feel desperate to understand why we may repress what we do because we are men or women, husbands or wives, sons or daughters, parents or children; I realized that it is the fact of binaries that lends for a continual repression of otherness that fails to recognize the ambiguity of our humanity.  As a writer, I realized I want to do more to honor that ambiguity, especially as it relates to societal norms, and I want to find a way to show that moral ambiguity is far more interesting than absolutism’s attempts to define our morality as either good or evil.   In my writing, I hope to make the experience of reading more about the process of asking questions and trying to see things from as many vantage points as are possible, so that we can begin to believe in the multiplicity of truths, and celebrate the shared experience of not being able to pinpoint a single answer.


I think you’ve allowed me to get at the heart of what I am trying to write.  Thank you! I think my last answer to the great human question is that to find patience and love for ourselves is to find it in others, and as a writer who is still very poor at practicing patience, I am determined that each day I try to be more patient, I might inspire others to do the same—as a means of becoming less reactive when confronted with fear and conflict.  As a writers and readers, my hope is that in an age confused by the competing demands of technology, consumerism, and media, we can still find time to step back and observe how beautiful it is we are all here together: alive.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The extraordinary Sarah McCoy talks about MARILLA OF GREEN GABLES, her brilliant new novel based on a side character of the beloved Anne of Green Gables.


Sarah McCoy is one of those people you  automatically fall in love with. We did an event together and I never had so much fun in my life. (Case in point: Sarah and Jenna Blum and Jane Green and I all planned a writers pajama party in a hotel, and even though it never happened, we all acted as if it had.) Sarah's also a wonderful, wonderful writer, and her new book MARILLA OF GREEN GABLES explores one of the characters of one of the most beloved books around, Anne of Green Gables.

Sarah is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children; The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; and Le souffle des feuilles et des promesses, a French exclusive title.

Sarah! Thank you for being here!

It’s always fascinating to me what makes a writer decide that a particular novel is the book they need (not just want, but need) to write now. What was it like for you when you started Marilla? What made you decide to revisit Anne of Green Gables? And what made you decide to center on Marilla?

I actually hadn’t thought to write Marilla until about two years ago. At the time, I had just completed another novel called Pride and Providence, which sold internationally. I was in the process of changing North American publishing houses. While getting to know potential new publishers, the executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins gave me a call. She basically asked me to share a book a book idea that excited me to write next. No strings attached. No Show me the first 100 pages or What have you been researching for the last five years? The door was wide open. All she asked was: What makes your heart sing to write? I’d never had an editor take an active role in the brainstorming part of a book’s development. It was refreshing—and inspiring. 

So I followed her instructions and the first idea that came to mind was… Marilla Cuthbert. I’d always been fascinated by her as a prominent yet only partially known character in my beloved Anne of Green Gables series. I grew up with the books and was obsessed with everything related. I dreamed on the characters long after I finished reading. Particularly pertinent to writing this book, in Chapter 37 of Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery drops this juicy detail on us and then keeps on walking with Anne Shirley.

What a nice-looking fellow he is,” said Marilla absently. “I saw him in church last Sunday and he seemed so tall and manly. He looks a lot like his father did at the same age. John Blythe was a nice boy. We used to be real good friends, he and I. People called him my beau.”
Anne looked up with swift interest.
“Oh, Marilla—and what happened?

I can’t tell you the hours I spent dreaming on the answer to that, what happened, Marilla? I guess you could say I’ve been writing this book my whole life if one was to pinpoint that lightning-to-brain moment of curiosity. And like being fire-bolted by the heavens, this was a novel that somewhat terrified me to write. Green Gables is sacred, after all. But my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s legacy usurped my fears. So I went into the writing with the goal to honor that and give Marilla the spotlight that I felt Montgomery would approve.

There’s something about that word “spinster”—which of course was a terrible thing to be in the 19th Century, and now is no more terrible than saying you are left-handed.  But what I loved is that you took that label and made Izzy the one who pushes your heroine out into the world, and even makes Marilla realize that there are other lives than the traditional one that she can choose. Can you talk about this please?

You know, Caroline (and you do because you know me well), I’ve never been a person who was content with living within a box. Parameters, molds, and model criterion of perfect humanity have always sat uneasily in my gut. Don’t get me wrong, I'm no rebel for the sake of rebellion. I understand that rules and protocol can be a stabilizing, good framework. A farmer must respect nature’s laws of seedtime to get the harvest. A bird must respect gravity to fly. I get it. But I also think that too often, we declare social laws that really have no credence outside of making one set of people feel accepted and making another feel rejected. What is the ideal family anyhow? Mother + father + 2.5 kids + an oh-so-happy Labrador in a 5-bedroom, suburban Mc-mansion on the cusp of a shining metropolis? Does that family formula make us say, “Oh, yes, they must be good people. They must live good lives. Mark them down in the annals—that’s the model.” 

What if your life’s picture doesn’t look like that? Is it therefore not worthy of praise, of being ‘Liked’ on Instagram, of being remembered in history? We’ve got a really skewed perspective of worth, especially women’s worth. That isn’t particular to modern times either. I think Montgomery (as a pastor’s wife) recognized it, and if she couldn’t voice her unorthodox opinions in real life, she definitely did in her fictional Avonlea. Marilla, Matthew, Anne: they are celebrated for being a beautiful, successful yet unconventional family.

That’s part of why I believe the Green Gables legacy continues to thrive. It’s about overcoming adversity and fearlessly sharing the message: “You can, too.” Unlike many of the louder messages being shouted at us from TV, radio, the Internet, etcetera, this one is shared between the reader and the page. Only there does it have a chance to seed itself. I know its capacity. I experienced it the first time I read Anne of Green Gables. It influenced who I grew to be as an adult, a writer, and an advocate of diversity.

I absolutely loved all the historical details. The writer Mary Morris once told me that in doing research, forget the dates, but look for the stories, the human drama. Can you talk about your research? What surprised you?

Out of the hundreds of cable channels, I could honestly do with just four: History Channel, Biography Channel, Turner Classic Movies, and PBS. I am a proud history geek. You can’t beat the drama of historical narratives. It’s too wild for anyone to make up! I write historical fiction because that’s what fires me up.

Lucy Maud Montgomery gave us two complicated, yet deeply lovable characters in Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. She left an excellent literary breadcrumb trail, and I considered it a joy to follow it backwards to discover their younger selves. The most important part of doing Marilla justice was to pay attention to the Green Gables world that Lucy Maud Montgomery created. I annotated all the original series, alongside every biography I could find, including The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery. Montgomery wrote so many tiny, wonderful details that give glimpses to Cuthberts’ pasts. So I spent a good amount of time re-reading the first few books (in which Matthew and Marilla are featured) and recording every description, emotional response, comment, opinion, habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to find the connections.

Being an American, I had to also give myself an intensive course on Canadian history. I was in touch with Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, who graciously answered my questions about the varying opinions of Canadian politics. Susanna sent me links to archives related to 19th-century political parties, particularly as the documents pertained to the issues of English sovereignty, independence, slavery, and runaway slaves from America (pre American Civil War). I learned there was far more conflict in Canada than we, Americans, recognize. It was fascinating and eye opening to see similar cycles of bitter division between citizens.  I wrote this book during our own conservative versus liberal struggle in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The historical mirrors were undeniable.

Last but not least, I spent October 2017 on Prince Edward Island island. It was important for me to walk Montgomery’s old haunts, explore the island’s historical settings, and meet with her relations that continue to thrive in Cavendish (a.k.a. fictional Avonlea). I felt quite like I was living in Avonlea, and who better to welcome me than Montgomery’s kin. George and Pamela Campbell—brother and sister cousins to Montgomery— opened their family’s home to me. They own and operate the Anne of Green Gables Museum and the Anne of Green Gables stores across the island. Their knowledge concerning Maud’s writing life and the lore of Green Gables was invaluably helpful. I was honored to receive their and the Montgomery heirs’ blessings on this book.

The past is truly prologue for the present.  Your novel takes a fascinating side route to a lot of important moments, revealing them to us in new and important ways. For example, instead of writing about the Underground Railroad, you hone in on the survivors who hit Canada, and what their lives might have been like.  What was your writing process like in deciding your historical timeline?

That was probably the easiest part of this book. Lucy Maud Montgomery gave me the birth and death of my characters. According to the Anne of Green Gables series, Marilla was born in 1824, and she died in 1910. She also wrote that during Marilla’s childhood, her father built Green Gables. It was a developmental time for Avonlea as an established island village.  I chose to begin the novel at roughly a similar age as when we get to know Anne Shirley. I like narratives that have threads between them, and I certainly wanted to pay homage to the novel of inspiration (Anne of Green Gables).

There’s a kindred spirit link between young Anne and old Marilla. With this book, I wanted to show that a ‘spirit link’ doesn’t just work forward in time. It works backwards too and loops in unconventional ways that our limited scope of human understanding may not comprehend. Nonetheless, it exists.  So we begin when Marilla is thirteen years old in 1837.

You’ve written so many extraordinary books. Does the writing change for you in book to book, or do you have a process that you depend on?

Each book process feels similar in that all my work is historical fiction. So I start in the archives, unboxing forgotten facts and memories, digging up infinitesimal details, because they always hit at something larger! I consider myself a story archeologist. (For a brief stint in college, I thought about being a real one—I even took Geology, which is about as interesting as staring at a rock. Literally.) So first came the research into the fictional Avonlea, created by Lucy Maud Montgomery, within the context of a real Prince Edward Island in a real Canada between 1830s-1860s. It was a tremendously dynamic time in the country and in Marilla's life, as you read in the book.  

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Truthfully, I’m still obsessed with Marilla’s world. There’s still so much about her, about her family (the Cuthberts and the Johnsons), about Green Gables and Avonlea. That’s the thing with Montgomery’s story world: you want to stay in it! I thought I’d quenched my childhood thirst for more Green Gables by writing this book, but it seems it’s just given me a taste for how delicious the water from this well is… and I want buckets more.