Thursday, March 29, 2018

A gorgeous, practical, loving and lovely book by a mother and daughter team about how to process your mom's death. Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman talk about WHAT TO DO WHEN I'M GONE

This gorgeous book, WHAT TO DO WHEN I'M GONE popped in the mail a few weeks after my mother died. At first, I didn't think I could open it, let alone read it, but then I did, just to read one spread, and it moved me so much, I read more. It's full of practical suggestions to deal with grief, and best of all, it includes recipes because after all, food nurtures us, too.  So of course, I reached out to them to host them here.

Take a look at the raves:

"A true collaboration . . . Readers may expect that this mother-daughter exercise is heartfelt but will probably be surprised by how thorough it is in its thoughtful treatment of how to handle one's own life and death in addition to the loss of a loved one." - Booklist

"The advice is always warm and often wise, accompanied by illustrations that often reflect a playfulness reminiscent of Roz Chast. This isn't a morbid book, nor a particularly dark one, but a book about facing the inevitable with grace and good humor." - Kirkus

"Full of the kind of counsel that will have readers longing to call their own mother, the book additionally features recipes that, while lacking in precision, exemplify Hopkins's charming, loving voice." - Library Journal

Hallie Bateman is a Los Angeles-based illustrator and writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Lenny, BuzzFeed, the Awl, and elsewhere. Her creative journal, Brave New Work, was published by MOMA in 2017.

Suzy Hopkins
is a former newspaper reporter who since 2008 has published a quarterly magazine (Friends & Neighbors, for boomers and seniors in California's Central Sierra. She is also Hallie's mom.

Thank you so much Hallie and Suzy!

What surprised you in writing this book together?

Suzy: How emotional the process was at times. Writing the segment about Hallie’s first birthday after my death, I was suddenly struck (and in tears) that I would miss wonderful moments and days in her future; it had simply never occurred to me. The quip “I’m the victim here” sprang from that realization. And when we completed the draft, I cried for a long time. It was the cumulative product of the depth of our discussions over two years, my love for my children, and facing the inevitability of our future parting.

Hallie: I was surprised by how bratty I was. The book was all about how invaluable and irreplaceable my mother was to me, and yet while we worked on it over the course of two years, I’d get frustrated. My mom believed the book would work, that it would sell. She thought it was so powerful. I believed it too, most of the time, but then I’d have doubts and fears about it and I’d take it out on my mom by being irritated and impatient. She didn’t seem to take it very personally. When I apologized, and she said not to worry. She’d had a mom, too. And she totally understood.

I cried at the ending of the book, but I cried in a good way. When you began writing this book, was the finished project what you initially thought it would be?

Suzy: Believe it or not, I didn’t realize until partway through that this was going to be a graphic memoir. I wrote and wrote, and couldn’t understand why Hallie wanted to chop so many words. Once I understood, I got better at adhering to her vision: make segments as concise as possible and let illustrations replace or incorporate some of the text for greater impact. We spent a lot of time talking, parsing, debating, rewriting. At times I had to struggle to accurately convey (or even piece together) my beliefs; I didn’t want to commit anything to print that wasn’t my actual advice to my children.

Hallie: Once we decided to try to make a book not just for ourselves, but for the wider world, our vision was for it to be just what you said: a book that would make you cry in a good way. Those are my favorite cries! So I’m glad to hear we succeeded.

I hope you both will write another book together. If you do, what will it be about?

Suzy: I’d like to explore another book on coping with loss. There are so many people grieving without substantive emotional support, and I love the idea that a book can provide a bit of comfort.

Hallie: I’m down! I might just need to take a breather for a few years and make some slightly more light-hearted books so I’m emotionally capable!

I imagine that different people will take different things from this. My mom was complicated and not always loving, so the rent-a-mom page especially got to me. But as a mom myself, I also loved the pages about how to be a good mom, how to always love and forgive. What pages resonated the most for you?

Suzy: Day 21, in which I advise Hallie to go for a walk in the woods. When your parents die, it changes your place in the world. When my mom died, I realized that my brothers, sister and I were next up on life’s diving board into the unknown. It came as a shock, just as getting old does (at least for me). And Day 2000, which was prompted by a dream I had in which my mother visited me; it was so real, as if she was there in person, and I found it very comforting.

Hallie: The page about suffering has come in particularly handy. I recently had a bad foot injury that landed me in the ER at 3 AM. I wanted to call my mom and wake her up. Then I remembered the page about suffering in the book. My mom says to think of all the people out there who have it so much worse than you. It helped me grit my teeth through the pain.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Suzy: Learning how to operate and service a chainsaw, because I just bought a rural property where trees are falling right and left. In terms of future writing, I’m obsessed with different types of loss – loss of love, friendship, our place in the world – and learning how to push through sorrow and recalibrate one’s life and sense of purpose.

Hallie: I’m working on a screenplay with my younger brother, Nick. He’s flying down to LA from Northern California to hole-up with me for a week and write, just like my mom and I did while working on this book. And I feel like working on this book with my mom prepared me for how messy and rewarding working with family can be. And how making art together can bring us even closer.

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

What did working on a professional project together teach you about each other?


Suzy: I was so locked in my mom role that I saw Hallie almost solely as my child even though she was an adult. Working with her, I realized she’s a professional with an amazing creative eye and ability. And I was comforted to learn how strong she is, because I know she can handle my inevitable departure – hopefully not anytime soon.

Do you feel okay about your mom dying now that she wrote a whole book to help you through it?

Hallie: NOT AT ALL. This summer, after I turned in the final pages of the book, I called my mom, feeling sad. “I’m still scared,” I told her, “I thought I would feel better once we had the book!” I don’t remember what she said, but it was probably wise and funny.

Supersonically acclaimed Meg Wolitzer talks about gender politics and her sublime new novel THE FEMALE PERSUASION

First, the raves:

 "Uncannily timely, a prescient marriage of subject and moment that addresses a great question of the day." –The New York Times

"Ultra-readable. . . illuminates the oceanic complexity of growing up female and ambitious." –Vogue

"The perfect feminist blockbuster for our times." –Kirkus, starred review

 Meg Wolitzer is truly one of the most generous authors around. Kind, funny (and she also has a kind and funny writer mom, Hilma Wolitzer), Meg champions writers, and despite her huge fame, remains down to earth. She's the New York Times–bestselling author of The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, The Wife, and Sleepwalking. She is also the author of the young adult novel Belzhar I would read her grocery list, and am thrilled to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Meg.

So much of the brilliant The Female Persuasion is about how we can redefine what it means to be a woman, how other women can help—or hurt us in our careers and in our lives. Faith, an older mentor, makes the younger Greer’s head “crack open in college.” She changed her—and they changed each other. But as Greer ages, she comes to reexamine what has gone on with them, and to realize that what women must do is pass on what they’ve learned to other women, to be better people, to tell the truth. Can you talk about this please?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: the ways we help one another, and influence one another, and, for better or worse, change one another. It can often be intergenerational, or of course intragenerational. Early in life, being helped, or being taken up by someone, is particularly exciting, and can feel like the natural course of events. But it’s interesting--I was talking to a performer in her 50s who noted that sometimes younger women in her field assumed that older women would behave maternally toward them simply because of the age disparity. It’s best, of course, when there’s a real affection and a sense of connection.

Have you had mentors of your own and what was that like? (I think you have because of your wonderful dedication… ) Have you mentored anyone and found your own ideas challenged because of it? There’s an idea in your novel that as we grow, we sometimes grow out of our mentor. Or maybe we just don’t need the mentor, anymore.  

Yes, the women on the dedication page were all very generous toward me when I was young, and I have never forgotten it. It’s moving to me even now. It was extraordinary to have someone see something in me, perhaps before I really saw it in myself. We all need people at different times in our lives, and that need can change and grow, or even eventually recede, which can be bewildering, and is worth looking at.

So much of the world is changing (at least I hope it is), with women running for office now because of the absolutely misogynist Trump, with women taking on more power, and women refusing to be undercut.  For years, I heard that for women writers to succeed like males, they had to write “bigger books.”  But perhaps women writers should succeed the way they want, no? And if so, what does that mean? I read the blurb from EW which said, “This isn’t women’s fiction. It’s everyone’s.” But what does that mean? Why can’t fiction just be fiction, do you think?

I know that, for myself, I want to write the book I want to read, so I try to hew as close to that as I can.

Having owned a tortoise for 20 years, I especially appreciated the wonderfully-named Slowy, though he is turtle, rather than tortoise, which is a big difference. And you got the details about him just right.  But I also loved Corey’s business-to-be called Soul Finder, which arises out of his inability to get over a family death, the yearning to have people be the same in your life, no matter what.  Can you talk about this, please?

I was nipped on the face when cuddling our box turtle Pumpkin when I was young, but apparently it didn’t keep me away from turtles forever, because I have returned with a novel that does indeed include one. Slowy simply exists (slowly) in the middle of a family that has suffered a terrible tragedy. And his owner, Cory Pinto, creates a video game that allows grieving people to have a chance to be with the person they’ve lost once again. I feel that the dream we’ve all had (or at least which I’ve certainly had more than once) in which you see the person who’s died, only to wake up suddenly, bewildered at the fact that that didn’t actually happen, inspired this part of the book. I wanted to look at the intractably baffling nature of loss.

What kind of writer are you? You make it seem so effortless. Has having your novels made into films given you a new sense of story structure?

For me it is, instead, effortful. I work a lot, like most writers, and try to think often during that process about what it is I am trying to do, and then return to that intention as much as possible. I don’t think the films have given me a new sense of story structure. I didn’t write them; other people did, and I admire them.  I myself tend to go on a few different side-trips in my novels.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Politics, of course. The fact that all of this has happened to us… And how to be productive in the midst of madness.

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

As always, Caroline, you are a close and wonderful reader, and I thank you so much for that.

How could you not want to read a book about a fired yard worker who finds hope for the American Dream in the library? NYT Bestselling author Jonathan Evison talks about his brilliant new novel, LAWN BOY.

Jonathan Evison and I share a brilliant publisher, Algonquin, AND a brilliant editor, Chuck Adams. He's my go-to person when I have a question about writing, and also a great example on how to live the literary life, because he's so generous to every writer he encounters. 

Lawn Boy is a masterwork, about a working glass guy, Mike Muñoz, struggling to find the American Dream. And oh yes, it already has 3 starred pre-pub reviews. Evison is also the author of West of Here, This is Your Life Harriet Chance, All About Lulu, and the Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, made into a great film which you can watch on Netflix!

I'm so happy to host him here. Thanks, Johnny!

You and I have talked about how every novel has a theme, a question that we are haunted by. In Lawn Boy, I believe it is how do we rise when everything and everyone is against us, economically and personally? How do we find our true selves in the midst of forces we cannot control?

JE: Yeah, sure, like how do we invent ourselves, how do we empower ourselves? How do we overcome our station in life, how do we carve out our niche in the world when we don’t see an opportunity? How do we believe in ourselves when nobody else does? That’s all part of the bigger question about what freedom is versus the idea we’re sold about what comprises freedom.

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?

JE: Hmm, do I have an acclaimed career? Who knew? I can never tell with acclaim. I like selling enough books to drink decent beer. I’m just trying to keep the lights on, you know? Trying not to drive everybody crazy with my damn mania. If I’m being honest, I’ve only got a few themes, so in a sense, I just keep reinventing them, and looking at them from different vantages with each book. When I think of my books, I mostly think about the characters who populate them, and what their problems are, and who they want to be, and what they struggle with or against. In Mike’s case it’s a big old mixed bag of economics, race, class, sexual identity, and self-confidence. And then there’s the whole quagmire of identity politics, and how they relate to Mike’s rural, working class environment. Wait, did I answer the question?

Mike Munoz is truly one of the greatest characters in literature. I just LOVED him. Not only does he surprise us—he surprises himself, and by the end of the novel, I was weeping. Did you always know this was the end?

JE: Oh man, assuming you’re not blowing smoke up my ass, that makes me very happy to have connected on such a level. That’s always the goal for me—make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, and aim to make them re-contextualize their own experience, if only a little, and maybe come out of the book a tiny bit more expansive. That’s the unique thing about literature; no other form asks so much of us. For me, the whole point is to inhabit some otherness during the course of a book, whether I’m writing it, or reading it, to accrue some understanding otherwise outside of my realm of experience. Empathy, period. That’s why I can hardly fathom the question of appropriation, or worry about the blowback when I write a chicano character, or a black character, or female character, or a child character, or an eighty-year-old character. I’m just trying to view the human condition from as many vantages as I can possibly attempt, and fiction offers me that opportunity.

I also want to say how charmed I was that Mike keeps talking about writing the Great Landscaping American Novel, and you, Johnny, have gone ahead and written it—with Mike in it. Think Mike would be happy and want to buy you a beer or six?

JE: So, actually, the whole novel started as a website called Mike Munoz Saves the World (.net). I was in the middle of my contract with the Gonk, and Huntington Sales was giving me fits, and I felt hemmed in by career expectations, so I wanted to write something just for fun, anonymously, with no thought of financial or critical gain. I’ll always be a starving artist and provocateur at heart. I live for my art (and my kids). And my mini-bike, and my beer, and my records. I wanted to write something totally free of my “brand” or whatever, so I started the website, which was like a working class soapbox and an episodic story at the same time. After a couple months of blogging it anonymously, I started realizing that I had stumbled upon the voice for the class novel I always knew I’d write.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

JE: I’m obsessed with the characters I’m inhabiting in the current novel, which takes place in the North Cascades over a period of roughly fourteen thousand years. Eating a lot of Wooly Mammoth. Huddling around a lot of fires. Making up a language.

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

JE: Where can a guy get a decent taco on the Olympic Peninsula? The answer is: he can’t.

OCD is not what you probably think it is, and in BECAUSE WE ARE BAD, Lily Bailey talks about the misconceptions and her own triumphs with battling OCD, and so much more.

When a publicist first told me she had this great book on OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), I thought, "Oh great! I have that!"

I was wrong. 

Lots of people I know throw the word OCD around, There is the run-of-the-mill obsessiveness, mild OCD, and then there is debilitating OCD, which is what model, journalist and memoir writer Lily Bailey has been grappling with and triumphing over. Her book BECAUSE WE ARE BAD is extraordinary, helpful, and yep, yep, yep, gorgeously written. A model and writer, she edited a news site and she writes features and fashion articles for local publications including the Richmond magazine and the Kingston magazine. Lily lives in London with her dog.

I am completely thrilled to host her on the blog. Thank you, Lily.

I always believe that every author is haunted somehow into writing their book. What was haunting you? What pushed you to write about your OCD now?

I was haunted by the years I lost because of the misconceptions around OCD. The average time taken to get help for OCD is 12 years, which is much longer than in any other mental health condition. One of the main reasons sufferers don’t seek help is that they don’t realize they have OCD. To have OCD all that is required is that you have obsessions (obsessive, unwanted intrusive thoughts), and compulsions (the action, physical or mental, that you take in response to these thoughts), and that they cause you significant distress.

When looked at in this way, you can see that OCD is a disorder that can be about just about anything. But when I was a child and teenager, all I (mistakenly) understood about OCD was that it pertained to being a vague perfectionist and liking things tidy and organized. My friends all used to phrase to mean this, and I’m sure I probably did too. My misunderstanding of OCD was so great that when I was diagnosed with it, I was sure the GP had gotten it wrong. I had lived with distressing thoughts that I was a bad person for as long as I could remember, and had to make mental lists of bad things I might have done. I believed I could kill people by thinking it, and that I had to perform compulsions to make sure they didn’t die. I had no name for what I was going through – I honestly thought if I told someone, I would go to jail or be sectioned. Every time we use the phrase ‘OCD’ in the wrong way, it takes someone like me that bit longer to know what we have and reach out for help.

This is a deeply courageous book. How difficult was this to write, or was it, freeing in some way?

People often ask me if it was therapeutic to write the book. The answer is no, it definitely wasn’t! Writing this book was a very solitary affair, and in many ways, it felt like a grieving process. As a child and teenager, I was so consumed by this stuff that I didn’t have time to be sad about my situation. I am much better now, and so there’s space for feelings I didn’t have before. As I immersed myself in writing about my past, I often felt upset about everything that had happened in ways I didn’t before. One thing I would say was ‘freeing’ is that I did worry what people would think if I wrote so openly about my life; all the weird thoughts I have had and the strange things I have been compelled to do in response. But the reception has been incredibly warm and supportive, and that is definitely liberating.

Tell me about how you write, and how your OCD factored into the process.

For me, one thing I always find with writing is that once I have the first sentence, everything else comes easily. When I worked as a journalist, it could take me a couple of hours to think of the opening line, but after that, the rest would write itself. So I have to sit quietly at my desk and wait for that to happen, and then ‘BAM!’, I’m off! I found this to be the way I wrote with literally every section of the book! One thing that was different about writing this book to anything I had done before was how entwined by routines became with it all. I used my routines from the past to recall what had been happening when I was small, and this was very different to anything I had written before.

I find the resisting of all routines really interesting, your need to say, “later, later,” so you can break the pattern.  What else—that may not be in the book—has helped you? What helps you now?

This is in the book, but I’ve found going to an OCD support group to be incredibly validating and affirming. I live with my dog, and he’s a real help. I don’t think you can underestimate the benefits of animal companionship for mental health. One thing I do now that I definitely didn’t do before is that when things do seem to be getting bad, I will actively make an effort to leave my room and socialise, because I know my routines feed off isolation. In the past I could hole up for weeks, and that definitely didn’t help my situation, even if it felt like the easier thing to do at the time.

“Maybe none of us are normal,” you write, and I think that’s true.  You also write: here is to the strong ones. The ones that never give up.” I actually think that might be the secret to living a life. Can you talk about this please?

At my weakest points with OCD, that drive to keep going has sometimes come from those around me rather than from within me, particularly from my mother. In life, we can’t always be strong for ourselves – sometimes we need others to carry us for a while. I think we all need at least one person in our lives who can do this for us. I’m very aware that unfortunately not everyone has this, and of how lucky I am. If you have a ‘strong one’, in your life, cherish them. It also doesn’t mean you can’t be the ‘strong one’. I am strong for other people in ways I could never be for myself.

What are you writing now?

I’m actually not writing anything at the moment. I didn’t used to believe in ‘writer’s block’. When I was a teenager I always had something to say about everything, and my naïve opinion was that writer’s block was just something you said to get out of writing. I definitely don’t believe that anymore! I found writing this book quite draining, and I haven’t written anything since. I hope to in time, but at the moment I need some space from it.

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

You asked me about writing with OCD, but you didn’t ask me what it’s like to read books when you have OCD. I’m an avid reader, but there have been points in my life where it has taken me months to read a book, or where I haven’t been able to read at all. I’ve actually come across lots of people with OCD who experience this. Potential reasons could include having to read the same line over and over until it ‘feels right’, or not being able to move onto the next page until you have retained every piece of information from the current page (I did both these things). In general, there’s just the fact that OCD is very distracting and draining, so it becomes hard to focus on the things you love, and for many people, that involves reading.

Being able to read properly again was one of the things that motivated me to work hard at beating OCD, because I missed it so much. Nowadays I can sit peacefully and enjoy reading a book, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Susanne Davis talks about her extraordinary connected short story collection, The Appointed Hour, giving voice to the marginalized, stray dogs, and so much more.

Today, it's vitally important for us to understand changing rural America, and in Susanne Davis' gorgeous collection of stories, THE APPOINTED HOUR, she lets us in on their struggles and their lives.

Susanne grew up in Connecticut and comes from six generations of dairy farmers in that state. Her short stories have won awards and recognition and been published in American Short Fiction, Notre Dame Review, descant, St. Petersburg Review, Zone 3, Carve and numerous other journals, while Harvard Magazine, Harvard Law Bulletin, Mothers Always Write, and others have published her nonfiction.

I'm so thrilled to host her here. Thank you Susanne!

Why a short story collection instead of a novel? I’m always fascinated because to me, short stories are like dates, while a novel is a long marriage. 

It’s true we develop relationships with our characters and our writing. On one level, I agree with your analogy--when I commit to writing a novel, every aspect of my life is committed too.  I live and dream in terms of a novel’s story.  A short story may live with me for a month or a year, but then it goes out and hopefully finds a home in a journal.  However, in this story collection, while the stories did start coming individually, and found homes in journals, eventually the characters returned and started showing up in each other’s stories.  They weren’t done with me.  They wanted me to know that they had more to say collectively than they were able to say alone. As a result, I discovered how the challenges in my characters’ lives revealed a bigger world than I first realized.

On an artistic level, I hope I hit the right notes, allowing the stories to become a kind of Greek chorus, with the characters’ unique voices and emotion shining through.

The imagery in your stories is so breathtaking that I want to ask—how do you write? Do you plan these out, wait for the muse, does the story or the language come first? 

Well, first, thank you for those kind words, Caroline.  You are one of the most generous people I know! Having grown up on the dairy farm still operated by my father and brother, I received a tremendous gift of loving the land.  Spending all that time in nature gave me an appreciation for the way the landscape changes from morning to night, and over the seasons and years. I see the Quanduck River running through my dad’s farm, swollen with rain, spraying mist to catch prisms of light and the night sky filled with stars so bright every tree casts its shadow over the ground.  When I am writing about rural characters who are so often sustained by the beauty of nature, these details come rushing forward like movie scenes.  I honestly can’t take credit for that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

A novel that includes stray dogs and Russia and its brave Stray Dog Cabaret writers of witness who wake up a contemporary American woman and challenge her to change her life.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 
Perhaps one last question to consider:  What are your hopes for this book?  Well, I hope people read The Appointed Hour and feel moved by it.  I knew I wanted to give voice to people marginalized and not often heard from in our culture.  We are all Americans with universal human cravings for love, shelter, adequate food, education and medical care, among other things.  Yet, the gap in the way we identify each other politically keeps growing and I worry about how we will reach each other with any kind of compassion as the divide widens. Continuing with the idea I mentioned above of the characters’ voices as a Greek chorus, I think the larger story of what’s happening in rural America is like a Greek tragedy.  Rural communities are being ripped apart by heroin overdoses, job losses, decreasing social supports and a palpable hopelessness.  My characters showed me some incredible resilience as they faced pretty unfavorable circumstances. I didn’t write these stories with politics in mind, but rather people who showed me their situations.

I think writers are a bridge to help people understand each other and see that we have more in common than what divides us. The late Jim McPherson, who was my professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said it is the fiction writer’s job to show us what it feels like to be human.  I hope these stories in some small way do that.


Gayle Forman talks about I HAVE LOST MY WAY, POUR YOUR HEART OUT, the difference between YA and adult, and so much pour.

Come on, of course I adore Gayle Forman. We're both Algonquin authors. We've done events together and she has the coolest necklaces I've ever seen. I'm thrilled to have her here on the blog to talk about her new YA book, I Have Lost My Way, and the journal Pour Your Heart Out.

Gayle is also the author of Leave Me, I was Here, If I Stay, and lots of other great titles you should check out.

Hugs, Gayle! And thank you so much.

Pour Your Heart out is pure genius. I think that adults should and could benefit from this as well. (I admit I am using the book myself!) How did you get this inspired idea? And did you fill it out yourself?

Oh, I wish I could take credit for this one, but really it was the people at Penguin, particularly my wonderful paperback editor Kristin Gilson, who came to me with this idea. They did one for me and one for Jane Austen and I’m telling everyone that me and Jane are going on tour together.

I only just got my copies and have not even thought to fill them out. I have an allergy to anything coloring and crafting that dates back to when I was in kindergarten and my mom had me tested for a gifted program and the results were not only was I not remotely gifted, but because I did not color in the lines I would have problems patterning and reading (ironic, no). But the result of it is that I am resentful (still) to all things coloring and crafting, even though I do enjoy coloring and crafting with my kids. You have inspired me to do the activities with my daughters and get over my childhood trauma. Thank you!

How did you go about selecting the great inspiring quotes in Pour Your Heart Out?

Again, I can take no credit. Penguin selected most of the quotes. I added a few that I knew to be reader favorites or my own. But some of the quotes were so obscure I didn’t recognize them and had to google them to confirm that they were, in fact, from my books.

I love that you write both YA and adult books. I wonder if you can talk about why you have different publishers for each? And also about the different mind-set you must have for each?

My YA books are with Penguin. I love them and they are my home. But Penguin adult and Penguin kid are entirely different companies, in different buildings. So when I wrote Leave Me, it was a submissions process like a debut book.  In the end, I went with Algonquin because the company is so small—they publish about 20 books per year—and having been at the largest publisher (Penguin Random House) I wanted to try a different experience. And I love working with both. The companies feel different in some ways but at the end of the day, they are both populated by people who are passionate about books and who have become my good friends.

I’ve thought a lot about the difference between YA and adult. The process of writing is the same but what differentiates them is the immediacy of the emotional experience. I believe everyone feels things strongly but adults are encouraged to hide their big (immature) emotions. So in adult literature, there’s a lot of subterfuge, a lot of sublimation, a lot of the story revolves around what happens when feelings are not owned. In YA, you can leapfrog over that. Young people are allowed to feel emotions more urgently and immediately and the books show that. You must know that, too, because so much of Cruel Beautiful World is from that urgent, young person’s perspective.

I Have Lost my Way is about love, loss, and finding who you should be, but this is a terrifying thing for young adults, no? (As well as for adults, too.)  How does this book help make that process easier? (I think that it does.)

It makes it easier because it tells you that you are not alone. Which I think holds true for so many books. We live in a society that loves a winner. Everyone is encouraged to brag, post, broadcast, their shiny hash-tagged lives. But everyone has pain. Everyone feels lost. Those feelings are tough enough to handle without the associated shame at feeling lost, sad, etc. Maybe reading about Freya, Harun or Nathaniel, who are each lost in their own way, will bring comfort to readers who are lost in their own way.

I love the title of I Have Lost My Way, because it implies an ask—i.e. help me and also let me help you. Can you talk about this please?

For me, it was more of a confession, and a plea. Because I had lost my own way. I had started, and abandoned, several young adult novels over the last few years.  I hated everything I wrote. It all seemed wrong, inauthentic, inadequate. And this was terrifying. Writing was how I figured out my world, and also how I supported my family. And now, this thing I had always done, taken for granted, I couldn’t do. I have lost my way was the phrase that kept spinning around in my head and then one day, it wasn’t just me saying it but a young woman named Freya who had lost her voice. I wrote it down. And found my way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am obsessed with politics. Not the day-to-day crazy (well, not just that) but the what happens when the so-called powerless become empowered. I have been inspired by the way the Parkland kids have upended the gun debate and, generally, the way the younger generation, has upended our conventional wisdom on everything from gender to race. I think the worst feeling in the world is the sense that things suck and you can’t do anything about it. But then you see these young people, who are like, fuck that, yes we can do something about it. It’s a mental shift, and it’s leading to a paradigm shift. Which isn’t to say there aren’t huge structural systems aimed at keeping the status quo (white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.) but these stirrings, among young people, women and women of color (who are running for office in record numbers) fill me with hope.

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

You didn’t ask me when we are getting together again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Portland, queer culture, the families we make and unmake, and how we break free and find our true selves. Chelsey Johnson talks about her Indie Next debut STRAY CITY (brilliant title, right? Why can't I think of brilliant titles like that?)

What are more beautiful seven words than: You have to read this book? I was sent Chelsey Johnson's incredible Indie Next Pick, STRAY CITY and fell in love with it, so of course I had to host her on the blog. And I'm not the only one who loves her book about Portland, queer culture, rebels, and the families we make--and remake.  Look at this praise:

Stray City has it all. As funny as it is moving; as joyful, as radically communal, as it is lonesome, the novel covers the varied complications of place, home, sex, city—but mostly it's about the necessary and unexpected revolutions of the self, and about how queerly we make our way through this world. Honestly, one of the most absorbing, finely-tuned books I’ve had the pleasure of falling down into. Chelsey Johnson is a wonder.
Justin Torres, bestselling author of We the Animals

Written with wit and sensitivity and exquisite emotional intelligence, Stray City is an absolute pleasure to read. Chelsey Johnson is one of the most refreshing new voices in literature.
Jami Attenberg, New York Times bestselling author of The Middlesteins and All Grown Up

A winsome novel about love and belonging—and the possibility of discovering both in the most unlikely of places, and among the most unexpected people. Tender and smart, Stray City is a fantastic debut from a huge talent.
Cristina Henríquez, bestselling author of The Book of Unknown Americans

A love letter to Portland and to the youthful effort of world-making that created its important queer culture in the '90s, Stray City is a gorgeous, funny, sharply spot-on tale of growing up and making family again and again and again.
Michelle Tea, award-winning author of Valencia and Black Wave

Insightful and brilliant, Stray City explores the stickiness of doing what’s expected and the strange freedom born of contradiction. I tore through this novel like an orphaned reader seeking a home in the ragtag yet shimmering world that Chelsey Johnson so wondrously brings to life.
Carrie Brownstein, New York Times-bestselling author of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Here's the impressive bio: Chelsey received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Teaching Writing Fellow, and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. Her debut novel Stray City is forthcoming from Custom House/ HarperCollins in 2018, and her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and NPR's Selected Shorts, among others. She has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Signal Fire Arts. She is an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary, and is currently in Los Angeles working on a television project for Hulu.

Thank you Chelsey!

I always want to know what haunted a writer (or propelled them) to write a specific novel. What was it for you?

So many things. I was driven from the outset by homesickness, by thinking about home and where you end up and why. The book actually originated from Ryan’s story, so I was writing about Bemidji, the town in northern Minnesota where my mom’s family is from, an hour from where I grew up. I feel deeply tied to northern Minnesota and yet I don’t know if I could ever return there to live, so I wrote my way through that tortured love and curiosity. Then I left Portland, and I didn’t mean to—it was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig that then turned into another and another—so I turned to Andrea’s perspective and wrote frantically, furiously trying to render the world I missed so much, trying to capture what it was, both so I could reinhabit it and also because I started to suspect I might not be able to go back to it, and I didn’t want to forget what it had been like. I’d never known a community or a city-love like that. But I also didn’t want the writing to be sentimental or nostalgic—I wanted to capture the contradictions and frustrations of that life. Queer people love each other and we hurt each other and we drive each other crazy. Just like any other family.

What I especially loved about Stray City, besides the whip-smart writing and Andrea, herself, was the whole notion of just what is conventional, what isn’t, and how we make up our own worlds and families. What does this all mean in terms of motherhood, relationships,  and locale? (Whew, long question.)

This is where living in Portland, among my particular community, had such an enormous influence on my thinking. It really is a city of strays, and although I came from an intact nuclear family, that was quite rare among people I knew. Nearly all of my dear friends (queer and straight alike!) came from families that had been ruptured in significant ways. We all carried some form of family damage, either directly from our own families of origin, or from the culture’s dominant lie of what counts as family, and which families deserve protection and exaltation and which are legally worthless. And we formed these deep, equally honorable familial and communal bonds among friends. So I wanted to write about how we form our own ad hoc families, and how we try to recreate family through actually having kids.

Just as with gender norms, I think that great American lie of what The Family is  hurts everyone, not just queer and trans people. I think its ironclad expectations of marry-reproduce-repeat suit some people perfectly—queer and straight!—and serve many people, of all orientations, very poorly. There are so many options of how to make your way and make your family, and I wanted Stray City to explore that.

So much of Stray City feels like a love letter to Portland—and to our youth. Please, would you talk about this?

It really is a love letter to my friends and to Portland itself, a flawed beautiful place that I love helplessly on some like, cellular level. The city has changed so much—it’s gotten very upscale and Instagram-y and in my shabby little North Portland neighborhood many of the shacks have been wiped out and replaced with obstreperous posh houses totally out of scale—but the homey jankiness and diveyness I love stubbornly hangs on, and the verdant greenery and moody weather will always be there. Until recently it was the perfect city for broke youth because even though you’d make no money, you could live cheaply and have plenty of time to play music, make art, volunteer at the rock camp, whatever. You could have a life. One thing I loved about Portland is that people never asked about your education or your job. It didn’t matter where you’d gone to college or if you’d gone to college, and what you did for money wasn’t really what you did. Thinking back, with many of my friends, I could not even tell you for sure what their day job was. What mattered was what you were making, what you wanted to do.  We were old enough to have some life experience and keep ourselves afloat, but young enough to still have that energizing hubris and a low enough standard of living that we were fine with whatever dilapidated roof was over our heads. I loved that age where you could follow some wild urge and overturn your life, and pull it off by the skin of your teeth, responsible only for yourself and maybe a pet.

The sad coda is that Portland’s soaring popularity and new affluence has started to kill off that DIY culture that made it special. Many of my friends have left, and many of those who remain are under constant financial stress and anxiety. The precarity that felt manageable ten years ago feels soul-crushing now, and it’s not just about youth.

What kind of writer are you, and did anything change while you were writing this book? How does it feel to be a debut author getting such major praise? Does it make writing your next book harder or easier?
I started teaching creative writing while I was writing the book, and that more than anything changed my writing—for the better. Teaching fiction was a crash course in spotting predictable narrative patterns and cliched language, and when I turned that eagle eye on my own work I instantly saw all the ways I’d unconsciously tripped into the same grooves my students did. I became a more impatient reader, eager for something fresh, eager for story, and that motivated me to make things happen on the page. But also my students made me up my game because many of them are so talented. I’m in awe of what they’re doing, how inventive and funny and dark they can go, and when they hit their stride, really inhabit their voices, I get to work with renewed pleasure and urgency.

I’ve gone from being a very quick writer, dashing off shiny sentences that pleased me and never looking back, to being a much slower writer, layering and plotting, not just doing  but thinking about what I’m doing. I also care much more about humor. Humor amplifies sadness and anger like nothing else. I want to read it, so I want to write it.

Press praise is wonderful, and I’m so grateful for it, though I’m always terrified that a hatchet job is just around the corner so I try not to put too much stock in what any particular critic thinks. The warm feedback that’s meant the most to me isn’t what shows up in magazines or listicles or online reviews, but from friends, from writers whose work I love, and from my former students. Those have real impact. And they’re what motivate me to want to write the next book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with public lands: their troubled histories and the violence of Indian removal that created them, their complex and precarious ecologies, recent tussles over their use, and their endangerment under the current administration. I’m also obsessed with the queer history of Los Angeles. I keep returning to the ONE Archives, this incredible LBGTQ archive housed at USC. I can lose myself for hours in that stuff. The 1970s in particular have seized my imagination—so much art and activism and community-building was going on. If you want to know queer history, you have to seek it out, it’s probably not going to get taught to you or passed down through your family. And when you do, you’re richly rewarded. There’s this treasure trove of publications and images and stories and ephemera and elders—a whole universe of which you are in some small way a legacy. It’s thrilling and very moving. Not surprisingly, both of these obsessions are making their way into my current writing projects.

What question didn't I ask that I should have.
Hm, maybe you could ask what is one piece of writing advice I give my students. And my answer would be: Estimate how much time you think you need to write this story. Write it down. Now multiply that by three. That’s how long it will actually take.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chris Bohjalian talks about THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, flawed heroines, the bliss of writing, and so much more

 Filled with turbulence and sudden plunges in altitude, ‘The Flight Attendant’ is a very rare thriller whose penultimate chapter made me think to myself, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ The novel — Bohjalian’s 20th — is also enhanced by his deftness in sketching out vivid characters and locales and by his obvious research into the realities of airline work.”
— Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Chris Bohjalian's brand new novel, “The Flight Attendant,” just landed. I couldn't resist opening with that play on words. I first met Chris on a stage at Rainy Day Books. Pictures of You was just published, I was on tour, and I was NERVOUS. Chris was so funny, warm, supportive. AND he wore bright yellow sneakers in honor of my red boots. We had a blast that day, and I've loved him ever since.

His latest novel, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT is smart, surprising, and I guarantee you'll be up all night because what's sleep compared to tension and suspense?

Ready for the impressive bio?

His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.

His awards include the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; a Best Lifestyle Column for “Idyll Banter” from the Vermont Press Association; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel, Midwives,was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Thank you, thank you, for everything, Chris.

 I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel.

I didn’t necessarily know “this” was the time for this novel.  Sometimes I seem to get lucky and sense what’s out there in the zeitgeist.  But I wasn’t thinking when I began writing what would become The Flight Attendant in March 2016, “Russian espionage and election meddling will be a news story in March 2018.”  I wish I had that kind of foresight. 
But I have always been fascinated with the Russian soul and loved Russian literature.  And as you know from our wonderful events together in 2011 when you were touring for your magnificent novel, Pictures of You, and I was touring for The Night Strangers, I’ve always been fascinated by aviation and air travel.  I am in awe of flight attendants and pilots.
 And one evening, it all came together at – appropriately – a bar.  I had just flown into JFK from Armenia via Moscow, and I was meeting a friend for dinner at an Armenian restaurant we love in Manhattan.  I was an hour early and so I settled with a glass of arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored alcohol I love.  And my mind was thinking about air travel and Russia, and I suddenly I was scribbling frantically on every piece of scrap paper the bartender had handy.  The premise?  A flight attendant who drinks too much would wake up in a sumptuous hotel bed in Dubai next to a dead body.  All I knew when I started writing was that it would be a thriller with a deeply flawed heroine, and there would be Russian intrigue.

So much of The Flight Attendant is about what we remember and why, what we are addicted to and why, and how those forces shape us. Can you talk about that please?

As a species, we move away from pain and we move toward pleasure.  I assume all animals do. 
In the case of my flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, she has become addicted to the pleasure – alcohol – that took away her pain.  Her deep emotional pain.  All those margaritas and negronis she downs in the course of the novel?  All that arak and all that wine?  It’s drowning a lot of unhappiness and a lot of terrible scars from her childhood. 
 So, yes, she is a functional alcoholic.  And like a lot of alcoholics, she is also a profoundly wounded bird.  I think that’s why I cared about her so much and worried about her so much.

I remember years ago, you were talking about researching plane crashes, and how people shouldn’t rest their feet under their seats if they’re ever told to brace for impact in an imminent crash, because they might break their ankles and be unable to walk away from a crash! I imagine you learned some new things in researching this novel! Pray tell!

 Well, I learned the difference in cost if you want to kill a contracts manager in Donetsk versus Dubai.  That helped the novel immeasurably. 
But the things I learned that have really stayed with me are just how spectacular most flight attendants are and how hard the job really is.  The women and men who keep us safe and manage the passenger cabin of an airplane are well-trained, dedicated, and incredibly fast on their feet – and they deal with all sorts of horrific passenger misbehavior.  The stories they told me about drunk passengers, entitled passengers, ornery passengers, and just plain rude passengers were astonishing.  And, yes, I used a lot of those stories in the novel – including the tale I came across in my research about the grandmother who allowed her toddler grandson to try and urinate into an air sickness bag.  The lad missed.  The nearby passengers wound up soaked.  And the grandmother?  Not an ounce of contrition.

Holy cow, you have movie rights optioned!  Will you do a cameo? Any interest in writing the script?

Yes, Kaley Cuoco of The Big Bang Theory has optioned it for a limited series for Warner Brothers TV.  I couldn’t be happier.  There is no actor I can think of more perfect to bring my alcoholic hot mess of a flight attendant to life than Kaley. 
 I am not writing the script.  But I am co-writing the screenplay for the film of my 2017 novel, The Sleepwalker. 
I’m also writing a new stage adaptation of my 1997 novel, Midwives.

I also have to ask you this: The galley is phenomenal looking, with quotes from every major paper around. Yet, knowing you, I know that you are one of the kindest, most down-to-earth writers I know. How have you avoided what fame does to some writers?

 Well, I could ask the exact same question of you.  And I think most of our mutual friends who write are pretty down-to-earth and keep us humble.
Also, writing isn’t a zero sum game.  There’s room for all of us. I’ll bet you read between forty and fifty books a year. 
Finally – again, like you – I never lose sight of what a blessing it is to be a novelist.  It’s just so damn much fun.  The Flight Attendant is my twentieth book, and my goal has been to never write the same book twice.  And that’s meant I’ve never been bored.  Some novels have been much harder to write than others and some books have been much better than others, but so long as I’ve tried something new and tried my best, it’s always been pretty satisfying.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 I’m deep into my next novel.  Shhhhhhhh. . .