Sunday, July 29, 2018

How can you not adore a person who disapproves of cruises and yet writes an extraordinary novel about one? Kate Christensen is here! Plus bonus question from Angus her dog!

Kate Christensen is one of those writers you just want wonderful things to happen to. And they have. And they do. First off, she's the author of The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction; two food-centric memoirs, Blue Plate Special and How to Cook a Moose, which won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir. She lives in Portland, Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my husband and dog.

THE LAST CRUISE is about final voyages..or maybe not for the passengers of the cruise ship Queen Isabella. But the times and the people change in ways you never seen coming. And I'm thrilled to share some of the raves for the book:

Excellent… Above deck are wealthy vacationers dining on caviar and Lobster Thermidor. But below, conditions are hardly different from a Third World factory. Christensen gamely traverses both worlds in this waterborne upstairs-downstairs drama.
The Wall Street Journal

Christensen is a master at drawing us into the interior lives of her characters, toeing the line between satire and sympathy… comedy and humiliation… Having gathered these disparate people together, Christensen gently rolls and pitches the stage, dislodging stones of sadness that had been safely stuck in the crevices of their everyday lives. That discombobulation is the key to the story’s appeal, its unstable mix of romantic comedy, class oppression and spiritual angst — as though Cynthia Ozick wrote an episode of “The Love Boat.” Christensen also deconstructs the aura of the cruise ship… Mysterious and existential… She’s interested in the most intimate and profound changes we’re willing to make only when tossed by the tempest of life. Ron Charles
The Washington Post

Thank you so much, Kate, for being here. And please thank Angus with a paw-shake, for being such a good, good boy and answering a question, too.

I always am curious why this novel, why this moment. What were you thinking about that propelled or haunted you into writing this?

“The Last Cruise” came out of a generalized, ongoing sense of alarm and despair, along with nostalgia for the postwar glow of the 20th century, its elegance and decadence and culture—I wasn’t born yet, so this is of course a wholly romantic and naïve nostalgia, but I feel it nonetheless.  The notion of a Last Cruise feels like a metaphor for America’s 73 years of peace and economic prosperity, now coming to an abrupt and apparent end.

I love that you set your novel on a cruise, which always terrifies me. All those people and you cannot escape! But maybe the deeper question is how you can ever escape yourself. Can you talk about this please?

“Wherever you go, there you are”? Ha! Yes. People on a cruise bring their own personal histories, unfulfilled desires, and deepest fears on board. I populated my nostalgia cruise with three protagonists. Two of them are employed to work on the cruise, as galley crew and entertainment. Christine, the lone passenger of the trio, a farmer from Maine, tries to enjoy the passive luxury, but when things go “pear-shaped” halfway through, she is perversely glad, awakened, galvanized. This comes out of my own need to have a role, something to do. When I’m not engaged in work of some kind, I don’t quite know who I am. So vacations can be disorienting. All three of my protagonists are like me in this way: their work ethic defines them, gives them their identities. When the shit hits the fan, they ask, What can I do? not, Who will save me?

And yes: I’ve never been on a cruise, because I, like you, have a near-phobia of them. The idea of being on a huge floating pleasure dome crowded with strangers indulging in “leisure activities” and wanton gluttony in the terrifying middle of the ocean—none of that sounds remotely fun to me. To me, that’s just asking for trouble, as so many news stories have borne out, dire tales of norovirus outbreaks, engine room fires, people falling overboard, crimes on the high seas, not to mention shipwrecks.

Also, this will no doubt enrage many happy cruise-goers, but I disapprove of cruises. A modern cruise ship is first and foremost a corporate moneymaking machine, a polluting, crowded, floating mega-resort whose luxuries are predicated on the labor of the exploited workers below decks. So the Queen Isabella strikes me as a perfect vessel, pun half-intended, to carry certain burdens—existential, emotional, and actual.

 There’s a line in the book, where one character looks at another, whose face is astonished, and full of anticipation.  That stopped me because I often feel we’ve lost the capacity to wonder about ourselves and our futures. It feels to me from what I know about you that that’s the way you live your life.  Am I right?

Um. Yes. This has been true since I was born, and I have never outgrown it or learned to temper or repress this tendency in myself. Apparently, I “feel things (too) deeply.” And I know this to be true. But being prey to the more difficult emotions—anxiety, sadness, despair, grief, rage, turmoil—allows me to feel the beautiful ones too—joy, exaltation, awe, wonder, passion, deep love. At various times in my life, I’ve been strongly advised to go on antidepressants or SSRI’s. I’ve been told I’m “overly sensitive,” “too intense.” But for me, these responses and reactions tell me what matters, what is right and wrong. Deep passion can be a call to action and an ethical guide, if you use it that way, if you’re not self-indulgent or narcissistic, but rather concerned with a greater good.  

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

Oh God—the same thing we’re all obsessed with, or sadly, only 54% of us, according to the latest polls. How the hell are we going to deal with this unholy, terrifying mess we’re in? As a country, a culture, a planet? How will we rise to this? How will we go on in the face of what’s coming? How many of us will do what’s right? Primarily, I’m obsessed with the fact that we are all interdependent and interconnected, all living things on earth, from redwoods and whales down to bacteria and microbes, and this is becoming more and more crucial and apparent.

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

I think I’ve gone on long enough…. Thank you, Caroline.

AND BONUS QUESTION: What does Angus want everyone to know?

The best things in life are swimming in a lake, chasing squirrels through the woods, licking someone’s face, lying in the shade on a front porch watching the birds, and chewing a squeaky chicken. Everyone should do those things all day long, and nothing else.

Jennifer Gilmore talks about her incandescent novel IF ONLY, adoption, possiblity and so much more.

I can't remember when I first met Jennifer Gilmore, but what's really important is I cannot remember a time when I DID NOT LOVE HER. Her novels are fantastic, critically acclaimed and deeply loved. She was kind enough to interview me at McNally Jackson when I was a nervous wreck, kind enough to turn around in her assigned seat at the Jewish Book Council Auditions to shoot the breeze with me when I was a nervous wreck. I'm not a nervous wreck anymore!

Jennifer is the author of three novels for adults, and a novel for teens-We Were Never Here and for adults, The Mothers, (Scribner 2013), currently being adapted to film,which she is Executive Producing, Something Red, (Scribner 2010), a New York Times Notable Book, and my first novel, Golden Country (Scribner 2006), a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, an Amazon Top Ten Debut Fiction of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Prize, a finalist for the Harold U Ribalow Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

And course, her latest IF ONLY is about the possibilities in a young girl's life.

Thank you so much, Jennifer, for this book, and for EVERYTHING.

I always think there is a why now moment for an author to write any book. What were the origins of this one for you?

If Only, which on the surface is a book about adoption, but is also about all the ways we imagine what our lives could be and could have been, has this premise that our lives are not necessarily destined. That one small thing could have changed our course. (The science behind the Butterfly Effect, in chaos theory, deals with this idea, too.) I have an adopted child and I hate to think that we weren’t as destined to be together as biological children and their mothers are, but it nagged at me. The what if’s. What if my child’s birthmom hadn’t chosen us. I could go down a spiral and become undone by the thought. And then, as a novelist, and a novelist who writes about teens, I wondered: what made her make the decisions she did. How did she go about it? That’s when my imagination kicked in. I wanted to include her many possibilities, as well as her biological daughter’s many possibilities, which I call the If Onlys.  I wanted to connect them. But I couldn’t have written this book when I first came home with my son. My thinking had to be more processed and less emotional. I think when you’re really writing you look in the face a lot of the stuff that makes you uncomfortable or scared. That’s the sweet spot for the writer. 

You’ve written extraordinary books for adults and this is your second for YA. How does it feel different? Does it free you in some way?

As you know, all books are hard to write. Just so hard! Young adult feels different only in that my characters are teenagers. I am getting in touch with the 15 year old in me all the time. (To be honest, she’s always with me anyway.) We are, after all, the ages we ever were at the same time. In some ways the form is more constricting: it tends to be first person with forward motion and often plot can be a stand in for emotion. But that is very generalized. In other ways—in this case structurally—it was freeing as I think teen readers go with what you offer more readily. They make a leap of faith without having to be technically lead there. They are open and willing and I love that about my teen readers. And it’s exciting (without over generalizing again) teens care about books—remember what you read as a teen? The music you listened to? Exactly. It’s imprinted upon us. 

You’ve written so gorgeously about your becoming a mother, adopting, and the whole process, and it infuses this wonderful book in such unexpected ways. Would you mind talking about this?

I love talking about being an adoptive mother because I’m proud to be one and lucky to be one. There is a lot of language surrounding adoption—in the adoption community, from one’s biological family, from friends, and from people you just meet on the street. It’s shocking to me what people say, like: Your son is so lucky! Or: we know people who have adopted and they love their kids just as much as we love ours.  That’s not the half of it. And my child is white—being the adoptive mother of a transracial child presents new kinds of conversations that people think they can have with you. It’s shocking to me. What I mean to say is, like in everything we are experiencing in this world right now, language matters. How we talk about what is important to us and difficult matters. How we dismiss peoples’ experiences or think we are in a position to validate them matters. The language is the beginning. That is the power I feel I have as a fiction writer who writes about adoption. I can take on these false notions or these complicated socio economic issues and make art out of this troubling and often culturally airbrushed conversation.
What’s obsessing you now and why?

What’s obsessing me…How hard it is to find a way into something important that is still what you would want to read. How to create in the face of a truly demoralizing state. How to think about characters and still be in the world. I’m very interested in transformation. All the ways in which that happens for us, for women in particular. What were you before? Where did you go?

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

You covered it! As always. Thank you for being such a wonderful supporter of my work and all our work. And happy art making to you, too.

T. Greenwood talks about her incandescent RUST & STARDUST, based on the real-life kidnapping that inspired Nabokov's Lolita. You KNOW you want to read this.

 T. Greenwood is amazing. A super talented photographer, she has also published twelve novels, including BODIES OF WATER (a finalist for a Lambda Foundation Award). She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland State Arts Council. And if that's not enough, she's won  three San Diego Book Awards.?

Rust & Stardust, the gripping, heart-wrenching novel of Sally Horner, the 11-year-old kidnapping victim whose abduction in 1948 inspired Nabokov's Lolita is already racking up the raves. Wanna see?

"Unflinching but compassionate, Greenwood deftly unravels the devastating layers of malice and carelessness that tore Sally from her family, but also the love and perseverance that eventually brought her home."—Bryn Greenwood, author of the New York Times bestseller All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

​"A harrowing, ripped-from-the-headlines story of lives altered in the blink of an eye, once again proving her eloquence and dexterity as an author.”—Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl

"An absolute treasure for bookclubs and the discussions it is sure to inspire."—Pamela Klinger-Horn, Excelsior Bay Books

Thank you so much for being here!

I was absolutely haunted by this story. When was the moment when you realized, I have to write this story?”

I read Lolita in college and swooned. The idea that someone could write about something so horrifying in such achingly beautiful language felt like a sort of magic. That was the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Sally Horner was in those pages, though I didn’t know it at the time, sequestered in a tiny parenthetical: (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?) Flash forward twenty plus years, and I stumbled upon an essay by Sarah Weinman (“The Real Lolita” in Hazlitt) which reveals the likelihood that Nabokov borrowed from Sally Horner’s story in crafting the second half of Lolita. (Nabokov was known to scour newspapers for crimes that echoed Humbert Humbert’s.) But what spoke to me more than all of this was the photo accompanying the essay – the one of a golden sort of child sitting on a swing. Eleven years old, abducted by a life-long criminal. She’d only been trying to join a girl’s club at school – the initiation involving the theft of a five-cent notebook from a Woolworth’s. LaSalle, recently released from prison, “caught her” and was able to convince her that he was with the FBI, that if she didn’t do as he said, he would have her arrested. At the time, my youngest daughter was eleven years old – and while likely much savvier than Sally would have been in 1948, I couldn’t help but imagine her in a similar circumstance. That longing to belong to a group of girls so palpable, the blind abeyance to authorities, the cusp at which girls at that age reside. I fell in love with Sally first.

Then, when I began to research this true crime, it felt as if it was a story I had been meant to write my whole life. From the places LaSalle took her, to the people she would have likely encountered, there were so many connections to my own experience, it felt like serendipity.

What was your research like? Can you tell us any things you changed or added for the sake of fiction

I read everything I could get my hands on about Sally and Frank LaSalle. I scoured,, and a whole host of other sites trying to glean everything I could about the twenty-one months she was in his custody. I also studied the various places he took her and researched the historical context.

Ultimately, however, this is fiction. I had the skeletal structure of the plot – the actual events and locations and timeline, but the flesh is pure imagination. I had to dream myself into Sally’s character, her mother’s character, those girls who set her on this tragic path. I also created a number of fictitious characters (mostly women who unwittingly aided in Sally’s survival).

While I made every effort to honor the “facts” I knew to be true, I also took a thousand liberties (which is what fiction writers do) in an effort to bring this story and these characters (as I dreamed them) to life.

I absolutely loved that you told this story through the eyes of various characters—Sally’s mother, her sister, Ruth. Was this always your decision as far as craft? I also absolutely loved the kind bearded lady—where did she come from?

The first draft of this novel was written from an omniscient and someone distanced point of view. I wanted it to be the story of not only Sally but also of those around her, those impacted by this crime.  However, with each subsequent draft (and there were many), I zoomed in closer and closer to the primary point of view characters. I actually wrote about fifty pages from Frank’s point of view, but in a very late draft decided to excise him. Nabokov had already written that story. I wanted this to be Sally’s story, the story of her family, and the story of the communities she inhabited.

As for Lena (the bearded lady), she was a total surprise but ultimately became one of my favorite characters. In researching the trailer court where Frank and Sally lived in Dallas, TX, I learned that when the circus was in town, the circus folks often stayed there. This was one of those amazing gifts a writer gets, because all of a sudden, Lena materialized on the page…this gorgeous, leggy hermaphrodite, who sees herself in Sally. 

Reading this novel made me completely unsettled, which is my highest compliment, by the way. What was it like writing it?

As I said, the early drafts were written from a sort of dissociated point of view. I was, frankly, scared to write this story, to be inside Sally’s skin. It probably took four drafts before I even wrote her point of view in. I knew that spending time with her, inhabiting her body, would mean engaging in her suffering. I also knew that finding the balance between raw honesty and delicacy was critical. I didn’t want this to be a lurid exploitation but a reverent exploration of what she must have gone through.

Nabokov ends Lolita in a different way than the way the true crime story here ended. Why do you think he did that?

I recently read an essay about possible connections between Lolita and a story Salvador Dali wrote. In the essay, Nabokov is said to have referred to gathering “bits of straw and fluff” for his novels. I think that Sally really was one of those bits of straw for him. His parenthetical about her suggests as much. But Sally’s story is not, in the end, Lolita’s story.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Here are my current twigs and fluff: a state “school” in western Massachusetts called The Belchertown School for the Feeble-Minded, 1970’s Florida, Weeki Wachee mermaids, the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971.

I have wanted to write a story set in the early 1970s Florida forever. My family used to drive to Florida from Vermont every winter (in a VW Bug no less). I love writing about lost places. I am also totally captivated by abandoned asylums.

All of this comes together in my next novel, Keeping Lucy, which will be out next summer.

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

This is my twelfth novel, and people are often curious about my process. One of the questions I am most often asked is if I write every day or only when inspiration hits, and my answer is that I write regardless of inspiration. If I waited for inspiration to hit, I’d never get anything done.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Grief. Hope. Loss. Love. Jonathan Santlofer talks about THE WIDOWER'S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer's profile photo

"Wrenching, heartbreaking, intense and emotional - but valuable, too: we're all approaching the age where this will happen to us - or to others because of us - and understanding that it can be dealt with is consoling.  I don't know how Santlofer found the fortitude to write this, but I'm deeply grateful he did. I think the world is a better place with this book in it."—Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author

The Widower’s Notebook, Jonathan Santlofer’s searingly truthful chronicle of mortality, is, among its wonders, a book about the preciousness of life and love, rendered all the more heart-wrenching, and all the more vital, by a loss almost beyond imagining. It’s a true tragic beauty.”
Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours

The Widower’s Notebook is a searing rendition of the complex relationship between men and grief—an intense despair that is too often starved for words.  This chronicle of devastation is itself devastating, a deeply powerful and unflinchingly honest report of how painfully and strangely life continues in the wake of a sudden, tragic death.”—Andrew Solomon, National Book Award winner

"The Widower’s Notebook is an intimate, honest, heart-wrenching, and at times even funny account of grieving as well as the memoir of long, satisfying, loving marriage. This is an important and welcome addition to the literature of loss and grief from the male point of view. I will be giving this Notebook to friends reeling from loss but also to old and new couples who need models of how to weather the many little deaths and losses that occur as they journey a life together. Santlofer has given us a brave, beautiful gift, heartfelt and invaluable."
Julia Alvarez, bestselling author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Saving the World

Widower is stunning, harrowing, un-put-down-able… Jonathan Santlofer finds language that is immediate and intimate for the irreconcilable trauma of loss. Without pause he captures the shattered time that is grief—this book is fearless, brave for its humanity, honesty, love. Santlofer brings the reader into his heart, sharing all the things that one feels but dares not say aloud, all that one wants to know but can’t ask of themselves, of those around them, of their lost loved one.”—A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven

"As an extended meditation - not on grief but on grieving - it is direct, unadorned and humane. It is, as well, a rare thing, a portrait of a happy marriage."—Paul Theroux, New York Times bestselling author
"Jonathan Santlofer's book is a miraculous act of seeing, in words and in drawings — of reconstituting, in a work of art, what his wife Joy was like and what their marriage was like and what the loss has been. A riveting memoir of grief, and an indelible portrait of a long and deeply good marriage." —Joan Wickersham, National Book Award finalist and author of The Suicide Index
"A brave book! A truthful and poignant account of an unexpected death filled with wisdom about life and a man's struggle to be allowed to grieve."—Sheila Kohler, author of Once We Were Sisters

“Jonathan Santlofer, with painful honesty, renders real grief in all its sprawl and inconsolable intensity.”—Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Story

"Jonathan Santlofer’s stunning The Widower’s Notebook raises all the blinds on immense and sudden loss, bringing light to all its dark corners. In so doing, he offers a deeply moving, often funny, always big-hearted portrait—not just of grief but of a long and rich marriage brought to vivid life, and of a mighty father-and-daughter relationship both tested and enduring. A true gift."—Megan Abbott, bestselling author of You Will Know Me

Jonathan Santlofer is a writer and artist. His debut novel, The Death Artist, was an international bestseller, translated into seventeen languages, and is currently in development for screen adaptation. His fourth novel, Anatomy of Fear, won the Nero Award for best novel of 2009. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. He is also the creator and editor of several anthologies including It Occurs to Me That I Am America, a collection of original stories and art. His paintings and drawings are included in many public and private collections. 

Thank you so much for being here, Jonathan!

What was the “why now” moment for you to write this brave and moving book?

Thank you for those kind words. I’m not sure there was one specific moment I could point to. For almost two years after my wife’s death I kept notebooks where I documented my days and nights, my interactions with friends and associates, even strangers. The notebooks were for me alone, a way to see clearly at a time when I could not. When I was invited to the arts colony, Yaddo, I thought I would work on a novel I’d started before my wife’s death, but got there and found I was still unable to concentrate on fiction and began transcribing my notebooks. I still didn’t think of it as a book, at least not one I would put into the world. What changed was allowing a few friends to read parts of what I’d written, all of whom were enthusiastic and urged me to consider publishing what I’d written. One writer friend, who I respect tremendously, said “Men do not write these kind of book, so you must continue, must finish.” Still, until the moment I sold the book I kept thinking I’m not going to do this!

So much of The Widower’s Notebook is about how males are supposed to act grieving, which is stoic, quiet, moving on. And which is nonsense.  Can you talk about this please?

I think I fit the male pattern of grieving you describe very well—or did. I rarely if ever let anyone see what I really felt. I hid behind my mask of cool and funny, which in fact made the grieving process that much worse by making me feel isolated. It’s one of the things that eventually spurred me on to write this book—to express what I felt in a culture that doesn’t want to deal with loss and grief and does not expect it from a man. There are cultural stereotypes and expectations about the way women grieve versus the way men do, all ridiculous and equally punishing.

I loved that you binge-watched Netflix. When my mother had a stroke and began the process of dying, I found myself watching horror movies on my computer for hours at a time. Sometimes, I think, we need stories that are nothing like ours, to move forward. But some times, we need stories like yours, which make us feel that we are not alone, that we are all bound by love and loss. Was there ever a point where you felt, no, I can’t continue writing this?

I’m very sorry to hear about your mother. I think losing one’s mother is enormous, and I know my daughter would agree. I also agree that there are times we need distraction – 50 nonstop episodes of Breaking Bad or House of Cards - but there are those other times when we absolutely need to read other people’s experiences of loss for exactly the reason you say – to not feel alone. For well over a year I couldn’t read anything but when I started again all I read were memoirs about loss. I sometimes think a combination of work, friends, Netflix, and Joan Didion saved my life!

There were many times I thought, I can’t keep writing this because it’s too painful. And yet, I know the act of writing helped me move forward. At a certain point I had to step back and look at it as a book, a work on its own, a process that was a bit unnerving—to edit and structure something this personal—but I also felt, If I’m going to do this it had better be good!

Was there a difference in the way art and writing helped you?

I feel lucky that I had my art and writing because they were places to put what I was feeling into something tangible. When you make a drawing you have to coordinate your hand and eye, really concentrate on seeing, so it’s a great escape. I have often recommended learning to draw (and I believe everyone can) to others because it sharpens your mind in a very particular way and makes you see the world differently.
I couldn’t actually escape when I was writing because it was all about what had happened, but there was something about constructing words and sentences—no matter how painful—that felt good and worthwhile.
I firmly believe that work of any kind is a great mechanism to deal with grief. It doesn’t matter what it is—cooking, gardening, painting, learning a language, anything that forces you to focus—because it takes you out of the moment and makes you think about something else. Grieving takes time no matter what, but if you’re doing something at least part of that time moves faster.

What’s obsessing you now and why? (And what are you working on next, too, please)
I just finished the novel I’d started before my wife died. It’s an historical thriller that mixes fact and fiction, something I’ve never done before. It was a difficult but very fun book to write. I’m painting too, and always drawing, which is relaxing for me. Once I finish editing the new novel I want to start another – an idea that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for a while now.
After my wife died I couldn’t work at all so it now feels as if I’m making up for that time. I sometimes think, Oh, just stop, relax and shut up! But I can’t. I’m really only happy when I’m working, and I’ve grown to accept that.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
The question I ask myself is: how am I feeling now? The Widower’s Notebook ends at a certain point, but as time goes on I feel more like myself. I’m a somewhat different, altered person than I was before, but I am no longer in the throes of grief and I think people need to hear that: to know that they will survive and feel better, because when you’re deep in grief you can’t imagine ever feeling better, but you will.

Monday, July 9, 2018

How do you get to be a writer/actor/dancer/performer all at once? The amazing Tom Frueh tells all!

TOM FRUEH is a writer and actor who performs regularly in musicals, including his own one-man musicals for which he also writes the music, book and lyrics. His newest musical Partners recently had its world premiere on Theatre Row at the United Solo Theatre Festival, the world's largest festival devoted to solo theatre. Prior to that, his musical Houdini was produced there. He is also the author of numerous plays which have been performed in New York. A singer-dancer and veteran musical theatre performer, some of his other recent appearances include the musicals On the Twentieth Century, City of Angels, Hairspray, Grand Hotel, The Drowsy Chaperone and Cabaret.

Way, way back, when I lived in the city that shall not be named because I hated it so much, I studied ballet, and quickly became friends with Tom Frueh, who was funny, sarcastic, and as passionate about the arts as I was. Tom moved to Manhattan, and I followed his lead a few years later, and we’ve stayed friends. I’ve been to his plays and have been amazed. I’ve watched his solo shows with delight. And I wanted to interview him because he has so much to say about creativity.

Thank you so much Tom!

I’m so deeply interested in hearing you talk about your one-man musical shows and how they came to be, especially since they’re a bit like a novel.
Like Lily Tomlin and many other performers and writers, I was heavily influenced by an actress who was also a writer, Ruth Draper. As a young woman, she wrote some monologues for herself but then didn’t know what to do with them. She showed them to the author Henry James and asked his advice. He replied, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet - stand on it!”
Draper’s career was perfecting these monodramas, and in performing them, she could display not only her writing and acting skills, but her amazing understanding and empathy for human beings at all levels of society, from a poor Scottish immigrant to a wealthy Manhattan dilettante and all sorts of people in between (she was also great with dialects).
In a way, these monodramas were not unlike a novelist reading aloud from his or her own work, although there happens to be simple staging and props and lighting thrown in! And like reading from a novel, it’s storytelling in a more personal oral form. And that’s very similar to how I feel about my one-person shows (whereas when I do another author’s musical with a big cast, like On the Twentieth Century which I just finished, it’s something very different. Both are theatre, both are thrilling, but the solo show is a very writerly and a more personal journey and experience.)
What’s your process like?

There’s a very close link between creating a character for a book or play and creating a character one is going to play onstage. For me, the processes are essentially the same, as are the research aspects.  Non-theatre writers try to explore (and sometimes even experience first-hand) what their characters might have experienced, and certainly that’s a common practice for acting. So, in the case of my one-man shows, there’s that kind of research and discovery and character building, and then I try and find the right structure for the story. Acting is the last layer and an outgrowth of all that came before. Also, the acting piece can inform any rewriting. Often, I’ll find that a character I’ve written on the page seems to have his or her own distinct voice, but then I learn through speaking it and acting it that it was too infused with my own voice, so I go back and work to correct that.
The fact that I started out writing plays and now write musicals is simply a matter of using the music skill to enhance the storytelling. In the case of my most recent solo musical Partners, which is about my life following the death of my partner, Johan Renvall, I never could have fully expressed the grief I felt without music, because I couldn’t talk about it at first – I was too devastated. I simply went to the piano and started playing what I was feeling. And then the words followed, and then words and music started to develop in parallel, and that became the complete picture. But the emotion of doing it was sometimes overwhelming. The support and discipline of my director, Jen Jurek, and my music director, Chris Piro, helped me bring it to performance level yet still allow the emotion to come through honestly, but without letting it overtake me.
You’ve said that your shows came about because of grief, which I find fascinating. Talk about that please.

I don’t even think I was fully aware of that when I started writing my one-man shows, especially since grief was not always the central action in the shows. But grief was the momentous occurrence that made me write in the first place. My first solo show, After the Show with the Man Who Owned Broadway, about the composer and performer George M. Cohan, was written in part as a response to my father’s death, but it was about Cohan fearing his career was over.  I wrote Houdini in response to my mother’s death, but it was about the climax of his career.  Partners is the only one of the three that is explicitly about navigating grief, which can be like wandering alone in total darkness. I wasn’t trying to write for therapy (even though there was some therapeutic value, but the writing process also accentuated the despair) but rather to try and create something beautiful from something horrible, and to make this awful experience “count” for something.  I suppose there’s also an element in each of my solo shows about making art – both for me and the characters – to try and overcome life’s horrors. In my George M. show, he uses music and theatre to please an audience but also his dead father. In my piece about Houdini, he uses his seemingly magical escapes to defy the inevitability of nature, and to express his refusal to be beaten by anything or anyone. And since I dance in musicals and Johan was a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Partners uses dance as a metaphor for life and for the need to persist despite overwhelming tragedy.
You do so many, many things all at once, and I know you also have a job. How do you manage this balancing act?

Yes, I do have a writing job and it encompasses just about anything one could think of, from all kinds of marketing and advertising writing to scripts and magazine articles. The balancing part is second nature to me now since I’ve been doing it so long, but the effort is so worth it because it’s made me a much better writer than I could have been without it. A few weeks ago, I took my very first figure drawing class thanks to a good friend. I thought I would go in and have an hour or more to leisurely sketch the model. But we only had three minutes and then the model changed poses! It was do or die, with ongoing feedback from the instructor. It was easy to see there was a method to this madness, and it’s much like my daily writing. The discipline of inflexible deadlines, the need to be creative on the spot, often with little information to go on, the necessary economy, and the regular criticism are all part of what any writer must accept, to one degree or another, in order to improve. It’s made me think faster and more efficiently when writing, and the best benefit of all is that it makes almost any tough writing job or problem seem conquerable.  It’s been a blessing, and I’m grateful.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The urgency to keep writing and performing in musicals for more audiences in more places more often, as well as I possibly can. Piece of cake, right?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
“When will we go to an all-night diner in Chelsea again and make mischief, and which one of us will write about it, and why is your last name pronounced ‘free’?”  (Sorry, that’s really three little questions disguised as one big question!)

Learn more about Tom and his projects at

The amazing Maggie Balistreri talks about The EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY, why we must say what we really mean, and how speech shapes politics--and more, more, more.

The very cool book with a tiny inset of Maggie

Maggie Balistreri
Here is a better portrait of the artist as unbelievably cool

Maggie Balistreri is a namer, taxonomist, and extraordinary author of THE EVASION-ENGLISH DICTIONARY. Hey folks, it's a must-have for these difficult times. So buy several copies and give to everyone you know. I did.

Thank you, Maggie.

I almost always ask people what was the why now moment for writing a book, but it seems like you have timed this one perfectly. Care to talk about this?

I wanted the book published before books are banned.

Tell us about what you call “evasion English.”

Evasive English = “I say this but I mean that” or “I say this because I mean that.” It’s the difference between my speech bubble and my thought bubble. I identify terms that help us avoid the intimacy of a direct statement; or words that, like icebergs, have unspoken depths of meaning.

Another way to think of the term “Evasion-English” is through its anagrams, which range from identification to interpretation:

      heaviness lingo
      gosh, insane evil
      asshole veining
      legion vanishes
      eases living, hon

Phrases that “lead to what we really mean” is also revolutionary, and a great way to decode politicians, I think. Should we be speaking up more about this when we encounter it? I wish we all would.

Some evasions intend to spare someone else’s feelings. Other evasions are revolting manipulations. Some of the book is descriptive, and some is prescriptive according to my whim and fancy. It’s really choose-your-own-adventure when it comes to speaking up or modifying your own speech. I’m fascinated to hear which words annoy you.

I don’t take my own advice. The whole “I don’t know = no” entry (“They want to stay here with us? for the week? Huh. I don’t know”) was me Thursday. Sometimes I speak up and sometimes I fuck up.

Jason Bateman was in a movie with Katharine Hepburn in the 90s. Yup. Anyway here’s how he described her: “She only wore white Reebok high-tops, so for a dress-up scene, she’d just pull black socks over them. That’s what she was like. She hit ‘Fuck it’ a long time before I met her.”

We’ve all hit “Fuck it” by now. The time is shorter now for us to not speak up when it comes to larger, political discussions. And people are speaking up, thankfully. I could not bother living if I didn’t have the sanity check of hearing and reading so many and such quick interpretations of evasive language from public figures, more and more every day, getting back to your point about the timing of this book to coincide with the dismantling of wor(l)ds and meaning.

We see tweets with edit marks and “fixed it for you” or “you misspelled xxx” with the translation added. All of this is a reaction to evasion and bullshit and shows how many people are for holding people accountable for their words. Who could have predicted that editing marks would emerge from behind the curtains as much as they have and that the dictionary would be as cited as it is outside of the uninspired opening sentence to a class assignment.

Editing, correcting, rewriting, interpreting, translating, and analyzing are different ways to care and pay attention, and if anything can get us out of this mess of the boast of unpreparedness; the reliance on off-the-cuff bumbling; wielding power instead of employing authority, it’ll be those caring actions. Keep hitting pause and saying, “Wait, wha? That doesn’t make sense. I don’t get it because it’s not gettable.”

How did you come up with the terms that confuse meaning—like actually, but, whatever—What was your whole writing/research process like? What surprised or disturbed you?

The book comprises 2 types of entries: taxonomies of alternately maligned and defended words (like, actually, so, sorry, whatever) and terms with suggested translations that I present as equations (if = that as in “I’m sorry if I hurt you”; but = bu(llshi)t as in “We see the merit in this word and thank you for sharing it with us... but we have decided not to accept it for publication”).

For each entry, I wrote example sentences to illustrate the nuances or to show how the substituted term could work. Those illustration sentences are from my imagination informed by years of hearing and saying stuff. With only two exceptions in the book, I didn’t include a quote verbatim. I wrote the sentences by improvising monologues or dialogues, sometimes out loud like a lunatic until I got the characterization they way I wanted it; and then selecting the sentences that show the term’s range.

An entry comes together with four ingredients: the term up at the top, a one-sentence interpretation or definition, an intro, and then example sentences.

I write down everything, starting in my Notes app. I have a good memory. Don’t sit behind me in a restaurant.

I just looked at my Notes app and see that many of my notes tend to be:
      one term at the top with a question mark (disrupt; would; empower)
      a sentence that caught my big grandpa ear (“I’d be great at maintaining a double life”)
      a quote, especially if there’s a universal rejection of or love for it (“The future is female”)
      a beautiful typo (after a breakup, I got some forwarded mail on which someone had scrawled “doesn’t love here anymore”)
      a fact that feels like a metaphor (“the fruit of the medlar is edible only in its decaying state”)

I use a spreadsheet to gather the bits and move things around to see what hangs together. When two cards are a match in the big game of Concentration I got going on in my head, I get to it.

What surprised me:
      The first ten terms I wrote about when I started this expanded edition, the terms that got me thinking about updating the book, didn’t make the cut.
      I’ve somewhat warmed to like and so.
      The same familiarity did not breed consent for some of the other terms. The more time I spent improvising with the word actually, the less I could stand hearing it.
      Wow, people are still getting up there and saying “I’m sorry if” in their public apologies even though it has been received warmly and without criticism exactly never times.

What disturbed me:
It disturbs me to think that some people are more disturbed by the word fuck than by the deed of fucking people over.

What comes across so clearly is your absolute love and devotion to language. Where did this come from? Were you a little girl who loved the dictionary?

You got it. I’m first generation and mine is the first in my family to get formal schooling. My parents worked as kids. How they would have loved a childhood in school instead of working. 

their lives:my life::Dickensian:Dickens

We spoke Italian and Sicilian at home, English outside of the home. I was hyper aware of words-as-words because there was a ton of code shifting needed, always.

We were working class. I didn’t know anyone who had many things. The school library was everything. At home we had: the dictionary, an encyclopedia (which my brother read straight through like a gripping serialized novel), and an encyclopedia of the natural world. I mistyped that as “natural word.” I flipped through the dictionary over and over, and here I am all these years later a namer and taxonomist.

I also had a magical teacher in elementary school, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. She flipped the switch from black and white to color. She wasn’t even my teacher, but she ran the library, so we were pals. She used odd words, old-timey slang, and idiomatic expressions. She was wildly funny, and she had a great reading voice. She was the first English speaker I heard doing something with words, for kicks. I wanted a piece of that action. She said, “Read the dictionary. It’s all there, knucklehead.”

 The dictionary is the great equalizer. It’s the democratic artifact, attending equally to every word. Its organization and presentation are marked by a judicious leaving alone; there’s very little in a dictionary by way of editorializing aside from the occasional indication that a word is “obsolete” or “considered vulgar.” Mostly, it leaves it up to you. And by it I mean the greatest humans we have, lexicographers.

Without the context of “This word is on your reading level; that one is not,” I got to decide for myself, sometimes regrettably. In 3rd grade, a classmate asked if I liked fresh figs. I started from Italian and found what I thought was the right cognate. I said, “perforce!” The schoolyard record skipped. The wilds of Brooklyn let me know: “nope.”

As kids, we didn’t have children’s versions of things, whether the things were objects or realities. “That’s the stove and this is a saw; attenzione (sta’ttendu).” I was welcome to sit with my mother and her friends as they discussed how things were, for women, for immigrants, for people without a lot of money. They discussed reproductive health and family scandals and tended to reenact rather than sum up conversations; no idea why I remember that but it’s still my preferred way to hear you tell a story. Don’t come at me with, “I met with Gretchen. She said okay.” No. Act it out for me complete with different voices, please.

I was the neighborhood writer and translator. Letters and phone calls to insurance companies and union reps; drafting a last will and testament. I translated medical information, which still gives me the sweats to think about because the stakes were so high.

Thrillingly questionable unrestricted access to the adult world, for which I’m mostly grateful.

 I also think that not only is this book so helpful with political discourse going on today, but how can it not help us to be wiser, better, more open people?

Fingers crossed. If I use my own suggestions in the book and replace this term with that one, an unavoidable consequence will be intimacy, so it is about being more open. And when I use an evasion, I can consider how the unspoken meaning made you feel. Am I up for it?

What’s obsessing you now and why? (Besides language, of course!)

This morning:
Would codpieces not make men more vulnerable? How would that change everything or anything? Can we try it for 50 years? And which of my neighbors is not breaking down their boxes even though “we’re living in a society”?

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

“If you were to index essential human qualities, what would be the top-tier term with the greatest number of subentries?”

Oof. That’s a tough question, Caroline. I’ll go with:
I considered
...but I think I can subsume compassion under imagination. No surprise a conservative group wanted to ban the word imagination from a children’s book.