Friday, April 12, 2019

The amazing Marcia Butler talks about twins, writing, being a master of many art forms, identity, New Yorkers, and her wonderful racking-up-the-raves novel PICKLE'S PROGRESS


Marcia Butler is amazing. She's not only one of my favorite people on the planet, but she's been a  professional musician, interior designer, documentary filmmaker, and author. As an oboist, the New York Times has hailed her as a “first rate artist.” During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer/pianist Keith Jarrett. Her interior designs projects have been published in numerous shelter magazines and range up and down the East coast, from NYC to Boston, to Miami. The Creative Imperative, her documentary film exploring the essence of creativity, will release in Spring 2019. Marcia’s nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, was one of the Washington Post’s “top ten noteworthy moments in classical music in 2017”. She was chosen as 2017 notable debut author in 35 OVER 35. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today, Aspen Ideas Magazine, Catapult, Bio-Stories and others. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She was a writing fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and a writer in residence at The Betsy Hotel. 

Her new novel PICKLE'S PROGRESS is astonishing. Don't believe me? Just look at these raves:

“A suicidal jump off the George Washington Bridge sets the lives of four New Yorkers careening out of control in the mordant debut novel by memoirist Butler…. With detached wit and restrained horror at her characters’ behavior, Butler explores the volatile nature of identity in this provocative novel.” —Booklist

“Identical twins Stan and Pickle McArdle live tangled lives, fulfilling expectations imposed on them in childhood by their controlling mother… Butler’s debut is character-driven…the book starts with a crash then slows as the characters’ personalities develop. In this study of how childhood experiences shape perception, and how deception keeps people caged, Butler shows that nothing need be set in stone.”—Kirkus Reviews

“The four main characters in Pickle’s Progress seem more alive than most of the people we know in real life because their fears and desires are so nakedly exposed. That’s because their creator, Marcia Butler, possesses truly scary X-ray vision and intelligence to match.” —Richard Russo

“Oh, what a pickle Pickle’s Progress puts us in–a duke’s mixture of villainy, deceit, betrayal, and, Lord help us, romantic love–all of it rendered in prose as trenchant as it is supple. Clearly, Ms. Butler is in thrall to these fascinatingly flawed characters (us, but for time, circumstance, and bank account), and by, oh, page 15 you will be, too. Let’s hope this is just the first of many more necessary novels to come.” —Lee K. Abbott, author of All Things, All at Once

“How does healing happen? Sometimes in quirkier ways than you might expect. Butler’s blazingly original novel debut (her memoir The Skin Above My Knee made me want to run away and join an orchestra) is a quintessential moving, witty, New York City story about the love we think we want, the love we get, and the love we deserve, all played out with symphonic grace. I loved it.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

“Like the first icy slug of a top-shelf martini, Marcia Butler’s debut novel is a refreshing jolt to the senses. Invigorating, sly and mordantly funny, Pickle’s Progress offers a comic look at the foibles of human nature and all the ways love can seduce, betray and, ultimately, sustain us.” —Jillian Medoff, bestselling author of This Could Hurt

“Marcia Butler’s debut novel Pickle’s Progress is funny, sharp, totally original, and completely engrossing. It joins the pantheon of great New York novels. I loved every page.” —Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of The Stars In Our Eyes

“Marcia Butler’s debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is a fierce and glorious NY story. Written in brave and startling prose, Butler has written a fast-paced tale of identical twin brothers and the women in their orbit, who collide and dance in a haunting tale of tragedy, passion and love. Throughout this surprising work, we see NY in all its beauty and raunchiness, with a finely tuned soundtrack, so that the city itself becomes an integral part of the complex and compelling plot. Rare is the brilliant memoirist who also writes fiction with the same sure hand, but Marcia Butler is such an author.” —Patty Dann, bestselling author of Mermaids

“Pickle’s Progress is a wild trip into the heart of New York City with wonderful, complicated, highly functioning alcoholics as tour guides. Marcia Butler’s characters are reflections of the city they live in: beautiful but flawed, rich but messed up, dark and hostile – but there’s love there, if you know where to find it. Butler’s sharp, artistic sensibilities shine through here, and the result is a brutal, funny story of family, regret, and belonging.” —Amy Poeppel, author of Limelight

“New York City is all about three things: Money, Real Estate and Sex. In Pickle’s Progress, Marcia Butler has neatly tied them all together by focusing on one scarily dysfunctional family. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shake your head, but you’ll keep turning those pages to find out what happens to Karen, Stan, Junie and Pickle in this riveting, dramatic version of musical chairs.” —Charles Salzberg, author of Second Story Man and the Shamus Award nominated Henry Swann series.

 I cannot thank you enough, Marcia!
A Conversation with
Marcia Butler
Author of
Pickle’s Progress

Q) What inspired you to write this story about twins and complicated family relationships? How does their relationship exemplify the themes or messages you wanted to examine?

A) A few things came together for me when I began this novel. The surface inspiration was a set of identical twin sisters I knew from college days. One of them had just become engaged and confided in me that she was worried that her fiancé was attracted to her sister, who appeared virtually indistinguishable. She summoned the courage to ask him and he denied any attraction whatsoever. She felt reassured and relived. (They are still married!) Yet, I remained suspect; how could he not be attracted to the sister? This notion became the territory which I then explored more deeply in my novel regarding nature vs. nurture in family of origin.

Another influence inserted itself into Pickle McArdle’s character and story line in an almost stealth way. I recognized this only after the book was complete. This is an example of how the author will most assuredly insert some aspect of herself because she is writing from her personal psychological prism, and cannot help doing so. I came from a large family with five children and was always painfully aware that I was not the favored child. And it became my childhood mission to first, somehow understand why I was so low in the pecking order, and second, to try and be a “better” child so I might float to the top. That never happened. But this imprint of the child’s struggle to please the parent who could never be pleased, landed squarely in my novel.

My protagonist, Pickle McArdle, is the least favored twin. Growing up, his mother prefers his brother, Stan, in the most appalling and damaging of ways. Pickle bears these scars well into his adult life and the impact of this neglect informs the relationships he has with women. That being said, the bond of identical twins is significant. In spite of their disparate upbringings, the McArdle twins still seem to pull strength and purpose from each other. The deep connection of twin-ship is juxtaposed with a mother’s effort to destroy her least favored son. My novel watches this rub play out as Pickle tries to get the love he never had.

Q) Your main characters Pickle and Stan are wonderfully imperfect and what Richard Russo described as “more alive than most of the people we know in real life.” What is your approach to writing characters that are nuanced and deeply human?

A) It will become obvious to anyone who reads my novel that I am not afraid for my characters to behave badly, hurt each other, and most importantly, hurt themselves. A lot of mischief goes on and I was comfortable allowing my characters a wide berth to behave in ways that defy some manner of “literary logic.” Because real life is, and always will be, bigger and larger and stranger than most fiction. Based on my observations of people throughout my life, where much behavior was not logical, I gave myself permission to let the stops out with regard to recklessness. It doesn’t mean my characters are bad people. Rather, what I hope comes through is that they are damaged souls. And this contrary notion – the surface action and the underlying reason for that action – has always been an aspect of how I see people reveal their true vulnerability. As my characters take risks and surprise the reader, they are exposing themselves in ways that raise the stakes of their lives and this presses the plot forward to an unimaginable conclusion.

Q) What was the experience like when you made the shift from writing personal nonfiction to creating fictional characters and the world they live in?

A) Freedom. That pretty much sums up the overwhelming sensation I had when writing about people I could make up and bring to life, rather than tacking strictly to the facts and people in my own life as I had for my memoir. The characters in my novel are completely unfamiliar to me and I was happy to meet them and eager to see where they would take me. With that in mind, I had no plot laid out beforehand and I let Pickle drive the bus. While writing this novel, I had the distinct sensation that I was sight-reading a piece of music I’d never heard before. So, the discovery of the story unfolded as if the notes were being played for the very first time. Risky and wonderful. I should have been afraid – but I’ve always been a bit of a renegade and have taken many chances throughout my life with regard to how my creative expression has emerged.

Q) What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? What was the most fun?

A) Learning the craft of novel-writing while I wrote the novel, was surely a challenge. In all art forms one needs to understand and perfect the rules before one can break them. Though, I took some comfort in the fact that I’d written a memoir and even in that context, the author still needs to fashion a really compelling narrative. This is my first novel so I proceeded by trial and error – almost like feeling my way along a dark tunnel. That wasn’t an altogether bad feeling, though, because I’m old enough to know how to tolerate the discomfort of difficulty and frequent defeat. And the fun came, ironically, in the exact same way! What a great thing to navigate a new art form and come out the other side, so much richer for the experience. I did this thing – a novel! And looking back, I still have a hard time believing it!

Q) What is the significance of the book’s title? How was it chosen?

A) The title, which is meant to be ironic, came to me fairly early on. I love alliteration, so I stayed with the P’s. Pickle is working on all cylinders to manipulate all the people in his life in order to get what he thinks he wants: true love. Yet, with all of his shenanigans, he’s actually running in place. It isn’t until the very end of the novel that Pickle realizes the truth: his heart’s desire was always there, right in front of him. It’s a kind of “no place like home” moment.

Q) You are an accomplished artist of many mediums. How has your experience in music, interior design, and film informed your writing?

A) Past artistic careers have set up an architecture of aesthetic discernment that informed my memoir and now, my novel-writing. My journey as a writer in many ways feels intuitive, but I know that is not really the case. Music, art and design, and film making all provide a foundation which I’ve funneled into my writing. All art forms are vehicles for storytelling and exploring the human condition. The transaction of the artist to the receiver is universal: The artist creates. The art is then in the world. The world then experiences the gift of the art. With this in the forefront of my mind, I can explore freely because I understand the nature of making art in the world. I try not to think about exact influence because I consider life to be a continuum of experience. Everything is connected. Everything.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The brilliant Myla Goldberg talks about art, ownership, mothers and daughter and her astonishing new novel, FEAST YOUR EYES--and, oh yes, why chocolate must have 65% cacao to be even considered edible.

THE book
Portrait of the genius 

You know that anything that Myla Goldberg writes is going to be brilliant, evocative, and a book you will inhabit. FEAST YOUR EYES, about art, mothers and daughters, and how far we can push those boundaries, is both structurally innovative, and also deeply, deeply moving. And yes, a little disturbing, too, but that is a plus. I'm not the only one to love this novel. Take a look at these raves:

A mother-daughter story, an art-monster story, and an exciting structural gambit.” —Lit Hub

“From Bee Season (2000) onward, Goldberg has portrayed girls and young women with fluent sensitivity. In her brilliantly structured fourth novel, she revisits the theme again, in the story of photographer Lillian Preston, who, chronically shy yet determined, flees Cleveland for New York in 1953 at 17 and becomes an accidental single mother at 19... This is a novel of infinite depth, of caring authenticity both intimate and societal, of mothers and daughters, art and pain, and transcendent love.”
—Booklist, STARRED

“A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.”
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED

“Goldberg evocatively profiles a brilliant woman whose identities—as woman, artist, and mother—are inseparable from one another... a memorable portrait of one artist’s life.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Reading Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes reminded me of other unlikely adventure stories, like Hillary’s summit of the Himalayas, or Shackleton’s return from Antarctica. Only here the human constraints are still more challenging: making art as a single mother in a twentieth century dominated, and distorted, by men. This is an unflinching, deeply moving portrait of the artist, and a bravura performance in and of itself. I loved this book.”
—Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

 Myla Goldberg is is a bestselling novelist, winner of the Borders New Voices Prize, a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the NYPL Young Lions award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover award, and recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation grant.  She writes and teaches in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband Jason Little and their two daughters.

Thank you so much for being here, Myla. 

I always think that writers write the books that truly haunt them. What happened that made you know that this is the novel you had to write next?

What happened to me was children.  As I struggled to be the mother I wanted to be, while simultaneously struggling to be the writer I wanted to be, I found myself wondering if there were any examples of excellent artists who were also excellent, engaged parents.  Is it possible to be both or does one ambition require compromising the other?

I absolutely love the structure of the novel, how it pulls you in through catalogue entries. I never realized how brilliantly a story could be told that way.  What were some of the triumphs in working this way—and some of the writerly pitfalls for you?

I love coming across a book that explores a story in an unexpected way, so playing with a new approach to story was exhilarating.  I get tired of telling stories that toddle along all conventional-like: I get bored.  But, oh, the pitfalls!  Trying to keep the entries consistently relevant was hard – how to tie the photo into what was happening in the larger story without it seeming forced?  How to make the reader consistently care about a photo when exciting and distracting things were happening elsewhere?  Then there were all the first-person voices: I hate it when I read a novel that proports to be told from several different characters’ perspectives, and instead all I get are very slight variations on the author.  After a while, I got tired of complaining about this and decided I could retain complaining rights only if I tried it myself.  So this book is me, trying. 

 What startled you the most about your research, and was there anything that made you rethink your plot?

Reading about abortion in the pre-Roe v. Wade era was more than startling: it was horrifying.  I knew, intellectually, that it was difficult to obtain an abortion at that time, but I had no concept of what it actually entailed.  What I learned about the paucity of information and lack of access to birth control, as well as the dangers and risks of finding and getting an abortion left an indelible mark on the story.  Another biggie was what I learned about women and New York City’s criminal justice system in the early 60s.  I modeled Lillian’s experience of jail on the experiences of women in the only dedicated women’s prison in the city at that time, a prison that was torn down several years later after the scale of the human rights violations perpetrated inside its walls was revealed.     

Do you think that all art has a cost? And that everything is art?     

Every choice we make has a cost. One of the things that scares me most about these times is our collective inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that.

I have to ask because I am suffering over titling my novel, how do you come up with your titles? This one Feast Your Eyes, is particularly great.   
Oy, titles.  This one took me many years to stumble over.  Previously, my titles always came quickly, so not having a title for this book for so long really threw me.  Finally, I sat down to read it when I was in editing mode, keeping an eye out for phrases that resonated for the larger book.  “Feast your eyes” are the words Lillian’s daughter uses to start her first catalog entry, and as soon as I saw them, I knew.
What’s obsessing you now and why?

The arbitrary nature of our country’s immigration system. The rules that govern if someone can stay or go, and the subjective nature of those rules’ interpretation by a judge are mind-boggling.  There is nothing constitutional about it, and it shames me that the ready answer to that observation is that the constitution is only meant to apply to citizens.

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

Bare minimum is 65% cacao.  Anything less doesn’t taste like chocolate to me.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

A fierce eloquent look at Hawai‘i that goes beyond the resorts. Liz Plato talks about this, love, loss, and more in her racking-up-the-raves collection of essays, Volcanoes Palm Trees & Privilege

Liz Prato is the author of the short story collection, Baby's on Fire and editor of The Night, and the Rain, and the River: 22 Stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in dozens of literary journals and magazines, including Hayden's Ferry Review, Carolina Quarterly, Baltimore Review, The Rumpus, Salon, Hunger Mountain, and ZYZZYVA. She is the Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press.

A Tennessee Williams Scholar at the 2012 Sewanee Writers Conference and a frequent attendee of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, Liz has been privileged to study with Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Charles D'Ambrosio, Anthony Doerr, Jim Shepard, and many other talented authors.
Liz lives with her furry feline friends and her best friend/husband, who is a bookseller, musician, and writer in Portland, Oregon.

Her latest book Volcanoes Palm Trees & Privilege offers an incredible journey, as well as a deeply personal tale of love and love. Here's just some of the raves:

“Liz Prato’s profound meditations on place dislocate and then relocate understandings of Hawaiʻi from the point of view of the non-native visitor. This book is a love letter to the land and people of Hawaiʻi, with a keen awareness that some people must let their story of this place go. Breathtaking."
 —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and Book of Joan 

"Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege is not only a breezy and appealing primer on how to negotiate both Hawai’i in all its astonishing variety and the enormous advantages and nagging burdens of privilege; it’s also a moving memoir about familial loss and the reconstitution of an essential version of the self.  Liz Prato is beautifully smart about how disempowerment works, and how to combat it." 
 —Jim Shepard, author of The Book of Aron, and The Tunnel at the End of the Light

"In  Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege we witness a deeply personal tale of love, loss, and honest accounting as the author comes to understand her relationship with the islands through the crucible of family.”
     Kristiana Kahakauwila, author of 
          This Is Paradise

“A brilliant meditation on cheeseburgers in paradise, Liz Prato’s fearless and tender investigation of our complex relationship with Hawai‘i will blow your mind. Hula dancers, aloha shirts, surfing, and the idyllic tropical vacation will never look the same. It’s a reckoning whose time is long overdue.”                   
       —Karen Karbo, author of In Praise of Difficult Women, and the Kick-Ass Women series

"Prato’s work stays winningly informal and idiosyncratic throughout and . . . coalesces into an intriguing and informative journey through the 50th state." --Publishers Weekly

I always want to know what is haunting a writer into writing the book that they write? Why write about Hawaii now?

When I first started writing about it, there was no sense of why now? I started writing about Hawai‘i because I love it and am obsessed with it and could only hope it would matter to other people in some way. But since I started writing the book, we’ve become way more conscious of issues of privilege, and of native people—their rights, their land, their lives, and how colonialism continues to try to steal their culture. Hawai‘i also keeps showing up in the headlines for varied reasons: because Trump’s international relations made it necessary to implement a monthly test of an air attack warning signal (and the unfortunate “oops” that happened when it was triggered a year ago); how the 9th Circuit Court in Hawai‘i has made significant rulings against Trump; how the massive destruction of last year’s eruption of Kilauea reminds us of the ferocity of nature.

I happen to love Hawaii, too, but Oahu, not Maui, which to us, was a very different, experience. And it’s funny, you came to understand the islands through your family—so did we. Driving through Maui exhausted us, and the beaches disappointed us, but Oahu brought us together in one terrifyingly exhilarating swim under a waterfall. How do you think nature does that alchemy? And why Hawaii particularly?

Wow, the swim under the waterfall story is cool! I think part of the alchemy is because in Hawai‘i, you’re always as close to nature as you are to human-made structures. Even if you’re in the middle of downtown Honolulu, you’re two miles from the waves and currents of the Pacific Ocean, and three miles from the jungle interior of O‘ahu. You’re surrounded by water, and how far you can travel is constrained by it. Tsunami warning signals are tested every month. Everywhere you look are volcanoes, or proof of volcanoes. You’re constantly reminded that nature is bigger and more powerful than we are, and that you’re somewhat at its mercy on this isolated archipelago. I think that brings us closer to that organic piece of us—of what we are made of, of where we come from—and we also realize that we need each other to survive.

Being a white tourist in a land that has been spoiled by white people—tourists and colonists—is unsettling to read about. Can you talk about this please?

It became the question I couldn’t ignore. If you put on blinders and don’t look beyond the resort you’re staying in, and don’t read the newspapers or watch the news, you could go to Hawai‘i and not think about it. And there might be something about how often I’ve been there, that each time I wanted to experience Hawai‘i differently and wanted to learn more, that opened me up to how Hawaiians were talking about  these issues. They were talking about how their land was stolen, their language was pushed to the margins, their people were killed, their monarchy was deposed by a coup orchestrated by the U.S., and how modern Native Hawaiians have higher rates of poverty, unemployment, houselessness and serious health issues than their non-Native counterparts. Oh, but I’ll just go lie by the pool that uses 500,000 gallons of water and order drinks from someone who has to work three jobs in order to afford the exorbitant cost of living in Hawai‘i and just be la-la-la about it? No, I’m going to approach the land and people of Hawai‘i with more respect.

I get that people who are paying thousands of dollars for a vacation don’t want their paradise goggles to get fogged by such complicated issues. It’s not a lot of fun. But the idea that we are entitled to fun without being interrupted by the realities of how we impact other people and places is a very basis of privilege. I don’t believe anyone should feel ashamed of or apologize for whatever privilege they’ve been granted in life. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it, either. Earth is one big interconnected organism, and how we behave—whether at home or on vacation—has an effect on it. We have the choice to make a positive impact or a negative one. It really doesn’t take that much to be respectful. And if anyone needs a “but how does this benefit me?” reason, then there’s this: It helps us see and feel how we’re all connected. It allows us to have gratitude, and enhances our satisfaction.

Did writing about a place when you came back home make you rethink what you had experienced at all? How so?

Oh my god yes, so much! And let me tell you, it was a long look back. When I was visiting as a teenager I didn’t think about Native Hawaiians and their land at all. I had local friends, so it’s not like I was completely insulated from the realities of living in Hawai‘i, but my entire understanding of Hawai‘i still sprung from the expectation that they wanted and needed white people to be there. That we had a right to be there (insert giant eye-roll here). My dad was a white mainlander who bought and developed land on Maui, and I didn’t question it. But even by the time I was in my early twenties, my brother and I were feeling weirdly dislocated by the massive development going on in South Maui. Beaches that we used to go to with our local friends were being built on with condos and hotels. And the hotels were really glitzy, these fantasy destination resorts that looked like they belonged in Las Vegas, but didn’t seem to have much to do with Hawai‘i. But I don’t think we had any sense of the way our family was complicit in that happening. It wasn’t until the last five years that it kind of hit me: oh, my dad was the bad guy. He was the guy contributing to the people getting further from the ‘āina (the land). So, it didn’t make me just rethink my current relationship with Hawai‘i, but the entire genesis of my love for it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

GenX. How did we get here? What happened to those of us who didn’t survive? Just from my tiny private high school, I have personal connections to a lot of stories that reflect so many of the current socio-political issues we’re grappling with. A high school friend came from this liberal peace-loving family, but her younger brother became a skinhead and died in a dramatic police shoot out. Another friend was studying abroad in London in 1988, and a dozen of her friends—including her best friend—were on the Pan Am flight that was blown up over Lockerbie Scotland. One of my best friends from high school was a total hippie—we participated in peace demonstrations together—and now he’s a staunch conservative. And it was recently revealed that my high school had hired a teacher back in the eighties who was a sexual-offender in all the previous prep schools he taught at, but no one in authority ever shared that information. They just “passed the trash” to other schools, and he was allowed to go on abusing teen girls.  It’s all part of the same puzzle, so I’m exploring those stories in essays and (an attempt at) a novel.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
[my mind is so completely wiped out from AWP that I can’t think of a thing!]

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Need a funnybone boost that actually might change your life? The divine Mary Laura Philpott talks about why we're all a little out of sync, why being happy all the time is not the answer, how midlife crisis can strike anytime, and more in her wise and hilarious essay collection with the great title, I MISS YOU WHEN I BLINK

Mary Laura Philpott is totally cool. I mean, really cool. She's so enthusiastic about books, so warm and funny, you really want her to be your best friend. And her book, I Miss You When I Blink is phenomenal, the kind of book you want to give to all your friends--and your enemies, too, because it will surely make them better people. And isn't the cover the most wonderful cover you've ever seen?

But I'm not the only one raving about this book. I Miss You When I Blink was and is:
*A Most Anticipated Book of 2019 by BuzzFeed, The Millions, Bustle, HelloGiggles, and Lit Hub
*A Best New Book of Spring 2019 according to Esquire, Southern Living, and Chicago Review of Books. * *And #1 on the IndieNext List by booksellers across the country.

Mary Laura Philpott is also the author and illustrator of a little humor book called Penguins with People Problems; a writer whose work appears in publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, O The Oprah Magazine, and others; the founding editor of MUSING, the digital magazine published by Parnassus Books; and an Emmy-award winning co-host of A Word on Words, a literary interview show on Nashville Public Television. And you really want to follow her on instagram, too. 

I Miss You When I Blink has been called a pep talk from a beloved sister (which I loved). Who gives YOU the pep talks you need, besides yourself?

Pep talks are everywhere, if you look for them — especially in nature. Plants and animals are all about persistence and resilience. There’s a reason they make motivational posters with pictures of flowers growing out of cracks in sidewalks and caterpillars turning into butterflies. You want a pep talk? Go outside.

But also: I’m not one bit ashamed to text someone and say, “Help, I need a pep talk.” Luckily, I have friends who are great pep-talkers.

I loved these lines: “Maybe we all walk around assuming everyone is interpreting the world the same way we are, and being surprised when they aren’t, and that’s the loneliness and confusion of the human experience in a nutshell…” Can you talk a bit about this please?

Sure! That’s from the “Lobsterman” essay, in which I give repeated examples of getting things wrong — all the times when everyone around me in school understood the instructions, and I veered off and did some weird other thing. That quote also speaks to an idea that comes up again and again in the book, which is this: So often, we go around thinking, “No one understands me,” or “I don’t understand that person,” when really, it’s just that we’re all a little out of sync with one another. We go through different phases and experiences at different times in life, and my frame of reference may not be the same as yours in a particular moment. It can be so isolating — and unnecessarily so.

Paradoxically, both these things are true: We can never understand anyone else, because everyone is different. And we can always understand each other, because we’re all at least a little bit the same.

I also loved that you made note of the fact that depression and midlife crisis can hit at any time, and that we all waste a whole lot of time trying to craft that perfect existence. I also feel that social media doesn’t help, because everyone seems happy, celebrating, gorgeous and etc. Plus, what really is the perfect existence—and does that perfection change through time? Do you think that maybe the goal of happy, happy, all the time, should be replaced with content sometimes?

Oh, yeah. If you’re aiming for “happy all the time,” you’re doomed never to reach your goal. For me, the shift that had to happen — and that still has to happen periodically,  because I’m always having to remind myself — is that I can hold room for multiple feelings and states at once. Somehow it became hard-wired into my brain over time that I couldn’t let myself be happy until I had every single thing in my life exactly right (kind of like you can’t have dessert until you eat dinner or you can’t play outside until your room is clean).

If you operate according to that rule in the real world where it’s impossible to get every single thing done and correct, then you never let yourself be happy. I had to learn how to say, “Some things in my life are going great right now, and others are in-progress, and a few others are a bit of a mess, and that’s a balance I can live with.”

Tell me about your writing process. Did you have a-ha moments while writing these essays? Do you know what you are going to say or does it seem like a gift from those pesky muses?

I don’t know what I’m writing until I’ve written it. That’s not to say I sit down in front of a blank screen and place my fingers over the keyboard and wait to be surprised by witchy magic (I wish). But what typically happens is that I intend to write one thing, and in the process of exploring that topic, I find my way to something else. Sometimes I change my own mind about something by writing about it. That’s what happened in “Wonder Woman,” an essay toward the beginning of I Miss You When I Blink. I started out thinking I would write about how this one formative experience with my mother made me the perfectionist that I am, but as I wrote, I found myself asking and answering questions that led me to a different conclusion.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m on book tour, so at the moment I’m obsessed with packing and schedules. Efficiency! I crave it. Some people have dreams of making a billion dollars or having their face on the cover of a magazine… My greatest career dream is just to reach the point where someone actually goes along with me on book tour, so I get where I’m going without worrying.

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

I would never tell you what you should do, Caroline! You’re just right. But if you want to know my favorite thing to make for brunch… I’ll tell you: a dutch baby. It’s just a giant pancake. How can it go wrong??

A young Russian exchange student in America tries to save his troubled brother back home, who's been condemned for a murder. Come on, don't you have to pick up Lydia Fitzpatrick's amazing debut, LIGHTS ALL NIGHT LONG, immediately?

Lights All Night Long is about a young Russian exchange student in America, consumed with his troubled brother back home, who may or may not have committed a murder. About brotherhood, country, belonging and not belonging, and so much more, this is truly one of my favorite books of the year. And I'm not the only one to think so:

 "Beyond the brothers’ crystalline characterizations, Fitzpatrick gifts her intriguing debut with elegant prose, affecting images, and rich settings.”—Booklist (starred review)

“This vivid coming-of-age novel spools out an engrossing mystery amid a tender story about family ties and adopted homes.” — Esquire

“A poised, graceful literary debut… An absorbing tale imparted with tenderness and compassion.”— Kirkus

“Fitzpatrick’s remarkable debut novel is a coming-of-age narrative interwoven with a gripping mystery.” — Shelf Awareness

“A glittering debut. . . . The murder mystery is intricate and well-crafted, but the highlight is the relationship between the two brothers—the shy brainiac and the charming addict—and in the smoldering, seething resentment felt by young people. This is a heartbreaking novel about the lengths to which people go to escape their own pain, and the prices people are willing to pay to alleviate the suffering of their loved ones.”—Publishers Weekly

 Lydia Fitzpatrick’s work has appeared in the The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, One Story, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, a fiction fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and a recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant. She graduated from Princeton University and received an MFA from the University of Michigan. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters.   

 I'm so thrilled to host Lydia here. Thank you, Lydia

 I always feel that writers are haunted into writing their novels. Were you? What was haunting you?

I love the way you put that—I do often write from personal fears, but there’s something a little gentler in thinking of it as a “haunting.” In my short stories, the specific fear is usually pretty easy to pinpoint. I wrote one story, “Safety,” in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; I’d just had my eldest daughter, and I was consumed with both a desire to protect her and a dawning realization of how increasingly impossible that would be.

The fear at the center of Lights is a little more amorphous, but I think it actually has its roots in the same idea. My father died when I was twelve, and I was obsessed with protecting my remaining family—my mom and my brother—even though I knew I was pretty powerless to do so. I remember reciting these epic incantations for their safety every night. I’d list threats, like by naming them I could dispel them, and I’d worry that if I got a word wrong or left out a phrase, something would happen to them and it would be my fault. Nothing did happen to them (thank God, knock on wood), but this devotion and the fear that is its underbelly formed the root of Ilya’s character.

I love the whole idea of Ilya, an exchange student, especially a Russian one (my grandparents were Russian!) And this is so much a novel about the exchange of cultures—the gold ring of America and the tiny Russian town that puts Ilya’s brother in prison. Tell me about the research you did, please.

My mother is a Russian historian who lived and studied in Russia during the Cold War, and when I was little we hosted two Russian students, who became the most literal inspiration for Ilya. We also traveled to Russia as a family in the mid-‘90s. This was right after Yeltsin’s re-election, and while I knew, in a middle-school civics sort of way, that Russia was in the midst of a transition, I was still shocked by its manifestations. There was a dead body in the courtyard of our apartment building one morning. We used a Geiger counter to measure the radiation in the meat we cooked. In the Izmaylovo market, old men and women sold their old Soviet medals. So there was a lot of heartbreak, but there was also a dynamism and a volume of hope that stuck with me and found its way into Ilya’s story.

That’s a long way of saying that Russia was a presence in my life before the novel was, and my research, at least in the early stages, focused on making sense of, and putting into context, my own experiences there. I read political histories, oral histories, memoirs and newspaper articles about Russia in the ‘90s and 2000s. I went back to Russia with my mom on a research trip. I took Russian language classes and still do, though my Russian remains abysmal—I am no lingual prodigy like Ilya.

So much of this astonishing debut is about family ties, what we owe one another, how we protect ourselves and others, and what we are willing to do for love. Every page felt to me to be fierce with longing. What was it like to write such a novel?

This is a hard one to answer since I haven’t written any other novel! I think when I’m immersed in a story, I move beyond capturing the emotions of a character to a state of experiencing them in concert with him or her. If I’m not putting myself in emotional discomfort (whether its sadness or fear or longing) in the writing, then I’m not putting enough of myself on the page, and I think that manifests as an emotional distance between the reader and the characters. Of course the risk is sentimentality, but of all the sins a writer can commit, that one seems to me the most easily forgiven.

Of course I have to ask about your whole writing process and about being a debut author. What was it like? Did you map everything out? Did you have that elusive and mythological (I’m convinced) Muse on your side? And does having written such an already raved-about debut make it harder or easier to write your next novel?

I wish I could say that I’d mapped Lights out from day one, but for about a year and a half, I wrote in order to try to figure out what I wanted to write about, so the novel had a lot of early incarnations. At one point Sadie was the protagonist—and pregnant. In another version the perspective alternated between Sadie and her mother and her cousin, J.T.

While I’m generally pretty atheistic about the writing process, Ilya’s arrival in the story did feel like a kind of awakening, and his perspective pretty quickly eclipsed the others. Even though my process was incredibly inefficient (and made almost unbearably so because I do a daily revision of everything I’ve written before writing anything new!) I don’t think I could have found the novel in any other way. For me, so much of knowing what the story should focus on and where it should go comes from sensing the energy of my prose as I write it. It’s a little like roaming around with a dowsing rod, waiting for that tell-tale dip.

As for the second novel, Lights consumed my life for a long time, and I’m so excited about it coming out, that for the next few months I’m trying to let myself enjoy the publication process without worrying about when I’ll finish the next one. I sold the second novel based on a screenplay of mine, so the plot’s in place, and I’m hoping that it won’t require quite as much roaming with the dowsing rod as Lights did.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Stacy Kranitz’s photos. The Mueller Report. Deciding what to read next. Belting out “Shallow” on the 101 with my daughters. Alice Munro, forever and always, and George Saunders too. Spicy margaritas. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This squirrel that looks in my bedroom window with a sort of aggressive glint in his (or her) eye. And, at all times—even when I’m singing “Shallow” on the highway—at least a third of my brain is wondering what I’d do if various forms of apocalypse strike, an issue that the current political climate has exacerbated. I’m writing this in bed (see below), and have no fewer than 20 MREs and a dozen Lifestraws directly underneath me, which is somewhat soothing.

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

Where do you write?

In bed. By the time I pick up my kids from school, which is the end of my writing day, there are books strewn all over my quilt, a few coffee mugs on the nightstand, and I’m still in my pajamas. I happen to have no other option (besides the kitchen table, which is always a scene of total domestic chaos), but writing in bed is so incredibly pleasant that I wonder why more people don’t do it.