Friday, October 25, 2019

What do we owe those we love? Jane Bernstein's extraordinary new novel THE FACE TELLS THE SECRET spans generations and continents and she talks about it--and writing, love, and growing up in a household full of shadows.

I admit it. I stalked Jane Bernstein years ago after I read her book Departures, which I was obsessed with. And I tracked her down and wrote to her, and we became friends. Real life friends! She put me at her gorgeous home in Pittsburgh, we've visited here in NYC and if we followed each other's careers any closer, we'd be the same person.

I've loved all her books, and this new one THE FACE TELLS THE SECRET is one of her best. About how responsible we should be to the ones we love, about disability seen from a very different lens, and about love and place and family, it's page-turning and gorgeously written. And I'm not the only one to say so. Take a look here:

 “Reverberating with vivid characters, tempestuous bonds, and poignant moments, The Face Tells the Secret is a contemporary page-turner as haunting as it is humane.”
 Rachel Simon, New York Times bestselling author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl

“Jane Bernstein’s novel is a beautiful, almost balletic exploration of the role of repression across generations. This book asks many questions—about knowledge, forgiveness, disability, the slippery shapes of fear and love—but always through the lived life of its narrator. Her journey into the past and attempts to chart a future had me hooked.”
Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point

“The characters in Jane Bernstein’s expansive and beautiful novel, “The Face Tells the Secret,” are exquisite, complex, real creations. From Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv, they bring us into their lives with depth and honesty. A wonderful book.”
Karen E. Bender, author of Refund, a finalist for the National Book Award

“Who should we care for?” asks Roxanne, the narrator of The Face Tells the Secret. “How much of our lives should we spend looking after others? When do we turn away to protect ourselves?” Jane Bernstein delivers no easy answers in this heartbreaking and, ultimately, heart-mending novel. Rather she explores the complications of human relations in many variations – between mother and child, siblings, man and woman, over long-distances, and in close quarters. This book is about love and life, and absolutely worth reading.
Suzanne Kamata, author of Losing Kei and Indigo Girl

Jane writes fiction, memoir, essays, and screenplays, and in 2018, a picture book, cowritten with her daughter, Charlotte Glynn.  Jane’s books include Bereft – A Sister’s Story, and two memoirs about raising a daughter with intellectual disabilities, Loving Rachel and Rachel in the World.  Jane’s awards include a Fulbright Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Creative Writing. She’s a professor of English and member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, PA and New York City with Jeff, the man, and Rozzie, the dog, both of whom travel well.

Thanks so much for being here, Jane! Only thing better would be sitting across a table from you!

I always think writers are haunted into writing their novels. What was haunting you about this particular one?
This book is very much about ghosts and what it’s like to grow up with parents who cannot talk about the tragedies of the past but who are deeply wounded by these unseen disasters.  Although the events in The Face Tells the Secret are not autobiographical, the themes are ones I can’t escape as a writer.  Like my protagonist, Roxanne, I grew up in a house full of shadows.  In my case, it was the death of my sister, when I was seventeen.  After her murder, my parents did not – could not -- talk about her.

So much of this astonishing novel is about the ways we love—or don’t love, and how loss amplifies that. Could you talk about that please?
There are two kinds of “love” that Roxanne wrestles with.  One has to do with caregiving and responsibility for one’s kin.  How much should she give to the wounded people in her life?  Then there’s romantic love. To paraphrase a question Roxanne asks herself late in the novel: how can you love when you have never been loved yourself?  Roxanne is tender-hearted, but at the start of the novel has been unable to form a romantic relationship with an emotionally stable man.  Her mother, who rarely touched her, rarely had a kind word, was too wounded to love her the way a baby and child should be loved. In the course of the book, she has to learn how to open herself to love and to trust that she can be loved in return.   

You’ve written so many gorgeous books, from memoirs to novels. Do you feel that you are able to build on each previous novel, or is every work a new one?
Oh, I wish I could build on what I’ve written, but I seem unable to fully do that.   I know more about craft than I did when I did as a beginning writer, but that knowledge doesn’t always help in creating a coherent work.  Sometimes it even hinders.  But as you say, we are haunted into writing our books, and so I bumble along.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m finishing a first draft set in in 1972, which begins with the disappearances of a charismatic middle-aged man.  He’s left three women behind – his very young wife, Lindy, who’s the protagonist, his eccentric best friend, and a girl he picked up hitchhiking, who’s pregnant with his child.  For a year, the three live together in Maine. Although I know it’s a tough story to write at this particular period of time, I’m trying to write a nuanced portrait of a charming, immoral, kind of awful man, who also, in major ways transformed the course of my protagonist’s life. The story is framed by Lindy at the present time. (And I loved Cruel, Beautiful World, which is this book’s beautiful stepsister…)

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Who am I reading?  Apart from Caroline Leavitt? I loved The Friend, The Body in Question, The Mars Room. I’ve been teaching lit courses of late and read widely all summer long for whatever theme I choose.  This year it was “Brooklyn.”  My students – men, women, of all ethnicities, mostly computer science or tech majors, all fell in love with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.   I can’t tell you how surprised and delighted I was. They are hungry for great stories.


First, I was addicted to the coffee mints, NeuroMints. Then I began to realize the entrepreneur behind it was also a brilliant prankster artist. So I had to talk to the prodigiously talented Kent Yoshimura here.

It started with Neuromints.

I am totally addicted to coffee and my son showed me an article about Neurogum, which not only had enough caffeine to power the country, but also had L-theanine, which is a natural kind of soother. I bought the gum and mentioned it on Twitter, saying I loved it but wished it wasn't gum--and
Kent Yoshimura reached out to me. "Wanna try the mints?"

He sent me a care package and I began to realize that he was this extraordinary person--not just an entrepreneur, but a fabulous artist, too. He illustrated Master Davey and The Magic Tea House, which was released worldwide at all Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf locations, and his illustrations have traveled across children’s museums throughout the United States. He has been featured on NBC for his large-scale public art pieces, the New York Times for his mural work, and in TIME magazine, Huffington Post, Men's Health, Vice, and NPR for his YouTube videos.

But wait, there's more! As a martial artist, Kent competed internationally, fighting alongside Muay Thai champions in Thailand and serving as a training partner in Judo for Olympic medalists at the Kodokan and the Japanese royal guards within the Imperial Palace.

In 2015, he co-founded Neuro - a functional confectionary brand revolutionizing the consumable supplement space. The product was successfully backed by over 500 people on Indiegogo in less than three days, and has since been featured in publications such as TIME magazine, Dr. Oz, Forbes, FOX News, Food And Wine, The New YorkerBuzzfeed, and Fast Company. It can now be found in over 5000 retail locations nationwide.

Alongside his ventures, Kent currently paints large scale murals as both a freelance artist and a qualified muralist through the Department of Cultural Affairs, and most recently co-designed the immersive retail experience CAMP in New York as well as The Sixth Collection for Jerry Lorenzo's streetwear brand Fear of God.

I'm totally thrilled to know him, and to host him here. Cool has a brand new name, right? Thank you, Kent.

So you do so many things so brilliantly, from art to sculpture, to environments to film to writing. What made you who you are today? Were you always creative as a kid? And what is even more fascinating, is how did you make the turn from art to—well, the art of health—with NeuroMints and NeuroGum?

NeuroGum kept me going through Lisbon all week, which is mostly steep hills and nine thousand steep stairs. Where did the idea for this product come from? And what was testing it like? Anything surprise you about it?

Well to start off, thanks!

When I was growing up, my parents were both working, so I spent most of my time after school at the karate studio or in art class. Both those hobbies continued on through high school, but I began deviating away from the arts and leaned towards medicine in college. There, I studied neuroscience, got deeper into martial arts, and met my future co-founder of Neuro, Ryan Chen.

During that time, I would frequently travel to train with the Olympic Judo team in Japan every summer and fight Muay Thai in the stadiums in Thailand. Every day consisted of 4-6 hours of training, and supplementation became extremely important; however, there wasn’t anything to support my energy levels outside energy drinks or coffee at that time. I began mixing my own supplements, using myself as a guinea pig, and my favorite combination eventually became V0 of NeuroGum. Of course, we’ve worked with professional chemists and formulators to refine it since then.

Yet, once an artist, always an artist. My senior year of college, I was injured during training, and I decided to take a step back from pursuing a professional fighting career. I eventually got deeper into film, went to UCLA’s film school after I graduated, and began shooting short commercials and documentaries. On the side, I would do illustration work for extra money, and after illustrating a few children’s books, I got an opportunity with my friend Susan to build the children’s branding for the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

After that, I worked in composing music for film and television with a Sony affiliate called Wava Studios before I began painting larger and larger things. After leaving the studio, both Neuro and my career in murals started to take off. Now, NeuroGum is in about 6000 stores nationwide, and I’ve done over 40 murals around the world.

You’re also an incredible artist! Your use of color is incredible-the surprise pops, the way the tones vibrate. I really loved the guerilla art—a male statue with the bright, brilliant head of a posie! A huge ice cream cone leaning against a building. And the immersive experiences!  Especially the one where guests seem to be in an underwater world! Art like this does my favorite thing. It makes you stop and see the whole world differently. So tell us, how do YOU see the world?

I feel that I’m just a prankster at heart. Both guerilla work and murals force a perspective shift in the environment, and whenever I’m out in the wild, I imagine painting the walls a certain color to change the tone of a space or sprinkling some guerilla work to “change” up someone’s daily commute. The world’s our playground – might as well enjoy it!

What’s up next for the company and for you?

In 2020, Neuro will graduate from being just a product to becoming more of a lifestyle brand. We’re constantly looking to improve our products, and we eventually want to become a leader in the cognitive health and wellness space as a whole.

For myself, I consistently try to live a balanced life. Last year, I worked myself too hard and needed to get back surgery after running my body down. Maintaining my health (both physical and mental) and finding a peace with my creative side is the most important thing for me.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

For some reason, I’ve lately been drawn to the Dust Bowl (yes, very random). Perhaps it’s in response to the impending sense of doom with all the conversations surrounding climate change, but it seems we’re consistently making the same mistakes. The stories of the livestock deaths, the locust swarms, and the static force fields all feel both apocalyptic and something straight from Dune.

Friday, October 11, 2019

What if you suddenly long for kids but the man you love does not? Is there a right choice? Jackie Shannon Hollis navigates THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS: A CHILDLESS LOVE STORY

There's so much discussion now about whether or not women should have kids, whether they need to, whether they will regret it or be overjoyed with their decision. It's a surely complex issue and now Jackie Shannon Hollis has written a fabulous book about it ( "A childless love story") called THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS. When she falls in love with a man who doesn't want kids, her own yearnings for them begin to loom, as they both search for ways to both live with and satisfy those longings. It's such a great, great sure-to-be-talked about book!  Thank you so much, Jackie for being here!

 I always want to know what was the Why Now moment for you writing this memoir? What surprised you about it?

Thank you, Caroline. I’m honored that I get to have this conversation with you.

This Particular Happiness  Through my thirties and early forties, I struggled with my decision to not have children; the longing in me was powerful but it also sat side-by-side with the freedom and unexpected paths that came of not having children. By the time I hit fifty, I thought I’d settled with being childless. The space had filled in with so many fulfilling things, including many nieces and nephews. Then, in my mid-fifties, when the physical possibility of having a child was clearly no longer on the table, I discovered a new, and unanticipated, layer to my decision. My mother’s health was rapidly declining. Her death would change my sense of family. My nieces and nephews were marrying, and my sisters were soon to become grandmothers. I felt a shifting in these family units, a kind of closing in. I was invited into them but they weren’t mine. I wasn’t sure where my place would be.

I started to write an essay about this, but soon realized this essay was part of a bigger context.  About being raised in a generation and a place where having children was seen as inevitable, and what it is like to take a path different than the expected one. I wanted to write about how we choose and how the consequences of our choices unfold and unfold and unfold over time. And I wanted to write about love and identity, with childlessness as the framework for this exploration.

Everything about the writing process surprises me. In the case of This Particular Happiness, when I told people what I was writing about, they seemed excited to talk about their own decision to have or not have children. Parents and non-parents alike. Everyone has their unique perspective on what led them to make the decision they made, and yet there are common threads of searching for identity, and the many ways of loving that we can all relate to.

 It fascinated me that you talked about a life you’ve been raised to want. I remember being told that what I wanted was to marry, stay home and have a hobby (um, yeah.) And when I told my mother that I didn’t want to have children, I was told, “Don't ever let anyone hear you say that because they’ll think there’s something wrong with you.”  And when years later, I suddenly did want one, and went on to have my son, I was admonished for waiting so long. Can women ever win?

 We are given so many mixed messages. I see women struggle with the judgements of others if they choose to not have a child (the common refrain being, “Oh just wait, you will change your mind someday.”). Women experience judgement if they have a child “too young” or if they wait “too long,” judgement for desperately wanting a child and  pursuing the sometimes heartbreaking process of  fertility treatment, judgement for how they express their grief about infertility, judgement for having only one child or more than two children, for adopting or fostering. And then of course the endless judgement about the parenting choices:  too permissive, not permissive enough, how to feed, how to wean, working mom or stay-at-home mom.  Good lord.

We have endless possibilities in our lives. Choosing one thing means not choosing something else. The people who love and care about us often make the misstep of calling out what we are not choosing, rather than embracing what we do choose. And sometimes we do that to ourselves, which is why I think the exploration of the source of our own longings is so important. This exploration is a thru-line of This Particular Happiness. Where did my longing come from? The heart? Biology? Or was it a response to outside expectations? What did I truly want? How did I know what I wanted?

Although times have certainly changed, I think there still is a dividing line between women who don’t want to be told they made the wrong choice. But in reality, how can we ever know that? We change all the time, right?

Yes! We change constantly. Look at the number of marriages that end in divorce. Somehow people think they will marry, and all will stay the same. But I don’t know anyone (unless they have lived a very static life) who hasn’t gone through a major transformation of sorts in their forties or fifties. We knew what we wanted when we were twenty but didn’t know who we would be at 45.

Unless we hold firm in apathy and rigidity, we are growing and changing. Those around us will change. Our needs will change. If we don’t recognize this consciously, we will have a lot of turmoil in our relationships (parent/child, sibling, friends, primary partners), and in our careers. I hope we can own our transitions, speak about them, normalize them, so they are less damaging. The ideal would be to notice when we are changing and longing for something new or different. To talk about it and see if we can shift things in the existing structure of our lives. Or find a way to move out of that without damage and wrong-making. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict and tumult…but we can approach it more consciously.

I also have to know what kind of writer you are. Any rituals? 

Much of the time, I am a very undisciplined writer. When I’m working on a project I schedule out two (and if I’m lucky, three) full days each week. But then I have to get through all the life duty/throat clearing (exercise, garden, house, social media, organize a drawer that is really just fine), before I get myself settled in. I have finally learned this IS my ritual. Work is going on in the background when I am doing the other things. I call it “composting” and by the time I open my laptop, I am ready to go.  

I also loved the short lyrical chapters you have. Did you know the book was going to be like that when you began it?

 I didn’t and, until I started printing out some of the chapters, I didn’t “see” how short many of them were. As I edited and braided and shaped the manuscript, I saw that the shape of the chapters fit the narrative. Many of the shortest chapters are scenes and memories from my childhood and young adulthood, or memory pieces I’ve taken from what my husband has told me of his childhood. These are what I’d call sense-making scenes, trying to understand who that younger version (him, me, those around us) was and how it led to now.

As the book progresses, the chapters become longer, especially when it comes to where I meet Bill, the man who would become my husband. These scenes are longer, more detailed, and reflect my own intentionality at the time. I wanted to be present. To choose differently, so there are more details, and deeper dive into my inner self. And from this point, the chapters are, for the most part, a bit longer.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well it’s impossible to pick just one thing.

I am always obsessed with people, how we think and process and engage with each other. Showtime’s Couples’ Therapy has me completely entranced. I think it is a wonderful series for couples to watch together and then talk about what they see of themselves in the real life people who make up the couples. It is brilliant.

Two books on communication and relationship seem relevant here. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Love, by Marshall Rosenberg, has me twisted sideway in paying attention to the judgements carried in the words I choose. And a book by Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell called, The Beauty of Conflict for Couples,  offers very specific actions for moving through difficult conversations and maintaining the passion through embracing the conflicts rather than avoiding them.

Podcasts are a constant when I drive (and when I vacuum!). I’m a big fan of Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Nora McInerny delves tells the stories of regular people, complicated and honest and beautiful.  I also am obsessed with Beyond Well with Sheila Hamilton. She interviews a variety of creative people, covering many topics related to mental wellness. I love Sheila’s voice and the two therapists who join her in conversation.

Memoirs always obsess me such as Liz Prato’s essay collection: Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i; and Huda Al-Marashi’s  First Comes Marriage:  My Not-So-Typical American Love Story.  These books explore relationship in various forms: place, family, primary partner and self.

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

This Particular Happiness is published by Forest Avenue Press, an independent publishing company run by Laura Stanfill. I feel incredibly lucky to be with a publisher who supports her authors long after publication date. I’m looking forward to conversations with readers about topics I explore in my memoir:  the roles of childless or childfree or parent, love, how a relationship can navigate difficult terrain, mothers and daughters, friendship, the long term impact of sexual assault, how to be present with another through grief, and how to find your own particular happiness. If any of your readers would like me to come their way for a conversation, they can let their local bookseller know, or reach out to me. Here’s a link to my website.


Life. Death. Illness. Love. Loss. And art. Katherine Vaz and Isabel Pavão talk about their extraordinary art/poetry project THE HEART IS A DROWNING OBJECT, which everyone should pre-order immediately

The exquisite moving book

Katherine Vaz

Isabel Pavão

 You've never experienced a book like this. I promise you. The Heart Is A Drowning Object, from Artist's Proof Editions,  is a collaboration in poems and paintings by the novelist Katherine Vaz and the artist Isabel Pavão.And it is astounding. Vaz's poems center on the sudden affliction of her beloved husband and the way she tends him. Pavão’s vibrant pictures share and explore grief and age and, of course, love. Together, both show how late love, girded by the fear of possible loss, create a world that is even deeper in joy than ever imagined. 

Please pre-order as soon as you can, so you can be as changed by this work of art as I was, and we can talk about it incessantly.

And thank you Katherine and Isabel for agreeing to do this interview!

About the Artist:
Isabel Pavão earned the degree of Doctor of Arts at NYU in 1994. A native of Portugal, she has lived and worked in New York since 1990. She exhibits her work in New York City, and in many museums and galleries all over the world. Among them are the Chiado Museum, Natural History Museum and National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Gulbenkian Foundation in Paris, National Museum of Rio De Janeiro, Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi, Orient Foundation in Macau, Poets House in New York. She also participates often as an invited artist as well as a guest professor in Universities, Art Schools, and Museums.

About the Writer

Katherine Vaz, a former Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of two novels, SAUDADE and MARIANA, the latter in six languages and selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1998. Her collections FADO & OTHER STORIES won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and OUR LADY OF THE ARTICHOKES & OTHER PORTUGUESE-AMERICAN STORIES won the Prairie Schooner Book Award. She has done many cultural exchange projects between Portugal and the U.S. and is the first Luso-American to have her work recorded for the archives of the Library of Congress, Hispanic Division. She lives in New York City with Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street composer, TV producer, writer, and editor.

I’ve always believed that art can change us, emotionally, and maybe even on a DNA level. But it can do this only when it’s really close to the bone, risk-taking, and it hits all the sense. These two broadsides that I saw did that. I kept becoming immersed in the photos and artwork, the whole feel of them, and it felt like the poems were an integral part of that.

KV: I’m so glad you felt like that! Immersion—the idea of drowning—is about the enveloping that occurs when all senses are firing. And we very much want the viewer and reader to add to what we’re offering—so that all of us are speaking together. What’s close to the bone is of course close to the heart. The poems begin with an actual damaged heart in a love story—a husband with a sudden affliction, and a wife tending to him but also to the biggest truth we all carry, that one day an end will come, for those we love and for ourselves. How do we carry this so profoundly that we can find joy anyway? And even more: How can we find joy in the process itself of endings?

IP: Because we’re not just drowning...when we discuss the idea of dropping, going down, maybe into water, into something, we transcend ourselves. It’s no longer about you or me, it’s a sense of communal experience—or feeling. Something that no longer belongs to us—it is a Thing out there. If we go into it, we join everyone else. We touch a feeling that is no longer ours, but one that belongs to humanity. That’s also what a collaboration is about!

I always want to know what haunted you into writing this book, and how did it take shape? How do you both know each other, and how did you know you could work well together? I love the whole idea that it is about older women/older woman, and facing the illness of a husband. These are things that have not always been talked about, especially the differences between a long-time love when you are older and one that sparks and fireworks when you are old. I love that.  Was that part of your intention? The images I saw are perfect for the prose and I was wondering how both of you worked to make this happen?  What was the planning like?

KV: I’ve written novels and short stories, five books now, with a lot of themes about the Portuguese community in America, especially California, where I grew up, and I’m fascinated by art books, by combinations of painting and words. I do box-art pieces. I’ve done lots of cultural things for the Luso community (“Lusitania” being the old Roman word for Portugal)…and I’ve long been acquainted with Isabel’s gorgeous, deeply felt art. She’s exhibited all over the map, a native of Portugal but longtime New Yorker. Both of us are transplants who adore where we now live. It was Ana Miranda Ventura, who runs Arte Institute in New York City—an organization dedicated to promoting the cultural and art of Portugal in liaison with North American artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians of Luso descent—who introduced us. I can still see us sitting in the library in my home, the three of us talking away. Isabel and I knew we wanted to do something together.

IP: Yes, but at first we didn’t know what. We deliberately did not want to plan. First we recognized that we had a lot of links concerning color in our work—vividness in your stories, a fascination with people who think in color—

KV: And your work has that too, of course.

IP: Yes! And some time went by, but we finally made a lunch date, first at the Harvard Club, followed by another one at the Lotos Club in New York. We agreed not to come in with a list of ideas, but to see what might evolve naturally. It was funny how we surprised ourselves with what became the obvious parallel of having older husbands who had undergone serious ailments and spent a long time in the hospital, but it was important not to report on that alone as photo-realism, but to go into the secrecy of that time, the feel of it. The silence and the hunger. We could have called upon friends, but we both chose to address these times of pain and uncertainty and fear with quietness. We wanted to delve into how it felt to be an older woman dealing with a longtime love. We don’t hear about that very much. It’s not hugely acknowledged—almost as if it’s rare or insignificant or even embarrassing. We wanted to feel our way along rather than outline too much or spell things out. So at our lunches, we made a grid. That was our start! The stages of feeling and the colors that might relate to what happened, or to the stages of going into and coming out of the immersion of fear of loss. “Mottled” was the first category.

I went home and start making drafts of paintings. At first, I held back, because I didn’t know what to do, and then it was an incredible burst—a flooding! The pictures poured out of me.

KV: The best part was that it was exactly the same for me. I haven’t written much poetry. We’d agreed that I’d look at your pictures and make suggestions; we’d rearrange or omit or adjust, but I was astonished that I loved them all and in fact suggested we leave the raw rough edges, as if that captured even more the idea of creation in a burst. I think I suggested changing the order of only two paintings?

IP: Two. Yes. That was it. I was astonished too, that it made sense for both of us to keep to this idea of “Draft” as a form of its own. It felt truthful to our feelings and artistic vocabulary.

KV: I held back from writing as well, when I had all your paintings, and then it was a gusher. It felt exhilarating. I worked after you did, and it seemed to happen very fast. We talked about doing one painting and poem at a time, a pairing, but after everything poured out of you, I followed the exact same curve of experience. That was part of the unity we made. Good for a book about drowning that it all felt complete and fluid.

IP: In spite of the subject being a fear of the future, a wariness about living without the person! Somehow also the idea arose that this is a common issue for women our age, but it’s taboo.

KV: Why is it such a taboo, do you think, Isabel?

IP: We don’t want to face vulnerability. I don’t know. The culture?

KV: Because we feel we have to be strong all the time, or is it because we’re invisible?

IP: Invisibility. It’s more a case of invisibility for older women. We created an artistic voice when we were young, and now we have to find it again, or to make a new one.

KV: In spite of being artists our whole lives.

IP: This is a new situation, a new exposure of ourselves. We have gone through a definite experience of actual life-and-death. We were called upon to respond.

KV: An experience we didn’t choose, but one that everyone faces.

IP: There’s no guide or manual on this, because the issues older women face aren’t addressed! There are manuals on birth, how to teach toddlers, etc. But no education on being closer to the biggest issues of life, which are about handling loss or maybe changing what loss should mean. So we chose color, the feel of the body, to talk about these things. An intensity of sensation.

It’s part of our vocabulary as creators. Using colors. Foods, colors, flowers—those are equivalent to feelings. That’s the common language we both had, from the beginning.

KV: Then one night, I was giving a reading at KGB Bar in New York, at the invitation of Elizabeth Hodges, the editor of the St. Petersburg Review because I had a new story in her magazine, and Katherine McNamara, the publisher of Artist’s Book Editions, one of Elizabeth’s friends, happened to be there, and we chatted, and I mentioned the collaboration. And she said that was exactly the sort of project she liked.

IP: And remember when you and I met at the Morgan Library, after I’d come back from Portugal, and Katherine wrote to you maybe twenty minutes before we met for coffee, saying she wanted to publish the book? And she became a third collaborator. We spent a weekend in her home in Charlottesville, and she brought exquisite talent to the project—her vision of how to present images and words, how to create video poems, how to produce elegant prints. As it happened, she had her own story of love and loss.

I’m astonished at the exquisite beauty of the images and the prose, but the emotions that welled up as I read were almost overwhelming. (By the way, these lines did me in: When I die, please let me be the shade fuchsia in the 30-gigahertz band.

When my husband dies, please let him be the sound there.)

KV: Isabel’s work evoked the radio spectrum color chart for me, among other things. I like that sound and color have an official code. I’m glad you liked those lines.

IP: The other thing to point out is that we did not want to have writing that described the images, and we didn’t want the artwork to be only illustrations accompanying words. We wanted some kind of elevation—we wanted to create something else entirely, together. A collaboration. The images and words becoming a new thing, a new dimension if we could.

KV: I wanted to be inspired by the colors and paintings and to have them inform what I wrote, but we did a good job in avoiding the sense of illustrations.

Katherine, you said something to me, about this being “the color and feel of an older woman, in her physical being.” Can you talk about this please? (Both of you, please.)

KV: There’s a movement in writing by women now to eschew what can be seen as emotional or sensory, an insistence that this is an old trap. The argument is more or less: “Women are not merely emotional creatures who can only write about love rather than the intellect. Sensory views of the world are therefore inadequate.” But I wanted to have both, because the physicality of older women calls for that, as it does for anyone carrying the state of grief—men or women, young or old. And in that, I hope, the intellect is also awakened, but the brain doesn’t take the lead.

IP: Being intellectual at every moment can be a form of self-protection! And as women, we are always being asked to rationalize, to explain. But I think real exposure of the inner self goes a step further. That’s what we chose to do. And it’s a risk for a writer, or artist, to tell a story that way. We need bliss, joy of the body too.

KV: A friend just described my life, and hers—she’s older too, with an ill husband—as being in the “sweet spot.” We’re lucky with having great love in our lives, and it is still here. We’re all still here, and that’s the joy.

IP: The experience gave me the power to produce this. I couldn’t have done it five years ago. It’s a creation out of a certain timing in life. Also, as we’ve said, as people get a little older, the intellectualize, as a protection; they step away from vibrancy, and this is an opposite response, to celebrate the spirit and life.

KV: Here’s a “physical being” response. I gave a reading at Hunter College one night, a few hours after I was told that they didn’t know why my husband wasn’t getting better. My eyes got physically so cloudy it was hard to read. But as if through a scrim, I saw one friend, Dylan, who had tons of things going on in her life, and yet she was there. And my friend Dustin said he would walk me home afterward. He and his husband lived in the opposite direction, but he insisted, and we walked the few blocks, and we talked about general things and said good night—and I thought that was so remarkable, such a lovely thing. A perfect comfort. All of us say, Tell me what I can do to help, but the best moments are when life naturally flows in a companionable way.

IP: This collaboration is about celebrating love’s fragility, and I want to say also that we’re talking about older women, but really, fragility is present at any age. When we’re older, we’re more likely to be asked to deal with it, to understand and feel it; when younger, we might postpone it, dealing with the ending of life. But we all now it’s there.

We chose to go through the illnesses of our husbands pretty much in silence. We could have called our friends, yes. But it was our choice to go through it alone, to converse our energy.

KV: I’d pass a falafel place when I’d walk home from the hospital. Now when I pass that place, I can smell the hospital too. You had part of a large meat pie every night. Could we mention your meat pie?

IP: (Laughs). Every night, a small piece. A symbol of survival, keeping being alive…and a glass of red wine…

What’s next up for both of you?

IP: Putting this creation out! Celebrating it. I have a show coming up in Lisbon, a retrospective, thirty-five years of my career. Revisiting my different stages!

KV: I’m finishing a new long novel. In contrast to the speed of The Heart Is a Drowning Object, this book has taken fifteen years.
What are you most hoping that people will get from this gorgeous work of art?

KV: To feel in communion with the notions that have nothing to do with age. I’d be happy if young men also had a strong reaction to our book. It’s about love. We all know we can lose someone at any moment. This collaboration is about changing the normal response of fear to an intensity that’s in fact about finding pleasure.

IP: I totally agree. Plus the beauty of this has been in the creating of it, and with Katherine McNamara’s help putting it out there. It doesn’t belong to us any more! I want it to be gender-less; it belongs to everyone who reads/sees/listen to it. We put it out there for others to embrace it, or not!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

KV: I have to fix my damn ceiling. All those aquatic images you did, Isabel, were so sumptuous, but water is not so pretty when there’s a downpour through the roof! Our ceiling collapsed in the last rainstorm.

IP: We have a parallel there too! My house got hit in the storms and we’re leaking all over. You and I have this eerie connection. You know what we haven’t mentioned? The process of working together was a real delight. The easy flow of it all—that was a surprise! The ease of doing something together, from all that we’d stored up. And out of it is our friendship now. We knew of each other, but we hadn’t yet become friends, and now with Katherine McNamara also there is a bond based on sharing and work, a collaboration, a sisterhood. Taking the train together, speaking Portuguese on the way to Charlottesville…we found out we had an obsession with packing our lunches really precisely. We laughed the whole way.

And we visited the printing press with Katherine M., and went to a garden party, and found each other, all three of us. And we laughed on the train the whole way back. Suddenly Katherine and Isabel and Katherine, the KIK Sisters. The work gave us each other.

Please check out these links:

The Heart Is A Drowning Object, on Artist’s Proof Editions, for more information (with link to Apple Books): (the book can be pre-ordered and will be available October 22nd, 2019)

 A video poem