Sunday, November 24, 2019

Cynthia Newberry Martin talks about TIDAL FLATS, the story of a marriage at the crossroads, being obsessed by relationships, being a debut author, writing, and so much more.

Cynthia Newberry Martin is the author of The Painting Story, placed on the Short List for Finalists in the novel category of the 2010 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and at the same time, the second novel I wrote, Between Here and Gone, placed as a Semi-Finalist. She tells us: So far, all in drawers instead of stores, but I say: Hey, you won PRIZES for them.

Her new novel TIDAL FLATS is the story of a marriage, the family a wife wants (and her husband doesn't), and what time and separation do to people. And it's incredible. Just look at these raves:

“Cynthia Newberry Martin is a tremendous writer, with a Woolfian talent for taking the full measure of small moments. Her work is both subtle and revelatory, and I’ve been waiting a long time for this book.” –Rebecca Makkai, author of THE GREAT BELIEVERS

 “I admire Martin’s capacity to render her characters with the dignity of complexity. And I double-admire that she takes that same care with her settings, turning Place into a player that has its own ‘human’ heart. The novel swirls with light and love.” –Joshua Mohr, author of SIRENS and DAMASCUS

Thank you so much for being here, Cynthia!

I always think a writer is haunted into writing a book. Is that true for you? What was the question you were desperate to answer?

When the youngest of my four children left for college in 2012, I had had children at home for 31 years. I was restless, past ready for a different life. I had started talking to my husband years earlier. I told him I wanted to spend some of my days near water, but as the years went by, what I wanted specifically was this: to spend a week a month in Provincetown to write and breathe the New England air. On the first of these monthly trips in January of 2013 (and I’m writing from Provincetown now, toward the end of my seventh year of these trips), when I sat down to start writing Tidal Flats, the question I didn’t even know I was desperate to answer was whether two people who want different things in life could make marriage work.

Cass’s past scars her and impacts her present—and her future. For her, her parents and their life seem to be replaying in her. Do you think we can ever really escape that? It feels to me that even understanding our pasts doesn’t stop them from encroaching on us.

I think the more determined we are to escape our past, as Cass is, the more we run right into it. It’s like when you tell yourself not to think about the elephant—and then that’s all you can think about. And even if we manage not to run right into it, when we pause and look back, there it is. Instead, if we face the past and acknowledge its place in us, if we nod to it, take a breath and let it ripple through us, then I think we can move forward, knowing the place from which we are moving.

 I love the idea that Cass loves a photojournalist. A man who can capture the truth of events, but the truths in his own life are not always the ones that Cass wants. I’ve always felt that photographs, like writing, like any kind of art—and like life—shift in their truths. Can you talk about that please?

Good art has breathing room. And if there’s breathing room, the reader or the viewer has the space to see different things, different truths. What we are able to see often depends on knowledge and awareness, as well as the slant the artist brings to the work at hand. A photo in black and white can highlight a different truth than one in color. A close-up of a little girl’s dirt-smeared face is one truth, but when you zoom out to show her holding onto the hand of a man whose face is also smeared with dirt, that’s another one. And when you zoom out even more to see the burning car next to them, that’s another one still. Ethan doesn’t just snap the shutter; he waits, even though he usually has no idea what he’s waiting for. Cass loves that about Ethan, that he’s able to see what is there and also what could be there.

This is your debut! Tell us what that was like. What kind of writer are you? And has the success of this debut (you’ve got some stellar blurbs) impacted your next book?

It was exciting! But on the first day, I was so nervous about standing up in front of people and about being the center of attention. I had watched other writers do this for a long time and knew what doing a good job looked like. Which just made me more nervous. But I really wanted to enjoy these moments. I had worked so hard to get here. After my third event in 24 hours, I realized the only way I was going to enjoy readings and interviews was if I looked at the experiences as a way to learn more about myself and others. And the only way to do that was to stop trying to do as good a job as someone else and to focus on being myself and connecting with others.

As far as the reception of Tidal Flats, I started to say it has not at all impacted my next book, but then I remembered a thought I had a few weeks ago. Which was that now that I finally have a book published, I can care even less about writing “a bigger book,” which is what agents and editors were always asking me for. Which brings me to the final part of your question, and that’s that what I write about is day-to-day life, the domestic life that we, male and female, all lead after we walk in the door, after we get through with the flashy or not-flashy lives we lead in the public. And I’m a writer who loves language.

A lot of the story world is set in Afghanistan. What was your research like and what surprised you about it?

The most surprising thing happened before I even started writing the book. On the first of my monthly trips to Provincetown, when I was headed there to begin the new novel that would turn into Tidal Flats, I was thinking that one of the characters would have something to do with Vietnam or Afghanistan. On the flight, I ended up sitting next to Michael Sheridan, the Director of Community Supported Film, a Boston organization that trains local storytellers in conflicted and developing countries. He was on his way home after spending three months in Afghanistan.

Michael, in his exhausted state, spent the entire flight answering my questions and showing me his photos. He was nice enough to let me contact him throughout the time I was writing the novel. I was even able to talk to his wife. I also read newspaper articles, watched clips of Afghanistan, and searched the internet. If Ethan had been a point-of-view character, I believe I would have had to visit Afghanistan myself, but since Cass was learning about Afghanistan from Ethan, it seemed right that I learned about Afghanistan from Michael.

I was also mesmerized by the photos of Steve McCurry—the brilliant colors and the boldness and complexity of the images. These photos were inspiration throughout the years I was working on the novel. I pinned them up in my study and always had them in my carry-on.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The question of why I’m so obsessed about marriage. I think I just started yet another novel about it. In Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a character says, “You’ll never know anyone’s marriage but your own. And even then, you’ll only know half of it.” But through fiction, I can get on the other side of the closed door. And I want to know what’s happening there—in the evenings, in the mornings, in the kitchen. Behind that closed door is where I want to be.

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

Why did it take me so long to get a book published? And I don’t know. Maybe everything else I had ever done had been too easy, and the universe wanted to see how I would handle a difficult situation. Or maybe the universe wanted to know how much I wanted this. I was so close so many times. I had full manuscripts requested over and over again. I had editors love a novel only to pass it around a house without garnering enough support. Perhaps I spent too many years on the traditional publishing scenario: agent/NY publisher. But on the plus side, I feel more confident now as a writer than I would have if I’d published a book even five years ago. And what an adventure to publish my first book at the age of 62.

Hey, what real-life lessons can kids (and adults) learn from superheroes? (How about the right way to breathe away angry feelings from The Hulk?) Randall Lotowycz talks about SUPERHERO PLAYBOOK (I already bought up copies to give to friends.)

Come on, how COOL is this?

Portrait of the author as a superhero

Ok, so it's always exciting to get to work with someone new at Algonquin Books, my publisher, and as soon as I knew that Randall Lotowycz was going to be the new director of marketing and sales, I emailed to say hello, and discovered we both share an obsession with movies. BUT here is the really cool part. I didn't know that Randall is the creator of DARTS!, the world's first and only magnetic dartboard wall calendar, AND   the author of DC Comics Super Heroes and Villains Fandex. And wait, there's more! He also wrote SUPER-HERO PLAYBOOK, which I bought immediately (because authors need sales, no matter who they are), and it promptly became one of my favorite books because of its incredible life lessons and positive spin on being kind, standing up to bullies the right way and even how to control your breathing so you don't get angry. And here, Randall tells us why.

Thank you so, so much, Randall.

Where did the idea for this book come from? To me, it’s pure genius to take something that seems pure escape for kids and to turn it into something that is an important learning experience? Also, I found my own heart being warmed by reading this book, and I love that this is something that can benefit kids, parents, and anyone who loves superheroes. In a way, you are challenging people to be their own real-life superheroes, right?

The germ of the book formed years ago, mostly in response to a specific group of adult male comic book readers who have a rather toxic outlook. They believe they “own” these characters and are quite vocal (on social media and sometimes in person) about their displeasure when they feel their cherished characters are being ruined in some way and that current comic creators are catering to a modern, more diverse audience instead of the “true” fans. Comic book writers Brian Michael Bendis and Greg Rucka, among others, have spoken online about how this group of fans acts in a way that is completely at odds with the virtues these comic characters extol. I found that dissonance fascinating and stewed on it for a while.

Flash forward a few years, and I have a young stepson. I’m lucky enough to share my love of superhero comics and films with him. It was important to me to lead with the virtues. I wanted to share why I loved these characters. I could have kept this between he and I, but I was fortunate to find a publisher who was excited the idea and wanted to make it into a book.

I look at these characters as modern day folklore. They’re a distinctly American tradition that has roots going back to Johnny Appleseed and John Henry (that’s not diminish the many influential and important international comic book creations). We can learn something from them. I wanted to share with my stepson, and anyone else interested in reading, ways these characters can teach you how be a good person, the core of any superhero. I just happen to like my parables with tights and capes.

I love the voice, which is funny, warm and reassuring. (Are you up for the challenge? I knew you would be.) What kid wouldn’t love that! So how did you come to that voice?

I just wanted to speak in a way I hoped the intended audience would respond. I wanted some of my humor in there. And I didn’t want to sound like I was lecturing. I’m sure I had Mr. Rogers speaking over my shoulder as I wrote. But to keep it relevant to the subject, I’d say a healthy mash-up of two of the best incarnations of Superman: the winking paternal 50s Superman George Reeves and friend you can always count on, Christopher Reeve.

I have to know how you found all these superheroes—I didn’t know there were so many. I was happy to learn about Swamp Thing and Cyborg. And Squirrel Girl!

30 years of reading comics and a semi-encyclopedic memory carried me through. The hard part was narrowing it down to 20. I wanted to a wide variety and I didn’t want them all to be straight white men (that’s not always easy, btw). There were old favorites and, of course, the stars of the latest Marvel movies. And then there’s Squirrel Girl. She’s fantastic and has had a wonderful series over the past five years by Ryan North and Erica Henderson, from which I drew nearly all of my chapter on her. She was due to star in TV show meant to air by the time the book came out, but the show wasn’t picked up. Hopefully we’ll see a live-action Squirrel Girl sooner than later. Until then, read her comics! I may have boiled it down to a simple lesson, but they crafted a delightful and beautiful world around her.

What I love so much about this book is the incredible messages (even bad guys can have good ideas!) body image issues, learning to be a good person in the world. And the real-life examples (if someone is mean to you, you can respond with restraint and love like Wonder Woman!) You don’t talk down to kids. And oh my god, HULK BREATHING to calm yourself down. Actually, you talk UP. I also loved that every superhero is presented with challenges that can also be kid-sized. Can you talk about all of this?

I wouldn’t have Hulk Breathing without my wife, a yoga instructor. I borrowed/adapted the technique of Lion’s Breath from her lessons.

But, in general, I wanted something tangible for each lesson. A child isn’t going to have to fight Ares the God of War but they will have to know how to react to someone who is mean to them. Children are drawn to superheroes. Who hasn’t tied a towel around their neck at some point? With each lesson, I wanted to seize on that moment to show how they can act like their favorite heroes, even in their kid-sized, towel-wearing world.

I aimed high, so I know younger readers might need their parents to explain some of the lessons. And maybe some parents won’t necessarily want their 8-year-old learning about how to question authority, but a little troublemaking never hurt anyone.

The drawings are fantastic, fun and bright and the whole set-up of the book, with the sidebars and the colors are perfect, too. How did you come to figure out the structure? And how did you work with the illustrator.

Where do I begin? I had a truly talented team who took what I wrote and elevated it in a way I could never imagined. All credit goes to Tim Palin for his brilliant imagination and artistry, Jeff Shake who knocked it out of the park with his development and design, Alejandro Arbona for his editorial insight, and everyone at Duopress for their enthusiasm and care. This book couldn’t have existed without their unique talents.  

What superhero do you think the world needs now and why?

My default answer will always be Superman because he’s my favorite (I’ll have to show you my Superman and Lois Lane tattoo sometime) and he embodies so many of the virtues I wish I could possess on a daily basis. I could’ve done a book just on him. But in this immediate moment in time, I think we need young superheroes like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and the new, younger Spider-Man, Miles Morales. They’re young, full of hope, and are going to save the world. That’s not say I want to pass the buck to the next generation. Every single adult needs to be out there doing what kids like Greta Thunberg and David Hogg are doing. But we need young heroes to inspire future generations.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Time, mostly. Balancing it, using it wisely, appreciating it in the moment. This answer is vague, but honest. This year has been a reflective and productive one, and it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile those two states.

I’m also obsessing over finding English subtitles for a Chinese horror film that hasn’t been released in the US. That’s probably taking a little too much time.

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

I can’t think of one. This has been a lot of fun. Thank you for the opportunity!

Monday, November 18, 2019

A shaving points scandal. A legendary youth basketball team. And redemption. Matthew Goodman talks about his latest page-turner, THE CITY GAME

Years ago, a client of my husband gave us court side tickets to see the Knicks. To say that we were enthralled is putting it lightly. I felt forever changed and I've loved basketball ever since. So, of course, I was excited to read Matthew Goodman's CITY GAME, about good kids on a team who seemed to have it all but couldn't resist the lure of easy money. The book reads like a thriller, every page full of hope, glory--and yeah, desperate yearning. And I'm not the only one to say so. Look at these raves:

“A wonderful book. . . . a fascinating look at a team full of talented young men who torpedoed their careers because they were unable to resist the lure of easy money. . . . The CCNY point-shaving scandal remains, decades after it happened, a heartbreaking story of venality, and Goodman turns out to be the perfect author to tell it. The City Game is a gripping history of one of college basketball’s darkest moments, an all too human tale of young people blowing up their futures in a misguided attempt to make good.”
–Michael Schaub, NPR Books

“Fans of college hoops will devour Goodman’s excellent history. . . . Goodman effectively combines interviews and extensive research to definitively recreate the unfortunate story of the 1949–50 City College of New York basketball team, which won an unprecedented two college championships in the same year (the NIT and the NCAA) before being tainted by a point-shaving scandal involving several of its stars.”
Publishers Weekly (★ starred review)

“Goodman not only chronicles the point-shaving scam that eventually brought down the team, but he also provides a richly detailed portrait of mid-twentieth-century New York City. . . . Goodman follows the principals through their lives, even interviewing their children. This is a marvelous, vibrant recounting of a bit of sports history in which the backdrop of New York dominates.”
Booklist (★ starred review)

“Matthew Goodman’s historical account of City College is far more than descriptions of games played in Madison Square Garden and other arenas. He takes readers to the halls of government; New York City courtrooms; backrooms where bookies and gamblers plied their trade; and police stations where willing officers were paid to look away from gambling activities. It is a story both inspiring and upsetting, and is told with skill, insight, and deep understanding of time and place. . . . Goodman’s stirring history reminds us that athletic success often comes at a price. His story of greed and exploitation in college sports one-half century ago is as relevant today as ever.”

“Goodman takes on the story more as a historian than sportswriter, and readers will be grateful for that. . . . Most of the riveting action unfolds outside the arena, in the halls of government and through the hands of bookies; here, Goodman is at his scene-setting best. . . . He smoothly shapes readable narratives of a deep roster of characters, including coaches, politicians, police, detectives, organized criminals, and, of course, players. Basketball fans are not the only readers who will be edified by this significant slice of New York City history.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Matthew Goodman has composed a portrait of an era that transcends sports. Painstakingly reported and written with great affection, The City Game is a masterpiece of American storytelling.”
—Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove

Matthew Goodman is the New York Times-bestselling author of four books of nonfiction: The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team (Ballantine Books, 2019); Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (Ballantine Books, 2013); The Sun and the Moon: Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (Basic Books, 2008); and Jewish Food: The World at Table (HarperCollins, 2005).

Matthew’s books have been Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Indie Next “Great Reads,” and Borders Original Voices selections, and a finalist for a GoodReads Choice Award, and have been translated into eight languages. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The American Scholar, the Harvard Review, Salon, the Forward, Bon Appetit, and many other publications, and has been cited for Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies.

Thank you so much for being here, Matthew!

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their books, that they are looking for answers to something and hope to find it in a novel. What was haunting you beside, obviously, the amazing story here?

That’s a wonderful question. In his short story “The Leather Man,” E. L. Doctorow wrote of “individuals in whom history intensifies like electroshock.” It’s just sort of a tossed-off phrase, but for some reason it hit me very powerfully, because in reading it I suddenly realized that in a certain way that’s my whole writing project. I was trained as a fiction writer, with all of that emphasis on characterization and narrative structure and authorial voice and all the rest, but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved history, and now in writing narrative history I’ve been able to combine those two disciplines. I think what I’m trying to do in my writing is to find and then think as deeply as I can about individuals who get caught up in historical events and then have to negotiate their way through them. That’s the thing that I seem to return to again and again in my work.

So, for instance, in my previous book, Eighty Days, about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s race around the world in 1889, I found that for me the prime motivator, the thing that really kept me going in the writing, was less the events of the trip – although I loved writing about all those fascinating places like Hong Kong and Yemen and the Suez Canal – than the idea of how in embarking on this around-the-world race these two young women were stepping into a historical whirlwind unlike anything they had ever experienced, a vast roaring wave of publicity and controversy, that would ultimately lead to some unexpected after-effects in their later lives. In my earlier book, The Sun and the Moon, it was the notion of this privately radical English newspaperman in New York, Richard Adams Locke, who concocts a hoax about life on the moon as a way of satirizing the religious astronomers of the time, and who gets caught up in a social frenzy that he had not anticipated and which he doesn’t really know how to handle.

With my current book, The City Game, I loved writing about the amazing history of City College and the incredibly exciting double-championship season, and then the uproarious victory celebrations and all that. But if the story had ended with the triumphant season, I don’t think I would have written the book. Again, the aspect of the story that I found most motivating – that I guess you could say “haunted” me in the writing – was how these talented young guys, these really smart and sympathetic black and Jewish kids with a bit of fame but not much money, got themselves involved in a web of corruption that they didn’t really understand, and which they spend the rest of their lives trying to overcome.

As a result of their encounters with history, these young City College basketball players, like Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland and Richard Adams Locke before them, ended up not necessarily happier, but certainly with a deeper understanding of themselves and of society: they were individuals in whom history has intensified like electroshock.

 What’s so astonishing is that this team you are writing about was the only team in history to win the NIT and NCAA tournaments in the same year. It's so shocking to me that such talented kids had conspired to shave points, but then again, given that they were sort of powerless, and not making money, is it really any wonder that they were susceptible to others’ schemes and their own dreams of easy money? But what is more astonishing is how they were able to redeem themselves. I often feel that America says it likes redemption, but it never follows through total acceptance. Why do you feel this was different?

They were not the first poor kids to take money from gamblers, nor would they be the last. But what I was so fascinated to discover, in researching this book, was how widely divergent the motivations among them were for what they did. It was so much more complicated and ambiguous than the typical “they were corrupt and amoral and sold out their school” lessons of the newspaper editorialists. I mean, some of them were more willing participants and some were less willing, but they all had their own motivations. One of them did it, as he explained, simply because “I wanted the other guys to like me.” He was this handsome, talented guy, a classic golden-boy star athlete, but he came from a rather sheltered family and had grown up feeling socially awkward and left out; as somebody who knew him told me, “He always wanted to be a guy hanging out on a street corner, but he had nobody to hang out with.” Another one of the guys was almost entrepreneurial in his motivations – he felt that a lot of people were making money off his talents, and he had a right to get a small piece of those profits. Another guy left the money entirely untouched in a box in the basement: he hoped someday to be able to give it to his parents, who were really struggling financially.

One of the main characters of my book, a guy named Floyd Layne, resisted the scheme for a long time before he finally caved and accepted the money. He took $3,000, which he wrapped up in a handkerchief and buried in a flowerpot in his bedroom, and didn’t use any of it except for $110 that he spent on a washing machine for his mother. I focus a lot on him in the book, because of all the guys, he was the one who refused to leave the scandal behind him; he was the one who continued to fight for years to clear his name, to earn a spot in professional basketball, to prove to the world that he was an honorable, decent person, not the criminal he was made out to be in the papers. And of all the guys, he was the one who really found redemption – in a way that was almost too amazing to be true. (When I discovered what had happened to him, I almost couldn’t believe my luck as a writer! It was a ready-made ending to the story.)

I’m not sure that any of the guys, other than Floyd, were ever able to fully redeem themselves: When they died, their obituaries always put the scandal in the headline. Over time, I think the pain became less sharp – got subsumed by the good things in their lives, families and careers and what have you – but I don’t know that it ever really went away. There was always this gnawing sense of disappointment and regret and anger, some of it directed inward, some outward. Floyd did experience a kind of redemption, but it was genuinely hard won; he had spent years and years toiling away in community centers in New York’s most impoverished neighborhoods in the Bronx, helping kids get away from drugs and gangs and violence and into colleges and occupations. Over time, he told me many years later, he had even begun to see himself as fortunate: “I would have been unreachable and untouchable in the NBA,” he said. “Instead, I was able to touch the lives of so many kids.”

For Floyd, the scandal had been a defining personal tragedy; but through him, it had been for so many of the city’s children a kind of blessing. That, I think, more than anything, was ultimately the source of Floyd’s sense of redemption – of coming to terms with the pain of his own past.

 Your research must have been fascinating. What surprised you the most about it? What did you expect to find and what did you find instead?

In writing my books, I’m hoping not just to tell the reader what happened, but also, crucially, to give as strong a sense of possible of what it felt like to be living in that particular time and place, to provide a sense of life as it was actually lived. My absolutely favorite responses from readers is when they tell me, “Wow, I felt like I was really in New York in 1835,” or some such thing. Thus, in Eighty Days, I was hoping that readers would feel what it was like to be barreling down the Wasatch mountain range on a train; or sailing along the Suez Canal on a moonlight night; or raising a glass of wine with Jules Verne in his home in Amiens, France. With The City Game, I was looking for a more jazzy sense of mid-century New York, of Times Square with its arcades and flea circuses and neon lights; or the insanely plentiful breakfasts at the old “Borscht Belt” hotels in the Catskills; or Madison Square Garden in the moments before a game, the darkness inside the arena punctuated by what seemed like thousands of fireflies – the burning tips of cigarettes.
Much like a fiction writer, I’m always looking for those vivid, specific details that work together to conjure up a scene. And you can find those in what might not seem to be the most obvious places. Oddly enough, one source that I’ve found to be particularly helpful is travel guidebooks from the period I’m writing about. A historian is, in a sense, a kind of traveler, though one who is traveling through time rather than space, and just like those other travelers, a historian can use guidebooks to get descriptions of the city, and discussions of restaurants and hotels, the most interesting sights, appropriate forms of dress (for weather and style alike), and the habits of the “locals.”

Of course, I’ll always read as many newspapers as I can from the particular place and time about which I’m writing. And in reading the newspapers about the 1951 basketball scandal, I began to notice that there was another sports bookmaking scandal going on in New York at the very same time – the Harry Gross scandal, in which it was revealed that this big-time bookmaker from Brooklyn was laying out millions of dollars in bribes to policemen and politicians to protect his syndicate. How was it possible, I wondered, for there to be two sports bookmaking scandals going on in New York at the very same time? And, more to the point, might there somehow be connections between them?

Well, as I delved into the Harry Gross scandal (which never even got mentioned in my book proposal, as I didn’t know it existed when I began the book), I did begin to see, more and more, that there were connections between these two scandals, and I began to understand how these young basketball players had gotten caught up in a vast web of corruption that eventually reached the very top levels of government in New York. It was a system of bribes and favors and back-room deals that kept the city running – that got statutes passed and buildings built and candidates elected and, for those who really knew how it worked, fortunes made. That was the way things were done in the city: that was the real “city game” of the book’s title.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m obsessed with trying to find my next book topic! Honestly, finding the right topic is the hardest and most painful part of the whole process. Good narrative history requires a story with compelling characters, a dramatic narrative arc, vivid setting, rich subject matter. For me, it’s also important for the main story line – while it has it to be exciting in itself – to also provide a window into larger questions of politics and history. And those types of stories are awfully hard to come by – particularly ones that haven’t already been written! (Or at least not written in the way that you yourself are proposing to do.) It took me about eighteen months to settle on the City College story, after finishing work on Eighty Days. Now I’m entering the same process after having completed work on The City Game. I have no idea what it is that I’m going to find – and no assurance, indeed, that I’ll be able to find anything at all.

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

Hmm. Maybe: “Do you mind if I tell you the perfect subject for your next book?”

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Binnie Klein talks about TEN DAYS IN NEWARK, her deeply personal, deeply political, podcast memoir set in 1967 hippie days.

Hey, hey, hey! Sixties culture has enduring impact and what better way to celebratethat  than to go back in time and remember? TEN DAYS IN NEWARK AUDIO MEMOIR by Binnie Klein is a haunting remembrance, and an absolutely wonderful and award-winning (Connecticut Press Club) six-episode audio memoir produced by Binnie Klein and Scott Shapleigh, which can be heard in a variety of ways:


Binnie can be contacted:

 Binnie’s a psychotherapist in private practice in New Haven, a Lecturer in Dept of Psychiatry at Yale University, host of music and interview radio show, “A Miniature World,” on 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month on  She’s the author of Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press, 2010) (profiled here on the blog!)

Here's just some of the raves:

“Strong and nostalgic, but not at all sentimental. Wonderful voice, evocative guitar”-- Daniel Menaker (My Mistake)

“Binnie’s political and personal memoir of Newark in 1967 is an absorbing example of investigatory and explanatory journalism. Those who wish to learn about those times from actual participants, will find this podcast both educational and touching”—music journalist Peter Gambaccini (Springsteen)

“You had me from the first few minutes of episode one. I found myself with you as you peeled back the layers of memories, and bravely forged ahead to revisit events of your young life”—Radio Producer and former Voice of NPR Frank Tavares

“A great audio memoir, this goes right to the core of those first high school friends we made -- how lost and how wild some become and how they may grow apart but are always with us.”—Louise Wareham Leonard (Fifty-Two Men)

I love Binnie and I'm thrilled to host her here. 


 I always ask, why now?

When you ask “why now?” I can’t help but think that in some ways I didn’t have a choice about the timing of this audio memoir. A letter arrived from my first boyfriend with news that jostled my dearly held denial about the realities of aging and loss, freshly immersing me in memories of first love, first heartbreak, and the haunting I’d been experiencing all my life – about him, about the sixties, about the impact of a place (Newark, New Jersey), the political cyclone of the era, and the rapid metabolizing of traumatic and ecstatic moments many of us endured.

The familiar look of his handwriting, the poetry in his prose, and the sad news in the letter threw me into a whirlwind of memories about my teen-age years. Odd coincidences occurred.  As I describe in Episode 1, I had just accidentally come upon a batch of old black and white photos from that time, the day before the letter arrived. I felt compelled to contact other peers to tell them the news, and each email or conversation led to fresh re-workings of narratives I had comfortably carried. Each contact challenged my vague, dissociated chronology. Each contact made me remember more, and with the memories came grieving I’d never fully done. But it wasn’t all grim. There was much laughter in the re-connecting, and even in-person visits.

What was it like going back into the past? What surprised you?

I didn’t expect to feel quite so confused and troubled by this delving into the past. I’d been a cocky teenage girl who was good at appearing “cool,” obsessed with boys, bound for trouble, carried by the sexual revolution and the company of hippies and activists, running wild without much supervision. During the reconstruction and note-taking I started, my husband and collaborator Scott Shapleigh said “This is a podcast.” There was so much mystery and discovery; he felt it was a detective story, with individual episodes, and amazingly, he was not threatened by the subject matter and that we’d be seeking out my first love. I was very comfortable with storytelling in an audio form, having produced essays and interviews, some on my radio show, “A Miniature World” on WPKN-FM. I began to keep a journal of the sequence of events, knowing that eventually I’d be talking to or maybe even seeing my first boyfriend; there was an inevitability to that. What surprised me? How well people remembered me. How much I’d repressed. There’s a funny little detail that didn’t make it into the podcast. In all the photos I look rather dour and gloomy. I’m never smiling. At first I thought it was about constantly trying to look cool and/or sexy, but then I remembered something. That was only part of it; I was trying to conceal an odd, slightly misshapen lower front tooth that made me very self-conscious. Years later I had it fixed.

What was your research like?

I was very lucky to have such an archive of photos to reference (they can be viewed on my Instagram page). I think of one where I am sitting in high grass in a backyard in Newark. Seeing the chain link fence and a shabby garage reminded me of how plainly we lived—most families in the Weequahic section in four room apartments in two family houses.
What I thought were wildflowers in one photo taken in Weequahic Park were really weeds, upon closer inspection. The tenderness in the photographs of me and Louis was especially moving; my fingers moving across his face, my long brown hair hanging down, his beloved cowboy hat tossed on the ground nearby, and our friend Gary, cross-legged, always with us, rolling a cigarette. Yes, very particular just to me and my little crowd, but I think many of us have a “Ten Days in Newark” that haunts them. I’ve even considered producing podcasts for others who have such periods or episodes. Who would you contact? What would you want to know? Would you have the courage to go back? 

Do you miss the girl you used to be?

The plucked guitar arpeggios of Scarborough Fair --I love that girl--the soft saliva sounds--I miss that girl--songs like the world is opening up--that girl was full of potential--are you going to--was said to her; you're the one, the real thing--her collection of short leather boots, her squirming body underneath the boys, their cologne, their mottled skin, parsley, sage, rosemary and...her potential..I miss that girl --two heads lean in and barely touch--I don't miss her brittleness but I miss her openness--this is from my notes for “Ten Days in Newark”

What was it like writing this? How difficult was it?

I wasn’t just keeping notes. Many nights I’d lie in bed attempting to will myself back in time, to try and remember new details, to swim again in the feelings of excitement or sadness. Could I recall Louis’ hands? His kiss? Why was I so devastated by our normal developmental passages – his going off to college and finding other girls? I had also saved our letters! Re-reading them made me cringe. I seemed a shallow, manipulative girl, enjoying political groups like SDS for the social activities they brought, fascinated by the boys who played guitar and knew all the chords. I bought my first guitar. But the letters also told other stories, of trouble at home, of Louis saying we’d marry but he’d “be a revolutionary.” And then of course, the letters became less and less frequent. Some arrived on torn pieces of paper.

And then it seemed my little posse had dispersed to join Weatherman, a radical political group. The podcast allowed me to finally understand why they went, and what their experiences were like.

What's obsessing you now and why?

What’s obsessing me now? When I’m not in the throes of trauma from the political madness I am, gulp, writing songs! This is brand-new for me, and wonderfully exciting. Right now I’m working with a fantastic collaborator who knows and teaches music. We hope to have some pieces up on YouTube soon. The first song, “My Last Bad Boy,” comes out of “Ten Days in Newark.” Because a book, a podcast, a tune may be written, but are the thoughts and feelings behind them ever truly finished? I am also writing “Tiny Tales from the Bin”—100-150 words in mini-memoirs. I post them on Facebook.

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

Ask me whether I’m glad I did this project. And I’ll tell you: yes and no. Mary Karr, in her excellent book Art of Memoir cautions that if you are going to delve really deeply into the past and there are landmines waiting, be careful. Don’t do it if you’re going to have a breakdown, she says. “Ten Days in Newark” brought very powerful and difficult feelings into my everyday life for several years. I was yes, obsessed, like a novelist maybe, with a story I kept trying to tell in the best way I could. I’m very glad I re-connected with some old friends. We still like each other. But first love and first heartbreak? “Be very afraid…” You don’t know what you’re going to find. You don’t know how much grieving remains. I didn’t know how old I’d wind up feeling, finally giving up that 16 year old girl with all her potential. It helps that I’m extremely proud of this effort. I think it’s unique; with recorded phone calls, original music, and spoken prose. I continue to be deeply moved and gratified when a generous listener conveys a comment. When they love it or relate to it, I get chills.