Thursday, October 22, 2020
I knew I wanted to write about someone with a short-lived job in the Trump administration, and one day I read about WHORM (White House Office of Records Management—truly its name) in Politico.com, and I said, “that’s it! That’s Rachel’s soon-to-be ex-job." I confirmed it with the actual archivist of the U.S. that it still exists, Scotch-taping the ripped-up documents all day long. A paragraph from Politico is the epigraph of the novel.
It's also incredibly smart (and hopeful!) that you bypassed the length of publishing to get this out there. What was that process like?
It was a slog, and one I wasn’t prepared for. I’d never had a book turned down, and my agent called it “delicious and relevant,” so I wasn’t worried. Ha! One by one, editors said exceedingly nice things along the lines of “has your usual warmth and wit, etc. etc.” all very complimentary, but to a person they were worried about Trump fatigue when 2021 rolled around. “No one will feel like laughing at Donald Trump” in a year when the book would come out. Jonathan the significant other said, “Won’t we be dancing on his grave forever?” Stacy Schiff, one of my first readers, said with each rejection,“I don’t get it! It’s a palliative.” Then dubbed it “The Trump Book That Could Only be Published Abroad.”
How can we all order this asap? http://eye-books.com/books/rachel-to-the-rescue
OR on the demon Amazon for those who have e-readers!
And anything else you would like to say? I am about to do another newsletter and I will put this in it, too!
Yes! At the same time I'm hearing about the U.S. rejections, Mary Trump’s book sold 980,000 copies in its first day for sale. And the NY Times’s Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed titled, “To Beat Trump, Mock Him.” Not in a novel, not in a year’s time, was the message. I did have this fond hope that England, where the diapered baby Trump blimp was invented, might not be afraid to get this out, and fast.
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Can you thrive as an adult if you were mistreated as a child? You will want to read R. L. Maizes' novel OTHER PEOPLE'S PETS, and here she talks about relating better to animals than people, family and writing, and so much more!
I am so thrilled to host R. L. Maizes and her incredible novel, OTHER PEOPLE’S PETS (Celadon Books, Macmillan). It was a Library Journal Best Debut of Summer/Fall 2020. She is the author of the short story collection WE LOVE ANDERSON COOPER (Celadon Books) and her stories have aired on National Public Radio, and can be found in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and in The Best Small Fictions 2020 (forthcoming). Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and have aired on NPR.
Let's look at the dazzling praise:
"While reading R.L. Maizes' Other People's Pets, I could not stop saying, as La La mouths to herself at one point, remarkable. Every time the novel opened up yet again to reveal some new depth, much like La La and her ability to experience the emotions of the animals around her, I worried how the novel could hold such wonder without bursting, could control the pain and joy of this remarkable story. But Maizes possesses such magic. This examination of family, across all lines and definitions, will open you up in such necessary, beautiful ways."
―Kevin Wilson, author of Nothing to See Here and The Family Fang
One of Library Journal’s Best Debuts of Summer/Fall 2020
"'Other People’s Pets,' with its lively voice and unexpected characters, makes a perfect addition to anyone’s summer reading pile, but it is required for those who understand that coming of age has absolutely nothing to do with age." Full review here.
—The Washington Post
"This debut novel brings to life a wholly original, deeply charming, and seriously flawed character whose enormous heart leads her into a mess of trouble. A beguiling tale that will make readers want to leap into the pages...." Full review here.
―The Library Journal, STARRED Review
“With its powerful exploration of a dysfunctional birth family and the life that can be made from and despite the traumas of inheritance, Other People’s Pets is, quite simply, a great read.” Full review here.
—Washington Independent Review of Books
"While its quirky combination of fictional elements and adroit, deadpan writing give the novel a wryly comedic atmosphere, La La’s story is melancholy and moving. An uncanny, appealing blend of suspense, irony, tragedy, and how-to for lock-picking, burgling, and ankle monitor removal." Full review here.
Maizes was born and raised in Queens, New York, and lives in Boulder County, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.
Thank you so much!!!
I always want to know what was haunting an author when they write their books? So what was on your mind when you wrote Other People’s Pets (which I really really loved by the way)?
I was thinking about whether you could thrive as an adult if you were neglected as a child, and what that would take. I was also considering what animals give us and wondering what it would it feel like to experience animals’ physical and emotional sensations as the main character, La La, can.
I love the whole idea of relating to animals better than with people—but what I loved equally was that you created a heroine who steals from houses and we love her for it.
I’m so glad La La resonated with you as a character. I knew when I created a protagonist who was a burglar that one of the challenges would be to make her sympathetic. Not that all main characters have to be sympathetic. But I wanted her to be. It helps that she is loyal to her father and takes care of animals in the homes she robs, though both put her at great risk.
I am totally obsessed with family—especially how we escape the confines of the ones that we are born with and the ones we are able to make for ourselves? Can you talk about that please?
I’m so taken with the idea of found family. That we can create families as adults and choose who will be in them fills me with hope. We all have wounds that we carry because our parents and the way we grew up were less than perfect. Our ability as adults to create family out of friends and lovers and animals and through that to give ourselves some of what we missed as children is one of life’s gifts.
I cannot believe this is a debut because it just GLEAMS. What was it like for you writing this book? Do you plan these out? Or do you just wait for that pesky muse? And what lessons do you feel you’ve learned about writing that you will use in your next work?
Thank you so much. I wrote six days a week, so I definitely didn’t wait for the muse to show up. For the first messy draft, I worked without an outline, telling myself the story. Then I created an outline in which I fixed many of the problems that had arisen in the draft. I began a second draft with one eye on the outline. But I’m always listening to my characters, and if they want to stray from the outline, I follow them, and then revise the outline. That happened with each subsequent draft.
Writing the book taught me there’s no need to panic when problems arise in the text. (Which doesn’t mean I won’t when I write my next book. I probably will.) But I did see that most problems are less intractable than they appear at first. It may take a lot of revision. You may have to wait a bit for a solution to arise, but most problems have solutions.
What, beside the pandemic and the world political situation is obsessing you now and why?
I’m concerned with people sharing false information on the internet,
intentionally and unintentionally. That affects the political situation and the
pandemic, and even apart from those contexts, it can and does destroy people’s
lives. We all need to ask ourselves before we repost, retweet, or share
information: is this true? How do I know?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
What’s the best vegan ice cream you’ve found? Costco sells orange coconut creamsicles. Very little nutritional value, but you’ll never regret eating one.
Can you give a shout-out to another author and to an indie bookstore you love?
I love Clare Beams’ new novel, The Illness Lesson. The language and the story are fantastic.
It’s feminist, and it has magical birds. What more could you want?
The Boulder Book Store is a wonderful indie bookstore that gives tremendous support to writers through events and through the Radio Bookclub they produce with KGNU public radio.
Monday, October 5, 2020
Women in the 1970s. An all male-college during the most turbulent times. Love, grief and family. Sarah McCraw Crow talks about THE WRONG KIND OF WOMAN, printing out and retyping drafts (a great writing tip, by the way), and so much more.
When I first read Sarah McCraw Crow's novel, THE WRONG KIND OF WOMAN, I immediately wrote a blurb for it. Here it is:
“How could I not devour a book set in my favorite era, the 1970s? About family, marriage, love and grief and a country in the turbulent flux of change, The Wrong Kind of Woman limns the lives of a stunned widow, her daughter and a lonely college student as they all struggle to come to terms with death—and life—against the backdrop of an all-male college during the Vietnam war, Kent State, the drug culture, and the first heady rise of the women’s movement. Absolutely fabulous.”
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World
And I am not the only person entranced.
Publisher's Weekly says: “An entrancing debut” and “engrossing reading.” Also “Sarah McCraw Crow’s smart and thoughtful story will ring true to those who witnessed the social upheavals of the ’70s.”
And from Booklist, “readers will soar through the smoothly written prose and empathize with the strong characters. Suggest to those who loved Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything.”
SARAH McCRAW CROW’s articles, reviews, and short stories
have run in many magazines and literary journals. She is a graduate of
Dartmouth College, Stanford University, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She
lives on an old farm in New Hampshire with her family. Thank you so much for being on my blog, Sarah!
I love, love debuts. What’s it been like for you? What are the pluses as far as writing your second novel? Any minuses? Did you learn something new about you and your writing process as you were finishing the novel?
I love debut novels too! It’s thrilling but also feels a little strange that a book that I wrote is actually getting published. Also, I’m not the typical debut author, if there is such a thing—I’m 55, so I’m not exactly young and cute. I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my early forties, when I took a novel-writing class at UCLA that you were teaching. Thank you for helping me get started! Many classes, two novels in the drawer, and one MFA program later, here I am!
As to the writing process, two tricks that helped me with revising were printing out and then retyping the whole draft, so I had to look at each sentence and each paragraph again as I typed. Also I read the whole draft aloud, which helped me hear those sentences that sounded clunky or ridiculous.
Regarding the second novel, yes, there have been pluses and minuses: On the one hand, as Brian Leung, one of my grad-school teachers, said about writing the second novel, “You did it once, so you know you can do it again.” I’ve found some confidence in that, which has kept me going.
On the other hand, and maybe this is also a reflection of the craziness of 2020, the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and terrible leadership at the top of our country, there have been many times this spring and summer when I’ve wondered whether my words have any meaning or use.
I always feel that writers are haunted into what they are writing. What was haunting you?
Haunted, yes, and by a couple of different things. I’ve always been interested in the women of my mom’s generation, and the choices they made, whether to go with the dominant culture or against it. My mom is progressive, but in the early Seventies, when she was busy with little kids and a medical-resident husband, she missed out on the women’s movement entirely.
I’m also haunted by the history of my own college, Dartmouth College, which the school in my novel, Clarendon College, is loosely based on. I wondered what it was like in the years before it went coed, when it was a lot like Animal House, and how it might have been for those who didn’t fit the mold of jockey WASP male. What if you were one of the few women faculty on campus back then? And what if you were a female exchange student among all those men who didn’t want you there—what would that have been like?
The Wrong Kind of Woman is told in three unique voices, that of a widow Virginia, her young daughter Rebecca, and college student Sam, each giving us a unique portrait of the process of grief, for both a family, and in a very real way, for a country in trouble. Can you talk about this please?
It's funny, because despite what I said before, when I started writing, I thought this was only a novel about grief, about three people getting through an untimely death. But as I watched Virginia’s journey, I saw that this story was about women—their place, or lack of it, on the Clarendon campus, and Virginia’s changing understanding of herself and the husband she’s lost—and also about a time, the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the country was pretty torn up.
By 1970, the Vietnam War had gone on for too long; Johnson had decided not to run again and Nixon had won the 1968 election. As the students kept protesting, the reactions got more heavy handed (as at Kent State). College campuses, and really the whole country, were in turmoil. And splinter groups like Weather Underground were setting bombs in public places. And the women’s movement was entering a new, more visible phase, beginning to push for the ERA and other changes.
I was really fascinated by the terrible way women were treated in academia. I’m not so sure it’s world’s better now. Is it?
That’s a good question. I’m not an academic, but it seems like it’s still tough for women in science to get the top jobs. Just last year, a group of women psychology grad students at Dartmouth won a settlement against the neuroscience department at Dartmouth for sexual harassment and sexual assault. That said, there are many, many more women in all areas of academia and college administrations than there were in the early Seventies.
So much of this amazing novel has got the 1970s spot on. What was your research like? What surprised you? Did anything surprise you so much that the plot veered?
Thank you! I love the Seventies, maybe because I was a little kid then. But the kinds of things that I remember from 1970—my Close ‘n Play record player, or TV shows like the Brady Bunch and Sesame Street—didn’t take me very far. So I read a lot of old newspapers, listened to late-Sixties music, looked at the books that were bestsellers. I also read accounts from women who were active in the women’s movement, and who’d joined anarchist movements like Weather Underground, and who were exchange students at all-male schools. Also, some readers of my early drafts happened to have been teens and college students in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and they noted when I got something wrong.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m obsessed with a couple of things! One is an institute in
the town where I grew up that promotes research into psychic phenomena—I’m
curious about the people who founded it, and about its history more generally.
I’m also kind of obsessed with the anti-nuclear weapons movement of the early Eighties.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Well, it’s actually a question about you—how do you find the time not only to write your novels, but also to teach, read writers’ manuscripts, review books, and promote other authors here on your blog and for A Mighty Blaze? And I’d like to say thank you for all the good energy you put into other writers, as well as your own writing.
Monday, September 14, 2020
Maddie Dawson talks about her new book A HAPPY CATASTROPHE, recurring characters, how this book is different from any other book she's written and more.
Maddie Dawson grew up in the South, among storytellers! She's the author of The Stuff That Never Happened, The Opposite of Maybe, The Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness, Kissing Games of the World, A Piece of Normal, Matchmaking for Beginners, and her latest A Happy Catastrophe! I'm thrilled to host Maddie here, and everyone should buy her book!
I always want to know what was haunting an author, what Big Question you were grappling with that moved you to write your latest book?
Such a wonderful question! I wrote this book because I was a mess, and I wanted to make myself happy. Like a lot of other people, I was feeling scared about the planet, U.S. politics, ordinary civility and a whole host of other things that seemed to be sitting on my chest each morning waiting for me to wake up. (This was pre-Covid, so I didn’t know yet how much more there was to worry about!)
When things get overwhelming, one of the best parts about being a writer is that we can go into another world. I love the Lee Smith quote about how when the world is crazy, writing a novel is just about the best thing we can do. It’s like a little world, she says, that we can enter; go in and close the door and stay there for a few hours. It totally absorbs you.
So that’s what I did. I wanted to write about what I truly do believe: that it’s magic the way love sneaks up on us, and the way that life can change in an instant, and that it’s never too late for happiness to find us, even in unexpected places.
It's wonderful to see old characters in a new book (from Matchmakers for Beginners). When you started the book, did you know how Patrick and Marnie were going to change?
Thank you, Caroline. I fell in love with Patrick and Marnie and their banter-ish, fun connection in Matchmaking for Beginners. And I was happy that they got together at the end of that book. BUT…deep down, I knew that Patrick needed to deal with a previous tragedy in his life before he could fully commit to Marnie, and so, in this new book, I had to throw some real surprises at both of them and let them come to the brink of disaster. (Don’t you just hate when you have to torture your characters?) I also wanted them to use their humor and laughter and belief in magic to see them through, but—I’m not going to lie—there were some tough days as we wrestled together!
And does this ever happen to you? There were a few times when I thought, “I am NOT going to be able to heal this couple! What kind of monster task have I created for myself here?”
So much of this enchanting read is about change--and how we navigate it in order to discover that the things we wanted, might just not be the things we need. Can you talk about this please?
Wow, that has been the main lesson of my life, I think. The way that the things I KNEW I needed weren’t the right things at all. Everything that has come into my life that is wonderful and true was NEVER in my original plan.
I wrote this book because I wanted to explore the idea that sometimes it’s the unexpected events that give our lives meaning—even though they are decidedly NOT the circumstances we would have chosen for ourselves. I was speaking with a friend one day, and she said, “I have come to realize that it’s always been the worst things in my life that have led me to the best things.” And I got to thinking about that; how in my life the things I never would have wished for led me to a greater compassion, a greater understanding, and sometimes even into a whole new lifestyle. The man I loved so desperately who left devastated me when we broke up allowed me to meet the man I’ve been married to for thirty-three years and who makes me laugh every single day. The rocky publishing stories early in my career led me to my ultimate publishing home and to an editor I adore.
Staying open to change and believing that things aren’t always what they seem—it’s a scary way to live (and I still fight it, thinking I know best)…but every now and then I can stop and remind myself what’s real.
What's obsessing you now, beside pandemic and politics, and why?
Ha! IS there anything besides the pandemic and politics? Really? I’m obsessed right now with learning to live in the moment—or trying to--to see what’s before me and not catastrophize. I’m obsessed with painting rocks on my back porch while I listen to a whole new cast of characters start to take shape in my head. I’m obsessed with a new grandbaby who is going to be born in October—a much wanted baby who comes after a pregnancy loss, so she seems extra wonderful.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You always ask the best questions, Caroline. I can’t think of a thing. Honest.
How was writing this book different than your last one? (I always hope that writing a book will teach each me something I can use in the next one, and it NEVER HAPPENS for me.)
Wow, isn’t that the truth?! It’s as though I have to re-learn novel writing with each new book. I guess that’s a good thing—keeps it real and keeps it from getting boring and/or formulaic.
This book was different because I knew I’d have to explore some pretty dark emotional stuff—Patrick’s tragic fire in which his former girlfriend died—and I wanted very much to go there with love and humor and respect for true suffering. By the way, you did that so beautifully in With or Without You. Your descriptions of the coma were mesmerizing and breathtaking. That’s the kind of writing I admire, and what we need to do, even when we’re writing uplifting stories about transformation. We have to be unflinching when looking at the hard stuff.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog! I am so thrilled to be here once again!
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
The fabulous Amy Shearn (and her daughter Harper!) talk about Amy's new book UNSEEN CITY, ghosts, NYC, writing and so much more
I first met Amy Shearn at a book reading in 2015, and was instantly smitten with her dress and with her because she is just the coolest, funniest person around.Want proof? Here you go:
Amy is also extraordinarily talented. She is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. Her third novel, Unseen City, is, truthfully, extraordinary. Want proof of that? Look at some of this praise:
"Luminous...The presence of ghosts is easily believable, helped along by the characters’ shared sense of grief. Shearn’s nimble storytelling unearths a fascinating and fraught history."—Publishers Weekly
"Like the ghosts who inhabit its pages, the novel lingers long after you’ve put it down."—Kirkus Reviews
"Amy Shearn’s modern fable Unseen City is anchored by smart, sly humor. It delves into the layered social, psychological, and historical architecture of New York City, a place that’s paved over the bones of its dead, who are transmuted by needs of the living or clarified by their own unmet demands. Somewhere between the two poles lies the finite present, a co-constructed mythology that’s revealed to be volatile, and as susceptible to emotional anesthesia as it is to radical hope."—Foreword Reviews
Amy has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn. You can find her at amyshearnwrites.com or @amyshearn.
And here is a fantastic video Amy made with her daughter Harper, which was also shot and edited by her son Alton! And wait, there's more! Harper was interviewed for her writing on this blog when she was in first grade! Read it here!
And here is the interview! Thank you Amy!
I always ask, what was haunting you when you wrote this book? And do you now feel unhaunted? Did the writing give you an answer you were looking for?
What a great question! When I was writing this book, I was haunted by many questions: How does one shape a meaningful life? Who can really manage to live in New York City and to whom does the city belong (a sub-question there being: How is gentrification a kind of ghost story)? And of course the old favorite: How do we go on with this life knowing we will experience tremendous loss and eventually die ourselves?
Also. When I first started shaping this book, I knew I wanted a historical storyline to intertwine with the present-day. But as soon as I started researching the history of various neighborhoods in Brooklyn I realized that (of course! inevitably!) any story about the history of this country is in some way a story about racism and racist violence. This was back in 2013, 2014, the years when the Black Lives Matter movement was really getting going, and I felt very aware of and haunted by the news and the anti-Black violence that is so woven into the story of this country. These two things combined in my head in a way I couldn’t stop thinking about -- how life in America haunted by the legacy of racism and violence; how white people often feel like it’s not “our” issue but how it needs to be everyone’s issue and everyone’s problem to focus on and try to work out. My book is just a novel of course, and only tells a pretend story about pretend people, and is inevitably from a white writer’s perspective, and I’ve certainly not answered any questions or solved any problems. I do not feel unhaunted by this one, as is appropriate. But I feel like I did strengthen my “radical empathy” muscles and stretched myself as a writer in this project of trying to create a story that engaged with important issues of social justice. I had never felt confident enough in my writing before to try to tackle anything on that scale before.
As for the other preoccupations, I think they might also just be evergreen questions for me. But I definitely have other things in mind, haunting me if you will, as I begin work on something new!
I love anything that has to do with NYC, and this wonderful novel feels like the best sort of Valentine. Is it? How and how not?
Ah, thank you! It’s funny you say that because I truly have a complicated relationship with NYC – I think maybe everyone does? I’ve never lived anywhere else where it feels like everyone who lives there is constantly going “Wait, do I really want to be here? Is it worth it? Should I move? I should move. Wait, no. I’ll never leave! Wait, actully I think I need to leave. Wait-” But I feel like that’s what it’s like to live here – because it’s, you know, objectively speaking, terrible in so many ways, you’re always having to choose it again and again. Then again, maybe I say that because I’m a transplant from the Midwest, and came here 15 – almost 16! – years ago without much of a plan and not totally expecting to stay. I’m perpetually surprised to find that my entire adult life is rooted here, that my children are New Yorkers.
So anyway, I wrote this in a time when I really did need to fall back in love with the city – my kids were small, life felt particularly hard and unaffordable, it often seemed (as it does for my book’s character Meg) that the city was trying to expel me, like a splinter or something, because I wasn’t rich enough or connected enough or high-powered enough. Learning more about the city’s history actually did help, in the same way that you feel more kindly or understanding towards a person once you learn more about their backstory.
I also wrote a lot in the book about weird spaces, hidden stories, and long walks, which truly are my favorite things about the city. I was definitely writing a valentine to taking long walks throughout the city, which is the one thing New York is absolutely the best for.
I also admit that I love librarians, and you’ve made this one even more enchanting because she has to live with her sister’s ghost in her apartment. Can you talk about where that character came from?
Ha! I love librarians too! I am often confused to find that I am not actually a librarian, like, how did that happen? How did I forget to become a librarian?
My second book, which came out while I was starting to write this one, was about a Brooklyn mother of two, and I was frustrated by how many people (totally understandably! but still) assumed the character was essentially really me. I wanted to create more distance with my next protagonist, and to imagine a very different life. Meg is single, has always been single, never wants to get married or have children, doesn’t work in media like I do, and is a very pure reader. I know that doesn’t sound that different from me, but weirdly because I’m a writer I feel like I can never really read in that same pure way as I did as kid, when I wasn’t also trying to figure out how the writer did this or that – I’m sure you know what I mean. So to me, it’s fun to imagine that. And because I felt overwhelmed by my children in those years, and (I now realize) unhappy in my marriage, the life of someone who kind of gets to be self-focused seemed quite seductive.
Now, IRONICALLY ENOUGH, I’m divorced, and I’m the same age that Meg is in the book (we’re 40, TYVM), and so sometimes, when my kids are at their dad’s, I do live alone, so… that’s just… really weird. I’m still not a librarian though. But stay tuned I guess.
As for her ghost! Some years ago I had a revelation about my parents. When they met, they were in their 20s, and they had both just undergone huge, traumatic, unexpected losses in their immediate families – the sudden death of both my mother’s brother and my father’s father. I’d always clocked this as nothing more than an odd coincidence until it occurred to me that (duh!) this must have been a large part of what bonded them together. When I asked them about this my mother said, “Yes, it was like we were two lost souls who found each other.” Gross right? Just kidding. Anyway, so this also sort of obsessed me, this idea that loss can bring people together. So I wanted to create two characters, Meg and Ellis, who are in a unique position to understand each other’s pain, and who are drawn together because of it.
There’s a lot about the things that haunt us in the book, and not just the sibling ghost or the library guy who is dedicated to excavating the mysteries of a haunted house.
I also deeply loved that the house, as well as NYC, was sort of a character in itself, something I admit I always feel drawn to. This house has had an upbringing, starting with growing up (so to speak) in Brooklyn before gentrification turned it from joke to a must destination. And so does the city, with vestiges of draft riots, poverty, love. Can you talk about this please?
Oh, thank you! Another thing that was going on in my life when I first started writing this book was that my then-husband and I were trying to buy a house. Our budget put us into the “Would you like a burnt-out shell or just a pile of rubble?” price range of Brooklyn real estate. So needless to say we were not looking at beautifully staged spaces; we were looking strictly at houses where it seemed like something terrible had happened immediately before we entered them. One we literally called “the murder house” because it just… had that vibe to it. I was fascinated by how you could feel the imprint of the people who had lived in these spaces – the tread of their feet on worn carpet, the misalignment of a door that was maybe slammed too many times. It made me think a lot about the spaces we live our lives in, and how those spaces shape our selves. And it also made me think a lot about gentrification and what role I did or did not want to play in it. Like, if we bought a foreclosed home in a neighborhood where we would be the only white people, was that profiting off institutionalized injustice, benefiting from the pain of whoever had lost their home?
We didn’t end up buying a house. But I did, obviously, retain an interest in the way houses and buildings tell narratives about the people who live in them and the cities around them. I love the wisdom and world-weariness of buildings that obviously used to live different lives – and there are so many of these in New York City. (Maybe because I’m from the Midwest, I’m perpetually impressed and surprised by how OLD everything here is.) The war munitions factory that eventually houses artists and lovers in lofts. The mogul’s stately mansion that gets sliced and diced into quirky little apartments. The farmhouse (as in the book) that finds Brooklyn has sprouted up all around it. I love them!
How do you think people find the persons that should be theirs? I sometimes think we have radar that guides us.
Oh wow, I really don’t know. I like this radar idea. I do find that we somehow draw in the people we need in any given moment.
Lately I have had so much love and gratitude for my friends – I am lucky to have these incredible, supportive, brilliant, generous women in my life who have lifted me up and held space for me as I navigated my divorce (and EVERYTHING else, you know, this year has been so many years!), and maybe this person-radar is to thank for that. I mean when I think about it, there are in this friend roster a few representatives from each stage in my life, which is pretty incredible – like a high school friend, a college friend, a grad school friend, new motherhood friends, current neighborhood friends – you know? Maybe my past self knew that I would someday need deep friendships with incredible women to lean on. I find that more and more my female friendships are the most important and nurturing relationships in my life -- they are truly my people, my kindred spirits. So, I’m glad my radar found and collected them over the years.
Tell us what kind of writer you are, and what the process was for this particular book.
What an interesting thing to think about! I hope it doesn’t sound too precious when I say that for me being a writer feels like as much a part of me as being a woman or a mother or something like that – like, it’s just there, it’s always going to be there. I’ve had such a, hm, checkered publication history that every time I’m writing a book I have no idea if it will be published or by whom or how, and yet I keep doing it anyway and I know that I always will no matter what; writing is just how I process life, and I feel weird and cranky when I’m not writing. Of course in addition to writing books, which feels like my art and my vocation, if you will, I write various essays and articles for work – though that feels like such a different thing!
So, anyway, this book. This was the first book I’ve ever written where I did a ton of research before even beginning, and then created a very detailed outline, including a sort of map for myself. I did a lot of work before writing any pages. I had Pinterest boards for all of my characters – I wanted to see and know everyone very clearly before I began. Then I divided up the storylines/narrators – there are now only two, but in the first draft I think I had 5 or 6 different narrators! And then I wrote each narrator’s storyline on its own, in these disparate narrative chunks. This worked well for the shape of time I had in those days, if that makes sense. My kids were little and I had very scant childcare, so I couldn’t reliably write every day. But I would find these sorts of islands of time. A couple times my mother came into town for a week or so at a time and watched the children and I spent all day every day writing one of these storylines. One summer I scraped together enough dollars to send the kids to day camp for the first time ever, it was so exciting, and then I had two weeks of half-days during which I wrote one of the storylines. That kind of thing.
But I wasn’t able to really braid all these storylines together until the kids were both in school fulltime. My daughter was in 1st grade, and my son was in full-day pre-k (I know it’s not very cool to say this nowadays, but I have a soft spot for DiBlasio -- entirely because he made universal pre-k a thing in NYC and this allowed me to finish my book), and after being home with them for nearly 8 years I decided I could gift myself a few months before looking for more renumerative work. I spent every school day working on the book. I have never before or since had anything like this, really – a fairly reliable six hours or so to write, day after day. The level of concentration and flow you can achieve is truly remarkable! This was the time and space I needed to combine all the bits of novel I’d written over the years. By that winter I had gone back to work fulltime, but that was a really great fall for me creatively!
THEN there was a whole series of sagas re: publication, and at one point my brilliant agent Julie Stevenson guided me through a pretty significant revision, etc, etc. So there were still a good many years between my “finishing” it, and now. To wit, my daughter is now in middle school. But hey, what is time anyway?
That was probably a lot more detail than you needed! But the point is: there’s always a way. It’s not the same way with each book, or at least it definitely isn’t for me. In fact, the next book, which my agent is currently reading, was an entirely different process! That book, a quick, epistolary comedy called Dear Edna Sloane, was written in one year, mostly during my lunch breaks from my day job. Each book totally is shaped by the process – like, of course a lunch break novel is in letters! You know?
And do you yourself believe in ghosts? (I do.)
I think I convinced myself, over the course of writing this book, that ghosts
are totally real. I started off liking a ghost as a metaphor. But – I just
think there has to be a lot about the way the world works that we can’t
prove or fully understand. And – this is going to sound so dumb – but a few
years ago my dog, a terrible mutt named Quimby, died. And afterwards I could
have sworn I felt her presence, sometimes even seemed to see her out of the
corner of my eye. It was so strange, and felt so physical – like there
was some imprint of her left there. It faded after a while. And maybe that’s
where we get mythologies/ideas like purgatory or the Bardo – trying to
explain why we have that weird sense that someone who’s dead is still hanging around.
What’s obsessing you now and why (besides the pandemic and politics.)
gosh, well, given the way my own life has changed in the past year, and
watching what’s happening to other nuclear families during the pandemic (my own
split was pre-pandemic! strange coincidence of timing, there) -- I have been thinking a lot about the inadequacy
of our contemporary American iterations of marriage and childrearing and family.
My friends and I frequently joke about starting an all-female artists commune
in the country where we would share childcare responsibilities and support each
other’s creative work… and sometimes I’m not sure we’re totally joking! I mean,
communal living feels like an utter science-fiction fantasy in Covid times. But
I do think that we’re all set up to fail right now. Heterosexual marriage, in
so many cases, ends up producing a kind of mini-society that’s fueled by the
free (and totally overlooked) labor of wives and mothers. Our country’s totally
backwards attitude towards childcare and education and whose responsibility they
are – it’s all been laid bare by the pandemic. So I’ve been thinking a lot
about that, and about how we ask women and especially mothers to shape their
lives and selves in order to make everything work a certain way. I’m in the
very very wispy first stages of writing something new, but I know this
obsession is going to work its way in…
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
No, you are perfect, obviously! You are the world’s best literary citizen in addition to being an awe-inspiring writer, Caroline. I’m so grateful to you for everything you do!
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Katherine Vaz on the Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour talks about art and writing, Our Lady of the Artichokes, The Heart is a Drowning Object, and gives shoutouts to Alexander Chee and more!
First, you have to know that Katherine Vaz is an AMAZING person and I adore her. Second you have to know that she is a distinguished and extraordinary writer.
Katherine Vaz is amazing Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard, and then at Radcliee, and in Fall 2012 she was a Harman Fellow at Baruch College in New York. She's the author of the critically acclaimed novel Saudade (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), the first contemporary novel about Portuguese-Americans from a major New York publisher. It was optioned by Marlee Matlin/Solo One Productions and selected in the Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers series.
Her second novel, Mariana, was selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top 30 International Books of 1998 and has been translated into six languages.
Vaz's first short story collection Fado & Other Stories received the 1997 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her second collection, Our Lady of the Artichokes, won the 200 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
Vaz is a recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Davis Humanities Institute Fellowship (1999). She has been named by the Luso-Americano as one of the Top 50 Luso-Americanos of the twentieth century and is the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded for the Library of Congress, housed in the Hispanic Division. The Portuguese-American Women’s Association (PAWA) named her 2003 Woman of the Year. She was appointed to the six-person U.S. Presidential Delegation to open the American Pavilion at the World’s Fair/Expo 98 in Lisbon. She lives in New York City and the Springs area of East Hampton with her husband Christopher Cerf.
AND because I could not embed the video for some reason, here is the link to her extraordinary video!
Honor Moore talks about OUR REVOLUTION: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER AT MIDCENTURY, race, gender, class, writing and so much more.
I'm thrilled to host Honor Moore here to talk about her new book, Our Revolution. Her previous memoir, The Bishop's Daughter was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Los Angeles Times Favorite book of the Year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris review, and more.
Our Revolution is more than a mother-daughter story. Through the book Moore investigates race, class, and just how writing can save us. Here's some of the Praise:
“Our Revolution begins with the sudden, catastrophic death of a mother and ends only when that mother has been returned to vibrant, textured life by her memoirist and poet daughter. Here is that emergence, beautifully recorded, documented, and envisioned as feminist art and American history.”
—Margo Jefferson, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of Negroland
“Honor Moore’s vivid, compassionate, scrupulously honest portrait of her mother, Jenny McKean, a child of spectacular wealth and privilege, whose life took her far beyond the comforts of her insular world, deftly charts the complex entanglements of family love, need, and pain. But this memoir-biography is also an intimate history of the ideas and events that jolted America during the three decades that followed the Second World War. The gaping rifts of class, race, and sex that set the country on fire then are still burning. Our Revolution is a book about those times for our times.”
—Siri Hustvedt, author of What I Loved
“In Moore’s supremely capable hands, what began as a labor of love and filial duty expands into a dazzling epic portrait of a fascinating American family and a mother-daughter story unlike any other. A superb feat of empathetic imagination and meticulous historical reconstruction, full of drama, passion, and the deepest wisdom.”
—Sigrid Nunez, National Book Award–winning Thank you for this great interview, Honor!
author of The Friend
I found OUR REVOLUTION, a Mother and Daughter at Midcentury just astounding. You truly have brought your mother back to life, but to real, honest life, not to the often whitewashing we do when a loved one dies. What was it like for you writing this book? What discoveries about yourself—and your mother—astonished you the most?
My mother died at fifty when i was 27 leaving me her unfinished writing in her will. I was a new poet, who had just had her first poem accepted, so I was also a writer. She had published a very successful book - what we would now call a memoir -- in her forties after having 9 children (THE PEOPLE ON SECOND STREET by Jenny Moore, 1968) and the idea was that I was to develop her writing as I saw fit. Which confused me - was I supposed to do her writing or my own? I carried her writing around for decades and finally, after a friend nudged me after reading about her in the book about my father, The Bishop's Daughter. I should write about my mother, she said. But I already have, I answered -- poems that became a play Mourning Pictures, right after her death. But I had not written about her really since -- I had been in my twenties and now I was close to seventy -- she died at fifty; I could be her mother.
The shock was discovering in the place of my mourning-for mother, a woman whom became able to see as separate from myself, our mother/daughtr dyad. Discovery came through scrutinizing photos and scrapbooks and her childhood and adolescent fiction and poetry. her letters and what she left behind -- writing written after her book. Pretty quickly, I began to intertwine her voice with mine in the narrative, feel her come alive/. That was the astonishment. All my old mournful sad feelings about her slipping away as she appeared, radiant, hilarious and brilliant -- her voice back in my head as if I had never lost her.
You write so much about race, gender and class through the generations. Do you have hope that we as a people will eventually work this out? Or do you see it growing more complicated?
I actually think that your "complicated" might be another word for nuance. Writing this book from the end of the Obama years into the Trump years enlivened and inspired my hope to make clear where we as a country have come from, how far those who struggle for change have come, and the kind of spiritual strength it takes to keep going. I do have hope. I had thought that perhaps I idealized my parents' antiracist work, but when I returned to Jersey City where they began that work, and talked to those who remembered them, I found that the love my parents gave was still there in the memories of those I talked to, which inspired me to keep going, keep trying to make things right. It's a forever and difficult task is what I learned and hope -- which has dynamism and force -- fuels continuing action.
So much of this gorgeous memoir is also about the difference between our daily selves and our writer selves. Can you talk about that for us, please?
Hmm. My daily self as I worked on this book was setting up after coffee and yogurt wherever I was working and writing day after day. In that way my writing self actually was my daily self, except for the days when I remembered to take a day off. I was also teaching and I found that when I was teaching a workhop, my writing self infused what I was trying to get across to my students. One of the things I noticed writing about my mother who was a hands on mother who loved to cook, was that decisions about childcare (I am the oldest of nine) and cooking and what we ate became consequential to the life I was writing about. Which amazed me. For instance how my mother made a cheese dream (open faced grilled cheese sandwich) and her own effort to learn to cook after growing up in an upper class household where her meals were cooked and served to her, was principled and worth writing about, biographically. There are moments in the book when I interrupt as the narrator -- for instance, my parents' courtship was almost entirely epistolary because my father was stationed in Seattle -- it was World War II -- and my mother lived in New York -- I worked from their correspondence which is about 2000 pages long and it took endless weeks to get the narrative to flow. At one point, I say "I have been trying to get my parents married for months." A convergence of writing and daily life! Is that what you mean?
What’s it like for you writing in the pandemic? How do you keep hope burning?
I am having a hard time fining my way, and am kept on track by -- yes -- hope. I'm confuses and rattled, and in a way I don't know who I am. Usually I would have been working on poems along with prose, but I haven't been for a few years because I took on a labor of love project. Simultaneously with Our RevolutionI have been working on editing -- with Alix Kates Shulman-- a book for Library of America called Women's Liberation: Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution and Still Can due out in February 2021, which we finished in late July when the final photo section and introduction were put to bed. I look forward to finishing a collection of poems that needs another section and I'm thinking about the next prose book. I keep hope "burning" by trying to remember that beginning anew has always been difficult and that I've always managed to do it. And that if I don't do my writing I will be a terribly unhappy woman.
What, beside the pandemic and politics, is haunting you now?
The fate of the earth as Jonathan Schell put it when writing
about the threat of nuclear war in his great book of 1982, framing the nuclear
issue as an existential challenge. The
same urgency accompanies the reality of climate change -- a challenge we must
all rise to, not only for the earth itself, but for those who come after
us. I am sitting in a room now, a one
room studio, and outside everything is green.
A sense of the earth and the world being inexhaustible has given me hope
all my life, a hope I hang onto, even as I realize such hope may not be a
reality for my nieces and nephews and their children, or for my students.
What question didn’t’ I ask that I should have?
You've written three nonfiction books about your family. How did that happen?
I was a poet first and continue to be that and I couldn't fit my grandmother Margarett Sargent into a poem -- too much explanation was necessary, too much missing context. So I launched myself into the book that became The White Blackbird (1996), writing her life as "Margarett Sargent" the name she painted under, the name of the woman I didn't know -- in contrast to "Mrs. Quincy Adams Shaw McKean" which was her patriarchal name, and through that process I discovered the artist, who though thwarted, could inspire me (and others!) instead of terrifying me as the "crazy grandmother" who was in and out of mental hospitals most of the time I knew her. Likewise my father: I had never been able to write a poem about him, but when I discovered his secret bisexual life in my forties, I understood that his silence was what had blocked me. Writing The Bishop's Daughter (2008)was a way to break that silence, rearrange its pieces, give new life to my memories, letters and documents. It seems to me now that it's taken almost my entire writing life to find the sources of my own voice, to encounter my inner life. What are the silences there? That seems to be the question now. But how will I find that story?
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Carol Van Den Hende talks about her eloquent new novel about love and loss and love again: GOODBYE ORCHID. And come to our launch party on September 16!
How could you not adore someone who not only attends your book event but comes baring CHOCOLATE? LOTS OF CHOCOLATES? That's the kind of person Carol Van Den Hende is. She's also an author and American Fiction Awards winner who explores the visible and invisible challenges of imperfect heroes and heroines. When she’s not penning stories of resilience and hope, Carol applies her MBA to marketing and strategy (in chocolate!)
She’s also a public speaker, who’s presented at Writers’ Digest, Women Who Write, Authorpreneur, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, NJ Romance Writers, Rutgers, Liberty States Fiction Writers’ conferences and other events.
Carol is active in her
community, as a Climate Reality Leader, as a Board of Trustees Volunteer
Officer for a special needs school, and by raising funds for
non-profits through the launch of her novel, Goodbye, Orchid. I'm so thrilled to host Carol here. Thank you, Carol!
I always want to know what is haunting an author into writing their books. Was there some question you yourself were grappling with and you wanted to try and figure it out in writing?
“Haunting” is an evocative word, Caroline, for the obsessions that fuel writers to write! There are several themes in Goodbye, Orchid that deal with issues I’ve grappled with: how our lives can change in an instant, the injustice of how we see ourselves versus how others judge us, and the power of unconditional love. Phoenix, Orchid and the whole cast let me explore these issues and more.
What kind of writer are you? Do you plan things out or just wait for that pesky muse!
I love that there’s no wrong answer to “how do you write?” For Goodbye, Orchid, I knew the overall arc of the story, and then filled in the details along the way. The strategist in me loves having the big picture, and the creative side of me loves discovering the twists and turns in the moment!
I deeply admired the structure of Goodbye, Orchid, which seamlessly told the story of two people in and out of love, grappling with an accident that could change both the trajectory of their love—and their lives. So I have to ask, what would YOU do if you were either of these characters? Would you follow the paths they chose? Or do something else entirely?
Thank you for the kind words, Caroline. There’s so much to learn from the structure of YOUR storytelling. I deeply empathize with the positions of each of the characters – major and minor – and can understand their choices, because their actions stem from their backgrounds and misbeliefs. But since my own background and assumptions are different, I wouldn’t necessarily choose the same paths. For instance, I have so much heart for Phoenix’s position even if I might not behave in the same way.
So much of this gorgeous novel is about what we would do for those we love, and at what cost. Would you talk about this please?
This question reminds me of the heart-warming review you sent after reading Goodbye, Orchid: “What do we really owe the ones we love? How far will we go to protect ourselves at the cost of a relationship? When a traumatic accident near-tragically derails a man’s life, can he dare to trust that the woman he adores will stick by him, despite all he’s hidden from her? A richly detailed story of star-crossed lovers that we root for, all told with unforgettable heart and insight.”
Love is paradoxical emotion, powerful enough to give us strength, soften us into vulnerability, and make us behave irrationally. Phoenix believes he loves Orchid enough to do anything to protect her, even if it’s from himself. But readers may be surprised at his ultimate insight.
What, beside politics and the world is haunting you now and
I’ve just been inducted into the latest class of Climate Reality Leaders, which is a powerful way to raise environmental awareness. But besides politics and the world, I’m obsessed with recording studios and audio equipment…because I’m about to record Goodbye, Orchid as an audiobook!
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Caroline, you’ve asked lovely and thought-provoking questions. Thanks for this interview! One thing your tiny letter readers might like to know is that Goodbye, Orchid will strive to do good in the world, not just through its message of hope, but also by donating a portion of profits to military and other non-profits.
I’m looking forward to our launch party on September 16th. I hope everyone can join us to chat books and win prizes 7-8pm EDT.
Saturday, August 22, 2020
Shuly Cawood talks about her incredible new book, A Small Thing to Want: Stories, PLUS THERE IS A VIDEO!
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning writer and the author of four books:.
The short story collection, A Small Thing to Want
The memoir, The Going and Goodbye,
The little advice book, 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17
The forthcoming poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, winner of the 2019 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry.
Want to watch her one minute video which includes a shoutout to another author AND TO AN INDIE BOOKSTORE? HERE YOU GO! https://youtu.be/3s6voQku4Ao