Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Portrait of a novelist currently writing her new book: Claudia Zuluaga talks about Fort Startlight (Published & praised), and A Body is a Haunted House, (ready for her agent to submit), hauntings, ghosts, writing, and so much more.

Of course it's always fascinating to me to get to talk to writers after they've finished their novels and the books are published and out in the world, but what about during the writing process itself? Here Claudia Zuluaga offered to talk to me about just that--both the book that is out and published, and the one she's working on now, A Body is a Haunted House.

Claudia Zuluaga has published in iNarrative Magazine, Lost Magazine, JMWW, and Linnaean Street, Dzanc Books' Best of the Web series and is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review. Her novel, Fort Starlight, reviewed by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, was shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.
She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. Claudia teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) in New York City. 

Thank you a billion times, Claudia!

I believe every writer is haunted into writing their novels. What was haunting you?

Fort Starlight (Engine Books, 2013) came out of my fascination with the idea of planned communities, places that don’t arise organically because of any real need, but instead out of cheap land and some idealized narrative about how a place can be born. When I was in high school, I moved to a planned town in Southern Florida. We moved because my parents would never be able to afford a home in Westchester County. They believed they might have the chance to get ahead in Florida (though this didn’t end up happening).
The place we moved to was much further along in development than the fictional town of my novel, but still, I was stunned by how different it was from where I’d grown up. It wasn’t close enough to the ocean for it to even matter. There were enormous alligators in the canals behind the boxy houses, rumors of panthers stalking the sparse woods. And no sidewalks, though even if there had been, there was no place close enough to walk to. I didn’t have access to a car, so spent a lot of time sitting on the screened in porch, looking out the window at the thick grass and small trees that never changed color. We’d hear of newly-built homes being swallowed by sinkholes. There were lots of churches, but no other culture I was able to discern. I tried to like it, because I was stuck there, but even once I’d made some friends, I couldn’t figure out how do that.

 I moved away as soon as I could figure out how, but the place became a permanent part of my psyche. I remembered it as something I had endured, not unlike the way, now, I remember my painful and frightening first labor. Absolutely haunting. I’d managed to get myself out of that place, but what if I hadn’t been able to? What if I’d had to stay there and try to build a life for myself out of unfamiliar, uncomfortable things? Writing Fort Starlight—and setting it in a community that had not yet fully emerged from the swamp—was a way of putting myself back into that perception of stuckness, but surrendering to it instead of fixating on escape.

Every writer has a different writing process. What's yours? Do you have any rituals? Do you plot out?

Working on a novel is naturally intimidating, but it’s also where I enjoy myself the most, where I can stretch and wonder and not feel rushed to be smart or know what it all is going to add up to. I’m not a fast writer and I love when I find another piece of the puzzle just before falling asleep.

The writing begins when I see some image that I want to get closer to, want to understand, or be further seduced by. Next, I think about a very-vague character’s relationship to that image, or where they might be going from there. Sometimes I have another image, and my work becomes about figuring out how those images might be related, how to get from one to the other. When I started Fort Starlight, I saw my main character stuck in a half-built house, a blue tarp covering one unfinished wall. I also saw two half-naked young boys, dirty and hungry, walking barefoot through the thick grass of the empty fields. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but I went with those images and kept at them until more images were born, and soon a story began to take shape.

Once I finish a draft, there are a lot of moving parts, and it can get chaotic and confusing. At that point, I do a lot of plotting of what is there, which leads to big shifts. I do this with each draft, over and over, evolving my understanding with repetition. I also create visual graphs so that I can the relationships between different components of the book. One of my favorite things to do in later drafts is to take stock, scene by scene, of what a character is experiencing. I make notes on their thoughts, their emotions caused by those thoughts, and the actions they are taking as they experience those thoughts and emotions, just to make sure I really understand where they are in each moment. It’s exhausting, and probably part of the reason I can’t write a book in a year or two, but it’s how I need to work. I do all this in a notebook writing until my arm gets tired. I think I need to feel it in my body in order to believe it.

Tell us about your new novel. Do you feel like you learned anything from writing your first novel, or is it completely different and how so?

My recently-finished novel, A Body is a Haunted House, is about Hannah, forty-five and newly separated not long after the birth of her stillborn daughter. She moves with her elementary school son to a humble apartment in a suburb, where she takes a job shredding paper and joins a ghost investigation club. She believes she joins for diversion, but her unresolved grief nudges her into a search for something real.

Meanwhile, in the green hills of Northern Spain, lives Iker, a depressed architect whose recent car accident cost him a limb. One night, Iker is visited by the apparition of woman whose unexplained presence in his kitchen gives him a new sense of purpose. Hannah’s and Iker’s narratives are interwoven, but the effect they have on each other’s lives is something only the reader truly understands. The book is about both grief and the invisible connections between us all.

When I started this book, I was fascinated with people who look for ghosts. Whether they’re dealing with unresolved grief or just need to believe there is life after death, there is something so pure and beautiful about this quest.
 Writing A Body is a Haunted House was a similar experience to Fort Starlight in that it started with unrelated images that absolutely didn’t make sense to me at first. This time around, I completely trusted that those images would connect and create the meaning that was hiding deep in my subconscious. The more unrelated the images, the wider the net is cast, and the story has the freedom to be wild, something to understand. The long period of the discovery of the connective tissue is my favorite part of writing a novel.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Perfume! I’m a perfume lover and collector, and have found a few new favorites that seem to completely transform my experience of my life. I’m crazy about good perfume, but have no understanding of what it must be like to intuitively know how one essence might work with others. I wish I could have this kind of mind! Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what an interesting challenge it is, rendering scent on the page. I love Perfume ( the novel by Patrick Susskind), and Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. I’m also obsessed with perfume reviews on Fragrantica.com, where the writing is kind of wonderful (‘Imagine a bunch of roses laid on a stainless steel countertop – cool, yet heavy. Clean yet ghostlike. Initial spray is deep, smoky, and almost suffocating and animalic…’ and ‘It evokes those memories that were burnt up & thoroughly buried’). The people who write these reviews are so passionate and eloquent, and their love for perfume is both primal and divine; I guess they fascinate me the same way people who search for ghosts fascinate me. They’ve already worked their way into my embryonic work-in-progress of another novel.

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

How about my favorite childhood book? I was bonkers for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I still am. A sour, ‘disagreeable’ little girl (Mary) is newly orphaned by cholera, and crosses the ocean to find herself a ward of a relative who owns an enormous, echoey manor in Yorkshire. The relative who took her in is not particularly interested in her, and the only people she interacts with are the manor’s servants. Mary is lonely but so lacking in social graces that she doesn’t know how to connect with people. Nobody likes her. It’s winter, the moor is empty of life, and she feels (understandably) sorry for herself. But spring begins, something she has never experienced before. And then one night she hears a sound of wailing from some faraway part of the house. These two things finally open her experience to things that are outside of herself. I read this book so many times as a child that it made an impression on my future writer self in terms of theme and structure. Isolation and connection figure into every piece of fiction I’ve ever written. Even when I think I’m writing about something else, it always comes back to this.

Hundreds of women and girls were brutally killed by Countess Erzsebet Bathory of Hungary between 1585 and 1609, but they were not silenced. Because, in MANY RESTLESS CONCERNS, Gayle Brandeis gives voice to them in their quest for justice. And here, Brandeis also talks about being haunted, writing, life and more.


Imagine being a young woman or girl in 1500s and early 1600s Hungary. Now imagine that you were chosen to be tortured and then killed by Countess Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary. Vanished. Disappeared. But author Gayle Brandeis doesn't let them happen. Instead, in her masterwork, MANY RESTLESS CONCERNS, these women speak in chorus, bearing witness, calling for justice.To say this novel-in-poems is extraordinary doesn't begin to do it justice. Here's what others are saying:

"Many Restless Concerns reanimates the stories and bodies of young women who were tortured to death by Hungarian Countess Bathory in the early 1600's. A breathtaking restoration and reckoning. A tour de force chorus built from the voices of women who refuse silence. A body resistance song for all times." Lidia Yuknavitch

"If all the women and girls who have been murdered, tortured, abused and disappeared were to raise their voices, they would create a song that would drown the world...In Gayle Brandeis’ haunting and haunted novel-in-poems, Many Restless Concerns, she invokes such a chorus...Brandeis presents their gifts, their dreams, as well as the ways they died, and demonstrates that it is through collective action that they ultimately find justice. You will never un-hear their mournful, defiant and triumphal song." Terry Wolverton 

"Feels like a terrifying and gorgeously lyric fairy tale but never once does the author let us forget that the pain is real and the point is empathy, understanding and protecting the ones who come after. Ethereal and beautiful as its ghostly chorus, but with "muscle and scent," "meat" and "bone," Many Restless Concerns is quickened with the blood of the victims, the essential, and ultimately healing, blood of story." Francesca Lia Block

"This work speaks to our own times, to our #metoo reckoning, to our power as survivors to take back our stories and reclaim the darkness. Oppression of any kind never holds, even if it takes the dead to bring it down. This book is a haunting, essential read for all uneasy souls." Laraine Herring
 Many Restless Concerns

I first met Gayle through the now defunct Readerville, and then we met up in person at BEA and there was this instantaneous connection. We've stayed in touch, we see each other when we can, and I consider myself so so lucky to have her as a friend.
She's the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, Delta Girls,  and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns, which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She is also the author of a book of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (and a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review, and many others) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Thank you so much for being here, Gayle! See you soon!

I always believe that writers are somehow haunted into writing their books. What was haunting you?

All my books have definitely arisen from a haunting of one kind or another; in this case, the haunting felt literal. After I learned about Countess Bathory, via one of my daughter’s books about notorious women of history, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the girls and women she had killed (some reports hold her responsible for up to 650 murders), and their ghosts started to whisper to me, started to demand I give them voice.

If I step back to consider a deeper haunting, I was also haunted by questions of how we give voice to trauma. I started writing this when I was pregnant, and my mom’s delusional disorder was ramping up to a new level, and I didn’t know how to handle the chaos of all of that. In some ways, my own voice was trapped at the time, and there was something cathartic about breaking other silences through this project. Then my mom took her own life when the baby was one week old, and the ghosts I had been heeding grew quiet as I worked on breaking my own silences. Once I finished my memoir, I found my way back to these ghosts, and it felt cathartic in a new way, writing about a greater silence, a greater loss than my own.

I was fascinated and horrified and heartbroken to read  the history of Countess Bathory, but more than that I was fascinated at how you are able to move from novels to poetry to short fictions and prize-winning essays and now this magnificent prose, like messages in a bottle, that create a whole heart-rendering whole. Do you find that you have to get into a different sort of mindset to work, or does it just kind of seamlessly happen?

It’s definitely not a seamless process—it’s one that requires a lot of trial and error. Sometimes it takes several drafts before a project tells me what form it wants to take—what I think is a short story may become a novel or an essay; what I think is going to be a novel can become a poem. It’s a matter of trying different approaches, and listening to the work itself until the right form clicks into place (and then of course revising the work so it can best inhabit that form).

“Pain can open a magnificence within your body,” is just one of the astonishing lines here of the young women bearing witness to their own suffering. It does what true art does, giving us another way to experience the world and see it in a different way. Can you talk about this please?

Oh, thank you! I was living in tremendous chronic pain before I had some life-changing surgery a few years ago, and while the pain was mostly exhausting and distracting, sometimes it would swell in an almost orchestral way that made me feel enormous and elemental, like a thunder cloud. I thought perhaps if these young women could experience something similar, it could give them their first taste of their own power.

I was also fascinated by the topography of the book, how words form a kind of artwork on the page.  How did this come about?

This came about from listening to the text, too—because there is so much white space in this project, any word became a visual element on the page, and some of those words begged for a more dynamic placement.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Like many of us, I’m obsessed with the news and the upcoming election, and doing whatever I can to turn the White House and Senate Blue; more specifically, I’m obsessed with animal behavior and the weekend Marilyn Monroe spent in Lake Tahoe, where I live, right before she died. I’m writing about both—I’ve been wanting to write a book called Write Like an Animal ever since my book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, came out in 2002, moving from the plant world to the animal world for creative revelation, and I’m finally doing it, and am loving exploring animal ingenuity and grace and power (both through research and through spending time with my puppy, who I am totally obsessed with.) Marilyn is my latest haunting—I move through the area with a sort of double consciousness, wondering how she would experience and interpret everything around me.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Your questions are wonderful and I don’t feel anything is missing at all. If I have to come up with something, it would be: Why should we care about girls and women murdered over four centuries ago? I’d say that historical accounts of femicide can help us see our own time period more clearly, can help us see and feel the horror of today’s missing and murdered girls and women, especially those in the indigenous community. If we want to make the world safer for girls and women, we have to tell such stories.

Leah Lax talks about UNCOVERED, the first ever memoir about a gay woman entering and then leaving the Hassidic community.

My grandfather was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. My mother stopped believing in God and religion when he died suddenly, (I was only two), but she never stopped telling me the stories of the community in her house, the love, the sense of belonging brought her. Because I grew up in the only Jewish family in a Christian neighborhood (Oh yes, kids came up and thrust their hands into my thicket of curly hair wanting to find my horns. I had high school friends call me crying to tell me that their parents did not want them associating with a Jew.) I grew up not religious, but still yearning to feel that I belonged somewhere. When I moved to NYC, I became fascinated with the Hasidim I would see, and with their culture. Although I didn’t want to be part of a culture that seemed to me to be very unkind to women, LGBTQ, and repressive, I admit I was jealous of the tight community.

I knew I wanted to write about this, in small part, in my next novel, but small or not, I wanted to get my facts right, so I looked for women who had left their community and the first and most important question I asked was, “What do you miss about your community?” There was, of course, plenty not to miss. Many had lost children or family to the community. But just about everyone I interviewed said, yes, as a child, there was this feeling of welcome, of belonging. And the person I interviewed who helped me so, so much, is Leah Lax, who wrote the astonishing UNCOVERED the first memoir about a gay woman leaving the Hasidic fold—and what is more amazing, she left her liberal and secular home to become a Hasidic Jew. It is one of my favorite books, and Leah has become one of my favorite people.

Leah Lax has written award-winning fiction and non-fiction as well as an opera for Houston Grand Opera that was reviewed in the NYTimes and broadcast on NPR. Her work has appeared in many places, including Salon, Dame, Lilith, jewishfiction.net, and in anthologies by Seal Press and North Atlantic. She is the recipient of the Writers’ League of Texas Discovery Award, Pirate’s Alley/PEN Faulkner (Finalist), and the May Sarton Award.  It was also a New YorkYork Library Pick, and  a Redbook and Good Housekeeping Best of the Year.

Coming in March from SUNY Press, is OFF THE DERECH, with 30 pages about Leah musing about gender roles and notions of gender in the Hasidic Community, plus an excerpt from UNCOVERED.

I cannot thank you enough, Leah, for talking to me, so I would get the details in my novel right, and for this extraordinary memoir, and for friendship, too.

What is so fascinating to me about Uncovered is that you came to into the Orthodox community later, rather than being born into it. What were you looking for then?

I think I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to answer that question. I grew up in a small immigrant family—three enmeshed generations of us. My grandparents had shucked their parents’ Old World ways, and that included their Orthodoxy. My mother took that rebellion to new places. She became a fine artist with passionately liberal politics, enthralled with the new feminism. She insisted we three girls go to college and find a way to ensure we could be financially independent, she took us often to the library, and she filled our home with opera and symphonies and books and art. She hated orthodoxies of all kinds. My becoming Hasidic was the perfect adolescent rebellion.

The deal was sealed for me in college. All of the religious student organizations were burgeoning—Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Jewish—the Irani Moslem kids demonstrating on campus against the shah. It was a growing wave across the country, a move to the right that began on campuses. We were rebelling against our Sixties liberal parents. We would be the grownups, with structure, religion, reliable rules, morality like a solid scaffolding to God.

When you think about that decision now, what do you wish you had known?

1. That I could never escape my mother. That her imprint was so deep she would shape virtually every step I took away from her. Years later, when I called her and said, “Mom—I’m leaving the Hasidim. I’m leaving my husband. And I’m a lesbian,” she shouted into the phone, “You’re coming home!”

2. My family ‘s immigrant stories, which they had buried, as so many immigrants do. And that, whether or not we are conscious of family stories, we bear their imprint as well.

3. What it really means to be a hyphenated American. I wish I’d understood that most of us spend life teetering on that hyphen, aware that we have choices on either side.

4. That we are a nation of immigrants and their families. From the Mayflower to the Middle Passage, from Native Americans’ forced migrations to Ellis Island to recent refugees, journey stories have always told us who we are. If I’d understood this larger context of my own history, I might have better understood myself, and then maybe I would have been less easily subject to the neat package of identity the Hasidim offered, kissed by God.

4. Most of all, I wish I’d known I was a lesbian. The Hasidic world is no place for a lesbian! But I grew up when society had little or no public language for being gay, and I felt my feelings as so normal and natural, it didn’t dawn on me to label them. If only some girl had come along and kissed me…

Uncovered is still selling and selling and selling. Why do you think readers are so drawn to this particular story?

I was an Every Kid, a mid-continent public-school girl from a neighborhood of tract homes, from a world of sameness. I was drawn to the exotic, to a specific identity from within the melting pot, and the promise of God. A lot of my readers relate to this.

I often wonder why most of the world’s religions demand the same of women—cover your body and let shame drive your actions, lower your voice, bear children as your life goal regardless of how well-suited you are for parenthood. Arranged marriages are common to many religious orthodoxies, birth control all too often frowned upon.

For women drawn to their religion, covering one’s body and voice and passions is often the only way they have ever learned to show their love of God—prayer a dance of self-effacement. I think it more a devil’s bargain. Men give themselves just as often to religion and that’s an equal loss of spirit, even if their payoff, of power, is sweeter.

Most of the letters I’ve gotten are from people who previously knew little about orthodox Jewish life, but many had felt “covered” at some time in their lives, subjected to the will of others, their hopes or talents or passions muted and unclear, even to themselves.

I think that’s the goal of every writer—to write a story so specific that it leaps to the universal.

Do you feel your move into Hasidic life was indicative of our culture today, where people yearn for connection and community they are not really finding on social media?

Absolutely. I fantasized the Hasidic community as one large, close, supportive family. Of course, reality never comes close to our dreams.

Yes, social media gives only the illusion of community, and isolates us, but it can have the opposite effect as well. A lot more of the young people are leaving the Hasidim. For them, social media is often how they find their first community of like-minded rebels, when they feel alone among the Hasidim. That’s their window on the world.

How difficult was it for you to tell your story? I’m betting that you are still getting extraordinary responses.

I love that you seem to equate the difficulty of telling my story with the quality of the responses to it. That’s exactly how a writer would pose the question (hi, Caroline!) because we see every challenge before us in the narrative as if it’s a mountain to climb. If we can make that climb brim on the page with real world details and pack the words with the fraught heartbeat behind every toehold, the reader will climb that mountain, and afterwards, heart racing, feel triumphant.

I promised my imaginary Reader that I wouldn’t write. Instead, I would re-experience every scene, but this time I’d do it on the page. Having lived through those events once was more than enough, but that sort of self-hypnosis was the only way I knew to make it vivid. There were times when I paced and sobbed in my writing studio, my old stoicism shattered in pieces on the floor.

What do you tell people who want to follow your lead and find the life they are truly meant to be living, instead of the one that is suffocating them?

Once, as Mother and Wife, I cried to a friend in horror at my yearning to be what I thought of as selfish. She said, “Exactly what would “selfish” life look like to you?” That question became a door on my dreams. “Oh,” I said in a half-whisper. “I’d get a little apartment and I’d get to choose every item in it. Every drinking glass, or chair, or picture on the wall, would be meaningful to me, and beautiful to me, so that, just sitting in that place I’d feel fed by being there.”

 She had let me imagine a new world out into the light, in words. To me, the Selfish Monster, she then said, “that doesn’t sound selfish. It sounds…normal.”

Write down what you wish for and read it to one person. Take just one step in that direction today, no matter how small. Tomorrow, take one more.

What made things even more difficult for you was being a lesbian in the Hasidic community. Have things gotten easier for you now?

I have a happy life now with my wife and our Airedale Gracie, and yet, I hesitate to say it. Not because my Hasidic children have their issues with my openly gay life and that impedes our ability to be good, fun, loving grandparents, but because so many think that, since gay people can now marry, all is well. When my wife and I drive cross-country and stop for anything outside of an urban area, as soon as we get out of the car, we shut down casual touch and watch what we call one another. We can be refused lodging or service, but mostly we watch for those stares.

What is obsessing you now and why?

My new book Not From Here is about how I explored the world I moved back into after thirty years among the Hasidim. To know who I was now, I had to know the people around me, to  know how to be among them. I did in-depth interviews of people in my city from around the world for about a year. The experience was transformative. Not From Here is a memoir in many voices, and it is consuming me right now.

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

 Maybe, “What was your turning point?” and then I’d answer that, when I was pregnant for the eighth time and felt it might kill me, I had an abortion. That was the first time in my adult life that I took control over my body or overruled rabbis. Looking back, it seems I had to own my body before I owned my future. If I hadn’t had that abortion, I probably would never have managed to leave, and wouldn’t be here talking to you.

This is also my miscellaneous place where I tell you that Uncovered is becoming an opera by Lori Laitman. Think of it—an opera about a Hasidic lesbian who has an abortion, and a lover. Uncovered is also being translated into Arabic for free download. I think of that as a love letter to my covered sisters everywhere.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Crissy Van Meter talks about her ravishing debut CREATURES, and about love, oceans, loyalty, grief, her love of the non-linear, and so much more.

What's more glorious than discovering a debut? It's my favorite thing in the world, especially when it's from my own genius publisher, Algonquin Books.  I was instantly enthralled by Crissy Van Meter's astonishing novel, CREATURES,  about grief, memory, family, and the sea. Plus, get a gander of that extraordinary cover!  I'm not the only one praising this gorgeous novel. Take a look:

“Van Meter’s debut is an unwavering triumph.”
The New York Times Book Review
“The sensibility of this short, gemlike novel puts Van Meter in league with contemporary novelists for whom humans and their environment are tightly bound together—Lydia Millet, Joy Williams and T.C. Boyle come to mind.”
The Los Angeles Times

“An alluring, atmospheric debut.”

 Crissy is a writer based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the founder of the literary project Five Quarterly, and the managing editor for Nouvella Books. She serves on the board of directors for the literary non-profit Novelly. I'm so thrilled to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Crissy!

I always deeply believe that every novelist is haunted into writing their novels, hoping that the narrative will answer their questions. What was haunting you? And was the answer that your novel gave you the one you expected? Why or why not?

I agree with this! I start every project with questions and work my way into the answers. With this book I was asking questions about grief. I lost my dad and I was experiencing grief in a non-linear way; sometimes I’d feel things all at once, sometimes I’d feel nothing at all. I wondered how grief and time and memory really worked. It felt like a constant ebb and flow of emotion. And then life kept going, and I fell in love, and I wondered how I could love, if I could love. How can a person with a broken heart, or a lifetime of a lot of broken hearts, survive love?

I’m not sure the novel gave me any real answers, but I did find comfort in the idea that life can be happy and broken all at once. There’s a high tide and low tide … every day.

So much of Creatures is about waiting—to be married, for the groom to arrive, for an absent mother who suddenly shows up. Why do you think those pauses in our lives, those spaces waiting to be filled in some way, tense as they are, leave room for us to change and grow?

I think the moments of waiting, and longing, are the quiet and scary moments that make Evie really question what she wants, and how she might get it. Those are the moments she has to listen to herself, trust herself, because she’s all she’s got.

Creatures is also so richly atmospheric that the land itself truly becomes a character as much as any of the people. Can you talk about how environment very much works as a force in this remarkable novel? And could you also talk about why many people today do not see the connection we have with our Earth?

When I was writing this I was thinking so much about emotional weather. And also, real weather all around me. In California, I’m constantly reminded of climate change – everything on fire, erosion, drought, heat, rain. I wanted this book to reflect Evie’s emotional barometer – extreme, constantly changing. I think this book is about the extremes of both emotional life, and our physical earth experiencing trauma too.

Evie’s upbringing with a father who suffers addictions and a mother who leaves and leaves and leaves, is certainly not ideal, yet every page is full of a deep, yearning love that is palpable. And as you move through Evie’s past and her present, we get an idea of the future she might get to have. Which brings us to the question: of how you did what you did here.

I kept thinking of darkness and light – and how they just exist all at once. And in nature, literally, we get both each day. And while it may be dark here now, there is light just around the way. I know that it’s possible to love someone you hate, and in Evie’s situation, with this kind of father, I think she truly, deeply loves him, while she hates and mourns his flaws too. It’s her darkness and light.

What kind of writer are you? Was Creatures planned out before hand or did you start with an image or an emotion? 

I started writing the father sections first – because those were the most emotionally true for me. And as I kept writing, I wanted this story to encompass an entire life, so I just kept building Winter Island and the good/bad/tragic people who lived there. I wanted to answer the question: What kind of chance does Evie have for love and happiness? So, I needed to include all the relationships that would inform and shape her—a mother, a friendship, a marriage.

I’m terrible at outlining or planning, and I didn’t do it for this book. I really kept trying to answer the big questions, and to get to know Evie, and to figure out what she really wanted for herself. A lot of this meant writing bits and pieces, and taking time away from the writing, and coming back to it and putting together like a puzzle.

That cover is just gorgeous! I know Algonquin always does a spectacular job on covers, but I was wondering what images you personally were thinking of when writing this book?

Whales. Sea creatures. Things that lurk in the dark. The things we hide from the ones we love, and from ourselves. Of course this is not literally horror book, but there are so many terrible and horrific things in this book, at least emotionally. The word ‘creatures’ feels like it could be the title of an old horror movie.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I love nature and nature writing. I’m big into geology now. I’m researching the formation of the earth and reading a lot about how the earth might end. I can’t help but compare my own life, and all human life, to the cycles of earth. I’m always looking for answers (why are we here!?!) and right now I’m reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.

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

I’m a sucker for structure talk. This book felt like a puzzle, or a shattered piece of glass that has been put back together. It jumps around in time to emulate this non-linear sense of memory, time, love, and grief. If you turn the table of contents on it’s side, and trace the chapters, it mimics a tide chart.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Author, NPR Weekend Edition host, broadcaster Scott Simon talks about his warm, wonderful novel, SUNNYSIDE PLAZA, about kindness and dignity, writing about the developmentally challenged, and how he cannot drive a car (me, either!) but he can touch-type, and so much more

Everyone on the planet knows the praise and accolades that Scott Simon has received, and I've taken some from his website and put it below this intro paragraph just to refresh your memory. But before we delve into the accolades, I also want to say that there is not a kinder, more generous, and funnier soul around than Scott. I first met him on Twitter where we were trading very bad question-jokes that were still hilariously funny. (Who would win in a fight? A bear in high heels or a Giant Squid in a dress?) The more I got to know Scott, the more I saw how deeply he cares about the world and about people. He adores his kids, adores his wife, and he puts good into the world. To me, that is everything.

Okay, here comes the praise from his website. Prepare to be astonished: Scott Simon is one of America’s most admired writers and broadcasters. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

Simon’s weekly show, Weekend Edition Saturday, has been called by the Washington Post, “the most literate, witty, moving, and just plain interesting news show on any dial,” and by Brett Martin of Time-Out New York “the most eclectic, intelligent two hours of broadcasting on the airwaves.” He has won every major award in broadcasting, including the Peabody, the Emmy, the Columbia-DuPont, the Ohio State Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the Sidney Hillman Award. Simon received the Presidential End Hunger Award for his coverage of the Ethiopian civil war and famine, and a special citation from the Peabody Awards for his weekly essays, which were cited as “consistently thoughtful, graceful, and challenging.” He has also received the Barry M. Goldwater Award from the Human Rights Fund, the Studs Terkel Award, and the Charles Osgood Lifetime Achievement Award. He will receive the Order of Lincoln from the State of Illinois in 2016.
Simon is a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. He has hosted many television series, including PBS’s “State of Mind,” “Voices of Vision,” “Need to Know” and “Backstage With…” “The Paterson Project” won a national Emmy, as did his two-hour special from the Rio earth summit meeting. He co-anchored PBS’s “Millennium 2000″ coverage in concert with the BBC, and has co-hosted the televised Columbia-DuPont Awards. He also became familiar to viewers in Great Britain as host of the continuing BBC series, “Eyewitness.” He has appeared as a guest and commentator on all major networks, including BBC, NBC, CNN, and ESPN.

Simon has contributed articles to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian, and Gourmet among other publications, and won a James Beard Award for his story, “Conflict Cuisine” in Gourmet. He has received numerous honorary degrees.

His books include:  Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan; Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, Pretty Birds, the story of two teenage girls in Sarajevo during the siege; Windy City, a political comedy set in the Chicago City Council. Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, an essay about the joys of adoption. Simon’s tweets to his 1.25 million Twitter followers from his mother’s bedside in the summer of 2013 gathered major media attention around the world. They inspired his New York Times bestseller book Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime.  My Cubs: A Love Story is about his lifelong fandom of the Chicago Cubs, and their historic World Series victory.

His latest novel, SUNNYSIDE PLAZA, takes us inside a home for developmentally challenged with grace, warmth humor--and a mystery. I cannot say enough good things about this wonderful book, and I'm thrilled to host Scott here. Thank you, Scott.

This novel does what I think the best literature does: it makes us see the world differently. You already were changed by your experiences with developmentally challenged people, but how did the actual writing, creating characters and events, change you even more?

When I was nineteen and twenty, I worked as an aide at the Approved Home on Wilson Avenue, a home for developmentally challenged adults (which is, alas, not the term used then) on the north side of Chicago. I helped residents wash and dress, made sure they swallowed their pills, and helped organize arts and craft sessions and occasional field trips to Lincoln Park, church festivals, and Wrigley Field (the Cubs has always been good neighbors to the homes on the north side).

When I began the story, most of the characters were drawn from actual people I once knew. But of course, the more you work through your characters, the more they stand on their own. You find yourself thinking through unanticipated situations, and trying to understand each character’s reactions, concerns, impulses, and decisions.

When I worked in the home, I liked, admired, and delighted in the company of so many of the people there. But it took writing this book for me to start trying to put myself in the skins and minds of my friends there.

I always am haunted by what haunts a writer into writing a particular book. What was it that made you need to write this wonderful novel? Was there a question haunting you and did the novel give you the answer?

I don’t think someone who wants to be a writer doesn’t have an experience (I mean, even changing a light bulb) without thinking, “How can I use this some day?”

I took the job as a case aide years ago as a job. I did not believe the experience would broaden my views, deepen my understanding of humanity, or do anything more than slightly interrupt the process of me trying to become a writer and/or journalist. The job paid a little, I could work nights, and watch late-night movies on teevee. Of course it became one of the most profound experiences of my life.

I certainly poured a lot of what I think I learned about war into my novel, Pretty Birds, urban politics into Windy City, adoption into Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, and life and death and a blessedly original childhood into Unforgettable. I had been trying to figure out a good way to tell a story put together from some of what I learned, so long ago, working with the remarkable people I did at the Approved Home.

I had talked about the experience with our daughters, who are now twelve and sixteen, especially as they were introduced to the L’Arche homes through their (parochial) schools. I told them stories that I hope helped them see that the people they were “helping” would wind up teaching them far more in return.

It was ultimately my wife who suggested I should take advantage of the first-person advice I can get from the young readers in our home to tell a story for young readers, set in a home for mentally-challenged adults. What we read as youngsters often sinks into us and stays.

So I wrote, and our oldest daughter, Elise, and her friend Adelaide, read and advised (their first advice: “Make the book about as long as The Old Man and the Sea.”). I hope the story of Sal Gal and her friends reminds them that the most telling experiences in life are often not the ones you plan, but the ones that surprise you. And as I often tell young journalism students who fret about getting internships and fellowships, “It doesn’t matter. Do anything. The important thing is to do something. You’ll learn from anything.”

I always want to know what surprised a writer in writing a book? What weird turns in plot happened for you, or how did a character startle you?

Sal starts as a strong character, but then surprised me by becoming very strong for others, too. I found that I began to rely on her strength, and her goodness of heart, to steer through the shoals of the story. Sal was there when I needed her.

And one of the detectives, London Bridges, really surprised me. At first, I thought of him as the cop-character who, while courteous and professional, would keep reminding his partner, Detective Esther Rivas, “This is a crime investigation. Don’t put yourself out there for anything else.” But within a few chapters, what Lon sees, hears, and begins to understand transforms him, too, as he becomes fully drawn into Sunnyside Place.

I want to talk about the voice first, because it’s so authentic and moving from the first word. How did you get inside Sal’s head so perfectly? How difficult was it, and did you find days when you were thinking just like Sal?

Gosh yes. There were even time I began to write my weekly essay for NPR, and realize after a couple of lines that Sal had taken over (which was fine; she often notices what the rest of us can overlook). Trying to capture her voice meant throwing over my own, which is pretty well developed after all these years of writing. A challenge, yes, but also a wonderful opportunity to spend time in the mind and heart of someone so good, creative, devoted, and original.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Derek, the series about a mentally challenged man living in a nursing home by Ricky Gervais—which unlike his more caustic work—is sweet and endearing. I ask because Derek believes in the things that Sal does—kindness, helping others, experiencing wonder about the world, and love. In the series and in your novel, that rubs off on people, and I think it says something important about the right way to live, especially now in these tangled times. Can you talk about that please?

I have only seen a few clips, which I’ve liked. I do believe we’re living in times in which it is more important than ever to take time with each other, in a way that recognizes everyone’s elemental dignity. The more I go on in life, the less I am impressed by what we call intelligence. It certainly doesn’t seem to correlate with character.

(This said, intelligence is to be prized. But learning is more important—and useful.)

“We try to give them good lives,” says at worker at Sunnyside Plaza. What IS a good life? And how can we all learn to appreciate that in others?

I’ve thought about this a lot. Enough to eat and wear, so that people don’t suffer want, and have dignity. But human contact is essential. Interesting activities. Laughter and people to share it.

The novel is also hilarious. I loved the fortunes in the fortune cookies, loved their dialogue. Laughter, I think, is one of the best ways, to get a truly serious and meaningful message across. I bet you agree, right?

Utterly. I’d even say it’s the only way, with all regard too much better writers who have done without it. The sense of humor reflected by the residents of Sunnyside especially is one of the qualities that drew me to the people with whom I worked so long ago. They loved to laugh. It was a common language.  In fact, after a little reflection, I’d say that humor has always been one of the defining traits of places and people I’ve loved and written about the most, including Chicago, sports, my family, and wartime Sarajevo.

The denizens of Sunnyside Plaza are often the people that people want to forget. Yet, in this novel, we can’t, because it profoundly shows us that a life, any life, is worth living. I loved the framework of murders happening and the denizens joining forces to solve the situation. It’s not only tender and sweet, it’s incredibly empowering, because a group of people in an insular world are actually impacting the world at large. So that brings me to the question of research—how did you know what you knew about places like Sunnyside Plaza and its people?

I relied on my own experience, years ago, and more recent experience in L’Arche program homes, which are communities for adults with challenges. And it was not lost on me—not to give away the story—that the residents of Sunnyside knew they would have to bring what they had discovered to someone they trusted who didn’t live there—because they knew how overlooked and forgotten they so often are.

“I was scared. I was excited. I took a step.” So says Sal, and don’t you think this is the perfect metaphor for how we should all be in the world?

It’s actually a lot like what I say to our daughters, about anything I’ve done that’s worthwhile, including covering wars, writing novels—and marrying their mother. I was scared. I was excited. I took a step.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The intentional cruelty being done, as a matter of policy, to vulnerable immigrants in the name of America, a nation built by and enriched by immigrants (including my late mother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, mother, grandparents, wife and daughters).

You’re an acclaimed broadcaster, author, journalist, and even in the toughest gossip session, I have never heard anything but warm admiration or downright adoration for you. So…Is there ANYTHING that you can’t do? Do you have ANY flaws we could know about?

Thousands. Millions. Perhaps I should put up a sheet at NPR—or in our kitchen—and invite friends and family to list them. I have no practical skills whatsoever. I can’t drive a car. Our daughters often tie my shoes (I have a paralyzed left hand, and can manage, but results not effective or edifying). I can boil water, make chicken-under-a-brick with our daughters, pick up take-out, and touch-type, but that’s about it.

More seriously, I have sometimes hurt and exasperated people I love, and who love me. I can talk too much about our children. I have told off-color jokes (the grandson of a cop, and son of a comic and a showgirl hears a lot of good ones—I’m sorry, I mean bad ones—growing up, but doesn’t have to keep repeating them). I have been wrong about politics, baseball, and being a parent.

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

I’m answering these questions from Normandy, France. My wife, Caroline (pronounced Carro-leen), is French; and our daughters are fluent in French. So I’d like to suggest the question most waiters seem to ask when we sit down for dinner here. They hear me speak in English to our children, and so assume I don’t understand them when they ask my wife, “Que fait une femme si belle avec un homme aussi hideux?”

(“What is such a beautiful woman doing with such a hideous man?”)

Yes, no one can figure that out.

And finally, who would you bet on to have a better life: A talking crab with an attitude, or a lobster who has discovered the perfect recipe for peanut butter?

I’ll go with the lobster. Her or his peanut butter discovery could be a gateway breakthrough to others, including almond butter, cashew butter, and walnut butter. Might they wind up as a billionaire lobster with no friends, remote from the ocean crevices they knew as a child? Perhaps. But a talking crab with attitude could talk himself into a pot. It only takes one smart-shell (crustacean-talk for smart-ass) mistake. So, my euro is on the lobster.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Over 14K readers and writers can't be wrong: Come join Jacob Marquez's Reading Corner on Facebook. He talks about it--and himself--here!

It is always a cause for celebration (bring out the champagne) when someone is promoting books and making a warm, safe, lively community for authors on line. And that’s Jacob Marquez who began Reading Corner on Facebook.

Who better to introduce himself than Jacob himself?

 I everyone, my name is Jacob Marquez. I live in Texas and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcasting and Electronic Media from West Texas University. I've won many different awards in college for several of my media projects. I also have Cerebral Palsy, but I am fortunate enough that I don't have any complications from my Cerebral Palsy, I just can't walk by myself without  some assistance.

I am the creator of the Facebook group called Reading Corner. When I am not reading, I enjoy going swimming, hanging out with family and friends...along with my sweet baby dog Tiffany. I got my love  for reading from my mom. If I could get the chance to meet anyone it would have to be "Oprah Winfrey." I learn so much from her over the years, and I would also  love to get to meet all the authors I've  connected with through social media. I would also like to meet Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb someday .  

Thanks so much  my friend! 

Thank YOU, Jacob.

What inspired you to start Reading Corner on Face Book?

 My inspiration for starting Reading  Corner can be summed up into three words: love, books, and kindness.  I have  joined  a lot of reading groups on Facebook over the past year and half. The biggest thing I have noticed on a consistent basis is  that people are not very friendly or kind to each other in some of these  various groups. In some of  these groups  you  can't   even discuss books you have read because some people  have not  read the book.  In our group  Reading Corner members can discuss any books they like in  a safe, caring,  loving,  and encouraging  environment. In Reading Corner  we have a monthly book club selection chosen by me. Then either  in the middle of the month or at the end of the month we have the author of the book come in and do a live chat to discuss their book.  Live Chats are where the author pop in and out throughout the schedule day at their convenience answering members questions or comments  about their book. The  wonderful  thing  is some like to do giveaways  where  they will give one lucky member the chance to win a signed copy of their book.  The author will usually just pick  at random  a person  that participated in the live chat that asked a really good question.  Finally the day after the Live chat I will post discussion questions to get the group members engaged in a meaningful group discussion about the book. I will post three questions a day for four days.

What I love best about Readers Corner is the warmth and kindness. How do you make sure it keeps on?

 I think it's very simple really I think it's the  job of the administrators to set the tone of the group and to  lead by example.

 Our group has two administrators myself  and my good friend Julie Draughn Emfinger.  Julie is just great. She has a son with special needs. Her son's name is Drew. He has high-functioning autism. Julie is also working on her master's degree in nursing. I believe that there should be more kindness in the world especially in these politically charged times we are living in today. One thing I do in our group is to post an inspirational quote for the  day.  I do not let anyone discuss  politics in our group.

I know people have issues in life, that stuff comes up. Well we all face obstacles in our lives, but the key is how are we going to react to those obstacles. I feel you just need to treat people equally with respect because there's too much hate in the world . And everyone deserves the same respect across the board. We all have stories and we all come from different backgrounds but we are also all the same. So I just believed to treat people with kindness and understanding because the world is hard enough as it is.

And what if someone is unkind?

First I give a gentle reminder. Then we will just kick them out of the group and then just block them from the group.  Honestly, who has time  for  unkind people?  The answer is no one does.

What do you see happening with Reading Corner in the future?

My goal is to keep adding new members to our group and to get the word out about our group. In Reading Corner we will most definitely continue having  Live Chats and Giveaways  with our  monthly featured authors.

I am also planning on doing  live stream chats with authors that have books out  that I find to be interesting and that I think people should  know about. They  don’t necessarily have to be the author of the month.  I would  love to  get some  people from the publishing industry involved in our group  in some form or fashion.

What book is on your radar that people might not know?

There are so many great books on my radar it's hard just to pick one. There are two that come to mind at the moment off the top of my head. The first book  is our current January 2020  Selection  and it's called A Heart Not Easily Broken by M.J.Kane.  M.J.  Kane is a fantastic author and she is a true inspiration. M.J. has  overcome so many obstacles and challenges in her life. Here is a description of this great book.

 Ebony Campbell is a smart, sexy career-oriented black woman who wants nothing more than a summer fling with a man who challenges her mind and body. What she doesn’t expect is Brian Young, a blond-haired, blue-eyed bass player to step up to the challenge. Despite negative reactions, their fling develops into a deep relationship, and Ebony discovers juggling love, family, and career are nothing compared to the ultimate betrayal she endures. Now her dreams spiral into lies and secrets that threaten her future and the trust of those she loves.

We will be Having a Live Chat and Giveaway with M.J.Kane on Saturday January 25th and a group discussion January 26 through the 29th

The second book that I think everyone should  know  about and read is called  Dumpster Doll: The Early Years by Michelle Mays and Michelle Moone.  It's about Michelle Mays's  life growing up in a dysfunctional family and her journey in the foster care system. It is a very powerful and memorable book that unflinchingly shines a light on family turmoil, flaws in judicial systems, and ultimately, the grit and tenacity that thousands of children exhibit each day just to make it through.

The wonderful Michelle Mays will be joining us for a Live Facebook chat  to tell us about  her powerful and unforgettable book at 6pm Central Standard Time Thursday  January 30th

Do you write? Have you ever thought of writing your life story?

No I'm a horrible writer. If I ever did write a book. I would have to have a ghost writer  help  me  with the  book. Plus, I am only 36 I have a lot of life left to live and  experience before I write a book about my life.

You now have over 1400 people in the group, and in a very short time! That’s amazing!

Yes I am super surprise how the group has grown so fast. But I the other hand I am not because I have just used my networking skills to build the group as well.

How can readers and writers get into the Reading Corner?

Sometimes I will friend an author whose book I liked on Facebook and tell them and ask them to join. Recently, Jamie Ford just joined! I usually put up a welcome post, but I forgot to do one, and then Jamie told me he had been in the group for a couple of weeks!

Will have  many great Authors  in our group just  as members.. here are just  a few of them Jean Kwok,  Jamie Ford, Caroline Leavitt,  Sally Koslow , Benjamin W.Bass  Chris Miller, William Dameron,  James Lott Jr,  Rachel Radner, Jillian Cantor, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, A.J. Bass,  M.J. Kane,  Carmen DeSousa  and FE Feeley Jr. and so many more.  So what are you waiting for come Join the  Reading Corner today!