Wednesday, May 20, 2020


I am so totally honored to host Jennifer Elizabeth Steinhauer on the blog with her amazingly important book: THE FIRSTS: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE WOMEN RESHAPING CONGRESS. Jennifer is an American reporter for The New York Times who has covered the United States Congress since February 2010. She joined The Times in 1989 in New York where she was City Hall Bureau Chief and later moved to Los Angeles where she was the Los Angeles Bureau Chief.

Thank you for this fascinating video, Jennifer!

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Aimee Liu talks about GLORIOUS BOY, the excruciating process of writing, creating a memorable silent character, her shapeshifter dad, and so much more

Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of FACE, CLOUD MOUNTAIN, FLASH HOUSE, and her newest, GLORIOUS BOY.

And the raves for GLORIOUS BOY are racking up! Just look at these:  
“The most memorable and original novel I've read in ages.” - Pico Iyer
  • “For readers who are unafraid to be swept away” -  STARRED review in Booklist
  • “Riveting… a fascinating, irresistible marvel.” - STARRED review, Library Journal

    Thank you so much for being here, Aimee!
I always think that authors are haunted into writing their books. What was it about this time period (of course it is absolutely fascinating), that haunted you into writing this book?

When I first started writing this story it was set in the 1980s on an unnamed island that was very loosely based on the Andamans but otherwise imaginary. An anthropologist I know had told me about the Andamans – the 60,000-year-old tribes and primeval forests and isolated British colonial outpost, Port Blair, which began as a penal colony for Indian rebels in the mid-1800s -- but it wasn’t easy to get much information, since this archipelago was off limits to westerners until the end of the 1990s.

So I made up my vision of the island around the dream that provided the seed for my plot. In that dream, a young local girl who takes care of a little American boy hides with him as his parents are evacuated from their tropical home during a rebel uprising. Her reasons for hiding him involve a mixture of love, jealousy, and fear of abandonment, and the child is easy to hide because he’s mute and trusts the girl completely. Only when she knows his parents have fled does she lead him out of their hiding place, but when she hears the screaming sirens and reaches the emptied house, she suddenly realizes what she has done – and what danger they face.

The combination of that dream and the mystery of the Andamans is what haunted me into writing Glorious Boy… but my imagination kept hitting a wall until my husband and I finally visited these islands in 2010. One of the first things you notice there are all the blood red beach bunkers remaining from the Japanese occupation during WWII. I learned that a handful of British were left in Port Blair after the Japanese invasion, and some were executed on trumped up charges. I also learned about British spy missions back to the islands during the war -- and the extraordinary role that the indigenous tribes played in aiding the British.

I immediately shifted my dream plot back four decades and started the whole book over with layers and layers and layers of new meaning. It took a very long time to get to a final draft, but I never hit another wall.

I’m always interested in structure and I loved the way you moved back and forth in time, and into different points of view. How do you plan your books? Do they emerge organically? Or did you know this was what you wanted all the time?

Ha! This book had soooo many different structures along the way! At one point I charted it as a spiral. At another, it all laid out chronologically. I tried to start at the end and work backward, like a mystery, but that forced me to give too much away.  I kept thinking of the old adage, “Start on the day when everything changes.” The trouble with that is that there are 2 critical days when everything changes.  The most dramatic is the day of the evacuation when the three protagonists – the family -- are all separated. The other is the day much earlier when Claire and Shep, little Ty’s parents, decide impulsively to marry and head off for the Andamans together.

I decided to lead with the moment of separation that launches the plot’s suspense. But the setting and emotional situation are so complex and foreign to my readers that I had to travel back in time after setting the plot wheels in motion. I had to slow down to set things up and bring readers into this strange and extraordinary world, and also to lay the groundwork for the main characters to be able to take action as they later do.

My primary model for this structure was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which also opens with a violent family separation, then backtracks in time before catching up with itself and moving forward.

You’ve written numerous amazing books. Do you find that the process changes with each book?

The process is always excruciating for me. In that sense it never changes. Otherwise, each book is entirely different, depending largely on the original inspiration.

My second novel, Cloud Mountain, was the biggest and the fastest, in part because I’d “practiced” part of the story in my first novel, Face, which also taught me how to write a novel. Also, Cloud Mountain was very closely based on the true story of my grandparents’ interracial marriage and the historical circumstances around them in America and China during the early 1900s. I’d spent a decade collecting that research and testing it in Face. I also found that Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose gave me a structural model, much as The Goldfinch did for Glorious Boy. So I felt as if I knew what I was doing.

The others are all much purer fiction, leaning a lot on research and some source characters but demanding much more of my imagination for plot. My imagination is extremely unreliable! I often feel as if I’m crawling through the story on my hands and knees in the dark, just praying I’ll find my way out.

Ty, the young silent boy, is one of the most unusual and unforgettable characters. Can you talk about your decision to make him silent?

Ty was silent in my origin dream, but I didn’t know why or how. Then, in much the same way that I “found” the macro plot in the WWII history of the Andamans, I found Ty’s true character in a book called The Einstein Syndrome, which describes late-talking children who, like Einstein and many other physicists and musicians, are a frightening mystery to their parents when little but grow up to be brilliant thinkers and artists. Then, to my astonishment, I realized that I actually have a child like this in my extended family, which helped me to feel my way through the challenges these kids present to their parents. It wasn’t difficult to imagine just how frustrating it must have been to raise such a child in the 1930s, when no one knew or spoke about such nuances in child development. The guilt and fear and impatience would have been overwhelming for any caring parent. Even more than in a typical parent-child relationship, the bond would depend on close emotional attunement.

In Glorious Boy a great many of the conflicts in the story flow from the glitches in attunement between Claire and little Ty – and from the much stronger organic attunement that he shares with Naila, the young girl who intuitively understands his silent language.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been working on and off for several years on a memoir about my father. What haunts me about that story is his deathbed request for a mysterious box, which he said contained millions of dollars. Suffice it to say that, when I found the box that fit his description shortly after his death, it contained not money but photographs. And in the search that he requested, I also found countless documents, letters, and artifacts about relationships I’d never heard of, including family members my father had never mentioned. I’m still making sense of all this, and of my father’s genuinely inscrutable personality, which was reflected in his brief Hollywood career as a “Eurasian” actor playing everything from houseboys and Number One Sons to spies and diplomats in the 1930s. Like many mixed-race immigrants of his era, he was a shapeshifter who never let anyone into his inner world – perhaps not even himself. And yet I always felt deeply connected to him, without really understanding how or why. And he tapped me to find the box.  So that’s what I’m working on.

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

Q/Did I write Glorious Boy with the expectation that it would be published on the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII?

A/ No, I most certainly did not! I probably would have been thrilled if that idea had crossed my mind. And quite possibly, that thrill would be misplaced. At least one bookseller has warned me that the shelves will be flooded with WWII novels this year.
Ah well. All I can say is that my book is far from your typical war novel, and it will introduce you to an unforgettable place and time -- and I hope an equally unforgettable cast of characters.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

WE LOVE DEBUTS! A Mighty Blaze's Rachel Barenbaum talks about A BEND IN THE STARS, why every reader counts, writing, the stock market, and so much more.

Even in 1914, people LOVED A Bend in The Stars

What did I tell you? 1914 denizens bought A Bend in the Stars in Droves!

Portrait of the artist, a cake and her wonderful book!

The gorgeous paperback cover!
Dogs cannot get enough of A Bend in The Stars!

 I love Rachel Barenbaum. Rachel is a prolific writer and reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books and DeadDarlings. In a former life she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor.We at A Mighty Blaze love her for her passion and promotion of debut authors, and also for her great Zoom backdrops during staff meetings--and her adorable, smart daughter. And readers love her for her extraordinary writing, including her debut A Bend in the Stars. Rachel's second novel, The History of Time Travel, is forthcoming from Grand Central (2021).

I loved A Bend in the Stars. And so does NPR, who calls A Bend in the Stars "a thrilling adventure." Want more raves? Here you go:

A Globe and Mail "Best Reads of the Summer" Pick
One of the Jewish News "Books That Are a Must-Read This Summer" 
A New York Times Summer Reading Selection and 
A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. 
A Boston Globe bestseller
"A romantic adventure with a nearly dovetailed ending that will appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah and Pam Jenoff." Booklist

"A sweeping epic that transports the reader into another era, even as the struggles of its characters feel powerfully modern and timely."Madeline Miller, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Circe

"A Bend in the Stars is a vivid and wrenching debut, full not only with the darkness of history but also with hope---a literary saga for fans of The Invisible Bridge and All The Light We Cannot See. Love and war and relativity weave together seamlessly, and we're left understanding that there's more than one way for the universe to bend."Rebecca Makkai, author of the National Book Award Finalist The Great Believers

"Heartpounding historical drama."B&N Reads, Best Books of 2019 So Far

"An epic adventure that spins through rich terrain; several engrossing love stories, including one between remarkable siblings; and a scientific intrigue that pits dark ambition against a passionate love of science...The characters Barenbaum brings to life demonstrate resilience in the face of prejudice, steadfastness in the face of defeat, and the ability to love even when the world has cracked with hate."Los Angeles Review of Books

"Like the best historical fiction, Barenbaum's novel not only shines a light on an overlooked historical moment, but also provides a new lens through which to view our own time...A Bend in the Stars is a thrilling read that sends a chilling message as to how history could repeat itself if we don't heed the lessons of the past."New York Journal of Books

Thank you Rachel for being here--and for everything. I'm so honored to host you.

 Caroline Leavitt: What's most amazing to me is that here you are, a debut author, and you have so generously and brilliantly taken over the Debuts for A Mighty Blaze! If you had to tell debut authors some advice, what would it be?

Rachel Barenbaum: Thank you! I love being a debut author. It is a dream come true. I realize that looks cheesy, written like that on the page, but it is true, true, true. I have been writing books since I was in the third grade and so you can imagine the number of rejections I have lived through to get here. It’s still hard to believe how many pages I wrote, and discarded, along the way.

My advice for other debut authors? The most important thing I have learned is: Get involved. Pull yourself out of your writing shell and get to know as many other writers as you can, and every piece of the publishing pipeline.

Two pieces of specific advice: (1) You can never have enough support from other writers and (2) Just because you wrote a brilliant book doesn’t mean anyone will ever read it - even if you have an amazing publisher, a dream agent, and a perfect publicist on your team. Being out there, connecting with writers, book buyers, sellers and readers is what makes the biggest difference both for your experience and for sales. At the end of the day, nothing will be handed to you. You have to fight for every reader. It also means it’s a tough road and you will really need those writer friends to lean on and help. Who understands what you’re going through better than another writer who has survived it?

Going back to this idea of putting yourself out there, one thing I didn’t realize before going through the process is that once our books pass through editing, we have to transform into promoters. No matter how much money you throw at a marketing or publicity campaign, it will never be more effective than you - the author - pounding the pavement.

One other tidbit: every reader and sale counts. Don’t be bummed if you gave a reading at a bookstore and only sold six books; or if you show up at a library and everyone has read the same copy. We have all been there and any reader who loves your book can recommend it to others. Word of mouth leads to sales. Why focus on sales? The only way to sell your next book is to sell as many copies of your first book as you can!

Once I travelled six hours for a reading and showed up to a mostly empty room. It turned out that one of the handful of people sitting in the cavernous store represented a large organization. She was there to see how I did in person, to decide if I was interesting, and while she only bought one book she invited me back to a larger event with 200 people. Plus, she was kind, generous and loved my book. We talked about A Bend In The Stars for an hour - what a treat! What I thought was a tough day turned out to be marvelous.

 Every single reader is a gift.

CL: What kind of writer are you and how has that changed in Covid? Do you have any rituals? Do you have an increased sense or urgency now, or are you living minute to minute like a lot of us?

RB: I think I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writer I am! During COVID or not!

|Joking aside, I am a writer who generates a lot of pages - but also one who throws a lot of pages away to get down to the good stuff. As for an increased urgency, I am writing like crazy these days with a laser focus on my next project.

I sold my second novel, The History of Time Travel, to Grand Central the night before A Bend In The Stars came out. I was living in Israel at the time, and I was at a bar with friends celebrating the pending publication when I got the phone call from my agent. The music was loud and I had to jostle through a thick crowd to get outside where I could hear her yelling: Grand Central made another offer! I was so excited, I screamed.

Editing this second novel has given me something to focus on - and has been another tremendous learning experience. The editing this time through has not been as smooth as editing was for A Bend In The Stars. This difference is largely due to the fact that my new novel is more complicated and sorting through the details of time travel is tough. At least this time through I know exactly which readers to ask for specific advice. For example, my uncle is great at helping think through character arcs while another friend can always be relied upon to tell me when a fight scene is or isn’t working.

I am so grateful for all of this help and to Grand Central for this second project. Having my second book in the works has helped tremendously during these dark times.

CL: I love that A Bend In The Stars mixes science AND feminism, with a strong heroine who is a doctor at a time when women stayed in the home, and a character, who dares to question Einstein. Tell me about your research. What surprised you? Did any new research derail your plot so you had to rethink it (Ha! This happens to ME all the time!)

RB: Thank you! I love reading books with strong female protagonists so it is no coincidence that I write books with strong female protagonists. And I adored making my main character, Miri, one of Russia’s first female surgeons.

Doing the research for this book was a pure delight. My father’s family came to America from Russia and I grew up with great aunts looming over me, telling me how awful, dirty and despicable the country was. Russia and the Soviet Union were bad words in our house, so was the language. Every Friday night they reminded me we are American, we speak English only. I wasn’t allowed to ask specific questions about our family history in Russia or even dream about traveling to the country because, they explained, we left for a good reason. There was nothing worth remembering from those times.

Since speaking about Russia was forbidden, I have always been obsessed with it - of course! I have always read books about the Romanovs, Jewish life in the Pale and the rise of Communism, and so coming to this book I already had a pretty strong base of knowledge. What I didn’t have were images, or pictures, to give me a better sense of what the country looked like and felt like. That gap took me down a rabbit hole that I adored. I spent hours pouring through back issues of National Geographic that featured photos across the Empire and the YIVO photo archive, to name a few of my sources.

None of this research derailed my plot. Instead it gave me the idea for my next book. I became obsessed with Einstein’s theory of relativity, which led to nuclear science and the atom bomb, which in turn took me to Chernobyl. Ultimately, this begs the question: Just because we can, does it mean we should? We can build the bomb, but should we?

In Bend In The Stars, the story centers on the science being new and exciting. The ideas are still fresh and not polluted or used for anything evil - and I love that. It’s still about pure science. Is the next step unavoidable? Will all science always be corrupted or used as a weapon? This is the question that I can’t stop thinking about as I edit my next book.

CL: What's obsessing you now (beside Covid) and why?

RB: The stock market. I have an MBA. I used to run a long/short hedge fund and so I have always watched stocks, but these days I am obsessed. When the markets plunged, it was devastating but it also made sense. It was rational. Banks were seizing. There was little liquidity. Oil fell below zero. It was terrifying but somehow there was logic to it. The world was closed - countless small businesses and large businesses were about to fall off a cliff. But now the markets have rebounded. I can’t understand this optimism, this push upwards - and I can’t get behind it. The result is I’m on edge, waiting for the next massive market dip.

Warren Buffet is famous for saying you should buy when people are scared, sell when they are fat and happy. Why aren’t markets scared now?

This brings me to the second question I struggle with daily: Inflation or deflation? Which is coming. I’m convinced one will hit - massively. But prices are falling at the same time the Fed is signalling that they will print money. To make matters worse, so-called experts are arguing both sides of the coin. And their arguments flip daily!

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

RB: How do you feel about your characters? I wish interviewers asked that question because I want everyone to know that all of my characters are real people to me. They are in my head, in my thoughts just like family and friends. I can picture what they wear, how they drink their tea, the odd birthmark on their hand or the way they twitch when they are scared. I love them and when I leave them to work on another book, it is hard. I realize this may sound crazy to some people but I wanted to mention it because some people say that writing is lonely. It is not lonely. I am surrounded by these characters, these people, all day and when I move on from them - that is when it’s lonely. Once I get to know my new characters, the loneliness abates but it takes time. I often miss my old characters, even those from books I wrote years ago that will never be published. I just love them all.

CL: And shout out your fave indie bookstore~!

Belmont Books! Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith are my homes!! How could I ever choose just one?!

Monday, May 11, 2020

On the Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour, Brooke Lea Foster talks about SUMMER DARLINGS

In some ways, Summer Darlings is my love letter to Martha's Vineyard, and it's so ironic that the pandemic will keep me from getting there this summer since my book takes place there. 

Set in the splendid summer days of the 1960s, Wellesley scholarship student Heddy Winsome leaves her hardscrabble Brooklyn upbringing to nanny for one of the wealthiest families on Martha's Vineyard. But no one she meets on the summer island -- socialite, starlet or housekeeper -- is as picture-perfect as they seem, and she quickly learns that the right last name and a house in a tony zip code may guarantee privilege, but that rarely equals happiness.

I've been a journalist for over twenty years, and I've always dreamed of writing a novel. I spend time in bookstores the way athletic people live at gyms. I've always wanted to write a summer book, too -- the kind of novel that people devour while on vacation, probably on a beach, because it transports them to a glamorous setting and thrusts them into the lives of fascinating characters. Those are the kinds of books I love. A few summers ago, while I was on vacation on Martha's Vineyard, where we spend two weeks every August, I read about these two mansions on a narrow spit of land in Vineyard Haven; in between the houses was a rustic fishing cottage, at least back in the 1950s. Today, that "rustic" fishing cottage rents for $14,000 a week. I immediately began to visualize a WASPY family in one mansion, a movie star in another, and a handsome surfer in between. I knew right away that a young woman would arrive, an outsider, a scholarship student, and she'd nanny for the WASPY family but develop a friendship with the movie star and a crush on the surfer. I knew that the longer she was on the island she would begin to peel back the curtain on the people she met and she'd be forced to reckon with the dark underbelly of privilege. 

I figured the idea would fade once I got home from the vacation, but then the characters voices began to emerge. I looked at my husband one night and said: "I have to write this story." I just had to write Summer Darlings; I couldn't rest until I was finished. 

There are so many summer books I'm dying to read next: @Jamiebrennerwrites Summer Longing, Nathalie Jenner's The Jane Austen Society, and Susie Orman Schnall's We Came Here to Shine -- and if I can make it to Martha's Vineyard this summer, I'll pick them up at Bunch of Grapes bookshop in Vineyard Haven.

Monday, May 4, 2020

It's not just Annie Lamott telling you to read this gorgeous heartbreaking and healing memoir, Janine Urbaniak Reid's THE OPPOSITE OF CERTAINTY, it's me, too! About raising a boy who becomes mysteriously ill, about hope, and faith, and so much more.

When Anne Lamott tells me I have to read something, I always do. And I fell in love with Janine Urbaniak Reid's fierce and moving memoir, which had me holding my breath. She's been published in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and widely syndicated. Hoping to bring humanity into the healthcare discussion by sharing her experience as a mother of son with a brain tumor, she penned a piece for the Post which went viral. She has been interviewed on national news networks, and continues her work as a spokeswoman for healthcare justice.

I'm thrilled to host her here. And honored to know you, Janine!

I always ask writers what was haunting them into writing their book? What did you expect to learn or to be changed by, and what happened instead?

I was driven to understand what had happened to me and the people I love the most. What did it all mean? I wanted to fit all the pieces together and figure it out, as if understanding might give me mastery over an out-of-control life. I was also trying to find me again after having my life distilled into the role of Mother, then Desperate Mother, always with a side of wife, friend and sober woman. But who was I anyway, and did I just lose or find me?
            Sifting through each draft was its own kind of awakening. My first editor wrote “what did you feel?” in the margins over and over. So I went through the manuscript estimating what a woman might feel in these situations. My reflex was to fill in the blank as if I’d missed something living the experience. Then I realized that not feeling was the point. The numbness was as real as rage. There are times you are forced to tuck away feelings because you have to. This spoke to the strange advantage of growing up in alcoholism and my aptitude at burying terror like nuclear waste. Now that was interesting. The threads started coming together.
            Ultimately I wasn’t able to tame the uncertainty. But it turned out that I could survive what was real and true, without pretending to be better, smarter or more spiritually evolved. What changed – of course – was me. I came out of this story with my own body scarred, stronger but softer, more filled with faith and less ruled by should-s, knowing less about God but believing more.

 This astonishing story, of how your little boy became mysteriously ill, and how you both traveled this journey and changed from it had me gripped on every page. Was writing it difficult, as in reliving it—Or was there a kind of grace in putting down what happened, all the while knowing that things worked out?

            I often wondered why I thought writing this book was a good idea. It was emotional. But the story had to come through me and out of me. I had the chance to feel the things – like the terror and grief – that weren’t safe to feel at the time. That wasn’t fun, but necessary. There were also threads of grace that I’d been too busy or exhausted to really see; the synchronicity of people who showed up just when we needed them; the wherewithal of my closest friends and my divorced and re-partnered parents; the random but unforgettable people who arrived for just one critical moment.
            I was still living the story while I was writing. Many days the reality outside my little writing cave, was difficult. So I was experiencing a version of the story in real time, wondering what it meant to the ending that I really wanted for our family, the one I’d been propelling us towards chapter by chapter.
            I painted a lot while writing too, mixing the colors and moving the paint helped get out the parts of the story that didn’t neatly fit into words. I wrote better when I was painting. That’s one of my paintings on the cover.

So much of this extraordinary book is also about your faith and how it changed. What stopped me was that your son might have had this brain tumor all his life and then it shows itself, which is a lot like things that happen in life.

            Like a lot of things in life: we anticipate and prepare, sure we know what’s true, what we’re protecting ourselves from, then there’s a tremor, a hint of something just outside our line of sight. No one really knows what’s next. It’s a vulnerability that -- until just a few months ago -- many of us could successfully tuck away and often ignore. As a young mother, I struggled to control more than was actually possible. My hope was that if I navigated exactly right and checked the correct boxes my kids would be okay – then I could be okay. I thought I had a profound faith. But I still thought faith was something I had, like a AAA card. It was a hedge against the limitations of my self-will.
            There was this illusion that I could shape the circumstances of my life if I had enough faith or the right kind. Maybe the tumor would go away. I gripped so tightly because I was holding out for a miracle I could recognize. What I got was grace that paints in the abstract. The paint by numbers landscape of my life turned into a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Miracles hidden in the messiness of the experience. Turns out prayer isn’t about controlling my circumstances. It’s about accessing strength and love, bolder and more magnificent than my limited creativity would’ve allowed.
            I had to stop putting limits on God, and concede that, on this side of the sky, I am not going to understand why painful, awful things happen. But I can start to notice how I’m cared for in impossible situations.

 One of the things I love best in the world is that people who are loving sharing their loving friends with the people they love, which is what Annie Lamott did for me by introducing us.  I believe this is something we should all pay forward, don’t you?

            You were one of the first outside of my closest family and friends to read the finished book. I cried when I received your email. You got it. You shared your story with me. That’s meaning, truth and connection. It’s what I long for in this world where I can still feel isolated despite social media and Zoom gatherings. It’s that, “I see you.” Every day it’s up to me to offer that to someone else, especially people -  like us – who are moved to share their vulnerabilities. It’s something I can do when circumstances inside and outside of my house are overwhelming. I might not have the power to change the big picture, but I can practice being present for others, and do what I can to help someone else.
I was moved by the story of your marriage, how it became weathered by impending tragedy, and in a way tenderized by it, too, giving it more substance. There is one place where Annie says, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to say something hostile like God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” We are always given things we cannot handle, but do you think handling them is the point?

            Well yes and no. There’s no family without showing up, following through, and pushing past self-imposed limits. But I believe that asking for help is really the point. It’s an antidote to the loneliness that lives inside like a dormant virus. The most alone I’ve felt as an adult is being married yet alienated from my partner. Alan is one of my biggest teachers because he holds a mirror for me on the days I’d rather not see my reflection. It’s my job to heal what causes me to cringe. This is true in all of my relationships. And there are plenty of times that ending a relationship is the right thing to do. But marriage means you can’t leave so easily. It’s forced me to address what keeps me from being fully present, those places in myself that are afraid, judgmental and withholding. And we wouldn’t still be married if Alan wasn’t continuing to do his work too. We’ve considered giving up, but so far there’s a grace that shows up for us and through us, a grudging compassion and we move into the next day as a couple, and there’s something beautiful in this.  

What advice would you give someone grappling with the unknown, which is really every freaking minute in life? Do you find that despite all of this, your faith is even stronger

            Whatever you’re feeling right now is okay. I believe gratitude is a gateway to a better attitude. Yet I still need to speak my scared, petty, if-you-only-knew thoughts aloud to someone who won’t hold them against me. Saying what’s true clears a channel, and enables gratitude to take hold. So we start on a foundation of what’s real, and the loving nod of a friend who gets it. I will never tell you not to be afraid, but I might point out that you’ve done hard before.
            I am often afraid and unsure, but this might be what courage feels like. I always thought that if I had the right kind of faith I’d meet uncertainty with the kind of enthusiasm some people bring to extreme roller coasters. That’s not me. And it comes back to the inspiration for the title The Opposite of Certainty. Paul Tilith said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is one element of faith. And Anne Lamott’s take on that, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt but certainty.”
            Faith looks like not giving up today. And my faith is stronger after everything I’ve been through, more a muscle than an idea.
What’s obsessing you now and why?

            At this very moment I am thinking I should be getting more done, thinking more clearly, not as affected as a I am by the global pandemic, as if finished essays and clean bathrooms would shore me up in some way. Mason is in the midst of drug treatment for recent tumor growth. We’re all dealing with the pandemic on top of everything else. I channel my powerlessness into fortification, my 21 century version of hunter gatherer. We now have three kitchen drawers devoted to supplements. There is plenty of Vitamin D, C and zinc. It’s something I can do.

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

What’s it like to realize your lifelong dream of publishing a book during a global pandemic?

            Alan asked if I’m excited, and I remembered that anxious and excited live very close on the emotional number line. I tried to take a wise author photo to show you what a smart and thoughtful book I’d written, but I couldn’t do it. It was like telling a five-year-old not to smile at Disneyland. It’s a can-you-believe-it photo. I try not to worry about the timing (but really I worry about most things) because maybe my story will resonate and help, especially now. It’s life – all these feelings, all these experiences the full range of shades and colors all at once.


Saturday, May 2, 2020

Literary legend Gail Godwin talks about her dazzling new novel OLD LOVEGOOD GIRLS, about writing, female friendship, art and time, and so much more. Plus watch for her live interview on A Mighty Blaze this Friday 5/8 at 2!

YES! It was my honor to blurb~And Gail will be live interviewed on A Mighty Blaze on Friday, May  5/8 at 2! How COOL IS THAT?

Literary treasure Godwin’s shimmeringly alive new novel follows a True North female friendship through 41 years of shifting connections, love, tragedy, and the deep drama of a changing world, but it’s also about so much more, like the secrets that can make or break us, and how stories can virtually save our souls, leading us to something we never realized that we needed to know—which is exactly what this gorgeous, heartbreakingly true, and profound novel does. To say I love it is understatement.
Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

Gail Godwin is indeed a literary treasure. She’s written 14 novels, two short story collections, three non-fiction books, and ten libretti. She’s the author of five bestsellers, three finalists for the National Book Award, and she’s won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts. She’s also one of the most astonishingly kind writers I’ve ever met (people kept telling me, “she changed my life!” I think I can say that, as well.) I first met Gail when her publicist called me to ask if I would like to come to lunch with Gail, her publishing crew and Emily St. John Mandel. I was so honored! To my delight, the lunch was warm, friendly and from then on, I kept in touch with Gail.

I’ve loved her new book, Old Lovegood Girls in a way I can only describe as passionately. It’s about a lifelong friendship between two writers, about art and how best we live in the world, what we remember and what we forget, and it’s—in a word—dazzling.

One of the many things I loved so much about Old Lovegood Girls is how deeply attached we become to both these women, Feron and Merry. You uncover both their lives, their hearts, and indeed the souls of them. At one point, the writer Feron is told she can “glimpse the undersides of peoples’ lives.” I think that is what you absolutely do in this book. Is this a kind of alchemy that only happens in writing for you, or does it happen in real life, as well?

“You have more strangeness in you than you are aware of,” Feron’s writing teacher tells her in their first session. “I would urge you to cultivate the strangeness. You can glimpse the undersides of people’s lives, what is going on beneath the realistic narrative.” Her novel in progress is at an impasse and Cuervo tells her to give it a rest and go to
 the library and study up on fairy tales and then write a modern one of her own.

Years later, after Feron’s Beast and Beauty has been published, and A Singular Courtship, a successful version of the old impasse novel, has at long last found its way to fruition, Cuervo tells her, “You have preserved the strangeness I liked in the original draft.” Feron’s precarious childhood has sharpened her awareness of the underside because she was raised in that underside herself. To sustain herself, she has had to ferret out the motives of others. Through the practice of writing fiction she brings to light more and more of this underside in herself and others.

When Feron first lays eyes on her roommate, she marvels at Merry’s “in-one-piece-ness.” (“As though God, when making her, took great pains to color all of her inside the lines.”) About herself, she thinks, “Feron was not inside the lines.”

When they are in their sixties, Merry tells Feron, “You have a sense of the beyond that I just don’t,” after Feron has seen the ghost of Merry’s dead brother after spending a single night in his room. Later that morning, while Feron is standing behind a lectern reading a psalm at her aunt’s funeral, she has a brief moment of looking out at the congregation and seeing the parts they are hiding. This sudden invasion of “underside” vision scares her. At first she thinks she is having a fit or a stroke.

A reviewer wrote that I was “a forensically skillful examiner of my characters’ motives, thoughts, and behavior.” When I am writing, a character’s singularity will suddenly poke right through the page and show itself. (This will happen to the mature Feron as she finds herself lingering over the passages about her husband’s mother.) There is something so arresting in this material that she resists leaving it. And her decision to stuck with it as long it attracts her is the right one.

There’s a lot about memory in the book, what we choose to remember and what we try to bury or at least to keep to ourselves. Can you talk about this please?

 Isn't that everyone’s dilemma, what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget? And then there’s what we actually DO forget until someone remembers it for us.  Also there’s what we choose to bury, or at least keep under wraps, for our own reasons. After Feron is given a new life by her uncle, she resolves to offer the barest of facts of her old life, heavily edited, and then to start over on a clean page with every new person she meets.

Throughout their entire friendship, Merry never tells anyone, not even Feron, the secret that led to her marriage. Another love secret is added later, but Merry guards that, too. The one private family story Merry had told Feron in college, about Merry’s mother’s winter depression chamber, shows up thirty years later in Feron’s novel, Mr. Blue, even including the furniture in the depression chamber.

On a happier note, having been friends for so long, Merry can remind Feron of old conversations they’d had in the dorm.
            (“You would speculate about your uncle’s sex life with his fiancĂ©e, sometimes you’d do their voices. Like, ‘Not yet, Rowan, I’m not ready yet.’ And he would say, ‘Honey is it because you think I’ll respect you less?”
            “Merry, I do not remember one single word of this.”
            “That’s what friends and family are for. Even during my brother’s brief life, we often remembered entirely different versions of the same event.”)

Can we talk about the writer’s relationship to something she has written? The usual question: “Did you make that up or did that really happen?”

And what about the writer’s relationship to something she has written? You are asked “Did you make that up or did it really happen?” If you say I made it all up, are you sure? Or if you say, well, some of it happened, but I changed things around——-if you say this often enough, one day you might yourself lose track of what happened and what didn’t.

This is Feron’s line of reasoning after Merry has asked her if the “physical part really happened” between Feron and the ex-convict in Chicago, on whom Beast and Beauty were based. And Feron waffles with a “well, yes and no.” In real life, Feron tells her, he was unnaturally gallant, or else impotent, “but in the novel I let her talk him into it the night before she leaves him.” Because it made a better story. Then she thinks, What if, one day, you actually lose track of what happened and what didn’t?

 What did a book have to do with your life?

I love the way you have phrased this question. It widens the answers.

Let’s say it is your own book, the one you are writing. Cuervo tells Feron that the one book he wrote in his youth, Nito’s Garden, kept him from committing suicide.
Feron’s Beast and Beauty provides her with a safe form to express an unsafe experience.

Miss Petrie, Lovegood’s English teacher, passes on her reverence of Chekov to Merry and Feron who take him as their model. “Miss Petrie is trying to make us comfortable with uncertainty,” Feron explains. In their early writings, both ask themselves: “How would Chekov do it?”

What if it is a book you are reading? Merry, who did not grow up reading the Bible, enters an enlightened world in the company of her Bible study group. She realizes that this book was written by people like herself down through the ages who were looking for help. Each of the women in the group offers up her ideas, her research, and then all of them seek guidance through the group’s mind.

When a librarian in her apartment building asks Feron whether she has read all of Jane Austen, she says, “All but one.  I couldn’t stand that goody-goody heroine in Mansfield Park.” But she tries again and finds herself in a different moral place than the one inhabited by her  scornful younger self. She realizes that Fanny Price’s transplant from low to high on the privilege scale is painfully similar to her own and the book has much to say to her now.

So much of this astonishing novel is also about art, with a very excellent bit of advice for any writer. Ignore the sponsor—which is anything that has influence or power over the art you are attempting to make. That’s such a difficult but important thing to do, especially now where so many writers are dealing with many sponsors, including social media. Are you yourself able to follow this advice?

            Cuervo tells Feron the true artist learns when to “ignore the sponsor. “Sponsors are all the influences outside yourself and between you and your work. Sponsors include the editor, the publisher, the business act of production and publication, the booksellers and buyers, the readers and reviewers, the admirers and detractors. Cuervo even includes himself as a sponsor. After his death, Feron hears him say “out-walk the sponsor! So far, I have failed in my efforts to ignore my sponsors. But increasingly I try to out-walk them!

I loved that both women are writers. It’s astonishing how the snippets of their writing reveal the characters even more deeply. How would you say your writing reveals you?
As writers, Merry and Feron operate out of different needs. This is evident even back in junior college. Merry wants to fulfill the assignment responsibly and please her teacher, and she is attracted to material that touches her emotions. Feron is stimulated by envy and competition and the desire to impress. On a much deeper level her writing impetus is fed by her longing to stop feeling she is tainted and has earned the right to acknowledge she is good  enough.

Merry is the first to publish—to Feron’s anguish. When Merry’s story, “The Curing Barn,” appears in the Atlantic Monthly, Merry is 28. It is a story in which a sister is slowly coming to terms with her brother’s death in Viet Nam by retelling herself the story of the family’s annual tobacco harvest, when the leaves are hung in the curing barn. She recalls how he picked off the “lugs” (spoiled leaves) when he was a child and gradually has him as a teenager straddling the rafters of the barn and hauling the leaves up to dry. Feron’s first publication is her modern fairy tale, Beast and Beauty, when she is 36. Merry never publishes again in a literary magazine. She spends several years writing a long piece (for no payment) about tobacco growing for a state magazine. Then she spends more years working on a novel about Stephen Slade, the slave who discovered the art of flue-cured tobacco. She abandons it when she realizes she will never be able to get inside the mind of a black person let alone a slave. Over the years, she writes and rewrites many stories. The ones she loves best are her re-imaginings of the love story between her favorite college teacher, Miss Petrie, and her secret partner Miss Olafson, the gym teacher. She knows these can’t be published in the 1960’s and seventies. She never stops writing because the act of doing it makes her happy.

Feron’s Beast and Beauty makes it possible for her to face the two weeks with the ex-con, another part of her past she has tried to bury. It will take her almost two more decades to feel her way into the right way to tell A Singular Courtship, her marriage novel.
The things Merry and Feron choose to write and the way they go about writing them reveal precious information about their values, their affinities, and their qualms.

 I’m not sure I can give a satisfactory account of ways my work reveals me. As I get older, I write shorter and make do with simpler sentences. Like Feron, writing is a practice to save myself, to learn myself, and to puzzle out why humans do the things they do. For me, as for Feron, jealousy and competition have served as excellent stimulants! However, like Merry, the act of writing makes me happy. I have reached the point where I feel unsettled when I am not writing.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I used to obsess over Death and Dying. Then Donald Trump happened.

Since November 9, 1916, I have been circling my Obsession Corral, asking “How?” and then “Why?”

Obsession is circular. You trot round and round your little corral. You can go clockwise or counter-clockwise, but there is no exit gate.

What happened to my country? How did it happen so quickly? How is it possible that one man...?

Yet history tells us it has happened like this before and can happen again.

How much longer can the center hold this time?

How I look forward to getting back to good old Death and Dying!