Sunday, November 7, 2021
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Larry Baker talks about WYMAN AND THE FLORIDA KNIGHTS, Florida, mortality, writing, the looming presence of Trump, and so much more.
Larry Baker is the author of From a Distance, The Flamingo Rising, The Education of Nancy Adams, Love and Other Delusions, A Good Man, and his latest, most wonderful novel WYMAN AND THE FLORIDA KNIGHTS. He's also become a treasured friend and I am delighted to host him here! Thank you, Larry!
For WYMAN, I wanted to do something I have never done, attempt historical fiction. Not focusing on an individual, but a family over centuries. Having become a grandfather, myself, I am more aware of my own past, and I see my future in my grandsons, my family story continuing with them. I am optimistic about their future, but as I was writing WYMAN, I began to see how a family often has to overcome its past, its origins. In literary terms, the Faulknerian sins of the fathers. I'm a lapsed Baptist, a current Catholic agnostic, but I have never shed my Christian sense of guilt. Go back to Cain and bel, and toss in an artist's Faustian Bargain, and you'll understand what was haunting me.
Sadly, I write less and less nowadays. That began when I finished the first draft of WYMAN a year ago. Old age, some family health problems, life itself has changed how I write. If the Pandemic had occurred a few years ago, with the enforced isolation, I suspect that I would have written one or two more novels. I no longer have the five hours a day of uninterrupted isolation that made me productive in the past.
WYMAN and the Florida Knights is actually dealing with really contemporary issues. Can you talk about that please?
Other recurring themes? A quest for faith. And the universal theme of fiction--identity. How well does a writer know his characters, how well do they know themselves? With WYMAN, I made ample use of a trope I first explored in A GOOD MAN, how a character hides themselves in a name. I named a character Harry after a boy named Harry in a Flannery O'Connor story and after a radio DJ in a Harry Chapin song. Their stories, written by other writers, became the background for my own Harry.
Me, I have always hated my own name, Larry Baker. I look into a mirror, I do not see a Larry Baker.
What's obsessing you now and why?
As I looked at ATHENS again, I imagined a new character, arriving. Adding him let me create a backstory for him. I'm going to self-publish my revised novel in 2022. New title? THREE MEN AND A DEER.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Monday, August 30, 2021
I met and befriended Cai the way I do almost every new friend: a book comes in the mail and I love it so much, I have to know the author! In Cai's case that was Weather Woman, followed by Sinking Islands. I'm thrilled to have Cai here, and I thank her for her patience with me for taking so, so long to get this up.
Cai Emmons is the author of the novels His Mother’s Son (Harcourt), The Stylist (HarperCollins), and Weather Woman (Red Hen Press). A sequel to Weather Woman, is called Sinking Islands. Her story collection Vanishing, winner of the 2018 Leapfrog Fiction Contest came out in March 2020. His Mother’s Son received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, was a Booksense and Literary Guild selection, was translated into French and German, was reviewed by O Magazine and The Economist, and won an Oregon Book Award (the Ken Kesey Award) for fiction. About The Stylist, one of the earliest novels featuring a transgender character, Booklist said: “With family relations as twisted as a French braid and language as vivid as a platinum dye job, Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.” Weather Woman, Emmons’s most recent novel, about a meteorologist who discovers she has the power to change the weather, has been featured in such places as LitHub, The Rumpus, Book Riot, Montana Public Radio, Aspen Public Radio, The CCNY Grad Center, among others (see more coverage under “News”). The novel won a Nautilus Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize.
What was haunting you into writing your latest book?
I love that you speak about this idea of being haunted into writing a book. I’ve never heard anyone speak about writing this way, but that’s exactly how it operates for me. Something begins poking at me such that I can’t stop thinking about it. The thinking becomes a bit obsessive. Questions begin to form and maybe a what-if develops, and pretty soon a novel is taking shape. In terms of Sinking Islands, I was haunted by the idea that people might read Weather Woman and think that I was putting forth the idea that a single person with superpowers might be the solution to our climate crisis. I don’t believe that at all. So I wanted to think about human beings collaborating and teaching each other. Having spent my entire adult life teaching in some form or other, and having benefitted so much from my own teachers, I wanted to write about that. Teaching is such a powerful tool. I think we all have a bit of the teacher in us. Good parenting is really all about teaching. There are so many doom-and-gloom dystopian books out there about our climate crisis; I like to think that I’ve written one of the few climate books that offers a modicum of hope—or at least it doesn’t wallow in despair!
Do you feel like your writing grown with each book?
This is another superb question. I always, just after I’ve finished a book, feel that it is the best thing I’ve ever written, but of course that feeling fades quickly and I begin to ask, “Is this really any good?” It is impossible to answer that myself. My agent says she thinks my most recent novel, Unleashed (out from Dutton in 2022) is the best thing I’ve ever written, and I tend to agree with her. But I also feel as if I can never really be the judge of my own work. I can only weigh in on how the process has changed for me over the years.
When I step back and think about each book I’ve written I think that I’ve become more ambitious. When I began writing novels I only dared write from one character’s perspective. Then I began incorporating a number of characters’ perspectives in the same novel. Then I began to stretch my imagination to write about things that are not entirely “real” though they are metaphorically and psychologically real. And most recently I wrote a first-person novel which I have never done before. So I think there has been some growth in terms of what I’ve dared to take on. And there is another kind of growth too—I’m sure you’ve experienced this—which is that you trust the process more and even when you’re stuck you know you can find a way through to the end. Along with that comes an ease with sentence-making and knowing what material is superfluous and can be cut. There is greater facility with manipulating what you have written so that seems like a kind of growth.
I think my biggest fear is that I might begin repeating myself in subsequent novels. In a way I think we’re always writing around the same themes again and again, packaged somewhat differently. But I still feel, despite that fear, amazingly driven to keep writing, to keep exploring what it means to be human.
What’s your writing life like now?
Three years ago I gave up my teaching job in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon. At the time I had two books scheduled for publication, and I didn’t see how I was going to be able to publicize them and keep writing while also teaching. I was a bit frightened to no longer have the cushion of academia, but my husband has a good job that could support us both. I am so glad I decided to prioritize my writing when I did. I had no idea then that I would be diagnosed with ALS (I was diagnosed in February of this year), but something was telling me back then that it was time to go for broke and pay exclusive attention to my own work. I feel a great urgency to write every story that is still in me while I can. So far ALS has stolen my ability to speak, but I am so grateful that I am still able to move around and write and type. The 2020 pandemic year was extremely productive for me, and I now have two books that are scheduled to come out in 2022, and I’m working on a new novel that I hope to complete sometime early next year. Fingers crossed.
My writing days are still much as they have always been, writing first thing in the morning (longhand, with coffee, propped up in bed), and staying there for several hours until I am called upon to participate in the larger world. My afternoons are occupied with typing up what I’ve written or doing the “business” of being a writer. I guess my biggest challenge of late has been figuring out how to publicize my books without being able to speak. I have a high-tech computer that speaks what I type, which is extremely useful, but it necessitates slowing down, for me and for whoever I’m talking to. In social situations I am trying to adjust to being a listener instead of the talker I’ve always been!
What was it like writing a sequel?
Since I never intended to write a sequel to Weather Woman I was figuring things out as I went along. I knew that in Sinking Islands I had to remain true to what I’d set up in Weather Woman and build on that. I couldn’t change backstory events, or names, or rules I’d set up about how Bronwyn employs her power, etc. I was particularly brought up short when one character in Weather Woman, Earl, who I wanted to include in Sinking Islands was off-limits because he was already dead. I considered, very briefly, bringing him back to life, but that would have been violating the world I’d set up. So I ended up having another character, Patty, talk to Earl as if he was still alive. I also debated with myself about whether it would be okay to have Bronwyn have lost a pinkie to frostbite in Siberia, even though I had not mentioned that in Weather Woman (I decided that would be okay since it could have happened after the book ended). I spent a lot of time searching through the pages of Weather Woman for specific details I’d already laid down. It was kind of like doing continuity for a film—I didn’t want readers to discover inconsistencies. So far, no one has, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility!
What question haven’t I asked that I should have?
I am always intrigued by the question of why people write in the first place, and that question has been more on my mind of late since I know that I will be dead in the next few years. Why do I still want to spend my remaining time writing instead of traveling or doing any of the other things human beings find rewarding? I think part of the answer to that is that when I am writing I am in some kind of flow state and at my happiest. Also, since talking has become so hard there is a great deal I don’t say aloud, so writing has become an even more essential vehicle for expression. And over the years writing has become a habit that isn’t easily broken—it is my way of processing the world around me. But there is that other ineffable thing that keeps me—and other writers—writing. Some pressing desire to document what it feels like to be a particular human being, living in a particular place at a particular time in history. I don’t feel as if my experience is particularly important on its own, but I feel as if I’m part of a chorus of writers all saying, this, and this, and this, and it adds up to an amazing cantata of voices, all of which are neces
Wednesday, July 28, 2021
Portrait of a prolific seventeen-year-old author! Max Rudin talks about writing sci-fi, physics, what inspires him and more!
What's more exciting than discovering new writing talent? Especially when it is from a teenager? I've hosted young people here before (We have a ten-year-old in our family who already has written a novel, and our son Max wrote a novel "Movies of Doom" when he was eight. We gave him the full author treatment, getting blurbs from writer friends, writing a book club set of questions , getting an author photo, too.) So when writer/producer/comedienne /friend Bari Alyse Rudin told me about her talented 17-year-old son, who had already written many books available for purchase, I asked to see a few pages. To my astonishment, they were truly great! Professional! Sophisticated, too. So I wanted to host him on my blog to support him.
Thank you so much, Bari, and huge thanks to Max!
I'm astonished that you are so good a writer at such a young age. When did you first start writing?
Besides assignments for school, I first started writing when I was in fifth grade. In fifth and sixth grade, my friend Sebastian and I came up with many ideas for books that we wanted to write. Over the phone, we’d work together on the start of different stories, never ending up finishing them. However, working on those stories was incredibly fun, and I realized that I loved storytelling. Also, I’ve always had a tendency to daydream and think through different scenarios in my head. Combined with my interest in astronomy, physics, and other sciences, this led to questions about how humans might live in space in the future. By the time I was a high school freshman, I was determined to start and finish a book on my own. That book ended up as my first, A Truly Dead Rock.
Where do you find inspiration? What else do you love besides writing? What books inspire you?
The inspiration for my books started with natural wonders, the different landscapes that exist in space and how they might look. How does a sunset look on the Moon or Venus? Then, I began to think about manmade wonders. How would the sky of a domed city or a large space station look? From these images of beauty, I wrote about the people that would get to see them in the distant future and what sorts of conflicts they might face in their lives.
Besides writing, I enjoy making educational YouTube videos and podcasts. In doing so, I research topics that interest me in science or history and explain them in an intuitive way. This is very fun for me, because I get to teach and because I get to learn. Whenever there’s something I wonder about, I want to research it so that I can teach others about it through my videos or through my writing.
My favorite sci-fi books are Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, which were a great inspiration for me. These books outline a detailed history of an inhabited Mars for hundreds of years in the future. They are very long books and include vivid descriptions of the different landscapes at different times in Martian history. These beautiful scenes inspired me to bring other uninhabited parts of the universe to life. I also very much enjoyed Jurassic Park and The Lost World by Michael Crichton. I watched the Jurassic Park movies when I was ten and couldn’t stop watching them over and over. They drew me into sci-fi, and when I found out that there were books behind them, I immediately decided to read them. Crichton’s explanations of complex topics in science and math always made sense, and I enjoyed the logical flow. Understanding the science behind the science fiction enhanced the experience of reading.
You are incredibly prolific! I want to know your secret!
It’s no secret! I start with the beautiful things that exist out in the universe then describe them like I have seen them myself. Beyond that, I use my experiences with my family, my friends, and the world to craft a sensible story. The different places humans might live in the future could be incredibly distinct from Earth, but the human mind would remain the same, and for the most part, so would our social experiences. Also, practice is important to improve one’s craft. Description used to be much easier for me than dialogue, and it still comes more naturally to me today. However, with my second and third books, I made sure to include more dialogue in the storytelling so that I could get better at it, and I think my work has paid off! When you start your writing with something that truly inspires you, you are bound to get good results, and in the areas that are lacking, the more you practice, the better you’ll be. By straying outside of your comfort zone, you will develop a wide array of talents.
Where do you see your career in five years? What would you most love to happen?
In five years, I see myself having published five more books. I have many more story ideas that share continuity with the first three I’ve written, and I also have ideas that stray far from them. I’d like to amass a larger readership, because I love hearing that the ideas in my books have inspired other people’s imaginations. Furthermore, I’ll be graduating high school this year and going to college next year. I want to get a degree in physics and become a physicist. The concepts I’ll learn will help me in writing more scientifically accurate stories and give me plenty more “what if” questions to think about. Ultimately, I’d love to see my books made into movies one day, because science-fiction movies have inspired me just as much as sci-fi books have (especially when I was younger). In the future, it would be amazing if I could make a living off of writing.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about evolution and the power of natural selection. I’ve been reading a web project called “Serina: A Natural History of the World of Birds,” which is about a planet populated solely by canaries (as well as plants, fish, and insects). The project chronicles the evolution of different species in a collection of articles from different time periods after the introduction of the canaries up to a few hundred million years. The way that the pressures of ecological niches can transform these birds into distinctly un-bird-like forms is astonishing to me (such as a species resembling whales and another with nearly human intelligence). Since I usually focus more on physics than biology, this thought experiment has been new and interesting to me, and I’ve been thinking more about the effects that genetic modification could have in my book series. Harkening back to my old favorite Jurassic Park, I’ve been thinking about genetically modifying ravens to become more similar to their velociraptor ancestors.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
“What are your books about? What are you planning to write next?”
So far, my books have been about people living in a space-faring society, one hundred years in the future. My first trilogy, The Solar System Century, has detailed the progression of the 22nd century and all of the interesting technological and political events that might occur in that time period. It follows the story of the Possaic family, generation by generation. Next up, I’m reeling in the timespan and writing a book that takes place in the near future, twenty years from now. What’s fun about writing a book that takes place in the near future is that the world that the characters live in is much more familiar to me, and I have greatly enjoyed thinking about how the next few decades of history might play out. From personal computing to genetics, the world of the near future is more advanced than our own, but the culture and society is much more familiar. I’m excited to try something new and think about the backstory to my first few novels.
In order of publication, my books are A Truly Dead Rock, A Bottled Up Flame, and A Somewhat Odd Start. You can easily find the links on my website, gravitymaxmedia.com, under the “My Books” tab to order them in paperback or as ebooks. If you want to read the first few pages of my books to get a preview, they are also available under that same tab on my website. Furthermore, if you are interested in watching my YouTube videos or my podcast, you can find them on my YouTube channel, Gravity Max. The link to my channel is on my website under the “YouTube Channels” tab. Thank you very much to Caroline Leavitt for putting me on her blog! I feel honored that she took an interest in my writing.
Sunday, June 6, 2021
Suzanne Koven talks about imposter syndrome, women in the medical profession, sexism, racism, writing and her extraordinary memoir: Letter to a Young Female Physician.
It's no secret how much I love nurses and female doctors, both of whom saved my life when I was sick. So, of course, when Suzanne Koven's book LETTER TO A YOUNG FEMALE PHYSICIAN bumped into my house, I snapped it up and was immediately engrossed. And I quickly tracked her down and asked if I could talk to her and promote the book.
Suzanne Koven joined the
faculty of Harvard Medical School and has practiced primary care
internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for over
25 years. In 2019 she was named inaugural Writer in Residence at Mass
General. Her essays, articles, blogs, and reviews have appeared in The
Boston Globe, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, The New
Yorker.com, Psychology Today, The L.A. Review of Books, The Virginia
Quarterly, STAT, and other publications. Her monthly column “In
Practice” appeared in the Boston Globe and won the Will Solimene Award
for Excellence in Medical Writing from the American Medical Writers
Association in 2012. Her interview column, “The Big Idea,” appears at
The Rumpus. Suzanne conducts workshops, moderates panel discussions, and
speaks to a variety of audiences about literature and medicine,
narrative and storytelling in medicine, women’s health, mental
healthcare, and primary care.
Thank you so much, Suzanne for being here, and for this wise, must-read memoir.
I want to first talk about your astonishing essay about imposter syndrome which was read nearly 300,000 times globally. You’ve written that that was terrifying to publish, so how scary was it to expand that essay into this remarkable book? What was the why now moment when you decided to go ahead and do it and what did that feel like? I’d also like to ask how you felt writing this book, if you had any sensation that maybe you were not an imposter after all?
It was scary to write a memoir, but not because of the self-revelation involved. One thing that publishing the original “Letter” essay and other personal essays taught me is that when you confront your most shameful thoughts on the page readers see themselves, not you. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t be judged harshly for my faults and foibles. I felt much less confident about whether I could actually complete such a large project and yes, my imposter syndrome flared. I’d finally gotten over feeling like a doctor masquerading as an essayist and now I felt like an essayist masquerading as a memoirist! But my wonderful family, agent, editor, and writing buddy all cheered me on and, if I learned nothing else in my medical training, I am capable of persevering when I want to quit. This came in very handy.
What I so loved about your memoir was that so many of us tend to see doctors as gods, yet you show the tender parts—the insecurities, the fears, especially as women. One female doctor told me she was on a plane when a patient had a heart attack. She flew into action only to be told that “they needed a real doctor.” Why has this attitude persisted and do you see it getting better?
And these kinds of horrifying incidents happen even much more often to female physicians of color. I did want to show that doctors—male and female—are just people. But, as you say, I also wanted to explore how being a doctor is different for women. And the fact is that sexism in the form of pay inequity, harassment, gaps in promotion and research funding and in incidents like the one you mention do persist. I think they persist for the same reason that sexism persists in other professions and industries: because for all our progress we still live in a very sexist society. And medicine is, perhaps, more traditionally hierarchical—and patriarchic—than most.
I also loved how reading has enhanced your practice with Lit med. There is a narrative of illness. Patients are stories. But doctors are stories, too and I wish they knew how much patients appreciate knowing that of them—much like how readers appreciate your honest book. Is it necessary not to be friends in order to have a good doctor/patient relationship, and if so, why?
The boundaries between doctors and patients interest me so much and I wrote about them a lot in the book—also the boundaries between my own roles as doctor/mother/daughter/friend. A doctor can be a friend—my doctor is my friend (and colleague!)—but to be effective she can’t be only a friend. I often feel, though, that I do some of my best doctoring when I am straddling the border between doctor and friend.
You write a lot about dieting in your book but what I was wondering about is the relationship between doctors and nutrition. People do use food to manage stress and anxiety, but I've never heard information about this from any of my doctors. Why?
Doctors received little education in nutrition when I was in training and I don’t think they get much more now. And if you go to the average doctors’ conference—particularly those involving residents—don’t expect to see much healthy food. That’s a bit of a different issue than dieting. Though in recent years the medical community has started to see obesity as a medical condition, nutrition is still largely outsourced to commercial enterprises and, as I write about at length, female doctors are not at all immune to the pressure to be thin that this culture places on women.
What’s haunting you now and why?
I love that young women in medicine (and other readers!) are responding so deeply to my book. But I am haunted by the fact that my tales of sexism in medicine 30 years ago ring so true to young doctors today. I mean, shouldn’t we have made more progress in three decades?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You did great. Thanks so much for reading my book so generously!
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
How to live gracefully with the end in mind? Barbara Becker talks about her gorgeous book, Heartwood, making the most of every minute, writing about what matters, grappling with cancer and finding joy.
I had written a piece for Psychology Today on how grief is not what you think it is, that the "rules" people dole out are not helpful at all and we should all grieve in our own way. Almost instantly, I started getting emails that said, "You have to read Barbara Becker!" And so I did, and her book Heartwood meant so much to me that I sought her out to interview.
Barbara Becker is a writer and
ordained interfaith minister who has dedicated more than twenty-five
years to partnering with human-rights advocates around the world in
pursuit of peace and interreligious understanding. She has worked with
the United Nations, Human Rights First, the Ms. Foundation for Women,
and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and has participated in a delegation
of Zen Peacemakers and Lakota elders in the sacred Black Hills of South
Dakota. She has sat with hundreds of people at the end of their lives
and views each as a teacher. Barbara speaks on
a wide range of topics, including deepening our sense of meaning &
spirituality and mid-career pivots. She lives in New York City with her
First the raves for her book!
debuts with a stirring chronicle of the events, moments, and stories
that led to her reconciliation with mortality…Becker’s eloquence is a
salve for confronting a
difficult topic…This will be a comfort for anyone contemplating their
own mortality, or those in search of advice for others.”
—Publishers Weekly Starred Review
“A graceful meditation on divine deliverance.
Once firmly entrenched in our “death-shy” contemporary culture, the
author is now a reassuring advocate for peace and interreligious
understanding, and she views dying as an opportunity to seek
enlightenment and give thanks, regardless of one’s preferred spiritual
“This insightful, quietly moving book is not just for the grieving or those who comfort them.”
“Life is an adventure of following our curiosity—that is, the voice of our true self—into the unknown world around us. In Heartwood,
Barbara Becker inspires us to follow our curiosity into a world of love
and loss that is both universal and a source of our uniqueness. And what could be better than that?”
—Gloria Steinem, bestselling author and activist
“The global human family is
interconnected, and a loss in one place affects us all. Barbara Becker’s
words beautifully and compassionately reflect this truth. Heartwood is a gem.”
—Dr. Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author of forthcoming The Power of Women: Learning from Resilience to Heal Our World
I always want to know what was the why now moment that you decided to write this book? I love your description of grief as an invitation and the message that we don’t get over things, and in a way, we shouldn’t have to, because grief is really a message about how well we have loved and been loved. Can you talk about this please?
When my earliest childhood friend Marisa was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I went on a journey to explore the meaning of loss and love. While she was living out the last year of her life, I became completely absorbed by the question Can we live our lives more fully knowing some day we will die?
Marisa made the absolute most of her remaining time. She was an incredible lover of life! She got married to her college sweetheart. She travelled to Italy with her family. She spent deep, quality time with friends.
But I couldn’t help wonder about what happens to those of us who are still here, who are going about our day-to-day lives? Can we too live with a more heightened sense of what matters most by taking on death as a teacher?
I discovered that wise people throughout time have advised us to live with the end in mind, from the Dalai Lama to the Prophet Muhammed. So I tested whether this wisdom that they pointed to could would uphold within the context of a modern life.
Ultimately, Heartwood is a book about resilience and hope. It’s a book about truly living, fully acknowledging that we will die. When I stepped back and looked at what I had done, I saw that I had written a love letter to life.
I love the metaphor of trees and I would love you to talk about it.
Sure! Heartwood is a metaphor found in nature and a central theme of the book. Imagine walking through an old growth forest. Inside every tree is a central pillar that is most prized by woodworkers, that gives the tree strength and stability. That core is called heartwood, and what most people don’t know is that it’s no longer living… it no longer transports water and nutrients. The living growth rings of the tree expand out from this central core.
It turns out we’re a lot like the trees. Those we’ve loved who have died form our heartwood, our enduring strength.
There is both pain and beauty on this journey. We make meaning through narrative and metaphor. With both of my parents now gone, I think of them as my heartwood. We don’t ‘get over’ our loved ones when they die. Instead, we find an ongoing connection with them, even as we go about living. It also helps me to recognize that someday, I’ll be someone’s heartwood too.
I was really fascinated with the whole idea of being courageous about writing about or talking about death, because I wanted to know why? (As you wanted to know.) Isn’t it more authentic and more important to show our feelings, our questions, our everything?
Yes! The story I hesitated to tell in Heartwood but then pushed myself to include was about my two miscarriages. In the land of taboo infertility and miscarriage are among the most hidden losses. This silence is so prevalent in our society that it was only in dealing my own losses that I learned that my own mother had lost a pregnancy, as had both of my grandmothers, including a child who died a couple of days after birth. And my great-grandmother died in childbirth when my grandmother was small. If this was the history of my family alone over just four generations, including me, how many countless millions shared in the world’s unwritten epic of hidden sorrow? If we are going to talk about interconnection through loss, it’s right there. It’s a goal of mine to help change this and to acknowledge women and men who have been through pregnancy loss and the loss of a child. Today I have two healthy sons, but I will never forget their siblings who were never born.
What was it like writing this book, revisiting grief and rethinking life?
At a certain point, I realized that the only way to write authentically about loved ones I have lost was to make the writing itself a sacred act. Whenever I sat down at my desk, I would light a beautiful little candle and spend a moment remembering the person I was writing about that day. It helped me draw them near to my heart, and it made all the difference in the world in helping me feel like I was honoring them rather than “doing my work” for the day.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
The elephant in the room for me right now is that just as my book on life and loss is about to be launched, I have been unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. What a ‘where the rubber meets the road’ moment this has been! I have been reminded again and again in these past couple of weeks that the Heartwood story is about learning to face things as they are, not as we would like them to be. The Taoists say this is a world of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and both of these realities are true. Can I stay present to all of it?
Having cancer is a radical lesson in surrender. I’m learning to walk step-by-step, not writing chapter 21 when I’m only on chapter 4, so to speak. First it is surgery, then the first week of treatment, the second, the third and so on. It’s not possible sometimes to think beyond one day at time. That has its benefit too—there’s a simple grace that unfolds when we slow down in the midst of a culture that can move at warp speed. All of the people in Heartwood who I was fortunate to learn from, and all of the wisdom I gleaned from their beliefs and traditions are such a source of strength to me now.
Any final words on what is obsessing you now and why?
Juxtaposed to my own health crisis, I am paying attention to a more joyful ending at the moment – my youngest son’s graduation from high school! In a year marked by the losses as well as the disappointments of Covid, this feels like a transition worth celebrating!
Friday, May 7, 2021
Maryanne O'Hara talks about her astounding memoir about love and loss and finding the light again, LITTLE MATCHES, mystical understanding from raw grief, our life stories, and so much more.
First the praise:
"Little Matches is gripping and true in all ways, and I am so
glad to have spent time in the company of Maryanne and Caitlin. This is a
fine, affecting memoir that will stay with me for a very long time." -
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion and The Interestings
“This luminous, harrowing memoir is a tale of a mother’s devotion and grief, yes, but when I closed Little Matches, tears standing still in my eyes, I was left with a sense that I had met not one but two remarkable spirits, my world enlarged.” - Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance and Hourglass
“Here is love in ink, and you will feel it: a book about life, including death. O’Hara’s great achievement is showing us that inside of human connection, everything has a home—despair, hope, fear, beauty, decay. It turns out that death poses no threat to love.” - B. J. Miller, author of A Beginner’s Guide to the End
"The bravest and most generous of memoirs, Little Matches is the diary of your dearest friend, intimate and universal, an exquisitely written poem of deepest love, grief, and devotion. This is a journey of the soul. I feel haunted by these pages and profoundly blessed to have read them.” - Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice and Every Note Played
"Maryanne O’Hara has written an extraordinary book, beautiful, heartbreaking, and so full of life on every page that I was reminded that loving deeply is full of risk and the only way to live. This is the most meaningful book I’ve read in a very long time." - Jane Bernstein, author of The Face Tells the Secret and Rachel in the World
“A raw yet comforting journal of grief, pain, and sparks of hope.”
“In this vividly written memoir novelist O’Hara shares a painful but ultimately beautiful account of her daughter Caitlin’s life with cystic fibrosis. . . . Her compelling story will resonate with anyone seeking a light in the darkest depths of grief.” - Library Journal
“Bracingly honest and deeply comforting.” - A PEOPLE magazine Book of the Week
Maryanne O'Hara is the author of the astonishing novel, CASCADE, about an artist who is trying to figure out
what’s important in life, and it takes place in the 1930s in a town
slated to be destroyed for a reservoir, and in the art world of pre-war
New York City. It was the Boston Globe Book Club’s inaugural pick, a People magazine pick of the week, and a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. Currently, it is the Massachusetts pick for the East Coast Centers for the Book “Route 1 Reads” program. We could all love Maryanne for that alone.
But soon after CASCADE’s paperback released, her daughter Caitlin's (radiantly pictured above) respiratory health rapidly worsened. She needed oxygen 24/7 and a lung transplant. For three years, the family lived in twilit limbo as she waited — far too long — for the call that seemed like it would never come. Caitlin got her transplant, finally, but it was too late. She’d had to wait too long. She died in December of 2016. She was 33.
LITTLE MATCHES is about life during overwhelming grief, about finding meaning in what seems meaningless. Written in the same gorgeous prose O'Hara is known for, it is remarkable. I'm so honored to have Maryanne here Thank you, thank you, Maryanne.
I always want to know about the Why Now Moment. What made you want to, need to write this astonishing memoir?
I was rudderless in my grief. For months, all I could do was flop from one surface to another and cry. I cried so much that I had to see an eye doctor because my eyes kept forming raw blisters from all the salt. The only thing that made me feel barely alive was writing on my blog where I could grieve out loud and feel connected, for as long as it took to craft and publish a post, to my readers and to Caitlin herself. Early on, readers suggested I write a book, an impossible idea. But nine months after Caitlin’s passing, my husband and I were walking around Walden Pond. It was our wedding anniversary, and the fact of “nine months” felt significant. I made my decision there, on one of Thoreau’s woodland paths. I needed purpose in my life, and if writing our story was going to inspire and help people, I wanted to do it.
As soon as I made the decision, I knew it would be important to start right away, to write from inside real-time grief. Doing so allowed me to document the personal transformation that happened, also in real time, as I gave hard thought to who I was and what I believed in.
Little Matches is the perfect
title for this book because it represents all those little lights in the
darkness. What is more devastating than losing your child—and yet, you wrote
about it with such brave grace. Can you talk about this please?
Ohhhh… thank you. You know, Caitlin lived with such brave grace. She set an example, and the least I could do was follow it. Also—since childhood I’ve been obsessed with the passage of time, with knowing that our human lifetimes are just a blink. A part of me might have always known what was coming for me, known I would have to write about it. The author self inside always stands apart, observing and preparing the words, doesn’t she?
The structure of the novel, emails, texts, drawings, is so intimate. Did you always know this would be the structure?
I initially pictured the project as a multi-media mosaic of images and words, many of them Caitlin’s. When I began to write inside the limitations of a physical book, I wanted to bring some of that mosaic feel into it. Little Matches is in many ways co-written. Caitlin’s voice, in the form of emails and texts, brought her into the narrative in a seamless, organic way.
What I loved so much about this
fierce, moving memoir is that out of great, raw pain, comes a kind of almost
mystical understanding. Now that this amazing memoir is out in the world,
what has changed for you?
Yes... I think that’s what I love, too. All of the questions that had idly preoccupied me in life, and in the fiction I had published, became critical. It wasn’t enough to ruminate anymore. I needed answers to the big life questions. It was the only way I could think of to continue to exist. What changed for me was that I came to discover what it is I believe in, and to know that my path forward has a lot to do with those beliefs. The feedback I am getting from readers is incredibly heartening. The fact that this book could make a woman quit her dead-end job and fly out west to visit an old friend to “take time for what’s important?” That it could reconcile a mother and daughter? What’s better than that?
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Hah. I’m really working at not obsessing about anything, especially Little Matches. This book is so important to me, and I want the world to know about it and yet, so much of publishing is out of our control in this noisy world, as you know. So I’m working at not making myself anxious over what I cannot control. I’ve been focusing on what do I truly want now? How do I want to live the rest of my life? I do know one thing: that my focus word moving forward after writing this book has been tranquility.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I would love to encourage everyone to think about their own life stories and how they might be told. I will be doing some legacy workshops, listed on my website, where I offer tips on conducting a life interview with a loved one or with oneself. Self-reflection, thinking about purpose and what gives your life meaning––it’s all so important. Giving ruminative thought to the overall arc of one’s life, acknowledging that it will one day end, is a valuable way to figure out whether you’re on the life path that your inner self knows is right.
Thursday, April 29, 2021
I recommend the FALLING WOMAN, coming in paperback! It's got airplanes! A crash! A mystery! A stunning debut from Richard Farrell
" A skillfully written story of hope, love, and regret” (Library Journal)
“[A] mind-rattling debut mystery… Page after page, Farrell builds confusion and frustration into an incendiary debate between belief in the miraculous and the basic laws of physics… When he finally discovers the truth, what Charlie does with it will make for an explosive discussion long after the final chapter.”
— Shelf Awareness
If you're like me, airplanes terrifying you. You have talismans and you do a whole lot of magic thinking. But if you're also like me, you feel the need to habituate yourself to the fear and turn it into exhilaration. That's the way I felt reading Richard Farrell's astonishing debut, THE FALLING WOMAN, which I think you should pre-order right away. It's coming in paperback from Algonquin Books in May! And that is SOON!
What if you were the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash? And what if you became a media sensation and then you vanished? Only one man knows the truth of your story--and how it could destroy you.
Come on, you know you are dying to read this, right?
Wednesday, April 28, 2021
How do we get over abuse? Jeannine Ouelette talks about THE PART THAT BURNS (great title, right?), listening to your body, writing and so much more.
First take a look at these knockout blurbs!
Simply beautiful … precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid. —Joyce Carol Oates
I love this book and am grateful it is in the world.—Dorothy Allison
Jeannine Ouellette is the author of the memoir The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, 2021), the children’s book Mama Moon, and several educational titles. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, and her work has been supported with fellowships from Millay Colony for the Arts and Brush Creek Foundation. She is the recipient of a Margarita Donnelly Prize, Curt Johnson Fiction Award, Proximity Essay Award, Masters Review Emerging Writer's Award, two recent Pushcart nominations, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Medill School of Journalism. She's working on her first novel--and we cannot wait! Thank you for being here Jeannine!
I always want to know what was haunting a writer into writing a particular book right now.
I was haunted—and I
love that idea of being haunted by a book, because haunting is powerful
concept, one I believe in on multiple levels—but, yes, I was haunted into
writing this book. I was haunted by memories of sagebrush and tumbleweeds,
hours alone in the shadow of the foothills of Casper Mountain. Haunted, too, by
the hours I spent by myself in the almost two dozen houses and apartments I grew
up in, including foster homes. I was haunted by my past selves, the little girl
with the greasy hair hiding under the lilac bush and waiting for its branches
to open up into some new version of Narnia, just for me. Haunted by the
basements I slept in, and the friends I lied to. Haunted by choices I made
because I didn’t know there were other choices. Haunted, maybe most of all, by
the person I was when I first became a mother at age 22, which indeed was like
stumbling into some new Narnia, one just as magical but also as dangerous as
the one C.S. Lewis imagined so vividly all those years ago.
This book has haunted me since I was a teenager—and I am 53 now. By age twenty, I was writing about this book in my journal, saying, “I don't feel like I am saying what I am trying to say. How can that be? I don't know. I do think I am about ready to write my book, but I can't find the right place to begin.” That makes sense now, of course, that I couldn’t find the right place to begin—how could I have? It’s too awful, really, to think about a grown man, one placed in a position of trust—I’m referring to my stepfather, Mafia—molesting me as a four-year-old child, then continuing that molestation for years. When I was a new adult, finally free—or, so I thought—what I wanted was to convey the enormity of this terrible injustice, this primal wound. But I had neither the life experience nor the skills to convey it effectively.
In my twenties and thirties, I was still very much in the middle of it, even though my stepfather had disappeared from the picture years ago by then, having left when I was ten. But the things he did to me (and his abuse of my mother, too, and her subsequent breakdowns) cast a long shadow. I couldn’t write this book until I had made sense of my own story, and that didn’t happen until enough of it was behind me. I had to have some perspective in order to synthesize real meaning from the things I experienced, and the person I became as a result of those experiences. That process of synthesis, that window into meaning, started opening for me in my early forties, after I’d been safely in my second marriage for a decade. From there, it took yet another decade to see the book into print. And what a relief that has been. It’s not that my stepfather’s abuse was a secret—I have not hidden his pedophilia for a very long time.
That’s a shame I have long refused to carry for him. But, confiding in people close to me is not the same as sending a whole book out into the wide world for anyone to see. A book represents real exposure, extreme vulnerability. I was caught off guard by tsunami of fear that hit me during the weeks right before and after my pub date. I was a wreck. But, I was also ready on some level to simply sit with that fear, let the waves pass over me at their own speed, while going about my business and doing what needed to be done, not only in service of the book, but also in service of my life. I expected to come up for air eventually, and I have.
I absolutely love the structure of this book, where brilliant fragments make up a whole. How and why did you decide on this structure and what were the surprises of writing like this?
I tried so many different structures! And I was told by a few agents that I needed a more traditional narrative arc. Which I eventually tried and failed to execute—it just didn’t work for this book. But I’m fascinated by structure, and ultimately have some qualms with the idea that the traditional narrative arc is the only effective structure for storytelling. The traditional arc is very Western, and very masculine. I love the book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Allison. She does a fantastic job of unpacking and challenging some mythology around narrative form. After explaining how the “…arc really is the perfect expression of tragedy as Aristotle saw it,” she reminds us that not all fiction (or, I would add here, creative nonfiction) is tragedy, and she asks why we should therefore insist on the same arc for all stories. Finally, and hilariously, she acknowledges the “irksome sexual aspect” by quoting critic Robert Scholes, who said, “The archetype for all fiction is the sexual act….For what connects all fiction—and music—is the fundamental orgiastic rhythm and tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.” Allison writes, then: “Well. Is this how I experience sex? It is not.” Which made me laugh out loud.
The point being, though, not all stories are best served by the traditional narrative arc. I tried stuffing mine into one—or, more accurately, stretching it out it into one, because the traditionally linear version was fictionalized and almost twice as long—but, as I said, it really didn’t work. The arc diluted its power in a number of important ways. Whereas working with fragments seemed to have an amplifying effect. The fragments reflect and refract off one another. Fragments allowed me to tell and retell the central conflict in ways that mirrored the narrator’s shifting understanding of her own experience in different eras of her life. She is in fact constantly revising her relationship to her past as she becomes both clearer about what was done to her, and more embodied. Embodiment, for her, is a double-edged sword. She wants the right to live in her body, a right that was violated by her stepfather. But in order to live in her body, she has to feel a lot of painful old wounds that have long hummed quietly under a very numbed exterior. It’s a conundrum, and the fragmented form allows that conundrum to unfold organically and elliptically, as it did in real life.
Our society puts so much that is really fable onto motherhood and family. You imagined being a mother might heal the trauma of your past, but instead, it created something very different. Can you talk about this please?
What a fantastic question. I address this tangentially in
the second chapter, “Tumbleweeds,” under the last heading, “Mother (Mater)”
because this dichotomy of maternal expectation versus reality, which eventually
evolved for me into a paradox, was so stark. It was simply crucial for me to
reckon with that paradox in order to become a whole human being. And it was
paradoxical, because, first and foremost, I loved being a mom of little kids, I
loved being home with them, it suited my needs and desires and temperament. I
did find it genuinely healing in fundamental ways. This remains true with my
grandchildren—being with them, they are three, two, one, and 9 months now—and caring
for them and showering them with love has been a balm like none other during
this pandemic in terms of heart-healing powers. But being a very young mother to three
children ages five and under was also quite hard, as anyone can imagine it
would be. Not only because the processes of pregnancy, natural childbirth, and
breastfeeding catapulted me back into my body in ways I could never have
foreseen, bringing up all kinds of very painful cellular memories I’d
repressed. It was like, once I was in my body again, I couldn’t turn off
sensation at will as I’d always been able to do. Suddenly, I had no defense
mechanisms for all the sensations I didn’t want—especially sex that didn’t feel
Prior to motherhood, I had accepted whatever kind of sex my partner wanted and that was fine, whether I liked it or not. After motherhood, no more. I couldn’t, once I was embodied again, say yes to sex when my body was saying no, no, I don’t like the feeling of this. Suddenly, my own sexual needs, preferences, and desires had to matter, and that was a foreign and frightening new terrain. Also, like all moms, I’d find myself sleep deprived and impatient. I’d find myself crying. In the worst cases, I’d find myself throwing a book or toy, which was how I dealt with overwhelm instead of turning that anger on three little kids. I can count those times on one hand, but, still, they count. To discover that I was not and could never be perfect as a mother was grotesquely painful. Being imperfect as a child or a human was one thing, but being imperfect as a mother felt akin to being a monster. I think that’s reinforced, too, in our patriarchal, misogynist culture, where everything is the mother’s fault. Even some readers of my memoir get angry that the narrator forgives her own mother. I understand that reaction—my mother did some extreme things. Making me sleep in the basement, kicking me out of the family repeatedly. She had a terrible temper and often directed it toward me. But she was a product, too, of systemic inequalities and injustices as well as personal traumas that absolutely contributed to her challenges. I don’t think there’s really been a time when I’ve not wanted to be in a state of forgiveness for my mom—who, by the way, has been quite supportive of this book. But, for my younger self, mourning the futile notion of perfect motherhood was utterly grueling. I bought wholesale into the patriarchal myth of motherhood. One hundred percent.
I had a fairy tale notion about motherhood and family and wanted to believe I could protect my children from all threats—environmental threats, social threats, and, of course, my own imperfections. None of this proved possible. I soon learned that there are microparticles of plastic in our waters, endocrine disrupting chemicals that enter your body through your skin. Even a whole-house water purifier can’t adequately protect us from those chemicals, but that never mattered anyway because we could not have afforded one of those! Besides, there would still be air and food—neither of which are pure. And of course, there was still myself, my grossly imperfect self to contend with. It took a long time to believe that I was good enough. It took even longer to believe—not just know, but truly believe—that being imperfect is not the same as being abusive. Once I started believing and accepting that, I was able to start healing my own trauma, starting with the childhood trauma of sexual abuse. That’s where the paradox comes in. That is, I found it was only though the challenge of accepting and appreciating myself as a mother despite my imperfection that I could begin to also accept and appreciate the other imperfect parts of myself that were broken in childhood. The paradox of motherhood, in that way, really was my doorway to healing—just not the way I had wanted and expected it to be. I thought being a perfect mom would be the healing, when in fact it was the opposite: accepting my inevitable imperfection was the elixir I needed all along, and motherhood catalyzed and supercharged that process—demanded it, in fact.
Oh, and about the cover and the title, both of which I love, love, love. Did you have input in the cover? It's spectacular.
I did! The art came from Kelly Popoff, a painter I was in residence with at Millay Colony during the summer of 2018. Her work is phenomenal. As we became friends during our time together at Millay, we got to know each other’s back stories and the questions and passions we were each exploring—her on the canvas, and me on the page. We found so much resonance in our work in terms of motherhood, family, early wounds, and the long path of becoming. She was the first person I thought of when it came time to talk about covers, and Split/Lip was totally on board with me bringing Kelly in as the artist. She came up with so many sketches and prototypes for cover art! It was an incredible process because for one thing, Kelly is an artist, not an illustrator, so it was very organic and not under my direction, or Split/Lip’s direction. I gave Kelly the manuscript and told her about themes, including the house explosion my mom lived through, among other things, but the images she came up with were so diverse and incredible. I loved so many of them that the process of choosing just one was outrageously difficult. But this really was the one. It captures something in its simplicity. It’s childlike, but also complex. The tape was my idea. I saw a book cover I loved, it was an art book, that used tape in a way somewhat similar to this, but not as messy. The messy version is right for my book, though, in the way it captures, as does the askew house, something essential in this fragmented story. David Wojciechowski, he’s the cover designer, did an incredible job.
And I know titles tend to be marketing decisions, but I saw yours and thought: damn, I wish I had thought of that title!
Thank you! I’m so glad you like it. And the thing is, Split/Lip is quite small, and things work a little differently there as compared to big publishers. In my case, I submitted the manuscript as The Part That Burns after giving an obsessive amount of thought to the title, and they never asked me to consider changing it. Of course, being obsessive, I did consider changing it, anyway. Of course I did. But in the end, I felt it was the right title, because of the way it hits the heart-center of the book, which is to say, the things that hurt us most are also, sometimes, the things that make us the best parts of who we are. I know that in my case I have an extraordinary amount of empathy and compassion grounded in trauma. I don’t think people should have to experience trauma to become exceptionally empathic and compassionate, but trauma can have that effect. For me, it did. I feel, too, that my love of language, my imagination, and my little bit of clairvoyance (which is sometimes quite a lot of clairvoyance) is grounded in those early life experiences that drove me out of my body. I am glad, oh so very glad, to be back in my body now, but had I never left it, I may not have developed these other capacities. I can’t know all of those things, or any of them, with certainty. But I know that when I was working on this project and writing the birth scene about my middle child, my son, and those lines spilled out—I am the part that burns and the part that burns is the part that glows—something just clicked. This is the scene where the narrator is whirling through the painful but hypnotic trance of labor, that tunnel of darkness, realizing that her body is slipping back into her body just as a brand-new human’s body is slipping out of her, and there’s an integration that happens in that moment. That integration is, for me, deeply connected to the heart and soul of this book. Thus, the title!
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am obsessing hard on my next book, which is fiction, and
so fun to be engaged with! It’s completely, wildly, crazily different from my
memoir. It takes place in a kind of near future, pre-apocalyptic world in which
the population has decreased dramatically and the boundaries between cities and
natural areas have degraded significantly, leading humans and animals to have
closer and more frequent encounters with one another. In this context, I want
to explore questions about love, fear, and even tribalism. I want to explore
the thin line between humans and animals in terms of our behavior around both
devotion and survival. What I want, in a sense, is to explore the whole idea of
our animal natures—humans are animals, of course—and the fragility of our human
control, while also looking at the complex interior lives of animals. In other
words, where, really, do the boundaries begin and end? I have a loose plot
going, but can’t really say more about it, except that there are coyotes, and
coyotes and their pack structures are amazing. The smallest amount of research
is already blowing my mind.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh boy, you asked such great questions! So, I would mainly say thank you, thank you, thank you for giving time, space, and attention to my book. It’s a tough, tough road to launch a book during a pandemic. You’ve done so much to help so many writers. The statistics around pandemic books are abysmal, according to a recent write-up in The New York Times. In 2020, a full 98% of books published sold fewer than 5000 copies. And that doesn’t even account for the impact on tiny presses like Split/Lip, where 5000 would be actually be a damn good run. So, you work your whole life on a book, and then have to cast it out to sea in this kind of storm, where it’s just going to get tossed around on the waves for about three and a half minutes before sinking forever. That’s the sad story for small and tiny presses along with independent bookstores, all of which suffered especially hard last year, to the point where most indie bookstores simply lost money. A lot of people are worried about the future of independent publishing and what will happen to the diversity of voices and stories that indie presses and bookstores support. In the end, it’s huge—it’s immeasurably valuable—that literary champions like you make space for smaller books from smaller presses in this dismal publishing landscape. I personally have a lot of catching up to do in terms of how to be an incredible literary citizen who boosts other writers and their books, and people like you light the way. You have no idea how much it means.