Friday, April 22, 2022

Robin Black talks about Mrs. Dalloway, the book that mattered to her the most.


What books matter the most to us, and why do we turn to them time after time? I've long admired Robin Black, both as a person, a literary citizen, and an acclaimed writer, and I was thrilled to learn that she had written a book about why Virginia Woolf's masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, meant so much to her.  Thank you so much, Robin for being here!

First, the praise!

“This astonishing new book, by the brilliant Robin Black is an intimate meditation on reading and writing, aftermath and possibility, the tension between the never-stable, endlessly interpretable depths of a book and the fragility of life, the finality of death. I emerged from this breathtaking work with a transformed understanding of both Woolf’s masterpiece and the stream of consciousness in which we swim, “together and alone.”—Karen Russell

“Reading Robin Black’s astute and enlightening meditation on Mrs. Dalloway is like eavesdropping on a mesmerizing literary conversation, but one in which the participants are not two readers but a reader and a masterpiece. Black threads the very moving story of her own evolution as a writer through the exquisite fabric of Woolf’s great novel, and the result will fascinate everyone who cares about the craft of fiction.”—Ann Packer 

“I loved reading Robin Black’s take on Mrs. Dalloway. She generously shares details of her own life that offer an example of how a great book stays with a person, and goes deep into the intricacies of important craft aspects of the text, illuminating its brilliance. It’s a privilege to read alongside her.”—Alice Elliot Dark 

Robin Black’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications, including the Irish Times. Her novel, Life Drawing, was longlisted for ​the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize. Her fiction has been translated into Italian, French, German, and Dutch.​

​Robin’s most recent book is Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collide. Robin’s work can be found in such publications as One Story, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Review, The Rumpus, O. MagazineConde Nast Traveler UK, and numerous anthologies, including The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. I (Norton) and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review

I always want to know what was haunting or obsessing a writer into writing their new book. What was it for you?

I really had no idea until I worked on this book why I felt so almost magically drawn to Mrs. Dalloway. But now I understand that the topics of mental health struggles, and the satisfactions one does and doesn't get from a life defined by the domestic sphere, plus Woolf's genius use of craft all resonated for me when I first read the book at forty-two. As they still do. 

I love that line, "We swim together and alone." Please can you talk about this?

There is a quasi-magical aspect to the way Woolf treats consciousness in this book. Yes, she explores and, in her word, "tunnels" into individual consciousnesses, but she also writes in a way that suggests something like a shared societal consciousness, a fluidity of boundaries between individuals. This comes up especially in her depiction of mental illness. At the beginning of the book, all of London seems to think as one, except poor Septimus Smith whose perceptions are distorted due to mental illness. They all see one thing, a "royal personage" for example, and he sees something entirely different: a reflection of his own "wrongness." I think this is such a gorgeous, insightful, subliminal way of depicting the "out of step" quality of what having a mental illness feels like. That fluidity of consciousness, that understanding that at times people's thoughts converge, that a disruption of that is a lonely place to be, is what I call the "ocean of shared consciousness" - in which we swim together and alone. 

What surprised you in writing this book?

I was shocked and sometimes discouraged by how difficult it was for me to organize and articulate my perceptions and opinions and experiences of reading it. I don't think I have ever had to work with the same kind of concentration and precision on anything. Reading and rereading and rereading opened up such a wealth of responses in me. It was the challenge of my ADD brain's life to keep all that clear and make it comprehensible to anyone else. And I was shocked by what I term the "extreme craft" Woolf employs. I went from knowing it's a work of genius, to seeing how at least some of that genius works, structurally. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

Other than the state of the world, the horrors that abound, all of which dominates all our thoughts these days, I am obsessed with writing my new novel - which is somewhat lighter than my earlier work, and my first long fiction project in nearly a decade. I won't say more, for all the reasons you understand, but I am beginning to believe in it - a stage I am sure you also understand. 

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

Caroline! You ask all the right questions! But here's another: What's it like to write so personal a book about a novel that people are obsessed with and reverent about? Even worshipful. . . And the answer is, it's terrifying. But also felt important to me, because what I really try to do in this book is take a long hard look at what it means to be a reader, what it means for a reader to become a collaborator with a writer whom they will never meet. And that is a subject that belongs to us all. 


Monday, April 4, 2022

OUT TODAY! Gina Sorell's wise and witty novel< THE WISE WOMEN, about real estate, motherhood, family and so much more! To celebrate: a movie and a few silly questions...

30 Books we Can't Wait to read in 2022-- Parade

Read With Jenna's Most Anticipated books of 2022

"A fine job describing neighborhood tensions and the city's scene." - Publishers' Weekly

"Warm and quirky!" Kirkus Reviews

Gina's a friend since forever, partner in crime, screenwriting partner (hey, together we made finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab) and a cause for celebration because today is her pub day for The Wise Women. She's also the author of Mothers and Other Strangers, a Great Group Reads selection, and a 2017 best book of Refinery 29, Self Magazine.

To celebrate I'm asking her a few silly questions.

This is so exciting! And so different from your first launch of your first novel MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS. So what food is it most like now?

A strawberry pavlova drizzled with dark chocolate.

What are your nerves like today? Hawaii on the beach or stuck in traffic in Mumbai?

Stuck in traffic in Mumbai--definitely!

Where would you be the most thrilled seeing people reading your book?

Outside, relaxing, with their feet up and a coffee or cocktail at the ready!

Go forth and buy this book at your favorite indie! Or mosey over to and order online.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

Women are rewriting their own story! Come see how in Gina Barreca's hilarious collection of flash fiction from some of the fiercest women around: FAST FIERCE WOMEN

No one writes a funnier bio than Gina herself, So here it is: 

Gina Barreca has appeared, often as a repeat guest, on 20/20The Today ShowCNN, the BBCNPR and, yes, on Oprah to discuss gender, power, politics, and humor. Her earlier books include the bestselling They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of HumorIt’s Not That I’m Bitter, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World
If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse, and Babes in Boyland: A Personal History of Coeducation in the Ivy League. Of the other six books she’s written or co-written, several have been translated into to other languages–including Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese and German.  Called “smart and funny” by People magazine and “Very, very funny. For a woman,” by Dave Barry, Gina was deemed a “feminist humor maven” by Ms. Magazine. Novelist Wally Lamb said “Barreca’s prose, in equal measures, is hilarious and humane.” Her latest project is a book on loneliness that will be released in 2020!

Gina’s award-winning weekly columns from The Hartford Courant are now distributed internationally by the Tribune Co.; her blog for Psychology Today has well over 6 million views. Gina’s work has appeared in most major publications, including The New York TimesThe Independent of LondonThe Chronicle of Higher EducationCosmopolitan, and The Harvard Business Review. Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Gina’s also the winner of UConn’s highest award for excellence in teaching. She’s  delivered keynotes at events organized by national organizations in the U.S. and abroad, including Women In Federal Law Enforcement, Chautauqua, The Smithsonian, the Women in Science, Dentistry, Osteopathy & Medicine, the American Payroll Association, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Speaker’s Association, to name a few.

Her B.A. is from Dartmouth College, where she was the first woman to be named Alumni Scholar and the first alumna to have her personal papers requested by the Rauner Special Collections Library at the College. Her M.A. is from NewHall/Murry Edwards College at Cambridge University, where she was a Reynold’s Fellow. Her Ph.D. is from the City University of New York, where she lived close to a very good delicatessen. A member of the Friars’ Club, holder of a number of honorary degrees, and honored by the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, Gina can be found in the Library of Congress or in the make-up aisle of Walgreens. She grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island but now lives with her husband in Storrs, CT. Go figure.

And what I need to add is that Gina is my adored friend. I'd do anything for her. Well, maybe not eat a mayonnaise sandwich, but you know what I mean.

You and I have talked so much about how humor saves us. But so does being fierce!  Can you define what fierce means to you, and we ALL know it does not mean being a bitch, which is a word used to denigrate rather than empower? And can you tell us how the idea for Fast Fierce Women began?

Every time a woman opens her mouth and anything apart from a cooing noise or a compliment comes out, she’s called a “bitch.” I don’t like the word “bitch” and so I don’t use it--and I ask my students not to use it around me, not even as way of congratulating or praising each other. But “tough"? That’s a good word. Tough broads, tough gals, touch chicks (although “chicks" only worked until around 1982) are all seriously great descriptions. They connote resilience, resistance, and a refusal to stick to the code of benign, simpering femininity. Fierce is the BEST word, though, because it conveys an active desire not to settle for less than we’ve always wanted, which is a good time and a fair fight. 
I am absolutely loving all the books you do with flash creative NON fiction. I’ve never actually DONE flash fiction before you asked me, too, and I love the punch it really does pack. How did you come to decide on this format?

All great writing holds a mirror up to life and the short form holds up a compact mirror: you see a miniature, an accurate but scaled down weekly columns for than 20 years and, like you, blog for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. I enjoy the short form; it’s the right cut for my weird shape (and what woman doesn’t think her shape is weird? That’s something for another collection).

Tell us about some of your fave pieces in the collection? And how hard was it to decide what to pick?! 

Every essay is about strength, focused power, passion, and determined intelligence, often coupled often with instinct, tenacity, persistence, resilience, rage, and inflexibility. These themes or ideas or stories are often coupled with humor, and deal with friendship, loyalty, talent and community—what’s not to like? Some of the emerging writers in the book, young women who have never seen their words in print before, have written impressive pieces:  “Black People Don’t Do This” by Ashaleigh Carrington, a former student, is both funny and heartbreaking—talking about going to therapy with her middle-aged shrink’s “white noise” going in the background, but her own wish to make her life better determining her commitment to mental stability; Nicole Catarino writes about a battle with OCD and, again, tells her story with ferocity and without self-diminishment—and also with humor. There are stories about flight attendants who finally got the revenge on the jerk passenger we’d all like to get, and stories about first jobs, old sex, and love—so many stories about love, we discover that fierce love is the most enduring kind of love there is. I’m proud of every piece, as different as they are—or maybe because they are so different from one another.

We’ve also talked about how with women, part of the reason we all go to the ladies’ room together, is to talk, to laugh. Even when we go alone, we start up convos with whoever is there, and soon become fast friends.  I have always felt that meeting you was like Friends at First Sight. I just KNEW immediately. And the more we know each other, the stronger our friendship gets. My husband often says that his best friends are women—because they go deeper, they are more honest, more real, and I was wondering why do you think the friendships are different?

Every woman I know believes her own friendships are endowed with a kind of secret significance. I certainly do—my friends keep me alive. Look, I’m not married to my best friend. I’m married to my husband. He’s a man I adore but he’s not my best friend. For that I am fantastically grateful. One of life’s great gifts is that there’s no taboo against having multiple best friends. You don’t have to go on reality television or into family court to explain or defend yourself. Nobody says “What? You’ve had twenty friends in twenty years? That’s terrible. How could you?” And that’s because friends are people you’re supposed to have in your life—the more the better. Nobody says that about spouses.
When we’re with our women friends, we believe that we are in extraordinary company; that’s how I felt about meeting you, Caroline, right from the beginning.  Making us feel rare and prized, our friends capture our imagination and offer us perspective. They remind us not only who we are, but also why we’re significant. Friendships inspire us. They allow us to express ourselves, even when we can’t stand the self we’re expressing or when we’re so far from our true selves that we turn to our friends to bring us back, as if we’d put our personalities in pawn and gave our friends the receipt for safekeeping—as if they were the ones we trusted, more than we trust ourselves.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I wish I had smarter and more wide-ranging answers to this insightful questions. I’m scared by the news, which makes me rock back-and-forth, worrying about whether I should spend money trying to arm Ukrainian soldiers, or install just another generator and hoard more seltzer—I feel useless and ignorant. My greatest fear in life is being useless. I feel at my lowest when I feel as if I am trying my best and getting nowhere. When that feeling comes around, I go all self-torturing. Nothing I have done is enough, nothing I can do will be enough, who I am is absurd—and that’s why the question about friendship is crucial. When I feel this way, I turn to my friends and they help, lending me their own perspective when mine is wobbly. 

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

You asked ALL the good questions. You are kind and generous, and I am lucky to know you. THANKS DOLL!!

Leslie Kirk Campbell, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction talks about her astounding new collection, THE MAN WITH EIGHT PAIRS OF LEGS, longings, settings, and so much more

Leslie Kirk Campbell is the author of Journey Into Motherhood: Writing Your Way into Self-discovery. Her latest stunning collection of stories, The Man With Eight Pairs of Legs, has just come out. Visit her and learn more at

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their stories, or looking to write their way into an answer for some questions they have. Was it this way for you?

I am a writer richer in ideas than in characters. These ideas often arise from a question that is unexpectedly provoked by an image, a movement, a sound, or a dream. My story “Nightlight,” for example, arose from a vivid dream I had in which a middle-class woman, a wife, is looking out her bay window, surprised to see her husband walking away from her down the street, his arm around a young homeless man, the two almost glowing as the sun rises in front of them. Why did this man leave? I wanted to know. What drove him to make that decision? On another occasion, I heard the sound of someone cutting trees for hours while I worked in the old convent where I often go to write. I walked up the street and saw a woman standing alone at the top of her steep drive. I felt her sadness deep in my gut along with the sadness of the trees lying now in pieces on the ground. What sadness, I wondered, caused this woman to slaughter so many beautiful trees? I wrote “Tasmanians” to try to answer that question. 

Story after story in THE MAN WITH EIGHT PAIRS OF LEGS was driven by my curiosity. What would it be like not to have legs? I wondered after seeing a row of fascinating prosthetics in a TED talk. And then, what makes a human human anyway? (“The Man with Eight Pairs of Legs”) How can a woman still love her philandering husband? (“Thunder in Illinois”). What might drive an abused woman to kill? (“Overture”) Each question, of course, connects with some key aspect of my own emotional landscape. 

Your work made me think of that great book The Body Keeps the Score, about how our memories react to our memories, how the truth of what happened might be suppressed in our minds, but it always comes out in our bodies. Can you talk about that for us please?

The body does keep the score, as much as boulders along the sea or in the foothills hold the marks of tides, snow and wind. My own body has been repeatedly objectified, cut into by surgeons, its kidney bruised, an arm fractured, the body broken in half in a car accident. It has been assaulted, embraced, touched, and invaded with the threat of death. The body remembers.

That same body gave natural birth to two ten-pound babies (without epidurals), ran varsity track, and spent years studying modern dance, seeing itself in a wall of mirrors. I didn’t realize as I was writing these first stories of mine, that the body was so prominent in them. It took someone else to point out what I hadn’t seen. Over and over, as I attempted to write fiction, my body had been talking to me.

I believe in the emotional intelligence of the body, in the molecules of emotion. I believe we privilege the mind at the expense of listening to our own bodies. My body IS my story and the holder of my stories over time – even, it turns out to a time before I was born.

My maternal side of the family is Jewish, and immigrated through Ellis Island in the late 1800s. A couple decades ago, I went to the small town in Germany where my husband grew up. One night, on a stroll through his town, he pointed to a row of apartment buildings and said, in a neutral voice, “That’s where Kristallnacht took place.”  Suddenly overcome, I sobbed sadness relentlessly in his arms. No one in my family had lived through WWII, but there it was, the grief of my people hidden, until then, inside my body. The body remembers.

My characters, too, are marked by their pasts and continue to be marked in present time: bruises that never totally disappear, scars, lesions, heroin tracks. In the “The Hermit’s Tattoo,” the main character tries to erase a tattoo with the name of a childhood friend he once loved. He rubs his skin raw with salabrasion for months, but her name is still there. For Mariam, the protagonist in “Tasmanians.” marks from her past are invisible, yet she feels the ancestral pain of genocide burning on her skin, as real as the fires that burned her grandmother’s family. 

 “City of Angels” arrived almost in one piece as I unconsciously repeated a particular movement in an improv class. We hold memories along our spines, in our groin, within the softest part of our wrists. I don’t believe that the brain is a closed container; it leaks and spreads, the nervous system reaching everywhere in the body with its rivers and tributaries. 

Writing this first book of fiction, I discovered that to really know my characters I had to get inside their physical bodies. I did not want to simply be an authorial witness to their actions. I wanted to rummage around inside them, feel their heat, their aches, listen to their blood circulating – to feel in my body what it feels like to be them.

There is such a deep sense of longing in the stories, that I was wondering – what makes you long? 

Perhaps I am a victim of my own restlessness. I lived in six different cities and went to ten different schools by the time I was 18. I longed to have a home like my friends who had lived in the same house since they were born. I was a song leader in high school cheering on the teams, but would imagine myself a prostitute in some foreign country. I was a ‘good’ girl, but I longed to be bad. I realized in my late 20s how male-identified I was and longed to know, finally, who I was as a woman. 

At one point I was going to call my collection, Exit Stratgies, when I realized all my main characters seemed bent on escaping some form of imprisonment, whether literally, like the abused woman in “Overture,” or figuratively, from something in their past. Llyn and Grady in “Triptych” are refugees from Kentucky and New Orleans; Reiner in “Nightlight” is a refugee from his family farm in a small German town, and now wants to escape the mundanity of a middle-class job and marriage. My characters seem to seek something other than what they have, often taking dangerous risks to live out their passions, or to quell them. 

I’m always curious (because I write novels, not short story collections) how writers decide which story goes first. Which one goes last? What was that process like for you? 

When I started writing fiction in my late fifties, I simply wrote the stories I needed to write without any thought of a book. I used these first few stories to cut my teeth on fiction. But once I realized I had enough stories for a collection, and discovered a theme that could unify them, I had to come up with an order. I obsessively made lists in columns. Which ones were in first person, which in third? Which had a male protagonist and which a female? Where is the setting? Which ones are long and which short? Which ones ended with despair, which with hope? I didn’t want any two sequential stories to be too similar. 

I had six long short stories and one short short. So I wrote a second one to balance things out. I put one in the first half of the book and one in the second half as a relief from the longer stories. I wanted this collection to be an orchestration, just as I did with each individual story, with variation of movement, texture, and feel. I chose to start with my title story, which I felt would be a great introduction to the collection’s emphasis on the body and longing for something else. I knew I wanted to end the collection on a very strong note. I knew, from attending more of my share of football games, that even after dazzling plays – passes, runs and interceptions – resulting in touchdowns along the way, how dejected I feel if my team ends in defeat. Filing out of the stadium, the exalting moments are forgotten. I needed my last story to be a winner. I chose “Triptych.” I wanted the reader to end their journey with a feeling of love, compassion, and hope.

You’ve been praised so highly for your prose – and rightly so – that I wanted to ask, do you read your word aloud to hear it as well as see it? 

Yes, I do. In fact, I record each story and listen back with my eyes closed. I care, perhaps obsessively, about the music of the sentences, each paragraph a movement in a musical composition. I began as a poet. I wrote my first poem to the ocean in Capitola when I was ten, amazed that words could capture my unspeakable feelings of grandeur and awe. In college, I studied poetry from Spain, Britain, France, then traveled through Asia for a year picking up poetry books in every country, got an MA in poetry, studying modern Italian poetry at the Universita di Firenze. As a result, I understand the power of each sound in language, the magic of surprise juxtapositions. I’ve trained students to know what a poet knows about writing as a foundation for their writing in any form for nearly forty years. An image, a metaphor, a phrase or sentence can be thrilling to read, and I want it to be. I want the language to live on the page, it’s music – rhymes and rhythms, its silences, its musical scoring and orchestration. Language is the writer’s medium, just as clay is for the ceramicist, stone for the sculptor, and the body for the dancer. Too often, perhaps, writers take language for granted. But for me it is essential to love language like a poet, to be aware of its natural resources, to feel its exuberance. This is the kind of literature I get excited reading. Rhyme is not just the ‘cat in the hat’. In my stories there are echoes of idea, theme, and image, as well as sounds. I love this kind of layering and relish creating it, although it takes a long time…

What’s obsessing you now and why?  

I am currently working on a second collection called Free Radicals. What I am exploring with these stories is the outlaw, the passionate outlier, and the meaning of freedom. I am re-reading Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism and reading Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom. In the long story Lilith that is the ground story for the collection, a Welsh woman wanders freely from place to place, making temporary friends along the way. As poor as she is, she seems not to have a care in the world. But how free is she? What has she lost? What has she gained? What about the love between a Nicaraguan landowner and a Sandinista revolutionary? A lesbian in a homophobic society? Is the lesbian free once she is allowed to get married (a kind of bondage) or was she freer as an outlaw? (I saw Thelma and Louise again recently, which also begs this question.). We are living through a time of angst around this question. What makes one person feel free, may injure someone else. Does anyone really have freewill?

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

Readers have commented on the richness of my stories’ settings and the way they are often grounded in a particular time in history. 

Everything happens in a place, and that place cannot be separated from the characters, whether it is a city or a small room with mosquito nets over the bed. I am a firm believer in the power of sensory detail: smell, sound, touch. Together these details create a fully dimensional world. The small-town Colorado setting of “The Man with Eight Pairs of Legs” feels critical to the story of Harriet and Callahan with its bounty of churches (the “good”) and prisons (the “bad”) and its dramatically beautiful mountains and gorges. In “The Hermit’s Tattoo,” the wild fires arrive in sheets over the rolling hills. In each story, there is strong interplay between the character and the place they are in. These descriptive details invite the reader to thoroughly inhabit the worlds I have created for them – to smell the eucalyptus tar along with Mariam in “Tasmanains;” reading “City of Angels,” to feel the salt air and sunlight on their skin. 

I am almost organically interested in the reality of history, of social context, of the way a character’s personal triumphs and tribulations do not occur in a vacuum, but within the fabric of a cultural and political era. What is happening beyond the confines of the characters’ individual lives puts pressure on their personal conflicts and choices. In some cases, it is a particular time in history I have lived through like the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, or I will spend hours researching to get the details I need so that the layers of politics, history, and the personal are all there together on the page. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack. Ralph Blumenthal writes about his fascinating new book THE BELIEVER

I'm fascinated by what people believe and why they believe it. A friend of mine told me about renowned former New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, who had co-authored a series of articles on the secret Pentagon office to investigate Unidentified Flying Objects, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. He's written an absolutely fascinating new book about John Mack, a brilliant Harvard academic, who believed that space aliens were abducting humans. 

The Passion of John Mack: 

A Hero’s Journey Into the Heart of Cosmic Darkness

By Ralph Blumenthal

What was I thinking when a used paperback fell into my hands in Texas in 2004? I can’t honestly remember. As the new Houston bureau chief of The New York Times, I was always looking for story ideas. But I sure wasn’t thinking that here was a book that would upend my world and send me on a voyage of nearly two decades into the deepest mysteries of creation. 

The title was intriguing enough: “Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters.” That’s even before I saw that the author, John E. Mack, was a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Lawrence of Arabia. What, I wondered, was a distinguished Harvard academician doing writing about extraterrestrials? I was more intrigued after finishing the book, an account of Mack’s unlikely investigation of seemingly normal people with stupefying accounts of interactions with unearthly creatures that (who?) abducted them for apocalyptic warnings of planetary destruction, bizarre pseudo-medical tests, and the harvesting of eggs and sperm for the apparent breeding of a hybrid race. 

I had spent my then-40-year Times career writing about very different -- and decidedly earthly -- subjects like crime, cops, crooked politicians, and Nazi war criminals. But here was a story hard to pass up. I resolved to track down this Professor Mack for an interview. I had little idea how prominent he already was, having aired his research in two best-sellers, countless articles, and TV interviews -- and having survived a secret Harvard inquest, or inquisition, to use a term of one of his tormentors.

But then I picked up The Times a few days later in September 2004 to find Mack dead. He had been in the U.K. for a T.E. Lawrence retrospective and, looking the wrong way down a London street, as Yanks are wont to do, been run down by an inebriated driver. 

That was hardly the end of my interest, but rather a new impetus. Now the story had an ending, however grim. I found Mack’s half-sister, Mary Lee, in Massachusetts and requested access to his archives. She and Mack’s wife, Sally, and their three grown sons, Danny, Tony and Kenny, were too understandably grief-stricken to immediately respond. But I stayed in touch with them and eventually they agreed, making available his vast archives, including his private journals, unpublished manuscripts, home movies and family photographs, even taped sessions with his own Indian guru therapist. The only exclusions were privacy-protected interviews with patients and research subjects, although some of these, too, would emerge over time.

And so began my own quest that would consume the next 17-plus years, through publication of my book, “The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack” (High Road Books/University of New Mexico Press). The paperback comes out March 15, 2022, a year to the day since publication of the hard cover.

So what did I learn? That Mack had stumbled on a colossal mystery, one that seems as intractable today as when he encountered it in 1990 in a serendipitous visit to another unlikely pioneer, Budd Hopkins, an artist whose sighting of a UFO on Cape Cod had come to obsess him, as it would Mack, with an inexplicable conundrum. Before meeting Hopkins, Mack assumed that anyone recounting an abduction by alien beings had to be mentally ill. But then Hopkins sent Mack off with a bundle of letters from people sharing their unfathomable experiences, and Mack was hooked. He never did answer the ultimate question of what lay behind the abduction riddle but he grew convinced of one thing: somehow, in whatever dimension of reality, something undeniably terrifying had indeed happened to these people. 

Mack’s heroic journey into the heart of cosmic darkness (as I came to think of it) was rooted in a maverick stubbornness to follow his own lights, as one of his favorite poets, Antonio Machado, had written: “the path is made by walking.” Mack had grown up with a strong moral compass in a well-to do secular German-Jewish household. His father, Edward, was a professor of English at the City College of New York (at a time when I was an undergrad there -- one of many strange synchronicities I later recognized). Mack’s birth mother, Eleanor Liebman, from a family of transplanted German brewers renowned for their Rheingold beer, had died of appendicitis when Mack was an infant, leaving him with an aching sense of loss that came to haunt his subsequent search for the hidden in the cosmos. Adding to his angst was a new stepmother, Ruth Prince Gimbel, a onetime socialite and strong-willed New Deal economist, the widow of a great-grandson of the founder of the department store chain, who had jumped out of a window during the Great Depression, leaving her with their four-year-old daughter, Mary Lee, who became Mack’s unexpected sibling. (I also later came across some of Ruth’s papers at Baruch College where I was organizing archives -- another synchronicity.) 

Mack attended Oberlin and Harvard Medical School, soon joining the Harvard psychiatric faculty where he established ground-breaking mental health services in long-downtrodden Cambridge. He had fixated on Lawrence of Arabia after seeing the Hollywood blockbuster, prompting him to spend a dozen years on a landmark study of the quixotic British adventurer, “A Prince of Our Disorder,” awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for biography. Suddenly the author was a recognized expert on the war-torn Middle East and soon an avid campaigner for peace and protester against atomic weapons. He experimented with LSD and other hallucinogens and, at a 1987 demonstration of Dr. Stanislav Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork at Esalen on the Pacific, excavated new dimensions of his consciousness. He imagined a previous life as a Russian peasant and his mother’s struggle to bring him to life. And it was at another breathwork seminar that he learned of Budd Hopkins and alien abduction. 

Mack had quickly assembled his own group of experiencers -- his preferred term of neutrality for those who had encountered God-knows-what -- and soon came to some powerful conclusions. These people weren’t crazy. Something truly terrifying had indeed happened to them. But what? There was, of course, no hard evidence. Yet Mack was intrigued by Budd Hopkins’s letters and the congruence of the countless similar accounts he began hearing from so many different and otherwise normal people, teachers, housewives, engineers, doctors, lawyers, police officers and every other profession. They were notoriously publicity shy, so unlikely to be fabricating outlandish stories for fame or profit. Some were little children, too young to be quoting books or movies. One common denominator was the sighting of a U.F.O., although not every experience involved a spaceship. And everyone seemed genuinely terrorized in ways a trained psychiatrist could recognize.

Mack ended up laying out 13 of his best case studies in a 1994 bestseller, “Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens.” Predictably, it discomfited superiors at Harvard where his unconventional research had been hardly a secret but now, displayed to the world, it was drawing ridicule from influential alumni. A secret committee of inquiry was convened, subjecting Mack to intrusive questions about his beliefs and methods. But in the end, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing and continued his research, foraying into other mystifying byways of the anomalous, from crop circles to survival of consciousness -- life after death. Some said they even encountered Mack’s spirit after he passed. 

Mack, I granted, was at times naive and gullible. His heroic quest for the ineffable in the cosmos may well have been rooted in something as profoundly personal as the childhood loss of his mother, a trauma that left him in long search of missing love, to, ultimately, the sad undoing of his marriage. Mack knew all this, of course, and persisted nonetheless, consumed by an intractable mystery we have yet to fathom. But he at least began the path, by walking.


Friday, February 18, 2022

Jonathan Papernick (perfect last name for a writer, right?) talks about I AM MY BELOVEDS, infusing Judiasm in his work, "method-writing." and so much more


A modern couple tests the complicated boundaries of their relationship in Jonathan Papernick's astounding new novel, I am My Beloveds. Jonathan is not only a longtime pal, he's also the author of the brilliant novel The Book of Stone, and the short story collections, The Ascent of Eli Israel, and There is No Other. He's the Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston, and the founder of Paper & Ink Editorial. "Papernick's fiction takes no prisoners," Says Hadassah magazine. "And the New York Times praises his "muscular certainty." You'll love his work, too.

When did you know you were a writer?

For as long as I remember I have always wanted to be a writer. I grew up right across the street from a shopping mall and the bookstore there was a magical place for me and I would go there when I had nothing to do and browse through the books. I think the first story I recall that made me want to be a writer was when my second grade teacher Mrs. Spooner read us The Hobbit. I think from that point at like six or seven years old I definitely knew I wanted to be a writer and for years I wanted to write that kind of high fantasy stuff and did a lot of Lord of the Rings kind of fan-fiction with trace pictures from the cartoon movie that came out a million years ago. I just didn't think I had the talent through much of my high school years and even had a high school creative writing teacher tell me she thought I wasn't a very strong writer, but I've always wanted to be a writer and now my fifth book is coming out with my sixth on the way later in the year.

What’s your motivation for infusing Judaism into your work?

I write about Judaism in my work because I write about what I am interested in, and writing about Judaism explains things to me that I couldn't possibly understand through any other process. I grew up kind of ignoring my Jewish heritage even though I did have a bar mitzvah, but after I went to Israel in my early 20s I realized I was part of a really powerful and beautiful tradition. I still don't enjoy going to synagogue and I don't keep kosher, but I engage with Jewish ideas through my fiction that help explain to me how I relate to Judaism. I see the world through a very Jewish lens, so it would be dishonest for me to write through the eyes of a Catholic priest or a Buddhist monk. This is my tradition and this is how I understand it, through my fiction writing.

Do you believe in method-writing, or experiencing what your characters do?

There is a sort of fallacious idea that we are supposed to write what we know, but I believe that it makes more sense to write about what you want to know. I usually come up with a situation, and a character who desires something and figure out what they do to try and get that. So, everything I write comes through my experience even if I'm writing about an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, or a suicide bomber or somebody in a polyamorous relationship. There are bits and pieces of me in all of my characters, but I don’t need to experience what has happened firsthand to write about it. I just imagine my way into each character through an almost meditative state. When I sit down to write, it's like a smarter part of myself steps out of the darkness of my subconscious and whispers the answers in my ear. Of course experience is always valuable; I could not have written my first book, set in Jerusalem if I hadn't lived in Jerusalem. I could not have written my first novel which was set in Brooklyn if I didn't live in Brooklyn, but all of the characters are fictional for the most part and are made up of bits and pieces of me or potential me’s.

Which of your characters would you want to  have dinner with most?

I feel like I have already had dinner with all of my characters because when I am writing they live in my head so strongly it is as if they are present. I've written about more than my fair share of psychopaths, crazies and weirdos, so I would certainly have to pass on dining with any of them irl. I think all of the characters in my new novel I Am My Beloveds are most similar to me since none of them are killers or psychopaths and just ordinary confused people trying to figure out love. Now if you were to ask me which dead person I would like to have dinner with, I would throw a massive dinner party with Anthony Bourdain at the head of the table, and Bruce Lee, and probably Jesus because I really want to know what he has to say about all of the things that have been done in his name; Amy Winehouse would be awesome, Hedy Lamar, though I don't know much about her, but she sounds pretty awesome, Winston Churchill, David Ben Gurion, Albert Camus and Lenny Bruce. My living date would be Lana Del Rey. I'd make sure there would be plenty of alcohol and I would livestream the whole thing.

What type of the scene do you find most challenging to write?

I don't believe there is a particular kind of scene that I find most difficult. I am equally comfortable writing ultraviolence as I am writing an intimate sex scene. I'm very comfortable with dialogue as well as lengthy description. Heart to hearts and crazy rants are all the same to me. I think it really comes down to how creative I am feeling at the time. Lately it has become more and more difficult for me to get into that writing headspace where I'm able to channel these characters. So when I can't get there I can't really seem to do anything right, but when I do get there, anything goes.

Do you approach each novel project in the same manner? Is there a formula to your methods?

I think I approach each writing project in the same manner. Fear, panic, and doubt. There are some moments of great confidence and that is when I'm able to convince myself it's okay to write, but I do find it challenging to sit down and write, so when I'm on a roll, I try and keep it going as long as I can possibly do so. Some projects take more research. My first collection of stories relied on lots of things I experienced in Jerusalem, but I also did some supplementary research. In fact I had so much material left over in my mind that my novel the Book of Stone just built upon that material to write about a terrorist plot with Jewish extremists in Brooklyn. I Am My Beloveds took some research, but a lot of it came from my own heart, but certainly listening to Dan Savage's Savage Lovecast was a constant voice in the back of my head.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

In Kimmery Martin's eerily prescient new novel DOCTORS AND FRIENDS, three doctors (all friends) find themselves facing a contagious virus spreading across the globe. Here, Kimmery talks about her gripping new novel, her work in ERs, the politics of medicine, writing, and why sometimes 80% of ER cases are "sex gone wrong."

When Ron Block, one of the literary world's guardian angels, AND the podcast host for Friends and Fiction AND the chief honcho for the wonderful Cuyahoga County Public Library tells me that I have to meet an author, that we will love each other--I ALWAYS LISTEN BECAUSE HE IS ALWAYS RIGHT. And yep, yep, he was. 

Kimmery Martin is an emergency medicine doctor-turned novelist whose works of medical fiction have been praised by The Harvard Crimson, Southern Living, The Charlotte Observer and The New York Times. Kimmery is hilarious, smart and I also loved her novel DOCTORS AND FRIENDS.  So does everyone else, because look at the praise:

"The lives of three doctors—friends since medical school who meet for an annual get together—are thrown upside down when a contagious virus begins to spread across the world in this eerily prescient and timely novel written before the COVID-19 pandemic. Martin’s complex characters are infused with such raw emotion that they nearly jump off the page.”—Newsweek

“Martin’s riveting latest focuses on a group of doctors during a pandemic…Martin fills the hospital scenes with vivid descriptions and moving moments. This fully realized account of a fictional pandemic manages to convey the deeply personal as well as the bigger picture.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With echoes of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, and Anna Hope’s ExpectationDoctors and Friends is precise in details but sweeping in scope and impact. With an innate understanding of emergency room medicine, the inner workings of government agencies, and the complexities of decades-long friendships, Martin’s novel is compelling to its core.”–Booklist (starred review)

“There is beauty in Martin’s gem of a story that confirms that friendship is a powerful force.”– Library Journal (starred review)

Thank you so much, Kimmery for letting me pepper you with questions! And thank you so much for waiting for me to recuperate from my  daredevil headlong fall down a flight of stairs.

I always believe that authors are somehow haunted into writing their books, that they write to answer a question that won’t leave them alone. Is it that way for you? 

Yes, to a degree. I’m character oriented: the first thing that occurs to me is the personality of the protagonist. (Which is not a great way to begin a novel, actually, because readers care most about the big central question every novel seeks to answer.) But once I have my main character settled, then figuring out their particular challenge comes next, and I think that does spring from some sort of mental haunting. The head of an author is a truly weird place. 

Let’s talk about Doctors and Friends which I loved. And so does everyone else because you have starred reviews from everyone. Reviewers have praised it for being eerily prescient. So I have to ask, when you were writing it, as a doctor yourself, did you always have expectations that a pandemic was waiting to happen?

Sure. We’ve been locked in periodic mortal combat with viral pathogens since the dawn of humankind. It didn’t require a degree in epidemiology to figure it would happen again. I didn’t expect it to happen precisely as I was finishing a novel about it happening, however. The one good thing about the timing, though, was I learned a nifty new word: prescient. It turns out professional book reviewers really like that word. I might get a tattoo of it.

Not only do you write about serious subjects, but you are hilarious about them. Even your bio on your website had me laughing.  So I have a weird and hopefully fun question. Do you or did you have different personas as a doctor and as a novelist? How do the two intersect?

I’ve got to congratulate you because no one has ever asked me that exact question before. I do think there is some overlap in the fields of medicine and literature, because in both careers you are dealing with a lot of drama. The difference is that as a doctor you are trying to alleviate suffering and as an author you are deliberately inflicting it. (I should probably clarify that last part: as an author you are trying to inflict suffering upon your characters, not upon your readers. Although you would think it was the opposite if you read my Goodreads reviews.)

As a physician, I’ve been blessed to work in a field where I can offer an immediate impact on the life of other human beings when they’re injured or ill. Emergency medicine is a career overflowing with people at their most vulnerable. We work alongside them, trying to diagnose their sickness, ease their pain, haul them back as they walk the line between life and death. I can’t imagine practicing emergency medicine without humility and a strong sense of compassion.

But to better answer your question: the voice in my novels is pretty similar to my actual voice (i.e. nerdy and a bit snarky.)  I tone down my sense of humor at work because a sense of humor during an emergency is prized by no one. Just as the best writers are those who possess keen insight into others, the best doctors are those with empathy as well as technical competence. I don’t know if those qualities are abundant in my writing, but I tried my hardest as an ER doctor to treat everyone with respect and compassion … and I cared very much about what happened to my patients.

You might call yourself a lifelong literary nerd, but I am a lifelong medical nerd. I used to be the one reading JAMA in the waiting rooms while everyone else was looking at People. (Hey, I have a subscription to that one.) And I’ve been told by all my doctors that Emergency Medicine is where the most exciting medicine is. Tell us about that, and about how you moved from there to multi-starred author!

You are obviously way cool, Caroline. And yes: EM is not dull. It comes in handy at parties: when everyone finds out you are an ER doc, they immediately want to know what the weirdest object is you’ve ever extracted from somebody’s nether regions, if you catch my drift. I’m not kidding: I think laypeople see the ER as 10% heart attacks, 10% broken bones, and 80% sex gone wrong. (And with that statement I’ve probably taken your blog in an entirely uncharted direction.)

I became a novelist because I am, first and foremost, a reader. I love words, love stories, love books of all sorts. But I’d never been a writer. When I first had the wild idea to try to write a novel, I was clueless about the process. How to structure scenes, how to craft compelling dialogue, how to maintain suspense—those are all things I learned the hard way, by doing it very, very wrong. Now I teach writing classes on those subjects but the road to basic competency at authoring was long and humbling for me. I attended conferences and read books and received a lot of help from other writers. Which is another thing my two careers have in common: both authors and doctors (especially women) are exceptionally supportive of one another.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or just let them go with the flow?

I’m all flow, unfortunately. I wish I weren’t: it’s an inefficient way to write. I understand the principles of plotting but so far I haven’t been able to achieve them up front. So I try to apply those techniques to my revision process. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Ohhhhh. Ugh. Well, several things: I think a lot about the bizarre turn our country has taken with regard to the politicization of medicine. Deep divisions, where we cannot even agree on the most fundamental aspects of science, or of reality, for that matter. The devaluation of expertise in favor of whatever suits your bias. Demagoguery. Authoritarianism. 

But those things are happening more on a macro-level. When you talk with ordinary people, they are often far more likely to listen to one another and less likely to label each other as the enemy. All this division we are experiencing right now is history repeating itself and I believe there are ways out of it. 

On a different note, I am fascinated by the intersection of quantum physics and the biotechnologies of the future—and what the applications and implications might be. I love reading dumbed-down theoretical physics books.

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

Usually when people realize I wrote a pandemic novel before Covid, some degree of apprehension flits across their face. This always precedes the same question: what am I working on now? So … I’m not going to answer that one because I don’t want to alarm everyone. Let’s just say what I am writing about now is less likely to occur than the events of Doctors and Friends.