Sunday, February 7, 2016

Rachel Cantor talks about her acclaimed new novel, Good on Paper, getting shiny new ideas for new novels, second chances, her devotion to her characters, and so much more

I so loved this novel, Good on Paper, and so did NPR, calling it "a wonderfully exuberant mixing of registers: scholarly to colloquial to campishly zany and back." Rachel Cantor is the author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario and her newest, Good on Paper, is racking up the raves everywhere. She's been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, short-listed for the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories, and she's absolutely fascinating. She also freelances as a writer for nonprofits that work in developing countries like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Laos. She's worked at food festivals and taught Afghan women refugees in Pakistan. Plus, she loves the Boston Red Sox. I'm so delighted to have her here. Thank you, thank you, Rachel!

So much of your wonderful novel is about second chances—and how we read or misinterpret them. Can you talk about this, please?

Thank you for calling my novel wonderful and thanks for the thoughtful question! Yes, the book is to a large extent about second chances. My protagonist, Shira Greene, is stuck. She had big dreams when she was a girl, as a young woman she was a rising academic star, but now she’s a bored file clerk who bristles when her bosses tell her to smile. This isn’t what she’d intended for her life but she can’t imagine anything better. Like many characters in fiction, she needs a deus ex machina to bust in and change everything. And he does, in the form of an eccentric Italian poet—and thank heavens, or Shira would still be temping in New Jersey, unsure why she’s so unhappy. In the end, though, it’s not enough that someone pushes Shira to change—it’s the necessary but not sufficient condition for change, as the philosophers say. She’ll also need to make some choices herself, she’ll need to act. It’s not enough that she be given a second chance: she also needs to take chances. This is her “test,” in the language of the book. Her true second chance is the one she takes after she runs out of the chances she’s been given, if that makes sense.

What kind of writer are you? Do you know where you are headed when you embark on a novel or are you surprised on every page?

I knew where Good on Paper had to end, but I didn’t at all know how I’d get there; this is typical of how I work. I never outline, though I did in this case have a sense of the book’s seven-part structure from a rather early stage, which helped me understand (in general terms) as I wrote and revised how the plot would unfold (what is Shira’s call to action, what is her test, etc.). Beyond that, I couldn’t predict much!

To give a simple example: I introduced a cat in an early chapter, with no idea that she would become important. I just thought, we’re in a bookstore, bookstores should have cats! But once she was there, and had a name (Marla), and began sitting regally in her Simon and Schuster box with her kittens, which she loses, once it became clear that she was dear to the bookstore proprietor, she became “material” I later needed to use (like a gun which once introduced has to eventually go off). She became part of an organic process over which I had some but not complete control; this means that what happens next you can’t always predict.

So there were for me surprises galore, and not just on the page level. I remember writing a quite emotional scene where Shira has to talk to her daughter Andi, who’s in some distress. I knew I needed to intensify the scene, but I didn’t know how: Shira needed to say something important to her daughter, but what? I didn’t even know what her daughter needed to hear! I started walking blindly down a sentence, with no idea where it would lead. I felt very much like I was on a branch that might not carry me (am I mixing metaphors? sorry!). This was actually a bit terrifying. What happened at the end of that sentence truly surprised me—it made me cry, in fact—though now it seems inevitable. That’s the ideal, to me, to be that open every moment as I write. Sometimes I feel I can sense when a book I’m reading has been “outlined,” when a scene is written so it can be ticked off a list of “necessary scenes”; more often than not, I put that book down.

Did you do research on translation? What surprised you about the process—and did you try some yourself?

I did a lot of research on translation! I read books of essays on both translation theory and practice, as well as a number of articles, especially when they had to do with translation from the Italian. I had tried some poetry translation here and there earlier in my life, mostly as a quite young person, for my eyes only, and had no illusions about how difficult it is. I also translated various lines from the Italian, German, and Hebrew for Good on Paper, though often my translations owed much to the prior efforts of my betters (for example, in a scene in which two characters collaborate on a translation of a famous verse from the Song of Songs, which process I describe here).

At a recent residency, however, I was recently asked to help an American poet who doesn’t speak Italian and a Bulgarian translator who translates from the Italian but doesn’t speak English quite as well translate a poem written by a Swiss poet from Italian into English (if that all makes sense). None of us had sufficient skills to do the job alone; collectively, the hope was that we could. I, however, only embarrassed myself by my poor contributions, consistently misunderstanding individual words and overall sense. Hilarity ensued (chronicled here) So yes, even while I understood intellectually how difficult translation is, I had to have this recent experience to understand it in my bones!

More than one critic has commented on how much you seem to love your characters, however deeply flawed. Don’t you think this has a lot to do with the whole idea of translating—finding the real meaning of a text—and of a person?

That’s high praise to me because it suggests that I’ve done my job—creating complex characters we can love (if I love and respect them, the reader can, too). I hadn’t thought of that process as being similar to translation, but of course it has to be: in both cases, we listen, right? We listen attentively and with an open mind. When we really listen—to what a character says, to what a text says, also reading between the lines of what they say, thinking about what they don’t say, what they’re trying to hide and why, aware then of their flaws and fragility, which are our flaws and fragility—we experience compassion, and then understanding and love—for a character, for a text. At least I think so!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My work-in-progress should be the answer but it’s not. I’m revising that book—a novel-in-stories that takes an imaginative look at the lives of the Brontë siblings. But it’s at an awkward adolescent phase—all limbs, confusion, and difficult emotion—close to maturity but not there yet. So naturally, I’ve had a great idea for a next book! Every day I have more exciting thoughts about how that book might progress, and how fun it’ll be to write! Not the first time this has happened—my difficult work-in-progress was once the shiny idea I enjoyed thinking about when Good on Paper gave me trouble!

The fabulous Meredith Maran talks about Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, yearning for a wife, and why you need to preserve truth-telling with preserving your relationships

 What can I tell you about Meredith Maran? That I once called her up sobbing because I thought I had screwed up something with the New York Times (and she calmly talked me down.) That whenever I need advice or support, she's one of the first people I go to? Not only does she have a heart the size of Jupiter, she's funny, smart, and has the best head of curls on the planet. 

This bio she wrote for herself is so full of delights, I'm including it here: She published her first poem in Highlights for Kids at age six, her first national magazine article at age 15, and her first book at age 18. In the years that followed she built a house and raised goats outside Taos, installed brakes on the Ford assembly line in San Jose, and wrote an exposé of right-wing fundamentalism in Silicon Valley while working as a technical writer at National Semiconductor. After serving as Editor of the Banana Republic Catalogue (when Banana Republic was still cool), she created award-winning marketing campaigns for socially responsible businesses including Ben & Jerry's, Working Assets, Stonyfield Farm, Smith & Hawken, and Odwalla.

The author of a dozen nonfiction books and an acclaimed novel, Meredith is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the MacDowell Fellows West. She writes features, essays, and book reviews for People, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Simple, Mother Jones, Good Housekeeping, and other publications.

Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirsts on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature is both thrilling, profound, and insightful. The only thing better than having Meredith here would be to share coffee and pie with her. Thank you, Meredith!

I absolutely was enthralled by this book about how memoirists write. How did you go about choosing the writers?

With this book and its predecessor, Why We Write, I started the way a mall starts, by recruiting a desirable “anchor store” and then going after others using that first recruit as bait. In the case of Why We Write About Ourselves, my “anchors” were my generous and steadfast friends Dani Shapiro, Ayelet Waldman, and Annie Lamott. Once they’d agreed to be interviewed, I made a wish list and then went after the others the way a hog goes after truffles.

Given our country’s ongoing struggle with racism, it was very important to me that the book include a representative and diverse group of voices. In fact, I told my editor that if we couldn’t do that, I didn’t want to do the book. Inclusivity in the culture has to start somewhere, and for me it started with refusing to perpetrate the marginalization of those whose voices are normally silenced or ignored.

In the course of recruiting the writers, I was struck by how easy it was to find “qualified” women, people of color, gay people, and writers of all ages. The argument that recruiting for diversity means sacrificing quality really is bullshit! Having a chance to interview Edwidge Danticatt and James McBride and Jesmyn Ward and Edmund White and A.M. Homes was an honor, not a sacrifice! I’m proud of the final mix not just because it’s “politically correct,” but because each writer brings a different life experience and literary perspective. You can’t get that in a book that’s limited to famous white men!

What surprised you about these essays? What didn’t you expect? And as a memorist yourself, what did you learn?

I learned so much! I was beginning work on my own memoir as I was doing the interviews and putting Why We Write About Ourselves together, and I poured every insight and trick right into my own book. I felt like I was taking a class with twenty of the country’s best writers as my teachers and I got to ask them anything I needed to know to move my own work forward. I figured readers would be as fascinated as I was by the answers and pointers that emerged.

The big takeaways for me were these: 1) be harder on yourself than you are on any other character in your memoir; 2) memoir isn’t a diary; it’s a shaped and crafted work of art; 3) there’s no confidentiality recipe. Each memoirist has to balance her own truth-telling with preserving her relationships with the people in her life.

There is always the question, how much truth should you tell—but a deeper question is what is the truth? Five people might see one event very differently. Would you say that the impact of the truth you believe is what matters?

In a word, yes. In the memoir I’m writing now I’m changing all the names and identifying details because my previous memoirs hurt my family members and I don’t want to do that any more. This forces me to examine the really important truths, which are the emotional truths.

I loved the tips each memoirist gives at the end of the chapter.  I especially loved the wonderful Kate Christensen saying to not be afraid of writing into the heart of what you’re most afraid of. That’s great advice for novelists, too, don’t you think?

In the events we’ve been doing for the book—starting with NYC, where I was joined by Dani Shapiro, A.M. Homes, Darin Strauss, and Meghan Daum—the need for craft has emerged as one of the hottest items on a memoirist’s to-do list. Most of the writers in the book are novelists as well as memoirists, and they agree that the need for character development, narrative arc, and craft are at least as important in memoir as they are in fiction.

Do you think that when a writer writes with blood on the page, with nothing held back, as if they are writing only for themselves, that that is when it becomes universal? (I do, I do.)

Yes. And—in memoir you have to be careful about whose blood you’re spilling.

Annie Lamott says, “if you didn’t want me to write about you, you should have been nicer to me.” But Pearl Clegg says if people have strong objections, you should honor that.  Again, for me, this comes down to “the truth as you personally know it.”  Can you talk about this?

There are two types of memoirists: the Annie type, who say that everyone gets to tell his or her own story; and the Pearl type, who put relationships ahead of telling the literal truth. I’ve done it both ways and I remain stranded in the middle: determined not to hurt anyone by writing a memoir, and knowing that I inevitably will. 

I also wanted to mention your wonderful, brave, amazing essay, Where is my Wife, that recently appeared in Salon. Can you talk about the reception you’ve received?

Oy! Admitting that I’m lonely, that I want to be married, that I’m a devoted practitioner of the domestic arts, was the most embarrassing thing I’ve put into print, and that’s saying something. I’ve received some really moving responses, nearly all of them from women in a similar situation. I also heard from the usual cacophony of haters in the Salon comments section. It was harder than usual to read those letters, since they were attacking me personally with comments like “No wonder you got divorced.” Ouch. I’m not one of those people who turns her back on feedback. I aspire to be!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Launching a book! It’s like having the flu, but with room service!

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You did it, babycakes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sex. Death. Music. Depression. Addiction. Who we are and who we struggle to be. Rob Roberge talks about his extraordinary memoir, LIAR

I first met Rob Roberge at a reading at KGB's. Not only is he one of the fiercest, most extraordinary writers I know, he's also a hoot to hang out with. He's the author of The Cost of Living, Working Backwards From The Worst Moment of My Life, More Than They Could Chew, and Drive. He teaches and also plays guitar with the L.A. band, The Urinals. And his new book, a memoir, Liar, is intense, brilliantly written, and deeply moving. Don't want to take my word for it? Read below:

“I’ve never read a book more intimately devoted to articulating how tenuous our hold on identity is. Identity is made, unmade, remade by chasing memory, and memory is a series of emotional intensities we barely survive. We make up stories of ourselves to bear the weight of our actual lives. We live between those stories and events coming at us like catastrophic meteors.  And yet, mercifully and sporadically, love comes. Read Rob Roberge’s memoir,  LIAR.  Because life is what happens between truth and the fictions we make to withstand it.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of THE SMALL BACKS OF CHILDREN and THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER

“Uncompromising and deeply affecting, LIAR is a brilliantly fragmented, darkly humorous account of a lifelong struggle with addiction and mental illness that stands with Fred Exley’s A FAN’S NOTES. Strip-mining his memories for veins of truth, Rob Roberge unearths a fractured, unholy, and undeniable work of brilliance.” —J. Ryan Stradal, New York Times bestselling author of KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST

“Rob Roberge’s LIAR is an unforgettable story, but what sets this stunning memoir apart is the unforgettable voice. Roberge interrogates memory with an ardent desire to be good and to do right. A deeply moral and complicated book, it comes from the heart of a man who writes about love, loss, and addiction like no other writer. You’ll fall in love.” —Emily Rapp, author of THE STILL POINT OF THE TURNING WORLD

 I always want to know what’s haunting an author that gets him to write a certain book. So why did you feel that now was the time to write a memoir?

I’m not sure I did feel it was time to write a memoir—at least initially. I had some little sketches that I had published on-line, and a few friends told me I should turn them/it into a book. I thought it was kind of a ridiculous idea. Who would want to read about me for 200+ pages? But, slowly, I came around to the idea of writing the memoir as my various medical conditions got worse—my bipolar and, particularly, my post-concussive syndrome, which threatens memory and ups the possibility of early dementia. So, I guess, I wanted to get it down. There became a sense of urgency in some ways. I’ve always been interested in the (sometimes) wide gap between fact and memory. Memory, as Nabokov said, is a revision. And I wanted to explore that…and the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others.

Also, on a personal and craft level, I had already done three novels that were becoming increasingly autobiographical. And I figured it was maybe time to lose the veil of fiction and write a book overtly about myself. It felt like the culmination of a phase of my career. For now, I’m done writing about me. I’ve done it in both forms and it’s time to try something new. To write about people not at all based on me.

Your book is raw, blazingly honest, (which is funny for a book called Liar!) moving, shocking--all the best adjectives. Were you anxious about revealing so much or was it a relief to be so honest? What was it like to relive you past on paper?

Honestly, I don’t think a single scene in it was a relief to write. The whole thing was more or less very scary and difficult. Maybe a few of the funny scenes were fun to write. But maybe the one relief about writing the book as a whole was that I felt like I had gotten a lot out. James Baldwin said, after essentially coming out in the writing of Giovanni’s Room, (even though it was a novel) that there was the relief of people not having secrets on him. That no one could tell on him because he had told them himself. So, there’s that. Though, of course, I still have secrets—it’s a memoir, not a diary.
But I would say it was a mostly frightening book. Not so much to write, but to have released in the world. To know that I’m exposing so much of myself to readers is a very frightening thought. As, I suppose, it should be with a memoir, or why do it in the first place?

Did anything in the writing of this memoir surprise you?

One major thing. The biggest surprise was how different it was/is from writing fiction (at least for me). I thought both were narrative prose forms, and that they would prove to be very similar. But that proved to be extremely incorrect. First of all, there was the thought/fear of exposing myself on very page. No matter how autobiographical a novel is, you can always hide behind the guise of fiction. The other major difference was the ethics of the project. I wasn’t just telling my story, but I was telling other real people’s stories (or at least my version/memory of them). And that was a very difficult thing for me to reconcile. That I was responsible for how people in my life would be represented, along with the accompanying fear that they might be angry or hurt by my portrayals of them. This is an enormous fear I still have. And that was probably the biggest difference in writing a memoir versus a novel.

You’ve been through a tremendous amount of pain, drugs, alcohol, sexual encounters, thoughts of suicide, etc.  And you seem to now be in a place where you are successful, wildly talented, loved and beloved. Do you think that writing about all of this and examining it helped you or were you already pretty sure what road you wanted to be on before you started writing this?

]First, thanks for the incredibly kind words. I don’t know how exactly how to answer this question. While I recognize that I am enormously lucky in life…that I escaped some pretty hard situations…I probably don’t ever feel totally out of the woods. I still have thoughts of suicide. I don’t drink or use anymore. But I could relapse tomorrow. I don’t think I will, but I could. That said, I have incredible friends. I know how lucky I am. But, I still go to some pretty bad places mentally. Not as often as in the past, but it’s still there. The highs and lows of having bipolar can be exhausting, and they get worse with age, from what the doctors tell me. Though writing the book probably did help me put a lot of my past and present into a different perspective. I view my old self as a much more lost and confused and fearful person than I am today. Though I still fight the same problems, I’m probably better equipped to deal with them now. And writing the book reminded me of that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why your book is so compulsively readable, why I couldn’t wait to get back to reading. I think it’s because even in your depths of self-harm and self-deceit, you are so vulnerable that the reader can’t help but want you to  be okay. How do you feel now about your past self?

 That I was a very immature, damaged young person. That I made a ton of mistakes I wish I could take back. And with a lot of regret, probably. One of the things I learned from the work of Richard Yates was that so much of a writer’s material can be about the gap between who we are and who we wish we could be. And I have felt that gap very strongly at times. I try, too, though, to have a measure of forgiveness for who I was (and who I am). I’m not very good at it. I’m tougher on myself than I am on anyone else. I’m not very good at allowing myself to be human, and I get very frustrated when I don’t measure up to who I know I’m capable of being. Though, I tend to feel that more about my past than my present, so I suppose that’s progress.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Probably my fear about how the book will be received. I’m also working on a new novel that’s giving me a lot of trouble, so I’m not writing enough. I’m trying to be more obsessed with it than I probably am at the moment. But promoting a book while trying to write another one is very difficult for me. So, I’m trying to cut myself some slack there. But mostly I’m obsessed with fear with how Liar will be viewed and received. I’ve never had that feeling with a book, so it’s something new and mildly terrifying, to say the least.

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

I can’t think of any. Thank you so much for the questions you did ask, and thank you for the kind words about the book. It means a lot and I’m extremely grateful.

Do our memories survive us? Sharon Guskin lights up literary fireworks in her already-buzzing debut, The Forgetting Time

First the reviews;
An Indie Next Pick
An Amazon Best Book of February
A Barnes & Noble February Top Pick in Fiction

“Bold, captivating…Guskin amps up the suspense while raising provocative questions about the maternal bond and its limits…you’ll be mesmerized.”—People Magazine (Book of the Week)

“Readers will be galvanized by Guskin’s sharply realized and sympathetic characters with all their complications, contradictions, failures, sorrows, and hope. Deftly braiding together suspense, family drama, and keen insights into the workings of the brain, Guskin poses key and unsettling questions about love and memory, life and death, belief and fact….The Forgetting Time offers a vast spectrum of significant and nuanced topics that will catalyze probing discussions.”—Booklist (Starred Review)

Got you already, right? Sharon Guskin’s debut The Forgetting Time is both beautifully written and extraordinarily provocative. As someone whose father gave her Edgar Cayce books to teeth on, I was fascinated by the story of interlocking lives: a single mother desperate to help her child who keeps remembering another life; a researcher at the end of his own life who wants to make a difference; and a grieving mother who never knew what happened to her own little boy. Guskin's alchemy is to make you deeply know and care about these people, and to wonder about the world. And what is better than that?

In addition to writing fiction, Sharon has worked as a writer and producer of award-winning documentary films, including STOLEN and ON MEDITATION. She began exploring the ideas examined in THE FORGETTING TIME when she worked at a refugee camp in Thailand as a young woman and, later, served as a hospice volunteer soon after the birth of her first child. She’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts. I’m so jazzed to have her here. Thank you so much, Sharon!

The premise of your novel absolutely haunts me.  I’ve been reading about transferred memories for a while now (some quantum physicists think these are cellular memories, handed down like genes) and I actually even convinced a hypnotist friend to regress me to a past life (that’s a whole other story.) What was it that haunted you so that you absolutely had to write this novel? And do you believe in past lives?

 I've always been drawn to the question of what comes next. I was a hospice volunteer for a while; death didn't seem to freak me out, so it seemed like something useful to do. And being around people who were facing imminent death woke me up. It wasn't that I suddenly felt more appreciative of life, though that's part of it. It was more a sense of: wait, there's more. Isn't there? More to life than what we're perceiving, and how we're going about our days. Why aren't we talking more about that? I started to read, as you did...And one of the things I read was a book called Old Souls about Dr. Ian Stevenson and his research with very young children who seemed to remember previous lifetimes. I was struck by these amazing cases -- there are almost 3,000 of them; quite frankly they are mind-blowing. Children who give numerous concrete details about other people they seem to remember being -- actual verifiable people who lived and who died (often) just a year or two before they were born.  I started to think, what if this is true? What if this happens when we die? What does that mean for us, for how we live our lives? The novel came out of that question.

That question has taken me down my own spiritual path, but I think my job as a novelist isn't to tell people what I believe happens when we die, but to suggest that we might want to ask ourselves: What if it's true? What does that mean for me, personally? But you don't have to believe in any of this, I hope, to enjoy the book! It's just a story, in the end.

This is your debut, but it’s already a Buzz Book and getting fantastic reviews. Does this make it easier or harder for you to write your second book?

 I'm still absorbing. And everything is changing so quickly these days that I'm not sure actually what IS happening with the book. But I've been writing for about twenty five years -- I've written two other novels that didn't get published before this one -- so if I can keep plugging away despite (apparent) failure, I can probably keep plugging away despite (apparent) success. At least I hope so. But I'm only at the very beginning of the next book. I'm looking forward to diving in...

What impressed me so much about your debut were the deep questions about relationships, about love and how we handle loss and guilt, and how we struggle to know things for sure. Because of an extraordinary event in the novel, your characters are deeply and irrevocably changed in ways we don’t expect, and it’s deeply moving. It doesn’t rally matter if the reader believes or disbelieves in reincarnation—the novel still resonates on many levels, particularly in its portrayal of all the linked characters. How did you craft your characters, and did any of them give you pause?

Ah, thanks so much for saying that!  It's funny about characters -- some just seem to appear, don't they? Like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. Denise was like that; she showed up and felt real to me, and I was grateful for that (though empathizing with her situation was very emotional for me). Anderson grew out of a kind of composite -- what I knew about Dr. Stevenson, mixed with the spiritual bearing of a former writing teacher of mine, and the situation of a relative who suffers the same form of aphasia. But somehow the ingredients came together into something new and he felt real to me, too.

Janie was the most difficult character to create, by far, perhaps because she bears the most similarity to me, at least on paper. Brooklyn mom, creative professional, etc. At first she was in her head all the time (as this writer can often be) and a bit difficult to relate to, so I worked hard to make her a very different sort of person. It took a few drafts to get that right.

 I have sort of a provocative question for you. “There’s more to life than memory,” Janie says. Memory can be a curse if you know that your loved ones still lived, but you couldn’t have them in the way you did before.  What then, do you think the purpose of knowing this information really is? And from your research, why do only some people announce themselves to people from their past lives? Or does everyone but we just don't see it?

Your question about purpose is interesting: is there any good that can come of these memories?
I think perhaps the people who can benefit the most are not the children themselves, but all of us. There's so much nihilism in the world right now, so much darkness, and I think these cases crack open the door a little bit and make us wonder. And so perhaps these memories are beneficial in that way.

I'm not sure why only some children seem to remember; seventy-five percent of the kids in these cases had some kind of extreme trauma that they are apparently recalling, so Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Tucker have speculated that perhaps the trauma has imprinted itself on their consciousness in some way and moves with them into their next lives. But there are also cases of others who seem to remember past lives without trauma, particularly in the Buddhist world.  I've heard some amazing stories, including someone who apparently spontaneously remembered the Tibetan language.

I've been overwhelmed, in general, by how many stories are out there. Since I started writing and talking about this novel, about a fourth of those I've met have told me extraordinary things their young children have said. Things like: "Remember when I was your grandpa?" Or " Remember when we lived in China and we took care of the babies?" Or repeated descriptions of dying in a fire. So I think this phenomenon is far more common than we realize; in our culture, we discount it when children say these sorts of things, but in cultures in which a belief in reincarnation is the norm, it is taken more seriously.

Drs. Stevenson and Tucker have worked very hard to track down "previous personalities" -- the people these children have remembered being; it's not an easy thing to do.  So perhaps that's why children don't show up more often on the doorsteps of their previous families. It's probably a good thing that they don't. Can you imagine?

Many quantum physicists believe that we carry the memories and emotions of our ancestors inside of us, much like genes, which might account for psychics being able to tell us about our dead—they’re just tapping into what is available and are able to read it. But this is different than what your novel is talking about—the ability of a person to reincarnate into another. Can you comment?

There's something Anderson says in the novel: "How a consciousness migrates is not a question I’ve been able to answer. I’ve been stuck on establishing its existence." I'm fascinated by these ideas, but I really can't comment on how it all fits together. I'm just a novelist, after all!

I don't think Stevenson and Tucker's research is in any way inconsistent with what some quantum physicists have said about consciousness, though; as Max Planke wrote, "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness."

If that's true, if we really believe that, then it seems to me that life is very different from the way we usually perceive it, and anything is possible.

|What kind of writer are you?  Do you map things out or follow your muse (the muse is never around when you want Her, is she?), so you have rituals?

I plug away and plug away and despair a little bit and read good books and drink lots of coffee and then every now and then the muse shows up and the whole world changes. Philip Roth wrote something in The Human Stain that seems true to me (and also wonderfully strange): "This is what happens when you write books. There's not just something that drives you to find out everything -- something begins putting everything in your path. There is suddenly no such thing as a back road that doesn't lead headlong into your obsession."

There's always a magnet when I write -- something pulling me through. But I often don't know where I'm going or if I'm going to make it there.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm a little obsessed with the Buddhist notion of enlightenment: what it might feel like and how one might write about exalted spiritual states -- which I haven't experienced yet, but hope to!  Peter Matthiessen was my first writing teacher, and I'm reading his Zen journals, Nine Headed Dragon River, to see how he did it.  As for why: is there anything better to be obsessed by?

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

I think your questions were wonderful and deep. I'm not sure I have any answers left!

Kelly Simmons talks about ONE MORE DAY, writing three novels at once, her pie obsession, and so much more

Kelly Simmons is a former journalist. In addition to her critically acclaimed novels {STANDING STILL, THE BIRD HOUSE and ONE MORE DAY} she is developing a TV series and has been writing a memoir for what seems like her entire life. I'm so thrilled to host her! Thank you, Kelly.

I always want to know what was obsessing or haunting you that compelled you to write this novel, so please talk about that.

After my mother died, I started to think a lot about death and reincarnation and ghosts, mostly because my sister kept saying things like, "Oh a cardinal came to my window and I know it was Mom."  And friends said things too --  like that their grandmother always "sent" them dimes to find in odd locations.  And I was pissed, you know,  because I would have LOVED to have had more chances to feel my mother's presence.  It seemed that a lot of people not only believed, but had access to another realm that I did not.  Plot ideas rattled around my head for awhile, until I came up with the idea of a young woman with a kidnapped son who is returned to her for ONE MORE DAY.

I always think that each new book changes a writer in some way.  How do you feel changed?

What a great question.  The book has a plot thread dealing with religion, and the more research I did, the more I realized how underrepresented conservative religious characters are in fiction. There is quote-unquote Christian fiction, but in the mainstream (Marilynne Robinson aside, not that she's mainstream, she's a goddess who could write anything) you don't see it that often. I had never noticed this before, nor fully understood how, depending on where you live and how old you are -- how being Christian could be expected --or mocked.

I admire the way the book is plotted and how you ease out the tension and suspense. Was there ever a moment when you felt, oh no, I can't go there, or I can't write this?

Um . . . every day? Seriously, the concept of this book repeatedly stretched me.  I'd never written anything centered around a crime.  I'd never written anything remotely supernatural, or that moved like a thriller.  It's still quite solidly a book about marriage and motherhood and community -- which is comfortable territory.  But I had to write softly about very difficult, even gruesome things.

This is your third novel, and I always feel that writing a new novel is like starting from scratch, that the lessons from the last novel don't apply anymore. Is this true for you? What kind of writer are you? Did you outline or just follow your muse?

Some books flow easily and some don't. Usually the first draft goes smoothly and the revisions bring me to my knees! I definitely have gotten better at exploiting my strengths and patching up my weaknesses, but yes, each novel is its own weird little animal that needs different care.  I am a person who outlines a little, not a lot, but makes lots of notes and lists, so I have a sense of the path.  But I have to allow myself freedom to go ski through the trees now and then.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I have three half-novels that I've written in the last two years -- and I really need to figure out which one to finish. It's like dating three guys simultaneously, something's got to GIVE!

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

People who know me online often ask why I am obsessed with pie in my social media posts.  And all I can say is who doesn't love pie? Pies are the new kitten videos.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Elizabeth Marro talks about her stunning novel Casualties, struggling to empathize with her protagonist, war, writing, love, and so much more

Betsy Marro is the kind of author you want to be your friend. (um, that's an invitation from me...). Selected as a finalist in the 2014 San Diego Book Association Unpublished Novel Contest, CASUALTIES, is the gripping story of a defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was safely home from war. The book is hauntingly great and I’m delighted to host Betsy here. Thank you, Betsy!

And people in San Diego! Come hear her read in San Diego, Feb. 4 at Warwick's in La Jolla at 7:30. I would if I wasn’t on the East Coast!

So much of this astonishing novel is about the battles that go on during the war and after, for both the soldiers and those left behind. What haunted you so much that you wrote this novel?

This story sprang from my worst nightmare -- losing a child. Writing the story became, in part, a way of understanding how a mother might find her way through such a loss.

I was caught up, too, in the age-old problem of how we make decisions and how those decisions shape everything that follows. Whether they are based on the best intentions in the world, unshakable beliefs, or are rationalized later to fit what we want -- every decision has the potential for outcomes we can’t anticipate or control. They can result in casualties we never saw coming -- plans, hopes, dreams, relationships, people, ourselves. They can also result in losses we can anticipate but consider acceptable. This plays out in families, at work, in economies, on the battlefield. Everywhere.

Soon, the photographs of those who died began to appear on television and the local paper. The  Naval Hospital got busier. As the years rolled by, the veteran community began to swell with those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequences of the decision to go to war were all around us: the photographs of the dead, the swelling veteran community, the growing numbers of those learning to use new prostheses in Balboa Park, the booming local defense industry, the military families organizing to help each other and sometimes seeking help from the community. There was a lot to think about and not much of it was comfortable or easy from my vantage point in the 99% club -- the vast group of Americans who do not serve in the military. All of these factors helped to lead me to this story and once I started writing I couldn’t stop until I’d finished.

Your novel is like a punch to the heart (that’s a compliment, by the way), and I was wondering how you felt writing it. What surprised you? How did you change when you finished it?

Thank you for the compliment but now I’m worried I should be providing a defibrillator with every copy!

Writing this book took me through every emotion I ever felt. In many cases, I bumped up against my analytical brain -- the one that protects me and helps me keep my distance -- only to realize that I was dodging the discomfort that comes with truly empathizing and understanding other human beings and, to some degree, myself.

My earliest drafts suffered because I couldn’t empathize with my own protagonist. It should have come as no surprise that this was so but it did. I was mad at Ruth and didn’t realize it. I judged her harshly. All around her, characters came to life but she remained flat and unyielding on the page because I didn’t want to open her up, give her the humanity she deserved, that we all deserve whether we are deemed “likeable” or not. I saw the problem but for a long time I was afraid to look too deeply at her because then I might have to forgive her. As I write this, I realize how crazy this sounds. After all I was the one who gave her the faults she had and caused her to make the decisions she made. As I opened up to Ruth, I found myself opening up more completely to the world I was writing about and the world around me.

I loved the way you explore the mother and son relationship--the things we think we know about our child, and the ways we have to confront the truth. Can you talk about that please?

It wasn’t long after I held my son for the first time that I realized that he was and always would be something of a stranger to me. There he was, complete, self-contained, and separate, even if he was totally dependent on me at the time. I did what I think many mothers do: I buried this knowledge. It frightened the hell out of me and I was young and frightened enough as it was.  I loved him. I loved loving him.  I didn’t want to think I didn’t know him better than anyone else could.

We think we know our children because we’ve been so intimately involved with keeping them alive. We do know so much about them. We have a front row seat to their development. If we are lucky, we are the first ones they turn to to see if everything is going the way it should. But as you’ve probably noticed yourself, their separateness asserts itself early on and keeps on asserting itself, often in uncomfortable ways. We can either work with that or fight it. It took me a while but I finally figured out that there was a difference between wanting my son to have a good life and wanting him to have a certain kind of life. The first desire had to do with him; the second had everything to do with me.  In the story, Ruth wants certain kinds of things for Robbie. She wants them because she loves him but she also confuses her desires for him with her own desires and, let’s face it, ego. She’s not the only one and often, given enough time, parents and children get a chance to sort all that out. But what if there isn’t enough time? Talk about things that haunt.

What kind of writer are you? Do you plan things out? Do you have rituals? Do you worry or are you a calm writer (what’s THAT?)

I’m still discovering what kind of writer I am, actually. I am a big planner, yes, but then the entire plan goes out the window. I don’t think I have any rituals but I do notice I thrive best when I write consistently. I love mornings and am at my best then. I knew my writing was being taken seriously when members of my large and far-flung family deferred all non-essential phone calls from the hours of 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week. And a mug of cocoa made of the darkest unsweetened chocolate with cinnamon, no sugar, frothed in precisely the correct way has become vital to the creative process. If there was a way to inject high quality chocolate directly into my veins, I think I’d be a goner. But a happy, highly energized one.

I write best in my office but I try to make it happen wherever I am. I love to learn about the rituals and approaches of other writers and often try to integrate something that makes sense. Basically, though, it boils down to getting some words on the page, or the screen as the case may be.

I worry all the time except when I am actually putting words on the page. That calms me. I like seeing them there even if I know that most of them, if not all of them, may end up in the trash. Each month, I print out a calendar and figure out the hours I have available for writing each month. Just seeing that, especially during months when holidays or other commitments pull time away, reassures me. I use it to plan my work schedule and even when the schedule falls apart, some work always gets done.

I’ve learned that I can make tough decisions. I honestly didn’t really know the story I was trying to write until after the fourth or fifth draft of Casualties when I jettisoned over six hundred pages of writing and sat staring at the remaining hundred or so. This was both the most frightening and most liberating moment of writing my novel. I discovered a kind of fortitude for pressing on, and a faith in my process that could withstand suggestions like the ones my mother politely but regularly made: “Perhaps you are overthinking it. Maybe it’s time to just get it out there.”

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Short stories. How to write short stories that don’t want to turn into a novel. I’m reading and re-reading so many wonderful collections and examples and trying to get it right. I marvel at writers who can do the very short piece, who can make a single paragraph as complete as a novel. Recent discoveries include Lucy Corin’s collection “The Entire Predicament.”

I am also obsessed with walking, a passion that has emerged over the past year. If I don’t clock a few miles at least every other day if not every day, my body cramps up and I swear every idea in my head goes on strike. I harbor a dream of walking the coast of California from the Mexican border to the Oregon state line using the California Coastal Trail. One section curves along the cliffs a few blocks down from where we live; no matter how many times I’ve walked that same stretch, it always offers me something new.

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

All your questions have been amazing.  Thank you for including me in this series. It is a thrill.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The acclaimed Rick Moody talks about his profound, wry, heartbreakingly funny new novel, Hotels of North America, David Bowie, Charlie Kaufman, lifecoaching and so much more!

Rick Moody is the critically acclaimed and fiercely loved author of The Ice Storm, Purple America, Demonology, The Four Fingers of Death, The Black Veil, and Garden State. His new novel, Hotels of North America, unfolds the life of one middle aged man through the reviews he posts about the hotels he stays in--and it's witty, heartbreaking, and profound. 

He's going to be reading AND SINGING at Hoboken's Little City Books this Saturday at 8. All you have to do is buy one of his books! Details here.

I'm so honored to host Rick Moody here. Totally jazzed!  Thank you so much, Rick!

Are you a Charlie Kaufman fan? Because your novel seemed the perfect companion piece to Anomalisa--the same tug of hope, the same dreariness of the hotels, the same sadness of the middle-aged man desperate for love and purpose, but not finding it.

I haven’t seen it yet! Nor did I know about it—the idea, the conceptual apparatus, until a few weeks ago—so I really don’t know what to think, excepting that perhaps we were thinking about like issues in a similar way. I do know his work pretty well, in that I believe I have seen everything he worked on till now. I truly loved Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation was also a thing of great beauty, as far as I’m concerned. It hit very close. Perhaps its hitting so close is an indication that Kaufman and I shared certain thematic interests back then as well. I will now voice a slightly unpopular opinion, however: I felt like Synecdoche, New York went too far. There were moments I admired greatly, and the performances were marvelous, but I felt like it was an example of the conceptual thinking outstripping what was possible for the audience. I admired that film but I didn’t feel the ungainly human passions while watching it. I was kind of happy when it was over, because it strayed so far from what was very, very moving at the outset. This is all to say, however, that there are certain filmmakers of the recent generation—Spike Jonze, PT Anderson, Miranda July, they would all be examples, and I would include Kaufman even though I like his writing perhaps better than his direction—who have been important and influential for me. I feel like I get where they are going. I want to try to get to similar ideas.

Reading about the hotels was hilarious (I once was in a hotel that had a “Leave your gun in the car” sign on the front desk.) How much was from your own touring and how much was made up?

Probably fifty percent made up. I was travelling a great deal in 2012-2013. My wife is a photographer, and she was involved in a project that required her to travel a lot, and I went along on many of her missions. I also traveled a fair amount myself while writing the novel. Many hotels in the novel were actual hotels I visited or very near to hotels I visited. Others were hotels I have passed frequently, and I always wondered what they were like inside. Now and again I completely made up a hotel. All of them were subjected to the spin cycle of imagination, especially in view of the fact that the reviews are more about Reginald Morse than they are about the hotels in any event. Really, what I wrote is what he’d think about them, not what I’d think about them.

What was writing the book like? Did you always know this was going to be the form? Do you write in bursts or do you take it slow and steady?

I discovered this one, more so than the others. It didn’t yield its secrets immediately. I knew I wanted to work with online reviews, and I knew pretty quickly that I would be dealing with this guy, the reviewer, but the contours of his life and times were revealed over the course of things. It took about two years to figure out how/if it was really a novel and not just some strange hybrid. I threw out like fifty additional pages that didn’t contribute enough to the story, such as it is. I wrote in little bursts, in answer to your last question, in part because it was the first novel I could finish since my daughter was born. I had to evolve a technique that made possible the interruptions of a child.

I was delighted to know you are a bonafide life coach. So how does one engage your services? And do you ever think anyone is hopeless? Could you help Reginald Morse?

The life coachery happens these days on I believe if you write to me at it will get to me. I confess that the backlog is signficant right now, there are a lot of letters, and I sift to find things I want to write about. But if there is an urgent need, a life or death issue, I also sometimes answer directly (not in public), and try to help out as much as I can. I do not think anyone is hopeless. All that is human is beautiful and worthy of celebration, even the keenest despair is beautiful, because it is so human, and so often ignored or suppressed. Hopelessness, that is, is a kind of rigorous imagining, and therefore you can appreciate it, appreciation its purity, and perhaps the appreciation itself, the observational appreciation of a life coach is useful. The life coach, in this case, just tries to be a decent listener, and to treat his correspondents with respect. And all free of charge. He is a coach, that is, who believes in his wards, and thinks the best of them, regardless of their circumstances.

In one NPR interview you said something fascinating: “If we had more time, I could persuade you that any number of totally non-novelistic things are, in fact, novels. Please, persuade me!

The novel is a magpie form. It’s the thing made out of words that steals from other forms. More and more it can be seen as a form that doesn’t even have to consist exclusively of words, in fact (because, e.g., BUILDING STORIES by Chris Ware, is as good as any contemporary novel, and so is Gloeckner’s DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL). The online medium makes clear that you could even include some music and a bit of video. (See, for example, the recent album by the SF band The Size Queens, To the Country, which also exists as an iBook, as a very sterling example of a multimedia novel/album/collection of stories, as well as an album of songs.) There are novels, now, that are clearly poems (The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth), and poems that are clearly novelistic (Claudia Rankine, Citizen), and that’s without even getting into the question of whether something has to be fictional to be a novel. Is Anne Carson’s Nox a novel? Sort of, yes! Okay, well, let’s summarize, it can be in any medium, it doesn’t need to be words, and it doesn’t have to be made-up. So almost anything could be a novel then! From a certain angle all that great Golden Age television is palpably novelistic: The Wire, and so on. Structured just like a 19th century novel! So the novel is more an idea of scale and ambition than it is about form. Or, from another vantage point, I always say that a novel is a thing that employs time to do its job, and usually in some way it’s about time+bodies. There are no other requirements.

What’s obsessing you and why?

The work of the late great songwriter called David Bowie, perhaps that is uppermost. But maybe in a way I am not as obsessive as when younger, and the thing that really gets me in middle age is not some cultural production upon which I can fixate (though these things are nice), but rather the simple interactions of the humans out there in the world. I like things that are poignant. But perhaps poignant and unsentimental at the same time. For example, the moment in Frankenstein that is really great is when Victor dies, and the monster comes upon his body and realizes that his own systematic and murderous course of vengeance is now at a close. Instead of delighting in his mission accomplished, the monster gives a cry of terrible woe: he has lost the thing that gave him purpose, and what can he do now?

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

What do you imagine Lazarus felt when he was resuscitated after four days?

Yona Zeldis McDonough talks about The House on Primrose Pond, writing poems, and why she has dogs in her novel!

After suffering a sudden, traumatic loss, historical novelist Susannah Gilmore decides to uproot her life—and the lives of her two children—and leave their beloved Brooklyn for the little town of Eastwood, New Hampshire.  While the trio adjusts to their new surroundings, Susannah is captivated by an unexpected find in her late parents’ home: an unsigned love note addressed to her mother, in handwriting that is most definitely not her father’s.

Reeling from the thought that she never really knew her mother, Susannah finds mysteries everywhere she looks: in her daughter’s friendship with an older neighbor, in a charismatic local man to whom she’s powerfully drawn, and in an eighteenth century crime she’s researching for her next book. Compelled to dig into her mother’s past, Susannah discovers even more secrets, ones that surpass any fiction she could ever put to paper…

I'm thrilled to host Yona on the blog today. Thank you, Yona! And Yona will be at Book Court in Brooklyn to launch her novel, February 2!

Q:  Why did you choose New Hampshire as the location for your novel?

A: I have set my past six novels in and around New York City. This was less an active decision and more of a default position.  Setting in a novel should function almost as a “character”, and to make that “character” come alive, you have to know it well—the sights, sounds and smells of a place.  Since I was raised in New York and have lived here for most of my life, writing a New York setting came effortlessly to me.  But recently I began to chafe at that very ease and wanted to push my own boundaries. I turned to New Hampshire because it’s a state I have come to love.  My husband is from Portsmouth, NH and we have visited and spent time there during the course of our marriage.  And for many years, we rented a cottage in an enchanted, lakeside spot and that is where I chose to set The House on Primrose Pond.  I knew the place intimately, and so I could write about it with confidence and with passion. I wanted the place to come alive to the reader, and in order to make that happen, it had to be fully, gloriously alive to me.

 Q: The story is mainly told from a single point of view, with one exception.  Care to comment?

A: The story is mostly Susannah’s: how she copes when she loses her husband in a bicycle accident, how she feels as she attempts to rebuild her life in a new place.  But the character of Alice, the elderly neighbor who at first offers friendship but later seems almost a threat, needed some greater explanation and I could only do that if I wrote a couple of chapters from her point of view.  Without a glimpse into her heart and soul, Alice’s behavior toward Susannah and more importantly her daughter Calista, could seem questionable, and even malign.  I did not want that, so it was necessary to go inside the character and bring the reader in with me.

Q:   Can you talk about the novel-within-the-novel structure?

A:  That was another first for me, and presented me with new challenges but new joys too. Susannah is a writer of small, historical fictions for a publisher called Out of the Past Press.  So she’s a genre writer essentially, and has enjoyed her modest success in this niche.  Her subjects have all been from Europe, and she saw no reason to change that.  But after her husband dies, everything about her life seems wrong and off, and she is having trouble with her current project—a novel about Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII.  She begins to wonder if she might not have better luck with an American subject, and since she’s in New Hampshire, a New Hampshire subject at that.  After a little digging in a local library, she stumbles on the story of Ruth Blay, who in 1768 was the last woman hanged in the state.  Blay was accused of murdering her newborn daughter though that was never proved.But she was convicted of concealing the birth of an illegitimate child—an offense punishable by death.

I wanted to show how and why Susannah was drawn to the story, and a bit about her working process. So I decided to include the reader in her process, and delineate how she came to make certain choices.  The historical sections are interspersed throughout the novel, and do not appear clustered together.  Again, I thought this would be a good way to reveal her process, since the shaping and writing of a novel does not happen all at once, but is a gradual thing, an evolution.  All told, there are about fifty pages of Susannah’s novel-in-progress that appear within the larger framework of the contemporary story. I loved writing every single word of them.  

Q: What kind of research did you do for the historical parts

 A: My initial introduction the subject was the excellent book, Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth Century New Hampshire Tragedy by Carolyn Marvin. I also visited the state archives in Concord, NH, where I was able to handle original documents pertaining to the trial, the Portsmouth Historical Society, and the cemetery in Portsmouth where, along with my intrepid sister-in-law Roni Brown, I traipsed around on a hot September day until we were able to locate the grim spot of the hanging.

Q: There are several poems in the novel.  Did you find it hard to write them?

A: I have to say right off that I adore poetry, read it avidly and have made a habit of memorizing poems from time to time (I might have 50-60 in my current repertoire and will perform them at parties, my one and only parlor trick!)  And yet I cannot write poetry. Can. Not.  I tried, unsuccessfully, when I was young and was so discouraged by my limitations that I gave up trying.  So actually having to write poems—there are three in the novel—was a huge challenge for me.  But my character was an amateur poet, and through his poems, he is trying to woo a married woman.  They are poems that have a job to do: to develop his character and move the plot along.  So I tried to keep those goals in mind as I wrote.  Also, he is an amateur poet, not W.B. Yeats.  That made it easier too. I was not struggling to write great, immortal verse. I only had to write the kinds of poems he would have been capable of: earnest, not brilliant, heartfelt, not epic and enduring. And being released of the aspiration to be great gave me a lot of room to experiment.  I started out with dread, and I ended up loving the process. I’m glad I pushed myself to do it.

Q: What's obsessing you now and why?

A: The year city of New Orleans in the year 1917. I’ve got an idea for a novel I want to set there.  I visited New Orleans years ago and loved it, so this is a good reason to go back—research!

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

A: About the dogs in the novel!  I am an avowed dog lover but came to this position only in mid-life.  Before that, I really didn’t get the dog thing, and I did not get the affection people had for their dogs. Now I know.  And of all the dogs out there, Pomeranians are my favorites; I presently have two.  They are small, fluffy, with foxy faces, and plume-like tails. They are also very yappy.   But in this novel, it is a black standard poodle named Emma that takes center stage and I consider her a significant supporting character. There’s also a cameo role for a Pom near the end.  I have this need to include a Pom in every book that I write—it’s become a kind of signature for me.

Please visit Yona at or

Monday, January 25, 2016

Can the mind help heal the body? Award-winning science writer and journalist Jo Marchant talks about Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, how placebos can actually create biological change, training our immune system to respond to scents and tastes, and so much more

I'm fascinated with the mind-body connection, and award winning science writer and journalist Jo Marchant has written a revolutionary and fascinating book about her research on the subject. From the placebo effect (yes, it's real) to how our psychological state influences our illnesses, CURE could change the way you think about modern medicine. I'm honored to host Jo Marchant here. Thank you, Jo

Why haven’t more doctors embraced the neuroscience of mind-body therapies? Is it a fear that people will fall prey to charlatans and not get the medical care that they need? Or is the simply the way alternative healers present their cures?

I think there are several intertwined reasons for this. Much of the skepticism does seem to come from a fear that if we acknowledge a role for the mind in health, this will encourage people to believe in the vastly overblown claims of some alternative therapists. The mind cannot shrink a tumor, banish a life-threatening infection, or mend a broken spine. To pretend otherwise raises false hope and put patients at risk if they don’t get the conventional treatment they need. (I agree that we need to be clear about the limitations of the mind in health, but underestimating it is dangerous too. When scientists and doctors ignore or deny evidence that alternative therapies do help some people, this damages trust in science among the millions of people who feel they benefit from these therapies, and pushes them towards pseudoscientific explanations.)

Another reason for the reluctance to accept research in this field is that science in general is based on a reductionist, materialist worldview that goes all the way back to Descartes, in which subjective elements – thoughts, feelings, experiences etc – as seen as less “real”, and less worthy of scientific exploration, than measurable physical matter. For many fields of research this is a useful distinction, it helps us to get rid of observer bias in experiments, for example. But in medicine the way we feel is of crucial importance, and I think we have to find a way to take this more seriously.

Then there’s the fact that our medical system is based on evidence from clinical trials. We compare treatments against placebos (fake medicines) to make sure they work. That’s important, and works well for physical interventions such as drugs. But it means we underestimate the value of other components of care. This is partly because most trials are funded by drug companies. A more fundamental problem is that placebo-controlled studies are specifically designed to discount any effect of the mind – pathways such as expectation, stress reduction and social support – because these elements are all present in the placebo group too. Any approach that harnesses these mechanisms will automatically fail the trial, no matter how much it benefits patients.

We’re left with medical systems that spend more and more on physical drugs, while cutting staff numbers and squeezing appointment times. A lot of doctors would probably acknowledge that this is counter-productive, but they’re working in a system that doesn’t give them much choice.

 What was the most astonishing finding for you – and why?

There were many findings that surprised me. Placebo responses trigger biological changes. Reducing stress slows the progression of HIV. Loneliness shows up in the activity of our genes.

But perhaps the one that astonished me most was that we can train our immune systems to respond to taste and smell. This works through a process called conditioning, in which we learn to associate a psychological cue with a particular physiological response. The most famous example is Pavlov’s dogs: the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov repeatedly fed his dogs at the same time as sounding a buzzer, until they salivated just in response to the sound.

Similar processes work in humans too, with many aspects of physiology including the immune system. If you take a few doses of a drug that suppresses the immune system, for example, subsequently taking a look-a-like placebo will trigger the same response. Researchers hope conditioning can reduce drug doses (and therefore side effects and costs) in situations such as organ transplants, arthritis and cancer.

When I started to research CURE, I was intrigued by the ability of the mind to influence subjective symptoms such as pain and fatigue. But to discover that our perception of the environment can have immediate and dramatic effects on something as fundamental to our survival as the immune system – that blew me away.

What fascinated me was your writing about sometimes placebos actually perform as well or better than the traditional med they are replacing. How the, could an individual wean themselves off meds by trying a placebos – I know there is a company that makes placebos, but isn’t part of why they work believing that they are other than what they really are?

In many situations we are better off taking conventional medicine. Drugs generally work better than placebos because when we take them, we benefit from both the direct effect of the medication and any associated placebo response. There are lots of things we can do to maximize the placebo responses we experience with the drugs we take, from actively engaging with our treatment to finding a doctor we respect and trust.

However in situations where drugs aren’t very effective (and/or come with risks such as side effects and addiction) and where placebo responses are strong, then some patients might do better on placebo. Examples might include chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and the side effects of chemotherapy.

Scientists have generally assumed that for a placebo to work, we must be fooled into thinking it is a real treatment. But there is now evidence, in conditions including migraine, ADHD, depression and IBS, that placebos can still work even when we know we’re taking them (although perhaps not as well).

This may be because believing that a placebo will help us works even if we know it contains no active drug. Or there’s evidence that if receiving medical treatment makes us feel safe and cared for, this can ease symptoms such as pain regardless of what pill we take. A third mechanism is physiological conditioning (as described above), which works regardless of our conscious beliefs. Researchers suggest that for chronic conditions from pain to asthma to ADHD, alternating an active drug with a placebo should give the same therapeutic benefit with a lower dose of drug.

Alternative medicines offer another way to take advantage of placebo effects without active medication. For example, a German trial published in 2007 followed 1162 patients with chronic back pain. Some of them received real acupuncture, and some received placebo acupuncture (where the needles are placed at incorrect points, and don’t fully penetrate the skin). There was no difference between the two: a result that would traditionally be cited as evidence that acupuncture is worthless. But in this trial there was a third group. These patients received conventional care – a combination of drugs, physiotherapy and exercise – and they did barely half as well as those in the acupuncture groups. Acupuncture, whether real or fake, was a much more effective treatment than conventional care.

Ultimately, instead of relying on dummy pills and treatments we should be developing evidence-based interventions that harness the mind. In CURE, I describe some effective examples, from hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to virtual reality therapy for burns victims in severe pain. But so far, few patients have access to these approaches.

 Aren’t all disorders and diseases stress-related – or at least exacerbated by stress?

It’s hard to think of a condition that isn’t directly or indirectly exacerbated by stress. Stress has wide-ranging direct effects on physiology, including the heart, gut and immune system. This can have dramatic immediate effects, such as diarrhea, panic attack or even heart failure. It increases the risk of adverse events during surgery. And over time, it puts pressure on the cardiovascular system, which can lead to heart disease, and triggers chronic inflammation, which disrupts wound healing, increases our susceptibility to infection and autoimmune disease, and contributes to chronic diseases from diabetes to dementia.

Stress can also exacerbate medical conditions in less direct ways, for example by increasing our sensitivity to symptoms such as pain, nausea and fatigue. And of course it feeds into our behavior, making us more likely to indulge in unhealthy habits (such as smoking and eating fatty food) and less likely to stick to our medication, all of which in turn influence our physical condition.

 You write that the drug companies are averse (obviously) to psychological cures over medicinal ones, but what can the average person do to put pressure on them or to encourage their doctors to be more open minded?

Buy them a copy of my book!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m very interested in the effect of the body on the mind. Just as psychological cues can alter physical health, physical factors – such as diet, exercise, immune responses and sleep – influence our mental state. A simple example is when you’re ill with flu. You experience physical symptoms such as fever, sore throat and aching joints. But you also feel exhausted and miserable. These psychological symptoms are triggered directly by your immune response to the virus, probably as a protective mechanism to ensure that you rest and stay isolated.

The subtitle of CURE refers to the science of  “mind over body”, because this is the idea that I set out to investigate. But I soon realized that this concept isn’t really accurate. Rather than the mind ruling the body, each one inevitably reflects and influences the state of the other.

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

One of the questions that most intrigued me when I started researching this book is why placebos work. Why should simply believing we’ve been treated trigger the appropriate physical response?

There is not just one placebo effect but many, and they work through different mechanisms. But in general, it turns out that these responses reflect a much deeper evolutionary principle.

Sensations such as pain, fatigue and nausea evolved as warning signs: they tell us something is wrong and encourage us to change our behavior – to move away from a threat, to rest, or to seek help. Pain makes us remove our hand from a burning stove; nausea stops us from eating food that might make us sick.

These symptoms help to keep us safe, but they have a cost. If we’re feeling ill, we’re less able to escape from predators, for example, or to seek food. Researchers are discovering that the brain constantly engages in a kind of cost-benefit analysis, calculating what level of threat a situation poses, and therefore how severe the warning signals need to be. To do this, the brain takes into account physical signals from both our body – such as injury or the presence of pathogens – and our environment. We feel more fatigued than normal if the temperature is high, or if oxygen levels are low.

But a key insight – and I think this is one of the central messages of my book – is that our psychological perception of a situation influences these decisions too. If we break an ankle, the pain tells us to stop and seek help. If we feel alone or in danger, that pain is amplified. On the other hand, once we know we’re safe and being cared for, there’s less need for the warning signal and our pain eases. (Or in a life-and-death situation such as being chased by a predator, it might be suppressed altogether – now it is more important to flee than to rest.)

How ill or well we feel therefore depends not just on our physical body but on our mental state. How threatened or safe do we feel? Believing we have no hope for recovery, hearing on the radio that there has been a poison gas leak nearby, feeling alone or stressed: all of these can amplify or even create symptoms. On the other hand, taking what we believe to be an effective medical treatment or receiving supportive, empathic care tells the brain that the crisis is over. The warning signals are switched off, and we feel better.

For me, this means that although we should always listen to our symptoms, we don’t have to be ruled by them. And placebos, instead of being a mysterious, almost magical-sounding phenomenon, suddenly make perfect scientific sense.

Sari Wilson talks about her astonishing debut Girl Through Glass, how yoga is sometimes the go-to for recovering ballerinas, the addictive TV series Flesh and Bone, writing, and so much more

I love the ballet. When I was in my twenties, I took it up to heal a bruised heart, and became obsessed. Of course I was terrible. But debut novelist Sari Wilson wasn't. She was a scholarship student at Eliot Feld's New Ballet School and went on to perform modern dance with Stephan Kloplowitz. A Wallace  Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Fine Arts Work Center Fellow in Provincetown, Massachusetts, she's also received a residency from The Corporation of Yaddo. Girl Through Glass, which NPR called "obsession and passion en pointe" is an extraordinary read, and I'm honored to host Sari here. Thank you, Sari!

 I always think writers are haunted by some idea and they write their novels to come to terms with it. So what sparked the writing of your novel?

First off, I just want to say thanks for having me on your blog as a debut novelist. I’m honored! I think you are totally right in the case of Girl Through Glass. I was haunted by this book, this material, by my own past. Ballet was my great young love. After I stopped training that whole part of my life became locked in a very private place. It was shocking, being cut off from this whole world that had sort of raised me. I tried to put it behind me and move and devote myself to other things. One day, I sat down and wrote what is now the entire first part of the novel—and then I cried. So I knew I had something. But it took me many more years to figure out what.

 You trained as a dancer, which gives your novel a fascinating authenticity. Are there any skills from dance that translate to putting words on the page? And do you still dance or take classes?

I started writing during college, after I had a second surgery that just made it clear that I could never be a professional dancer. And writing following dance, yes, they were very connected. I think I tried to give expression in words to the same impulses I had had as a dancer. Also, a dancer’s familiarity with—even dependence on—repetition and routine is really good for the self-discipline of the writer’s life. On the other hand, I’ve definitely had to unlearn some of the perfectionism and rigidity that came with ballet training.

I actually haven’t danced in some years now, but I am always doing some kind of movement and/or movement therapy—right now, it’s yoga, Pilate's, and Alexander technique. I’ve talked to a lot of “recovering” dancers who have found a lot of peace in yoga, which can be, sometimes dance-like, especially if it is a deep flow class.

I deeply admire the structure of the novel, the ease in which you move from the past to the present, and how those worlds collide. Was this the original shape of the novel or did it change as you began writing? (I ask this because my novels always shape shift!)

Thank you, Caroline! That means so much to me—because I really, really worked on the structure. It was definitely hard-won, the result of many drafts. First I wrote the Mira storyline, which took a number of years. Then Kate’s voice started coming to me—really just speaking to me. So I spent another number of years writing her story. I realized how the two—Mira’s and Kate’s—stories were connected as I went along. It felt like I was reading the book in a way as I worked along. This was the most exciting part of the process—with these two voices it suddenly felt like a book. That is, a work with its own internal logic and language—and it was teaching me how to write it.

Girl Through Glass is an incredible debut because it's so assured. So what kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you plan things out?

I always have to start with a free-writing stage because for me the challenge and deep pleasure of fiction is to go into worlds that seem to exist only in some deep part of the mind. To get there, I have to let go of a logical planning mind. I feel like an explorer. When I come back from the exploration I have to figure out what everything means and how it all connects. Girl Through Glass may be my first novel but I wrote and rewrote it so many times over the years that I think I wrote several novels along the way. It was such an education and journey for me because it required different sets of skills at various stages—in the beginning, I had to really just let myself go and just get back to the place of my childhood. But at a certain point I realized I had to start engaging the planning part of my brain. So I had to very consciously study structure and make charts.
What's obsessing you now and why?

The Flesh and Bone miniseries on STARZ and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (I’m on book two). Both of these stories take on the emergence of a girl in to womanhood. Both depict these sub-cultures with their own logic to evoke this journey. In Flesh and Bone, it’s the crucible of the ballet world. Elena Ferrante uses a closed neighborhood of Naples in the 1950s. But I see some of the same compelling themes—a universal portrayal of the experience of girls emerging into womanhood, complex and compelling and unapologetic and human. And that’s fascinating.

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

Maybe about the character of Maurice? People seem fascinated by him. And I was too! He is totally fictional—I think this is a really important thing to know. But I tried to encompass some real pressures that young dancers face in that characters—that is, the importance of being seen—since all that you have, really, is your body as your vehicle for expression. And also the passion and obsession, especially historically, that some ballet fans—known as balletomanes—feel about ballet and, especially, ballerinas.