Monday, August 18, 2014

Edan Lepucki talks about California, Colbert, being on the motherflippin' NYT bestseller list, writing about difficult women, and so much more

Say you live on Jupiter and you know nothing about what's going on in the American book business. Say you never watch Stephen Colbert or pay attention to any magazine, newspaper or media. If that's true, then you wouldn't know the amazing story of debut author Edan Lepucki. Her novel California, was championed on the Colbert show and because of the "Colbert bump"--and also because the novel is so damn good--it soon hit the NYT bestseller list and she became justifiably famous.  

But Edan has other accolades!  She's also the author of the recently re-released novella, If You're Not Yet Like Me, The Los Angeles Times has named her a Face to Watch for 2014, and California is also part of the Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program.

And most importantly, Edan is really warm, funny and a brilliant talent. I'm not Colbert, but I'm thrilled to host her here.

I always am fascinated by the origins of books. What sparked California?  Did anything change and surprise you in the writing?

I fear I have told this story too often in recent weeks, but it's true, so here it is: I was driving down Sunset Blvd. one night and the streetlights above me had gone out. That stretch of boulevard was so creepy in the darkness and it got me thinking about what LA would be like if all services--streetlights street repairs, schools--ceased. I starting conjecturing about what would have to happen to get to that point.  At the same time, I had the phrase "post-apocalyptic domestic drama" sliding back and forth across my brain; I loved the idea and wanted badly to read such a book.  From those two moments, the story of Frida and Cal, escaping from LA to the woods, came into being.  Many things along the way surprised me: stuff about Frida's brother, Micah, who was a suicide bomber at the Hollywood and Highland Mall in LA; about Frida's family back in LA, about their relationship and its struggles and much!  I don't plan ahead, so much of the story is generated as I go.

I found the world's coming apart--and rag tagging it together, alarming and disturbing, particularly in some of the parallels to life today. Do you think the human race will survive? And at what cost?

I wanted the future to feel uncomfortably close to our own, so that the reader felt afraid and complicit.  I certainly entertain dark thoughts on a regular basis, and recent events--from the horrors of Ferguson, MO, to news of the bad drought in California--make me worry about our fate as a species.  But, then again, I think every generation has worried about the future, and there is also so much compassion, ingenuity and love among us.  It hasn't all been horrible, has it?  Ursula LeGuin has said that science fiction writers don't predict the future, but describe the present. I agree--I'm a writer, not a psychic. I have no idea what the future holds for us! 

I also deeply admired your portrait of a relationship. Cal and Frida are so well-drawn, they breathe on the page. What kind of character work do you do?

Thank you!  I read for character, and it's why I write, too.  The "domestic drama" part of "post-apocalyptic domestic drama" was what interested me most about the story, and I really loved learning who Frida and Cal were.  For me, characters in fiction should feel wholly real, and the reader should feel like the character's life precedes the story, and will continue long after the text ends.  I tend to build character through thinking/daydreaming about them; writing them into being through scene; and really trying hard to inhabit the character's consciousness--seeing the world as they would, using the language they would use.  The shifting perspective in California helped me to understand the differences between Frida and Cal, too. I also wrote a ton of flashbacks for both that ultimately didn't make it into the final draft; writing their past helped inform their present.

What's your writing life like? Do you outline? Do you follow where your pen takes you?  Do you have rituals?

I write four times a week when my son is at daycare, from about nine to noon; after that I must devote the rest of my child-free time to teaching work.   I don't use an outline, but prefer to work from intuition. I turn off my Internet. and write directly into my laptop while listening to music on  my headphones.  After I've written a scene, I go to my notebook and take notes by hand about what I've written, what it means, and what might come next. I am usually just a few scenes ahead of myself. I like to read work aloud as I go, and fiddle with sentences/imagery.  I like to have coffee nearby!

So how has your life changed since the absolutely amazing Colbert bump? 

In some ways, it's changed a lot. I just returned from a big tour where I was in a different city every night, and had the opportunity to meet so many great booksellers and readers. I was on the motherflippin' New York Times Bestseller List!  That totally blew my mind. I still can't believe it!  I feel the whole experience has given me the freedom to write my next book without worrying if a publisher will buy it. That's such a relief--I feel like I can just write and write.  In other ways, my life feels exactly the same!  I still have to juggle parenthood with writing, and I still am slammed with occasional bouts of insecurity and misery about my work.  Life is life is life.  I am glad to have my novel-in-progress to return to; I am looking forward to returning to the cave...

What's obsessing you now and why?

I am writing a book with two complicated female characters. The phrase "difficult women" has become an obsession for me of late. I recently fell in love with The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and am now reading The Custom of the Country. I love Lily Bart and Undine Spragg--what complex, difficult, unlikeable, sympathetic, amazing characters!

Tony Earley talks about his brilliant new collection of short stories, Mr. Tall, being sentimental and sad, ghosts, and so much more

I'm sort of giddy that I get to have Tony Earley on my blog. I've been studying and reading everything he's written since his astonishing debut, Here We Are in Paradise.  In 1996, Earley's short stories earned him a place on Granta's list of the "20 Best Young American Novelists", and The New Yorker featured him in an issue that focused on the best new novelists in America. He has twice been included in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology and he was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2010. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is the Samuel Milton Fleming Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. He's also the author of Jim the Boy, Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True, and The Blue Star, and his latest collection of stories, Mr. Tall, is phenomenal. Thank you so, so much, Tony for being here.

The stories in this stellar collection take place in the South, so I want to know why? What draws you to the South? 

Aside from the three years I spent freezing in Pittsburgh while my wife was in graduate school, I've never lived anywhere else, so I don't know enough about any other part of the country to write about it as well as I would want to. If I were to write a story set in, say, Maine, all the characters would still sound like North Carolinians. 

What I love so much about your writing is the sparks of humor in the stories, the strangely wonderful way of looking at the world that is as surprising as it is original.  Do you see the world the way any of your characters do? 

Only the sentimental, sad ones.

Some of the stellar reviews I read have mentioned that “you’ve grown up.” My first response was, “what the heck does that mean?” before I realized, of course, that they were talking about a more mature talent. Care to comment on that? 

I guess that finally being considered grown-up at age 53 is a good thing. All my life I've wanted to sit at the big table. And while I like being considered a mature talent, I hope it isn't code for beginning the long, slow inexorable slide toward death.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you map your stories out or just wait for the Muse? 

Most of things I write involve years of thinking and self-loathing followed by sporadic bouts of typing. I suppose the amazing thing about my process is that I've written five books without ever appearing to write anything at all.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

My obsessions have been constant for some time now: ghosts, tornadoes and vintage cars, particularly Alfa-Romeos and Saabs. I got two of the three into "Mr. Tall." I sneaked in a Saab, but it isn't vintage.

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

Q: Which of your five books do you consider your best? A: This one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Meet my new website

Not only am I novelist, a book critic and an online novel writing teacher, I'm also a freelance manuscript consultant. Got an unwieldy huge mess of a novel and you can't figure out why the center isn't holding? I can help.  I've been doing this kind of work for years, and I love it.

Please find out more at my brand new website, designed by the writer Gina Sorell.

Lesley Kagen talks about her just-out novella The Undertaking of Tess, her novel coming this March, The Resurrection fo Tess Blessing, PTSD, tinkering with writing a ghost story, and so much more!

Lesley Kagen is the New York Times bestselling author of Whistling in the Dark, Land of a Hundred Wonders, Tomorrow River, Good Graces, Mare's Nest, and her new novella, the Undertaking of Tess, (just out!) and the upcoming novel, The Resurrection of Tess Blessing, coming March 2015. Okay, okay, I couldn't wait until March and wanted to talk with her now. Thank you so much, Lesley--for everything.

Why write a novella?

When I wrote the novel that's being released in March 2015-- THE RESURRECTION OF TESS BLESSING--I had to edit out much of the Finley sisters back story so it would flow better. Basically, I wrote the novella in order to tell more about how the girls came to be who they are when we meet them in middle-age because just about nothing intrigues me more than how people evolve.

Did anything surprise you about writing it?

I'd never written a novella before, so I was quaking in my boots. Once I got the feel of it, I absolutely adored it!  I hadn't intended it to be as long as it is, but all sorts of things started to happen with the sisters that I didn't anticipate. I had to stop myself from turning it into a full length novel. On the other hand, I was so taken by the shorter form that I can't envision myself writing anything but now.

Your characters always seem so incredibly alive and rich. How do you go about structuring them?

Thank you for saying such a kind thing about my characters. I think they feel detailed because so many of them aren't fictional, but real people. I have PTSD, which in some ways is a blessing to a writer, the same way a cruddy childhood can be. Because of the way most everything and everybody imprints on my brain, it's not so much like I'm writing characters as hopping into a sensual Rolodex.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I'd like to revisit the Finley sisters, who I fell so in love with. I'd make it historical fiction again, set during the same time period as the novella (1950s) because I'm nuts about exposing the "good old days" for how they really way were, which was not that good at all. I'm pretty obsessed right now with writing anything that would flow easily from my heart, make readers laugh, but also intrigue them. Maybe a ghost story? A pint-size thriller? A middle-age psychological suspense crossover? Consider yourself warned Neil Gaiman!

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

Is there any genre you wouldn't try?

 While I admire those who can, I don't think I'd be good at all at writing sci-fi. The stories tend to be future based and I like hanging out in the past. Also, many sci-fi characters appear to very good at electronics and math, and I believe in the old adage, "Write what you know." Believe me, you do not want me to parallel park your car or balance your checkbook. The left side of my brain doesn't appear to exist. Hey...wait a minute! That's a pretty good idea for a sci-fi story!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Emily Arsenault talks about What Strange Creatures, balancing humor with terror, and how writing this book as a first time parent changed her, and so much more.

 Emily Arsenault wrote her first novel in fifth grade.  Her latest, What Strange Creatures, about family bonds, love, loyalty--and murder, is a stunner. She's also the author of The Broken Teaglass, In Search of the Rose Notes, Miss Me When I'm gone, and I'm thrilled to have her on the blog. Thank you so much Emily!

A brother arrested for murder, a sister who must prove his innocence, trying to save him when her own life is in turmoil.  Where did the idea come from? What made you haunted enough by it to write a novel?

To start with, I was pretty sure I wanted to write a story about a jaded brother and sister, and I was pretty sure I wanted their relationship to have some humorous elements. In very small ways, I based them on my mom and my uncle, who live a block away from each other in the same New England town in which they grew up. (Like Theresa, my mother eats out a great deal. And like her brother Jeff, my uncle is very frugal and scavenges her doggie bags.) Of course, I couldn’t write a novel about these two simply sitting together at a kitchen table and making wisecracks. I needed for them to have a challenge that would jolt them out of their sarcastic passivity. So I threw a murder at them.

How did you find out about Margery Kempe, the medieval mystic, and how does she function in the novel?

I learned about Margery Kempe through a survey of early English lit class when I was fulfilling credits for English teaching certification years ago. I was intrigued by her unusual life—particularly the fact that she managed to convince her husband to allow her to take a vow of celibacy—and to go on pilgrimages by herself—after she’d had fourteen children with him. When I started What Strange Creatures, I knew I wanted Theresa to have kind of a quirky dissertation topic, so Margery Kempe came back to mind. It wasn’t until then that I read the entire Book of Margery Kempe (her autobiography—which she had a scribe write for her, as she was illiterate). I was happy to find some very odd stories about her life that I was eager to share with readers along the way. Additionally, I wanted Theresa to have a thesis topic somehow related to religion, so she could struggle a bit with the concept of faith. Margery Kempe gives Theresa an outlet—albeit a bizarre and at time frustrating one—for reflection during very difficult times.

For such a terrifying scenario, there is also a lot of humor in the novel. How did you balance the lighter moments with the darker ones?

That’s a good question. This is my fourth book. My first book, The Broken Teaglass, had a lot of humor in it. The two after that didn’t have all that much, and when I sat down to write What Strange Creatures, I was determined to make humor a priority again. I decided that what had prevented it in book two (In Search of the Rose Notes) and especially in book three (Miss Me When I’m Gone) was that the murder victim was too close to the narrator for anyone to have very much of a sense of humor. That is, the tragedy of the victim’s death overshadowed the tone of the book. With What Strange Creatures, I made the accused close to my narrator instead of the victim. Still a pretty grim situation, but nonetheless Theresa and her brother tend to survive tough times through humor and sarcasm. They can’t help but continue that habit even when the situation is more frightening than any they’ve ever experienced before.
What surprised you about the writing?

This was the first book I wrote as a parent. I started it when my daughter was about five months old and finished it when she was about eighteen months. I suppose what was most surprising to me about the writing this time around is that it doesn’t always need to be torturous. I had relatively short writing sessions to work with each day (or every other day), and learned to get right to work and enjoy it as an entertaining “break” from parenting rather than something to get stressed about. Writing novels is a joy and a privilege, not a burden. This is not to say it can’t sometimes be difficult, but I believe that before I had my daughter I perhaps took my writing opportunities for granted.

What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you map your stories out or just wait for the Muse (that pesky Muse never shows up when you want him/her)?

I wouldn’t say I have rituals. I guess I have little tricks to get me through. For example, since I am a sugar addict, I sometimes reward myself with a Coke or a cookie if I’ve reached a certain word count by the end of a writing session. I do plan my stories to some extent. I usually know what I think my ending is going to be before I start writing in earnest. I don’t usually know many of the specifics of how I’ll get there. Sometimes I change my mind about the ending about two thirds or three quarters of the way through the first draft, and have to go back and do some serious rewriting. Actually, this is usually what happens for me, and it can be a painful process. Often it requires me to throw away a great deal of material. I suppose I have a Muse, but she is sort of a deadbeat Muse. She visits me about twice a year, when things are already going well anyhow.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Ghosts! I am very excited about the novel I’m working on now, as it’s more of a haunted house story than a murder story. I’ve loved ghosts stories since I was a kid. This ghost story combines the unease of new parenthood with the suspicion that one’s family is “not alone” in their home. Lately, I’ve been wasting a lot of time watching mediums and ghost-hunters on Youtube. The book also has some historical elements that are new to me, and fun to research. Parts of the book take place in 1884.

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

These were such great questions—I don’t have much to add. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss What Strange Creatures!

Gabrielle Selz talks about Unstill Life: A Daughter's Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstractions, having a father who was dubbed "Mr. Modern Art," the plight of artists today, and so much more

Gabrielle Selz  is a writer and a live storyteller and her debut Unstill life is one of the most fascinating books I've read all year. She holds a BA in art history from the University of California, Santa Cruz and an MFA in writing from City College of New York, and she's worked  in commercial television and on the political campaigns of two Greek democratic presidential candidates: Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. She is the recipient of a fellowship in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Moth Story Slam winner. She has published in magazines and newspapers including, The New Yorker, The New York Times, More magazine, Fiction, Newsday, and Art Papers. She now writes art reviews for The Huffington Post, and you can read her blog about art and life here.

I’m always curious when it comes to memoirs, how reliable memory can be. Certainly, we remember things differently as we age, and take on new perspective. While you were writing this memoir, did you find that you looked at things differently than you did as a child?

Unstill Life was a very complex memoir to write. There was so much art history involved and the threading together of so many stories. My memory is good, but it wasn't nearly enough, especially in the early sections of the book, which took place before I was even born. I was so lucky to have my mother's journals, her letters (she kept carbon copies of all her own letters as well) and the tapes my parents made to help me and to use as primary source material in Unstill Life. These were written at the time the events took place--they have immediacy and authenticity, that memory doesn't. As I wrote the book, my perspective on the events that took place in my childhood deepened. For instance, for many years I had been upset with my father for his role in the Rothko trial and for what I considered a betrayal of Rothko's children. It was so painful for me that I could barely speak about it. Yet, as I pieced the story together, I understood my father's motivations better. I came to known his character, his belief in what he was doing, the complexity of his action, as well as the complexity of the convoluted and interconnected relationships in the art world. The process of writing was so much more than my memory could possibly encompass. I first had to unravel the material, to separate it out almost thread-by-thread, to authenticate it with research and conversations. I also felt that I wanted to observe, to paint a picture, much more than stand in judgement of other people's behavior. I guess that, in itself, was a huge change in perspective. By the time I wrote the final draft of Unstill Life, I'd arrived at a place where I had no ax to grind. I wasn't impartial, I was just more interested in letting the story and the characters speak for themselves.

Your memoir offers up an amazing you-are-there portrayal of a New York City and a Berkeley that doesn’t exist anymore. To me, things seem more and more difficult in the art world, and artists are being displaced out of the city because of exorbitant rents. How do you see this impacting art itself? And is there a solution?

Yes, artists are being pushed aside in NY and the Bay Area now. Galleries are also being forced to move away from downtown SF due to the huge increases in rents because of all the tech money. It's insane. But it was always insane in NY. That's why they created Westbeth, to give artists a low rent place to live and work. So this problem has been going on for decades. Now, at Westbeth the artists there have aged in place and it's a naturally occurring geriatric community. The old folks there can't even afford to shop at the expensive grocery stores in the Village. I don't know what the solution is. They've cut so much funding from the NEA and from most art organizations. Maybe Kickstarter? Really, or Steven Colbert could go on television and ask individuals to help. I'm only half joking. If we want art in our communities we have to be willing to vote for it, and to raise and earmark the dollars for it. I do think the amazing thing about NY is its ability to rejuvenate. I've now seen at least three major booms ending in busts that have allowed artists to move back into neighborhoods and then the process starts up again. I hear that the new Williamsburg is the Upper East Side--above 96th Street. That gives me hope. But, now these neighborhoods are getting further and further away from the center of the city as the developers follow after the places artists have gutted and renovated.

It's still very rare for an artist to make real money. Because as artists ( as a writer I count myself in this group) we are so passionate about our work, people think we will do it for free. And we probably would, but we shouldn't have to. Since the 1970s, there have been artists doing performance and installation pieces on homelessness and squatting. Gordon Matta Clark did projects on land ownership and the myth of the American dream. It's fascinating how resourceful artists are. How they will turn anything, even (or especially) the predicament of their existence, into art. I know an artist out here in Long Island who's art project is living in a survival shack. The artist Sharon Butler has taken her canvasses off their stretcher bars so that she can work anywhere. She tacks her portable linen on walls . So there this imperative to make it work no matter what. Jackson Pollock took "Mural" off the stretcher bars to get it home and after that, paintings abandoned the frame. Max Beckmann painted on bed sheets after he fled the Nazis to Amsterdam during World War II. Creation is often born from pressures and constraints. In Tehran, Islamic artist Shadi Ghardirian, creates photographs where she exposes the code of Shahariah law--women there can not show their faces or be depicted in works of art--while at the same time still abiding by the restrictions. So she creates surreal images of women in decorative chadors their faces covered by their favorite kitchen utensil: broom, iron, pan, tea cup. These are amazing depictions. At once humorous and poignant, that explore the idea of censorship and religion, and comment on the role of women in society.

And now I'm going to say something maybe a little controversial. I think as artists part of our job is to find away to create art and survive--thrive if possible. Maybe that means not living in NYC or SF. I don't think we get to have it all. Choosing to be an artist is choosing to follow a passion that probably won't earn you the money that investment banking would. So choose with open eyes. Often, if we get what we want--like Westbeth--it doesn't solve the problems. It's still a struggle. The amazing grace of adulthood is learning to live in the space between wanting and having.

You’re exploring a time when art in America transformed itself, but so did people. Can you talk about that?

I think the art, as well as the culture, especially in NY and Berkeley, placed a very high value on self expression and self fulfillment. What was most important to these artists was to explore and express themselves at any cost. They had survived the depression and the war after all. The country was back on its feet, people were making money. And I think this desire for self-expression grew and transformed into becoming the dominate expression of the times. The expansion was powered by the boom in youth culture and by medias like television, which by the 60s, had become the dominate form of molding culture. Think of the changes that took place in the fist half of the 60s: The Free Speech Movement was born, the Civil Rights Act was signed, we landed on the moon, and in1965 the US government ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit married couples from using birth control. Sex was liberated.

What I witnessed at Westbeth and in Berkeley was the birth of a Utopian dream--the celebration of creativity and expansion, bohemian lifestyles, sexuality, pervasive drugs, etc., which evolved into the emergence of more hedonistic aspects. I wanted to explore this cycle, in art and in my life. Because it seems to me that the nature of the art of this period, was its need to break free and expand, its push towards infinity. I needed to understand how this need to push outward, to explore and break boundaries at all costs, effected my family. I wanted to understand the intersection of self-expression and family responsibility.

Your father was dubbed “Mr. Modern Art” and you’re a professional art critic. Do you find your sensibilities match your father’s in some way? Do you look at art and artists the same way he did?

Indeed, my father has deeply influenced my art education and sensibilities. He is such a great raconteur. But I am less of a critic than my father. In my writing, I prefer to explore a work of art. I prefer to engage and be with it. I write a lot about installation art because I find that I really enjoy stepping into an art object, becoming part of the evolving process. Dad was such a powerful figure in the art world. He was interested in discovering artists and making careers. He was also a curator, which I am not. I am foremost a writer and approach everything from that place. What's the story behind the object? What's the arc of the experience? Who is this person who created it? What is going on inside them? That sort of thing. I am more interested in falling into a work of art the way I fall between the pages of a book. I love finding myself inside some else's imagination. That's magic.

If you knew what you knew know about how things would change, would you have done anything differently while you were growing up?

Only one thing, not to be left at the Kinderheim. My parents abandoning  my sister and me in a foreign country where we didn't know the language or know what was happening left its mark on both of us. It caused irreparable damage to my sister. Of course, that abandonment is indicative of my parents, and a great many of the other art world adults at that time. I don't know who I would have become without having survived that abandonment. Maybe less insecure, but also less resilient and resourceful. I guess we hope there is always a lesson or insight in a traumatic event and that we can be illuminated by it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am thinking a lot about the power of structure, physical and otherwise, in our lives. Also, the architecture and cycles of utopias and dystopias. Abandonment vs oppression. What causes one to lead to the other.
And when I am not pondering these lofty thoughts. I am trying to enjoy myself and my son. It's his last year before he's off to college. The time is very precious to me. So we are obsessed with finding the right school! I see the theme of freedom vs structure is emerging here, too!

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

Everyone always assumes that it was painful to write this book. But in fact it was so much fun. Every morning I got to wake up and go into my office and enter this world--with this art! I was able to slip between the pages of my mother's journal, to visit with her before she became ill. I struggled to find a way to seamlessly incorporate so many voices, but particularly hers. Writing this book, bringing this world to life on the page, was one of the greatest joys of my life!

Jennifer Pastiloff talks about her extraordinary essay about losing her hearing, Karaoke yoga, how everything scares her but she does it anyway, and so much more

I first heard of Jennifer Pastiloff because everyone on Facebook was talking about her essay  on dealing with her hearing loss. It was so brave, so beautifully written, that I wanted to talk to her. Jennifer also is the creator of Manifestation Yoga and Karaoke Yoga (how fun does that sound?) and she runs writing and yoga retreats. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Jennifer!

What sparked you to write such a brave essay now?

I was leading one of my retreats. It was November. The Galapagos. It was a hard time for many reasons; one being that I had recently gone through an ectopic pregnancy. I started writing the essay while I was there on th Santa Cruz Island. I’d be sitting on my bed, sipping on Galapagos coffee (deliciously strong), and I kept thinking about how hard it was for me to hear during the tours of the various islands. The guides often had thick Ecuadorian accents, and if I wasn’t right up in front with my hearing aids turned up, I couldn’t hear what they’d be saying about lava or iguanas or tortoises. I felt disempowered and frustrated and sorry for myself. I’ve written about my hearing loss before but never really tried to describe it like I did in this essay for The Nervous Breakdown. I write a lot about loss- which is kind of funny because I have a reputation of being “positive” (you know, being a yoga teacher and all) and I write, what I think to be, some really dark things that almost always have an underlying theme of loss. It’s like this quote by Mary Oliver that I love: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

My dead father seems to enter into every thing I have ever written. He won’t leave. Recently I was leading a retreat in Costa Rica. My assistant and I were really moved by this older man who ran the retreat where we stayed at on our last night in San Jose. I called him Grandpa. He was so kind to us that we kept tearing up. “Look at us with our pathetic father shit,” I’d say.
But really. Look at us with our pathetic father shit, I keep thinking.

So, the pathetic in me needs to write again after so many years of hiding from it in a restaurant. The pathetic in me has something to say about grief and the way we put it in our bodies and move through the world and how we assimilate it and how it changes shapes. The pathetic in me wants to talk about how losing a parent so young can break you and shape you in all sorts of ways and how there isn’t a narrative for that because once you’re say, my age now, 39, you’re meant to kind of like get the fuck over it. The pathetic in me wants to say that I am not pathetic at all, that I’m human, like you, and that we’re in this together. Yes, hearing loss is also on that loss-spectrum for me, as is my history with anorexia. I’m fascinated by how we move forward from loss.

So I’d be sitting on the bed with this little journal I had taken from Canyon Ranch the month before (I’m the guest speaker there a couple times a year and I always leave with a bunch of  “Canyon Ranch” notebooks which end coffee-stained and bent) and all hopped up on caffeine, I’d try and turn my pain into art. It took me a few tries with this essay.

I lived many years in denial about my hearing loss. I was ashamed. It made me feel like less than a person. Which, looking back is ridiculous, but it’s how I felt for a long time. Sometimes I still do. I get flack for not paying attention when the truth is that I just I can’t hear. I can’t hear when I am in a group or a class setting or a movie. When I am the teacher, it’s a different story since I am in control.
 As far as brave goes, thanks for saying that. I try and write as honestly as I can. I usually wake up the next day (if it’s been a published piece) and have some kind of panic attack. Like: What have I done? I wrote this piece for Salon on struggling with depression, and I wanted to hide under a rock after it went up. But ultimately, I was glad because it created a dialogue about depression and mental health that often still has a stigma. I also realized that people decide things about us (we all do it- we make up stories, we create things in our mind about others) and that people looked at my life (especially on social media) and thought it was perfect and amazing. Looking at my Facebook it seems that I am always going somewhere new, I get to travel and get paid for it, I sell out workshops all over.

But they aren’t there when I am hemorrhaging on the floor, or so depressed I can’t get out of bed, or helping my sister deal with her son who has special needs, or helping to support my family or any of the other things that I don’t post. And that’s okay. But I thought I would tell the truth. Here’s who I am. I think that’s important. I am not suggesting that everyone walks around vomiting their secrets or over-sharing (which is sometimes mistaken as good writing) but rather, they tell the truth. Most of us hide who we are for way too long. If it’s done right, an essay or memoir, or whatever it may be, the person reading it will be pumping their fist to the sky going Yes Yes, because they recognize some truth, either about themselves or the world. Anyway, I aim to be brave. Sometimes I get scared and fall short but I want to have that be my legacy. I want to leave a mark that says Truth teller.

What's your writing life like?
Well, today I am working on my memoir. What does that look like? Well, it looks like answering your questions. Ha!  I am wildly disorganized and chaotic

I have been going through a hard time the past few months- I was depressed (I had recently gone off my anti-depressants to get pregnant and to see if I needed them for certain) and then I broke my foot.  The foot break was shitty, sure, but it was like I was perched on this cliff of despair and the break just pushed me over. I was in the pit of hell with a hideous pair of crutches and a boot cast. It wasn’t the break, per se, it was just that it was the proverbial straw. Me being the camel. So the past couple months I haven’t written anything and I feel guilty and bad about that so I spend many hours lamenting that instead of actually writing. The Jew in me loves/hates/loves this cycle of obsessing.
I am finally emerging from the darkness and getting back into my writing life. I write whenever and wherever I can. Best on airplanes, which I am on a lot. The white noise, which drowns out my tinnitus, the lack of internet, the fact that I can’t get up and make a sandwich or go lie in bed or clean my ridiculous desk.

Do you have rituals?
I have to be surrounded by other writers and people who inspire me, which is why I have so many books and photographs on my desk and by my feet and my bed and on the floor.
I give lavender oil out at the end of my yoga classes. Every single one, for the last five years. That’s a ritual. I love the idea of ritual.

At night I light a candle. The nightly candle (and wine) is probably the closest I come to a Jen ritual. You’d think being a yoga teacher I might have more woo woo rituals, maybe involving sage and nudity. I guess my compulsive Facebooking is a bad ritual

What are you working on now? 

I am working on my memoir, tentatively titled Beauty Hunting. I created this project a couple years back called The 5 Most Beautiful Things Project where I encouraged people to be beauty hunters. To tell more beautiful stories. To look for the beauty instead of the shit, or inside of the shit. Holocaust Survivor Victor Frankl was able to mentally survive living in a concentration camp by finding beauty in a fish head floating in his soup. In a fish head. So I figured I should be able to find it on the 405 in Los Angeles. And I encouraged others to do the same and tweet them to me. Or write them down. Anything just so that we were paying attention and actively looking for it. So my memoir, at the moment is a mess. I am trying to figure out how to pull it all together. The idea is that there is beauty inside all of it. I don’t think we overcome loss- we learn to get out of bed, how to take it into our bodies and perhaps transform it. I wanted to have the book done by this summer but that isn’t looking great. Maybe if I get off Twitter and Facebook. Ha!

I also run my blog The Manifest-Station, which I write for, sometimes, but mostly these days it’s guest posts. I have some incredible authors on there. Would love to have you! Some days we are getting 20k hits a day. It’s pretty much a full time job sifting through the submissions and getting the stuff up but luckily I have help from two other writers.

On the site there is also a new feature called The Converse-Station, where writers interview other writers. It’s a goldmine. Check it out!
I write for a magazine and a couple other sites and blogs (The Rumpus etc) but I am really trying to focus now on my book and my retreats/workshops. I have yet to master being in two places at once but it hasn’t stopped me from trying. I am working on creating the retreat that I am co-hosting with Lidia Yuknavitch. Totally exciting and different. We will definitely be focusing on “brave” for sure.

What scares you about your writing? And what gives you solace?

What scares me? Everything. Yet I do it any way. I think? This interview scares me. I am telling myself that people are going to read it and think I’m this or that. Then I tell myself a quote that I say to my yoga classes all the time, “It’s worse than you think. They’re not thinking about you at all.” 

I am scared of my memoir- which is why I haven’t finished yet. I am scared that I have created this following with thousands of people who expect a certain something from me and what if I can’t deliver? Or, what if I tell the truth and I lose my “following.” Following is such a gross expression. My followers- what a crock of shit, right? What I mean is- I am scared to expose myself. 

I am scared that I don’t know what I am doing. I am scared that I don’t have an MFA. I am scared that I don’t know how to type. Yes, I decided that for you I would be fiercely honest. I. Do. Not. Know. How. To. Type. I hunt and peck. I don’t know how this happened- but it did. And it makes me feel stupid. I’m scared that I’m going to mess up. I am scared that I have run out of things to say. I’m scared that I have made too many mistakes.

What gives me solace? That every time I tell the truth or put myself out there, no matter how much I want to throw up in a bucket, I feel like I did good in the world. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? I did good. I told the truth. Now, of course “good” is subjective but that’s a whole other ballgame.
I also find solace that as much as I think I suck, and probably tons of people also think I suck, there are a lot of people who do not think I suck. Who respond to my writing. To know that you have affected someone- isn’t that everything? I have an expression that I say: Don’t wallow in your own suckery.

Because I do. We all do, right? But the thing is, we don’t suck. Well, maybe sometimes (ha) but certainly not all the time. I find solace that I do not suck all the time.

I find solace in other writers- writers who are encouraging, generous, risk-takers. Roxane Gay is one. Gina Frangello, another. Cheryl Strayed, Heather Fowler, Emily Rapp, Rob Roberge, Gayle Brandeis, Leslie Jamison, you. So many. I find solace in that there are people paving the way. I find solace in you- as a reader, and as a writer. You read my piece and reached out to me. That’s not nothing. I find solace in a lot. As equally as I am disheartened by “being a writer” I find it gratifying and exciting.

You also lead yoga retreats! As someone who was yelled at (really! yelled ) in an intro yoga class for not "challenging herself by doing a headstand", I want to ask, what would you say to a yoga-shy person like myself to convince me to try it again?

This is such an interesting question. Because immediately I want to say “Well, Caroline, they aren’t really yoga….” But I will stop myself. I encourage people in my workshops/retreats not to put themselves into boxes. That it doesn’t matter what we are called, what label we have been given. I say “Look at me. I made this wacky thing up that has no way to describe it. It’s yoga and writing and sharing and crying and dancing and sometimes wine drinking and yet my retreats are sold out even though they can’t really be named or called proper yoga retreats.” Having said that, I find myself going, “ But Caroline, I am Jen The Writer. Not Jen The Yoga Teacher. Please see me as that.” Such bullshit! It does not matter.

So yes, I lead yoga retreats. It’s called The Manifestation Retreat: On Being Human. I change the subheading a lot. It used to be If I Wasn’t Afraid. I use the body/yoga as context to get people to open up and connect and become more vulnerable. So I get them all hot and sweaty and then ask them to stop, drop and write. There is a ton of writing and sharing out loud. It’s for any level of yogi or writer. I tell people, “You don’t have to be a yogi, you just have to be a human.” A lot of writers come and have written essays from the various prompts and experiences within the workshops. It’s beautiful.
I would say to you, if you wanted to come on a retreat or workshop (which I hope you do. My NYC one is Sep 27  and it isn’t about the poses at all. And anyone who has been can vouch for that. I could give a rat’s ass if you know how to downward dog. The yoga part is just a vehicle for me. I do teach some public classes while I am here in L.A. at Equinox, when I am not travelling, that are straight yoga. As straight yoga as I am capable of doing. Ha. The funny part is this, and I feel like a cab driver who says “But I really want to direct movies” when I say this, but: I never wanted to be a yoga teacher. It fell into my lap and then I turned it into something else. Sometimes I guess we get to where we are going by an avenue we had no idea even existed.

Do you know this piece? It’s one of my favorites. I read it at every workshop:
Autobiography In Five Short Chapters
Chapter I  
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I fall in.
 I am lost... I am hopeless.  
It isn't my fault.
 It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter II  
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I pretend I don't see it.
 I fall in again.
 I can't believe I am in this same place.
 But it isn't my fault. 
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter III  
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I see it there.
 I still fall in... it's a habit... but,
my eyes are open.
 I know where I am.
 It is my fault.
 I get out immediately.
Chapter IV 
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I walk around it.
Chapter V 
I walk down another street.- Portia Nelson

What's obsessing you now and why?

What am I not obsessing on is a better question! I am obsessing on if I should have kids. We have talked about this, I know, but here I am saying it out loud (not sure if anyone is even reading this far so maybe it isn’t out loud but just between you and I again.) I am almost 40. I am also obsessing on that. I feel like there is a bomb on my chest everyday saying baby baby baby tick tick tick. I travel almost twice a month and have this really vigorous schedule. I don’t know how I would pull it off yet I am terrified to wake up at 50 and regret it. I want to write to Dear Sugar but I think she did a column on this one. The thing is- I am not 29. I am 39. Also; on my book. Like, what if I never do it? Wayne Dyer has a phrase (his daughter Serena just wrote a book using it as a title) which says, “ Don’t die with your music still in you.” I worry about that.

I am also obsessing on money and if people like me and if I can ever get my apartment cleaned up or will I always be living under a mountain of papers and crap? And my body and what’s going to happen to my nephew who has Prader Willi Syndrome as he gets older and how I wish I read more books and my husband’s films getting made. My mind. It’s a fun house.
I obsess that I don’t read enough newspapers. I obsess that my brain is being shrunk and made into putty from the interwebs. I obsess that I am dying. That I am going to go fully deaf and what will that be like?

Then, when I get my head out of my ass I obsess on what is going on in Gaza and Israel and planes being shot out of the sky and what can we do about it all?  Oh I have much more!

What is manifestation yoga? Karaoke Yoga?

Right off the bat I should tell you that I define manifest as making shit happen.
Manifestation Yoga: It’s a combination of yoga and writing. I was basically a career waitress (same place for 13 years) and within a very short period of time, I am where I’m at now. I am no millionaire by any stretch, but hey, I taught two sold out workshops in London this year, 5 months apart. I led sold out retreats all over the world. I realized that I made that shit happen. That’s how I define manifest, as I said earlier. It’s not some woo-woo thing. Part of it is daydreaming, yes. Visualizing what we want. Why shouldn’t we do that? Give yourself goose bumps, you know? I do when I think about my dreams: a New York Times Bestseller, being on a book tour, being financially free. I love imagining those things. But that’s not solely it- the imagining. It requires a lot of work and chutzpah and balls and saying Fuck you to fear and choosing the right people to spend your time with and telling the truth. I incorporate all of that into my workshops. I say that Manifestation Yoga unpredictable and messy- like life.

I do workshops all over (I leave Thurs for Atlanta, then NYC, Sioux Falls in South Dakota, London, Dallas, Miami etc.) The retreats I do in Ojai, California, Bali, Italy, Mexico, Costa Rica, Vermont (with author Emily Rapp), Galapagos, to name some of the places. Hey, and you know what? I am really proud of myself because say, ten years ago, I was on the path to death. Literally, I was a walking dead person. So, I’m proud of myself that I’m here. And that I am not serving veggie burgers anymore. And that I created something called Manifestation Yoga that wasn’t a thing in the world but is now a thing. We can all do that. I hope we remember that more often.
I am actually over the moon though because as I type this, I am finalizing the details on another retreat that I am leading with one of my favorite humans ever: Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s going to be The Body + Writing Retreat and totally out of your comfort zone, raw, messy, delicious. It’ll be in Ojai, California, at the winery I do my Manifestation Retreats Jan 31 to Feb 1, 2015. I am astounded but not really surprised by the interest as Lidia is a game changer.  She is remarkable. Talk about brave!

Karaoke Yoga is a ridiculous thing I made up. (I have a partner in the company named Gina Mooring who is the dj.) Basically, I encourage people to sing in my classes. If Free Falling was on by Tom Petty, and they were in a tree pose, I’d say “singing makes it easier to balance.” And they’d sing. I generally attract light-hearted people to my classes. Thankfully I am not an asshole magnet. I feel extremely lucky that I get to teach the people who walk through my door.

So, I heard there were doing Karaoke with spinning class so I suggested it for yoga. And just like that, an idea was born. Meanwhile, Good Morning America asked me if they could put it on the show. So, they flew out from NYC and filmed my class and guess what? We had never done it. It was the first time and it was on national television. But that’s how I operate. Roll with it. Fake it ‘till you make it. Have a sense of humor about yourself. We kept getting more and more publicity for it. The thing is- it is silly and absurd but totally empowering and freeing and fun! Everyone sings at the same time (the words are on a screen at the front of the room) and no one cares what they sound or look like. Not to sound cheesy but it’s total freedom. People leave the class high as a kite. Uninhibited and free. It’s a blast. I am convinced that if we let ourselves be ridiculous a little more, we’d be happier. If we cared less what everyone else thought. I am the worst singer. And I always try and sing the loudest.

Part of your job description is "great listener." Talk about that, please.
Why is it so important to listen, to really hear what people are saying?

Because I struggle with sound so much, because I always feel lost, because I never felt heard growing up. There are so many reasons. I think most of us just want to be heard. A huge part of my workshop/retreat is listening. People sharing out loud and rest of us just listening. And that is when we learn the most. I realized that even though I am mostly deaf that I hear better than most. In the workshop I scoot over on my ass and get up all in your face so I’m right there with you. We need that. As a writer, as a reader, as a teacher, as a human- we need to listen.

I wrote this once:  I can hear the quiet in between the quiet, the arches of eyebrows, the pursing of lips. I can hear the music of unspoken gestures, the tick-tock of need, the roaring of lust, the whining of dissatisfaction. I can hear the tree frog sound of anger even though your mouth, moving in circles, eludes me.

The joy of quiet is something my friend Naomi Shihab Nye spoke of when I heard her speak at UCLA last spring. She loved the essay I wrote about my hearing loss on The Nervous Breakdown, and it struck me hearing her talk of the joy of quiet, that she, along with myself, must think of bursts of silence as holy things. The moderator asked Naomi how she finds quiet in the madness of the world. Oh, it’s to be found, she said. And I thought how the quiet is in itself a found art.
I am so unwilling to let myself get quiet most days and combined with the constant ringing in my ears, it seems as if my head is a carnival of sound. Nonstop chatter. I decided I must excavate quiet, I must unearth it and actively look for it as I do with the 5 Most Beautiful Things Project.I have been walking to the beach. I have been meditating. I have been listening. It’s nice.

You also do yoga retreats. What's surprised you the most about them?

That we hardly do any yoga at them. Ha!! The thing is- yoga is all of it, right? Not just the handstands and the warriors and the pigeon poses. It’s the connection, the listening, the union. That’s what yoga means- union. I used to be scared that if I said “It’s NOT a typical yoga retreat” that people wouldn’t come. Once I let go of that fear and let it be what it was, they came in droves. And I got more confident with what I wanted to do in the world and the risks I wanted to take. And I took them. And still they come. Even though there is sometimes not very much “yoga.”

The connections between the people surprised me. The bond created is like nothing I have witnessed. Ever. I do my best to create a safe space and that makes vulnerability possible.  There’s a quote, I think it’s Freud, that says, “ How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.” The friendships that have been formed are deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

 I am really excited for the retreat with Lidia. I think it is going to open up a whole new world. More info at on that. I am on Twitter/instagram at @jenpastiloffFB  My blog The Manifest-Station is
Thank you, Caroline. You are a love.j

Johanna Stein talks about How (Not) to Calm a Child on a Plane, picking mime over the Air Force, being a Blue Belt, and so much more

 Joanna Stein, writer, producer, director and actor has been seen in such places as Comedy Central, The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, The New York Times, Parents Magazine, The Huffington Post, PBS, The Oxygen Network, Showcase, The Movie Network, UPN, VH-1, Noggin, CTV, The Family Channel and The CBC.  She's also the creator of hilarious videos and articles, including Thanks Mom  and How (Not) to calm a Child on a Plane from the New York Times MotherLode column, and Dad, You're My Hero. It's impossible not to laugh while reading her newest book How Not To Calm a Child on a Plane and Other Lessons in Parenting From a Highly Questionable Source. I'm so jazzed to have Johanna here. Thank you, Johanna!

 This book came from a Motherlode essay. What made you want to expand it into a book, and how terrifying a process was it?

First off – thanks so much for all those nice things you said. Like most (all?) writers, I live in fear of being exposed as a no-talent fraud. So thanks for those words that I will use as ammo the next time those thoughts come a-calling and take root in my brainfolds.

It wasn’t all that terrifying of a process – not initially, anyway. In fact, it wasn’t until that essay came out in the New York Times and a few agents had approached me that it occurred to me to consider writing a book. (I hope to cripes that doesn’t sound obnoxious -- “oh, look at this opportunity that just fell at my little feetsies!” –- but if it does, know that I’ve been hustling my writerly wares in other mediums for years, and this was just the first time I’d thought to set my hustling sights on a book-type thing. Okay, enough disclaiming, now back to it…)

One of the agents who contacted me was Doug Abrams of Idea Architects. Doug has worked with people like Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandel and Richard Branson, so when he wrote to me asking if I’d be interested in working on a book project with him, I was pretty sure I was being Punk’d. But no, turns out he meant it.

Putting the book together took a lot of work (because I write a lot of phenomenally shitty first drafts), but it still wasn’t particularly terrifying. That part came after – once I’d turned the book in and realized there was no turning back. I’d wake up at two o’clock in the morning, then enjoy an all-night anxiety attack.

As a comedian, I’m used to getting feedback relatively quickly. You stand backstage for a few minutes getting sweaty and diarrhea-y, wondering/hoping/praying that the audience is going to laugh… then you step onstage, and whether you succeed or fail, at least the waiting part is over. But with this book, that feeling of backstage anticipation lasted for months. During that time I’d ask my husband and a couple of my closest, trusted writer friends (the few folks who’d read it before I turned it in) to “just tell me that I won’t be embarrassed by how terrible it is”.

Would you have done anything differently, besides not putting you hand inside an already used vomit bag?

Regrets? Not so much with the actual book… my “do-overs” have more to do with my overall creative path. I come from an academic family, so I never seriously considered making a career out of comedy. I took all my pre-med requirements in college, thinking maybe I’d go to med school… then tested to be an Officer in the Canadian Air Force (fun fact: I got called to report to Officer Training the same day I was offered a job to go on tour with a children’s mime troupe. (Yes, I picked mimes over the Air Force. I’m sure the Canadian Government was devastated over that.)

I moved to L.A. to attend grad school at the American Film Institute (where I studied cinematography), then spent another five or six years after that thinking that I needed to figure out what my “real” profession was going to be. Right around my 28th birthday I turned a corner; I took a day job working at a candle store and dedicated all of my free time to writing, performing and producing comedy. It wasn’t until I finally started to take myself seriously – when I mentally hung that shingle – that things started to happen, and the work started to come.

There are so many of those cheeseball clichés – “Dare to dream”, “If you think you can’t, then you’re right”, “You gotta swing for the fence” – but for me that cheese is true. So that’s what I would have done differently. I would have swung for the fence a lot sooner, and I wouldn’t have wasted all that time crying in my car. (Did I mention the car-crying?)

What I love is that this isn’t a guidebook, (guidebooks make every mother I know, myself included, want to curl up in a ball and wait for our kids to turn 12. There’s way too much pressure), but your book is a hilarious look at your specific mothering adventures--and the more riotous they get, the better I feel, and I bet the better all parents will feel.  Were you ever nervous about being so honest?

When I was pregnant I read every parenting book I could get my swollen fingers on  – I think I was hoping to learn how to do it right – but mostly I’d just obsess over all of the worst-case-scenario chapters. So no, I didn’t go into this book with any “real” advice to share -- my feeling is that there’s too much of that in the world already. Everybody has a freaking opinion about the right way to raise a child – and how wrong your way is. My goal was just to write a book about parenthood that would entertain someone like me (i.e.: a grown woman with the sense of humor of a 14-year-old boy).

I wasn’t nervous about being honest – you know that thing that prevents people from doing or saying humiliating things – is that an internal censor? I’m not sure what it’s called, because mine hasn’t been working for years.  Or if it does work, my desire to make people laugh is stronger, and my need to voice my ridiculousness trumps my urge to hide it.

I also believe that there’s an inverse power in sharing these types of stories; that if I tell you my most mortifying, embarrassing moments, and you laugh with me about them, they’ve lost their power to shame me – and hopefully, you will feel the same way about your own mortifying, embarrassing life moments. Look, when you get right down to it, we’re all complete idiots – and the moment we all accept that and agree to laugh at our shared fallibility…. well, I’m not saying that I’ve just solved all of the world’s problems -- actually, I might just be saying that. Get the Nobel folks on the phone, would you?

I also loved, loved, loved the Thanks, Mom video you made that went viral. How much was scripted and how much was pure surprise? Who did the parents of these kids react when they saw the film?

Thanks – it was such a gas to make. It was scripted – though we did improvise a little bit on the day we filmed.

The kids are all friends of ours (my daughter is in there too), and their parents were on set with us the whole time (and by “set” I mean hanging out in a park eating Costco snacks). I wanted to be sure that all of the parents were totally on board with what we were doing. People are always curious about the little swearing kid -- we’re really close with him and his parents (who are hilarious people and talented filmmakers in their own right ( and who actually helped shoot the “Thanks Mom” video). So not only were they okay with the bit, his mom was shouting curse words to him (“okay, you know the “F” word? You can say it now, as loud as you want!”). He couldn’t have been more thrilled for the chance to curse without consequence – which comes across pretty clearly in his performance.

We shot a follow-up video for Father’s Day (“Dad, You’re My Hero” – the link is here), and for that one we tossed the casting net a little farther (i.e.: I threw it up on Facebook) – and tons of kids showed up for that one. The biggest challenge was making sure every kid ended up in the final piece. It was still a relatively tiny shoot – we had moms holding the boom mic, dads holding bounce boards… it was a pure guerrilla style, but I love shooting like that -- with a tiny crew of parents, by the seat of our collective mom-jeans.

You’ve got a resume to die for--writer, director, producer, actor, comedienne, and your work has been on TV and in film. So where are your sights centering next? And is there anything you can’t do?

Thanks… some days I am totally confused as to how I’ve arrived where I am. Part of it is the nature of show business – I started out thinking I wanted to be an actress, but I learned pretty quickly that there’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for the phone to ring. So I started to write… then when I realized I was going to have to wait for someone to produce my original material, I started to do that too. Same goes for directing.

Creatively, I’m got a few different things on the burner right now: I’m working on a staged musical... a goofy magical realism novel… and (insert hushed whisper) I’m in negotiations to adapt “How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane” for the tee-vee…. I can’t say right now who it’s for, but I’m pretty dang excited about it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I took up TaeKwonDo and HapKiDo a year ago, so I’m pretty obsessed with that. I’m a blue belt now, which means that I’m pretty lethal --if you stand real still and don’t fight back too hard.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

I tell fun--and not so fun--facts about my backlist, which is coming out on ebook from Dzanc Books REprint series and Open Road Media!


My early backlist is coming out August 5th! Meeting Rozzy Halfway, Lifelines, Family and Into Thin Air! And I have a big beautiful page on Open Road Media, where you can check out all the books! All four titles can be found wherever e-books are sold!

Thank you so much for reading.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Matthew Gilbert talks about his wonderful new book, Off The Leash: A Year at the Dog Park, what TV shows are worth watching (He's the Boston Globe's TV critic), and why he doesn't use his i-phone at the dog park


 I've know and deeply admired Matthew Gilbert for a while now. He's the whip-smart TV critic for the Boston Globe, and we always talk about shows we love (or don't love.) Plus, he's hilariously funny, which always matters.  His book, Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park is about a homebody who finds community because of his dog, about how dogs change us (and how we change them), and really, about being alive and present in the world. Thank you so much, Matthew for being here, (and you have to check out Srugim--a series from Jerusalem about young religious Jews and their tortured relationships.)

You’re a person after my own heart, a homebody, yet Toby, your dog, transformed you into someone who loves the company of others and who is truly present in the world. How did this alchemy take place?

When the puppy you’re falling in love with comes into your office and starts nudging your elbow with his cold nose, looking at you with his brown eyes like you’re the best person in the world, well, you go wherever he wants to go.

And my dog, Toby, always only wanted to go to the dog park. So as reticent as I was to stand around making chitchat with other dog owners, I couldn’t resist Toby’s hunger for play. I was the classic writer-type who writes because he’d rather not communicate in person; the thought of a dog park group was not inviting. And I was the classic TV addict who prefers to be protected from the hurts and messiness of the real world by a screen. But I had a dog who was a thoroughly social being, and he pulled me and pushed me.

I love the way we get the dog we need. In my case it was an introverted owner getting an extroverted dog who pulled him into a more vibrant, present life.

And gradually, as I write in the book, I came around. Big-time. I began to love the semi-anonymity of the park, the shared exhilaration of watching dogs wrestle and play, and the new friendships, which were daily and intimate and yet not overbearing. I liked the spontaneity and energy of the dogs, the way they made the people looser. I began to feel “off the leash” at the park as much as Toby.

Now that Toby is almost 10, I sometimes find myself nosing him while he’s sleeping, waking him up, and dragging him to the park for some off-leash time.

So tell us about the culture of the dog park. Is there a hierarchy of owners there, as well as dogs? Did you have to learn certain rules?

One of the things I love about the park is that the hierarchy is different from the one in the world outside the park. Maybe that’s the case in all subcultures. At the park, in my estimation, the people who are at the top of the heap are not there because of their jobs or their bank accounts or their beauty. You tend to thrive based on your passion for dogs, your love of your own dog, your willingness to socialize with strangers, and, very importantly, your willingness to take responsibility for your dog –when they have a tiff with another dog, say, or when they jump on people.

I quickly learned the rule about picking up your dog’s poop. Very important. Battles at the park often revolve around owners who repeatedly fail to scoop. But it took me a little longer to learn the more subtle social rules. For example, you don’t need to remember owners’ names, but it’s good form to remember their dogs’ names. Trying to take a park friendship outside the park is a no-no, unless you are quite certain the other person is interested. If they’re not, you’ve got a future of awkwardness between you.

Also, never wear fancy clothes. Most people learn that the hard way. If a dog swipes your pressed pants and leaves a mud stain on them, or if a dog pees on your favorite shoes, well, it’s your own fault. Someday, I’ll tell you about the lady who wore a mink coat to the park every day.

I loved how, in the dog park, you had to be really present. You couldn’t get on your phone or your i-pad, and dogs and people interacted. Did you suffer withdrawal? Was this nearly impossible to do? Can you talk more about this please?

No withdrawal at all.

OK. I just lied. Yes, when I put away my iPhone at the dog park, I feel a little lost, or orphaned. But how sad to have your dog playing and dancing joyfully at your feet while you’re not really there, because you’re busy with your Twitter feed or your email.  Part of the pleasure of going to the park with Toby is taking a daily break and going off the digital leash.

For me, the park has been a welcome dose of presence, and spurning my tech for an hour or two a day has been part of that.

 How and why do you think dogs bring out the best in people?
There are a million answers to that question, and no single one of them seems to quite nail it. You know, we try to be as good as we think they think we are; or we become more giving because dogs are so helpless in the human world. Bottom line: They tend to make humans more humane.

Sometimes, I think we each become better in whatever particular way our dog pushes us. In the book, I talk about how a person and his or her dogs form a kind of caravan as they walk through the park, with the dog confirming or challenging the owner’s view of the world and in the process making them better people.

 When did you decide to write this fabulous memoir? How did you go about shaping it into a story? And what’s your writing life like these days?

 I realized early on in my park life with Toby that the dog park is a special place, and that my time there with Toby was changing me somehow. So I started taking notes, thinking I’d write something or other. Finally, I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe about my love of the park, and I was blown away by the huge and passionate response from the dog-owning readership.

I started shopping around for book agents, and all of them told me that the book would need an “arc,” and the arc would need to be me. The St. Martins editor who finally bought the book, the fantastic Pete Wolverton, told me the same thing. So I took five months away from the Globe and wrote “Off the Leash.” It was peculiar to work for such a long time on one thing; as a critic, I rarely spend more than a day on a story. But I loved it, and hope to do it again. Got any good book ideas?

I’m still writing up a storm for the Globe, but I make time to write little personal pieces here and there, hoping to find the right subject for my next book.

 You’re also the Boston Globe’s TV critic, so I wanted to ask, what show should everyone be watching and why aren’t they?

 “The Americans” is the first thing that comes to mind. The FX show is about a married couple of Russian spies living with two kids in suburbia in the early 1980s. But it’s also a look at marriage, loyalty, nationality, and identity, and it has extra resonance now that we may be on the verge of Cold War 2.0. It has a decently sized audience, though it really ought to be a bigger hit. And it hasn’t gotten any awards love, though it ought to be celebrated, especially the lead performances by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. I can’t tell you why it’s not more beloved. Maybe we all just want to pretend that the 1980s never happened.

I’ve also enjoyed “Broad City” on Comedy Central. It’s a small, raw, unprettified comedy about the friendship between two twentysomething women, and it can be very twisted. And I love me some twisted – but I also know that mainstream audiences often don’t. The show has an improvisational feel, as the two women survive New York and have weird adventures. It’s like the indie version of “Girls.”

I don’t want to forget about “Rectify,” on the Sundance Channel. It’s a slow, but mesmerizing look at the life of a man freed from Death Row – but not exonerated – and how his family and hometown deal with his return. It’s dark and deliberately paced, both of which probably limit the size of its audience.

What's obsessing you now and why?

 Vee from “Orange Is the New Black.” Have you seen season two? Lorraine Toussant gives an indelible, powerful, complex performance as the calculating, perversely maternal drug dealer. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. I kept wanted her to be a better person than she was.

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

Is Toby sitting on my feet at the moment? And the answer would be yes.