Monday, November 23, 2015

ABOUT WOMEN, a fascinating series of conversations between writer Lisa Alther and painter, Picasso muse, and author Francoise Gilot

Recently, the Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an article about the plight of women directors, how their stories are not being told, or are not giving as much weight as the stories men might tell. So I was delighted to see this book, About Women: Conversations Between a Writer and a Painter, by Lisa Alther and Francoise Gilot. Truly, these are stories that are fascinating, surprising, raw and honest.

Alther is the author of six novels -- Kinflicks, Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock, Five Minutes in Heaven and Washed In The Blood as well as a memoir (Kinfolks), a narrative history on the Hatfield-McCoy feud (Blood Feud) and a short story collection (Stormy Weather And Other Stories). Three of these were Book-of-the-Month Club selections, and four were New York Times bestsellers. Her books have been translated into 17 other languages and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide. A novella entitled Birdman of the Dancer, based on a series of monotypes by the French artist Francoise Gilot, has been published in Holland, Denmark and Germany. 

 Francoise Gilot is the author of Life with Picasso and is an extraordinarily talented and critically acclaimed painter. Her book Life with Picasso sold over a million copies. She has been friends with Alther for 25 years.

In their conversations, they cover everything from their own oral histories to fashion, sex, love and art--it's exhilarating and important to hear their voices. I'm honored to host them both here. Thank you Lisa and Francoise.

What made you decide to turn your private conversations public?
The conversations that make up ABOUT WOMEN are very distinct from our usual private conversations.  They began when Lisa was living in Paris researching a novel set partly in France.  Francoise was trying to explain to her French attitudes toward women, feminism and fashion.  Lisa found what Francoise was saying so intriguing that she began to tape it.  We selected a certain number of pertinent chapter titles – The Little Black Dress, Ceremonies in White, The Virginia Club, etc. – and used them to structure our discussions.  So we had a definite creative goal right from the start – though no particular intention of publication.  Doing the project was the point, not what might become of it afterwards.

How did you choose what to reveal and what to keep hidden?

Within the confines of our chapters, we kept nothing hidden because we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to say.  The conversations were a process of discovery.  As we talked, we uncovered aspects to the issues that were new to us.  So we added material and organized it in order to clarify our evolving perceptions.  Repetitions were the only thing we eliminated.  But because we had both practiced our crafts for so many years, we usually knew in advance how not to include irrelevancies.  Even though we work in different fields, we found that many characteristics of our creative processes are similar. 

We had experienced this kind of artistic dialogue before:  Lisa had watched Francoise create monotypes on a lithographic press in Soho.  As the monotypes emerged, Lisa invented a story based on them.  Upon reading it, Francoise was quite astonished to discover her own hijacked characters starring in a plot very different from the one she’d been telling herself as she composed the monotypes.  We titled this story BIRDMAN AND THE DANCER, and it was published in Germany, Holland, and Denmark, using some of the monotypes as illustrations.

Looking back at your prior conversations, have your feelings changed about anything you discussed?

Our feelings about what we said were valid when we said them.  But everything on earth either disintegrates or evolves.  So no doubt some of our feelings have already shifted, but these shifts aren’t evident to us at the moment because the book is so recently completed.

Did anything from your pasts surprise you?

Nothing about the actual memories surprised us, but the added meaning those memories acquired when juxtaposed to the other’s memories was indeed sometimes surprising.  For instance, Francoise described a white dress in which she was supposed to meet the Pope as a small child, and about spilling ink on it beforehand with the hope that she could avoid this meeting, no doubt already questioning the religion in which she was being raised.  This triggered Lisa’s memory of diving into a swimming pool on the afternoon of her wedding, ruining her hairdo.  She had  previously recounted that episode as merely a humorous anecdote, but in the light of Francoise’s moment of rebellion against the Pope,  Lisa’s plunge into the pool took on new meaning for her:  She realized that she had perhaps been rebelling against the notion of marriage in the only way left to her at that point, by ruining her wedding bouffant.

Francoise refers to this process of each seeing the episodes of her life reflected in and refracted by similar episodes from the other’s life as our serving as “parallel mirrors” for one another.  Moments take on new meanings once you realize that they are not isolated individual acts but are, rather, symbolic ones, shared in different manifestations by others.

What was it like working on this book together?  I imagine looking back on all those years of friendship cemented your bond even more?
The most important thing to be said is that working on this book was great fun for both of us.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have done it!  We discovered that we share a natural kinship in terms of our art.  Our process is very similar, as are our aims.  We are both searching for truths about our lives, and we regard our creative work as a pathway to such discoveries.

People often ask how we became friends, since we represent different generations and dissimilar backgrounds. Each person meets many thousands of people during a lifetime, yet we become close friends with only a handful.  Why do we pick the ones we do?  Why do they pick us?  Such affinities are one of life’s great mysteries.  The only answer seems to be what the French essayist Montaigne said about his friend, the poet La Boetie:  “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: Because it was he, because it was I.”

What I admired most about the book was the honesty, the way there was really nothing you both would not talk about.  Or was there?

Well, of course it’s impossible to talk about everything on earth!  And we did have a structure that delineated our areas of conversation.  We started with the theme of black and white – The Little Black Dress, Ceremonies in White – and we also ended with the theme of black and white – the Middle Path and the need in life and in art to tread the narrow line between darkness and light. 

 But we are both quite direct and not overburdened by a desire to please, so there’s probably very little we wouldn’t be willing to discuss, even outside the confines of this book.  Since we’ve both studied eastern spirituality, we’ve learned how to set our egos aside during the creative act – and some of that probably carries over into our interactions with other people, such that both of us usually enjoy hearing about and commenting on the concerns and behavior of others, however bizarre.

What is obsessing you now and why?
Francoise is concerned with how to conclude her long career as a painter and what she wants her final word on that to be.

Lisa has started her seventh novel and is preparing to return to it, unless we decide to do a sequel to ABOUT WOMEN.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Francoise suggests, “What is joy?”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Holiday book-giving season is coming, and with that in mind, the fabulous Sloane Crosley talks about her incredible novel, The Clasp, a family of rabbits, being the kind of writer who eats peanut brittle for breakfast and so much more

 I am deeply mortified. I read The Clasp in galleys and loved it so much I tracked Sloane Crosley down and begged her to be on the blog. She graciously agreed, as long as it would be easy, and she answered all my questions almost immediately. And what did I do? I lined this up to appear in October, and it never showed. So with deep apologies (Please forgive me, Sloane,) I'm headlining your book today--and it's wonderful and funny and gorgeously written and by the way, it makes the PERFECT holiday gift for everyone.

Sloane has a pedigree. She is the author of The New York Times bestselling essay collections, I Was Told There’d Be Cake , How Did You Get This Number and the e-book Up The Down Volcano  She is featured in The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion  and The Best American Nonrequired Reading .  I Was Told There’d Be Cake was a finalist for The Thurber Prize for American Humor. 

Prior to writing full time, Sloane spent twelve years working in book publishing and was the Deputy Director of Publicity at Vintage/Anchor Books. She currently serves on the board of Housingworks Used Bookstore and is a co-chair of The Young Lions Committee at The New York Public Library, where she once interviewed Joan Didion on stage. She remains nervous about it.

The Clasp is a wonderful novel about three friends and one famous story, "The Necklace," and you need to buy it and read it immediately. Thank you, Sloane. Please don't hate me. I'll buy you cookies.

 So, I’ve read and adored your past nonfiction, and I read and adored your first fiction. But I have to ask, was it scary to move into fiction? Did you consider your essay collections, which are fabulous, as stepping stones into a novel, or did the idea of writing a novel just strike you? Did you have doubts, and if so, how did you stomp them out?

Thank you! It’s so nice to hear all these compliments embedded in your questions. It was on-and-off scary. Though my litmus test for knowing that I had lost perspective was to pick up a novel at random from my bookshelf oh, say, Lolita or Lost Souls or The Sports Writer or The Emperor’s Children — and if I started reading the first pages and thought, “what is the point of this?” I knew I was just down on the whole concept of fiction and had to walk away for the day. I don’t consider the essays stepping stones. I would never step on them, at least not with my shoes on. However, I have always wanted to write fiction and always have written fiction (I just haven’t published it until now). It’s a different muscle most of the time. So I wasn’t strengthening my arms (the essays) in the hopes of becoming a faster runner (the novel). The one thing that is the same is the doubts. But I think you have to have some of them to be a good writer. In all corners of life, I am dubious of people who claim to have no problems.

I always think that novelists write about the things that haunt them personally, hoping that the writing will lead to some answers to some particular questions. Was this the case for you? And if not, what DID spark the writing of this novel?

There’s a piece of that. I think you have to find the balance between wanting to answer a question for yourself and wanting to entertain the reader. Too much of the former leads to self-indulgent fiction and too much of the latter leads to soulless fiction. Several things sparked the writing of this novel, some big (exploring this love triangle, wanting to create an opportunity for characters who were feeling a life/work inertia to go on an adventure) and some small (seeing a sketch of a necklace in an old book, rereading Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and finding myself and my character in it).

What kind of fiction writer are you? Did you map this story out or just trust in that pesky muse? Did you have rituals for writing, bribes for yourself to finish a chapter?

I’m the kind of fiction writer who will eat peanut brittle for breakfast. I’m the kind of fiction writer who watches as much television as she reads books. I’m the kind of fiction writer who gets obsessive about certain authors. I’m the kind of fiction writer who packs ten pairs of underwear for a three day trip. As for rules, I wouldn’t write less than 700 words a day. I’m not saying I wrote everyday for five years. But when I did write, I buckled in.

The Clasp is so witty (you have a gimlet eye), the characters so real, and the situations so funny, but what I really loved was the sense of these three friends finding the beauty in reconnecting in a strong and important way. Can you talk about this?

Thank you. I think of them as having relatable and yet pretty unique friendships.  For example, there’s a kind of person in these large friend groups who tends to be a bit oversensitive and for whom nothing ever seems to work out and he’s one of my three main characters. Often that person is left out or shunned but that’s not Victor. He’s this specific type who’s still in the mix. I also think there’s something beautiful in what I’ll call calcifying dramas. Time hasn’t healed any of their wounds but it’s just deepened them in a way that these characters are accustomed to. They are accustomed to the old roles they fall back into and there is a strange sort of love that develops. There’s a point late in the novel when Kezia wonders aloud if they are all friends just because they had been smart and stupid in equal measure when they were teenagers and that had landed them at the same college. But, hopefully, by the time a reader gets to that scene, she will know more than the characters know and see how untrue that is. There’s real love between these people, snide as they can be with each other.

So tell us about that first novel about a family of rabbits…

Ah, when I was little I was diagnosed with a spatial learning disability and my parents became a bit overprotective of me, academically. So I wrote a story about a family of rabbits who bring the baby rabbit carrots. Then one day the family gets shot and the baby rabbit starves because he doesn’t know how to fend for himself. Why the rabbit was a boy rabbit is just as much of a mystery to me now as why I created a metaphor where my whole family ceases to exist. I mean, they’re nice people.

What’s obsessing you now and why? Endangered species. What’s not to obsess about?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? There are tons of questions left to be asked! So I will just provide a bunch of random answers instead: Leo. Istanbul. Lily of the valley. The Once and Future King. My mother. Archaeologist. The violin. Knives. Old book smell. A taxidermied chicken I’ve named Horatio.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Obsessed with the sky? Who isn't? Susanna Hislop talks about STORIES IN THE STARS: AN ATLAS OF CONSTELLATIONS

 Who doesn't wish on stars or marvel at the sky? Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations is an amazing, beautifully illustrated book about the magic of the sky. I'm honored to have Susanna Hislop here to talk about it. She is an actor and a writer and the Artistic Director of Slip of Steel, and is an editor of the online literary quarterly The Junket. Her first book Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations was BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week over Christmas 2014. Thank you so much, Susanna.

Why do you think we are all so fascinated with the sky?

It’s right on top of us! It engulfs us. It lights us, darkens us, rains on us, shines on us, feeds and kills us: and even now, in an age governed by science and reason, most of us – and certainly me – have absolutely no real sense of what it is or how it works. Mostly it just makes us feel, keenly, our place in some vast and greater truth, or rather chaos or untruth: filling us with magic and fear.

What do stories about the constellations really tell us about ourselves?

I think they tell us about our need to name things. To place things, make sense of things, and also, more darkly, to own things. We like to tell stories – lies in fact – about who we are and how we got here to make us feel as if we mean something. And of course historically, the differing constellation narratives tell us a huge amount about the different societies that invented them (I was particularly interested in tracing the socio-political metamorphoses of the women in stars). Having said that, one of the things I found most incredible researching the book, was how several constellation myths are in fact echoed across continents and time by entirely different people and cultures – these uncanny similarities tell us something essential about what it is to be human, and about the very profound – although in modern society, often ignored – relationship we have with nature, that very physical, animal instinct and understanding of earth and sky.

I love the text, which is as humorous as it is edifying and surprising. There are to-do lists, celestial texts, and so much more that I found myself grinning while I was reading. What was it like writing this book? Did you have rituals to get you writing?
Crikey – a grinning reader is a wonderful compliment. Thank you. I loved writing this book – it was gift as a writer. Getting to research thousands of stories from across time and the universe; being able to play with them and to jump around in between fact and fiction as much as I liked; while never having to stick at one long enough to get stuck or bored. Having said that, there are 88 constellations and that was a fairly exhausting number. My rituals to get writing were therefore: remembering that I still had 88 (or 68, 48, or STILL, 28…) constellations to go; the fact that the deadline was looming ever nearer like some terrifying asteroid; and a general sense of doom and dread. I had a star chart too – like all writers I’m a lazy child at heart, so I tried to discipline myself as if I was in primary school, a gold star for every constellation I finished…

I also loved the quirky illustrations! Did you work with the illustrator, Hannah Waldron? Did you know the image you wanted or did you leave it up to her?
Yes – this was one of my favourite things about the project. The book is of course as much about the illustrations, and Will Webb’s beautiful design, as it is about my writing, and it was a really collaborative process. Hannah, the editor Sarah Rigby and I would have general discussions about each constellation, about what I was working on and what images would work, and then I would go away and finish writing and Hannah would create her illustrations in response. It was such a wonderful pleasure to work like that. I come from a background of making devised theatre and I always feel happiest creating things collectively.

What I also love about this book is that it makes you think about the stars differently, which creates a new wonder. Stories in the Stars is also stories about you the writer in many ways. Can you talk about this, please?
About it being about me the writer? Hmm. I suppose one answer would be that like all writers I am not only childish and lazy but also self-obsessed.  But, a less facetious answer would be that I am very interested in the nature of storytelling – of the gap between truth and lies, and of the relationship between the teller and their tale – and that that is something that preoccupies all of my writing – both in prose and for the stage. But as I said earlier – humans making up stories about the stars is all about them wanting to talk about themselves, and that is something I was playing with in the book too. And so not all the versions of myself in the book are true.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
The next thing I am writing. And why I am not writing it.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh that’s quite enough questions. They’re so difficult to answer without sounding like an awful human being.

Stefan Kiesbye talks about THE STAKED PLAINS, why his wonderfully dark books are actually love letters, Taylor Swift, and more

 I love books that are unsettling, dark, thorny in character. Which is part of why I love Stefan Kiesbye's work. I dare you to look at the cover of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone and not be unnerved. Go ahead. I dare you. He's also the author of Next Door Lived a girl, and The Staked Plains, which I loved so much, I blurbed it. Yes, I did. I called it spare, poetic, with broken glass prose to reveal a story about land, loss, violence and longing. Stefan is truly one of my favorite authors and I'm so jazzed to have him on the blog!

Like your extraordinary Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone, The Staked Plains deals with disturbing morality. You have a way of writing that gets under your skin and travels there. The Staked Plains was unsettling and scary and it just doesn’t let go of you. So, this makes me want to ask you about your world view in general.  Talk!

My world view is borrowed from Billy Wilders’ One, Two, Three: “It’s hopeless, but not serious.” I don’t think that human occupation of this planet leaves us any real hope. Our history is bleak, our attempts at getting more enlightened have failed. We are running out of natural resources, environments that have not been irrevocably poisoned, and time. Just watching political debates makes clear that we are morally bankrupt. Our hope to right the ship at the last minute is like the hope of the sinner to have one last moment to redeem him/herself. It’s very silly, really. In Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers, Jamie (a vampire) asks his shrink to define the vanishing point. He then goes on to say, “We've already been there. We've already seen it.” This is how I feel about where we are. And yet, it’s comedy, not tragedy.

How did you know this was a novella and not a novel?  Was it planned that way?
I love short books. I’m a sucker for novellas, slim books that read like something that should never have been printed in the first place. Notes from a serial killer, confessions of Satan, rumors about the underworld jotted down by a half-crazed junkie.

There are always surprises in writing--what were yours?|
I created a monster in Jenny Prescott, but I love her dearly. Not because I like her – she kills everything she touches – but in a corrupt world, she’s the only one who doesn’t believe she’s better than she is. She’s a moralist – and one of the worst people imaginable. That was truly surprising, to have a character you might despise, but who acts with a conscience.

I also want to talk about the structure of the book. Each chapter is prefaced with a verse from The Bible. How and why did you make that stylistic decision?

That was because of a real life incident. I was teaching creative writing in New Mexico, (I’ve since moved to California) and one day I received a packet in the mail. It contained a book by an obscure evangelist scholar, who wrote about angels and quoted passages in the Bible that talked about them. It was the strangest item that had ever been sent to me (other than raisin-cinnamon bagels). The book had already been published and the author asked me, an atheist and writer of very dark books, about advice. I loved that. It was a beautiful moment. And to me, it defined a part of New Mexico, what it felt like to live in the Llano Estacado.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m listening to Ryan Adam’s cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, a lot J Writing-wise, I’m still looking for a way to write something, anything, that is as devastating as Dead Can Dance’s “Black Sun.”

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

This is not an answer to a question, really, but at times I’m worried that people read a book of mine and feel as though I’m exorcising demons or taking revenge on places I lived in. It’s really hard to explain, but the books I write, from Next Door Lived a Girl to The Staked Plains, are love letters. Yes, terrible things happen, but the reader, above all, should feel consoled, soothed even. My books are as much about places as they are about characters, and I loved them all. The most desolate place and the most evil character – they are still my loves.

Peter Golden talks about WHEREVER THERE IS LIGHT, chocolate chip cookies, rock and roll, and so much more

 Peter Golden wrote five interactive fiction novels for computers as part of a joint venture between Imagic and Bantam called the Living Literature series. His first interactive computer novel, Another Bow, was a Sherlock Holmes mystery set aboard the S.S. Destiny and was a Waldenbooks best-seller. He's also the author of Comeback Love, and I'm thrilled to have him here. Thank you, Peter!

I always ask what sparked a particular book? What was it about this one that haunted you so much you had to write about it?

My grandparents knew the Jewish gangster, Longy Zwillman, in Newark, which happens to be where I was born. I'd heard stories about him as a child, and he intrigued me—his desire to blend into the upper reaches of society and still be a gangster—to assimilate and not to assimilate, to be a WASP and a Jew. It was a situation that much of my parents' generation found themselves in, and for years I had this character kicking around in my head: his name was Julian Rose, and he was a protégé of Longy's, younger and anxious to do something besides bootlegging and strong-arm hustles.

I knew Julian was going to fall in love and—again for many years—I had this woman flying through my imagination. Her name was Kendall Wakefield. She was an African American who had grown up wealthy during the Depression, an era of rigidly enforced segregation and widespread lynching. By and large, this is a segment of the black community that has been ignored in fiction. ( The first woman of any race ever to earn a million dollars on her own was Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker, an African American who founded a company that created and sold beauty and hair products to black women.) Kendall's grandfather had been a slave who made a fortune in the catering business in Philadelphia and founded a college on the South Florida plantation he'd run away from as a boy. Kendall's mother, the president of the college, was the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Education.

I wasn't sure how Julian and Kendall would meet until one day I recalled some research I'd done twenty years ago about how traditionally African-American colleges had rescued German-Jewish professors from the Nazis. So that was the missing piece: Julian's father was a professor, and when Julian went to visit him and his mother after their arrival from Berlin, he met Kendall and a thirty-year on-again off-again affair began.

Still, I can't say that either of these characters haunted me, and that was your question. The haunting was rooted in something that James Baldwin wrote many years ago. I'd read it in high school, and I've been pondering it, on and off, since then. In the essay Baldwin observed that "the question of color. . . operates to hide the graver question of the self. That is precisely why what we like to call 'the Negro problem' is so tenacious in American life."

In my mind, this explains why, despite the enormous contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to our culture, we never seem to escape those mournful chapters of our history. Racial conflict is about something far more profound and far more difficult to conquer than our feelings about black and white. The question of race goes to the flawed heart of our humanness, our attempt—and often our failure—to define ourselves in the shadows of our deepest faults, struggling to balance our sadness and rage and narcissism with the hope of our grandest dreams, our faith in tomorrow, our belief that, even though we are only a single star in an infinite array, our life has meaning.

Is it any wonder why those who have given up, who can't get past their powerlessness and see a better day on the horizon, find an outlet in hatred? Racism is just part of that language—a language, tragically, that has an inexhaustible vocabulary list.

 This is why I eventually place Julian and Kendall in postwar Paris. Their racial conflict was inescapable in America—even in bohemian Greenwich Village. Paris was far more welcoming to African Americans and generally indifferent to mixed-race couples. Yet I found that their conflicts followed them across the ocean and tried to explore why this happened.

 This is again, a passionate, moving, heart-wrenching story of love and so much of it is about how the past impacts the future. Do you think we can ever escape our pasts, and should we want to?

I suppose whether one wants to escape his or her past depends on that past. For those who prefer some distance, or at least a glimmer of perspective, the possibility of a complete escape is, at best, a fairy tale, and a hazardous one at that. You ignore the more painful twists and turns of your memories at the peril of finding yourself trapped in the gloom of a rackety funhouse, bumping into walls and staring into mirrors that distort your present and often make it unbearable—not an especially fruitful exercise.

 I always wonder if writers learn anything from their last book that they can put to good use in their newest. Sometimes, if I’m lucky I do, but often I don’t. What about you?

You have more experience handling the nettlesome intricacies of the trade: for instance, structure and pacing. Alas, at the same time, if you care about the artistry of your work, your standards will go up and surpass what you've learned. So in some sense you are a perpetual beginner. That's the beauty of being a writer. And its burden.

A lot of the novel is about the possibility of art to act as a salve against loss.  Does your writing do that for you?

Writing is how I live, mostly in peace, with myself. I have no idea how I'd manage without it. Art—all art, I believe—is one of the two answers we have to the cruelty of the world surrounding us. The other is kindness.

 What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next novel. It's about an young American disc jockey who winds broadcasting rock and roll into the Soviet Union and discovers more than he ever wanted to know about his family's past.

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

Would you like to come over for dinner? We're having chocolate-chip cookies.

Lynne Griffin talks about Girl Sent Away, troubled teen camps, what parents can and should do, and so much more

Lynne Griffin What's a more chilling title than GIRL SENT AWAY? Not only is this a gripping novel, but it's an important one, because girls--and boys--are indeed sent away to adolescent boot camps in an attempt to "fix" their troubled behavior. Of course, it is a disaster.

I'm thrilled to have Lynne Griffin on the blog. She is a nationally recognized expert on family life and the author of the novels Girl Sent Away  Sea Escape, and Life Without Summer. She's also the author of the parenting guides Let's Talk About It: Adolescent Mental Health and Negotiation Generation

Caroline: Girl Sent Away is about the tough love wilderness camps for troubled teens. What was your research like? What surprised you the most?

Lynne: Like my other novels, Girl Sent Away is inspired by my work with families. I’m a family counselor and have had clients—desperate parents—who have considered this tough love approach to treatment for their troubled teens. Adolescent boot camps have been in and out of the news for years—and the reality of these places is controversial, with physical abuse, accidents, deaths, and little proof that these expensive, militaristic programs actually help. The techniques aimed at coercing teens into submission make underlying mental health issues in teens worse, not better.

Caroline: Youve said that you and your publisher believe that this novel can be an educational opportunity for parents, teachers and teens. Youre also releasing a nonfiction guide for reading the novel called Lets Talk About It: Adolescent Mental Health, that shows adults how to engage teens to build empathy and strengthen emotional resilience. Can you talk more about that and perhaps give examples of how novels can teach?

Lynne: We have a crisis in our mental health system and I feel compelled to contribute to the conversation any way I can. To me, the novel is an incomparable vehicle for exploring our emotional lives and raising social consciousness. Compelling stories have the ability to draw us in. They challenge our present attitudes, often shifting our perspectives. When I was writing Girl Sent Away, in deliberate ways I found myself imagining a narrative that might offer tangible emotional benefits to readers. I crafted a story, that when discussed, might foster deeper connections between parents and teens, richer communication, and ultimately a greater understanding of the preciousness of our mental health.

Caroline: Girl Sent Away isnt just about a troubled daughter—its also about her haunted father who struggles to find his way back to her. Its refreshing that you dont pin blame on parents, but instead seek understanding. Can you talk about this please?

Lynne: I’m so glad you experienced the novel in that way. I don’t think playing the blame game does any of us any good. I believe most parents are well-intentioned—
though that doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes misguided. To really understand adolescent mental health, I felt it was critical to explore both the parent and teen perspectives. If young adult readers come away with a greater understanding of their parents’ worries, and adult readers have a better grasp of the sometimes secret, emotional lives of our teenagers, then I’ll feel I’ve made an impact.

Caroline: Is something being done about these places? What can the average person do to shut them down?

Lynne: Yes! This past July, a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress aimed at holding residential treatment programs and bootcamps accountable to a set of minimum health and safety standards, including strong anti-discrimination protections for LBGT teens and teens with mental illness. That said, it’s an uphill climb because many of the more notorious programs have a history of disappearing and then reinventing themselves when government or media attention gets too hot. But anyone passionate about families can commit to destigmatizing mental illness. If we talk about it—and really listen to the people who struggle—as a society we can embrace more empathic alternatives.

Caroline: What kind of writer are you? Was writing this book different than writing any of your others? Did you have rituals? Did you plot it out or did it seem to write itself?

Lynne: I’d say I’m a goal-driven writer. If I have specific projects going, I can be really focused and produce pages. But I don’t write every day. It’s my fantasy that someday I can, but I still have a private practice and work at a school and teach at a college, so it’s not my reality right now. My only rituals involve writing in silence. I’m not very good at tuning out music or any noise really. I need to get lost in the fictional dream. As for plotting my stories, I do. I begin with loose outlines, and though I always know the ending in advance, I leave lots of room for interesting things to happen to the characters along the way.

Caroline: Whats obsessing you now and why?

Lynne: I’m excited about the opportunities coming my way to participate in the conversation around adolescent mental health. Parents are hosting discussion groups using the novel and teachers are integrating Girl Sent Away into high school literacy, health, and media literacy curricula. To have others use my story to raise awareness about this important subject is a privilege.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

First-grader Harper May talks about her dazzling debut novel, THE LONLY PRINCESS, comic books, cookies, and so much more

Harper hard at work
The dazzling young author with her daughter, Special baby
One of Harper's astonishing comic books
First Grader Harper's brilliant first novel, under her pen name

Harper candidly writes about feeling like mushy butter
In The Giant Bird, Harper makes herself a character!
Even a scrumptious breakfast can't keep the dedicated Harper from writing

What is more important than supporting dazzling new talent? Introducing Harper May, the daughter of acclaimed novelist and bon vivant Amy Shearn. Harper’s novel, The Lonly Princess is a thrilling edition to the literary scene. From the gorgeous cover (The princess is clearly not happy!) to the sublime writing inside, Harper shows she is a talent to be reckoned with. I can't wait to see what she will do, next! Thank you so much, Harper, for being so generous and so much fun to interview!

When did you start writing?

I started during kindergarten.

What is your writing day like? Do you have to have cookies before you write?

Well, I come home from work (aka school) and write.

P.S. I do have cookies!

The Lonly Princess is a masterwork, so I wanted to know how you came up with the idea?

To be honest, I don’t really know!

 The cover is gorgeous! How did you come up with the design?

I thought about how she would feel.

What's next for you?

Well, The Lonly Princess is still sort of being worked on,  but I’ll send you a new copy soon!

P.S. Lately I wrote a comic book called The Giant Bird.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

What's more amazing than being a NYT Bestselling novelist? Having your novel turned into an original dramatic series with Christina Ricci producing! Therese Fowler talks the amazement!

I first met Therese Anne Fowler at a book festival where we were appearing together--and I immediately loved her. Warm and generous, she's also a terrific writer (and it's not just me saying this--so does the New York Times and the zillions of readers who helped make her a mega-bestseller.) Her work has been translated into more than a dozen foreign languages and is published around the world. Her novel Z is currently in development as an original dramatic series for Amazon Studios with Killer Films and Christina Ricci producing. She's the author of Exposure, Reunion and Souvenir (all incredible novels) and she's working on a new novel about the Vanderbilts.

Her pilot is one of six that Amazon Films is showing and viewers can vote on the one they love the best. (Guess which one I'm rooting for?) I can't tell you how excited I am for her, and how thrilled I am that she's here.

And you can watch the pilot here.

What's the most startling thing about seeing your amazing novel turned into a film?

The visual realization of things that once lived entirely inside my head. Things that were little more than facts or anecdotes or photographs are alive and happening right now before my eyes. Christina Ricci suddenly is Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s uncanny.

This is really what every writer dreams of, and you are having it happen! Has watching the filming changed your writing at all? Has it made you more visual (though you are a visual writer to begin with.)

I am still astonished that this project actually got this far!

Seeing the way the writers/showrunners Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin took parts of the novel and adapted them or recombined them to better fit the format of visual storytelling is more instructive than some people might think.
When I first saw the script early this year, all I could do was admire the efficiency of the scenes—they squeeze characterization, action, and setting into a much smaller space than most of us novelists do. Granted, they have the advantage of having visuals to do a lot of the work that we have to do with words, but even so, it made me aware that I can probably do more with less if I take the time to fully understand what it is I want and need to convey in each scene, and focus my revisions with that principle in mind.

What misconceptions did you have about Hollywood that you don't have anymore?

I thought that the director was always the boss—but in television it’s the showrunner(s) who makes the final call on whether a scene is doing what needs done. That’s not to say that the director’s vision isn’t hugely important; he or she is the person who makes the initial decisions on how to translate each element of the script into a working scene. But ultimately the showrunner says whether or not it’s a wrap and everyone can move on to the next scene on the schedule.

Also, I imagined that every production took months if not years of careful planning and organization. What’s actually true is that the assembly of the team (actors, director, producers) can take months or years, but the production itself—securing the locations, hiring caterers, drivers, crew, extras, acquiring costumes, etc.—can and very often does come together in a matter of weeks, once the team is in place and available to work.

Every actress brings nuances to every role and new interpretations. Ricci, an extraordinary actress, is playing Zelda--how does her interpretation add to yours in the novel?

That this show came to be in the way that it has is because Christina read Z when it was published in 2013 and saw in it an interpretation of Zelda that fit with her own belief about who Zelda was. She asked her manager to look into whether there was a film in the works; she wanted to audition for the lead role. When she learned that the rights were still available, she got in touch with Killer Films and, after about a year of behind-the-scenes effort, came to me with an offer to make the book into an ongoing series.

All of which is to say that from the moment I stood on the set and watched her be Zelda, I knew she was going to be able to demonstrate every nuance of Zelda’s complex, complicated, and fascinating character for film—which is a pretty tall order!

I want to also praise Tim Blake Nelson’s deft direction (along with, of course, the script). He and Christina seemed to have a genuine feel for the material and for each other’s talents, and it’s all beautifully realized in her performance in the pilot.

Do you write scripts? Do you want to, now? And what is it like on the set? Did you cry when you saw your novel come alive?

So far I have only ever dabbled at scriptwriting, but I do intend to do some screenplay work in the future.

The set was expertly organized chaos! So many people and so much equipment—cameras, lighting equipment, cables, sound equipment, monitors, tracks for cameras, strong young people toting things around, people with walkie-talkie radios, the writers, the director, various producers, makeup and hair teams—and yet in the center of it all, these incredibly talented actors behaving as though they were the only ones in the room.

At first I felt almost no sense of ownership or responsibility for any of what was happening. After all, I didn’t invent Zelda and Scott and their story, I just interpreted it for fiction. But when I saw and heard the characters saying lines that had come right out of my novel, it brought the whole thing home to me. The icing on that cake was when the studio executive who was on set got ready to leave one night and said to me, “Thank you for making all of this happen.” I was speechless. But no, I didn’t cry.

Benilde Little talks about Welcome to My Breakdown, grief, happiness, writing, loss, and so much more!

A week or so ago, I was having this wonderful lunch with the amazing Christina Baker Kline when we wandered into her favorite bookstore and she said, "Oh, I have to introduce you to Benilde!" Benilde Little is one of these people you instantly bond with. I even said to her, "You know, I think you are my new best friend," and I meant it. I swear, electricity and joy bounds off her. And she's written a fabulous memoir, Welcome to my Breakdown. She's also the author of Good Hair (one of the Ten Best Books of 1996 from the Los Angeles Time, ah hem), The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She is? I'm thrilled to have her here, and the only thing better would be having coffee with her and Christina! Thank you so much, Benilde.
Benilde Little is the bestselling author of the novels Good Hair (selected as one of the ten best books of 1996 by the Los Angeles Times), The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She Is? A former reporter for People and senior editor at Essence, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, two children, and a dog. Read her blog Welcome to My Breakdown at - See more at:
Benilde Little is the bestselling author of the novels Good Hair (selected as one of the ten best books of 1996 by the Los Angeles Times), The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She Is? A former reporter for People and senior editor at Essence, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, two children, and a dog. Read her blog Welcome to My Breakdown at - See more at:
Benilde Little is the bestselling author of the novels Good Hair (selected as one of the ten best books of 1996 by the Los Angeles Times), The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She Is? A former reporter for People and senior editor at Essence, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, two children, and a dog. Read her blog Welcome to My Breakdown at - See more at:

So this is your first memoir. How terrifying was that? And what did you learn from writing it?

I wouldn’t say it was terrifying. What I’d been through was, but writing about it was almost the easy part—although for me writing and easy are never in the same sentence. What was scarier was sitting on myself, of not writing. What I learned is that anything worth writing about should be scary. As I tell my kids when they’re faced with doing something new, something that’ll help them grow, to be afraid but do it anyway. I learned that my mother’s death wasn’t the sole reason for my depression, but I’d also lost myself. I was also mourning myself as a writer. I’d stopped writing and got lost in a domestic dungeon. 

What kind of writer are you--and were you, in this memoir? Do you outline, have rituals, need chocolate and coffee? Were there moments of self-doubt and how did you conquer them?

This book was written in pieces, over chunks of time. Some of it, I honestly don’t know how I got it done. When I was in the thick of my depression, my memory just stopped working. In general, I do not outline, but usually write many drafts, about 3, before I figure out where I’m going. With this book I did do a bit of an outline, after I had hundreds of pages of just stuff.

 I do not outline not when I write fiction. I have no rituals, but of course I need coffee, chocolate only sometimes. I try to watch what I eat, but when I’m writing anything sweet usually finds it’s way to me. There were years of self-doubt. I hadn’t published a book in nine years, since my last novel Who Does She Think She Is?  The world had changed dramatically since then. I conquered the self-doubt the way I always do, I don’t actually, but getting my agent’s feedback helps tremendously. My agent, Faith Childs, is one of the smartest people I know and is a great reader, so if she thinks there’s something good in what I’m writing that’s usually enough to help me keep going. 

What I loved about this book was how brave you were about writing about depression. So many people dismiss clinical depression as just the blues, but it isn’t--it’s many, many dark nights of the soul and it’s difficult to find your way out. But the book is also about grief--the death of your mother--and how that jump started depression, which began to change your worldview. Can you talk about all of this, please?
I still miss her, although it’s no longer a daily or even weekly thing and the pain does not cut into my marrow anymore. My worldview got a little more cynical because I’m conscious of feeling so much more alone. I’m no longer that idealist who believed nothing really bad ever happens. She was the person who understood me best and loved me the deepest so the absence of that is a tough thing to accept, but I have. I became the matriarch of my family and I don’t want to be, so I’m probably more resentful than I was. I’m waiting to get the feeling of freedom some people experience after they loose a parent, where you no longer give a crap, but that hasn’t happened to me. My husband says he felt that after losing his dad.

When it’s gone, it’s gone and there are no rituals to duplicate what my mother was to me. I have to live with that and sometimes it just makes me mad. I’ve never liked the holidays, but now I straight up hate them. She’s not here, so Thanksgiving is particularly sad for me.

There is something so incredibly helpful about your honesty in the book. It’s a kind of “I have been through this and survived and you can, too” which operates as a real life raft. Did you always know that you were writing this to help others, or, at first, was this your way of making sense of everything that had happened to you--and then it branched out to be universal?
 It was a life raft for me, but I also knew that the book would help other people, especially women. For the Black women who come to my events—these are accomplished, polished professionals with all the trappings of “success.” These women are removing their masks. They open up about their disappointments and sadness and pain and in doing so, sharing it, realize that they are not alone. Knowing that I’m midwifing some of that, feels amazing.

So, yes, I knew that if this book could find an audience, it would open up a dialogue for women to grab hold of the life raft. The invitations to do book signings and speak to organizations, churches, libraries are increasing and it’s pretty much all been word of mouth. I’m thrilled. Generally, when you open up, other people will too.

Now, if you reread your memoir, what would you add? Is there anything that you now feel differently about?
Yes, there’s a lot I didn’t put in—there’s a story about a superstar mommy moment I had with my son after a devastating baseball championship loss, for which he’d been the pitcher and had felt responsible. He had decided that he was done with baseball. He broke the head of his second place trophy (very out of character).  The next day my son, Ford, was to play in the all-star game. He refused. After his dad failed to talk Ford into playing, my husband asked me to give it a shot. I went down to the basement, where my son had slept the night before—in his uniform. I didn’t talk to Ford about baseball. I talked to him about life. I blabbed on about getting back on the horse. I must’ve talked non-stop for 15 minutes. At first he was turned away from me, then he put his head in my lap. Then I had him.  I got him to go back the next day to play in that game. It was a highlight for me as a mom.  I regret that I didn’t include more of my Newark childhood. I wrote some about my alma mater, Howard University, but after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ beautiful book where he so eloquently describes his time at Howard, I wish I could do mine over. He really described why Howard is so important, what it did for him. He described what it did for me. But I think everyone much feel some regret for what’s left out. Or is it just me?

I recently read this wonderful book by Claire Bidwell Smith, After This, which is about grief. A grief counselor herself, Smith talks about how the mistake many people make is to try to get over a death, rather than to realize there is still a relationship going on--and it will always go on. My mom is going to be 99, and I can’t imagine losing her. How do you personally still feel connected to your mother now that she is gone? Is it through memories? Through your own mothering?
Probably most through my own mothering, which so often feels exactly like hers: fiercely loving. They know just as sure as they walk and breathe that’d I’d die for them; no question, no hesitation. When I’m pushing hard at my son’s school, insisting they provide something for him that my taxes are paying for, for something he is owed and perhaps something other people aren’t getting because they aren’t demanding it, I can literally feel my mother inhabiting my body. I don’t have any rituals to I keep her alive, but she’s in me and I know that as surely as I walk and breathe.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Young marriage—people who get married young. I’m thinking about my next book, a novel, and it’s kind of a meditation on marriage and the difference in marriages of people who do it when they’re young versus people who marry in their thirties to early 40s. I got married a month shy of my 34th birthday. I couldn’t imagine getting married in my 20s, but now I wonder what that would’ve been like. I find myself envying people who met in college and got married. This started when my daughter had her first serious boyfriend when she was 18. It lasted for about a year and a half and they were very serious.  There was something so pure in their interaction that it changed my opinion about it. I can now see the benefit of marrying young. Right now though my I’m obsessively managing my son’s education (he just started high school), getting him and my  90-year-old father who has dementia, settled (moved). I’m spending much of my time on the phone and emailing. It’ll be over soon and I can get back to my work. One constant obsession is why is all of this grown up life so hard!!!

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

Your questions were all good. I can’t think of anything that I’m dying to answer. Thanks for including me in your blog. I hope we get to talk again.

Lisa McElroy talks about her "Paper Chase for the 21st Century" novel Called On, why law school is not a scam, being obsessive and so much more

I always want to know how people work--not just writers--but doctors, scientists, trapeze artists, and  lawyers, so I was happy to read Lisa McElroy's novel about law school, with the great title CALLED ON.  Thank you so much for being here, Lisa!

I always want to know, what sparked the writing of this novel?

Several things sparked the writing of Called On.  For 15 years, I've taught law students the craft of legal writing.  In recent years, I'd become a bit detached from their struggles to figure out how to adapt their writing to this new genre and discipline.  I decided that I needed to learn a new kind of writing myself, so that I could feel my students' pain.

I also wanted to respond in some way to the accusations swirling that law school is somehow a scam, that professors are only in it to take students' money, that hard work and deep thinking do not engender personal or professional satisfaction.  The fictional law school in the novel is a top-tier institution, but the professor still cares about her students, and the hard workers are rewarded.  Every law professor I know acts in good faith and wants to improve the profession.  Called On is hopefully something of a showcase for that.

Your novel has been called “a Paper Chase for the 21st century.” How do you think things have changed--and has it been for the better?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Law school is more focused today on experiential learning, on training to practice law.  Still, the focus on law and justice will never go away, simply because they are such foundational concepts in any society.   I hope that law professors have become less punishing, more interested in teaching, and less isolated in the ivory tower that is the academy.  I hope that students have become more hands-on, more concerned with representing clients and helping people with problems and less money-driven. 

I do know that the stereotypes persist, in my law school classroom, in my university, and in the legal world at large.  Every generation of law students and law professors is given an enormous opportunity to eliminate the stereotypes, to change this very competitive and fish bowl-like culture in profound and positive ways. And, yes, law school is and always has been a fish bowl.  The inclusion of a goldfish character was both a nod to Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing (best show ever on television, right down to the fishy character Gail) and a symbol for how we in law school communities function.  

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or did the story just come gifted from that pesky muse?

This is such a tough question, because the answer is "both" and "neither" and "other stuff too."  I did start with an outlining technique that an experienced novelist recommended: I first wrote one sentence about what each chapter would cover; then I expanded that sentence into a paragraph; then that paragraph became a page.  Because the novel has three main characters, on the page version I noted where each character was in every chapter, even if s/he didn't appear in the chapter.
But I have always said that I do not know what I am going to write until I sit down to write it; that's true for my creative non-fiction, as well.  I believe strongly that I have ten little brains in the tips of my fingers (I'm a very fast, if very flawed, typist).  Connections and thoughts and ideas and jokes just pour out of my fingers, usually when I've never consciously thought of them before.  Felix's beds are a great example; I just found myself describing them at one point, because my fingers knew they were in Connie's apartment even when my brain didn't.  The Halloween ball randomly appeared one day, as did Angel's penchant for sending emails full of sage advice from remote locations.

Finally, I'm a re-writer.  I wrote the first draft of this novel in six weeks.  I like to vomit onto the page - get everything out, then figure out what's in the wrong place and which babies have to be killed and what's missing.  One of the biggest revisions to this novel involved Libby's mother.  In the first draft, Libby's mom just wasn't present, and there was a single paragraph about how she hadn't wanted a kid.  I was told that I needed to throw big rocks at my protagonist, give her hard problems.  And my dear friend and early reader Lisa Belkin told me that the absence of Libby's mother was a really big rock that I didn’t explore.  I spent a good six months trying to figure out what had happened to Libby's mom, and I discarded a lot of ideas; still, once I realized that the missing mom character was a big rock (like the dead friend in The Big Chill), I knew that she would add depth to Libby's story, both in terms of who Libby was as a person and why she was motivated to go to law school.  And then I was able to get in a subplot about something that really mattered to me - and therefore really mattered to Libby.

I will say that the muse was generous in offering me memories.  I had an Anderson-like character who was a stand-out person (note how neutral that description is) during my first year of law school.  Creating Anderson was a lot of fun, because I could make him do what I wanted - something I could never achieve with the guy back in 1993.

And how did you manage to teach law and write about it as well?

Teaching law is the social part of my life.  It lets me interact with students and colleagues and prevents me from holing up in my family room in my pajamas with my dogs and a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke.  Still, the actual teaching part of my job doesn't involve many on-the-ground hours.  As a law professor, I'm required to write, although that requirement is usually thought to involve a scholarly agenda.  The nice thing about tenure is that I have real freedom to write whatever I want.  And as for time?  Well, I don't clean my house (it's gross, really) and I don't go to the gym (as evidenced by my flabby tummy).  That frees up a lot of time.

Did writing about the law change the way you see the law now? How so?

    Writing about the law made me think more deeply about the law/justice dichotomy and gave me a platform for public education.  I think that most people think that law and justice are the same thing; it can be really eye-opening to see how they these principles diverge.  It also gave me an opportunity to seek out and highlight some commentators who have said really fun and interesting and profound things about the law, everyone from Dahlia Lithwick to Ira Glass to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to Atticus Finch (the original, not the new version). I hope that readers might be intrigued to do further reading about these other folks' ideas, too.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

    First, I want to know how you know I'm the obsessive type.  :-)  OK, here's a current list.  My French bulldog, Louis (yes, named after Justice Brandeis), is the funniest clown in Pennsylvania and probably the world.  My husband says that there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who love Louis and those who haven't met Louis yet.  At work, I'm obsessed with the next Presidential election and the effect that the next President will have in appointing Supreme Court Justices (four are currently over 70 years old).  At home, I’m obsessed with not being a helicopter mom as my teen daughters do stuff like get driver's permits and apply to college.  Perennially? Diet Coke and Honees cough drops and Stephen Sondheim and almond M & Ms and Vespa scooters and Madeleine L'Engle and old convertibles and the Red Sox and This American Life and the proper use of "less" and "fewer."  Always.

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

    Do the names of the characters in Called On have any secret meaning?  Libby's name and Connie's are both puns, although you might not get the Connie pun until the very last line of the novel.  "Kraft" was intended to convey a personal quality; "Angel Behl" is a reference to It's a Wonderful Life.  Felix Frankfurter and Breyer's names are tributes to two great Supreme Court Justices and are not intended in any way to offend.  Sarah and Quinn? Not really.  I just liked how they sounded.  I will say that naming the characters in this book gave me fits of giggles. 

Called On ends with some snippets of information about what happens to the characters next.  Are you going to write a sequel?  The answer is that I'm terrified.  I loved writing this novel more than anything, and I'm truly convinced that I can never write another one.  It's all about getting up the courage to jump off the diving board into waters that may be full of sharks but may be warm and lovely.  Maybe next week?