Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bill Roorbach talks about The Remedy for Love, being "the poet of hopeless tangles," writing, being a judge on the Food Network, and so much more

 I first met Bill Roorbach at an Algonquin Books Party,  amidst party chaos. When I really met him was at the Tucson Book Festival, where we got to hang out and talk, and I realized what a smart, hilarious, and truly wonderful guy he is.  Of course I stalk him on FaceBook, and of course, I've a huge fan of his work, which is brilliant, blazingly alive, and full of surprises.  His newest, THE REMEDY FOR LOVE is about two lost souls, struggling to survive a blizzard--and each other.

Bill's self-written bio is so funny, I'm going to just post it here: Bill is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend , Into Woods Temple Stream, and Life Among Giants. The 10th anniversary edition of his craft book, Writing Life Stories, is used in writing programs around the world. 

Recently, Bill was a judge on Food Network All Star Challenge, evaluating incredible Life Stories cakes made under the gun, so to speak. Bill knows nothing about cake, but he knows a lot about life stories! 

His work has been published in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, New York, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His story "Big Bend" was featured on NPR's "Selected Shorts," read by actor James Cromwell at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Bill has taught at the University of Maine at Farmington, Colby College, and Ohio State. His last academic position was the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts. He has now retired from academia in order to write full time. A comic video memoir about his tragic music career, "I Used to Play in Bands," and all kinds of other work, including a current blog on writers and writing and just about everything else (with author David Gessner) is online at

Thanks Bill for being here! Next time you're in NYC,  I am so buying you pie.

I have to ask you about your being called by Kirkus, in a starred review,  “the poet of hopeless tangles.”  Explain yourself, please!

I think Kirkus needs to explain that!  I do love it, not even sure what it means.  They loved Life Among Giants, too, which is a mess of love and other knots.  And Remedy, a very different book, really is a tangle, a ball of string, all these loose ends to pull on, everything connected, or maybe not.  Knot.  I think is what they’re saying.

 I seem to remember seeing different titles for The Remedy of Love. Is that true or am I hallucinating? And if so, how did you come to call it The Remedy of Love?

The working title was Storm of the Century, but Kathy Pories, my editor at Algonquin, reported that people there thought it sounded too non-fiction-y.  Plus, I’d given it a Google and someone named Stephen King (also a Maine author), had already used it.  We kept thinking and trying titles and falling half in love with one or another idea before rejecting it, even as time was running short. Then, middle of the last possible night, I remembered that my friend Liesel Litzenburger, who is a novelist herself (Now You Love Me, The Widower) and an all-around genius, is also a kind of title savant.  You can tell her in a few words about your characters and story, and without skipping a beat or taking a breath she’ll calmly tell you your title.  So, even though we hadn’t been in touch for a few years, I sent her a very brief description of the book via email, plus a title idea we’d gotten from Thoreau.
Not four minutes later she shot back a reply, mostly tongue in cheek, but not entirely: “Well... yes to Thoreau, but you have to get the word “love” in there to double your sales as you are male, so the HDT quote from his journals, after being shot down in  a marriage proposal: ‘The only remedy for love is to love more.’  So then you have A Remedy for Love…”  I knew that was it, and tried it on Kathy, and with a quick adjustment to the article, we were done.  Thanks, Liesel!

I always want to know what sparked a particular book, so what generated this one?

A few winters ago I went grocery shopping before a snowstorm.  As I was driving out of the parking lot, I spotted a young woman carrying, like, ten bags of groceries along the verge of the no-sidewalk commercial strip in our rural town here in Maine.  I recognized her slightly from her job at one of the thrift stores and stopped to offer her a ride. That’s all. She was grateful and explained that she was newlywed and that their truck had broken and they didn’t have the money yet to fix it—transmission.  Those stories about the pressures of being newlywed, of just starting out in the world!  I found it touching, this new couple with their private struggles, doing their best, living on cuddles and Pop Tarts and minimum wage.  I dropped her at her incredibly tiny house (several miles from the store, what was she thinking?).  But when I got home, snow starting to fall, I realized her groceries were still in the back of my car!  I’d driven off with them!  I roared back in the snow fifteen minutes to her house and popped the hatchback and gathered all ten bags by their plastic handles as she had done and knocked on her door with my forehead.  So, not like what happens in the book, but it got me thinking.  What if she really didn’t have a home to go to?  We have a problem here called rural homelessness, much less visible than city homelessness, and winter turns it into crisis.  Pretty soon I was inventing my characters…

 Both Eric and Danielle are so distinct and fascinating. They never act as anticipated, and they have so many layers to them. How do you go about building a character? 

Really, truly, I just write.  I start with a thin premise, get the people moving and talking, talking, and pretty soon they begin having deep reality, real presence, and whole complex lives, nothing to do with me, certainly to do with all I know about the world, but characters have their own lives, and often I’ll have to do research, both formal and conversational.  Making a character is like meeting someone new and gradually getting to know them as you draft.  By the end of a rough first go, you know enough to go back and get all the early stuff right. 

After all the accolades Life Among Giants won, was it more difficult to write your next book? Or did that make it easier? Did you find that the whole process of writing the book was different somehow, and if so, how?

It was harder and easier both.  Harder just because the new book was so different from the old, easier because I had the sense that there were readers out there…  And of course these are my 8th and 9th books, respectively…  The process for each book has been different, and each book very different from the last, I can’t explain it…  I’m always trying to do the thing I can’t do, and just making it harder for myself.  Life Among Giants was a big, sweeping narrative.  The Remedy for Love is more intimate.  Life Among Giants had dozens of characters operating over several decades, The Remedy for Love is two people, one location, a few days, though back story fills it out considerably… 

You’re in the astonishing position of being involved in the making of an HBO TV series of Life Among Giants. How amazing is that? What surprises you about all of it? And what did you expect? 

It’s so fascinating and really fun, bringing my characters into a new medium and a new reality with the help and full collaboration of some really brilliant people.  I hadn’t watched much TV at all in life, and never any of these great premium cable dramas.  So I did my homework, which was watching complete sets of all the great shows.  I was really impressed with some of them, stuff everyone I know had already seen years before, like The Sopranos.  It’s not uniformly great, but much of it is great indeed.  I found myself saying, This is where narrative has gone to live! And it’s where people go—the masses, I mean—for their daily human requirement of stories.  Who knew?  My hope is to make a great show.  We just finished the pilot script.  Of course there are many more hurdles to leap, such as, will HBO actually order the pilot.  We shall see.  I’m feeling awfully good about it, and hopeful.  But I haven’t quit my day job, which is writing novels.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Home maintenance.  This is a creaky old place, and I’ve been working on it twenty years, long enough that stuff I built—I was in construction for some years when I was young—now needs upkeep!  Plus, we have embarked on yet another a major renovation, this time with professional help: tearing the old deteriorated porch down and building a new one that will be useable year-round, effectively making our house bigger, but in fact not changing the shape or look much at all.  And the whole house will be warmer and dryer and prettier.

Will you be touring?  Where can people see you?

Here’s my tour schedule, with warm thanks to Algonquin, the best publisher in the world, for putting it together.  And if your readers come see me and mention your name (and give the secret handshake, like this), they will get a valuable free prize.  Or at least a drink at the nearest watering hole:

Tuesday, October 14th, 7 p.m: Longfellow Books, Portland, Maine

Thursday, October 16th, 7 p.m: Jesup Library, Bar Harbor, Maine

Friday, October 17th, 7 p.m:  Emery Center, UMF, Farmington, Maine

Wednesday, October 22, Noon:  Portland Public Library

Thursday, October 23, 7 p.m: Lithgow Public Library, Augusta, Maine

Friday, October 24th, 7 p.m: Magers and Quinn Books,  Minneapolis, MN [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Saturday, October 25th and 26th, Texas Book Festival, Austin, TX [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Monday, October 27th, 8 p.m: Books and Books, Coral Gables, FL [A Whiskey Tour event!]

Thursday, October 30th, 6 p.m: Watermark Books, Wichita Kansas

Saturday, November 1st, 2 p.m: Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, Denver, CO

Monday, November 3rd, noon, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

Tuesday, November 4th, 7:30 p.m: Book Bar, Denver, CO

Wednesday, November 5th, 7:30 p.m: Booksmith, San Francisco, CA

Thursday, November 6th, 7 p.m: Rakestraw Books, Danville, CA

Monday, November 10th, 7:30 PM: Powell’s Books (Hawthorne), Portland, OR 97214

Tuesday, November 11th, 6 p.m: University Books, Bellevue, WA

Monday, November 17th, 7:00 p.m:            Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, NY

Tuesday, November 18th, 7:00 p.m:            RiverRun Books, Portsmouth, NH 03801

Monday, November 24th, 7:15 p.m: Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library

Tuesday, November 25th, 7:00 p.m: Politics and Prose Washington, DC

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tour de Blog: My leg of the "My Writing Process Blog Tour!"

I was invited to participate in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR by the most wonderful Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner who run the smart, hip and funny blog, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. I know Bill personally and he's not only hilarious fun to be with, but he's generous, smart, and a truly extraordinary writer. Not only did he write the sublime Life Among Giants, (winner of the Maine Prize), but his newest, The Remedy for Love, will be coming out this October, and I plan to have Bill on my blog. He’s the author of eight novels, including the Flannery O’Connor Prize and O’Henry Prize winner Big Bend, Into Woods, and Temple Stream, 

I don't know Dave personally, but any friend of Bill's is a friend of mine. Dave Gessner is the author of nine books, and his latest All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and The American West will be out in April. He’s won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012.  And he’s a sure bet for winning the national championship in ultimate Frisbee.  

Not only do you want both these guys hanging out with you over dinner, you want to buy all their books.

So without further ado, here are the questions, my answers, and my nomination for the next log of the blog tour!

1. What are you working on?

I’m trying to let go of my novel Cruel Beautiful World and get it to my agent and then to Algonquin, even though I’m six months early on deadline, which never happens. Then I need to immediately start on something else because otherwise the paranoia, fear, and anxiety over letting a novel go will begin to eat me alive. It's better to focus that obsessiveness on something new.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I never understand what the word genre means, unless a book has dragons in it (then it is sci-fi), or Fabio on the cover with a woman in a tight dress (then it’s romance).  I try to write what feels truest to me, and trust that I'm odd or unique enough to give whatever I'm writing about my own spin.

3. Why do you write what you do?
If I didn’t write, I’d probably need a constant IV drip of Valium. I write about the questions that haunt me. How do you find community when you are an outsider? How do forgive the unforgivable? How do you live with yourself when you can’t make things right?  I never know the answers until I finish the novel, and it’s not always the answer that I hope to see. I write about my deepest fears in an attempt to understand and defuse them. (Doesn’t always work, but I keep trying.)

4. How does your writing process work?

Ha. I wish I knew. I always start with something that obsesses me, and it’s almost always around character. I always feel that people dig down and struggle to find their best selves when they are in the midst of their worst disasters. I am big on story structure. I know some writers hate making outlines and synopsis and all of that, but to me, without knowing something of the shape of my novel, I might as well be driving from New York City for miles not knowing where I am going. At least if I know I am headed to San Francisco, then I have a destination. But I plot and plan by what I call moral structure. How does the character change by being forced to make difficult choices? I often call this the Rolling Stone’s method, because I am always thinking in terms of the character “not always getting what he or she wants, but if he or she tries hard enough, maybe, he or she can get what he or she needs.”

I do about 20 drafts. Not kidding. I show to three trusted readers. Then I rewrite. Then I show again. Then I rewrite. Writing is re-re-re-rewriting.

For the next stop on the Blog Tour...
 I nominate Bill Wolfe, whose blog Read Her Like An Open Book celebrates women novelists. He not only reads many novels by women writers, but often prefers them. His blog is genius, writers are devoted to him, and I’m honored to send you to his blog.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kerry Cohen talks about her hilarious series, Bad Reviews: Writers Read Their Shit Reviews

Sigh. We've all had them. The kind of review where you want to curl up under the bed and never come out.  But what if you could defuse the shame and the hurt?

Kerry Cohen started this hilarious series called Bad Reviews: Writers Read Their Shit reviews, and it's causing a sensation. I was thrilled to be invited to read and I took on one of my worst reviews ever, for my third book, Jealousies, which I had been pressured to write by my then publisher, who wanted me to be more commercial and less literary. I beg people NOT to buy it, but still, did it deserve the vitriol flung its way?

I had a great time making an idiot of myself over this review, and Kerry wants to invite any other writers who want to do this to make their own little film and send to


 Kerry Cohen is a psychotherapist, writing faculty at The Red Earth Low-Residency MFA, and the author of Loose Girl, Dirty Little Secrets, Seeing Ezra; and the young adult novels Easy, The Good Girl, and It’s Not You, It’s Me. Coming soon are Spent, an anthology of 30 astounding essays about women and shopping, and The Truth of Memoir.  Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Kerry, and thanks so much for inviting me to read a bad review!

This is so inspired and such genius!

Thank you! I’ve been wanting to do it for months. I think it’s pretty awesome too :)

Where did you come up with the idea of this amazingly wonderful series?

I was visiting Stacy Pershall’s memoir class in NYC as a guest speaker. Stacy and I found each other through our memoirs a while back. She’s such a great person and wonderful writer - her memoir is Loud in The House of Myself about her struggle with borderline personality disorder. As female memoirists we connected about some of the horrible things people had written about us in reviews. I’m serious. You want the world to simultaneously love you and hate you really quickly? Be a woman and write a confessional memoir. While we were commiserating and laughing, we came up with the idea, kind of like the mean celebrity tweets read by the celebrities.

Did you find that authors were reticent about doing it or did they--like me--want to do it. There is something so vulnerable and winning about hearing these authors, plus it made me want to go and buy up multiple copies of all of their books.

I know! I am finding indeed that writers want to do it. It really is cathartic it turns out. Possibly the biggest obstacle, other than that needing to spread the net wider, is that so many authors are insecure and don’t want to get on video, at least not without a shower. You know how we authors sit around unbathed all day at our computers. Or is that just me?

Somehow, listening to these authors reading the reviews diffuses the pain of the review. It's actually really, really therapeutic and lots of fun.  Where do you want to take this? A reading series of bad reviews?

Ooo that’s a great idea! I hadn’t really thought beyond trying to get about 100 authors and their bad reviews and perhaps make a website. Right now I just want it to be a thing that people have heard about. I love that while initially I simply thought it would be funny, I’m quickly seeing how meaningful this can be. It’s so helpful as authors to take power back over something that can be so hurtful. It’s a way for authors to feel less alone too. But, perhaps the biggest thing that’s happening that I hadn’t foreseen is that aspiring authors feel so hopeful from it. I mean, look at you, Caroline! Author of a gajillion books, most all of them bestselling, and here you are, human, HUMAN!, crying in your apartment because you got a bad review. Just the fact that you got a bad review seems unbelievable, but then your reaction makes aspiring authors feel like you and they are the same. We’re all the same!

How can authors contact you if they want to do one of these?

Please please yes, the more the better: send as a .mov to

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m working on two memoirs at once. Why must I always be working on more than one book at a time? It’s a horrible idea and very highly not recommended. This started happening to me at 40. Suddenly I was like, I HAVE TO WRITE ALL THE BOOKS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.

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

Hmm. Maybe what I’m working on now? That’s so boring. And I answered it above. How about, what are you in love with today? Answer: my children, my husband, writing, my bed, the smell of early autumn.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What's in a name? Alexandra Watkins, founder of the naming firm, Eat My Words, talks about "Hello, My Name is Awesome," why the wrong name can be ruination. Plus, name a cowboy boot store and you could win her book!

Who came up with the name Scrabble? (Unforgettable and fun to say, right?) Who thought that Svbtle was a good name? (Can you pronounce it? How about trying to find it online?) The right name for a product--or a book--can snag someone's attention or make bile rise in a throat. That's where professional namers come in.

Being a professional namer is one of the coolest jobs around. And I'm lucky enough to be able to work for the coolest company around, Eat My Words, a nationally recognized naming firm featured in the Wall Street Journal and Inc, with a client list that boasts Disney, Microsoft, Wrigley, Turner Networks and Fujitsu. Founder Alexandra Watkins is a genius. Really. And to celebrate the publication of "Hello, My Name is Awesome. How to Create Brand Names that Stick," she's offering a give-away of three books for the lucky winners of a naming contest. The naming brief? Imagine a store set in the heart of a big city that sells nothing but cowboy boots for women. The imaginary client wants something playful, easy to remember and would prefer that the word "boot" not appear in the name. A name of a real cowboy boot store that the client likes: Space Cowboy. Ideas or words that the client would like you to explore: kick, fun, cowboy, range, wrangle.

Put your name choice or choices in the comments section and Alexandra will choose the three best next week! (And yes, those are my beauties in the photograph!)

Why is the right name so important?

Your name will last longer than any investment you make in your business. Look into your crystal ball… will you have the same computer, cell phone, printer, and office furnishings twenty years from now? Not likely. But you will have the same name. That’s why it’s important you spend the time to get it right. And like a tattoo, you better love it and be proud to show it off.

Why can the wrong name be a disaster?  

The wrong name can be a disaster because it can make your brand unapproachable because it annoys, frustrates or confuses potential customers. The random names are the worst. One name I wonder about a lot is Vungle. I have no idea what this company does. I don't want to know. (Please don’t tell me.) It sounds like an STD. Likewise, can you guess what companies Qdoba, Magoosh, Iggli, Kiip, Zippil, or Zumper do?  Me neither. And I don’t care to find out.

Tell us about the SMILE & SCRATCH Test…

The Eat My Words SMILE & SCRATCH Test is my proven 12-step name evaluation method based on my philosophy, “A name should make you smile, instead of scratch your head.” With this simple checklist, anyone can objectively evaluate names.

SMILE: The 5 Qualities of a Super Sticky Name

Suggestive – evokes something about your brand

Meaningful – resonates with your audience
Imagery – is visually evocative to aid in memory
Legs – lends itself to a theme for extended mileage
Emotional – moves people

SCRATCH: The 7 Deadly Sins

Spelling-challenged – looks like a typo
Copycat – similar to competitors’ names
Restrictive – limits future growth
Annoying – forced, frustrates customers
Tame – flat, descriptive, uninspired
Curse of Knowledge – only insiders get it
Hard-to-pronounce – not obvious or is unapproachable

My book breaks down the SMILE and SCRATCH Test into two chapters, giving detailed examples for each.

What are the biggest mistake people make in choosing names?

The biggest mistake people make when choosing a name is asking everyone they know to weigh in. Asking people what they think shows a lack of confidence. They are not experts on your brand. You are. They are not knowledgeable about what makes a great name. You are (if you have read my book). Imagine if Richard Branson had asked others to weigh in on the name Virgin. It would have never flown. Trust yourself on what feels right to you. When you ask your friends and family, "What do you think of this name?” they interpret it as an invitation to criticize. It's better just to tell people, "I’m excited to tell you about my new company, _________..." Please trust me on this. If you ask everyone to chime in, you will end up with a mediocre name that met with the least resistance rather than the very best name.

This blog has a lot of writers, so can you tell us all what's a big mistake in naming novels?

Copycat titles are the worst. You know the ones I’m talking about…

Hijacking another author’s original idea isn’t good for your reputation or for building trust with your readers. Copycat names are lazy, lack originality and blatantly ride on the coattails of another book’s success.

Book titles need to not only be original, they need to make powerful emotional connections with readers. Like brand names, they need to resonate with your audience. Titles should pique curiosity and arouse interest – and you can’t rely on the cover to do all the work because often times your title will appear naked, in black and white, listed in print (hopefully on the New York Times Best Sellers list). Be sure to imagine your book title will be a movie title, as well. Here are some innovative book titles, which all were made into movies. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Girl, Interrupted

The Accidental Tourist

The Hunger Games

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

The Shawshank Redemption

I personally think that your book can be helpful beyond the simple art of naming things or companies or books. It pushes you to start thinking in a more creative way about everything and how to brainstorm so it's fun as well as productive. Would you talk about this, please?

 The internet is a goldmine for brainstorming solo. When you brainstorm online, you’ll find yourself clicking on unexpected links and going down all kinds of rabbit holes. You never know where a good idea will come from. Of course online dictionaries and thesauruses are great for this. One of my riches resources for brainstorming is looking at images. A picture says a thousand words, right? Stock photo websites such as and are fantastic places to get fresh ideas especially because you can search by concepts (e.g. “happy”) to find related imagery. I personally like to use Google images because the amateur photos are more fun to look through and it’s endlessly entertaining.

The whole concept of your company, the name, and your office, are all so playful…

Thanks. I came up with the name Eat My Words because I started out by naming things that make people fat and drunk. When I expanded from potato chips to microchips, the name still fit. The theme of “food” is also highly extendable, as we’ve discovered at Eat My Words:

·      Blog name: “The Kitchen Sink”

·      info@ email:

·      Service packages: “Snack,” “The Whole Enchilada,” “Just the Meat.”

·      Client parking sign: “Eat My Words’ client parking only. Violators will be eaten.”

·      Business card: pink retro refrigerator, a replica of the one in our office, which we use as a bookcase

·      Wireless network name: “Candyland”

·      Meeting materials: toast coasters, pens that look like licorice sticks, “Food for Thought” notepads

·      Corporate workshops: “Spilling the Beans”       

What's obsessing you now and why?

Next Monday, September 15th is my book launch so I am obsessing over Amazon sales rankings and what it will take to crack the top 10 in my category and achieve “best seller” status. 

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

Do authors need to get the domain name for their book title?

No, no, no! This is so not important. My publisher told me that one of their authors dismissed a fantastic book title because they couldn’t get an exact match domain name. That’s ridiculous! Major motion picture studios always use a domain name modifier for movie websites, (e.g., and you can do the same for your book title, (e.g., If you have a long title, you may want to shorten your domain name to something memorable. would be a horrible domain name for my book, Hello, My Name is Awesome. Since I had a microsite built off my regular website, I just made it

Friday, September 5, 2014

Kimberly Elkins talks about What is Visible, her extraordinary novel about Helen Keller's predecessor, isolation, fame and so much more

Every once in a while, a novel is so powerful that you feel you inhabit it. I walked around in a trance while reading What is Visible, the astonishing debut from Kimberly Elkins. The novel reveals the haunting story of Laura Bridgman, Helen Keller's predecessor, a woman who lost four of her five senses as a child, became celebrated and then vanished into history. Gorgeously written, the book was launched with rave reviews from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and more. But What is Visible is also a casualty of the Amazon/Hachette battle. I want to personally urge everyone to go out to your favorite bookstore and buy or order this book, not just to support a deserving author, but to also support bookstores, and finally, and most importantly, because the book is just tremendous. 

Kimberly’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, Best New American Voices, The Iowa Review, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, Maisonneuve, Glamour, Prevention and McGraw-Hill’s college textbook, Arguing Through Literature, and Slice, among others. She was a finalist for the 2004 National Magazine Award and has received fellowships from the Edward Albee and William Randolph Hearst foundations and the American Antiquarian Society, the SLS fellowship in Nonfiction to St. Petersburg, Russia, the St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award, and a joint research fellowship from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and the Massachusetts Historical Society for research on her novel. Residencies include the Millay Colony and Blue Mountain Center, and she was also the 2009 Kerouac Writer in Residence. Kimberly is the 2012 runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award and has also won a New York Moth Slam.

I'm thrilled to have Kimberly here. My thanks are huge.

 I always want to know what sparked a particular book and why it haunts the author. Why Laura Bridgman? How did the subject matter personally speak to you?

I first read about Laura Bridgman in the New Yorker in 2001, and was astounded that I’d never heard of her.  The mid-nineteenth century’s second most famous woman and Helen Keller’s predecessor, and yet she’d seemingly vanished from history!  But it was the photograph of Laura that really got me: an ethereal, almost emaciated, and yet somehow fierce-looking young woman with a ribboned shade tied round her eyes, balancing an enormous, raised-letter book on her lap. She sat absolutely erect with a stubborn dignity and vulnerability that both opened and broke my heart, posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for a photograph she’d never see, and with a face and body that she’d never know except through touch. That very night, I stayed up until dawn writing a story about her that would appear shortly thereafter in The Atlantic. That’s how quickly and completely I got into her head and heart, and she in mine.

And yet for many years, even while writing the novel, I had no plausible idea why I had been so irrevocably drawn to this woman who’d lost four of her five senses--what could I possibly have in common with her, and how could I possibly know her voice so well? Finally, it hit me, just shy of the book’s publication, that I had immediately and subconsciously identified with her sense of profound isolation, her inability to communicate her deepest thoughts and desires to anyone she thought would truly understand her.  These feelings I knew from a lifetime of battling severe depression, and though our disabilities were far from the same, it was a terrible bridge that we shared across the centuries.  Four years ago, I finally found the right medication, and it’s been a bright and gorgeous new life since then; frankly, if I hadn’t gotten the right meds, the book would never have been written.

What surprised you about the research? And what was the whole research process like for you?

The thing that surprised me most about the research was finding that Laura had not merely slipped into obscurity--she was booted there, and by the very same man who had rescued her and taught her language, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of Perkins Institute.  As Laura grew from the pliant and exhibition-worthy child who’d made them both famous into a brilliant and prickly woman with desires and opinions of her own, she thwarted the plans of her autocratic mentor until he turned on her in the worldwide press with a vengeance that was heartrending.

The other surprises were the discovery of all the affairs of every stripe--heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual.  At the start of my research, I’d been afraid that a novel about a deaf-blind woman in the nineteenth century might be rather dry, but the deeper I delved, the juicier it got, from Dr. Howe’s relationship with the famous abolitionist, Senator Charles Sumner, to the great love between Julia Ward Howe and a suicidal novelist in Rome.  This is a novel that investigates the sexual tensions and politics of that time even as it tells Laura’s story.

Researching WHAT IS VISIBLE was such a joy for me; I could have gone on forever, and really had to rein myself in. I was lucky enough to get several fellowships, including one at Harvard’s Houghton Library and one at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, and so spent a solid two years devouring the letters and journals of not just Laura, but also of Dr. Howe; his wife, the famous poet and suffragette Julia Ward Howe; all of Laura’s teachers, and myriad other real-life figures, such as Longfellow, Dickens, John Brown and Dorothea Dix, who also appear in the novel as they did in Laura’s life. 

By the end of those two years, I had an entire enormous red suitcase stuffed with notes and papers, and I dreaded having to sort through all the material.  But then a strange thing happened as I actually began to write the book:  I found that I didn’t feel the need to refer to any of the research except to google a date or some other small detail, and so I went with it.  I had apparently decided, at first subconsciously and then later consciously, to allow my mind to function as a sieve for the endless stream of facts I’d poured into it, and so I let whatever stuck in the sieve make its way into the book.  Whatever hadn’t stuck, I figured simply wasn’t meant to. To this day, the red suitcase has never been opened, although I’m superstitious about throwing away its contents for fear of jinxing something, I don’t know what. 

 You also explore the whole notion of what it means to be famous, how you might see yourself differently and what it does to you. Can you also talk about that please?

Laura went from being the second most famous woman in the world, second only to Queen Victoria, to being a virtual shut-in, tied to her many storied friends mainly by correspondence, a doubly cruel position for one who longed so desperately to communicate, to touch and to be touched by others.  Her sense of self ballooned between extraordinary aggrandizement and complete debasement, and it is a testament to her great strength of character that she was able to handle the situation. Imagine having dolls of yourself made and sold all over the world with their eyes poked out and wearing your trademark green ribbon shade!

I also explore briefly delve into the life and soul of her famous successor, Helen Keller, who during the nineteenth century was known merely as “the second Laura Bridgman.”  The great difference between them was that Helen was acutely aware of what fame meant, and how to leverage it. In her own words, she   set out to be “the best damn poster child the world has ever seen.”  She got the blue glass eyes that Laura had been denied, a secret that was kept from her adoring public until after her death; she learned to speak, which Laura also had been denied, but which was agonizing for Helen, as the movement against orality has shown it to be for the majority of the deaf.  But most of all, Helen had Annie Sullivan, who had lived for two years at Perkins in Laura’s cottage and been taught by her the handspelling that Annie then used to teach Helen. 

Although Helen’s fame greatly eclipsed Laura’s, Helen herself attributed this disparity to the fact that she had Annie for most of her life to interpret the world for her, while Laura’s last beloved teacher was tragically parted from her when she was only twenty, and Dr. Howe forbid her ever having another teacher or companion.  Helen wrote in her autobiography that if Laura had continued to have someone like Annie, Laura “would have far outshone me.”  Annie Sullivan, who knew them both so well, also said that she found Laura to be “intellectually superior” to Helen.

 So much of this extraordinary novel, for me, was about how we truly live in the world, how we inhabit our bodies, and how we deal with what life has given us. Can you talk about that please?

Laura chose to inhabit her body with the one sense left to her--touch--as fully as humanly possible.  She pushed this sense to its extreme: constantly touching other women (she didn’t like men except for Dr. Howe, for whom she retained a deep and complex attachment); masturbating, even when she was punished for it; cutting herself to feel the most extreme sensations her body could offer; and in her one relationship, becoming fixated on a sadomasochistic dynamic, which she would have had no idea was taboo. She was simply determined to push her one sense to its limits, wherever that led. 

On the other side of that dynamic, she almost starved herself to death by not eating, since she had no sense of taste or smell, and was anorexic for most of her life, another thing that ultimately repulsed Dr. Howe. 

In terms of dealing with what life gave her--which was so little--she responded by waging an off- and on-again war with her God, challenging the whys and hows of her condition and her fate. And yet her God was also her only constant companion, because, at the end of the day, who else did she have to talk to?

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m beginning the research for an historical novel about the Fox sisters, America’s most famous nineteenth-century mediums--as children!  They initiated the Spiritualist movement that swept not only the country, but the world; however, the sisters’ paths diverged wildly as adults, with tragic results.  Apparently, I’m still in full-on nineteenth-century mode.

The other project is a new ode to the classic memoir.  I’ve long been gripped by the possibilities of best- and worst-case scenarios for certain dramatic, even violent, events in my past; I think that probably most people would love a chance to, in effect, rewrite certain parts of their lives.  So I plan to write the truth as close as I can get it, and then the other two totally different versions of the event.  What I’m discovering as I begin the process is that choosing what really would have been the best and worst things to possibly happen is vastly more psychologically complex, and even painful, than it would first appear.  It will also be a great challenge to make certain that all three pieces read with equal verisimilitude, because the reader will never be told which version is the true one.

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

What does the title of the book, WHAT IS VISIBLE, mean to you?

It’s funny--I knew with absolute certainty the title from the get-go; it was the same title I gave the short story, published in the Atlantic in 2003, which then begot the novel.  WHAT IS VISIBLE most literally refers to the narrative itself:  at the end of “telling” the story of her life to the young Helen Keller, who is being groomed to be “the second Laura Bridgman,” Laura says that while she will not be able to read what she has written, she prays that “what is invisible to man may be visible to God.”  The idea of what is visible versus what is invisible, or below the surface, and also what it means to be truly visible to others--emotionally, physically, intellectually, even spiritually--has always fascinated me.  So the phrase “what is visible” is all-encompassing; it’s not only about Laura’s handicaps, but about the various complicated ways in which we all perceive and misperceive the world and each other.