Write On, Wednesday: Greer Macallister on THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, illusions, her obsession with toast, and how to pronounce Mackinac


By Leslie Lindsay 

You’ll find yourself immediately immersed in a mesmerizing web of illusions, secrets, and lies, as did I as you read this beautiful story, THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, just out in 9781492628996-300paperback this month. I particularly loved how the stage acts were designed and implemented (with a lot of fervor and practice!), and the dark, Victorian world painted by debut author Greer Macallister. It’s historical fiction with a toe in the murky world of a literary psychological thriller.

The Amazing Arden is accused of killing her husband in a grisly magic act that is neither what you may think. The entire story plays out in the form of a confession at a police station in the form of a frame story (or as the French call it, Mise en abyme) quite reminiscent of THE THIRTEENTH TALE.

I am honored to have Greer with us today.

Leslie Lindsay: Wow. I finished THE MAGICIAN’S LIE yesterday and I’m still puzzling out some pieces of the story. That, in my opinion is what makes fabulous storytelling!  How did you stumble upon this lesser known—yet provocative—story of a female magician in the early 1900’s?

Greer Macallister: First of all, thank you! The inspiration for the book was actually an absence. Books, movies, TV commercials and other media often refer to the classic image of a magician cutting a woman in half. I began to wonder why it’s always the woman cut in half by a man, and never the other way around. Why don’t we see a female magician cutting her male assistant in half? So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician. Early in my research I came across Adelaide Herrmann, who was undoubtedly the most famous female magician of her time. In 1897 she performed an incredibly dangerous illusion called the Bullet Catch – I had to use that. So Adelaide is part of the story, but Arden – the one who does the Halved Man illusion – is completely my creation.

L.L.: As a kid, I had a mail-order magic kit that came to my home one summer. I had high hopes for the cardboard style tricks contained in the blue box, but never really mastered any. In reading THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, I understand why; these things are no easy feat! How on earth did you possibly research all of those illusions and then write so effortlessly about them?

“Smart and intricately plotted… a richly imagined thriller.” — People Magazine

Greer Macallister: I’m glad the writing seems effortless, because I absolutely cannot do any of those tricks in real life! I’m a real butterfingers when it comes to misdirection and manipulation. Luckily, I find it easier to render illusions in writing – which is its own kind of illusion. Researching the real stage magic of the time was fascinating. It was so physical. In order to appear to be floating in the air, you were hoisted up in a metal frame hidden under your dress, held up by a single long pole under one arm. That had to hurt! But it was a black pole against a black curtain, and with the right lighting and costumes, the audience didn’t see the secret – they just saw a woman in the air. Magic! Such as it was at the time, and to a degree, still is.

L.L.: Do you have a favorite illusion? What “magic” might you like to instill in your own life?

Greer Macallister: My favorite illusion from the book is the Fair Shake, because I like the joke, and because it’s the only one that’s completely fictional. All the others are based on something already being done at the time. As for my life, it’s wonderfully boring, so I would probably add some highly practical magic to it – could I get my dishwasher to unload itself?

L.L.: Many of the themes in THE MAGICIAN’S LIE have to do with love, secrets, and a web of lies. Was this your intention when you set out to tell Adelaide Herrmann’s story (Amazing Arden), or did they grow organically from the narration?

Greer Macallister: That all sort of flowed naturally from the initial set of characters and the situation. I always knew I wanted Arden to be telling her story, and I always knew I wanted the reader to doubt whether or not she was telling the truth. So truth vs. lies was always going to be a big section of it. And I had to have a love story – but I also wanted the reader to doubt that and to wonder where it was going. Any time there’s a dead body in the first 10 pages, everyone on the page is a suspect.  

L.L.: As I read, I was struck by some familiar place names—like Moberly, for example!  I understand you are from the Midwest. As a Missouri girl myself, how might the landscape and your origin affected your perception of storytelling process?

Greer Macallister: I had a lot of fun picking out the places Arden goes on tour. I did have to make a little cheat sheet for the audiobook narrator to make sure she could pronounce the Midwestern names that are less familiar to East or West Coasters, like Mackinac Island or Oconomowoc. I wanted to have a small town character, a Midwestern character, to contrast with the much more exotic and well-traveled Arden. So Arden and Virgil are clashing for a number of reasons, and hopefully that adds to the tension between them.

L.L.: What is obsessing you now and why?

Greer Macallister: This will sound out of left field, but I have gotten completely hooked on a website called Clients From Hell (clientsfromhell.net) – if you’ve ever worked as a graphic or web designer, it’s all painfully familiar. I’m working my way through the archives. Also, toast. I’m incredibly addicted to buttered toast. Multigrain, seven-seed, Canadian white, rosemary boule – they all have their charms.

L.L.: Can you tell us what you are working on next?

Greer Macallister: My next book is set in the 1850s and 1860s in Chicago, and it was also inspired by a real-life historical figure – Kate Warne, who was the first female private investigator, hired by Allan Pinkerton himself as a Pinkerton Agency operative in 1856. She’s so much fun to write.

L.L.: Thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with us today, Greer! It was a delight having you.

Greer Macallister: Thank you for the invitation! It’s always wonderful to have another chance to connect with readers, whether that’s in person or online. I’m on tour right now, so if you want to see if I’ll be anywhere near your town, check out this listing. Cheers!

For more information, or to follow, please see: 

greer3 Bio: Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review,  The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a weekly or monthly pick by Indie Next, LibraryReads, People Magazine, SheReads, PopSugar, Publishers Weekly, the Boston Globe, and Audible.com.

[Author image and cover image courtsey of author’s publicist L. Williams at Sourcebooks. Image of magic trick retrieved from on 10.06.15] 

Write On, Wednesday: THE GATES OF EVANGELINE author Hester Young Talks about Premonitions, Establishing a Writing Routine, and Southern Plantations


By Leslie Lindsay 

GATES OF EVANGELINE jacketSouthern fiction has a way with me. Maybe it’s the humid air or the wind from mossy live oaks whispering hints of the paranormal. Perhaps it’s the way the words flow thick and honeyed from the gaping pages, transporting me to another world. When I came across THE GATES OF EVANGELINE, a gothic debut with romantic underpinnings, I knew it was a book I needed to explore.

Today, I am honored to have Hester Young with us to chat about her book.  

Leslie Lindsay: Hester, thanks so much for joining us today. While I am typically intrigued to learn why an author has chosen her subject matter, this time I know exactly: in 1956, your grandmother Margaret began having a recurring nightmare in which she saw her four year-old son falling from a second-floor window. What a horrific image! What an inspiration for compelling fiction! Can you talk about that, please?

Hester Young: I’ve always been interested in premonitions, having had a few myself, but this family story from my grandmother was especially powerful. After weeks of dreaming about her son falling from a window, my grandmother left him in someone else’s care for a day. A window was left open, and her son suffered a fatal fall. Not long after his death, my grieving grandmother awoke in the night to see her son standing at the foot of her bed. He told her that he was okay now, that everything was okay, providing my grandmother with a tremendous sense of peace. That was the jumping off point for my novel.

My protagonist, Charlie, is definitely a nod to my grandmother. She’s grieving the loss of her four-year-old son and grappling with some dark premonitory dreams that challenge her skeptical nature. Like my grandmother, she’s a New Yorker with a dry sense of humor and a survivor’s spirit. My grandmother loved mysteries—she would’ve been thrilled to know that she inspired a strong female sleuth.

L.L.: Full-disclosure: I am a sucker for dreams. I find them absolutely fascinating, always have. What do you think makes us so intrigued by our nightly “movies?” Do you, like your protagonist Charlotte have vivid dreams?

Hester Young: I do have a lot of vivid dreams, although my actual premonitions are infrequent and not so detailed as Charlotte’s. I think in dreaming we have the ability to tap into parts of ourselves that we just can’t access while awake. It is fascinating to know what strange things you have skittering about your own subconscious. Inevitably, a lot of these things find their way into your writing, as well!

L.L.: I just love the setting of the Southern plantation, too. Everything really came alive for me, and I wanted to be Charlotte, sleuthing around Evangeline and living in that shabby former slave quarters-turned-cottage and writing. Can you share a bit of what your research was like for the book?

Hester Young: My husband had family living in Louisiana, so it was quite easy for us to justify several research trips. I really wanted to get a feel for the landscape, since it is so integral to the story. We went on swamp tours, enjoyed Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and visited some plantation homes. I chatted quite a bit with the housekeeper at a particular estate to get a sense of what it’s like to work for one of these wealthy families. We also spent some time hanging out in Cajun country, chatting with locals, and visiting parks, municipal buildings, and restaurants. I wanted the fictional town of Chicory to be very clear in my head.

Back at home, I spent a lot of time learning about different Louisiana accents. I’m very interested in linguistics, phonology, and dialects. Cajun French, in particular, was so much fun to delve into—lots of great words and colorful phrases. 

L.L.: Let’s turn to your writing process. THE GATES OF EVANGELINE is your first novel. Can you tell us a bit about that journey? How long did it take you, and what do you think you did “right?”

Hester Young: I started messing around a bit with the novel in 2008, but as an English teacher with an 80-hour work week, I didn’t have much time or energy to devote to it. In 2011, I made the choice to stay at home with my young son, and that is when I really began to write in earnest. The thing that I did “right” was simply to establish a writing routine. Every day my son napped for two to three hours, and that became my writing time. In the evenings, too, I often chose to work on my novel rather than watch TV, clean the house, or go to bed at a reasonable hour. Books don’t write themselves, sadly. You have to make writing a priority (and accept that your house might be a bit messy as a result!).

L.L.: What might be the most challenging aspect of writing a novel?

Hester Young: Writing a novel is very much like a marriage. It starts off all fun and games, but you’ll hit plenty of bumps along the way. Some novels just aren’t meant to be finished; their foundations are weak. Others possess real potential, but only if you put in the work. As with marriage, you go in with one set of expectations and you have to adjust accordingly. You must put aside your ego and make sacrifices for the good of the novel, whether that means cutting 28,000 words from your first draft (which I did!) or getting a lot less sleep than you’d like. Sometimes it’s just an endurance contest. Can you stay focused and slog on through the hard parts? Can you recognize your own mistakes and edit accordingly? Can you do these things while maintaining some semblance of balance in your everyday life? Simultaneously attending to the rest of my life was the hardest part for me. 

L.L.: I’m hearing wonderful news that THE GATES OF EVANGELINE is the first in a trilogy. Congratulations! Can you give us a little glimpse of what’s to come?

Hester Young: The connecting thread in all three books will be Charlie and her premonitions of endangered children. Each book will have a distinctive setting, a location that is culturally and geographically unique in the United States, and that setting will function as an important character in the story.

“Hester Young’s The Gates of Evangeline is not just a riveting story about the search for a long missing child. It’s also a powerful and haunting examination of a mother’s grief and her long road to recovery. Hester Young’s protagonist, Charlotte “Charlie” Cates, is tough and vulnerable, wounded and fearless, and I simply could not stop reading this thrilling, beautifully written Southern Gothic mystery.

I can’t wait for the next entry in this captivating new series.”

—David Bell, author of Cemetery Girl and Somebody I Used to Know

L.L.: What is obsessing you now and why?

Hester Young: While in Mississippi, I picked up the Tom Franklin literary suspense novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and gobbled it up within 24 hours. How did I miss this when it came out in 2010? I wish I had copies to distribute to everyone I meet.

L.L.: Thanks so much for popping by. It was so fun to chat with you, Hester!

Hester Young: So glad you could have me!

Hester Young (c) Francine Daveta PhotographyABOUT THE AUTHORHester Young holds a Master’s degree in English with a Creative Writing concentration from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and her work has been published in literary magazines such as The Hawai’i Review. Before turning to writing full time, she worked as a teacher in Arizona and New Hampshire. She lives with her husband and two children in New Jersey.

For more information, or to follow:

[Cover and author image courtesy of author. Photo credit: Francine Daveta Photography. Louisiana plantation home, “Oak Alley” retrieved from on 9.11.15 to add interest] 

BOOKS ON MONDAY: Drs. Anne E. Cunningham and Jamie Zibulsky on BOOK SMART


By Leslie Lindsay 

I am in absolute awe of this amazing book on reading with your children, aptly titled, BOOK SMART: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers.

Think back to your own childhood: do you have a special memory with a caregiver and a book? Perhaps you curled up into a grandparent’s lap with a dog-eared copy of nursery rhymes. Maybe you escaped into a popular series as a grade-schooler. Do you recall *your* favorite childhood book?

BOOK SMART will touch on nostalgia while presenting a fabulous array of research in parent-friendly terms, while offering ideas for increasing the love of literature at home, being tech-savvy, and so much more. I am honored to have Drs. Anne Cunningham and Jamie Zibulsky with us to tell us more.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome and thank you for being with us today, Anne and Jamie! I understand you two are passionate readers, have been for most of your lives. I really resonated with Jamie’s story earlier about how she and her father would cozy up with a book—and Anne’s family thrived on a print-rich environment with a bevy of magazines, books, and newspapers at her disposal. What is it about reading as a child that develops passionate, life-long readers? 

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  That’s a great question, and one that I can’t help but answer in multiple ways.  From a research perspective, there are studies that have shown that factors like a caregiver’s motivation to read or their knowledge of children’s books is a good predictor of a child’s future reading success.  It makes sense that this is the case because we know that children imitate behaviors they see important people in their lives engaging in, and then eventually internalize the values associated with those behaviors.

I think it’s also important to answer this question from a more personal perspective too, to give an example of what these findings mean for any one child.  When I was a kid, I remember how wonderful it felt to get time alone with one of my parents and how grown-up it felt to pick out a book to share with them.  Getting a chance to bond with my parents, who both were readers themselves, was one of the initial reasons that I became an enthusiastic reader.  However, even though being able to spend time with adults I loved and getting attention for liking books helped me get started on the path to becoming a lifelong reader, these extrinsic rewards eventually became less important than reading for its own sake.  I remember how much I loved hearing about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and trying to picture what I would have done if I lived during that time period – her books gave me a chance to learn about a time and place that was new to me, but also normalized some of the feelings and experiences I had growing up (by sharing stories about sibling rivalry, for example).

To recap, what we know is that having good reading experiences with a caregiver early on in life makes it more likely that a child will both develop strong skills and also develop enthusiasm for reading.  This sets up a feedback loop where kids with better reading skills, more motivation to read, or who spend more time reading end up likely to have all three of these attributes as they get older.

L.L.: I love how BOOK SMART has so many wonderful graphics—charts, especially—busy caregivers can quickly glance, find a literacy activity, and implement it. Can you expand on this feature of the book?

DSC_1356-3178062101-ODr. Jamie Zibulsky:  We’re so glad that the graphics seemed helpful to you!  We added this feature for just the reason you mention – we know that caregivers of young children are busy and wanted to craft a book that could be useful to a mom who was trying to strengthen shared reading time at home while also working, planning meals for a family of five, or juggling any of the other challenges that come along with parenting.  We wanted to make sure that the strategies we talk about in Book Smart were easy to use and that someone could read a chapter and immediately have an idea of how to put the ideas they read about into practice.  So, each chapter ends with a list of activities appropriate for kids of a variety of ages that are described briefly.  Our hope is that it is the kind of list that motivates caregivers to try a new literacy activity out in the car or during a meal the day after they read about it, because one of the key ideas that we are trying to convey throughout the book is that very simple activities can lead to powerful changes for kids.

L.L.: Let’s talk about technology a bit. There’s plenty of opportunity to *not* read books, sadly. How can caregivers and children still work in the iPad/tablet, Kindle, and other electronic devices, but gain valuable book skills?

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  
You’re right; there are so many other activities that compete with reading time these days.  And it becomes harder and harder to limit young children’s exposure to technology as families begin to own multiple smart phones and tablets.  The rule of thumb we suggest that hopefully makes sense to most families, regardless of what their philosophy is on technology, is that tech tools should *supplement* rather than *replace* reading time.  What that means to me is that technology can’t substitute for a caregiverkids need that time sitting with someone, getting cuddles and talking about the pictures in a book together, in order to become a successful, motivated reader.  But if there is a time of day when it would be difficult for a caregiver to read with a child or a time when a child already protests about reading independently, that might be a time of day when it’s appropriate for that child to play a rhyming game online or read a magazine on the Kindle.  Many kids do find reading online or downloading a new app exciting, so harnessing that enthusiasm is a way that we can help encourage reading during times when a child might have previously been using technology for a different purpose.

L.L.: One thing I really liked in the book is the idea of specific praise versus this idea of ‘blanketed praise.’ That is, not telling your child she is smart (even if she is), but instead offering specific phrase, “Great job thinking of another word for cold.” Why is this so important?

Dr. Anne Cunningham:  When global praise is used, and children are told in general terms that they are wonderful, or smart, or a good reader it sets them up for disappointment because no one is always smart in every situation or a good reader for all kinds of text.  That means at some point, even very skilled children will think something like, “Hey, Mom said I was a great reader, but I had so much trouble understanding the story today.  I guess I’m not a good reader anymore now that I’m in fourth grade.”  However, when a parent or caretaker uses specific praise such as ‘’Even though that story was difficult to understand, you kept at it and asked questions about the plot,” to praise the persistence and specific problem solving skills that their child displayed, their child is better prepared to tackle difficult or novel problems or issues in the future.  We want to give kids praise that they can apply to future situations, which generally means focusing on their effort rather than their ability.

L.L.: We often find books that touch on a problem or a worry we’re experiencing at home. Can you give us some examples of how books help act out social situations and challenges, and what caregivers might do to enhance this aspect of shared literacy?DSC_1349-3178060593-O

Dr. Anne Cunningham:   As we describe in the book, there are many benefits of reading, most importantly perhaps, is that reading helps a child relate to their surrounding world and encourages empathy and interpersonal skills. So often we tend to think of reading as primarily an activity meant to enhance children’s academic skills.  And we tend to forget that reading is built on a shared understanding of the world and can help our children build background knowledge and discuss their own life experiences with their caretakers. Shared reading can provide models for coping with difficult situations, opportunities for understanding the lives of people who are very different from us, and serve as a source of comfort.  For example, when my son was young, we often read stories about adventure and fantasy.  But we also read stories about children who experienced teasing or bullying in school.  These stories demonstrated to him that other children have similar feelings when confronted with comparable circumstances and gave me a way to introduce this topic to him without having to directly bring up his own experiences first. My son also learned that he was not the only one who experienced such trying dilemmas, but other children encountered them as well. Through stories, caregivers can help their children identify and validate their feelings, stimulate discussion and foster thought and self-awareness about challenging social situations and help them discover possible coping skills and solutions.

L.L.: Can you offer some suggestions on how parents and caregivers may help increase print awareness at home?  

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Parents and caregivers can help increase print awareness at home by creating an environment, both physical and verbal, that emphasizes words and language. At a physical level, having books and other print material around the house facilitates access to print.  Additionally, by labeling common objects (for example, door, table, etc.) children begin to see words all around them and to make the association implicitly that print carries meaning.  At a verbal level, parents and caregivers can “flood” their children with language, for example by describing situations in detail such as how they are going to make a sandwich and all the steps and ingredients involved.  These verbal labels and steps can then be paired with their physical representation such as the “Smucker’s raspberry jam” label.  Parents and caregivers can help increase print awareness by building upon their child’s interests in a topic.  Stocking books that match their child’s own interests will spark their enthusiasm for reading and increase print awareness.

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:  It’s so funny that you asked this question now, because I have been thinking about this topic a lot in the past few weeks.  My son, who is fourteen months old, just recognized – for the first time – that his name is written out both on a step-stool in our house and in letter magnets on the refrigerator.  When he ran back and forth between the two versions of his name and pointed at the letters, I basically jumped up and down with joy, because it demonstrated how powerful it can be to do just what Anne is describing above.  I’ll be giving some more specific strategies for increasing print awareness in very young children in a blog post at PsychologyToday this week.

L.L.: Finally, what might be your ultimate wish for children and their success with literacy?

Dr. Anne Cunningham: I can imagine no better wish for children than for them to experience and know the joy of the nighttime ritual my mother taught me many years ago and I have passed down to my son—to tuck myself into bed with a book and, from the comfort of my own home, explore new worlds with new friends who nurture and expand my mind and spirit.

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky:   I agree with Anne wholeheartedly, and wish for all children to have this opportunity and experience.  We know that there are so many aspects of reading success that require caregivers and teachers to provide support to young children and that environment matters so much.  I hope that we continue to invest in ways to make reading possible for all families and communities.

L.L.: Thank you so much for spreading the word with us, Jamie and Anne!  It was a pleasure.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: Thank YOU!

Dr. Jamie Zibulsky: Thanks for having us.

AECunningham-1Anne E. Cunningham, PhD (left) is Professor of Cognition and Development at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Education.Follow on TwitterJamie Zibulsky

Jamie Zibulsky, PhD (right) is Associate Professor of Psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.Follow on Twitter

Check out the BOOK SMART website here.

[Special thanks to Oxford University Press. Author images, cover image, and book trailer courtsey of C. McCarroll at OUP. Image of girl reading from L.Lindsay personal archives] 

Write On, Wednesday: Alexandra Burt talks about her psychological thriller REMEMBER MIA, kidnapping stats, too many stories in her head, & so much more


By Leslie Lindsay 

In this riveting psychological suspense debut, a young mother’s worst nightmare becomes shockingly real. I plowed through REMEMBER MIA, astounded with the gripping story, the horrendous acts and thoughts that filtered through the mother’s head, and knew I had to contact Alexandra Burt for an interview. At once hopeful and harrowing, this is a story that will have you reading well past your bedtime.REMEMBERING MIA

Today, I am thrilled to welcome Ms. Burt to the blog couch. Pull up your favorite beverage and settle in. This is one you won’t want to miss.

Leslie Lindsay: Thanks for being with us today, Alexandra! I so loved REMEMBER MIA. I’m always interested in what strikes an author when she sets pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), what was it about Estelle’s story that captivated you, propelling your novel?

Alexandra Burt: I’m delighted to be here and thank you so much for reading REMEMBER MIA.

Estelle’s story stewed in my head for many years before I actually put words on paper. I worked as a freelance translator after my daughter was born and when my dream of literary translations didn’t pan out, I decided to tell my own stories. I enrolled in writing classes but concentrated mainly on short stories. Eventually I signed up for a novel writing class and on the first day of class I was asked to post twenty-five pages. Needless to say, I hadn’t written a single word. So later that night, a sentence popped into my head; “Tell me about your daughter.” I imagined a woman, ravaged by postpartum depression, being confronted by a psychiatrist to unravel the ball of yarn that is the disappearance of her infant daughter.

I personally was very close to the story; I had a rocky start with motherhood myself. I experienced nine months of nausea and a potentially life-threatening complication after childbirth. After that I just didn’t bounce back. I never thought it to be anything else than a personal failure. Once you’re enveloped in such a state of mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to ‘think’ your way out of it. It took me an entire year to feel remotely normal.

L.L.: The story deals with the dark underbelly of new motherhood: the fact that infants are highly dependent on us for everything. Yet, fathers don’t exactly suffer from postpartum psychosis, it’s more of a female/mother thing (and rare at that)—the intricate high-jacking of hormones, and a variety of other factors. What, in your opinion is the most challenging aspect of being a new mother?

Alexandra Burt: Motherhood comes easy to many women, yet many new moms struggle. There’s of course societal pressure to be a perfect mother and the assumption that women are biologically destined to fulfill that role. But is that really the case?  The answer seems to be yes or our species would have ceased to exist long time ago but reality is much more sobering; women struggle with motherhood and when given a choice, they are giving more thought to having children and become mothers later in life than ever before, if at all, and more and more women have just one child. The lines are blurry, at best.

The most challenging aspect of being a new mother is an amalgamation of changes; there’s not just the baby and the feeding and the constant attention, but motherhood goes hand in hand with other life changes; quitting a job to stay home full-time, financial struggles, switching to part-time positions, or just adding another huge responsibility to an already full plate that we all deal with on a day to day basis. There’s no other time quite like giving birth; we must completely step outside ourselves and care for a newborn entirely dependent on us. The role of a mother is something picture-perfect we have to live up to yet we constantly question it as if we don’t trust ourselves. It’s a hard spot to be in, for sure. Alice in Wonderland Quote

L.L.: Estelle eventually sees a psychiatrist to help retrieve her memory, and work through her psychosis. What services are you aware of that exist for new mothers experiencing postpartum psychosis? And how is it different from “the baby blues?”

Alexandra Burt: Baby blues is a biological response to rapidly changing hormone levels during a highly vulnerable period; there are lots of tears, irritability, impatience, restlessness, and anxiety. Add to that the constant feedings and diaper changes, the crying and spitting up, first fevers and many sleepless nights in a row. All those feelings are common during that period and are rather short lived. The baby blues affects up to 75% of new mothers but sometimes this emotional state lasts beyond a few weeks and can turn into a postpartum mood disorder. There’s postpartum panic/anxiety, postpartum obsessive/compulsive syndrome, and in the worst case, postpartum psychosis. 

Once you add the constant self-doubt and interrupted sleep turning into insomnia, and the baby blues can become a clinically depressed state. The switch can happen at any time; within days, over months, or even a year. Postpartum mood disorders are almost like baby blues kicked up a notch; mood swings, anxiety, sleep disturbances, feeling overall disconnected from the baby, a fear of losing control, and even suicidal thoughts.

Some communities have local support groups and there are 800-numbers and online support groups available via the internet. There are hundreds of support coordinators who can put new mothers in contact with the help they need. Family support is crucial during this very fragile state, and of course mothers should seek medical help immediately if any postpartum mood disorder develops.

L.L.: Kidnapping is a real fear and horrific crime, one I couldn’t even imagine as a mother. We see it in the media with girls gone missing for years, living out lives under the rule of a sadistic person, sometimes even having their children. How common is the crime? Can you put my mind at ease…I’m a mom, too.

Alexandra Burt:  Statistically I can put your mind at ease. According to the FBI, abductions of newborns/infants from birth to six months by strangers are really rare. From 1983 to present 300 infants were abducted. 12 are still missing.

Once you look at cases of older children, the numbers gets fuzzy. Even though the official number of abductions is 800,000 per year, it includes family abductions, runaways, and abandoned children. Out of this staggering number only 115 were stereotypical stranger kidnappings.

On one hand the number of abduction is overstated, on the other hand some police departments don’t always file reports for older children missing, considering them runaways.

Since the 70s and 80s, there have been many advancements; Congress passed legislation that resulted in the creation of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children database and we are all familiar with Amber Alerts popping up on cell phones and signs on highways.

We shouldn’t worry about a potential abduction when it comes to our children but when the headlines pop up on TV, we all think this could be me. This could be my child.

L.L.: Shifting gears a bit…what kind of writer are you—do you follow the pen, carefully outline and plot, or somewhere in the middle?plotting_dry_erase_board-r33a17d0c27944b4ca2594ce32aaac0d6_fumj8_8byvr_512

Alexandra Burt: I plot and outline on a large dry erase board. I’m a visual person; there are colors and arrows and numbers but don’t let that apparent order of things fool you; there’s also a mountain of random notes on my desk, a file on my phone of bits of conversations that I overheard at the market, in the gym, in random conversations. I think more in visual scenes and atmosphere than in words and plot elements. I don’t fight it, I nurture it. So as much as I try to be organized and outline and plot, a story usually takes on a life of its own. As it should be.

L.L.: I understand you are a voracious reader. What are some of your favorite books and authors? C.S. Lewis’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND play a role in REMEMBERING MIA. Can you speak to that, please?

Alexandra Burt: Within the crime genre, there are the classics I love; Patricia Highsmith comes to mind, and Ruth Rendell. Contemporary crime fiction; Gillian Flynn and Tana French are always a sure bet. I also adore Jennifer McMahon and Erin Kelly.  Outside the crime genre, Ursula Hegi and Louise Erdrich. Specific favorite books are Laird Koenig’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and John Hart’s The Last Child. David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III.

As to Alice in Wonderland, the choice was serendipitous. The quotes in the book speak to Estelle’s emotional state and the proverbial rabbit hole started it off, no doubt. People say all the time “I’m not going down that rabbit hole with you,” but what if people don’t have a choice? It is definitely Estelle’s state of mind in Remember Mia, as everybody else’s in the novel; her husband, her psychiatrist, and even the media.

Apart from the quotes and references in the book, similarities with Alice in Wonderland were completely unintentional yet here they are: There’s a pool of tears (just imagine not knowing where your child is); Alice running in circles (Estelle not being able to remember); the crowd hurling pebbles at Alice (the media judging her). Alice admitting to her identity crisis and her inability remembering a poem (amnesia); a tea party during which Alice becomes tired of being bombarded with riddles (therapy); and Alice arguing with the King and Queen of Hearts over the ridiculous proceedings, eventually refusing to hold her tongue (she won’t stop looking for the truth). It’s quite uncanny but I guess stranger things have happened, right? alice03a

L.L. REMEMBERING MIA has a lot to do with obsession. Estelle just can’t rest till she finds her child. Totally understandable. I’d be a mess! What are you obsessing on these days?

Alexandra Burt: Obsessions are a double-edged sword. Whatever I do, I do with an obsessive tendency so I have to force myself to take a step back and take a break. I read and write obsessively and it’s hard to escape. I therefore struggle to find balance in my life and I’m very conscious of achieving a well-adjusted state of being these days. As much as I want to get up every morning and write, I force myself to go to the gym or go for a hike. Meet friends for lunch or coffee. Most days I lose the battle but I don’t dwell on it. After all that’s how books get written.

L.L.: Can I ask what you’re working on next? Will we see any more psychological fiction from you in the future? I hope!

Alexandra Burt: My next novel is psychological suspense, for sure. The Killing Jar takes place in a fictional Texas town. It’s a story about a woman who comes across a barely alive Jane Doe in the woods, prompting her to develop a fixation on missing women. Local cases fuel her obsession but in the end there’s only one case left; a woman who went missing fifteen years ago. There’s no photograph of her, just a hasty composite tucked away in a dusty file. In pursuing questions about the mystery woman, the character exposes her very own obscure past.

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but forgot?

Alexandra Burt: It’s a question I ask every writer I meet to satisfy my own curiosity; hindsight, were there early signs that you were destined to become a writer? Every single day I have new insights and aha-moments that point towards this career; my obsession with reading (see, here we go again with the obsession), my fascination with crimes (I remember two crimes in my hometown as a child growing up; two girls disappeared, the crimes remain unsolved to this day), asking too many questions, watching people (“will you stop starring already”), and picking up on details that go unnoticed. Just to mention a few. It’s my only regret in life—not having written novels earlier, at a younger age. I wish I’d have more time to grow and develop as a writer. There are just so many stories in my head.

L.L.: Thanks so much for being with us today, Alexandra! It was quite illuminating.

Alexandra Burt: Thank you for having me, Leslie. It was a pleasure answering your questions.

For more information, to follow, or read, please see:

Alexandra BurtAlexandra Burt was born in a baroque town in the East Hesse Highlands of Germany. Wanderlust got the better of her and days after her college graduation she boarded a plane to the U.S.  Eventually ending up in Texas, she married and pursued freelance translations. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, the union never panned out and she decided to tell her own stories.

She is an outspoken animal welfare supporter and her dream is to live in the countryside again, in a farmhouse offering rescue dogs a sanctuary to live out their lives on a comfy couch.

Alexandra is a proud member of Sisters In Crime, a nationwide network of women crime writers.

She still lives in Central Texas with her husband, her daughter, and two Chocolate Labrador Retrievers. Her short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in various online magazines and literary reviews.

Remember Mia is her first novel. She is currently working on her second novel.

[Author and cover image courtsey of Alexandra Burt. “I’m not quiet, I’m plotting” retrieved from on 9.08.15. Alice in Wonderland image(s) retrieved from on 9.08.15, Alice quote from

Write On, Wednesday: Meg Waite Clayton on Her NEW Historical Fiction–THE RACE FOR PARIS


By Leslie Lindsay 

A crisp September evening. Preschoolers tucked in bed. New friends. Wine and books…this was my first introduction to Meg Waite Clayton, author of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS. tws_boookcoverAfter our introductions (some of us didn’t know each other yet), a sweet, quiet and assuming member thrust a book my way, “You need to read this,” she encouraged with a smile. I did. Later, flipping the pages, and nodding in agreement, in reliability, I knew this was my life. A writer is first a reader. That’s what I think Meg Waite Clayton’s book taught me.

Today, I am honored to have Meg chat with us about her newest book–perhaps her most ambitious title to date, THE RACE FOR PARIS. For me, it’s the perfect combination of history, women’s rights and independence, my appreciation for photography, and of course–books.

Welcome, Meg! 

Leslie Lindsay: Can you tell us in a few words what The Race for Paris is about?

Meg Waite Clayton: The novel was inspired by the actual “Race for Paris” and the journalists who first reported the liberation of the city in August 1944. It’s the story of two women journalists hoping to make history, and a British military photographer who joins them. It’s a bit of an underdog story, because while the male journalists had access everything they needed and were free to roam Europe, the women correspondents were restricted to covering red cross donut girls and nurses. If they wanted to win this spirited race to be first to report from Paris, they had to break rules. It took me 15 years to write—I started it before the turn of the century!—and I’m just thrilled to be talking about it with you.

L.L.: Where did the story idea begin for you?

Meg Waite Clayton: The idea for The Race for Paris actually came to me while I was doing research for my first novel,The Language of Light.  I read photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s autobiography, Portrait Of Myself. Something she said in that—about motherhood, I think I can say that much without spoiling the plot—really moved me. I had to read the autobiography in the stacks of the Vanderbilt library because it was out of print and couldn’t be checked out, so you can picture me sitting in the stacks, weeping.

The story really began to take shape when I read about how Martha Gellhorn got to cover the Normandy invasion. Only male journalists were allowed to go. (The excuse: “no women’s latrines there, and we aren’t about to start digging them now”—never mind that the press camps were generally set up in lovely big French chateaus with running water and sometimes whiskey literally on tap.)

book_parisMartha stowed away in the loo of a hospital ship and went ashore with a stretcher crew, one of the very few correspondents to cover the invasion from French soil. And her reward for her bravery?  She was taken into custody on returning to England, and stripped of her military accreditation, her travel papers, and her ration entitlements. She was confined to a nurses’ training camp until she could be shipped back to the U.S.

So here’s what she did: She hopped the fence, hitched a ride on a plane to Italy, and covered the war without the benefit of her swanky military credential, sweet-talking wireless operators into send her work out, while all the time looking over her shoulder for the military police charged with apprehending her.

While the male correspondents went wherever they wanted, and returned to nice warm press rooms in chateaus and 5-star hotels, the women correspondents who managed to get accredited to France were largely confined to hospitals. They worked at tables they set up in fields when the weather wasn’t terrible, which it mostly was. While men were able to negotiate changes to copy with on site censors at the press camps and send work by wire, women journalists’ work went by pouch—much slower, so not as timely—and was censored in England, where the journalists had no ability to make changes to accommodate the censors. Whatever was left after the censors did their dirty deeds—often not quite the truth and sometimes pure gibberish… well, off it went to their editors anyway, with their names on it.

For many women, the only option if they wanted to cover the war in a meaningful way, was to go AWOL—absent without leave—leaving them without resources, often in danger, and with the added challenge of having to evade military police send to take them into custody. Several who did so, including Lee Miller, Catherine Coyne, and Dot Avery, were taken into custody and held at Rennes, and so missed covering the liberation of Paris.

When you just look at what these women did during the war, they seem daring and risk-taking and sort of superhuman. But if you peek behind the curtain… Well, let’s just say that as a child attending fortnightly dance classes, Martha Gellhorn hid with a friend in the coatroom rather than have to stand unselected by the boys.

One of the things I wanted to do in The Race for Paris was explore how very human and like the rest of us these women really are. I’m not saying they didn’t do extraordinary things—they did. But a lot of women in a lot of circumstances in WWII did, too, and I like to think that even if I might not have, many of my readers would.

L.L. So, the Race for Paris…it’s a real thing, then? Can you tell us about that?

Meg Waite Clayton: I came across the term in Andy Rooney’s autobiography; he wrote for Stars and Striped during the war. He describes it as a spirited competition among the journalists over who would be the first to report the liberation. They all know Paris wouldn’t be the end of the war, but everyone imagined the liberation of Paris would mean the war was going to be won. The war didn’t end there, of course—the fighting continued to Berlin—but the liberation was symbolically so important.slide-2-1024The epigraph I use for the novel was written by Martha Gellhorn in late 1943, shortly after she was accredited as a war correspondent and headed for London:

I would give anything to be part of the invasion and see Paris right at the beginning and watch the peace.

The two were intertwined in people’s minds: Paris being liberated was the peace.

L.L.: Gosh, Paris! I’ve been once, but how fun was it to write about? 

Meg Waite Clayton: Paris is such a romantic, evocative city, even in war. Or perhaps especially in war. If you can walk along the Seine, or just sit out on one of the bridges at night with a bottle of wine … the lighting is lovely, the reflection off the Seine. Now you have the young kids gathering at the tip of the Isle de la Cité just to be together. The warm colors of the sunset and that very fun moment of the Eiffel Tower lighting up. The Hôtel de Ville at night—where the novel opens—is just stunning. Really, if you can’t fall in love in Paris, then you’re probably doomed. If you can’t write in Paris, or about it, you certainly are. [Check out Meg’s literary guide to Paris here]

L.L.: This is a definitely a research-intensive novel. Can you tell about how you went about researching THE RACE FOR PARIS?

Meg Waite Clayton: I did the really fun stuff, of course—like spending a month in Paris not once, but twice. I really enjoyed learning about how the press operated during the war, and all the details of what they did. I stayed in a chateau that was a press camp in Normandy, now owned by a man who was born there during the war. That was amazing, to sit by myself and watch the sun come up in a room where extraordinary journalists like Ernie Pyle wrote during the war.

And I covered the path my characters cover in the book—an excuse to see a lot of Europe!

I also immersed myself in books about the time, and in primary source materials. Letters and journals of real WWII correspondents. The pieces they wrote and, in the case of Lee Miller, some earlier drafts of pieces she wrote. For me, seeing the world directly through their eyes that way makes their world come alive.

I loved gathering the little details of the everyday lives: for example, that they washed their laundry in their helmets, and often stopped menstruating due to the stress. And funny things like that the photojournalists—because it rained all the time in Normandy—would put their spent film canisters in condoms, tie them to keep them dry. 

slide-3-1024 The problem wasn’t finding the interesting bits to include in the book, but choosing which to include, because there was so much great material. And then knowing when to stop. I love the research. I was a history major in college with a focus on 20th century American wars, so this is a real sweet spot for me.

I have to say I just loved drawing from the real experiences of women correspondents who covered the war. I couldn’t have made up some of the things that really happened. It might have been fun to do nonfiction, but the form of the novel allowed me to collect the most interesting of their experiences into one narrative arc that I hope will appeal to readers, but isn’t always there in real life.

L.L.: I’m always curious if there a character authors identify with most in their work. Is there one for you in The Race for Paris?

Meg Waite Clayton: I think maybe you have to be able to identify with anyone to deliver them well. So I hope I identify with all of them. Fletcher, my British military photographer–– he’s this really lovely guy who has the habit of falling for the wrong person again and again. Who can’t identify with that? I even identify with Charles, Liv’s husband.

But I’d say I most identify with Liv Harper. And I should say that she was Harper long before Harper was my publisher, and I just realized about two days ago that the two were the same! slide-10-1024

Liv is my ambitious photojournalist who comes to France intent on covering the liberation of Paris and in the process making both history and her own career. She’s not uncomplicated, no one is. And she’s far from perfect. Perfect in a character is boring. But I think it’s a hard thing for women to embrace ambition. It ends up leaving us considered “bossy” or “unfeminine,” “undesirable.” But she does embrace it, much as she struggles with doing so and tries to balance her ambition and her family obligations, and that’s a struggle I’m quite familiar with.

I also identify with Jane, though. She’s single and in some danger of becoming an old maid, and I certainly remember those years! She’s a Nashville gal from the wrong side of the tracks, who sort of backs into being a war journalist—she’s a secretary at the Nashville Banner when the war breaks out, and she’s smart, and so when the boys go off to war and the editor needs more writers, he turns to her.

Jane actually started as a small player who disappeared after the early chapters, and was a small homage to my Aunt Annette, who was in Normandy with the Red Cross. When I asked my aunt why she chose to go to war, she said, in a southern accent I can’t replicate, “Well I wasn’t getting any younger, was I? And the boys were all over there and I was going to be an old maid before they came home, so I thought I’d better get on over to where they were and find me one!” As befitting any character modeled on my Aunt Annette, she eventually took over the telling of the story, and that’s when it all starting falling into place finally. So I suppose that suggests I identify with her even more than I think I do.

L.L.: Oh, wow–thank you so much for being with us today, Meg. I can definitely see where your passions lie. 

Meg Waite Clayton: Thank YOU, Leslie! 

Meg Waite ClaytonBio: Book club favorite and New York Times and USA Today bestseller Meg Waite Clayton is the author of five novels, including The Race for Paris (HarperCollins, August 11), and The Wednesday Sisters, one of Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all time.

To follow, or learn more:


Twitter @MegWClayton


[All images retrieved from Meg Waite Clayton’s website and used with permission from the author.]

Write On, Wednesday: Kim van Alkemade on the truth behind the fiction of ORPHAN #8


By Leslie Lindsay 

A stunning debut novel of historical fiction set in the forgotten world of New York City’s Jewish orphanages.  In 1919, four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz is placed in the Hebrew Infant Home where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research on the children. Dr. Solomon subjects Rachel to an experimental course of X-ray treatments that establish the doctor’s reputation while risking the little girl’s health.

ORPHAN #8 (William Morrow & Co.) is a deeply moving and deeply personal historical account about the human capacity to harm and to love. I am honored to welcome the lovely Kimberly van Alkemade to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Thanks for being here today, Kim. I am so honored to have you. I’m always so eager to know exactly what sparks an author to delve into the depths of their novels. I understand that some of your interest in the Hebrew Infant Home originated when you began researching your own family history. Can you speak to that, please?

Kim van Alkemade:  Yes, my grandfather grew up in the real Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and it was while I was researching my family history at the Center for Jewish History in New York that I came across the information about the X-ray treatments that had been done to a group of eight children at a different orphanage. The Hebrew Infant Home is my fictional creation inspired by two Jewish orphanages from the 1920s.

L.L.: And so some of the characters from ORPHAN #8 were actually some of your relatives? How was that, fictionalizing your family? I’m always so intrigued as a reader teasing out what might be real and what might be the product of the author’s imagination. How did you decide what true elements to incorporate, and which to let your fiction brain take over?   

Kim van Alkemade:  My great-grandmother Fannie Berger really did work at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. She’s the one whose husband “absconded” as they used to say, leaving her no choice but to take her sons to the orphanage. Other incidents came from my family history, too, such as using Leadville, Colorado as a location because that’s where my real great-grandfather went after he ran off, and it was possible he had tuberculosis so that’s how I came to incorporate Denver and the Jewish tuberculosis hospital there. But in the end, the story has to work, so I had to let go of my allegiance to family history sometimes.

xrayroomL.L.: I found the experiments particularly shocking, given the time-frame, the fact that through much of this story, the world is at war with Germany, and Nazis are conducting their own sinister experiments. In fact, Rachel brings that up to Dr. Solomon, who fervently declines any correlation. Can you speak to that, please?

Kim van Alkemade:  I realized it was impossible to look back on medical research in the 1920s and not see it through the lens of the Holocaust. But for the doctors doing medical research at that time, their intentions and motivations were obviously completely different. I really liked letting Dr. Solomon and Rachel wrangle over this issue. The problem with conflating any kind of medical research like the experiments I depict in the book with Nazi concentration camps is that it blinds us to the fact that here in American similar research continued after World War II, and that we need to remain vigilant against disenfranchised populations being used in this way.

L.L.: Now it’s 1954, and Rachel is a nurse in the hospice wing of the Old Hebrews Home when elderly Dr. Solomon becomes her patient. Realizing the power she holds over the helpless doctor, Rachel embarks on a dangerous experiment of her own design. Was this your goal as a writer all along, to have Rachel make an ethical decision based on her years of unjust, or did it just kind of unfold that way?

Kim van Alkemade: No, I was writing towards this ending the entire time, but the first four drafts just didn’t quite get me where I needed to be. I wanted Rachel to have to make this choice, and to seriously consider both courses of action. I wanted her to know how it felt when the tables were turned. I’m really interested in that emotional state when a person feels so righteously angry and justified but they are not getting the recognition they feel they deserve, how debilitating that emotional state can be.

[Click here to preview the opening chapter of Orphan #8.

L.L.: As I’m reading, I can’t help but think of the PBS/BBC show, “Call the Midwife.” What books, movies, shows inspired your time-period and medical research, which is all done very well, by the way.

Kim van Alkemade: I love “Call the Midwife” and I can see that connection. I’ve been watching “The Knick” on Cinemax which is set in 1910 in New York at a hospital where doctors are very experimental (and addicted to cocaine, but that’s another story). For the medical research, I read as much as I could in the time period. For example, I read Alfred Hess’s 1921 book Scurvy: Past and Preset and I have a copy of the 1920 nursing manual Rachel uses in the book. I often order used old books so I can see how things were written about at the time.  dormitory

L.L.: I’m always curious about what authors believe happen to their characters at the end of the story. Readers sometimes have a different interpretation. If there were an epilogue to ORPHAN #8, what do suppose would come of your characters (without giving away too much)?

Kim van Alkemade: That I really can’t say. My step-dad believes Rachel will have her operation and be cured, but I honestly don’t know. Actually, I do have a draft of a book I’m writing in which Dr. Feldman and his nurse are characters, so I know what happens to them! But I think it’s important to let the story be over where it ends so readers can have their own ideas.

L.L.: Can we ask what else you are working on? More historical fiction, perhaps?

Kim van Alkemade: Yes, more historical fiction, also 1920s New York, and the orphanage is in it but in a completely different way. That’s about all I can say right now!

L.L.: What is obsessing you and why?

Kim van Alkemade: Whatever I am researching obsesses me, so right now that’s the book I’m working on. For example, I have a character who takes the 3rd Avenue Elevated train to work, so I went to the Transit Museum last time I was in the city and got a book about the 3rd Ave El so I’d know where it stopped and what it was like. If anything, I hebreworphanasylumhave to reel in the research or I’d never get to the writing.

L.L. Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?

Kim van Alkemade:  Many people ask how long it took me to write Orphan #8 and the answer is about five years—more if you count from when I started researching the orphanages, but five years of actually working on writing and revising and rewriting.

L.L. Thanks so much for being with us, Kim! And congrats on this stunning examination of orphan life.

Kim van Alkemade:  Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.

Kim van AlkemadeKim van Alkemade is the author of the historical fiction novel Orphan #8 (William Morrow August 4, 2015). Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in literary journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, CutBank, and So To Speak. Born in New York, NY, she earned a BA in English and History from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.She is a Professor in the English Department at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where she teaches writing. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

She spent eight years researching and writing Orphan #8. It all began with her interest in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the institution in which her grandfather, Victor Berger, and his brothers, Charlie and Seymour, grew up. Her great ­grandmother, Fannie Berger, worked at the orphanage, first as a domestic and later as a counselor. Many of the characters and events in Orphan #8 were inspired by her family history.

For more information, or to follow, please see: 

[All images courtesy of author/publicist or from the author’s website, retrieved 8/20/15. Special thanks to K. Steinberg at HarperCollins] 

Write On, Wednesday: Cynthia Swanson on Identity, Grief, Motherhood, and so much more from THE BOOKSELLER


By Leslie Lindsay 

It’s at once delightful, yet haunting; a unique examination of love, loss, and identity. When I came across THE BOOKSELLER by Cynthia Swanson, I was immediately drawn. It might have something to do with that cover—a book Cynthia Swanson The Bookseller Jacketwith a book—well, it’s like a Russian doll of books. Of course, there’s the piece about the blurring of dreams with reality coupled with a historical touch thrusting us back to the early 1960s of Denver, Colorado. Are you smitten yet? I’m pleased to have Cynthia with us today.

L.L.: I’m always so interested in learning about the moment an author ‘knows’ she (or he) has a story. What was your inspiration for THE BOOKSELLER?

Cynthia Swanson: I was at the gym at 10 AM on a Tuesday, with one kid in the gym’s childcare area and two at school. All of the sudden, just for a moment, I wondered what I was doing in my own life. I wondered what happened to the life I’d had not long before – single, living alone with my cat and dog, writing whenever I felt like it, living completely on my own terms. As anyone with a family can tell you, that goes right out the window when kids enter the picture. It got me thinking about a character who was caught between two lives – one who begins to doubt her own reasoning skills in knowing which life is which.

L.L.: I just love how this story is so universal in the sense of that ‘what if,’ question we all ask ourselves, especially mothers. Coupled with that inevitable mommy guilt, grief…well, it was very moving.  Are those the themes you set out to explore?

Cynthia Swanson: Definitely. The book is by no means autobiographical, but I think those themes are shared by many women. We want it all – careers and families – and that’s not easy for anybody, but particularly for women, because we have such high expectations of ourselves. I think it’s interesting that women still struggle with this in 2015, the same as a character might have back in 1963. I think it’s getting better – our ideas of “work” are more creative than they were back then, in terms of job sharing, working from home, and so on – but it’s still a challenge.

L.L.: I had read somewhere that you worked on THE BOOKSELLER in15-minute increments. I’m nodding and smiling because I get it. Those staccato bursts of creativity can be so rejuvenating and fuel the creative process all day. What tips might you give a busy at-home parent who feels overwhelmed with the possibility of writing a novel?

Cynthia Swanson: You just have to get started and keep going. I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s really true. It’s like exercise: any exercise is better than no exercise. Some days all you can manage is a walk around the block. Other days, you get an hour to yourself to go running or biking. Both days are valuable in terms of your physical and mental health. In the same way, shorter creative periods are just as important for your creative health as longer sessions. My other piece of advice would be, when writing a first draft, resist editing as you go. Just get the basic story down, knowing it has issues and big gaping holes. The sense of accomplishment that comes with a finished first draft is what drives me to keep going with subsequent drafts.

L.L.: How about that time period in THE BOOKSELLER? I just loved the combination of the colors (gold and turquoise), the way my imagination filled in shag carpeting, dark paneling, and clean lines of furniture ala Frank Lloyd Wright (though he was a little earlier). How did you decide to set the novel in the early 1960s?
Torquise and gold 2

Cynthia Swanson: When I first started writing THE BOOKSELLER, it was set in the present day. But I quickly realized that it needed a historical setting. Events needed to unfold slowly, in a way that could only happen before our technology-driven society came into being. The 1960s – particularly the early 1960s, before JFK was assassinated – made the perfect setting. That time period had just the right combination of optimism, growth, change – and a sense of nostalgia – to make the story engaging and believable.

L.L.: Full-disclosure—like you, I dreamed of being an architect. But I also liked to write. And complex math made me want to run for the hills. In your opinion, how does fiction and design dovetail? Or, does it?

Cynthia Swanson: I come from a wannabe design background; it’s a hobby and a passion, but not a vocation. I was an architecture major for the first couple years of college, but I kept taking creative writing classes as electives. Finally, an English professor sat me down and told me that while she didn’t know anything about my work as a designer, I was a great writer and no matter what my future held, I should always keep writing. That was so validating for a 20-year-old. I think the two disciplines require some of the same skills. For both, you need to see through another’s eyes. For authors that means understanding a character’s viewpoint, and for designers and architects that means envisioning how clients will use a space.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit—have you read any of the books listed in the bookseller, the ones Kitty sells in her bookshop? What might be your favorite(s)? [I found a lovely listing of those books here

Seven Days in MayWinterSilent Spring 2Green Eggs and Ham

Cynthia Swanson: Yes, I’ve read most of them. Certainly all the kid ones! Of the adult books mentioned, my favorites are Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Like Kitty does, I find Miss Brodie entertaining and engrossing. And like Kitty, I tried to read the Cold War thrillers, but found they weren’t my cup of tea. Maybe someday – but there are a lot of books on my To-Read list, so who knows.

L.L.: What are you working on next?

Cynthia Swanson: I’m deep into writing a second novel. It’s set in the same time period – early 1960s – but it features very different characters and locale. I started working on a first draft after I submitted the final edits of THE BOOKSELLER to Harper. Working on something else at that time kept me from fixating on how my debut might do once it was out in the world. These days, about half my workday is spent on BOOKSELLER promotion and half on the new novel.

L.L.: Is there anything obsessing you now?

Cynthia Swanson: Honestly, it’s that work/life balance. We have two kids who just started middle school and one in third grade, so we’re having to find new rhythms with two schools instead of one. As far as THE BOOKSELLER, I need to keep up the momentum on promoting it, so I think about that a lot. I frequently meet with local book groups who read THE BOOKSELLER, and I have several Denver-area events coming up this fall. (See this more for details.) And the new novel is constantly on my mind.

L.L.: Anything I should have asked, but didn’t?

Cynthia Swanson: I don’t know about “should have” but one thing I’d like to mention is how much I appreciate it when readers recommend THE BOOKSELLER. These days, many of us decide what to read based on Goodreads, Library Thing, Amazon reviews, book bloggers, and social media in general. If you love a book – not just my book, but any book – please take a moment to rate it and/or write a review on your favorite sites, tell your friends, recommend it to your book club. Authors depend on their current books’ popularity in order to keep their careers going and write more books! I’m so grateful for everyone who supports my work, as well as other authors.

L.L.: Thanks so much for being with us today, Cynthia! Such a delight.

Cynthia Swanson: Leslie…thank YOU! 

Cynthia SwansonAuthor Bio: Cynthia Swanson is an author and a designer. Her debut novel The Bookseller was published to critical acclaim in March 2015. She has published short fiction in numerous journals and has been a Pushcart Prize nominee. The hardcover version of The Bookseller is in its second printing in the US, and the novel is being translated into 11 languages. Cynthia lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and children. You can reach her at www.integritymodern.com.

Social Media:

Twitter: @cynswanauthor



[Cover and author images provided by the author and used with permission. Turquoise and gold decor retrieved from pfgrenada.com on 8.29.15 and has no connection to the THE BOOKSELLER or C. Swanson, but is used as illustrative purposes] 

Write On, Wednesday: Margaret McMullan on Honoring the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Maintaining Family Connections, & So Much More


By Leslie Lindsay 

On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed 955 homes of the small coastal town on Pass Christian, Mississippi. With a 28-foot storm surge, the highest recorded in U.S. History, 55-foot waves, and winds reaching 120 mph, the down was wiped off the map–at least temporarily. cover-standard-aftermathlounge-285x380

Meanwhile, I was experiencing my own little whirlwind at the time: new motherhood. Tucked in the insular little community of Northfield, Minnesota, we weren’t affected by the tumultuous winds of Katrina, but the late-night feedings and wailings of “Baby Kate.” Still, we heard devastating stories of how lives were upturned at the hands of the greedy sea, the FEMA tents, the floating coffins in watery graves. Our hearts ached.

Today, I am honored to share a virtual cup of coffee with award-winning author Margaret McMullan as she describes the small town historic jewel of Pass Christian, the witness of small acts of heroism, and a compelling tribute to the residents of the Gulf Coast.

Leslie Lindsay: Aftermath Lounge honors the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Can you tell us about your experience during those days when the storm hit?

Margaret McMullan: Shortly after the storm hit, my husband and I drove down from Evansville, Indiana to Pass Christian, Mississippi. We saw aerial footage of the town and we could see that the roof on my parents’ house was mostly intact – that’s all we could see. We brought water and a lot of supplies to donate. There was a gas shortage then, and limited cell phone coverage. The closer we came to the town, the more it became like a war zone. The National Guard was there to keep people away, but we got through, thanks to a relative.

The night before we left, my mother told us to forget about everything else — all she really wanted was the painting of her mother, which had been smuggled out of Vienna during WWII. We had house keys but there were no doors. When we got there, the house was gutted – the storm surge had essentially ripped through the house. We put on rubber gloves and spent the day sifting through the debris, dragging out any salvageable pieces of furniture. The water had shoved through the closed shutters, plowed up under the foundation and tore open the back walls, bashing around the furniture, sinks, toilets, stoves, washers, driers. We never did find the painting. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a wonderful villanelle called “One Art.” She wrote about losing small items like keys and an hour badly spent, then she progresses to the greater losses — her mother’s watch, a house, cities, rivers, a continent, and finally, a loved one.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she starts. “So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I thought of that poem a lot.

L.L.: Your family played a key role, helping Pass Christian rebuild. What were a few moments that influenced you during that time?

Margaret McMullan: We saw so many people from all walks of life and they were suddenly homeless. My father organized financial donations. There were no fire trucks left after the storm, so he made sure Pass Christian got a fire truck. We were always big supporters of the library too. The Pass Christian Policemen had stayed during the storm to make sure everyone was safe. They had tried to stay safe in the library, but then when the water rose, they had to shoot out the windows to swim away to safety. I used that information in the title story of Aftermath Lounge. These men were real heroes.cover-standard-everyfathersdaughter-285x380

L.L.: Did you know from the moment the storm hit that someday you would write a novel about it? Or did a later experience give you the idea? If so, can you share?

Margaret McMullan: At first I just witnessed. I think that’s what writers do mostly. We witness. Then the material lets us know what it wants to become. I just took notes. Later stories started taking shape and they were all in different voices. It was the only way I could work at this material.

L.L: Part of your inspiration for the novel came from your family’s beautiful mansion. How did your own experiences in that house shape each of the stories you wrote?

Margaret McMullan: Well, it’s hardly a mansion, but I was surprised to discover just how much a house could mean. Everyone always says it’s just stuff, but there were so many collective memories there. When we stood and looked at everything so undone, it felt like our times spent there were gone too. Katrina had such a huge impact on the coast, on my family, and on me. I am always telling my students to write what they most care about, to write what keeps them up at night.

I had to write about Katrina. I had written about the Civil War, Reconstruction and WWII, so I saw Katrina as an historical event. I treated the hurricane more as setting. It’s in the background. The human drama is in the forefront. I’m always interested in what people do or don’t do in the face of real catastrophe. I didn’t want to write from one point of view either. I wanted to give voice to a variety of people because Katrina affected everyone.Pass Christian

L.L.: What was your writing process like for this novel? Did you know from the start it would be a novel in stories? Or did that become apparent only after you began writing?

Margaret McMullan: There were so many news stories coming out at the time. I write nonfiction, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together. I couldn’t make sense of anything. Out of habit, I took a lot of notes. I could only deal with writing about all that was happening a little bit at a time. And my own personal story just wasn’t that interesting. I personally witnessed and experienced the best in human nature. People and communities came together and helped one another in the most meaningful way. They endured with a great deal of kindness and grace. So I chipped away at the material. I wanted to tell a community’s story.

L.L. Wow–what a powerful, and important undertaking. I just loved it. The stories are still with me.Thank you, Margaret. 

Margaret McMullan: Thank you!Southern Home

Upcoming Events: 

SEPTEMBER 10 | 12:30 PM1:45 PM

University of Missouri-St. Louis


Inklings Book Group, Unnamed Venue, Evansville, IN


Kaskaskia College, Unnamed Venue, Centralia, IL

Margaret McMullan

Bio: Margaret McMullan is the author of six award-winning novels including In My Mother’s House(St. Martin’s Press), Sources of Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),Cashay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and How I Found the Strong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Her writing has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Ploughshares, Southern Accents, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quar erly Review, The Sun, and many other publications. She received an NEA Fellowship in literature for Aftermath Lounge and a Fulbright award to teach at the University of Pécs in Pécs, Hungary, for her upcoming non-fiction work, Where the Angels Live.  Her anthology of essays by 25 well-known female authors writing about their fathers, Every Father’s Daughter (McPherson & Company), is also available in Spring 2015. She currently holds the Melvin Peterson Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
For more information, or to read an excerpt, please visit Ms. McMullan’s website
Find my AFTERMATH LOUNGE review on GoodReads


  • Twitter: @margaretmcmulla
  • Hashtag #aftermathlounge

“…a diverse gallery of characters grapple with their lives in Katrina’s aftermath…McMullan opted for fiction to deal with the emotional truths of the lives impacted.” Read full review.

– Chicago Tribune

[Special thanks to PRbytheBook. Author and cover images courtesy of publicist. Pass Christian sign and home retrieved from Huffington Post on 8.42.15] 

Write On, Wednesday: Deb Caletti on her newest book for adults: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS


By Leslie Lindsay 

You may know her from the award-winning YA fiction she’s churned out. You may know her from her 2013 Secrets-She-Keeps_Caletti-193x300psychological suspense debut for adults, HE’S GONE [excerpt and more information here], or you just may know Deb Caletti because she’s been a judge for the National Book Awards.  In her “spare” time, she loves to paint, travel and spend time with her kids. And maybe mosey around in some lovely pink cowboy boots. Simply put, this gal is busy.  I’m honored to welcome Deb back to the blog. So, grab a Moscow Mule. Or coffee, depending on what time of day you’re reading, and come along with a journey to the 1950s “Divorce Ranches” of Reno, Nevada.

L.L.: Deb, thanks so much for popping back over to the blog couch. I’m honored to have . I just finished reading THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS and promptly had to run out and order a Mule. Not the kind that is a cross between a horse and a donkey, but the kind with ginger beer and a few other tasty things. That’s what I call “immersive fiction.” What other fun foods did you get a—let’s say, hankerin’ for—while writing SECRETS?

Deb Caletti:  I have to admit, I had to get the copper mugs so I could make Mules at home.  They are so delicious and refreshing!  The ladies knew how to do it right.  But I did crave other foods from the book, too, and not just from the storyline of the past.  My main character, Callie, and her sister, Shaye, are at the ranch of today, struggling with their own issues of marriage, family, and the passage of time.  While there, they reminisce about the lost things from their childhood, and Shaye starts cooking all the food of their youth.  So, yes – veal cutlets (from the time when we forgot to think about what veal was)!  The frying of them in the novel made me both remember them and crave them.  The sisters also do quite a lot of snacking, and once they started in on those Fritos, I needed to start in on some Fritos.

L.L.: Okay, in all honesty, that was kind of a silly question. Here’s a more serious one: what sparked your interest for the setting of this book?

Deb Caletti:  A few years before I started writing the novel, I’d come across a single line in a book that mentioned the term, “divorce ranch.”  Having never heard it before, I looked it up.  Divorce ranches operated in the 1930’s to early 1950’s in Nevada.  High-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such ranches for six weeks to establish residency in the state, in order to secure divorces that were impossible to get elsewhere.  Often, this was called, “The Six-Week Cure,” or, alternately, “Getting Reno-vated.”

After learning about the ranches and the transformative experiences that were had when women gathered together there, I was intrigued.  But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer-moments where your heart beats fast and you think: This.  Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages supporting each other and attempting to understand themselves and their relationships. The setting – the ranch itself (in today’s time and in its glamorous past) and the sweeping vistas of its locale were a place I wanted to spend some time in.

[To read an excerpt from THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS and find out more about the ranches, click here.]

L.L.:  So these “Divorce Ranches” were actual places women would travel, become residents for the six-weeks required before they could legally procure a divorce, head back to wherever their lives were, and sort of “wash their hands” of the man who sent them there. What happened to the ranches? Are they part of the Wild West “ghost towns” we hear so much about?Bust1

L.L.: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a bifurcated novel in which you weave together two women’s lives, two different time periods, similar secrets, failing marriages, and an overarching camaraderie of women. Was this your plan all along, or did it sort of evolve as you wrote?Deb Caletti:  No, they aren’t a part of ghost towns.  Most are in the Reno vicinity.  Some have become working ranches again, or have remained in the families who owned them.  Many began as working ranches, but when the divorce business boomed, they became divorce ranches for this brief period of nearly-forgotten history.  Of course, as divorce laws changed in other parts of the country, ranches for soon-to-be divorcees were no longer necessary.  

Deb Caletti: It was my plan all along.  What seemed most important thematically, as well as what was most important to my main character, Callie, who is struggling with a marriage of many years, was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love.  The dual time periods underscore this.  Divorce laws have changed, and so have the daily pieces of our lives – the food, the music, the mores, the openness, the technology, our understanding of the land around us – yet the big pieces remain the same.  How do we manage our relationships to the people we love over the years?  How do we make good decisions about love and partnership?  How do we weigh what’s best for ourselves and other people?  How do we sisters and friends support one another through the hard stuff?  How do we deal with our grief over the passage of time and how life marches forward?  Love, marriage, family, sisterhood, the ticking clock – they are all ageless struggles.

L.L.: Is there a character’s story you felt particularly drawn to; someone’s chapter you couldn’t wait to write?EP-140419800

Deb Caletti: Every character has a bit of the author in them, I think, even the villainous ones.  But I was most looking forward to exploring Callie’s issues of longtime marriage.  Her children have just left home.  When her youngest daughter gets on a plane, she says, “For a second, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I was at a total loss.  Thomas and I just stood there together like we were college freshman just dropped off by their parents and assigned to room together.”  There’s this whole piece of a marriage that comes as children grow older, when a couple mourns what was and then must figure out what comes next.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline, or follow the pen?

Deb Caletti: I call it “free falling.”  I generally know where I’m starting and where I’m ending up.  The trip along the way is a process of discovery.  This method is much like life itself, and I like that.  There are surprises and pitfalls, but, for me, the story has a natural evolution this way. Don’t you sometimes wish you could outline life and have it follow that plan, though?  It might be pretty dull, but it also sounds awesome.

L.L.: What are you working on next?

Deb Caletti: I’ve just finished my next novel for young adults called Essential Maps for the Lost, coming in April of next year.  My fingers have started tap-tapping on my next novel for adults (coming 2017).

L.L.: Is there anything obsessing you now?

Deb Caletti: Since reading Hampton Sides’ fantastic In the Kingdom of Ice I’ve been on a huge polar exploration/disaster-at-sea book binge.  After KINGDOM came Erik Larson’s DEAD WAKE, books on Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions (ENDURANCE, and others), various Titanic reads, and then PIRATE HUNTERS.  You never know what will sweep you up.  The stacks of books in my office grow while I sleep, I’m sure. 

L.L.: What do you hope others take away from THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS? I’ll tell you my take-away, and it’s kind of silly one, but it resonated nonetheless: “Daily life snatched things from a couple. Mattress sales stole intrigue; shirts ruined by that damn spot of bleach grabbed desire and wrung its scrawny neck.”

Deb Caletti: I guess I can answer that with my own quote, my intended take-away:

No life was ever ordinary, and no story of love was, either, not even mine.  Whether tragic or commonplace, each attempt at the damn thing, each shot at love and life itself was brave.  Every effort at it was flawed and messy, complicated, oh yes, occasionally triumphant, often painful, because how else could it be?  Look at the mission we were given, look at the stunning, impossible mission – imperfect love in the face of loss.  Any sane person with the facts would turn their back on a mission like that.  And yet we loved, of course we did…  The courage that took – there was nothing ordinary about that.” 

L.L.: Ahh…thanks for being with us, Deb! We so enjoyed it.

Deb Caletti: Thanks for having me, Leslie!

5x7_to_useBio: Deb Caletti is an award-winning author and a National Book Award finalist whose books—He’s Gone; Honey, Baby, Sweetheart; The Queen of Everything; The Secret Life of Prince Charming—are published and translated worldwide. She lives with her family in Seattle.

For more information or to follow: 

Twitter: @debcaletti

Facebook: Deb Caletti

Instagram: @debcaletti

Read Deb’s essay on divorce ranches/The 6-week Cure via Random House here. 

[Author and cover images courtesy of Ms.Caletti’s publicist, M. Oberrender 6-Week Cure image retrieved from on 8.18.15, Flying Me image retrieved from on 8.18.15]

Write On, Wednesday: The Fabulous Erika Swyler of the Amazing BOOK OF SPECULATION


By Leslie Lindsay 

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I did. And I’m in love. With both. THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is gorgeous, inside and out. A woman clad in a deep teal dress clutches a stack of antique books at her hips. The pages are yellowed and ragged, and indented with finger grooves reminiscent of old-fashioned dictionaries. Seriously, the cover art is so spectacularly striking; I just may leave it on my coffee table as a work of art. Today, I’m honored to have debut novelist Erika Swyler with us. Pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee and come along for the journey.

L.L.: Erika, thanks so much for joining us today! I’m always so intrigued by what sparks a story for a writer. What three elements would you say collided in your writing world that propelled you to write THE BOOK OF SPECULATION?

Erika Swyler: Thanks very much for inviting me! It’s hard to put a finger on the exact moment that birthed this particular book, but as with most things, I think it was brought about by sudden change. Shortly after graduating college, I lived at home for six months. It was a weird time. I was facing the fact that I wasn’t good enough to pursue a career as an actor, grieving my father who had passed away the prior year, and once again living in my childhood home. I was home, but I was also displaced. The town where I grew up is also right on the Long Island Sound where there’s a constant struggle against land erosion. It’s beautiful and vulnerable. That’s book fodder, right there. It just took a long time to figure it out.

L.L.: So the book is really a complex family saga with a lot of folklore, mysticism, and ultimately erosion—of water, of family, of homes, and land. Can you talk a bit about that? What do you hope readers take away from those themes?

Erika Swyler: It’s an odd writer who uses erosion as plotline, right? But what I’m asking people to do is think about themselves, their lives and their families, in a larger sense of time and history. Years ago I read Graham Swift’s Waterland, and the way he entwined his characters with the land resonated with me. It posited that personal history is as essential as world history, and all of it is tied to land. This got me thinking about how we tell these personal stories—through oral histories, folklore—and what that looks like. The most painful parts of personal histories often get mythologized, and through that storytelling people find healing, or even a sense of wonder. I’m hoping readers are able look at themselves and with an eye towards time and history, and to think about the ordinary with that same sense of wonder. It would brilliant if people left the book thinking about their concept of family and what it means to them. But, I’m delighted if they simply enjoy the story.

L.L.: I am so very amazed at your knowledge of the Tarot. I know virtually nothing. Well, I’ve had my palm read once at a Renaissance Fair…does that count? Are you blessed with psychic abilities yourself? How did you learn so much about fortune tellers?

Erika Swyler: Getting your palm read absolutely counts. I’ve had mine read. A very nice man told me that water rules my life and that all my creativity comes from it. I wonder if he Googled me. When I was in school I was fascinated by Tarot (like so many college girls). When we’re feeling the most insecure we grasp at things give direction, especially if it’s direction from “the universe.” Tarot was great fun and I fell in love with the art. When it came time to find a way for my mute character to speak, Tarot was a natural fit because at heart, it’s a symbolic language. I dove
into all my old books on it, found new ones, and got my hands on whatever decks I could. I may have had to make a trip or two to witchcraft shops, but I’m no psychic. I’ve written some things that have come true—my life has come to mirror Simon’s in a ways that would have shocked me when I started writing The Book of Speculation. Mostly I think that’s because people write about life, and life has certain common story threads.

L.L.: I absolutely adore the feel of the book. The edges of the pages are ragged…there’s that stunning cover…and your very own illustrations! Wow. As I’m reading this, I’m looking back on the front matter and pleased I own first edition. How did your art work evolve and did you need to convince a publisher to include it?

Erika Swyler: Oh, I love the deckle edge on the hardback. Deckle edges ask you to take time with a book, don’t they? Oddly enough, St. Martin’s had to convince me to include the illustrations. The artwork started as a way to engage editors. I sent out a very unusual manuscript when I was searching for a publisher. Essentially, I sent an art object. I figured that if someone connected with it, they’d likely connect with the story inside. I hand bound, aged, tea stained and gilded sixteen copies of the manuscript so that it looked like the old book in that Simon, my protagonist, receives. Between the pages, I nestled tea stained illustrations mentioned in the story, and distressed tarot cards. This way anyone reading it would experience what Simon did when he receives this strange old book. I didn’t realize that I was actually illustrating a novel. St. Martin’s bought the art as well as the story, and I was floored. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d been presenting the illustrations as part of the book. Obviously, that’s exactly what I’d done, but I’m always the last to know what I’m up to. erika-swyler-2

L.L.: The book is receiving lots of praise. Lots! What can you tell us about maintaining your humility, confidence, and efforts on the next novel. Does it make you more or less nervous when you sit down at the desk?

Erika Swyler: For every one person who loves a book there are always five more lined up to tell you it’s a heap, so staying humble isn’t too difficult. I’m stunned at the reception, honestly. This book spent a long time in a desk drawer. I was certain that no one but my mother would read it. That so many people have responded so positively towards it is a gift I couldn’t have imagined. It’s difficult to finally put these characters to bed. I think it takes a long time for the voices of your last book to quiet down and let new characters announce themselves. That said, there are new characters I’m figuring out. It’s interesting in that it’s a bit like learning to write all over again. I wouldn’t say that I’m more nervous when I sit down at the desk, but I’m definitely more aware of how long I might have to live with a character. That’s a little intimidating. I have to ask myself, “Do you really want to get into all that, Swyler?” Sometimes I really don’t. Oh, and I’m more mindful of accents now. Writing characters with accents is great fun, but it eventually gives public readings an unnecessary layer of difficulty. My Russian accent is bad. Really, really bad.

L.L: Okay…maybe I should back up a bit. Can you give us a glimpse as to what you are working on next?

Erika Swyler: Sure. I’m in the very early stages of a new project. It’s set in Florida in 1986. It’s centered on the relationship between an inventor father and his science-minded daughter. I’m playing around with concepts about space and time. So, nothing major.

L.L.: I keep thinking of that first chapter of Wild Boy…as his creator, do you have any—dare I say, speculation—of what became of his parents?  Why they did what they did?

Erika Swyler: It’s so easy to hate them, isn’t it? That’s because we’re applying our modern sensibilities to a

situation that doesn’t have our contemporary options. Eunice misses her son until the day she dies. I think she’s haunted by the memory of Amos’s scent in the same way he keeps dreaming of the smell of home. I’m certain there’s a draft with that scene in it lying somewhere in my office. Being a woman in that era Eunice couldn’t have much say in her husband’s decision to abandon Amos. This is still a time of public shaming. Her husband’s decision is based on Amos looking like his biological father, the lack of speech, and being a visual reminder of his wife’s infidelity. I wish I could say he was miserable, but as a domineering white man, he likely died fat and happy. Oh, wow. That’s terrible. Forget I said that. He died of an abscessed tooth. Really awful, drawn-out, excruciating pain. There. I feel better now.

L.L.: Thanks for being here today, Erika! We so enjoyed it.

Erika Swyler: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.

erika author photo bj enrightErika Swyler is a writer living in Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro, various anthologies, and most recently The New York Times. The Book of Speculation is her first novel. Find her on twitter at @ErikaSwyler, or at erikaswyler.com.

[Author image credit BJ Enright. Circus carriage retrieved from www.circushistory.org on 8.5.15. Tarot card image from Wikipedia on 8.5.15. Author at work retrieved from http://www.momadvice.com/post/sundays-with-writers-the-book-of-speculation-by-erika-swyler 8.13.15]