Wednesdays with Writers: Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker talks about the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK), the evolution of sex work, how our justice system isn’t always fighting, his forthcoming book, and more in his true-crime narrative LOST GIRLS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY top ten book of 2013 about an infamous Long Island serial killer (LISK).

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Award-winning investigative reporter, Robert Kolker delves into the LOST GIRLS like someone writing fiction. LOST GIRLS (Harper, 2013) is  deeply researched and backstories of all the girls (who worked as on-line escorts) are explored. For this, I found the writing very compelling and humanizing. Kolker goes back, way back, to the origins of these girls’ lives, namely foster care and other challenging situations. We see how easy it might be to fall into the throes of prostitution: drugs, drama, death, dollars…it seems like an easy way to make a buck.

That would be the first quarter or so of the book. The next half or so is about how these girls–Melissa, Maureen, Megan, Amber, Shannan go missing, end up dead. Is there a serial killer on the loose? Is it just coincidence that their bodies all wash up on the same Oak Beach shore, could it be that death is the fate of sex workers? It’s hard to say. Kolker does an exceptional job of giving a clear and unbiased portrait of each girls’ family. 

And then we dive into the forensics of the matter. There are some ‘whodunit’ moments and cast of suspects, but no one seems to be talking.

Please join  me in welcoming Bob Kolker to the blog couch as we chat about this deeply researched, yet completely unsettling, true crime tale.

Leslie Lindsay: Bob, it’s great to have you. I know LOST GIRLS is a work of nonfiction about five women connected by the same criminal investigation—a suspected serial killer (or killers) operating in Long Island from about 1996 until about 2010. What struck you about this case that you had to dive in? Is it your geographic proximity, being in Brooklyn, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Thanks, Leslie—I’m glad to have the chance to talk about LOST GIRLS.

I first learned about the five women in LOST GIRLS while covering the case of the Long Island serial killer for New York magazine in early 2011, shortly after the first four bodies were discovered along a desolate stretch of highway near the southern coast. By then, people who followed the headlines knew that the five women all connected by this case were oddly similar: petite, in their twenties, and working as escorts online. But when I started to learn more about these women’s lives, and I saw that everything that society might commonly assume about them was wrong. They weren’t social outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families—their mothers and sisters, and, in some cases, ex-husbands and children. What they had in common, I discovered, was that they all came from parts of the country the media overlooks—poor, struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow has become a valid, almost normal option. 

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What started as reporting on crime and murder became also about misogyny and class, and the shocking differences in how our criminal justice system treats the rich and poor. While I hoped the book would maintain visibility for the case, I also hoped the LOST GIRLS would help explain why these women where more than just what the media was painting them as. I wanted to find out why they felt they had to work in the shadows to survive—and to explain how the shadows sadly became the perfect place for a killer to find them.

L.L.: LOST GIRLS is such an intricate web of drugs, death, drama, and yet you find a way for readers to ‘get to know’ these girls, their families of origin, and little quirks about them. Can you tell us what your research process was like?

Bob Kolker: I’m very lucky to have had spent 17 years as a writer of feature and cover stories at New York magazine, where I got a lot of experiencing interviewing vulnerable sources for articles involving a variety of sensitive issues, including sexual abuse, the loss of family members on 9/11, and the police shooting of Sean BellIn each case, I do what I can to be sensitive and even empathetic in my reporting, while retaining the impartiality and distance that is required for responsible storytelling. That’s a challenging line to walk, but I’m grateful to have a lot of experience walking that line.

When I approached the women’s families about a book, I made it clear that I considered it my responsibility to move beyond the headlines and present complete portraits of each woman. I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  It took a lot of time, but I’m very grateful to all of the families for their candor and trust.

“[Lost Girls‘s] sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker’s lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you’re reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
                                                                       – Dwight Garner, The New York Times

L.L.: We should back up a little and say, the women all involved were sex workers. In the late-1990s and early 2000s, the industry shifted a bit with the introduction of the Internet. Now prostitutes/call girls/escorts could lure johns anonymously through on-line ads on Craigslist and also Backpage. Since LOST GIRLS was published in 2013, how do you see that Internet sex world evolving? And do you believe the investigation would have been handled differently if the women weren’t sex workers?

Bob Kolker: You’re totally right that the Internet has revolutionized sex work. There’s no need to walk down a dark street anymore to be a sex worker, or to have a pimp, or to work for an escort service that takes most of your earnings. You don’t ever have to leave your own house. And so more women who lead more or less normal lives are often drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise. All five women I wrote about grew up in families where, in the social sense, prostitution was not seen as a move up. And yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves.

Since LOST GIRLS was published, the sex work conversation has gone mainstream, with cover stories about legalizing prostitution in the New York Times Magazine and New York magazine.  I’ve seen the coverage of serial-killer cases skew more toward treating the victims as real people and not stock characters in some police procedural. And the inequities of the criminal justice system are getting a lot more attention now, from media outlets like The Marshall Project. If LOST GIRLS played some part in that, I’m of course very happy.

But to answer your question: Yes. I absolutely believe that if these women came from a different social strata, the police would have taken their disappearances more seriously and worked to find them and solve their murders more aggressively. That aspect of the mystery is, at least to me, not unsolved. It’s crystal clear.LostGirls_AF

L.L.:  There are new developments in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) case. In 2016, Shannan Gilbert’s younger sister killed her mother in cold-blood, it appears. The sister was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and pleaded insanity. Shannan was believed to be bipolar. Does mental illness factor in to this case at all?

Bob Kolker: I continue to follow the case closely, and while there are still no suspects, there’s always something new happening. I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore, but I certainly was brought low by Mari Gilbert’s [Shannan’s mother] murder. Mari is a major character in LOST GIRLS, which of course reflects how large she loomed in real life. She had worked so hard to get justice for her daughter Shannan, and for the police to treat all of the victims with respect and dignity. That her mentally ill daughter Sarra ended up killing her while experiencing delusions seems worse than unfair. Many have suggested that mental illness was something that Sarra shared with Shannan. I’m concerned that might be too pat an explanation for why Shannan disappeared: Just saying Shannan was crazy lets a lot of culpable people off the hook.

I’m also paying special attention to the case of James Burke, the police official in Suffolk County who was jailed recently after rising up to the department’s top spot, even though it was widely known just how jaw-droppingly corrupt he was. It seems clear that Burke worked to keep the FBI away from the LISK case, presumably because the feds were investigating him for various abuses and he didn’t want them anywhere near him. Imagine if the FBI had been able to help earlier. Maybe we’d have a suspect by now. There’s no telling what effect the corruption of the Suffolk County justice system had on this case.download (54)L.L.: There’s also the mystery of Dr. Peter Hackett, and his involvement in Shannan’s disappearance. According to the investigation, Shannan knocked in his beach cottage door demanding help. He denies this. But then he’s also called her mother offering condolences. It seems he’s hiding something. He’s since moved from Long Island and is living in Florida. It seems to me that the authorities would have their guy if bodies stopped piling up on Oak Beach now that he’s not there. But perhaps it’s not that simple?

Bob Kolker:  The police never seemed to take Hackett serious as a suspect, but he certainly seems to be at the center of the events at Oak Beach on the night of Shannan Gilbert’s disappearance. I have an exclusive interview with Hackett in LOST GIRLS, and you can see in our conversation how he seems to dissemble even when asked the simplest, most verifiable questions. I am convinced that Hackett and other neighbors at Oak Beach are hiding something important about what happened to Shannan that night. I think we’d have much to learn from what they know.

As for the overall serial killer case, I’m as astonished as anyone that the police don’t have stronger leads, though that may well be because no one took these women’s disappearances seriously when they first vanished. I’m concerned that this might be a case that’s resolved five or ten or fifteen years later after someone confesses. That seems to happen a lot in serial killer cases. But it’s terrible that the perpetrator is still out there. I hope for an arrest as soon as possible. And I also hope for a greater understanding of what made these women so vulnerable to a predator. Their case is still very much alive, and readers can keep that in mind as they sift through all the clues themselves in LOST GIRLS.

L.L.: I could ask questions all day about the case, but I want to know more about your next book, HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD about a mid-century family who has a virulent string of schizophrenia in their family. How did you stumble across this find and what message do you hope to impart?

Bob Kolker: I’ve been very privileged to be interviewing a large family about everything they went through as mental illness tore through their lives at a moment when even less was known about mental illness than is known now. This family’s case was significant enough to be studied by NIH, but no one has told their story before. Along the way, I’ll also be telling the broader story of science’s search for the causes of schizophrenia. I hope this book does a little of what LOST GIRLS did, which is to offer readers a pathway into a world not quite like their own.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Bob Kolker:  My family just adopted a puppy. We did it kind of on impulse, which is very unlike us. None of us have had a dog before, either, so we’re freaking out and delighted all at the same time (shhh, it’s nap time).   On the literary side, I’ve loved Megan Abbott’s YOU WILL KNOW ME and Adam Sternbergh’s THE BLINDS.

L.L.: Bob, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? What you had for breakfast, what’s on your wish list this holiday season, your favorite book, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Once I stop researching my current book, I can’t wait to read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann.

 

For more information about the book, to connect with Bob via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOST GIRLS, please see:

KolkerAuthorPhoto.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls, named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2013. As a journalist, his work has appeared in New York magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Oprah, and Men’s Journal. He is a National Magazine Award finalist and a recipient of the Harry Frank Guggenheim 2011 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of R. Kolker and used with permission. PEOPLE magazine image retrieved from author’s website, girls in case retrieved from Boston Globe books in a row from Amazon, ‘reading is my superpower’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.18.17] 

 

WeekEND Reading: Gayle Brandeis talks about her new memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, her mother’s suicide, the juxtaposition of life and death, mental illness, STRANGER THINGS 2, books she’s reading, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Razor-sharp, raw, poetic memoir about mothers and daughters, suicide, mental illness, and grief.

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Gayle Brandeis’s mother disappeared shortly after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child, Asher. Several days later, her body was found hanging in the utility closet of parking garage of an apartment building for the elderly.

THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is a gorgeous read about a less-glamorous time. Gayle is struggling with grief and heartache, as well as the soupy surreal time of postpartum. Gayle takes this dichotomy of death and birth and weaves it into a coherent, poetic narrative that brings readers into the grief experience.

What’s more is the family history surrounding a series of bizarre medical symptoms that often masked themselves as psychoses. Or was it psychosis, after all? It’s hard to say because the symptoms tend to overlap: delusions, paranoia, factitious disordersfactitious disorders; Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, porphyria. For the last few years of Gayle’s mother’s life, she was working on a documentary about these
disorders, called THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS. Gayle takes that script and braids it, along with her own feelings and experiences into the narrative. images (23)

Be sure to watch the stunning book trailer here: 

I found the writing clear and glittery, the medical mystery fascinating, but most of all–I wondered, what really happened?

From the back cover: 

“Written by a gifted stylist, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS delves into the tangled mysteries of the disease, mental illness, and suicide, and comes out the other side with grace.”

I am so, so honored to welcome Gayle to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Gayle, I find your story so important and so honest and I thank you for sharing it with us. Like you, I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother. Like you, I lost her to suicide a little over two years ago. I dont have to ask what was haunting you when you set out to write THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS; I know. But I am curious about what kept you going with the writing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much, Leslie—I’m so grateful for your kind words and so happy to appear on your blog. I’m sorry that you are part of this suicide loss survivor club, too—it’s not a community I’d wish on anyone, but I very much appreciate connecting with other survivors. Our stories are so often kept in the shadows, and I think when we share this complicated form of grief, we can help reduce stigma, help release shame. That was part of what drove me, but what drove me on a more personal level was the compulsion to dig and dig and dig until I could come to some place of understanding—or, if not understanding, at least a place of greater peace—with my mom, her life as well as her death. I wanted to make some kind of sense out of the chaos.

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L.L.: While THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is as much about death as it is birth. Your youngest son, Asher was born just a week before your mother took her life. You share several beautiful passages in the narrative about Asher/Ashes/Ash/er/es []  its very poignant and also a nod to grief; I think we often grasp at small connections as our mind absorbs loss. We want to make sense of the tragedy.  You also share a really strong image of your sister carrying your mothers ashes in one hand and Asher in his car seat in another arm. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of life and death?

Gayle Brandeis: Life and death are always around us, of course—cue “The Circle of Life” music!—but losing my mom a week after giving birth drove that home in such an intense way. That moment where my sister was walking down the hall holding my baby Asher at the same times he was holding our mom’s ashes, embodies that juxtaposition so perfectly for me, the beginning and end of life in her hands (and realizing those two words—Asher, Ashes—are just one letter apart; just one breath apart, as I write in the book). Having a new baby kept me from running off the rails, I think—I’m so grateful he brought his ray of light to ground us and bring joy through that painful time. I’m very glad I took notes as it was all happening because both grief and giving birth can give one a kind of amnesia—some part of me must have known that, and took notes to guard against this double whammy. Those notes helped greatly once I was ready to write this story—they brought me right back to the intensity of the experience, of holding the reverberations of grief and birth in my body all at once.

L.L.: Shifting gears a bit to the medical side of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSISyour mother believed she (and  your family) suffered from a couple of rare medical syndromes: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and also porphyria. Later, theres mention of factitious disorder and malingering syndrome. You had me Googling all kinds of things! Can you break down what you understand about these illnesses, please?

Gayle Brandeis: I feel like I still don’t understand as much about Ehlers-Dalos syndrome and porphryria as my mom had wanted me to. Both are genetic disorders; Ehlers-Danlos is a connective tissue disorder which has a several manifestations—the most common seem to be the hyper mobility type, in which joints are extra loose, and the vascular type, which affects blood vessels (as well as other parts of the body) and can lead to issues like rupture of the aorta (my mom felt certain that this type ran in the family). Just in the last couple of years, several people I know have been diagnosed with EDS, or a family member has, or it’s been suspected by doctors, so it’s possible that my mom was right when she believed it’s not a rare disease, just rarely diagnosed. Porphyria is a metabolic disorder that has all sorts of physical and mental presentations, including some pretty wild ones, like a thirst for blood and “werewolfism”; it may be what drove King George “mad” (and thus helped America become America.) There is something kind of mythic about it, although of course it leads to very real suffering. As I mention in the book, I was kind of disappointed when it turned out I didn’t have porphyria, after all—if I had to be chronically ill (and of course I would rather not be!), that was an interesting illness to be associated with.

Factitious disorders were a more recent discovery for me. In the book, as you know, I talk about how I prolonged my illness for a year after it went into remission when I was a teenager because I didn’t know how not to be “the sick girl”—it had become my identity. A few years ago, a friend mentioned the word “malingering” and I knew I had heard it but didn’t fully understand what it meant; when I looked it up and discovered that it meant gaining some sort of reward from pretending to be ill, I thought, well, that’s what I was doing as a teenager. I later learned, though, that those who malinger get some sort of material benefit from their charade—money, etc.—but those with factitious disorders get their reward directly from the experience of being ill and the attention it inspires. That struck home all the more. The most serious form of this is Munchausen syndrome (named for Baron von Munchausen, a character who made up outlandish tales); there’s also Munchausen by proxy, in which a person, often a mother, will make someone else, often their child, ill through a variety of means. My mom didn’t have Munchausen by proxy, but our relationship as “the sick girl” and “the mother of the sick girl” was definitely an unhealthy and co-dependent one.

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L.L.: And yet, and yet…at times your mother seemed to suffer from some kind of mental illness. As I read, several diagnoses came to mind: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, narcissism. What do you think was really going on?

Gayle Brandeis: It is still wild and ironic to me that I went out of my way to appear ill when I wasn’t and she refused to acknowledge she had mental illness when she did. After doing my own research and interviewing psychiatrists, it seems likely that she had a paranoid delusional disorder, which is different from schizophrenia and is apparently incredibly hard to treat. Even if she had ever been properly diagnosed, it’s unlikely there would have been a medication or other therapy that could have significantly  helped. Learning this was a relief in a way—I had been beating myself up, wondering what I could have done differently, how I could have helped her more, and when a psychiatrist I interviewed said there really isn’t anything I could have done, it helped me let go of some of the guilt I had been carrying. I do think she had narcissistic personality disorder, as well—the world very much revolved around her.

L.L.: THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS teeters between time periods and also is told, in part, by letters you wrote to your mother after her death at the urging of your therapist. There are a million ways you could have structured this narrative. How is that you decided on this structure?

Gayle Brandeis: The structure evolved as I worked on the book. The letter my therapist suggested I write to my mom was something I truly had started writing for myself alone, and as I delved into my history with my mom, at some point I realized that this letter could provide a deeper context for our relationship in the book, since the present tense narration around her suicide was urgent and immediate and didn’t really allow for that kind of reflection. The film transcription came in a bit later in the process—I had decided to borrow my mom’s title but I hadn’t considered using the film itself in the memoir, mostly because I hadn’t been ready to watch it after her death. Once I did let myself view it, I realized that braiding the film into the book could give my mom a chance to speak for herself on the page. And the research elements came in naturally, too—they were part of my investigation and it made sense to weave them in. It seems fitting that the story ended up being told in a complicated, fragmented way—it mirrors how complicated grief after suicide can be (but it also allowed me to create form out of chaos in a very satisfying way.)

L.L.: There are other memoirs about mental illness and suicide; mothers and daughters, but this one is illuminating and uplifting in some regards; redeeming in others. What do you think sets THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS apart? What do you hope readers take away? And did it transform you in writing it?

Gayle Brandeis: Of course every story of suicide is unique because of the voice and vision of the person writing, but there are also important points of connection between our stories. I take a dance class called “Groove” where the guiding principle
is “unified but unique”—you are given a few simple movements to do with each song that are touchstones for everyone in the class, but then you make the movements your own, layer on your own quirky stuff. I think of my book that way—I hope people who have gone through similar experiences will find a sense of solidarity and community, that it will help them feel less alone, but I also hope that this book will offer something new—a fresh approach to form, a singular experience told through my very particular (and sometimes peculiar, as was said in a review, which I love) body and mind. I very much hope readers leave the book with a sense of hope (and perhaps some inspiration to tell their own stories.)

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Writing this book transformed me more than I could ever say. I was asked to do a self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, and I ended up asking myself “How did writing this book change you?” eleven times, with eleven different answers, and I could have kept going. I am a different person than I was when I began writing the book—a stronger person, a braver person, a more open person. I am so deeply grateful for the journey of this book.

L.L.: Gayle, its been such a pleasure. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that I should have? Like, maybe whats on your end-of-the-year-bucket list, what are you reading, what your guilty pleasures are, or how Asher is doing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much for having me—this has been a treat! I don’t think you forgot anything at all, but I’m happy to answer these questions! Not sure I have an end-of-the year bucket list, but I do want to see the Northern Lights before I
die.
  Speaking of death, I’m reading a book that comes out next year, I AM, I AM, I AM: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, which is a beautiful exploration of how awareness of death can help us appreciate life all the more deeply. As for guilty pleasures, hmmm…I gobbled down Stranger Things 2, but I don’t feel guilty about that at all! Hot baths are perhaps my guiltiest pleasure—guilty because I don’t like to waste water, but I sure do love a good, long, hot soak. And Asher’s doing great! It’s kind of amazing to me that he’s 8 now—he is such a barometer of how long I’ve lived without my mom. He’s just about as tall as my armpits these days. Time is so weird. Thanks for asking about my sweet boy (and thanks for all of your other great questions—so very grateful!)29906170001_4871960491001_4871918106001-vs

For more information, to connect with Gayle via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, please see:

Gayle_Brandeis_by_Rachael WareckiABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Beacon Press and used with permission. Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights image retrieved from USAToday.com, quirky carpet layers from , the world revolves around me from, Life & Death Tree from Pinterest, no source noted, reading/book image from L. Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.16.17] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Ali Land talks about her time as a mental health nurse in the U.K., her ‘insatiable curiosity’ about people, female serial killers, nature vs. nurture, the stress of writing a second book, and more in her international bestseller, GOOD ME BAD ME

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Is it nature or nurture? That’s the overarching question in this debut psychological thriller about a female serial killer and her daughter. 
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When I heard about GOOD ME BAD ME, I knew I had to get my hands on it. So when the publisher reached out with a gorgeous copy (seriously, this is an exquisite package), I was thrilled.

Annie (who now goes by Milly) is 15 and living with a foster family. Her mother is a serial killer awaiting trial. After turning her mother into the police, Milly must start fresh. Living with Mike, a psychologist, his yoga-loving (though emotionally absent wife) and snarky teenage daughter, Phoebe, Milly is doing the best she can to adjust to life without her mother, a new school, and a new identity.

Told in a voice-y dialogue from the POV of a 15 year old, GOOD ME BAD ME straddles the YA genre with that of a psychological thriller. Rest assured, there are many adult themes in this book; it is not a book for younger readers.

The writing is edgy and emotional. While not horribly graphic in detail (not a horror in that sense), the acts committed to children are unspeakable and could cause triggers for some. I found GOOD ME BAD ME complex, chilling, and insightful in terms of a teenage voice plagued by mental illness.

I am so honored to welcome Ali Land to the blog couch. Pull up a seat and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Ali, when I read that you were a mental health nurse working with children in the U.K., I was hooked. Reading and writing has always been a love of mine, but like you, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. I find the mind such a fascinating tangle. What ultimately inspired, your career in mental health?

Ali Land: Hi Leslie, thanks for having me on your blog! I had an insatiable curiosity about people and their minds from a very young age. I grew up in a boarding school and found it fascinating observing the different ways my friends reacted to the same situation. As I hit my teenage years the observing morphed into a desire to understand the ‘why’s’ – why was a person sad enough to harm themselves, why were they scared, why did one of my closest friends at school stop eating. I wanted to help. Specialising in children’s mental health felt very natural for me, being able to use stories and play and the therapeutic conversations I had with the adolescents will never leave me, in fact, one conversation in particular I had with a teenage girl formed the basis of GOOD ME BAD ME.

L.L.: I know there are plenty of memorable patients from my years as a psychiatric nurse. In fact, I’ve tried (and failed) writing a novel involving one. What inspired GOOD ME BAD ME? And what were some of your challenges?

Ali Land: Years ago I looked after a teenage girl who no longer wanted to live. Her mother had been involved in the serious harm of young children and the girl was convinced she would end up doing the same as her mother. The notion of living with a parental legacy of evil haunted me. The burden this girl, and other children I
looked after, carried, was so apparent. In addition to that I witnessed young people taking on traits of, not just the adults around them, but the absent parents too, the one’s they hadn’t seen since they were babies. Was this girl right? Can the apple ever fall far from the tree? How much choice do we have about who we become? Over the years those questions grew arms and legs inside of me and when I couldn’t hold them in any longer, the first draft of GOOD ME BAD ME was born. 

images (24)The challenges in writing the story were great. Initially I found it hard to talk about the book without crying. I worried I might further isolate children like my main character, Milly, by using the medium of a thriller to push the nature/nurture debate. The idea of using the realities of damaged young people and turning it into entertainment is something I feel very strongly about. My main priority was facilitating an authentic experience, one that would allow readers to inhabit the mind and body of a child who has a complex and disturbing past, and to illustrate that simply desiring to be good isn’t enough. I strived really hard to write GOOD ME BAD ME in a way that ensures it’s thrilling enough so readers have to keep turning the pages, but moving enough so they would want to discuss it afterwards. When readers contact me to tell me I’ve achieved that, that for me is the biggest reward.It tore out of me in five months.

L.L.: Female serial killers are pretty rare. You mention this in GOOD ME BAD ME, but just how rare are they? What kind of research did you do to write this story?

Ali Land: I don’t know that much about female serial killers other than they often operate in co-dependent relationships with men, Rosemary West and Myra Hindley immediately coming to mind. It was a conscious decision I made not to research female killers because the point of the book is that the reader’s eye is on Milly, the daughter. It’s her story. Many people comment on the fact I never name her serial killer mother but I do, only once, with the majority of readers missing it as was my intention. I view my writing as an extension of my nursing and I felt it was my responsibility to focus, not on the crimes, but on the aftermath and the teenager left behind.

 L.L.:  There are so many issues and concepts in GOOD ME BAD ME from the foster system, bullying, nature vs. nurture, mental health, suicide, and more. What do you hope readers take away from Milly’s experience?

Ali Land: Two things. Firstly, an authentic and compassionate understanding of the psychological processes a child such as Milly endures. And secondly, that although nature/nurture has always, and will always be the greyest of grey areas and even if it seems futile at points, we should never stop trying to understand or care for our young people, the product of both their environment and their genes.

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L.L.: What’s obsessing you? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Ali Land: Brexit and my second book. Brexit because, well, it’s a horrible reality that instead of the world becoming more united, the opposite seems to be happening. And my second book because 2017, my debut year, has been pretty stellar and it’s hard not to feel paralyzed by what’s next. I used to say to the kids I looked after as a mental health nurse, ‘just do your best and don’t forget to breathe,’ and I’m trying very hard to take my own advice as I begin climbing the mountain of my second book.

L.L.: Ali, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you! Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Ali Land: Not at all, your questions were wonderful, thank you, but if I may, I’d love to add this:

To all the writers out there. I did it and you can too. Read lots, write lots and never give up!

~Ali x

For more information, to connect with Ali via social media, or to purchase a copy of GOOD ME BAD ME, please see:

Copyright lauralewisphotography.co.uk Ali Land 2 0588 2AUTHOR BIO: After graduating from university with a degree in Mental Health, Ali spent a decade working as a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Nurse in both hospitals and schools in the UK and Australia. Though a voracious reader from a young age and a keen observer of the world, it took Ali over thirty years to put pen to paper but she sure is glad she did! Ali’s debut novel Good Me Bad Me is an international bestseller and will be translated into twenty-three languages. It was short-listed for The Most Unreliable Narrator at the Dead Good Reader Awards, short-listed by the Crime Writers Association for the John Creasey New Blood Dagger and won Book Of The Year at Heat magazine Unmissables Awards. It’s also a New York Times Editors choice and a Richard and Judy book club pick. Ali is now a full-time writer and lives in London and is currently working on her second novel.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media platforms:


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[Cover and author image courtesy of Flatiron Books and used with permission. Author image credit: Laura Lewis Photography. Nature vs. Nurture image from. Mental Health Nurse image from zazzle.com. Book wreath from L.Lindsay’s personal archives]

Wednesdays with Writers: Cathy Lamb on the ‘massive amount’ of historical research needed for NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE, centuries-old cookbooks, Asperger’s syndrome, Bipolar, ‘rockin’ hot cowboys,’ deadlines and more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Food, family, and legacy combine in this emotional and complex tale of love and acceptance. 

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I love reading Cathy Lamb. She’s hilarious and draws her characters so accurately, so flawed, so quirky, you can’t help but fall in love with them. Somehow, she is able to weave so many varied topics into a beautiful tapestry that is touching, funny, and so well done you hardly remember you’re reading. 

Olivia Martindale is living in Portland when she realizes she needs to go home to Montana temporarily to protect her almost-adopted daughters from their biological mother. Oh, but Jace is there and that’s painful. Jace is Olivia’s (legally separated) husband and he’s a rockin’ hot cowboy. Her mother and grandmother are such lively characters, too–a blunt doctor and a natural medicine type nurse healing the small town of Kalulell, Montana. Her sister is a helicopter rescue pilot/paramedic raising a son with autism/Asperger’s whose husband died seven years ago. Oh and she’s hilarious. The women are thrilled Olivia is back and welcome her and the almost-adopted girls into the family cabin with open arms. 

Olivia finds an old, ancient cookbook in the attic one day and learns its filled with dozens of recipes from the female ancestors in her family. Olivia’s always loved to cook, and now she decides to make each dish. There’s more: an old locket, feather, pressed rose, charm, drawings, and photographs intertwined throughout the pages. 08cd682add7ccdf179604d5a0c9f7f75--flathead-lake-montana-bigfork-montanaStories pour from the pages. Olivia learns of her family in Europe, before they came to the U.S. Jewish pogroms, concentration camps, love and loss. 

And those sweet girls and their jailbird mother…

NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE is a tender mash-up of many wonderful genres: historical fiction, mystery, criminal insight, humor, women’s fiction. It will make you laugh and cry and relate to these characters in a way you never thought possible.

Please join me in welcoming Cathy to the…uh, ranch. 

Leslie Lindsay: Cathy! Welcome back. I didn’t think I could love a book as much as I loved THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS (Kensington, 2016), but by-golly, you did it again. Like your last book, NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE also touches on family and food. But there’s so, so much more. What was haunting you when you set out to write this one?

Cathy Lamb: Cookbooks.

I was looking at my late mother’s cookbooks which are stacked on my kitchen counter. I am a terrible cook, but she was really good. Anyhow I started thinking about her mother, my Nana, and her mother, Laura, and her mother, Stella, and all the way back.

All of us come from somewhere. We all have ancestors.  I started thinking about those women, their lives, their challenges, what made them laugh and cry.

I decided to write a book that centered around a cookbook that began in Odessa in 1905 and was handed down through generations of women. The women not only wrote recipes, they drew pictures about their lives.  I told the story of each woman in the cookbook, switching back and forth between present time.

Olivia Martindale eventually learns why there is blood on some recipes, why some are splattered with tea and tears, and why there are two heart-shaped lockets, a charm in the shape of a sun, photographs and poems between the pages.

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To sum up No Place I’d Rather Be:A 105 year old cookbook. Six generations of women. Four countries. Four languages. One mystery.

L.L.: You make writing seem so fun, so effortless. But we know it’s not always easy-peasy.  What did you struggle with the most in NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE?

Cathy Lamb: There was a mammoth amount of historical research I had to do for NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE.

For example, Odessa, in the Russian Empire, in 1905. Who was living there? What languages were spoken? Where did the people come from? Why did they come? What was the port like? What businesses were there?

What did the architecture look like? What was it like politically and socially? How did the government function or did it? What issues did they have? How were the Jews treated? Why did the pogroms start? Why were there demonstrations and riots during that time?

How did they get their water? They couldn’t dig wells, the water would have been too salty so close to the Black Sea. How did the poor live? What food was available? What was the weather like? Etc. etc. etc.

I already knew a lot of WWII history as I’ve studied and read about it forever, but I did study the Kindertransport in depth, where Jewish children – with no parents – were put on trains and boats and sent around the world to safety, mostly to Great Britain.

For example, Dr. Ruth was a Kindertransport child. She was sent to Switzerland, her parents were killed in Auschwitz. She later became a sharpshooter in Israel before moving to America and becoming a sex therapist.

I also researched The Blitz in London, down to the tonnage of bombs dropped.

It was a LOT of research. With the book I’m writing now – no research at all!

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L.L.: This is a complex story. There are multiple plot points to consider: present-day stuff with Jace and Olivia, the jailbird deadbeat mother of the girls, Olivia’s own inner demons, the mother and the grandmother and cooking, and oh my!—the past. Do you map this all out ahead of time, do you allow it to ‘come to you as you write,’ or some other way of juggling all the plotlines?

Cathy Lamb: I know. There is a lot going on in NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE. I write about a page and a half synopsis. That’s probably not true. It’s more like a page. My editor and agent and I all work on it until we have the story. The story, however, changes as I write.

Sometimes I eliminate characters, sometimes I add them. Some characters become huge, their voices loud and confident, other characters become someone I didn’t envision. The plot lines twist and curve, the ending can change.

Some people write really tight outlines of their books, complete with sticky notes on what has to happen per chapter. I just can’t write like that. It feels too tight, too rigid to me. I need to feel that there’s a lot of freedom to let the story grow and move and groove as it needs to.

I tried to feed the historical part it on a regular basis so as not to lose that storyline.

L.L.: I really loved Kyle. He was amazing. I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Shaun Murphy in the new ABC show, THE GOOD DOCTOR. In fact, it’s how I envisioned Kyle the whole time I was reading. Can you tell us a bit more about Kyle’s character, please?

Cathy Lamb: What was important to me to show is that though someone with Asperger’s Syndrome may process things differently, and react differently than what we would expect, the heart is still there. With Kyle he wanted to do good. He download (51)wanted friends. He wanted to help.  His way was simply unique and he did not understand social cues or the changing social dynamic.

Kyle was a character who jumped out at me so clearly it was like he was in my family room.

L.L.: There were a few passages I just loved about ‘double polar,’ as Sarah/Devlin called bipolar disorder.  And also the woman in Montana, LizAnne who received a house call from Dr. Mary Beth Martindale, “She’s always been creative. I think vampires can be female, but they didn’t address it in medical school. By the way, she’s in one of her manic episodes.”

You talk about how the medicine ‘dulls her out,’ and how she is in a ‘fruit stage,’ [with her art], and so much that rang so true to the experience of having bipolar.

As a former psych R.N., I loved this because it’s not so hush-hush the way you present it. How did this piece work its way into the story? Did both of those characters, LizAnne and Sarah/Devlin indeed have bipolar disorder?

Cathy Lamb: LizAnne and Sarah/Devlin both had bipolar but Sarah/Devlin also had a personality disorder – in my mind, narcissism and anti-social – and was just a horrible person and mother.

LizAnne was creative and an artist and would be in a manic episode and create the most beautiful art that she sold around the country, and then she would crash.

For people who have bipolar or love someone who has it, it is a beast to deal with. Some improve on the medication, some hate it because it zones them out, which is what I was trying to show with LizAnne.

Mostly: Bipolar is an awful disease and people who have it deserve our compassion and understanding.

L.L.: Don’t even get me started on Jace.

Cathy Lamb: Okay, I won’t. But he was hotter than hot. Just sayin’. I’d marry that guy myself.

L.L.: Can you give us a few ‘Cathy Facts,’ maybe something you don’t share often? Something that’s obsessing you, something you’re looking forward to…

Cathy Lamb: I don’t have any obsessions. It would certainly make me more interesting if I said I did…sigh…

I’m looking forward to finishing this next book, THE MAN SHE MARRIED, as I’m in the midst of a deadline. Yikes.

For more information, to connect with Cathy Lamb via social media, or to purchase a copy of NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE, please see:

nABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Writer. Owner of a wild and free roaming imagination. Day dreamer. Wife to Innocent Husband. Mother to three only sometimes naughty teenagers. Author of eleven novels. Almost twelve.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through this social media platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of C. Lamb and used with permission. Book wreath from L.Lindsay’s archives. Image of “The Good Doctor” retrieved from tvguide.com, image of mountain lodge from Pinterest, no source noted; old cookbooks from ] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Jeannie Vanasco talks about the stigma around mental illness, her obsession with her father, why memoir is important, and so much more in her debut, THE GLASS EYE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A dark and gripping memoir about the intricacies of grief, obsession, madness, and more. 

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When I came across a write-up of THE GLASS EYE: A Memoir, in a recent issue of POETS & WRITERS, I knew I had to read it. And I’m so glad I did.

Jeannie Vanasco’s father died when she was an 18-year old college freshman. It’s this catastrophic event that sends her into a spiraling tailspin, triggering her mental illness. Jeannie becomes obsessed with her father’s death, but also a dead half-sister who shares her name. Years ago, Jeannie’s father was married to someone else. They had four daughters, one of those daughters died in a horrific car accident when she was only 16.

All along, Jeannie has made a promise to someday write a book for her father. This wasn’t exactly the book she had in mind, but it’s the one she wrote to better understand herself, her mental illness, her relationship with her dad. Told in a slightly fragmented series of vignettes, THE GLASS EYE reminded me a lot of the style and download (1)structure used in Rachel Khong’s GOODBYE VITAMIN (Henry Holt, 2017).

I loved Jeannie’s forays into mental illness, not because I wish it on anyone, but because Vanasco handles it with such raw authenticity. It’s not anyone who could bare their soul as eloquently as Vanasco.

THE GLASS EYE also incorporates many aspects of the writing life, home, mothers, and memory that makes it a truly unique read.

I am so honored to welcome Jeannie to the blog coach.

Leslie Lindsay: Jeannie, I pretty much devoured THE GLASS EYE, for a multitude of reasons. My own mother struggled with mental illness most of her life. She died by suicide two years ago. Like you, I’m a writer. And also I used to work in mental health. It seems our paths were meant to cross. I know you promised your dad a book, and I know this wasn’t the one you had in mind. Can you tell us more about what you *did* have in mind and what really prompted THE GLASS EYE?

Jeannie Vanasco: Whenever readers like yourself share personal stories with me, it reaffirms why memoirs are important. At the genre’s core is empathy. But for a long time, I felt self-indulgent and, as a result, guilty for writing a memoir—partly given my age, partly because I’d heard the clichéd argument that “there are enough grief and mental illness memoirs out there,” and partly because there’s this temptation to interact with one’s writing more than with other people. But now that THE GLASS EYE is published, I’ve been getting a lot of “me too” responses from readers, and those mean a lot to me. Breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and grief, that wasn’t initially my goal. But to answer your question, I’m not sure what my goal was, or what I had in mind for the book. My best guess: I was interested in the process more than the product. I wanted to keep spending time with my dad. The writing process allowed for that.

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L.L.: I loved how you incorporated things about the writing life into THE GLASS EYE. In fact, I think Chapter 13 opens with a line like, “My editor calls to discuss chapter 12.” I love that the writing feels present, but not present. Was this intentional? And what steps, if any, did you do in determining the overall structure?

Jeannie Vanasco: I like how you worded that: “present, but not present.” That’s what I was after. I wanted the reader to feel the immediacy. That’s why I broke apart the chronological narrative—stretching back to my childhood—with present-tense sections about the struggle to write. A lot of those passages I lifted verbatim from my notebooks. Masie Cochran, my editor at Tin House, is the one who encouraged me to weave those meta passages throughout the book. She’s a brilliant editor. She could see that my struggle to keep the promise was the plot, and those meta passages foreground the promise. It’s what inspired THE GLASS EYE.images (22)

L.L.: I want to talk about the title, THE GLASS EYE, a bit. Which I love. There are a myriad of metaphors here. Your father had a glass eye. You had a mathematical formula representing it. Tell me if I get it wrong, but it was something like, i + I = Eye. There’s also something about fragility and seeing the world differently. In all of your earlier writing (essays, poems, etc.), you always titled this work, THE GLASS EYE. Can you tell us more?

Jeannie Vanasco: The equation was actually eye + i = I. But I like how your formula shifts the emphasis to my dad’s perception, as opposed to my perception of myself.

One of the main reasons behind the title: my dad’s loss of his left eye was my first experience with loss. I was four years old when he lost his eye to a rare disease, and that was when I first understood his vulnerability. To me, the metaphor of the glass eye could hold multiple meanings, and that seemed to me the sign of a good metaphor: one that can’t be easily summarized.

L.L.: I just finished writing a memoir myself. I found it challenging in all the ways that writing is challenging, but writing a memoir is so unique. There’s a lot more emotion. Memories can be fickle. And then you think, ‘who on earth is going to read this drivel?’ What has the experience been like for you? Are you glad you did it?father_daughter_tips

Jeannie Vanasco: Writing the memoir was hard, of course. A lot of my doctors—in and out of the hospital—pressed me to stop working on it. But not-writing was harder. Not-writing didn’t feel like an option. I’d promised my dad a book. I couldn’t not keep my promise.

I feel better now THE GLASS EYE is done. I’m no longer obsessed with my dad. I still miss him. I’m still sad he’s dead. But I’m more comfortable with the sadness.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit to mental health. Your father fell into a deep depression after his daughter Jeanne died at age sixteen. Do you suspect that perhaps you share the same genetic make-up when it comes to mental illness? Could it have also been her death that sent him into a downward spiral triggering his depression? Does anyone else in your family suffer from mental illness (full disclosure: it runs rampant in mine). And how are you doing now?

Jeannie Vanasco: Losing Jeanne was the worst moment of his life. And then to be blamed for it. I think most people in his situation would lose their minds. That’s why I’m hesitant to assign a posthumous diagnosis to my dad. When I first
received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I made detailed lists of why I thought he also had it.
But that’s because I wanted to be like him.

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I suspect that mental illness runs in my family. But ultimately, I can’t say for certain. I’m not really in contact with anyone in my family except for my mom. Three of my four grandparents were dead when I was born. I didn’t really get to know either side of my family very well. My dad’s side mostly lived in New York, and I grew up in Ohio. My mom’s family was poor and didn’t have access to good medical care. And the stigma surrounding psychiatry and therapy—especially in the Midwest back then—was especially strong. The stigma is still there. That’s why books about mental illness are important.

I wish I hadn’t been so embarrassed about my illness in my twenties. Keeping it a secret was hard. But I’m doing a lot better now. That’s thanks to having great doctors and a great therapist.

L.L.: Now that THE GLASS EYE is published, what’s obsessing you? What keeps you awake at night?

Jeannie Vanasco: Just this month, I started working on the next book, a collection of essays cohering around what it means to have a psychiatric diagnosis. I’m interested in the history of the insanity plea, cultural portrayals of mental illness, the lack of political clout that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have. I’m excited to be working on something new.

L.L.: What might have I forgotten to ask, but should have?

Jeannie Vanasco: A lot of readers wonder what it’s like to have published a book about my history with mental illness. But I don’t feel shame about it. To talk about it so openly feels liberating. That’s why I appreciate your questions.

L.L.: Jeannie, it’s been such a pleasure! Thank you for chatting with us.

Jeannie Vanasco: Thank you for reading THE GLASS EYE—and for your great questions. I look forward to reading your memoir!

For more information, to connect with Jeannie via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GLASS EYE, please see: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeannie Vanasco is the author of The Glass Eye. Her writing has Jeannie Vanasco_colorappeared in The New York TimesThe Believer, NewYorker.com, Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, she now lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Tin House Books and used with permission. Glass eyes from Pinterest, no source noted. Father and daughter shoes/feet from Making list from, writing/typewriter image from; collection of books from L. Lindsay’s archives.] 

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Wednesdays with Writers: Poetic and lyrical Rene Denfeld on our fascination with lost children, memory, imagination, the Oregon wilderness, and so much more in THE CHILD FINDER

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By Leslie Lindsay 

An exquisitely written tale of s little girl lost, her striking imagination and how we often have to be lost in order to be found. 

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I found THE CHILD FINDER to be disturbing and haunting and I was absolutely spell-bound, not wanting to sit the book down. In fact, I didn’t; I read THE CHILD FINDER in one day. While the story is ultimately bleak (there’s hope, though), it’s dazzlingly written. It’s lush, melodic, while at the same time, stark.

A bit about the plot: Maddie Culver goes missing in the Oregon wilderness while her family is cutting down their Christmas tree. It’s been three years. Her parents are beside themselves and insist she’s still alive. But three years is a long time. The Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny ability to find lost children.

Diving into the icy, remote Skookum Forest, Naomi attempts to uncover all possibilities, unearthing old mines, digging up old homesteads, and stalking out the corner grocery. 

And then another–unrelated case–presents itself. Naomi doesn’t like taking two cases at once, but she’s drawn to the circumstances.

Yet, there’s something mysterious about Naomi herself–something tugging at her and making us as readers feel her urgency. Who is Naomi and what does her past hold?

Please join me in welcoming Rene to the blog couch:

Leslie Lindsay: Rene, I devoured THE CHILD FINDER. I know you have a background in journalism, but also investigator work and you’re a foster parent. Was it all of those things that inspired THE CHILD FINDER, or was it something else?

Rene Denfeld: Thank you for having me! THE CHILD FINDER was inspired by my investigative work—I’ve been a licensed investigator now for over a decade. I’ve worked hundreds of cases, including missing persons. It was also inspired by my amazing kids. I adopted three kids from foster care and have fostered others. I think both experiences came together in this novel, along with my love of poetry.

L.L.: I have to say, I haven’t read many books set in Oregon, but now I’m seeking them out. My family and I visited Oregon for the first time this past summer. It’s a beautiful state! And haunting, too…the geological formations, the way one can go from forest to desert to mountains and sea in a matter of hours. I found THE CHILD FINDER to be so atmospheric. Are you an Oregon native? What more can you tell us about the location of the Skookum National Forest?

Rene Denfeld: I grew up here in Oregon. It is such a beautiful state! You can go from the beach to snowy mountains to flinty desert reservations here in a day. Growing up here I also learned about our heritage, which comes through in the novel. I populated
the novel with real Oregonians, from city folk to rural farmers to those who live the same lives their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
But as beautiful our wildernesses, Oregon can also be dangerous. Every year dozens of people go missing in our endless forests. For that reason I named the remote snowy mountain region in the novel after a native word for “dangerous place.” That’s what Skookum means, and the region is modeled after our real mountains ranges.oregon_hike.jpg

L.L.: Madison Culver has such a rich imagination. She loves fairy tales and has a colorful interior world. I think there’s a place in the book that talks about her ability to cope to be extreme. Can you talk about how creativity and imagination lead to resilience?

Rene Denfeld: I love this subject. You know, I’ve written about how I survived extreme abuse and poverty as a child. My sanctuary was the local library, where I lost myself in the world of books. Stories saved my life—literally. I learned to imagine myself into a different world. Doing the work I do, and being a therapeutic foster parent, I believe the key to survival is in power of our imaginations. Think about it. If you have an imagination, you can imagine yourself in a different future.
You can imagine the steps it would take to go to college, or be a better parent than the one you had. This is why it is so important that we teach imagination, and literacy. Once a child has an imagination the future is limitless. They can make claim to their own story, their right to exist in this world. They can create a sense of self.

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L.L.: Lost children seem to be a tormented fascination of mine. I think I’m in good company, because there are plenty of books surrounding this theme. Yet, they are all unique. Why do you think readers are so fascinated with this topic? Why are you?

Rene Denfeld: That’s such a good question. I think it goes layers deep. There is the fear losing something  precious to us—the thought strikes terror into any parent. Then there is the fear of being lost ourselves, of not being able to be found. One reason I think readers are fascinated with the topic is because there are so many times in life we all feel lost or trapped. Right now a lot of people in our country feel lost and trapped. We want to know a way out of the wilderness. We are desperate to find the path home. Much of THE CHILD FINDER is about that journey. It is about our capacity to find each other, even in the worst circumstances when everyone is telling us it is too late. At heart it is a story of hope. It is about courage, faith and redemption. As the novel says, it is never too late to be found.

L.L.: Do you have any writing rituals or routines? About how long does it take you to get a first draft of a manuscript written? Are you a pantser or plotter?

Rene Denfeld: I am a poetic pantser! Once I hear the voice of a character the story comes pouring out. For me writing is pure deliciousness. It is like falling down the rabbit hole and waking up in a new world. I get so absorbed that my kids can walk in the room and wave their hands in my face and I am just…gone. That said it isn’t all easy. The hard work for me is after that first draft pours out. That’s when I have to take a more sensitive editorial role, guiding the story, which by then feels and is real people to me. It usually takes me about a year to write a novel.

L.L.: I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood. I just completed writing a memoir. There were so many things I had to look up on Google. Toys I played with, books I read, clothes I wore. I wanted to make sure I got it right. Do you think we can accurately recall our childhoods? What, if anything from your childhood do you still yearn for, even a little?

Rene Denfeld: That’s such a wise point. I’m fascinated with memory. I had a therapist tell me once, “it is the feeling that matters.” We approach memory like a court of law, wanting every fact to be right. Of course if it is about a court of law and there is an accusation, that is the way to go! But when it comes to our daily lives I think its okay to let some of our memories be dreams, colored by time and want and desire or sadness. I admire you for writing a memoir. It frustrates me when I see memoirists get criticized for not getting some fact perfect. You can have five people in a family and all will have different memories of the same event, even if they were all there. That’s part of the beauty of humanity to me.

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L.L.: Rene, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Rene Denfeld: It’s been wonderful! The only thing I can think of is great books I’ve read lately. I love to share with readers! Some great books out now include Andrea Jarrell’s memoir I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY, Alice Anderson’s memoir SOME BRIGHT MORNING I’LL FLY AWAY, Jacqueline Woodson’s ANOTHER BROOKLYN, and Gayle Brandies THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS.

For more information about the book, to connect with Rene via social media, or to order a copy of THE CHILD FINDER, please see:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rene is the author of the acclaimed novels The Child Finder and THE ENCHANTED, as well as essays in publications such as the New York Times. Rene’s new literary thriller, THE CHILD FINDER, explores themes of survival, resiliency and redemption  It has received much acclaim, including a starred Library Journal review, major press, and an Indie Next pick. Landing as  the #1 fiction bestseller at Powell’s within its first week, THE CHILD FINDER became a top #10 bestseller in Canada and a bestseller in the United States.

Rene’s lyrical, beautiful writing is inspired by her work with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. Rene was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office and has worked hundreds of cases. In addition to her advocacy work, Rene has been a foster adoptive parent for twenty years. She will be awarded the Break The Silence Award at the 24th Annual Knock Out Abuse Gala in Washington, DC on November 2, 2017, in recognition for her advocacy and social justice work.

The child of a difficult history herself, Rene is an accomplished speaker who loves connecting with others. Rene lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the happy mom of three kids adopted from foster care.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through this social media platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins and used with permission Image of Oregon forest retrieved from,. Girl in library from bbc.com, childhood memories from; all retrieved on 10.30.17. Fall Wreath from L.Lindsay’s personal archives]. 

Wednesdays with Writers: Fiona Davis on several of my favorite topics–psychiatry, journalism, architecture & design; oh and The Dakota, NYC, and her stunning new historical novel, THE ADDRESS and how she was once a very horse-crazy girl

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Fiona Davis’s brilliant new book, THE ADDRESS, takes readers on a journey to historical NYC and into the famed Dakota Apartment building. 

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With 2016’s debut of THE DOLLHOUSE, Fiona Davis made one of the most stunning entrances as an author who knows her way around historical fiction. I was mesmerized and couldn’t wait to get my hands on THE ADDRESS. Rest assured, this is no sophomore slump; I adored it.

The Dakota. You may know it as the apartment building where ROSEMARY’S BABY was filmed, or perhaps where John Lennon died, or maybe you just think of it as a Bavarian monstrosity on the Upper West End where may playwrights, actors, writers, musicians live.

THE ADDRESS is constructed in dual-time periods, 1884 and 1985 respectively, which draws a natural suspense. The writing is evocative, historically rich, and mysterious.Beginning in London, we meet Sara Smythe, a housekeeper at the Langham and follow her on a journey across the Atlantic where she lands in the outskirts of a developing NYC. 250px-Dakota_Building

Sara is to be the new managerette of the soon-to-be opened The Dakota. She’s aghast at the primitive location–farmland and empty lots, unpaved streets. Still, she’s alone and unwilling to run home. I found Sara to be extremely likable, sympathetic, relatable, and quite strong. She’s not your typical kowtowing woman of the Victorian Era.

One hundred years later, in 1985 NYC, Bailey Camden is an interior designer charged with renovating The Dakota. But she’s not impressed with the design ideas which would trump the original design aesthetics of the historic building.

Oh but there’s more–and to say too much would be giving it all away–let’s just say there’s love and loss, success and ruin, mystery, poor decisions, passion and madness that drive the plotI absolutely loved the clear sense of place in THE ADDRESS, the vivid details and found it to be a very engaging piece of historical fiction.

Slide over on that silk settee and join me in conversation with Fiona Davis.

Leslie Lindsay: Fiona, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the blog couch. I was so taken with THE ADDRESS mainly because it combines several of my passions: architecture, interior design, and madness. I know THE ADDRESS was inspired, in part by your work on THE DOLLHOUSE, but what more can you tell us about the origins of this tale?

Fiona Davis: I am so glad you enjoyed it! I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for twenty-five years, and had walked by the Dakota hundreds of times, staring up at those enormous windows, wondering what it was like to live there. I realized that setting a book there would give me the perfect excuse to get inside (and was eventually able to do that, through roundabout connections to a couple of very generous tenants). As I dug deeper into its history, I knew it was the perfect choice for a dual-narrative historical fiction novel. The building had undergone many changes since it opened in 1884 on the edge of Central Park, back when the neighborhood was described by one newspaper as full of “rocks, swamps, goats, and shanties.” By the 1980s, a couple of tenants had torn down the period details from their apartments and replaced them with shag carpets and wall-to-ceiling mirrors. It was the perfect way to compare and contrast two “gilded ages,” as well as the way women’s roles and voices have changed over a century.

L.L.: So I have to know: which characters were ‘real’ and which were from your imagination? I am guessing Sara Smythe was a composite character…but what about Theodore Camden? Henry Hardenbergh? Oh, and Nellie Brown had to have been Nellie Bly?

Fiona Davis: Sara Smythe and Theodore Camden are fictional characters. I knew I wanted to have an architect in the 1880s time line, so that he and Sara Smythe could team up to get the building ready for opening day. Henry Hardenbergh was the actual architect for the Dakota (and the Plaza Hotel and a number of other fabulous buildings), so I didn’t mind having him make a cameo, but I didn’t want to try to fit his life into my story. That’s where Theo came in – he’s in charge of the interiors for the building and I could make him do my bidding without any constraints.

Nellie Bly, a journalist for the New York World during the 1880s, actually went by the name Nellie Brown when she went undercover to expose the injustices at Blackwell’s Island Asylum. She’s the real deal in the book.

L.L.: In my former career, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. To say I am fascinated in psychiatry—especially historical psychiatry—is a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t get over the harsh conditions you depicted on Blackwell Island in the book. In fact, I’ve been searching for Nellie Bly’s TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE for years! (I want it in hardback; it’s a challenging find).  Can you tell us a little about how that piece of the story came to be? What research did you do?

Fiona Davis: I had heard about Nellie Bly when I was studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia, and I naturally gravitated to her first-hand account of life in an 1880’s women’s insane asylum during my initial research. After reading TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE, I took the tram over to what’s now called Roosevelt Island to visit the remaining structure, the Octagon, which today serves as the lobby to a condo. In my book, I hope the harrowing backdrop of the asylum makes an interesting counterpoint to luxuriousness of the Dakota.

L.L.: As with THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE, where there any iconic sites you ‘visited’ in your research (or in the book) that will appear in a forthcoming book?

Fiona Davis: In addition to checking out the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, I modeled the library for the ball scene after the one at the Morgan Library & Museum, and used the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street as inspiration for Daisy’s family’s
apartment. Strawberry Fields, just across the street from the Dakota, is an important location in the book as well. The next book will be set at Grand Central Terminal – one of New York City’s most famous iconic buildings – and I’m having a blast working on it.

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
“A delicious tale of love, lies and madness.”
— People

L.L.: What do you find most rewarding about writing historical fiction? What are 2960-Central_Park-Strawberry_Fieldssome of the challenges?

Fiona Davis: I love the research phase, when anything is possible and the ideas are bubbling away. The challenge comes when you have to narrow down the plot and characters and come up with a story that accurately represents the time periods but also keeps the reader guessing. Another reward is hearing from readers. I’ve been doing a lot of author talks in bookstores and libraries and the response has been incredibly warm and enthusiastic.

L.L.: Childhood plays a prominent role in THE ADDRESS. What item(s) from your own childhood do you still, even occasionally, pine for? (an article of clothing, toy, book, something else?)

Fiona Davis: Back when I was around eight years old, I took a book out of my local library about a girl who’s horse crazy, and finally gets to ride a horse for an entire summer before realizing that taking care of it is a lot of hard work. It was my favorite book – I was horse crazy but deeply moved by the character’s insights and transformation – and I must’ve checked out the book dozens of times to re-read. But I can’t for the life of me remember the name. If anyone has read that book and remembers the title, please reach out to me! It was something like “Ride ‘Em, Sally.” But not that. I know, ridiculous, right?

L.L.: Fiona, it’s been a pleasure.  What might have I forgotten to ask about?

Fiona Davis: Not a thing – I loved these questions – thank you so much!

For more information, to connect with Fiona Davis via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ADDRESS, please see:

FionaDavis_Credit KristenJensen.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fiona Davis was born in Canada and raised in New Jersey, Utah, and Texas. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off Broadway, and in regional theater. After ten years, she changed careers and began working as an editor and writer. Her historical fiction debut, The Dollhouse, was published in 2016. She’s a graduate of the College of William & Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is based in New York City. You can find her at www.FionaDavis.net.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line hangouts:

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Dutton and used with permission. Image of The Dakota retrieved from Wikipedia, historical images of Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) and Henry Hardenberg from Wikipedia, as is octagon images of Roosevelt/Blackwell’s Island and Strawberry Fields memorial. Fall book wreath from L. Lindsay’s archives.] 

 

WeekEND Reading: From Park Avenue to the streets of 1970s NYC, Janet Capron talks about her searing new book, BLUE MONEY, how writing a memoir is like learning to live underwater, women’s lib, living in denial even now, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A first-hand look at street life and prostitution in 1970s New York City is as bold and daring and explicit as you might imagine, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. 
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I can honestly say: I’ve never read anything like BLUE MONEY. It is not one of those books you’re going to recommend to your book club. Or maybe you are; there’s plenty to discuss. It’s probably not one you’d give to your mom, either. But there are definitely ‘mommy issues’ intertwined.

So why did I read BLUE MONEY? Because, sex. It’s true. We love sex. We love to understand its many forms, its motivations, and what happens when it’s peddled out as a commodity. But that wasn’t my only motivation for reading. I also have a fascination with 1970s NYC and wanted a gritty glimpse into the inner workings of the city. BLUE MONEY gave me that. Also, I enjoy memoir and have a thing with reading books that must be terrifying to write.

Janet Capron is a hero in many ways. She bares her soul in BLUE MONEY; her love life, her family life, her drug and alcohol addictions, her trading sex for money. Could you strip down to your core (literally) and share some of your most troubling–most horrifying–moments with the public? I don’t think I could. 2296800642_a6dab0b6c0_z

BLUE MONEY is absolutely thrumming with the grit of NYC. At times I was sure I could smell the garbage in the alleyways. While the book is ultimately about a death of sorts (of character), it’s alive, pulsing on every word, every sentence; it’s highly introspective and well-written.

Bold. Crackling. Raw. Explicit. Seedy. Vivid. 

We see her go from an ‘economy slut’ a PRETTY WOMAN type of call girl, but there are peaks and valleys, brushes with drugs, live sex shows, massage parlors, marriage, grief, and so much more.

Please join me in welcoming Janet to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Janet, I finished the book last night, I have to say—wow! For so many reasons. Mostly, I’m amazed that you were able to so completely bare your soul within these pages. Not many would. Why this story, why now?

Janet Capron:  First of all, thank you, Leslie, for inviting me. I love what you have to say about BLUE MONEY! And thank you for calling me a hero. If there were any heroics involved, it was unintentional. I didn’t set out to bare my soul, but that’s where the material took me.

A wonderful Columbia writing-workshop professor, J. R. Humphreys, said, “You will always have the present of course, and you can always recall your childhood, but your twenties will slip away.”  BLUE MONEY is the story of my twenties. Aside from wanting to write about those years while I could still remember them, I was hoping women would be curious to learn more about the actual experience of prostitution.

The world wasn’t ready for my story right away. It took a while to find a home for the book. Hooray for my publisher, Unnamed Press!

“Those who appreciate trigger warnings may not appreciate this book. But for anyone else, Capron’s eloquent and electric memoir of radical feminism, avid prostitution, and the wish for old-fashioned love will be hard to put down.” 

– Daniel Bergner, author of What do Woman Want?

L.L.: So I have to back up a bit: you grew up on Park Avenue. You had every advantage, yet you didn’t go to college right away at the ‘traditional’ time; you left for a life on the streets, a pretty unique gap year(s), don’t you think? Tell us more about the why.

Janet Capron: I’m glad you asked. I’m sure everybody wonders about that.  When I started writing BLUE MONEY, I discovered it was hard to understand myself let alone explain why I turned to prostitution. Let me begin by saying I did have to earn a living. Walk in New York - Vintage - Postcard - Park Avenue.jpg

While I grew up surrounded by luxury, the money, which was my grandfather’s, didn’t make it very far—by the time my grandmother died, almost the entire fortune was gone. In those days, money was different too. People could live well on a lot less. Today, more than likely anyone on Park Avenue has plenty of money to pass down to the next generation and beyond. Back then, it was entirely possible, and not out of the ordinary, to grow up there and still have to go out in the world to earn a living just like everyone else. 

Add to this that I was rendered dysfunctional by alcohol and drugs and it becomes easier to understand how, with the prodding of my Svengali (“Michael McClaren” in the book)—and armed with the rationale that hooking was a valid protest against the double standard—I gravitated to “The Life.”

Truth is I wasn’t fit for polite society.

By the way, I started out at Bennington College (barely mentioned “Pendleton” in the book), but, after a year and a half, they asked me to leave.

L.L.: At one point in the story, your madam, Evelyn says, “Get out of here, go hustle the intellectuals at Columbia.” You said something like, “I hate intellectuals, Columbia especially.” And yet…and yet…you have a degree in creative writing from the very institution. Can you talk about that, please?

Janet Capron: A kind of a wink at my beloved Alma Mater. In fact I did have that very conversation with a madam. At the time of the book, I was rebelling, trying to commit class suicide. Columbia was a symbol of the bourgeoisie and therefore despicable.

Not to give away the ending, but, obviously, I didn’t die in the street. Finally, I sobered up, and right away, a friend, one of my best friends to this day, announced that I was going back to school with him, to Columbia, which is what I did. By staying on the Dean’s List, I managed to win scholarships and graduate with honors (goes to show what a difference sobriety can make). Then I went onto Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts for an MFA in Creative Writing.college-photo_5347

L.L.: I just finished [writing] a memoir myself. It was hard for all the reasons we know writing is hard, but also because fleshing out those memories is so emotionally draining. Are you glad you shared your story? Were there ever times you wished you hadn’t, or perhaps wished you had done differently in the storytelling process?

Janet Capron: Aha! No wonder you ask such good questions! You’ve been there. It is a bitch isn’t it to stay emotionally true to experience—any experience. Proust called it ‘le moi profonde.’ The same workshop teacher I mentioned earlier said writing memoir is like learning how to live under water.

There is one particularly harrowing scene toward the end of BLUE MONEY that I had no intention of including. My mother, who was also a writer, convinced me to do it. She told me that if I were going to tell the truth, I had to tell the whole story; otherwise I would be painting life in the street as just fun and games. I knew she was right. While I was doing it, for those couple of days, I couldn’t sleep. In spite of the material, I was still surprised how difficult it was to write.

L.L.: The drugs, the sex, the grit. I was reading and so worried. I think this is what propels readers to keep turning the pages; that sense of urgency. This was all before AIDS and the War on Drugs. Did any of that occur to you at the time? Were you worried about STDs, getting caught with drugs, etc. or was it really such a different time?

Janet Capron: Urgency—that’s a great word for it. People got busted and put away—my ex-husband narrowly escaped that—but on the whole we weren’t afraid. In fact, those of us who just used were pretty brazen. Drugs were everywhere. In spite of Viet Nam, the 60s was about strength in numbers, innocence, flower power, etc. The 70s caught a lot of us off guard—it was about disillusion—the disintegration of the counter-culture, which perfectly mirrored my own.

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However, both the late 60s and 70s were also about liberation, especially for women. And yes, that era really was a complete anomaly. When I came of age, there were no STDs that couldn’t be instantly cured with one shot. And The Pill was new—freeing women up in a way that would have been inconceivable only a short time before BLUE MONEY begins in 1971. We, my generation, were on the front lines of the sexual revolution. Everything aligned to make it so.

L.L.: What’s keeping you awake at night now?

Janet Capron:  A lot—mortality or how the book’s doing, but I also worry about losing touch with reality, which is so easy to do here in the West Village. I think about: 1) Mass incarceration and the systemic murder of colonized Africans in our midst. I can’t afford to ignore what’s happening in the inner city, even if it seems far away and practically out of sight, because I could be next; 2) Endless wars, also far away and practically out of sight, continuously waged to gird our economy and sustain the empire; 3) The disappearing Monarch butterflies as much as rising oceans and the threat of fracking; and 4) of course, our unhinged president.

I feel as though I have to live in denial a lot of the time just to get on with life.

L.L.: Janet, it’s been such a pleasure and I wish you much success with BLUE MONEY. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?Monarch_In_May.jpg

Janet Capron:

Q: Is there a next book?

A: Yes! I’m writing it now and hope I’ll have an opportunity to talk to you about it down the road.

Thank you, Leslie, for your wonderful critique of BLUE MONEY and your provocative, interesting questions! I look forward to your memoir.

For more information about the book, to connect with Janet via social media, or to purchase a copy of BLUE MONEY, please see:

©Julia Smith; 2017; LibraryOfCongress#1-5572467901on7/5/17; ☎︎ 212-677-5759ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Janet Capron is a writer based in New York City. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Blue Money is her first book.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media hang-outs:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Unnamed Press and used with permission. Students outside at Columbia University retrieved from usnews.com, vintage Park Ave postcard from  , women’s lib march from ourbodiesourselves.com  image of 1971 NYC from flickr, all on 10.18.17. “Reading is my Superpower” from L. Lindsay’s personal archives]

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Wednesdays with Writers: Jane Robins discusses her first psychological thriller, WHITE BODIES, how she had to ‘unlearn’ many of her journalist traits, her love for psychology, her fascination with twins & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A riveting, well-written psychological suspense from debut novelist Jane Robins, WHITE BODIES explores the intimate bond of twins. Callie and Tilda are adult twins living in London. Callie is the quiet, reserved, ‘observer’ of the two; she doesn’t date much, she works in a bookstore. She has a strange fascination with her sister, eating bits of her hair, fingernails, paper she’s touched.

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Tilda is gregarious, gorgeous, an actress. She has always been the ‘popular’ one, even as children. Yet, something strange is brewing under the surface. When Tilda starts dating Felix, they seem like the perfect couple: young, good-looking, wealthy, and completely in love. Callie is not happy with the union. Felix seems to have a strange emotional and physical hold over her sister. Callie starts researching controlling me on-line and finds herself swept into the web of unsavory individuals, mostly women who are abused. Yet they have dark, sinister plans they hope to implicate Callie. She will stop at nothing to protect her sister. WHITE BODIES is multi-layered, literary, and highly complex. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s popular film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. I found the psychology behind the characters’ motivations absolutely fascinating.

Jane is an acclaimed nonfiction writer in the UK, uniquely qualified to write WHITE BODIES. Her historical true crime has been yielded as ‘vividly characterized, wonderfully atmospheric , and thoroughly gripping.’ (Evening Standard, Books of the Year).

I’m thrilled to welcome Jane Robins to the blog couch.

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Leslie Lindsay: Lately, I’m interested in the ‘hook’ that draws writers (and readers) into the story. You have a wonderful one with: 

“The evidence suggests that Felix showered.” 

How did this first line come to you? And what prompted the story? 

Jane Robins: I had so many first lines! Like titles, I find them difficult, and spend days trying out different versions. I’ve just opened an old file, to see what my first line was in that draft – and this is what I found:

‘If you wish to take this to the next stage, tell me now.

 I stare at the message on the screen.  All I need to do is click, and he will be gone forever.  How sweet it will be – his death, and then the silence.  Never again will I have to listen to his arrogant voice barking orders at my sister, or watch as he makes his claim on her, wrapping his beefy arm around her shoulder in a grotesque imitation of caring.  I have come to loathe the small things – the slant of his ice-blue eyes, the way he stands with his chest so proud, and the force with which he slams the door of his hideous car, my sister inside, before he drives her away.  It has not taken long to make my decision – I will click.  I look at the keyboard and my finger, which is trembling. Not from fear, I think, but exhilaration.’ 

As you see – everything was different! Including the plot, the personality of the 220px-Strangers_on_a_Train_(film).jpgcharacters and the whole tone of the novel – which is more breathy in this earlier incarnation. I just try stuff out – and see what I like. ‘The evidence suggests that Felix showered,’ was much further down the text until a pretty recent draft. Then I thought – I know – I’ll see what that looks like at the top – and I liked that it seems understated, but actually the reader knows that a criminal death is imminent.

It was a similar process with developing the plot. I started out by thinking – what if  the STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN plot was brought into the internet age? And then I kept adding more ‘what ifs’, until I was satisfied that I had something truly exciting and original to work with.

A GOOD HOUSEKEEPING “GREAT READ”

“A deliciously creepy psychological thriller.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

L.L.: WHITE BODIES is loosely based on the classic Hitchcock film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Yet, you’ve modernized it to include the Internet. What intrigues you about old films and also the anonymity of the Internet? 

Jane Robins: I love those films where the viewer is drawn in by questioning the motives and behaviour of characters who, in turn, are all at odds with each other, and questioning each other – and Hitchcock did that brilliantly. In contrast, so many modern films have a strong action element – and as soon as the car chase starts, or ‘the running’ – I’m bored. When my son and I try to decide what movie to watch in the evening, I’ll always ask ‘how much running in it?’ and generally a lot of running will put me off. CHARIOTS OF FIRE excepted, of course.

images (19)As for the Internet. It’s so much part of modern life that you can’t write a contemporary thriller without at least mentioning it. In White Bodies I decided to take the Internet, and use it as a plot device. Then, once I’d started writing, I realised that I could have a lot of fun with it.

L.L.: There’s a good amount of unsettling psychological pathology under all of your characters, but especially Tilda, Felix, and Callie. What, if any research did you do to get it ‘just right?’

Jane Robins: I love reading articles about psychology, and do it all the time – for pleasure. So I think a lot of that material is lodged in my brain, and I draw upon it. Also, two of my non-fiction books are works of historical true crime, and I spent ages – a lot of it in the wonderful British Library in London – reading accounts of the personalities of perpetrators, victims and witnesses of horrific crimes. I was particularly fascinated by witness statements to the police from people who were essentially in a pre-Freudian age. For me, part of the attraction of writing this sort of book is to apply a novelist’s eye to characters, rather than a quasi-medical one.

L.L.: I understand you’re also a former journalist. How did that experience shape that of a novelist, particularly in this [psychological suspense] genre? 

Jane Robins: Actually, I had to unlearn a lot of journalistic habits. The journalist in me wants to get to the point too quickly for a suspense novel, and to state everything too explicitly. I have to remind myself to slow down and ‘show not tell;’ although it’s a myth that ‘telling’ doesn’t work well in fiction – it has its place. As a journalist, I bashed out articles (I’ve worked on a Daily National Paper) and pressed send. As a novelist, I read and reread my text, and beat myself up over the inadequacy of what I’ve just written, and go for a walk to think about it, then delete and rewrite. It’s all so time-consuming!

On the plus side – writing is second nature to me, as I’ve spent many thousands of days over the past decades doing little other than writing. I never agonise over getting started, or having writer’s block. Experience has taught me just to get on with it. Write anything, and even if it doesn’t end up in the final version, you’ll get something out of it. Also, my journalistic past makes me respect spare, fluid prose, tight structure and the dreaded deadlines.

L.L.: There’s a scene toward the end of the book in which Callie and Tilda are wpid-151039_4210500773591_710088986_n1entwined in a slightly incestual moment. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s definitely creepy and unsettling. I think Tilda says something about them being ‘in the womb’ during that moment. Can you talk about how you wrote the dynamic of twins and why they seem so fascinating from a literary stand-point? 

Jane Robins: I suppose I liked the intensity of the image of two people so close and yet so different. Callie really feels that biological bond, and it’s part of her obsessive nature to invest it with a huge amount of meaning. Also, she doesn’t know where she fits in the world, and being a twin helps her feel more secure and less alone. I think this excerpt explains how I felt about the twins relationship; it’s also from that early draft I just opened up on my laptop (which I haven’t read since 2015!):

‘I am tempted to say that Tilda and I understood each other because of the closeness that was forced on us, and began in the womb, but that’s not true – our personalities are too different. It’s better to say that we recognised each other in an intense way, like recognising night or grass or sky, something that would make you die if it was taken away.’

I enjoyed giving Callie something so intense to focus on. She’s quite melodramatic about it – and I loved writing in that voice.

 

 

L.L.: Jane, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Q: Am I working on another novel? 

A: Yes! In my next novel, I’m minimising the Internet as much as I can – but I’m sure I’ll come back to it some time.

Leslie, thanks for such great questions! It’s been a pleasure.

 

For more information, to connect with Jane Robins via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHITE BODIES, please see:

Jane Robins Author Portrait credit %40Mat Smith.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Robins began her career as a journalist with The Economist, The Independent, and the BBC. She has made a specialty of writing historical true crime and has a particular interest in the history of forensics. She has published three books of nonfiction in the UK,Rebel Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2006), The Magnificent Spilsbury (John Murray, 2010), andThe Curious Habits of Doctor Adams (John Murray, 2013). More recently, she has been a Fellow at the Royal Literary Fund.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Touchstone and used with permission. Image of ‘first line’ from , image of ‘Strangers on a Train’ from Wikipedia, British Library from library archives, all retrieved on 10.21.17 image of of twins in womb from ]

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Wednesdays with Writers: Janelle Brown on salty snacks and trashy magazines, writing everyday while her kids are at school; identity, the dark side of motherhood, how the ending of WATCH ME DISAPPEAR was changed three times, & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Tantalizing and twisty, this literary suspense is a clever meditation on what it means to be a family, to really know someone. 

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Billie (Sybilla) Flanagan, a beautiful, charismatic Berkeley mom goes on a solo hike in the Desolation Wilderness never to return. It’s been a year and…where is she? Picking up the pieces are her husband and 16 year-old daughter, Olive who are seeking a death certificate as she is now presumed dead (all that’s found of her is a lone hiking boot).

Olive and Jonathan do the best they can, but they are shattered, confused, broken. Jonathan is a writer attempting a loving memoir about his wife and death, Olive attends a prestigious all-girls prep school. But then Olive starts having visions/hallucinations/waking dreams of her mother. Jonathan’s concerned about her emotional stability and schleps her to doctors trying to find the source of the problem. But secrets from Billie’s past surface, leading both Jonathan and Olive the person they once shared a life with. 

Together–and somewhat reluctantly–Jonathan and Olive embark on a quest to discover the true Billie Flanagan, while at the same time, learning important truths about themselves.

I’m super jazzed to have Janelle Brown with us today to chat about her book and writing and everything in between.

Leslie Lindsay: Janelle, it’s great to have you. I find missing people stories so
fear-to-a-great-extent-is-born-of-a-story-we-tell-ourselvesfascinating. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR is such much more than ‘just another missing person.’ Can you tell us what you see as the overarching themes in this story?

Janelle Brown: This book is about the stories that we tell ourselves – about who we are, and about the people we love – and how those stories are so often subjective. We see what we want to see, and blind ourselves to things that are inconvenient to think about. It’s also a bit about the dark side of motherhood, as well as about the journey of losing and/or finding yourself. 

L.L.: How might the story have been different if it were Jonathan who went missing? Why do we have such a fascination with missing mothers and wives?

Janelle Brown:  I think our fascination with missing moms/wives has a lot to do with our notions of the mother – child bond: That it is so unbreakable, that a mother being separated from her child is so much worse than a father. (I personally don’t think this is necessarily true, but culturally that’s the common thinking.) There’s all kinds of gender norms about women being more vulnerable (both physically and emotionally) that supposedly makes it more alarming when a woman goes missing; which is part of why I wanted Billie to NOT be a vulnerable woman, but very much the author of her own fate.

It’s hard for me to imagine the story with Jonathan being missing because it would have been so different. He’s an utterly different kind of character than Billie so really it would have been an entirely new story.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? How was this book conceived and narrated? Do you plot, outline, or let the muse guide you? Do you ever write yourself into corners and think, ‘what have I done?!’

Janelle Brown:  I let the story carry me where it wants to go. I’ll start out with an idea and a rough plot outline, and my characters. But as the characters come to life they start informing & changing the story. So I often end up in places that I didn’t necessarily intend to go, and end up reshaping the book to fit the new direction.

This book was reshaped and rewritten about four times, including some very radical changes. (The whole ending changed, three times!)

“Poignant and captivating…Brown deftly peels away the layers of a loving marriage to reveal a haunting mystery and a devastating truth: that no matter how much you love someone; you can never truly know them.”

–Award-winning author Laura McHugh

L.L.: I enjoyed Olive so much—especially her visions/seizures. And also your reference to Lois Duncan novels! In fact, I just dug my old Lois Duncan books out of their 30 year hiding place and presented them to my daughter.  She loves them! What kind of research—if any—did you do to make Olive’s visions so tangible?

Janelle Brown:  Well, a lifetime of fascination with stories of the paranormal helped. (I was a huge Lois Duncan fan as a kid, and it’s evolved from there.) I also did some reading – including books by Oliver Sacks about grief & hallucinations, a lot of reading on paranormal sites, etc. I wanted Olive’s visions to feel very loisduncan.pngdistinctive and grounded in the reality of her relationship with her mother; and also be experiences that could be explained in many different ways depending on what you want to see.

L.L.: I wanted to talk about the title a bit. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR can be applied to just about any character in the book: Billie, for obvious reasons but also Jonathan and Olive. I think the important thing here is that the characters somehow grow and change. Can you talk about that, please? And did the title stay from your working title to the final?

Janelle Brown: The title came after I’d already written half of the book (after a LOT of brainstorming), and it’s something that actually grew on me thematically as I was writing the second half of the book (and then rewriting it again). You’re right, the book is about not just the physical disappearance of Billie but also about both people disappearing emotionally – from their relationships with other people, and into themselves – as well as evolving into other people entirely and losing who they once thought they were.

L.L.: What is a fact few people know about you? Do you have any writing rituals or routines? Guilty pleasures? An obsession?  

Janelle Brown:  Writing routines: I go to an office that I share with a bunch of other writers in Silver Lake (Los Angeles, where I live).  We have a great little community. I try to sit down and write every day, while my kids are in school; which isn’t always easy but I at least have my rear end in a chair and am staring at a screen.

Obsessions? Books. I read a ton. Probably too much, if that’s possible.

Guilty pleasures? Salty snacks. Trashy magazines.

L.L.: Janelle, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about but should have?

Janelle Brown: Not at all, it’s been a pleasure! (Not a guilty one, either.)

For more information about the book, to connect with Janelle through social media, or to purchase a copy of WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, please see: 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Janelle Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Watch Me Disappear, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and This Is Where We Live. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Wired, Self, The Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. Previously, she worked as a senior writer at Salon, and began her career as a staff writer at Wired during the dotcom boom years, working on seminal Web sites like HotWired and Wired News. A native of San Francisco and graduate of UC Berkeley, she has since defected to Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Greg, their two children, and a geriatric lab mix named Guster.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media hangouts:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Random House/Speigel & Grau and used with permission. Author image credit: Michael Smiy. Image of Lois Duncan novels retrieved from the New York Public Library website, Cheryl Strayed quote from on 10.16.17]