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:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

 

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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:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

[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:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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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:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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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.

Leffler-WomensLib1970_WashingtonDC

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:

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

[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.

White Bodies cover

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.

The-Best-First-Line-of-Your-Novel

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]

Wednesdays with Writers: Thriller/Action writer and creator of the RAMBO series, David Morrell talks about writing the story you were born to write, why psych suspense might be a dying trend, his fear of the marketplace being saturated with too many stories (including original scripted TV series), ROSEMARY’S BABY 50th anniversary & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Rosemarys Baby-CB1r2b

It’s a dreary morning here in Chicagoland. The landscape is bathed in a white mist, and the trees are changing color, leaves dropping one by one. There’s a hush about the air, a tentative pull on the senses that makes us a little more alert, a little more intuitive.

So it might be time to settle in with a classic horror story.

Originally published in 1967, at a time when the ordinary became menacing, ROSEMARY’S BABY brought readers to the brink of what appeared to mundane details that might actually be hiding tragic truths.

Ira Levin, the author of seven books, ranging from horror to mystery to science fiction, among others received an Edgar in 1954 for A KISS BEFORE DYING (his Ira_Levin_novelist.pngfirst novel) and again in 1980 for his play, DEATHTRAP. He received the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association in 1996. Stephen King referred to Ira Levin as the “Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel.” In 2003, he received yet another accolade: the Mystery Writers of America’s Grandmaster Award. ROSEMARY’S BABY sold millions after The Today Show interviewed him, surging the title onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Ira Levin passed in 2007 at the age of 78 in his Manhattan home. Despite the kind of works he’s famous for, Levin was considered mild-mannered and modest.

It would be in true horror fashion if I had Mr. Levin on my blog couch today. Alas, I do not live in a haunted manse shrouded in cobwebs and the wedding cake uneaten. But that’s another story for another time.

Please join me in welcoming David Morrell, who is just as decorated as Ira Levin—220px-Firstbloodbookperhaps more. He’s the author of FIRST BLOOD (from which “Rambo” was created), as well as numerous NYT bestsellers. He’s also the recipient of several major accolades, including the Thriller Master award from International Thriller Writers and three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association.

Leslie Lindsay: David, it’s an honor. Thank you for popping by. What draws you to the thriller/horror genre?

David Morrell: I had a tough childhood. My father died in combat. My mother couldn’t take care of me and earn a living, so she put me in an orphanage when I was three. A year later, she remarried, but my stepfather didn’t like children, or maybe it was me in particular he didn’t like. They argued all the time. Lots of verbal violence and sometimes physical. Afraid, I slept under my bed, telling stories to myself in which I was a hero rescuing helpless people. Novelist Graham Greene believed that “an unhappy childhood is a goldmine for a writer.” You could say I was programmed for the thriller and horror genres.

L.L.: In your introduction to ROSEMARY’S BABY, you mention how Levin—and many of his predecessors—take the mundane and spin it into something dark and menacing. This tactic is hugely successful. Why is that?

David Morrell: Using familiar, mundane elements to make horror believable seems obvious, and yet it took a long time for the technique to emerge. In the 1950s, Richard Matheson (THE SHRINKING MAN), Robert Bloch (PSYCHO), and Jack Finney (THE BODY SNATCHERS) are generally credited with inventing it. I quote Douglas E. Winter about how these authors brought “fear from the Gothic landscapes of misty moors and haunted mansions, (inviting) terror into our shopping malls and peaceful neighborhoods—into the house next door.” A decade later, Ira Levin (ROSEMARY’S BABY), William Peter Blatty (THE EXORCIST), and Thomas Tryon (THE OTHER) further developed the technique. Then came the next stage of realistic horror with Stephen King and Peter Straub, etc. So, Levin is solidly in the middle of this trend. His mundane details—the best place to buy swordfish steaks in Manhattan, for example—made what Levin called his “unbelievables” believeable. It was a horror novel that didn’t feel like a genre novel.

L.L.: There is a good deal of religious references in ROSEMARY’S BABY. For one,A1Vmrrc2S+L._SY445_ (1).jpg the second half of her name—Mary. But also: “Oh God!” “hell” and “what the devil” in the dialogue. It’s all there, but one has to be an observant reader. What is your understanding about how Levin structured this tale? And what—if any—research did he do to get it “just right?”

David Morrell: Yes, most of the expletives in ROSEMARY’S BABY have a religious context, but they’re so carefully embedded that readers feel the implication more than notice it. Levin thought it would be interesting for Rosemary (you noted the irony of the second part of her name) to give birth to the Devil’s child on June 25, 1966—a date that’s a version of the sign of the Devil, 666, and that’s also the
calendar opposite of December 25, Christmas. He counted nine months backward and collected newspapers about all the important things that had happened in New York City around September and October of 1965. An electrical blackout, a New York Times strike, John Lindsay’s mayoral campaign, and especially a visit by Pope Paul VI who officiated at a mass in Yankee Stadium on October 5. All of these formed the realistic foundation for the novel. The implication is that Satan impregnated Rosemary during the Pope’s visit.

L.L.: I read, too that the movie adaptation of ROSEMARY’S BABY is “one of the most faithful ever” (I think Levin said that himself); whole pages of dialogue are in the movie, so too are specific colors. But it’s hardly the case that movie adaptations are as exact as the book.  Number one, why is that?  Two, what has been your experience of your book to movie adaptations—I’m especially thinking of RAMBO?

David Morrell: Director/screenwriter Roman Polanski was inexperienced with Hollywood’s ways and thought that a film necessarily had to be faithful to its source material. By the time he found out otherwise, he’d crafted a perfect distillation of the novel, quite an achievement given that the book is several hundred pages long while many screenplays are 110 pages long, with a lot of white space. Too often, directors and screenwriters change things to show how creative they are.51xanpEpeqL._SX342_

As for my experience with the film adaptation of my novel, FIRST BLOOD, there were 26 screenplays written for various studios that owned the movie rights at one time or another. Some of the screenplays were unintentionally funny, such as a character referring to Rambo as “the Bobby Riggs of guerrilla warfare.” The final result (released in 1982, ten years after my novel was published) is remarkably similar in terms of plot, but it interprets Rambo differently (as a victim rather than someone who’s furious about what the Vietnam War did to him). Because the character was softened, the ending was changed. Also the role of the police chief was diminished. Despite these differences, I like the film. It’s very well made, and the action scenes get better each year because the stunts are real, not computer generated. For the U.S. Blu-ray DVD of the film, I recorded a full-length audio commentary in which I compare the two.

L.L.: As for writing—what might be your best tips for writing thrillers and also today’s hot genre (domestic) psych suspense?

David Morrell: I teach writing at various conferences, and I always emphasize these two mantras. 1. Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author. 2. Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside. These days, domestic psychological suspense is the hot subgenre. It can be summarized as “The person closest to you is your worst enemy.” It’s accompanied by the technique of the unreliable first person in which everyone is basically a liar. The subgenre started with Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL in 2012, and after only five years, every agent and editor I speak with complains that this is mostly what’s being 51-89vmRIiL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_submitted [to them.] There are too many followers. You can’t have a long career unless you establish your own identity and make other people imitate you. I talk about this in my The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing.

L.L.: Of all your books and your multiple series, is there any one that stands out as something you are most proud of? I know, a bit like choosing your favorite child.

David Morrell: Over 45 years, there’ve been many books. But four of them stand out for me. FIRST BLOOD (1972), because that debut novel set everything in motion for me and has been called “the father of the modern action novel.” THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (1984) made a difference also, because it was one of the first espionage novels to blend the British and American spy-novel traditions. The British had authentic spy tradecraft but almost no action. The Americans had plenty of action but laughable spy tactics. I thought it would be interesting to merge the strengths of the two. FIREFLIES (1988) is personally important to me because it’s a meditation about grief after my fifteen-year-old son, Matthew, died from a rare bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma. Finally, in response to another death, that of my 14-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, from the same disease, I escaped into 1850s London with three Victorian mystery/thrillers (MURDER AS A FINE ART, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, and RULER OF THE NIGHT). They feature a notorious real-life literary celebrity of the time, Thomas De Quincey, who invented the word “subconscious.” De Quincey’s daughter, Emily, is a strong character in these books and represents the 220px-Thomas_de_Quincey_by_Sir_John_Watson-Gordonindependent woman that I wanted my granddaughter to have the chance to become.

L.L.: Besides scary stories, what’s keeping you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.

David Morrell: For 7 years, while I wrote my Victorian novels, I convinced myself that I was on the gothic fogbound streets of 1850s London. When my imagination returned to the present, the hostile tone of the modern world bludgeoned me. FIRST BLOOD came out of the cultural violence of hundreds of riots in the late 1960s. I worry that we’re headed that way again.

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

David Morrell: Just a thought about the almost 500 original scripted TV series that are currently being shown either on network TV, cable, or via streaming. No exaggeration. That’s how many there are. When I’m at social events, I don’t hear people talking about books as much as what they’re binge-watching on TV. Add to this the 800,000 self-published books that were released last year, and you have the most competitive [book/publishing] market I’ve ever seen. More and more, I advise beginning authors to write the book they were born to write rather than what’s currently hot, because trends are ever-changing. As I said earlier, if we chase the market, we’ll always see its backside.

For more information, to connect with David Morrell via social media, or to purchase the 50th anniversary edition of ROSEMARY’S BABY, please see: 

DavidMorrell_auphoto.jpegABOUT THE AUTHOR:  David Morrell is the author of First Blood, the acclaimed novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a PhD from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include The Brotherhood of the Rose, the basis for the only television miniseries to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. An Edgar, Anthony, and Arthur Ellis finalist, an Inkpot, Macavity, and Nero recipient, Morrell has three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association and the Thriller Master award from International Thriller Writers. Bouchercon, the world’s largest conference for crime-fiction readers and author, gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award. Visit him at www.davidmorrell.net.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. Image of FIRST BLOOD original cover retrieved from Wikipedia, image of Ira Levin from Wikipedia, image of Blu-Ray RAMBO and SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, and DVD cover of Rosemary’s Baby retrieved from Amazon, Thomas De Quincey from Wikipedia, all on 9.25.17] 

 

WeekEND Reading: Rachel Khong talks about how we’re all taking care of one another imperfectly, as best we can, memory, her fondness for random facts, how long drives feed her creativity well, and so much more in GOODBYE, VITAMIN

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Off-beat, slightly quirky but oh-so well done tale of love, loss, fathers and daughters, and memory. 

download (1)Clever, tender and wry, GOODBYE, VITAMIN is a study of one family, their descent into decay and then back out again…maybe. It’s a poignant read that sneaks up on you and is filled with such beautiful vignettes of life, love, relationships (romantic, between siblings, father-daughter, mother-daughter). I laughed, I cried, I was reminded of my own childhood, sweet things my father did (Post-It notes every morning), and so much more.

Ruth is 30 years old and recently disengaged from her fiance, Joel when her father’s heath declines and she is ‘called home’ to San Francisco from the east coast to support her mother and mind her father. Her father was once a prominent history professor but now is doing odd, flaky things. Yet his love for his daughter is palpable. 

I’m so honored to welcome Rachel Khong to the blog. Pull up a chair and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Rachel, it’s a pleasure to chat with you about your debut, GOODBYE, VITAMIN. As I was reading, I had to flip to the back jacket to make sure this wasn’t a memoir. It’s not—as far as I know. What prompted this story? Are there any parallels to your real-life?

Rachel Khong:  What prompted this story was the voice of the main character, Ruth. I wrote a short story in her voice and loved it so much I decided to keep doing it in novel format. This book was definitely inspired by my experience as a woman, thinking about the things that a lot of young women think about—namely, failed relationships and whether or not they “count” for something. And I was thinking a lot about memory, and the role that it plays in our relationships, whether with our friends or family, or with ourselves. Memory is so flawed, and yet it makes us who we are.

“A CATALOGUE OF DAYS, A LOVE SONG TO THEIR EPHEMERA, A COLLECTION OF SNAPSHOTS OF QUOTIDIAN CELEBRATIONS AND FAILURES. THE SUM OF THESE BEATS IS A BOOK THAT UNEXPECTEDLY STRIPS YOU DOWN AND LEAVES YOU FEELING MORE FORGIVING—AND FORGIVEN.”

—STEPHANIE DANLER, AUTHOR OF SWEETBITTER

L.L.: GOODBYE, VITAMIN is slightly unconventional in terms of storytelling. There are no chapters; instead, each section is a date over the course of a year; it’s book one could easily finish in a single sitting. But I am sure it took you at least a year to write. Can you tell us a little about your structure and also your time line for writing?

Rachel Khong: It took me more like six years, actually! I always intended to write a book that could be read in a single sitting, because I wanted to be a really 16906138immersive book— a book that would take you away from your real life, and into the lives of these characters, however briefly. I love when an author can get his or her rhythms lodged into your brain, and I wanted that to happen with this book. As for the structure itself, I really wanted it to mimic the day-to-day miscellany of life—for it to contain both the ups and the downs, and for it to be a reflection of those sometimes quieter moments that don’t make it into the grand story we tell ourselves about our lives. But because the book’s form isn’t a straightforward A to B, or particularly plot driven, the revision often wasn’t straightforward either: the process of writing it involved a lot of reflection and accumulation of small details that got layered into the book.

L.L.: I found that there are so many factoids in GOODBYE, VITAMIN that caught me by surprise—not just about Alzheimer’s but about not flushing your (presumed dead) goldfish down the toilet. (I actually had to look those images up on Google!) The origin of the word testify…only fresh materials on the floats in the Rose Bowl parade…I’m curious what—if any—research you did for this book?sZaypU6v

Rachel Khong: For me, writing fiction is a big tangled mess of autobiography, observation, imagination, and also research. You also asked about the writing process—sometimes, when you can’t do one kind of writing, or when your imagination well has run dry, you can at least draw from autobiography, or observation, or just straight-up reading. When I didn’t know what would happen next in the book, sometimes it was useful to do research on topics I was interested in. I did a lot of reading about Alzheimer’s caregivers on online forums, but it’s also true that I have a fondness for fun facts. Again, this is a book about memory, so I’m interested in what random things get lodged in our brains. All our brains are repositories for such strange things.

L.L.: Ruth is given this beautiful gift from her father—a notebook of musings and observations he kept of her younger days. How I love this (and wished I had done something similar for my girls—guess it’s not too late, they are 10 and 12). Is this something your dad has done for you? Mine left rhyming Post-It notes for me each morning which I still treasure.

Rachel Khong: Definitely not. My parents are both civil engineers and not big readers or writers—I’m a black sheep in that way. My dad did make me lunches throughout school—they were always the same: one or two slices of cold cut turkey and a thin layer of mayo, between wheat bread. Keeping a journal is something I hope to do for my kids if I ever have them, though!  Fresh lemons on the rustic tale

L.L.: I think GOODBYE, VITAMIN is a bit of that reversal we all experience in life. First our parents care for us and then we care for them. Was this your intention when you set out to write?

Rachel Khong: I didn’t have any clear-cut intentions when I set out to write, more questions than answers. I was interested in this idea that we are all sort of winging it through life. Your parents are winging it, even as they’re parenting you. We’re all taking care of one another imperfectly, as best we can. 

L.L.: What was the last thing you forgot to do? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Rachel Khong: This year has been so crazy (two books, lots of travel, I also got married) that I forgot to get a smog check for my car for, oh, six months? In that time, I’ve gotten two tickets for expired registration. I finally just got my smog check, so I hope the DMV sends me my sticker soon!

L.L.: Where do you draw your creative inspiration?

Rachel Khong: Good books! And good comedy. And long walks are helpful for shaking ideas loose. Also long drives.

L.L.: Rachel, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for chatting with us today—and congrats on GOODBYE, VITAMIN. Is there anything else I should have asked?

Rachel Khong: It was my pleasure and honor! Thank you for having me!

For more information, to connect with Rachel via social media, or to purchase a copy of GOODBYE, VITAMIN, please see: 

200058641ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Khong grew up in Southern California, and holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Florida. From 2011 to 2016, she was the managing editor then executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in JOYLAND, American Short Fiction, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and California Sunday. She lives in San Francisco. GOODBYE, VITAMIN is her first novel.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Henry Holt. Image of trivia brain from brainblasttrivia.com, rustic lemons from actively.com, day-at-a-glance image retrieved from target.com, all on 10.7.17]

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Abigail Lawless is ‘good company’ in brooding 1816 Dublin as she uncovers secrets of a Christian sect, mysterious deaths, and more in Andrew Hughes’ THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, plus writing advice, real-crime TV binges, & a historical female hangwoman

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Spunky and bright Abigail Lawless, uncovers evidence that a recent suicide may have been murder in 1816 Dublin. 

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It’s October and that officially means all of us who love a tale of the gloomy and grisly can be at home reading. Even better if rain is drumming down your windows and a you live in a derelict country manor.

A young nursemaid has concealed a pregnancy and then murdered her newborn in the home a prominent family in a radical Christian sect known as the Brethren. Rumors swirl about the identity of the child’s father, but before an inquest can be made, the maid is found dead of an apparent suicide.

And so it begins, a lovely relationship between Abby Lawless and her father, the town’s coroner. Abby is a spunky, slightly quirky young woman with an adventuresome spirit; I was taken with her almost immediately. Plus, she loves science.

Ireland 2014 249But it’s 1816 in Dublin and young women just don’t run around with their academic fathers who teach at Trinity College dissecting the dead. At one point in the story, Abby says [and I’m paraphrasing]:

“Well, if I were a man and had this interest, it would be considered a fascination but I’m a woman and so it’s a macabre fixation.” 

There are a few twists and turns in THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, some good action scenes, and a little romantic relief as well. Hughes does a considerable job of ‘laying the ground,’ and setting a compelling scene of brooding Irish landscape. His research is evident, too and accurately displays a historical tale of murder, suicide, and forensic science.

I am honored to welcome Andrew Hughes to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Lately, I’ve been interested in beginnings. THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER begins like this:

“For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.”

What instigated the beginning of this tale for you and what advice would you give to writers looking for a really fantastic ‘hook?’

Andrew Hughes: Thanks, Leslie. One of the challenges I had early on was to capture Abigail’s voice, her wit and her appreciation of the macabre, particularly as the story was told in the first person. I was imagining a Jane Austen type heroine loose in Regency Dublin, and was thinking about some of the tropes in period fiction when the line popped into my head. I liked it as well because it hints at the relationship she has with her father, his humor and his indulgence of her more morbid interests.

As for advice for writers, I’d say just concentrate on voice and character and don’t get bogged down. Get the plot started as quickly as possible and don’t look back.

L.L.: Andrew, you do a wonderful job depicting 1816 Dublin. The year is known as, “the year without summer.” Can you tell us a little about your research? 

Andrew Hughes: My first book was a social history of Dublin called LIVES LESS ORDINARY, which looked at all the people who lived in one of the city’s Georgian squares. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all that research was giving me a terrific yearwithoutsummersetting for historical fiction and a ready-made cast of characters.

I read about “the year without a summer” a while ago. A dust cloud from the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia settled over Western Europe, bringing frost to mid-July, crop failures and hardship. The sun turned blood-red, and black dots scattered about its disk became clear to the naked eye.

At the same time in Dublin there was a growing conflict between students of the Enlightenment and a burgeoning evangelical movement whose proselytizing would become known as the Second Reformation. For me, the eerie weather, religious fervor and rationalist zeal created a perfect tinder-box atmosphere for historical crime fiction.

In terms of specific research, I found newspaper transcripts of 19th Century inquests to be a great source. Each inquest was its own mini-drama – the description of the victim, particulars of the crime, the testimony of witnesses, often people from the poorest backgrounds whose voices would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

L.L.: I’ve always loved science, but forensics and forensic psychology really fascinate. In fact, I looked up some of the books you mention in the novel, Male’s EPITOME OF FORENSICS, for example. I didn’t find it. I imagine it’s likely in a special collection somewhere? Trinity College, perhaps?

Andrew Hughes: I used a slightly abridged title! In full it’s An Epitome of Juridical or Forensic Medicine; for the use of medical men, coroners, and barristers, and it’s available online here. 

It was published in 1816, which was perfectly timed for me. Male was a surgeon who had grown increasingly frustrated at the inability of coroners to identify cases of murder because of a lack of medical knowledge. He wrote a clear guide outlining the procedures for inspecting a body, the marks associated with violent deaths, the scientific tests to establish poisons, and so on. It became my textbook for Abigail and her forensic adventures.

L.L.: And Abigail Lawless! What a fun, quirky, adventuresome young woman. How did you dream up her character? Is she based off anyone you know?

Andrew Hughes: For me, Abigail was a reaction to my first novel, THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT, which was based on a true-life murderer and police informer in 1840s Dublin. That was a first-person narrative told from the murderer’s point of view, and while at times it was fun to inhabit his amoral head, I knew that for my next book I wanted the main character to be the hero. I also wanted to write about a young woman rather than a man, and since she would need plausible access to cases of murder and their investigations, the idea of the coroner’s daughter came to be.

I didn’t base her on anyone in particular. I imagined a modern Irish girl having to make her way in that society, the constraints and prejudices she would have to face. She’s headstrong and rebellious, but also a loving daughter, a kind friend. One of the reviewers over here [in Ireland] called her “great company”, which I liked.31b975f8b7633c47d7a1ba1d3a863ac8

L.L.: Also, I loved the derelict manor of Kilbride. There’s something brooding and intriguing about the obscure, bringing a sense of doom and tension to writing. Does the place exist and if not, what was your inspiration?

Andrew Hughes: Yes, Manor Kilbride is a village about an hour south of Dublin. I remember passing the church there once, St John’s, and being struck by the setting.
It’s a simple chapel perched on a hillside with listing headstones and dark woods surrounding – the perfect gothic location. Mr Darby’s ruined vicarage I just made up myself. I found out later that the village and church were used as sets in the Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane. Their location scout obviously felt the same way I did.

L.L.: Can you talk a little about the Christian sect, the Brethren, mentioned in THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER? Was this purely fictional, or based in history?

Andrew Hughes: That came out of my LIVES LESS ORDINARY book. The Plymouth Brethren were an evangelical movement that first began meeting in Fitzwilliam Square in the 1820s. Their gatherings in England took place in Plymouth so that’s where they got the name. In a general sense, they were an inspiration for the sect in Plym.jpgTHE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, and their charismatic leader was also called Mr Darby. But in Ireland in the early 19th Century there was a growing evangelical reaction to revolutionary politics and the campaign for Catholic emancipation, not just confined to the Plymouth Brethren. Of course, any such conservative movement would find a natural antagonist in the curious, inconvenient, and intuitive Abigail.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary (and hopefully it’s not grave robbers)!

Andrew Hughes: Apart from worrying about the daily news, I’ve been catching up on a few true-crime series lately. I got through Making a Murderer and The Keepers on Netflix with unseemly haste. Also listened to the latest Serial podcast, S-Town. That was an excellent portrait of an intriguing man, but in the end I got tired of the hooks and cliffhangers that were never quite resolved. I’ve been writing a lot these past few months and have to catch up on my TBR pile, but I’ve started reading THE GINGER MAN again after the death of J.P. Donleavy.

L.L.: Andrew, it was a true joy. Thank you for chatting with us about THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Andrew Hughes: I’ve just finished a new novel, more Irish historical fiction, this time based on a real-life 18th Century character: Lady Betty, the merciless hangwoman of Roscommon! The ink is barely dry on that one, so I’ve not much more news, but keep an eye out for it in 2018.

 For more information, to connect with Andrew Hughes via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, please see: 

AndrewHughesABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andrew Hughes was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. It was while researching his acclaimed social history of Fitzwilliam Square—Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922—that he first came across the true story of John Delahunt that inspired his debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. Andrew lives in Dublin.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. Image of ‘the year without summer’ retrieved from The Paris Review, image of St. John’s Church/Kilbride retrieved from, image of The Plymouth Brethren retrieved from Wikipedia, all on 9.28.17. Trinity College library from L.Lindsay’s personal archives]