Wednesdays with Writers: Cathy Lamb talks about her newest book, THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS, how balancing subplots is like juggling cats, her love for homes & design, quirky families, how she never wants to read her own book again–and so much more.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From acclaimed author Cathy Lamb, comes a warm and thoughtful novel about the secrets that can break or unite a family—and the voices that resonate throughout our lives.

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Reading THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time; I laughed, I cried, most of the time, I didn’t even realize I was reading. It’s that good.

The Koslovsky family is a big, bustling American-Russian family living in Oregon, immigrants from Communist Russia. They have secrets, they have traumatic scars, but most of all–they have each other.

The main protagonist is Antonia (Toni) Koslovsky, the middle daughter of three sisters (Ellie, the youngest and Valeria, the oldest). They have a brother, Dmitri, too.  The cover of the book would have you believing the sisters are young, but they are grown, adult children with lives, jobs, and families (Valerie) of their own. The cover might also have you believing this is a saccharine story of girls dancing around May poles, but it is a sophisticated romp through grief, heartache, love, family dynamics (and dysfunction); a story of home, a narrative of mystery.

Told in a slightly nonlinear fashion, glimpses of Communist Moscow surface as a dark nebulous coloring present-day shenanigans, THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS is at once a mystery a poignant story of family told with compassion, warmth, and humor. Honestly, I don’t know how the author pulled this one off…it’s complex in character, and contains so many subplots, yet she pulls them together beautifully. And with humor. Did I mention humor?

Trust me, you’ll want to read this book, and then you won’t want it to end.

Today, I am honored to have Cathy Lamb in my office—not my floating tugboat home—though that wheelhouse window would be wonderful. We even have homemade Russian tea cakes and coffee so strong it will grow hair on your chest.

Leslie Lindsay: Cathy, it is such a pleasure to have you today. Thanks for popping by. So, I’m reading THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS and laughing, laughing, laughing. Sometimes my husband tells me to shut up. Affectionately. And then I start thinking, Cathy has nailed this Russian-American big family thing. First, I have to know your inspiration for this book, and then I have to know how much of it is based on your experiences?

Cathy Lamb: These are a few of the things/visions that inspired me to write The Language of Sisters:

  • Living in a yellow tugboat on the Willamette River.
  • Russian history.
  • A loud family restaurant in Portland, Oregon where the guests sing Russian drinking songs.
  • Communism.
  • Quirky cousins.
  • The experiences of an immigrant family.
  • A state prosecutor.
  • Sewing beautiful pillows.
  • Sisterhood.
  • A mystery, secrets, and the impact of both.
  • A blue heron.
  • A fight between cousins on a bathroom floor over a hair brush.
  • Falling in love with a hot DEA agent. (Uh. Hmmm. Let me clarify. I, personally, did not fall in love with a DEA agent. I have been married for 23 years to Innocent Husband.  He would not appreciate that.)

As for the book being based on my experiences? Very little.  I do have two sisters, and a brother, but – so that I don’t get in trouble with them – NONE of them are in the book. I promise.  I do live in Oregon, but alas, I don’t live on a tugboat in the Willamette River.

I used to write for a newspaper about homes, as Toni does. But I do not have a psychic connection with my sisters and I do not cook well at all. My children say I do not cook, I “re – heat.” Naughty children!

L.L.: I like big books…(and I cannot lie). THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS is long. But it doesn’t feel that way. The first time I picked up the book, I read 200 pages straight through. I didn’t even fall asleep—and that’s saying a lot for me, who gets drowsy fifteen minutes after sitting down. I think what I’m trying to say is, good job on pacing. Also, good job on keeping me engaged and throwing me right into the action via media res. And here’s the question: what was your writing process like? Since it’s a longish book, did it take longer to write? Do you outline? Follow the muse?

Cathy Lamb: My writing process…well, it’s a rocky and craggy path, filled with potholes the size of Jupiter, scary looking trees, and monsters with big teeth. First, I grab a journal and start writing and sketching while drinking copious amounts of coffee and eating chocolate.

Then I grab another journal because I have filled the first one with ideas, much of them terrible, horrible ideas, and I need to figure out what the heck I’m writing about.

I start pulling characters together. I give them friends and family, and some are nice and some aren’t. I mutter and talk to myself and talk to the characters and they talk back and I proceed onward.

what-I-remember-Most-3501-e1396982595987.jpgI give my heroine a job and a setting and a home. Or she’s homeless, like Grenadine Scotch Wild in WHAT I REMEMBER MOST. That gal ended up living in her car.

Then I talk to my wise and wonderful agent and editor and they give their input on my proposed plot, and I slug down more coffee and go for drives in the country until I can figure out the first line of the book and tell myself that, “YES. You can write another book, Cathy. You can. Cool your jets.  Pipe down. Don’t lose your mind. Buck up. NO whining.”

Once the first line of the book is in my head, I write 2000 words a day, 10,000 a week until the first draft is done. If I don’t get my word count in by Saturday, I don’t go to bed.

I try to add scenes that will touch women’s hearts. They may end up laughing or crying. Hopefully they will laugh more than they cry and relate to the characters and the plot.

I do eight or nine edits of the book until the book is done and off to my agent and editor. At that point my eyes are fried, my brain is fried, and I think about moving to an old log cabin in the middle of Montana.

There are four more edits after that.

Then, it’s done. 12 edits. Out in the universe, flying around, and I don’t ever want to read it again. And, I don’t. Unless I’m at a reading.

L.L.: There are so many fabulously colorful characters in THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS and oh my gosh, how I loved them all. Did one ‘speak’ to you first, was it your protagonist Antonia (Toni), or were they all carefully cultivated? Is there one you relate to more? By the way, I loved the parents, Alexei and Svetlana the best. Oh, and Nick!!

Cathy Lamb: I think the sisters – Toni, Valerie, and Ellie spoke the loudest to me because I related to all of them.  They’re a little neurotic, intense, fierce, wild, funny, and driven because of the dangers they endured in their past in the Soviet Union.

They went skinny dipping together, sometimes drank too much, sewed gorgeous pillows, talked about life, and loved each other dearly. I could hear them in my head. It was like sitting down and talking to my own sisters, only I was invisible.

Daisy’s voice came through loud and clear for me because of how she wanted to live her life in her last years, how she insisted on staying on her houseboat, on the river, and was kind to everyone, except the bad guy, who she threw a knife at.

And I felt close to the mothers in the Kozlovsky gang, and how they felt about their kids, as a mother myself.

L.L.: I think I fell a little bit in love with that ‘man with a pistol in his pants.’ I loved him. I wanted his big, muscular arms around my shoulders. I wanted his flowers and chocolates. I wanted to spy on him with my binoculars. But I worried, too about his job as a DEA agent. Does Nick Sanchez really exist? And how can I find him? I have some single friends.

Cathy Lamb: I am so very, very sorry. I know this will crush you: No. Nick Sanchez does not exist. Except in my mind.I always try to create men that women readers will fall in love with. None of this: “Well, he’s PRETTY good, except he’s flawed like all other men.”

No.Will not do that.

I don’t want to read about a flawed man when he’s the love interest.  Really. That part of a book I just want to escape into, and I think other women readers do, too.

They do not want to read about a  man who refuses to do the dishes, or help with the kids because we women know what that means: We work all day and come home and do all the housework and the cooking and that is SO NOT ROMANTIC.

So, I created a man I’d want to be married to…and you got Nick Sanchez. Smoking hot and huggable forever.

L.L.: Svetlana’s Kitchen, the restaurant the Kozlovsky’s run is such a fun place. I love how Mrs. Kozlovsky names the specials after things going on in her family’s life. The food sounds delicious, too.

Cathy Lamb: So, for people who have not read THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS: The mother, Svetlana Kozlovsky owns a restaurant. When she’s mad at her kids she writes it on the Specials Board, along with what she’s serving that night for dinner. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

            Over the next few days I received a number of calls and texts from family and friends who had had my mother’s special named “My Childrens Makes Me Worry.” They wanted to know what we Kozlovsky kids did to make my mother worry. The older people who called from the Russian community also gently chastised me, in Russian, of course.  “Don’t make your mama worry, Antonia. You know better.”

            The regular dishes at my parents’ restaurant all have family names. “Elvira’s Tasty Treats,” which is a selection of desserts; “Valeria’s Dumplings,’ which are beef dumplings on a bed of lettuce; and “Antonia’s Delight,” which are cheese crepes.

            But the specials…well, those are a crap shoot.   download-28

            In the past, my mother has named specials “Alexei Not The Boss,” after she had a fight with my father.

            And “Teenagers Big Trouble” when we were younger.

            And I Wish Valeria Quit Her Job.”

            I had “Antonia Not A Criminal,” simply because I write about crime.

            Ellie endured “Elvira’s Bad Choice” when she got engaged to Gino. It hurt Gino’s feelings.

            As my sister Valerie says, “I’m a state prosecutor. I try to maintain respect, a professional image, then mama puts out a special called “Valeria No Call Mama Enough,” and even the criminals are asking me why I don’t call my mama more.”

It goes on and on. Don’t make my mother mad, or you’ll hear about it on the Tonight’s Specials board of Svetlana’s Kitchen.

 L.L.: There are a lot of juicy little subplots going on in THE LANGUAGE OF SISTSERS. They are handled beautifully. My head would explode if I had the task of tying them together. Maybe yours did, too. How did you juggle so many different plot lines? Did you have a favorite?

Cathy Lamb: Honestly the sub plots were like juggling bottles of wine. Maybe that’s not the best analogy. They were like juggling cats. Eh. That one isn’t so good, either. Juggling…boxes of cookies.

I think my favorite sub plot was what happened to Dmitry in Russia. Who were his parents? How did he and the Kozlovsky family find each other? What’s the secret that the parents want buried forever?  I thought that plot line was key to the whole family.

I also really liked writing about Toni’s family and all their funny and quirky imperfections. Two cousins who make fancy and frilly outfits for strippers. One who steals cars but loves opera. A sister who is engaged but really doesn’t know if she wants to get married AT ALL.  A cousin with a teenage daughter who is pregnant, something so many parents go through with their own beloved children. An actress who is an extreme hypochondriac.

We all have families. Sometimes relationships can get messy/hilarious/odd/quirky.

L.L.: The Kozlovsky family endured such hardship in Moscow. At times it was hard to read, but it was done in such a tender, sensitive way. Communist Russia is something I know little about. Can you illuminate some historical significance for us?

Cathy Lamb: The history of Russia is fascinating. Honestly, read it.  From the Tsar to today. It’s harsh and often horrible. Russia today is better than it was in the past, but there are still, as we all know, many problems. I used that background for my family because it was a time period I knew something about it – although I needed to learn A TON – and it was interesting to me and I hoped it would be interesting for the reader, too.

A few other things I researched? Communism. Marxism. Lenin. Stalin. The Time of Stagnation. Christians in the Soviet Union and their persecution. Social issues. Poverty in Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church. The KGB.

L.L.: I have to ask about the title, too. THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS is just that: a special communication the Kozlovsky sisters share in which they intuit, or ‘hear’ the voice of their sister(s) when she is in distress. It comes from the mother’s family, through the widow’s peaks of their hairline. I have a widow’s peak. So did my mother. Is there any truth to this?

Cathy Lamb:  My editor thought of my title. He always titles my books because he is so much more clever about titles than I am.  One time I wrote out ten titles for this book and read them to my daughters. They almost wet their pants they laughed so hard.

And no, there is zero truth about people talking to each other through their widow’s peaks. I write fiction which means I get to play.

L.L.: One last question. I think. Toni changes jobs from being a reporter of crime to writing a column about houses, “Living on a Tugboat, Talking About Homes.” How I loved these columns (which are inserted throughout the narrative). What is it about our homes (or other people’s) we are so drawn to? Why do we care? Are we all voyeuristic weirdos?

Cathy Lamb: I love looking at home magazines. I love thinking about remodeling my kitchen, making my garden better, cleaning things up, and being in my home. I think a lot of people feel the same way – especially women.86a9f94455bc160b10b98b1033184fc1

Home has a special place in everyone’s heart and there are so many people who love to relax with a magazine while looking at something beautiful or clever or curious that someone else did in their home. We get to see how other people live and that’s fun.

Plus, I was a freelance writer for The Oregonian’s Homes and Gardens for years. I loved it. I wrote about homes, décor, and design, so I gave Toni my ex – job. (I had to quit freelancing when my first book, Julia’s Chocolates, sold as I didn’t have time anymore.)

L.L.: Okay, I lied. One more question. How would you classify this book? It seems to straddle so many genres: mystery/thriller, romance, family saga/drama, women’s fiction, there’s a lot going on, but it’s so good. Does size matter? Does genre matter?

Cathy Lamb: It’s women’s fiction. I think genre matters in terms of marketing. I have a niche, it’s women’s fiction. I don’t even pretend to write for men. My books aren’t for men. I think people read what they are interested in reading and the genre doesn’t matter.

As for size of the book? Eh? Look at PILLARS OF THE EARTH. That novel was huge and everyone loved it.  Then, there are shorter books, say by Mitch Albom, that everyone adores and they’re not very long.

To me it all has to do with plot.  The plot has to be engaging and gripping and keeping the reader turning the pages. Short or long, you have to do that as a writer.

L.L.: Tell me, did I forget anything?

Cathy Lamb:  Want to see the first chapter?

The Language of Sisters

Chapter One

I was talented at pickpocketing.

I knew how to slip my fingers in, soft and smooth, like moving silk. I was lightning quick, a sleight of hand, a twist of the wrist. I was adept at disappearing, at hiding, at waiting, until it was safe to run, to escape.

I was a whisper, drifting smoke, a breeze.

I was a little girl, in the frigid cold of Moscow, under the looming shadow of the Soviet Union, my coat too small, my shoes too tight, my stomach an empty shell.

I was desperate. We were desperate.

Survival stealing, my sisters and I called it.images-3

Had we not stolen, we might not have survived.

But we did. We survived. My father barely, my mother only through endless grit and determination, but now we are here, in Oregon, a noisy family, who does not talk about what happened back in Russia, twenty-five years ago. It is best to forget, my parents have told us, many times.

“Forget it happened. It another life, no?” my father says. “This here, this our true life. We Americans now. Americans!”

We tried to forget, but in the inky-black silence of night, when Mother Russia intrudes our dreams, like a swishing scythe, a crooked claw emerging from the ruins of tragedy, when we remember family members buried under the frozen wasteland of the Soviet Union’s far reaches, we are all haunted, some more than others.

You would never guess by looking at my family what some of us have done and what has been done to us. You would never sense our collective memory, what we share, what we hide.

We are the Kozlovskys.

We like to think we are good people.

And, most of the time, we are. Quite good.

And yet, when cornered, when one of us is threatened, we come up swinging.

But, pfft.

All that. In the past. Best to forget what happened.

As my mother says, in her broken English, wagging her finger, “No use going to Moscow in your head. We are family. We are the Kozlovskys. That all we need to know. The rest, those secrets, let them lie down.”

Yes, do.

Let all the secrets lie.

For as long as they’ll stay down.

They were coming up fast. I could feel it.

L.L.: These Russian tea cakes really are good. I think I love them more than Nick. Thanks for hanging out with me, Cathy, and talking about books in a basement office.

Cathy Lamb: Thank you, Leslie. Really.

For more information about THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS, Cathy Lamb, follow on social media, or to purchase a copy for your own, quirky family (seriously, makes a great gift), please see:

Photo of Cathy Lamb 093.JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: I was born in Newport Beach, California and spent my first ten years playing outside like a wild vagabond.

As a child, I mastered the art of skateboarding, catching butterflies in bottles, and riding my bike with no hands. When I was ten, my parents moved me, my two sisters, a brother, and two poorly behaved dogs to Oregon before I could fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a surfer bum.

I then embarked on my notable academic career where I earned good grades now and then, spent a great deal of time daydreaming, ran wild with a number of friends, and landed on the newspaper staff in high school. When I saw my byline above an article about people making out in the hallways of the high school, I knew I had found my true calling.

After two years of partying at the University of Oregon, I settled down for the next three years and earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, and became a fourth grade teacher.  I became a teacher because I wanted to become a writer. It was difficult for me to become proper and conservative but I threw out my red cowboy boots and persevered. I had no choice. I had to eat and health insurance is expensive. I loved teaching, but I also loved the nights and summers where I could write and try to build a career filled with creativity and my strange imagination.

I  met my husband on a blind date.  A mutual friend who was an undercover vice cop busting drug dealers set us up. My husband jokes he was being arrested at the time. That is not true. Do not believe him. His sense of humor is treacherous. It was love at third sight.  We’ve now been married a long time.

Teaching children about the Oregon Trail and multiplication facts amused me until I became so gigantically pregnant with twins I looked like a small cow and could barely walk. With a three year old at home, I decided it was time to make a graceful exit and waddle on out. I left school one day and never went back. I later landed in the hospital for over six weeks with pre term labor, but that is another (rather dull) story.  I like to think my students missed me.

When I was no longer smothered in diapers and pacifiers, I took a turn onto the hazardous road of freelance writing and wrote over 200 articles on homes, home décor, people and fashion for a local newspaper.  As I am not fashionable and can hardly stand to shop, it was an eye opener  to find that some women actually do obsess about what to wear. I also learned it would probably be more relaxing to slam a hammer against one’s forehead
than engage in a large and costly home remodeling project. I also tried to write romance books, which ended ingloriously for years.

I suffer from, “I Would Rather Play Than Work Disease” which prevents me from getting much work done unless I have a threatening deadline, which is often.  I like to hang with family and friends, walk, eat chocolate, travel, go to Starbucks, and I am slightly obsessive, okay very obsessive, about the types of books I read. I also like to be left alone a lot so I can hear all the bizarre and troubled characters in my head talk to each other and then transfer that oddness to paper. The characters usually don’t start to talk until 10:00 at night,  however, so I am often up ‘til 2:00 in the morning with them. That is my excuse for being cranky. Really, I was just born a little cranky.

I adore my children and husband, except when he refuses to take his dirty shoes off and walks on the carpet. I will ski because my kids insist, but I secretly don’t like it at all. Too cold and I fall all the time.

I am currently working on my next book and I’m not sleeping much.

To connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, please see: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of C. Lamb and used with permission. Image of restaurant message board retrieved from TripAdvisor on 11.17.16, image of WHAT I REMEMBER MOST from Ms. Lamb’s website. Image of reading from, also retrieved 11.17.16]

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