Monthly Archives: August 2017

Wednesdays with Writers: Ella Joy Olsen talks about the fascination of genealogy, a tie-in from her first book; grief, hope, love, pre-pub jitters, the development of a title and so much more in her new book, WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A thoughtful and wholesome story about love, grief, hope, resilience, but also family history and genealogy.

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WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS (Kensington, August 29 2017) is Ella Joy Olsen’s second novel, and you’ll find a lovely little twist between the two titles, though they are intended as stand-alone reads.  

Emma Hazelton and her husband are at a crossroads since the death of their darling—and much wanted child, Joey—died due to a rare genetic disease. Emma’s been trying to move on, but it’s just so hard. Meanwhile, Noah is ready for them to try again for another baby. It’s been a year, but…Emma agrees to help her mother sort through her recently-deceased grandfather’s belongings and she stumbles across a perplexing 1916 wedding photograph. WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is told entirely in Emma’s POV, whereas Olsen’s first book, ROOT PETAL THORN was told by multiple narrators.

WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is about family, deeply hidden and buried secrets, hope, and the interesting marriage of family history/ancestry with genealogy. I found the story–and mystery–richly told and interwoven with heartfelt emotion, authentic responses, and more.

So pull up a seat, grab your favorite beverage and join me and Ella in conversation about WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

Leslie Lindsay: Ella, it’s a great treat to have you back again this August. I so 61326197907c470e6e353f539a02d6f8--english-cottage-gardens-english-cottagesenjoyed ROOT, PETAL, THORN because…well, old houses, women, secrets, one hundred years. This new book, WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a bit of a related story, did the seed of inspiration grow from writing your first book? Can you talk about that, please?

Ella Joy Olsen: Thank you so much for having me again, Leslie. I’m a huge fan of your interviews! WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is related to my debut in that it takes
place in my hometown, Salt Lake City, Utah.
I knew I had a few more words left to write about this place and there are several things unique to the city that I wanted to explore.

Genealogy has long been big business in SLC, due to the import that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts on the keeping, researching, and recording of connections between us and our ancestors. But lately genealogy has received a face-lift. There are television specials about long-lost ancestral ties to royalty and people are tracing their DNA and discovering ancestors in uncommon places. I wanted to explore this world-wide fascination, thus the seeds of inspiration were planted.

[Nerdy tid-bit from Leslie: My husband and I often have date-nights in which we binge-watch “Who Do You Think You Are,” and also “Finding Your Roots.”]

As I pondered storylines to incorporate this topic, I realized there were plenty of family secrets in ROOT, PETAL, THORN that I could more fully explore, and I could do it by leafing through the branches of a family tree.

L.L.: But you don’t have to have read ROOT, PETAL, THORN one in order to understand WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, right?

Ella Joy Olsen: Right! The tie-in between the two books is a fun surprise but the books can be read independently or in either order. SWEET BIRD answers a few of the lingering questions presented in ROOT, PETAL, THORN. On the flip-side ROOT, PETAL, THORN fleshes out the stories of a couple of characters you meet in passing in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS. It was a challenge to write but great fun to re-visit some of the beloved characters from my debut.

L.L.: And so the title…nowhere in the text, did WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS come into dialogue or a character’s thought—unless I missed it! Can you tell us how the title was selected? Was it your working title, or did it get changed in revisions, suggested through marketing…

Ella Joy Olsen: I’ve heard from several readers that they’re confused by the title. But I love it!

Here’s how it came about: Many of the secrets that my character confronts are hidden in the branches of her family tree. I wanted a title that spoke to a “family tree” and proposed many titles with the words branch, root, bough…but the marketing department felt that references to a “tree” wouldn’t sell a book. So, in one frantic weekend I searched poetry books and song lyrics for a subtle reference. images (17)WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a riff from a Shakespearean sonnet, “Where late the sweet birds sang…” When combined with the cover art, it also gives a nod to I KNOW WHERE THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou. So, where does the sweet bird sing? In a family tree.

L.L.: I know we’ve talked about this before, but since it’s such a big part of both of your novels, and you are not Mormon, but the story takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah—but there’s definitely a Mormon connection.  What might readers need to know?

Ella Joy Olsen: What might they need to know? That sounds like I might have a compelling reason to convert. I don’t because as you said, I’m not a believer. However, I do love my hometown. I think the history of the predominant religion is interesting to readers who don’t know much about the faith and might wonder at the cultish reputation it carries. I want my local readers to appreciate the balanced approach I took in discussing the church and the benefits and perceived oddities it brings to people living in Utah. The two books are not religious, but any work of fiction, set in a particular location, will pick up the flavor of the place.

L.L.: Likewise, the Family History Library you mention in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS…oh! Wow. I’ve always been curious—the vast volumes it must contain, the search engines, etc. Can you walk us through the labyrinth of those records?SLC_family_history_library-cba11799385957d8cd8483f5f4a02569

Ella Joy Olsen: The Family History Library is actually pretty easy to navigate and it’s incredibly well-staffed. Many retired couples choose to serve a Mormon Mission to Salt Lake City and work in the library, so they are eager to help. Much of the information available has already been digitized, and like I detail in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, there are speedy computers (utilizing a variety of search engines) available for all-comers.

If you live nowhere near Salt Lake City, the church’s ancestry website can be accessed from a computer near you. If you’re deeply interested in genealogy and planning to visit, I recommend anyone (and everyone) check out the actual library. In SWEET BIRD my character spends much time there. The story documents her search using the numerous of leather-bound volumes and other physical resources available.

The library is not just for [church] members and if you visit there’s no pressure to convert (or even learn about the church). Believe me. While writing the book I visited many times and as far as I know I’m still not a member.

L.L.: How did you organize your writing—and the family history your characters were uncovering? It seems it could be mind-boggling.

Ella Joy Olsen: Like many writers, when it comes to organizing my work I’m a big believer in Scrivner. Right from the applicable part in my manuscript I could link to a source website to easily double-check facts on the fly. However, I will say that my copy editor did catch a few mistakes. Early in the story I’d detailed an obituary listing four deceased brothers. Amazingly one of those brothers was alive to answer a telephone call later in the story. I also had a character graduating with a medical degree when he was only seventeen. Thank goodness for copy editors!

L.L.: How was writing your second book different from your first? What do you think you did ‘right’ and what do you wish you could have done better?

Ella Joy Olsen: Writing WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS was very different from writing ROOT, PETAL, THORN in that I was writing with a deadline. I wrote every day for four months straight. My buttocks and fingers cramped but it gave me confidence that I can write under pressure. SWEET BIRD is also different in that it has one narrator (RPT has five).

220px-Autorecessive.svgWHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS still required much research, especially regarding Canavan Disease (a rare Ashkenazi Genetic disorder), genealogical research techniques, brain injuries/medically induced comas, and DNA specifics (I even took a DNA test to be sure the process I described was authentic)…but I didn’t have to create five separate voices and story arcs, or braid the stories together.

What did I do right? I think I wrote a compelling story and I love how my debut and sophomore novels enhance one another, yet are entirely different stories. That was an interesting challenge!

What could I do better? [Since it’s] just days before the book publishes. I’m mired in pre-pub self-doubt so my off-the-cuff answer would be everything. I know from my writer friends this is a common emotion, so I’m taking comfort that I’m not alone in my fear.

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

Ella Joy Olsen: The tragic protests in Charlottesville (and the craziness that exploded from the president in the aftermath). I read a term in a news article that referenced the ideology Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil). I’d never heard of it, so I looked it up. I had no idea how popular the sentiments were during the rise of the Nazi Party. In some ways it feels like we’re there again and it’s horrifying.

L.L.: Ella, it’s been a pleasure re-connecting! What’s one question I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Ella Joy Olsen: One question? Will you write another book based in Utah?

The answer: I don’t think so. I’m ready to explore the world in my next novels. Thank you so much for having me back and for reading WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS and ROOT, PETAL, THORN!

For more information, to connect with Ella Joy Olsen, or to purchase a copy of WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, please visit: 

Biophoto2.JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years analyzing facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a historical fiction course at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

ROOT, PETAL,THORN (September 2016) was her debut and coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of E. Olsen and used with permission. Image of The Family History Library retrieved from their website, image of Canavan Disease genetics retrieved from Wikipedia, image of brick bungalow and roses found on Pinterest, no source noted, all on 8.26.17]

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Helen Simpson talks about her collection of stories in COCKFOSTERS, how a short story is really like a geological core sample~’skipping the gossip and going for the jugular,’ how an empty nest is invigorating, her to-read pile, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Quiet, honest and wry short stories about women in middle-age is as tender as it is disturbing.
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Helen Simpson has been writing short stories for a long time–in fact, COCKFOSTERS (Alfred A. Knopf, June 2017) is her *sixth* collection–and I’ve just now been introduced to her?! She’s British, and that might be part of it, but still. I see her as a contemporary to Flannery O’Connor, Richard Russo, Tom Perrotta, Alice Munro, and perhaps Lorna Lanvick and Joyce Carol Oates. 

Included stories revolve mostly around women in their 40s and 50s focusing on identity, reinvention, changing bodies/sex lives, empty-nesters. There’s a gaze toward the horizon, as many of these women are entering the ‘autumn’ of their lives. Time is ticking, and it’s felt in this collection, a hum that is the steady pulse of suspense.

These nine stories are deceptively quiet and honest, bringing to light a very authentic recognition of life, of children, of marriages, of friendships between women; there are betrayals and acceptance, complexities as well as simplicities.

You’ll find there’s a bit of travel, too—to Berlin through London, and also the U.S.

I promise, regardless of your age—or your sex—you’ll find a thread of commonality in at least one of these stories for they are all built on the truest feelings: love, belonging, joy, the tug of familiarity and history, and the recognition that change—and growing older—is inevitable.

So join me for a spot of tea—or whatever you like to drink—and welcome Helen Simpson to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay: Helen, welcome! It’s an honor to have you. I know you’ve been writing for a long time—your first published collection of stories came out in 1990. Every five years, you treat us with another collection. Can you talk about the inspiration—or perhaps the selection process—for COCKFOSTERS?

Helen Simpson:  Thank you Leslie, and the honour is all mine!  Here I am, ready for our conversation, a cup of tea at my elbow.

With one volume of stories every five years,  I’ve come to think of this as coral-reef writing, slow but steady—a process of accretion.  I don’t choose a theme in advance, so each volume reflects whatever it is that was obsessing or amusing me during the years it took to write.

L.L.: Let’s talk about form for a bit. The short story is very much *not* a ‘small novel.’ Can you talk about your perceptions of the short story and why do you prefer this medium?

Helen Simpson:  The challenge for a short-story writer is, maximum power for minimum length—it’s lightness of touch you’re after as well as power.  In novels you expand,you elaborate; you explain when, where, how things are happening; you go on and on.  You don’t need to do any of that, really, with a short story. You can just skip all the gossipy stuff and go for the jugular. download (44)

Also you can slide great subjects under the nose of the reader without solemnity, smuggle them in by stealth.  While apparently describing banal domestic issues you can explore the history and psyche of nations.  In “Moscow,” [all stories mentioned here in Helen’s response are contained in COCKFOSTERS] a Russian man comes to repair the kitchen freezer of an English business-woman and her historian husband; as they chat over the condenser coils, the strongman myth of machismo-and-masochism is shown to be alive and kicking across the globe.  In “Cheapside,” an older London attorney takes a possible intern to a fish restaurant, and during the course of their lunch the details and conditions of a life in the law are laid bare in excruciating detail.  And in “Berlin,” where a struggling middle-aged couple go on an opera trip to that city, themes of loyalty and betrayal and how to digest history are explored at both personal and national levels.

L.L.: I’ll admit the idea of writing a short story sounds appealing to me, but I find I often don’t know what to write about. Something I can wrap up in—say twenty pages and not four-hundred! How do you mine the topics for your short stories? And do you plot them, or let the muse guide you?

Helen Simpson:  I think the great appeal of the form from the writer’s point of view is that it means you can do something new every time. With every new story you can do something different, formally—shape them differently from each other.  That’s a good part of the pleasure of writing them, finding the right form each time.  I find once I’ve got the subject and the shape of it, the fun lies in the reading and the notes and the thinking and circling round it before writing it—I have a thick file of notes for every story I’ve ever written.  But it’s a very time-profligate way of writing, the way I do it; it’s like spending hours cooking a meal only to see it wolfed down in a few minutes.

As to mining a topic, I think a good short story can be like a core sample.  Think how much a geologist can learn from a core sample—it’s the same!  If it’s a good one, you’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about the history and geography and inhabitants and social conditions of the area, in wonderfully concise form.

images (18)And as for plot and the short story: something has to happen but not too much…

L.L.: Many of these stories are about women (though men factor in, too) who are approaching their golden years. They may have already raised children, sent them off, and are trying to make sense of their place in the world. It’s sort of
depressing! Yet I kept flipping the pages; it was like I was ‘preparing’ for what this stage of life might feel like (I’m in my late 30’s). Can you talk about that, please?

Helen Simpson: I like “golden years!”  They still call it “old age” over here—although, no, come to think of it that’s changing too; in news reports now, someone who would have been referred to as an “old person” has become “an older person” even if they’re 93…  The characters in most of these stories aren’t old (or even older) yet, but yes, they can see change ahead.  I am pleased you felt compelled to read on, that you trusted the truthfulness of the stories.  I know as a reader that sentimentality doesn’t work for me; it’s only ever honesty in fiction that feels worth it.

As for feeling depressed at the thought of work pressure slacking off, children having left home etc, you really mustn’t be!  So many of my contemporaries report feeling unexpectedly exhilarated at having more time and less responsibilities than in their 41xpkc6XPDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_thirties and forties, at no longer being plagued with the anxieties and doubts of their twenties.  Women in particular might agree with Zoe in “Early One Morning”(inc. in IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT)—

“Perhaps the shape of life would be like an hour-glass, clear and wide to begin with, narrowing down to the the tunnel of the middle years, then flaring wide again before the sands ran out.” 

Now I’ve started quoting—and because it may lift the spirits when you think of getting older— I hope you’ll let me conclude with this from “Berlin” [as found in COCKFOSTERS]:

“And how is it that even though we sit at the end of the Atlantic storm track, one day of sun leaves us convinced that summer’s here?  That why we still make resolutions and think of new ways to approach life after all this time: because we’re human and we need to be reminded and encouraged and refreshed.  Again and again.  Right to the end.”

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

Helen Simpson: The news: what’s been happening in the world during the last eighteen months.  I don’t think I’m alone in this…51A9lGpxANL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

The weather: while writing several stories about the weather [ as in IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT], I realised the theme of climate change is one of the hardest of subjects for fiction if it’s to be done without didacticism or statistics or collapsing into dystopia.  But I’ve stayed interested.

L.L.: I’m sure there are a million things we could talk about—your favorite books, if you’re working on anything now, advice for aspiring writers, what your holiday plans are…but is there anything I forgot, but should have asked?

Helen Simpson: Enough here, I think!

This anniversary year has given me a cast-iron excuse to re-read Jane Austen; also to turn to those novels of Henry James which I haven’t yet read.  But my favourite books tend to be the ones I’m reading, or am about to read, which at the moment are: THE COMPLETE STORIES by Anita Desai; THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich;  A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT by Akhil Sharma; SINGLE, MELLOW & CAREFREE by Katherine Heiny;  LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders; JANE AUSTEN, THE SECRET RADICAL by Helena Kelly; MIDWINTER BREAK by Bernard MacLaverty; ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE by Elizabeth Strout; THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrère.

Yes, I’m working on something new set in London.

Advice for aspiring writers? Be brave, be honest and only write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write.

As for summer holidays: a week in Ibiza (sunny, but savagely expensive particularly with sterling’s Brexit plunge against the Euro); and a week in rainy Lancashire download (43)culminating in a wedding near Wigan where the sun broke through the clouds and against all probability shone brightly on the bride.

L.L.: Thank you, Helen! It’s been a pleasure!

Helen Simpson: Well, thank you, Leslie!  The pleasure has been mutual.

For more information about COCKFOSTERS, to connect with Helen Simpson, or to purchase a copy, please visit:

© Derek Thompson - Color copy (1)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: HELEN SIMPSON was born in Bristol in 1959. She spent five years writing forVogue. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

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

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

[Cover and author image courtesy of Knopf and used with permission. Author photo credit: Derek Thompson. Image of ‘rainy’Lancashire retrieved from Mona’s Musings, couple playfully riding bikes from petebarrett.com, H. Simpson’s other book cover images retrieved from Amazon, all on 8.22.17] 

WeekEND Reading: NYT Bestselling author or THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR talks about being an emotional writer, why we like being frightened (in a safe environment), new beginnings, and more in her stunning new psych thriller, A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Last summer, Shari Lapena burst on the psychological thriller scene with her runaway bestseller, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR. They were young, attractive, a sweet baby…and yet.

Cover_A Stranger in the House

She’s back with another stunning story—one that will have you flipping the pages so fast, they might ignite. A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE (Viking, August 15) is perfect for those who love fast-paced domestic psychological thrillers ready for the beach, or backyard, or airplane, or wherever you happen to be reading from. And trust me, you will read this in a weekend. Easy.

A woman with a secret—multiple, faceted secrets—and a husband who doesn’t know what to believe when his wife is found on the wrong side of town in a car crash she doesn’t remember, or is trying hard to forget. A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE is one of those stories, that once you think you  have it figured out, it changes a bit. Signature twists and turns only Shari Lapena can do; I raced through A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE and didn’t want it to end.

Join me in welcoming Shari Lapena back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Shari, I loved this book. I read it on vacation—the driving sort—when I wasn’t helping my husband navigate or taking in the scenery, or minding the kiddos, my nose was in this book. The story haunted me as I read it, so I wonder: what was haunting you as you wrote this one? What was the seed?

Shari Lapena: Thanks, Leslie! I’m so glad to hear it haunted you!  I’m interested in the secrets people keep from one another and the very different kinds of lives one person can live within one lifetime. Sometimes people have pasts that they are running from, or want to keep buried because they want a new beginning. That was the situation with Karen. I wanted her to have her new beginning, but it’s hard to outrun your past.

L.L.: You have a former career as a criminal attorney. How does that experience color your fiction world? For example, there were some lawyer-meetings and legalese in A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE. Perhaps had you not had a background in law, you would have had to do some research?

Shari Lapena: Oh no, I was never a criminal attorney. I practiced commercial law mostly, and only for a couple of years. I’ve never thought my law practice influenced me much in my writing, but I did find that this one started turning into a bit of a legal thriller, which surprised me. I probably would have had to do more research than I did had I not gone to law school.

“Smart, twisty and compulsive. Suspense and suspicion accumulate relentlessly, toying with your expectations and your emotions right up until the packs-a-punch ending. Don’t miss it, and don’t expect to be able to put it down.”

—Gilly Macmillan, New York Times bestselling author of WHAT SHE KNEW

L.L.: There are definitely some unsettling situations in A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE—the main character—Karen is badly injured in a car accident on the ‘wrong’ side of town (not a spoiler, it’s all on the back cover). There’s the friend/neighbor who’s a bit ‘off’…a reference to infertility, another to domestic violence. It’s all very authentic and a bit of a wreck, yet we can’t stop reading, we can’t stop worrying about these characters. Why do you think we enjoy feeling unsettled?

Shari Lapena: I’m not entirely sure. Why do people enjoy horror movies and riding on roller coasters? We seem to like to be frightened, but in relatively safe circumstances. Perhaps it’s a way of letting off steam or exploring emotions without the actual danger.

L.L.: Can you talk a little about your process? I am curious if a situation (plot) presents itself to you first or if a character sort of ‘appears?’ Or is there something else that influences your writing?

Shari Lapena: With me it always starts with a situation and a character. I have never been able to come up with a plot fully formed without writing most of the book first. I start with a premise that interests me and has a lot of potential to take off in different directions and different ways. For instance, I had the idea of a housewife who has an accident in a bad part of town, and I knew a murder would soon be discovered. There are so many ways that can go that it gives me a lot to work with as I get to know the characters and what they’re like. Other than this starting premise, I really didn’t know what the book was going to be about. But the characters take shape and do things that affect the plot and things happen that affect the characters and it progresses. It’s all very organic for me.

L.L. Creative folks are inspired by other ‘Creatives.’ In fact, on vacation, I stumbled into several art galleries, feeling moved by the landscapes, the sculpture, the instrumental music in the background. It made me want to write. What (or whom) influences—or ignites—your writing?

Shari Lapena: I love paintings, but I can’t say they inspire me to write.  My inspiration is all from ideas, feelings, and situations that elicit an emotional response in me. I’m an emotional writer. I like to keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration. The rest is discipline.

L.L.: What was the last thing that scared you? Does anything frighten—or provoke anxiety—in your writing?

Shari Lapena: Yesterday an idiot in a truck cut across four lanes of traffic and almost hit me. That scared me. Random things like that, where other people behave badly, even murderously, over which you have no control, scare me. When I’m writing, I love it when my characters have that feeling of chaos, of losing control, of escalating dread. For some reason, my readers seem to like it too.

L.L.: What should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Shari Lapena: Q: What are you looking forward to reading next?

A: I’ve just got A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, about an old aristocrat held captive by the Bolsheviks and then the Soviets under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel for thirty years.  I’ve heard it’s brilliant.51YCzUi5OJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)

L.L.: Shari, it’s been a pleasure, as always! Thank you and enjoy the rest of summer.

Shari Lapena: Thank you—for reading and for inviting me to your comfy blog couch!

For more information, to connect with Shari via social media, or to get your own copy of A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE, please visit: 

DSC_0481-300x200ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shari Lapena worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She has written two award-winning literary novels, and her suspense debut, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, was a New York Times and an international bestseller. A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE is her second thriller.

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

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House/Viking. Author photo credit: Tristan Ostler.]

Wednesdays with Writers: Master of the Small-town, multilayered thrillers, David Bell talks about his newest book, BRING HER HOME, the vulnerability of women in literature–and the world–what he did right as a writer, baseball & giant cookies

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Master of small-town, multi-layered thrillers, bestselling author of seven novels—SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW, THE FORGOTTEN GIRL, and CEMETERY GIRL, David Bell is back with another tale sure to keep you guessing…and the back door locked.

9780399584442

Just a year and a half after the tragic death of his wife, Bill Price’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Summer and her bestfriend, Hayley disappear. When the girls are found—days later—they are beaten beyond recognition. One girl is dead. The other is clinging to life in a hospital bed.

Questions swirl: why? And who? Most of all—is that really even Bill’s daughter lying in that hospital?

BRING HER HOME is about a father and husband’s grief, his quest for answers, and discovering that everyone—even the dead, have secrets.

I’ve long been a fan of David’s work and so I’m thrilled to welcome him to the blog. Pull up a seat, and a join us!

Leslie Lindsay: David, thanks for popping over! I’m always intrigued about what propels a writer into a certain story. There has to have been something haunting you, or perhaps something you wanted to explore. What was it for you in BRING HER HOME?

David Bell: I found myself thinking a lot about the way the unexpected and the unanticipated drop into our lives. People can get sick suddenly and without warning. People can lose jobs in surprising ways. All of that went into my exploration of Bill Price, a character who has a couple of huge, unexpected problems land in his life in this book. The question is always: How do we respond to these things? How do we bounce back and keep going forward?

“A tense and twisty suspense novel about the dark secrets that lie buried within a community and a father who can save his daughter only by uncovering them.Will leave parents wondering just how well they truly know their children.”

—Hester Young, author of THE GATES OF EVANGELINE and THE SHIMMERING ROAD

L.L: So much of your work has to do with missing girls, disturbed girls, the past. I read somewhere recently that as readers (and writers), we’re quite taken with missing girls because, as a whole, in literature (and perhaps in other professions), women are still marginalized. Can you speak to that, please? And what accounts for your fascination in the subject?

David Bell: It’s a simple fact that women are more vulnerable than men in our culture. Men are much more likely to harm their female partners than the other way around. Women have to be cautious just walking down the street, even in broad daylight. I hope like hell we’re improving in this area and talking about it more, download (41).jpgbut you never know. As far as my own fascination…I think missing persons cases are the scariest of all. The open-ended-ness of a missing persons case allows those left behind to project anything they want onto the missing person. Are they suffering? Are they afraid? Did they simply run away and not want to come back? The endless possibilities are terrifying.

L.L.: This is your seventh novel, so it’s a safe assumption that you’re pretty seasoned at writing domestic suspense. Were there any key differences in your process for BRING HER HOME? How might writing the first book and the seventh book differ?

David Bell: Ah, if only I knew what I was doing! The truth is every book brings its own set of problems and challenges. Staring at the blank screen is always scary, no matter how many books are in the rear view mirror. BRING HER HOME has a complicated plot with a lot of moving parts, so it required a lot of revision. Maybe more than any other book I’ve written. And I think that’s a good thing. Revision can be painful, but the end result is almost always better.

L.L.: There were times in BRING HER HOME that I got a bit of a faith-based message. Paige, Bill’s sister, is often praying, attending the hospital chapel, encouraging Bill to do the same. This seems to be a slight turn for you, given some of your other books. Can you talk about Paige’s character a bit?

David Bell: I like Paige a lot and the sibling dynamic between Bill and Paige. Their relationship is a lot like the relationships I have with my siblings. I’m not very good at calling all the time and checking in, but when the chips are down, we’re there for each other. Plus, Bill needs someone to soften his rough edges, to calm download (42)him when he needs to be calmed and to push him when he needs to be pushed. I’m not a religious person and I’m not pushing any agenda. I just wanted to show that different characters respond to awful events in different ways. Bill had turned away from the church, but Paige still saw it as a useful thing in her life. I have an aunt who always says she’s praying for me, even though she knows it’s not part of my belief system. And I always accept the prayers. Hey, what if she’s right and I’m wrong?

L.L.: You still have a ‘day job,’ as a college professor—which I admire—how do you maintain a work-life balance and do you feel your job teaching English and directing the MFA program influences (encourages?) your writing?

David Bell: I’m lucky because my day job relates directly to writing. I spend the whole day reading and discussing stories, so even though it’s not my work, I’m still immersed in the world of writing. And I learn as I read published work and student work for class, so I’m always seeing my own writing in a new light thanks to the day job. I’m also lucky because I have summers off from teaching and a long holiday break, so I can get a lot of writing done during those times.

L.L.: Can you tell us about your road to publication? What were some of the things you did ‘right’ and what do you wish you may have done ‘better?’

David Bell: The thing I did right was I persisted. I never stopped writing. I always went on to the next thing…the next story, the next book. I was determined and that counts for a lot. Maybe the most. I never gave up. In terms of doing things better…hmmm…I could have been a little more focused. I could have networked more and learned more about the business of writing and how it all works. I’ve been learning it all as I’m doing it, and I could have been a little smarter.

L.L.: What was the last thing you Googled? For me, it was weather in Portland…which given its rainy reputation, is predicted to be sunny and warm. Win!

David Bell: Unfortunately I Googled the Major League Baseball standings for my daily update and once again saw my beloved Reds in last place, an all too familiar sight these days. Maybe I should stop looking….download

L.L.: David, it’s been great chatting. What should I have asked, but may have forgotten? Your fall teaching schedule? What you’re reading? What you had for breakfast? If you’re writing another book? Who would come to your dinner party, what’s obsessing you—really—whatever you want to share.

David Bell: I had Cheerios for breakfast and a giant cookie for lunch. I’m currently reading CONCLAVE by Robert Harris. Thanks for having me!!

For more information, to connect with David Bell via social media, or to purchase a copy of BRING HER HOME, please visit: 

DavidBell2017_BW.Credit Glen Rose Photography.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Bell is a bestselling and award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. He received an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a PhD in American literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His previous novels are Since She Went Away, Somebody I Used to Know, The Forgotten Girl, Never Come Back, The Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl.

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

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Berkley and used with permission. Author photo credit: Glen Rose Photography. Image of missing children from fbi.gov, ‘faith in the face of fear’ retrieved from jennyorganically.com, Reds logo from sportslogos.com, all on 8.4.17

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Wendy Walker talks about breaking the cycle of narcissism in families, letting creative ideas in even when they deviate from the outline, hitting ‘send’ and more writing anxieties in her psychologically twisted tale, EMMA IN THE NIGHT

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Where does the truth lie and darkness begin? That is the question overarching this entire book, but there’s more: it’s about love, obsession, mental illness, jealousy, revenge, and so much more. 

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“We believe what we want to believe. We believe what we need to believe.” So begins EMMA IN THE NIGHT (Aug 8, St. Martin’s Press) and immediately, I was hooked. This is a voice-driven character and right away, I can tell she has a skewed version of the world. And what’s more intriguing than reading about an unreliable narrator?

Three years ago on a foggy night, 15 and 17-year-old sisters, Cass and Emma Tanner disappeared from their home, seemingly walking into the shore of the beach ala Virginia Woolf. Everyone suspects they’re dead…and the investigation has come to a stand-still.

And then, with just the clothes on her back, Cass returns home…without her sister. She talks of kidnapping and isolation, a mysterious island off the coast of Maine where the girls were held in a home by two strangers, a husband and a wife. But–her story doesn’t all add up. There are inconsistencies. There’s talk that maybe Cass isn’t operating on all four cylinders…

Told in alternating POVs–Cass’s (first-person) and also Dr. Abby Winter’s (third-person), EMMA IN THE NIGHT is a bit of a mind-bending, staggering read. I felt I was reading a bit slower than typical, fearing I’d miss something. The prose is hypnotic and disturbing, fragmented and I think this is intentional…because…

We’re dealing with a very dysfunctional blended family. 

Please join me and Wendy Walker as we delve into this heady read.

Leslie Lindsay: Wendy, it’s great to have you! So many times a story is brewing because it’s something we’ve lived. But in your acknowledgements section, you make it pretty clear EMMA IN THE NIGHT is not about you or your family. And that’s a good thing! What was the inciting moment for this story?  What did you seek to explore?

Wendy Walker: [EMMA IN THE  NIGHT] started with the concept of a young woman disappearing and then returning home. Something about that fascinated me – what it would be like to return, and how easy it would be for her to manipulate the truth about where she’s been and why she left. From there, I needed a reason for this woman to manipulate people – and that’s when I came up with the ending. Of course, I love to explore real issues and psychological illnesses. After reviewing my research notes, I landed squarely on narcissistic personality disorder (or NPD) because it just fit this story so perfectly! The entire plot was then built around the ending and the mental illness of NPD.

L.L.: The mother of Cass and Emma is most suffering from a pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is handled quite well and I *almost* felt as if I were reading an abnormal psych textbook, yet we were hearing things from forensic psychologist Abby Winter. Can you tell us a bit about your research? I think you nailed it, by-the-way, and I’m a former psych R.N. Also, full disclosure: I’m pretty sure my own mother suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Wendy Walker: That’s a relief – I always worry when experts and professionals read my descriptions of these illnesses! As a family law attorney with training as a guardian for children in custody disputes, I learned the basics about personality cb1fd2746c65c59894b241f7e802cbaf--abuse-quotes-a-quotes (1)disorders and how they affect children. From this base of knowledge, I launched into research using the Internet and also the mental health professionals who have been generous enough to consult with me. It was a real challenge to get the technical information across to the reader without slowing down the plot. However, I really wanted readers to understand the complexities of this illness, and especially how underneath the narcissist’s confident alter ego, lies a fractured, deeply insecure true ego. This understanding is essential to following the plot, and the huge twist at the end!

L.L.: And kidnappings! I have to say, I have a bit of a strange fascination with them, as I think others might too. Here’s why: it could happen to anyone, anywhere. Missing kids on milk cartons, the fear, the threat…you mention a couple of contemporary cases [in the book] in the media: the Cleveland, OH girls and also Elizabeth Smart. What can you tell us about your research into kidnappings for EMMA IN THE NIGHT and why do you think we have such a fascination with them?

Wendy Walker: The book started with this very fascination! I think there is something uniquely terrifying about being held against your will. Can I escape? What will happen if I try? Can I accept this as my new reality? How long will it last? Will someone find me? Maybe today? And, for those left behind with the loss but also the uncertainty, a unique kind of emotional torment. Is she dead? Is she alive? Is it easier to keep looking and clinging to hope? Or to give up and grieve? Will I ever find her? Will I find her today? I read a lot of Internet material about the psychological rollercoaster for those taken and those left behind and tried to construct the characters around that research. I also tried to put myself in Cass’s head – because, after all, she grew up in a highly dysfunctional family so her reactions would not be quite the same as another young woman.

“In this searing psychological thriller…Walker’s portrayal of the ways in which a narcissistic, self-involved mother can affect her children deepens the plot as it builds to a shocking finale.”

  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

L.L.: How do you write? Do you follow an outline or let the pen guide you?

Wendy Walker: I always try to have an outline, especially when I am building to an ending like the one in this novel. It’s so important to find that balance of delivering clues but not enough for readers to guess. Everything has to fit like a puzzle, with the last piece being hidden until the very end. As I go along, however, I do deviate from the plan as the characters take shape in my head and new ideas find themselves onto the page. Sometimes, if I like the new idea enough, I will go back and rewrite passages to support that new idea. It is the depth of the characters that really makes a book enjoyable, so I think this process of development and rewriting is just as important as having the tight outline for the plot.

L.L.: What is/are the best thing(s) an inspiring writer can do to hone his or her craft? 

Wendy Walker: Just keep writing! It is helpful to read as well, but once you find your voice, it’s more important to listen to what your readers say about that voice – what they like, what they find difficult – and then to fine tune it to make your work accessible to a wide audience. The goal with commercial fiction, I think, is to tell a great story in a way that a very broad audience can enjoy. And to do that requires constant fine tuning, rewriting, and listening to feedback from all sources.

L.L.: Can you tell us, without using complete sentences, what was going on in your life as you wrote EMMA IN THE NIGHT?

Wendy Walker: One year. Writing. Revising again and again. One son applying to all-is-not-forgotten-wendy-walker-paperback-1college. A new relationship with an old friend. General emotional chaos resulting. Launching ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN. Excited. Nervous. Major life changes on all fronts.

L.L.: You’re stories are often about scary things: kidnappings, mental illness, violence, lost memories. What scares you about writing?

Wendy Walker: There is a twinge of terror every time I sit before a blank screen to write a new page. Even though writers are portraying made up characters, the thoughts and words and actions of those characters have to come from somewhere inside the writer’s head. I don’t think we ever stop feeling vulnerable when we put those things on a page and let others read them! There is also fear after hitting “send” – whether to a trusted reader, agent or editor. Is it any good? Does it work? Is it moving fast enough? Fear of failure with something as subjective as writing never leaves me. And then – the worst terror of all – setting the book free in the world of readers and reviewers. Sometimes I think I need thicker skin for this business! But then I’m not sure I would be able to reach the emotional depths that I like to weave into my work. In my next life – maybe a career as an accountant!

L.L.: Wendy, it’s been a pleasure! Before I let you go, is there anything else I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what’s left on your summer to-do list, your nightstand reading, what you ate for dinner last night, if you’re writing another book, and if you miss practicing law? [you don’t have to answer all of those!]

Wendy Walker:  Back to school shopping. Karin Slaughter’s THE GOOD DAUGHTER. Steak. Yes. No. Seriously, I think something most readers find surprising about a writer’s life is that it is nowhere near as seamless as it appears on our social media pages! Most of us are sitting at a desk, still in pajamas, pounding coffee or Red Bull, feeling anxious about a blank screen, a deadline, reviews, sales numbers, or a plot that just won’t come together. We clean up for events and photos, but then we are right back to work. It has huge ups and huge downs and can be very isolating. Even so, I wouldn’t trade this career for anything – I fought for it for many years and I am very grateful for every person who buys and reads one of my books!

For more information, to connect with Wendy Walker via social media, or to purchase a copy of EMMA IN THE NIGHT, please visit:

Purchase EMMA IN THE NIGHT here:

Wendy-Walker-Headshot-350wABOUT THE AUTHOR: Wendy Walker is a former family law attorney in Fairfield County, Connecticut who began writing while at home raising her three sons. She published two novels with St. Martin’s Press and edited multiple compilations for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series before writing her debut psychological thriller, All is Not Forgotten. Her second thriller, Emma In The Night, will be released August 8, 2017.

Wendy earned her J. D., magna cum laude, at the Georgetown University Law Center where she was awarded  the American Jurisprudence award for her performance in Contracts and Advanced Criminal Procedure.  She received her undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University and attended The London School of Economics and Political Science as part of her undergraduate studies.

Prior to her legal career, Wendy was a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co., in the mergers and acquisitions group. She has also volunteered at the ACLU, Connecticut Legal Services and Figure Skating in Harlem where she served on the Board of Directors for over twelve years.

Wendy is currently writing her third thriller while managing a busy household.

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. Image of narcissistic personality disorder quote retrieved from Pinterest no source noted, all on 8.8.17]

 

Special Pub Day Edition: Caroline Leavitt on her ‘hippie days,’ being a ‘fall chicken, and this most lovely–but gritty & intense–CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, now in paperback.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist of PICTURES OF YOU, IS THIS TOMORROW, and GIRLS IN TROUBLE, Caroline Leavitt returns with her eleventh novel, a stellar read intersecting family, new love, and an anxious time in American history.

Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Manson Murders, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD (Algonquin Books, Oct 4 2016) is at first blush, a coming-of-age tale, but the story grows immensely darker, about the perils of young love, controlling partners, and responsibility.

Sixteen year old Lucy is about to run away with her much older High School English teacher to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that has dire consequences for she and her older sister, Charlotte.Leavitt_CruelBeautiful_jkt_2MB_HR.jpg

Like most novels, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is based on a smidgen of truth, a real-life crime concerning a girl who sat in front of Ms. Leavitt in a high school class for two years, who had a relationship with a thirty-year old man. It began for Leavitt as a ‘what-if ‘question, the kind that often propels a story from merely thinking about them, to getting them on paper.

Join me as I chat with Caroline about her inspiration and process behind CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.

Leslie Lindsay: I understand that CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD has been percolating for some time, that the seeds for this novel first sprouted when you were sixteen. But it wasn’t ready to be written just yet. Can you tell us more about that and why, might some stories have to incubate before getting to the page? And do you know whatever happened to that girl in your high school?

Caroline Leavitt: I have been wanting to write this for so long, but I didn’t have the knowledge I needed. I was sixteen and sitting behind this wonderful, funny, smart girl in study hall, and we always talked. I was dreaming of going to Paris to be a writer and having all these adventures and romances, but she was—to my surprise—engaged, and to a much older and “sort of controlling” man. I just didn’t get it.  When I got out of high school, I found out that she had decided to go back to school, have a life, break up—and her boyfriend murdered her, stabbing her 43 times.

I was haunted and really upset, but I couldn’t write about her because I didn’t understand how she could have stayed with someone like that. Didn’t she see signs?

Fast forward ten years. Two weeks before my wedding, my fiancé dropped dead of a heart attack in front of me. The grief was cataclysmic. I cried so hard in my apartment that neighbors called the police—twice! I roamed all over the country talking to psychics, came back and decided I couldn’t grieve anymore. I decided to get into a relationship, despite my friends and family and my grief counselor’s warning that this was the worst idea ever.

My new boyfriend was at first kind, but gradually became controlling. He spoke in such a soft, gentle voice that I began to believe everything he told me—that at 95 pounds I was too fat summeroflovecolor.jpgand needed to diet, that my black clothing made me look dead and I should wear pastels, that my friends were nuts and I shouldn’t see them. Why would I stay with someone so controlling? Because if I left him, I’d grieve, and that seemed so much worse.  I began to understand my high school friend and I finally got up the strength—when he rewrote part of my novel-in-progress without asking—to leave.

But it wasn’t until four years ago, when I saw an online posting from my high school friend’s sister who was still looking for answers to what happened, that I got the missing piece. I added a sister, I changed the relationship and what happened, and suddenly the book began to make sense to me.

L.L: You do a wonderful job with character development. In the case of CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, did the characters of Lucy, Charlotte (the older sister) and Iris (the older mother/aunt/caretaker) come fully formed, or did you carefully cultivate them? Were they composites at all of anyone in your life?

Caroline Leavitt: What a great question. It took about 18 drafts to get it right. At one point, Lucy, Charlotte and Iris were all angry at one another and my genius editor Andra Miller said, “find the love, too”—so I did, and it changed everything.

I have to admit that Iris is based on my mom, who was jilted at 19, married a sullen brute on the rebound (my father), and went into independent living resigned to her life being over—and instead, like Iris, she bloomed! Her story is not really Iris’, but my mom fell in love “for the first time” at 93! She and her beau Walter had four wonderful years together until she got dementia and then he died. But dementia is a sort of gift for her because she thinks Walter is still alive.

Charlotte and Lucy are not my sister and I—but the feelings of “us against the world” certainly were. I also will admit that like Charlotte, I make lists and that like Charlotte, my biggest task in life is to learn to stop trying to fix everything, to just let life wash over me. It’s hard!

“Two sisters — impulsive Lucy and sensible Charlotte — make decisions that will haunt the rest of their lives. Set in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Cruel Beautiful World is a riveting novel about love and loss, secrets and lies, and what it means to be a family. Its twists and turns will keep you reading late into the night.”

Christina Baker-Kline, author of Orphan Train

L.L.: Reading CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD was like sitting on a sun-soaked porch and having the wind whisper a story in my ear [and how I relish in that; thanks for the early copy, Algonquin!]. It’s at once alarming and beautiful, thought-provoking, and richly told, but it has a dark undercurrent. Could it be that that is how the world was in 1969 (that was a little before my time, so I can’t say)?  And would you call this historical fiction? IS THIS TOMORROW was set in the 1950s, do I sense a theme?

Caroline Leavitt: Ah, I’m no spring chicken (I call myself a fall chicken). I was really young in the 60s, but not in the 70s, and I definitely felt and saw the change. The 60s were all goofy and wonderful. You were “going to San Francisco to meet some gentle people and wear flowers in your hair”—and I was dying to go but couldn’t because I was too young. But my sister, 220px-san_francisco_be_sure_to_wear_some_flowers_in_your_hair_sheet_music_1967who is older, took me to all the Be-Ins and Love-Ins (which were the same things—big celebratory parties with balloons and free food and music, held outside in some park–) in Boston and schooled me in being a hippie.  Everyone had such hope that there was going to be real, lasting and profound change—and it would be peaceful change, too. I hitched everywhere by myself, barefoot, in full hippie regalia, and I never had a problem. Even something like drugs was done as a spiritual quest, and hoards of people were “going back to the land” to farm and be one with nature. There were also all these free schools popping up where you could learn whatever you wanted, when you wanted. Everyone thought they were building a Utopia. Of course, this was what it was like for middle-class suburban kids, not for those living with the terrifying racism and horrific poverty of the time.

But then the 70s hit. The kids who ran away to San Francisco to meet those gentle people? They were living on the streets. The kids who dropped out of school to farm? They had no idea how to grow crops and they were starving, too. The Peace Movement turned ugly, with groups like The Weatherman and SDS and The Black Panthers—all advocating violence and guns. There was Kent State and the infamous sign at universities “They can’t kill us all” and I began to wonder if maybe they could.

No one hitched anymore. People were dying from harder drugs. And then I entered Brandeis a year after two students, Susan Saxe and Katharine Ann Power had robbed a bank “for the revolution” and killed a cop—the father of 9 kids. They went underground and were on the

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Kent State massacre, May 1970. This is 14-year old runaway collapsing at the body of a student shot by the Ohio National Guard  minutes before. The photographer won a Pulitzer for this image.

FBI’s Most Wanted List for years. The Brandeis students I talked to who were there at the time said they were so unsettled, hoards of kids left school to drive up to Maine and stay there for a while.

I was in Madison the day the National Guard in silver riot gear lined the streets because there was a student protest over a student being caught—the kid had blown up a building and killed a professor. I was walking back to my dorm (I’m a pacifist and could never condone blowing up anything), they began to tear gas, and I was so terrified, I ran back to my place and bolted the door.

But more than anything, there were the Mansons. The Beach Boys were the sunniest group around but they actually inadvertently led to the Sharon Tate murders.Sharon Tate murders. Dennis Wilson picked up two pretty hitchhikers and took them home.  They began to talk about gurus. Dennis’ was the Maharishi, and the two girls said, “Our guru is Charlie Manson.” Dennis met Charlie, they wrote songs together—one is even on a Beach Boys record, but not credited to Charlie. Dennis introduced Charlie to Terry Melcher, a record producer, who nixed Charlie. Furious, Charlie began to be threatening. Dennis and Terry cut off ties, and Terry was so frightened, he moved out of his house—the same house that the Mansons approached to do their murders.

It terrified me, seeing those girls in the news. They were all pretty and singing and happy and holding hands. And Charlie was everything to them.

I definitely think this is historical fiction, but my next two novels are set in the present.

the_beach_boys_1965L.L.: Let’s talk structure for a bit, because this can be tricky for a writer, even if she (or he) has plot points in mind. I find structure tough because there are so many directions a story can go, so many possibilities and then…the characters sometimes take over, wrinkling your smooth narrative! Can you speak to this, please?

Caroline Leavitt: Oh, boy. Structure. That’s my thing. I used to write very loosey-goosey, following the muse, and I would end up with 800 pages and have no idea what the heck I had written. Then about ten years ago, a student of mine told me about Truby story structure. John Truby is a Phd from Yale who worked with movie studios and read a zillion books and mapped out their structure and he discovered that the best stories have a deeper moral component. I liked that idea. So I began to study his stuff, and I sort of stalked him until I met him.

I map out everything before I start. That takes me about 6 months. Then I show it to three story structure people I know and that means more rewriting. Then I show it to writers I respect. More rewriting. I end up with a 40 page “writer’s outline” and I know that as I write everything is going to change a bit. And that’s okay!  What never changes is the basic moral idea. For me, in CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, that idea was that sometimes you cannot change or fix things, no matter how much you want to. Sometimes you have to let life wash over you. That informed every decision that I made. If it didn’t have something to do with that, then it had to go!

And I will say that I end up doing at least 20 drafts before a novel is finished.

 L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD?

Caroline Leavitt: I want people to understand what I just said above, that sometimes you cannot fix everything, and that is all right. We are all human.

I also hope people see and feel the incredible hope that was in the sixties and how it soured and failed, but then there was hope again.

I want people to think about all the different kinds of love there are—controlling and dangerous, saving and nurturing, sisterly love mixed with conflict, friend love.

I hope readers will feel that after reading my novel, they see the world a little differently.

L.L.: What’s got your attention these days? What gets you out of bed? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Caroline Leavitt: Oh so, many things. My husband, who is playful and funny and smart. My son who is at college studying to be an actor. My writing. Other writers. My friends. Really, my mother and sister call me Pollyanna, because I tend to have this very positive outlook on everything. I’m always looking for the joy!

Of course, I’m worried about the election, and the world in general.  And I’m fascinated by quantum physics.

L.L.: Did I forget to ask anything?

Caroline Leavitt: Ask me how the songs of that era informed the novel! If you go look up Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, you’ll see this truly terrible view of older man/younger girl, which is in my novel. The whole stupid song blames the girl! With lines like, “You’d better run, girl. You’re much too young, girl,” the song is indicating that he is about to attack.  And that was a very popular song of its day!

L.L.: Caroline, always a pleasure to chat with you. Thanks so much for popping by! All the best with CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.

Caroline Leavitt: Thank you so much! I hope I didn’t go on too long. I’m honored to be interviewed by you! 

***You can connect with Caroline through these various social media channels*** 

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD now available in paperback! Get a copy, give a copy!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eleven novels,including the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a book critic for People, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay at:

[Cover and author image courtesy of Algonquin Books and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jeff Tamarkin. “Hippie Caroline” photos courtesy of C. Leavitt’s personal archives and used with permission. Scott McKenzie 1967, Kent State 1970, The Beach Boys circa 1964 image(s) retrieved from Wikipedia on 9.9.16]  

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Wednesdays with Writers: This stunning–and personal story, SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS–is so wonderful, so multifaceted, and gorgeously written, but there’s more. Amy Impellizzeri talks about character development, how she likes surprises in writing, Keith Urban, being a survivor and her next book.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the award-winning author of LEMONGRASS HOPE comes a haunting new story of unbearable love, loss, and redemption, with a thread of magical realism woven from the Mayan myths of Guatemala and a poignant and surprising reveal you will never see coming. 

Secrets_of_Worry_Dolls_COVER_Booklist (1) (1) (1).jpgAmy Impellizzeri is a gifted writer and I don’t say that lightly. I was taken with LEMONGRASS HOPE, but this book, SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS, sealed my vote. I loved this book.

When Lu(na) and her mother’s home in suburban New York is hit by a plane bound to Guatemala, old memories surface. Why didn’t Lu go on that school field trip to the Twin Towers on 9/11? Why was her life spared and not her twin’s? And Mari, she’s grieving the loss of her firefighter husband in that horrific event (not spoilers–I promise, this is important backstory and set-up).

It’s now 2012 and nearing the end of the Mayan calendar. (Some) Americans believe the end-of-the-world is looming. Mari, a 9/11 widow and Guatemalan immigrant is keeping secrets from her 23-year old daughter, Lu; they simply cannot be contained in the tiny Worry Dolls Mari holds near and dear. But Lu’s kind of had it with her mother; their relationship is fraying.

A plane crash changes everything. Secrets leak. Pasts are uncovered. SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS is absolutely compelling, gorgeously written with vivid characters transporting the reader to NYC and Guatemala and back again. I found I was flipping pages at a quick pace to find out what happened in the past and how it’s affecting the future.

L.L.: Amy, it’s a pleasure to have you back. I loved SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS. The story is so multifaceted and built upon layers of lovely prose and backstory, yet true to the present-day story. I loved it. I cried, I cheered, I sighed those delicious moments of relief. Tell us, what was haunting you to write this story?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh, thank you, Leslie! You have asked the perfect question – what was haunting me? I was indeed haunted for many years by events that occurred in the tiny seaside town of Belle Harbor, New York – where I was living in 2001, before, during and after 9/11. As I explain in the Author’s Note to this novel, I survived a plane crash on my residential corner on November 12, 2001, whereas many others did not. Writing this story of loss and survival was very cathartic and was a story that lived inside me for more than a decade before I figured out a way to tell it.

L.L.: I have to say, the 9/11 bit worried me a bit. We’re still living in this time where the horrors of the attack are very present…yet it was sixteen years ago.  You manage to add a soft hand to that fact and portray 9/11 in a sensitive light. Did you find writing about such a tragedy a challenge? What did you do to ‘get it right?’

Amy Impellizzeri: This was a tremendous challenge, and one that I never took lightly. I drew my inspiration from the scrappy resiliency of Belle Harbor (upon which one of the novel’s settings (Rock Harbor)  is based). Belle Harbor lost more of its population in 9/11 than any other town in the country, but also rebuilt from 9/11 and subsequent tragedies with breathtaking generosity. I knew that any 9/11 theme would have to be treated with the reverence demanded, and I also knew that while it is a universal grief shared by all of us, it’s important to acknowledge that there is – quite simply – loss that belongs very personally to some, and not others.220px-Flight_587_NOAA_Photo_of_Crash_Site

L.L.: Similarly, what scares you—in general—about writing?

Amy Impellizzeri: Let’s see. How much time do you have?! Getting it wrong is a very real fear for me. When writing – as I love to do – about places, people, and cultures outside of my own personal experience, I strive for empathy and authenticity, but am always petrified about getting it wrong. But I think that’s a good fear to have. I hope it keeps me from taking shortcuts. I hope that fear keeps me on my toes, researching, interviewing, talking, and listening.

L.L.: I’m curious about character development. Lu and Mari are so flawed and fully-developed, yet so vivid. What (or whom?) was your inspiration in developing these two? How does character development look to you? Do you complete character sketches, collages? Do you just write and try to let them develop organically?

Amy Impellizzeri: So, at a very primitive level, Mari is based loosely on my childhood recollections of my own late grandmother – a perfectly imperfect character in her own right. She struggled with mental illness and a long history of bad decisions and tragic circumstances. When I knew her, she was trying to reclaim some sort of redemption for abandoning her two daughters (one of whom is my mother) and she was, for me – an amazingly interesting – but still so flawed – human being. Of course, since I wanted Mari to be a Mayan woman with ties to Guatemala, she took on a life all her own, with a backstory drawn from my extensive research into the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war – particularly from  the 1970’s into the 1990’s. Consequently, Mari evolved – along with her secrets – and Lu, for that matter – as the story evolved. For me, character development has to occur along with the story. As I am writing, I will sketch out backstory and other character traits on the side of the novel. I often discover interesting facets of the characters that I simply did not know when I started. But then I try to share all of the relevant backstory and development on the pages with the reader. So if there are any outstanding questions about individual characters at the end of the book, I promise you, I don’t know the answers either!

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L.L.: This story is so complex, yet it’s not a challenge to read. Everything just flows. How did you structure the story? Was there careful plotting behind the scenes to give it that effortless read?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh boy, organizing this book’s structure gave me such agita! The decision for strictly alternating viewpoints (Mari’s and Lu’s) came nearly a year into the writing and helped tremendously with the flow. I am not a steadfast plotter, and have to leave room for the story to surprise even me. Still, this book required a lot of pausing in between drafts for careful outlining. Every few months, I’d stop and spend a few days just outlining what the story arc looked like at that point, where the holes were, and determining where the pace had slowed. It took about 2 years of pretty steady writing to create the finished product.

L.L.: You have a special touch that isn’t quite magic, isn’t quite fantasy, but definitely a hand in the slightly paranormal/mythical realm. Can you talk about that a bit? Is that just ‘you’ as a writer?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh, I love this description. It has surprised no one more than me that my first two books have landed in fantasy and magical fiction categories, among others. When a well known paranormal/science fiction blog found and featured LEMONGRASS HOPE I was so thrilled and yet surprised, because I didn’t set out to write a book that was anything other than “real.” I love that readers have also embraced the mystical elements of SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS.  The truth is, I enjoy writing about the slivers of shared human experience that can – at times – defy scientific explanation. The deja vu of LEMONGRASS HOPE and the mystical elements of SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS represent in a unique way (I hope!) those shared experiences that we can’t quite explain, but that affect us all, just the same.

L.L.: Also, can you talk about the Mayan Calendar a little bit? I recall thinking [in 2012], it had a very Y2K feel about it. I wasn’t really buying into the fact that the world was coming to an end, but well…I guess you can never be sure! Where do/did you sit on the subject?download (35)

Amy Impellizzeri: I didn’t really buy it either! But, I was just starting to work on SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS everyone was talking about the end of the Mayan calendar in late 2012, and I thought it would be a fabulous metaphor. What if the world really WAS ending? But not the way people said it was ….

 

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

Amy Impellizzeri: So funny! Busted! I just googled Keith Urban tickets. I heard they went on sale locally and I want to take my kids to see him! (Seriously, are there any better storytellers than country musicians??)

L.L.: Amy, as always, it was a pleasure reconnecting. Is there anything else I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Oh! I know….can you tell us about your next book?

Amy Impellizzeri: THANK YOU, Leslie! It’s a huge honor to be featured on your site. I’m excited to announce that my next novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA, is currently available for pre-order – releasing on October 17, 2017. At first glance, it might seem 51Big2HcJ4L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_like a bit of a departure for me – a psychological thriller about a woman diagnosed with pathological social media addiction – but one early reviewer made me so happy when she said: “The author keeps true to her style sprinkling in aspects of the mystic but develops a thriller so strong you will read well past your bedtime.”

THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA marks the first time I’ve used my 13-year corporate law background to incorporate legal suspense elements into one of my novels. It’s definitely my most ambitious plot ever, with plenty of twists, and like SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS it has (I hope!) a surprising ending. Tell you what, I have an advance copy with your name on it. If you enjoy it, I wouldn’t mind inviting myself back to chat about it another time! (How’s that for subtle?!)

Thank you again for having me!

For more information about SCRETS OF WORRY DOLLS, to connect with the author, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

headshot (1) (1).pngABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Impellizzeri is a former corporate litigator and award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, Lemongrass Hope (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing 2014) was a 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Bronze Winner and a National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist. A favorite with bloggers and book clubs, Lemongrass Hope was named the #1 reviewed book in 2014 by The Literary Connoisseur, and topped several  bloggers’ “Best of” Lists in 2015. Amy’s second novel, Secrets of Worry Dolls, was released December 1, 2016 by Wyatt-MacKenzie, and was featured as an Editor’s Pick by Foreword Reviews that month. Secrets of Worry Dolls has been named a Bronze Winner in the INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards (Multicultural Fiction) and a Finalist in the WFWA STAR Awards. Amy’s third novel, The Truth About Thea is set to release in October 2017 by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. Amy is represented by Bob Diforio of D4EO Literary Agency.

Amy is also the author of the peer-reviewed nonfiction book, Lawyer Interrupted, published by the American Bar Association in 2015, and which has been featured by, among others, ABC27, The Huffington Post, TheAtlantic.com, and Law360. 

Amy is a frequent invited speaker at legal conferences and writing panels across the country. She is Past President of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, an international community of 800+ writers. Amy is also an invited member of the Tall Poppy Writers, an innovative marketing co-op of award-winning, best-selling and acclaimed women writers.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of A. Impellizzeri and used with permission. THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA image retrieved from Amazon, Mayan Calendar retrieved from Historic Mysteries, image of Lake Atitlan retrieved from Wikipedia, 2001 Belle Harbor flight crash image retrieved from Wikipedia, all on 8.1.17].