Monthly Archives: February 2018

Wednedays with Writers: Inspired by her grandmother’s stories of WWII, an adorable lion cub, delicious berry pies, and the gorgeous landscape of Hawaii, debut novelist Sara Ackerman takes us on her journey, touching on acupuncture, paddleboarding, and more in ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLIDERS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Wartime novel set among the lush landscape of Hawaii about friendship, loyalties, and love. 

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I fell right into the folds of this novel, as the glittering paradise of Hawaii came to life with Ackerman’s detail and ease. It’s 1944 and Violet and her daughter, 10-year old Ella are piecing their lives back together after her husband and high school principal, Herman goes missing. It’s been a year and still no final word on Herman’s fate. Suspicions and rumors swirl–was he a spy? Was he as loyal as others believed?

And then there’s Ella; she knows something but isn’t saying. Ella struggles at school and is trying to move forward, but something–or someone–seems to be holding her back.

Told in alternating POVs, between Violet and Ella, ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is historical fiction about fiction, racism, war, mother-daughter relationships with a dash of suspense and romance. I found I really fell in love with Ella and could see a bit of myself in her. This is a different take on the usual WWII stories that have been popular in recent books–with mostly a European experience; ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is more of a ‘homefront’ read about love, loyalties, and family. 

As for the suspense and the missing father/husband…I don’t want to give away too much, but things are resolved with the help of a pet…lion.

All in all, I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this one, the grit of war set in the sparkling setting of Hawaii.

So pull up a seat, grab a slice of pie, and join me in conversation with Sara Ackerman.

Leslie Lindsay: Sara, I think for all novels, there’s a falling-off point that reels you in as an author. I think I might know what it is for you, but I’m going to let you tell us.

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe the lion was what drew me in initially.  He was my spark.  My grandmother always talked about this lion that the Marines had with them at Camp Tarawa in Waimea.  As a young girl, I was enthralled by the idea that there was a lion in Hawaii that wasn’t in a zoo.  Not only that, but this same lion rode in my grandmother’s car!  She never mentioned him by name, but when I got curious and Googled him, there he was sitting on the front of a jeep with a bunch of kids around him.  As it turned out, my mother was one of those kids petting Roscoe.  I formed my story around that, and the feeling that I got from my grandmother that the war had been a terrifying and tragic time, but also a very meaningful time. I wanted to portray both sides of that coin.  The friendships and bonds that held them together.  That was my jumping off point.

[image caption from 2011 newspaper: Stilson snuggles up to Roscoe, the 5th Marine Division’s mascot – they had to leave behind in Hawaii when they hit the beaches at Iwo Jima. Baby on lion from]

L.L.: You have to tell us about Roscoe, the pet lion cub. As I read with my adoring basset hound on my lap, I often pretended her coarse, oily fur was Roscoe!

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe [really] was my inspiration and one of the main reasons I wrote this book!  I love animals and I write about them extensively in all my novels.  The story of how the Marines brought him over from the Los Angeles zoo and how he lived with them and became a mascot was so appealing to me.  I remember my grandmother talking about stopping to pick up some Marines as they trudged up the hot and winding road from Kawaihae (the beach) to Waimea where their camp was.  She was terrified to have a lion in her car, but the men persuaded her that he would be fine.  That was how she ended up with a lion breathing down her neck as she drove them up the hill.  She never tired of telling this story, and as a young girl, I never tired of hearing it.

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L.L.: And so the war is near and dear to you. Your grandparents really colored the world of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS for you. Are you often swayed by the nostalgic pull of family? I recently read that if you decorate your home with a few ancestral artifacts (old wedding photos, for example, or something your mother may have used), it makes you happier, connecting you to previous generations.

Sara Ackerman: My mother has an old photograph of my grandparents, the sugar plantation manager, and all of the students at Laupahoehoe School, who were mostly Japanese at the time, that I absolutely love.  This was just before the war and it is priceless.  It wasn’t until I was older that I gained more curiosity and compassion for what my grandparents––on both sides––went through while living through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rest of the war.  It is beyond my comprehension to fathom the fear that they had to live with on a daily basis for all those years.  I recently got a small dose of that with the Ballistic Missile threat fiasco here in Hawaii.  For about 40 minutes, we thought the message was real and all kinds of crazy thoughts ran through my mind.  I kept just thinking, wow, so this is how it ends.  It was very surreal.  I also remembered that radio message that went out about Pearl Harbor…This Is Not A Drill, This is the Real McCoy, especially because I had just listened to it while researching for my next novel.  It was both terrifying and enlightening. I felt connected to my grandparents in a way that I never had before, and understood their fear a little more deeply.  I keep asking my mom for this picture.

 

L.L.: And where did the idea of those delicious pies originate? Do you enjoy baking? Do you have a favorite pie from the book?

Sara Ackerman: When I was growing up, my father’s girlfriend, Marilyn Carlsmith, was a fabulous cook and she was the one who helped me to fall in love with pies.  Every time we came to the Big Island from Oahu, we would stop at Kilauea Volcano and pick blackberries or ohelo berries or akala berries (Hawaiian rasberries) and make pies.  To me, the berry or fruit picking is my favorite part.  It makes the pies that much more special when you get to forage for the berries and fruit yourselves.  It’s a bonding thing, too.  We would take our pickings down to the beach house and hole up there for a week, living on homecooked pie, cobbler, berry pancakes and freshly caught fish.  Those are some of my best memories, and I still go berry picking every chance I get.  Sometimes it involves a long hike across the lava or picking out worms, but that only makes the pies sweeter!

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L.L.: You’re a native Hawaiian. Lucky you! I know you’ve said you blame Hawaii for your writing bug. Can you elaborate?

Sara Ackerman: (I’m actually not a native Hawaiian, though I was born and raised here, as were my parents and my grandfather and great grandmother on my dad’s side.)  I’m what you would call a Kama’aina, which translates to ‘child of the land,’ regardless of your ancestry.  Hawaii is a unique and beautiful place full of history and lore.  I was fortunate enough to be born here and raised by parents who appreciated the unique nature of it and took us outdoors every chance they could and taught us to love and respect the land and the ocean.  I am continuously uncovering interesting stories that would make for great books, and the ideas keep stacking up––whether about the mysterious death of a world famous botanist, Mark Twain’s missing manuscript, or a native Honeycreeper believed to be extinct, there are too many to count.  Also, to me, setting is such an essential part of the story.  Setting is its own character in most of my books, so much so that I’m not sure if I could write a story set anywhere else but Hawaii.  I am so connected to these islands, that I can’t not want to write about them.

L.L.: But you also practice acupuncture.  How does one inform the other? Or, do they?

Sara Ackerman:  The two seem like strange bedfellows, and yet for me, they go hand in hand.  Both are such a part of me, that they seep into all aspects of my life.  Oddly enough, I started writing novels around the same time I began acupuncture school, in 2012.  Both were new and intriguing and overwhelming.  In the beginning, I wondered if I would be able to master writing well enough to land a traditional publishing deal, and I worried that between the Chinese language and memorizing hundreds of acupuncture points and herbs, I might not be cut out for Chinese Medicine either.  But what I began to learn as I went along, was that acupuncture was the perfect remedy for someone in the throes of novel writing. Acupuncture has a calming effect on the nervous system and opens channels for the free flow of energy, also known as Qi.  Not only that, but the insertion of needles into acupuncture points releases endorphins which help with focus, a feeling of wellbeing, and enhanced creativity.  Without even realizing it, I was boosting my own brain power!

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

Sara Ackerman:   Aside from obsessing over several of my books in the works, ones I have already written but am revising, I’m in love with exploring the Big Island.  Even though my grandparents lived here and I’ve been coming here my whole life, I only moved here two years ago from Oahu.  On the weekends, I love going to the Volcano and adventuring out into the lava fields to watch the eruption or hiking through the rainforest and seeking out the adorable endangered native birds––i’iwi, apapane, and amakihi to name a few––which are only found high on our volcanoes.  I’m looking to join some local reforestation groups to help plant more native trees and give these little birds a better chance at survival. We also have some of the most beautiful ocean in Hawaii just fifteen minutes away, so I take my stand up paddleboard, my mask and snorkel and paddle up and down the coastline every chance I get.  Right now it’s humpback whale season and they come in very close here,  so on any given day, you’re likely to see a handful of whales.  There is so much beauty here, I feel very blessed!

L.L.: What’s next for you? More historical fiction, something else?

Sara Ackerman: I have another historical fiction manuscript due to my publisher tomorrow! This one is another WWII story set around Pearl Harbor.  I also have a handful of other contemporary novels all set in Hawaii that blend love, intrigue, a dash of history, and adventure.  I love them all and hope to share them with the world soon.  On top of that, I have two more book ideas that I can’t wait to get started on, as well as partnering up with my friend Lilly Barels on a book project.  I’m intrigued at the idea of co-writing a book and can’t wait to try it.

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

Sara Ackerman:  No, but I love to talk writing, so if anyone has any questions, feel free to visit my website or follow me on Twitter or Instagram!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, please see:

Order Links:

SaraAckermanWebABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born and raised in Hawaii, Sara studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine.  Prior to practicing acupuncture, she worked as a high school counselor and teacher on the famed north shore of Oahu, where surf often took precedence over school.  She is the author of six novels –  Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, Fallen WatersVolcano House, The Ranch at Redwater, Salt and Seaweed, and Honeycreepers – with a bunch more itching to be written.  She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of S. Ackerman and used with permission. Bird images from Wikipedia, berry picking in HI retrieved from , woman paddleboarding from Pinterest, no source noted; sugar cane weigh station retrieved from, all on 2.15.18]

WeekEND Reading: A Child Raffled Off at a World’s Fair? Jamie Ford tackles that and the seedier side of life in his third historical novel, LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, plus he feels the first draft took too long, women’s rights, embracing his identity as Chinese-American & more

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By Leslie Lindsay

From the bestselling author of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET comes a powerful novel of inspired by a true story of a young boy raffled off at a little known World’s Fair (AYP/Seattle), which left me hopeful and nostalgic, and definitely a fan of Jamie Ford. 

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I so enjoyed LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, which captivated me from the first page and sent me into a the lovely dual time periods of the early 20th century (1902-1911) and the mid-twentieth century (1962) as we follow Ernest Young from underprivileged China, then stripped from his mother to board a cramped ship en route the U.S. The first few chapters are particularly harrowing and are a bit reminiscent of the African slave trade; it will pull at your heart strings

Ernest (whose name was changed from Kun-ai), is placed in an orphanage in Seattle, attends a fancy boarding school as a charity student, but he’s not happy. An opportunity arises for more ‘adventure’ and Ernest is raffled off at the AYP (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific) World’s Fair. He’s 12 years old.

vancouver-bc-may-30-2017-copy-photo-of-1909-alaska-yukBut who has the winning raffle ticket is what will blow your mind. Ernest is not sent to a loving family who desperately want a child; his life is on the seedier sides of the track, so to speak. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving it away, but we are met with a cast of very colorful characters, issues involving race (Ernest is half-Chinese, half-Caucasian), of not really fitting into either culture, and also love and issues of morality.

In 1962, we meet Ernest’s grown daughters and their quest to learn the truth of their dad’s past. One daughter is an investigative journalist and she handles this story with aplomb and sensitivity.

Jamie Ford is such a gifted writer and was completely thrust into his world, the scenery is amazing, his use of historical facts truly organic and relevant; I found LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES a glimpse into not just the heart of the characters, but also the author. Absolutely Stunning!

Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Jamie Ford to the blog. Please join us in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Jamie, wow. The second chapter—the imagery, the desperation, the harrowing tale you set out to describe blew me away. I know stories have to capture not just the reader, but the writer as well. It’s evident that your fascination with Chinese-American history inspired LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, but what more can you tell us about the impetus of this tale?

Jamie Ford: Um, yeah, there’s a dark moment early in the book. (Sorry about that). So dark that a friend bought the book, began reading, and then texted me: THERE’S DEAD BABY ON PAGE 8. THIS BETTER GET HAPPIER IN A HURRY, FORD. So, there’s that.

And really, the impetus for that scene is centered around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which limited migration of Chinese workers to the US safely, but opened a black market of human trafficking, indentured servitude, and misery. Tragically, people risked life and limb to get here and many died in the process. Not unlike many coming to this country today.170px-Chineseexclusionact.JPG

L.L.: LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES struck a chord with me in several ways, but one is that I have a twelve year old daughter myself. I couldn’t imagine sending (giving?) her away! But this is 2017 and the world is a different place. Or is it? Also, my own grandfather was once ‘sold.’ He was the second boy in a family of four. He was small and scrappy. The family traveled and didn’t have much money. They exchanged money for their son. The man took him to a barber shop for a haircut and learned he had lice. My grandfather wasn’t wanted and returned to his family. His parents were angry about returning the money. I share this because Ernest Young endured a similar fate. The buying and selling of children is ghastly. Also, another point is the truth behind your fiction is that in ‘real life,’ the child raffled off at the 1909 fair was an infant, not a 12 year old. Can you talk about that, please?

Jamie Ford: It’s true that a boy was donated by the Washington Children’s Receiving home and raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle. His name was Ernest. And in reality, he was an infant. But, as an author, I wanted a point-of-view character who could see and remember the fair, so I made him an older child.

The genesis of that again came from a contemporaneous article in a Washington newspaper in which a woman wrote in asking for a 12-year-old boy—basically she said, “I want the ugliest boy you have. I know hard work will bring out the best in such a lad.” And a gentleman from the receiving home, the same man depicted in the book, wrote back saying he had a boy she could have. The casual nature of adoption and the implication of servitude drove much of the narrative in my novel.

“Irresistibly magnificent . . . How does a novel genius top himself? Jamie Ford’s newest takes an extraordinary moment in history, where vice lives alongside innocence, and transforms it into a dazzling, hold-your-breath story about the families we make and the ones we are thrust into, about who we are, and who we dreamed we could be.”—Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

L.L.:  Much of LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES is about race and culture and mixed race individuals not really feeling at home in any particular place. This is true of many biracial individuals, yourself included. Can you shed a little more light on that?

Jamie Ford: It’s always a challenge when you have each foot planted into a different culture. I was often confused growing up. I never felt Chinese enough, because I didn’t speak Cantonese like my dad. And I never felt white enough, because…we ate weird things like chicken feet and dried cuttlefish. So, while growing up is always a weird search for identity and self-definition, it’s even harder when compounded by culture.

Now I happily identify as Chinese American, but for years, when filling out student loan applications, for example, and there’s a box for WHITE or ASIAN—I never knew which to select.

As a mixed-race friend once joked, “Just ask yourself, which parent do I love more today?”

L.L.: The seedier side of life is depicted….well, beautifully in this novel. There’s political and social unrest, the red-light district of Seattle, and even the selling of virginity. What kind of research did you embark upon for LOVE & OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES?

Jamie Ford: As I was heading out on book tour, my publicist suggested, “You really should talk about your personal experiences as they relate to the novel.” Um…I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in brothels or what the mean average for brothel-time is in America, but whatever the average is, I can assure you I’m well below it.

However, I did find some amazing people to interview. One was a brilliant and charismatic woman named Maggie McNeil, who is an expert on Seattle’s historical red-light district and sex work in general. That’s because Maggie is both a librarian, and a high paid escort. She changed my perceptions of librarians and sex workers at the same time. [Image below: ‘World’s largest house of prostitution,’ Public Street in Seattle, WA; retrieved from]

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L.L.: Similarly, how long does it take for you to write a solid draft of this breadth?

Jamie Ford: Ooooooohhh…tricky question. My knee-jerk reaction is it took too long. Which is my fault, really. I think three months for a draft is reasonable, but this one took a year, mainly because I was too self-conscious. With a first novel, there are no expectations, but after the success of both Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost, I was suddenly writing with the world looking over my shoulder. Not really, but certainly in my mind. It took a while to just get back to writing for the sake of writing.

L.L.: I liked the 1962 period of the story, too. Do you find you like working in this bifurcated narrative? Do you write in order, or all historical pieces at once then braid in the ‘present-day’ sections? What’s your method?

Jamie Ford:  I do love bouncing around I time, but I always write in a linear fashion—as the chapters flow in the book, regardless of time period, is the way it spills out of my brain. It might have been easier to write all of the 1909 chapters, then all of the 1962 scenes, and later weave them together, but for some reason the back and forth is more enjoyable in its construct.

I’m taking it further with the next book, which will be both historical and speculative. Wish me luck!

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L.L.: I feel I could ask questions all day! What do you hope others take away from LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES?

Jamie Ford: Hmmm…the takeaway. I guess I’d hope that readers appreciate the roles of women and how they’ve changed (or haven’t changed) from 1909 to the 60s and later today.

By that I mean, my grandmother was born at a time when women couldn’t vote. And one of the books I used for research was titled What Can a Woman Do? It was published in 1884, and the author was Mrs. M. L. Rayne—so the author couldn’t even write a book under her own name, it was her husband’s name on the cover.
So much has changed. But still, not nearly enough.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? I’ll be honest, for me, it’s redecorating my writing space. I think it might help with the muse.  

Jamie Ford:  My new book, honestly. It’s weirder, more ambitious, and more sprawling in scale than anything I’ve ever tackled. I’d tell you more about it, but then I’d be up all night, again.

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

Jamie Ford:  You forgot to ask my go-to karaoke song? Seriously, everyone should have one. Mine would be anything that’s a duet—that’s the move—the have someone else to share the shame with. Aside from that, thanks for the interview, and to folks out there—thanks for reading!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION  PRIZES, please see:

Order links:

JamieFordMinChungABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 35 languages. His latest novel, Love And Other Consolations Prizes was published September 12, 2017. [about image: One is me, one is my great-grandfather, Min Chung, who later changed his name to William Ford (long story…)]

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

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[Cover, author image, and footer retrieved from author’s webpage with permission of author. Bird’s eye view of AYP World’s Fair retrieved from, first page of Chinese Exclusion Act retrieved from Wikipedia, What Can a Woman Do image retrieved from; all on 2.14.18]

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Wednesdays with Writers: ER doc Kimmery Martin talks about her debut, THE QUEEN OF HEARTS, a medical-based tale of friends, foes, and follies. Or Foley’s (as in catheters); adding plot lines, changing the ending, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay

ER doc Kimmery Martin breaks out with her debut, THE QUEEN OF HEARTS, domestic fiction amidst the backdrop of the fast-paced medical world. 

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When the publishing house reached out with THE QUEEN OF HEARTS (Berkley Hardcover, Feb 13, 2018), I was immediately intrigued. Medical drama–totally. Doctor-turned-novelist–check. A secret lurking in someone’s past–bring it on. Oh, and that cover…swoon!

Plus, it just happens to be Valentine’s Day *and* American Heart Health month, so how could I possibly pass this up?

THE QUEEN OF HEARTS reads a bit like Emily Giffin meets Jennifer Weiner meets Liane Moriarty meets an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” or “ER” or maybe “The Good Doctor.” I found it difficult to put down because this is ultimately a light, fun read.

Meet cardiologist Zadie and trauma surgeon Emma. Best friends since summer camp, the pair has journeyed through medical school and residencies together, ultimately ending up in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina with their husbands and five children between the two of them. But when a face from the past shows up in the hospital where Emma works, it throws the women into a tailspin. They thought they buried *that* secret many years ago.

So, grab a coffee and book an OR suite, stat—I mean, a comfy place to sit—and join me and Dr. Martin in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Kimmery, it’s an honor to be part of your debut. I have a feeling we have lots to chat about. I’m a former R.N. and like you, a self-proclaimed ‘book nerd,’ and I interview authors…I have two kids, not three, and I write. Sound familiar? I am curious what your inspiration was for THE QUEEN OF HEARTS?

Kimmery Martin: Oh yes—we sound like kindred spirits! I am an insatiable reader. My first inspiration to try my hand at writing was born of my admiration for the authors I love; I wanted to see if I could do what they do. So naturally I employed the advice hurled at all novice writers: write what you know. I know the practice of medicine, so there was never any question in my mind that I’d place my characters in a medical setting. For me the years of medical school were formative; they produced these very intense, enduring friendships, and I wanted to try to capture some of the work-hard, play-hard, love-hard ethos of those years.

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L.L.: I understand you starting writing long ago, as many of us do, but it’s usually more of a ‘hobby,’ or ‘interest,’ right? You went to med school. I went to nursing school. I always thought, “I’ll get a degree in something…functional…I can always write on the side.” But it’s not that easy! What do you find the most challenging about balancing the writing life with that of a medical professional? Are you still practicing medicine?

Kimmery Martin: Yes, and no. I’m on hiatus from the ER to try to make a go of it as a writer. It happened serendipitously: I was offered a job in an allergy clinic downtown in one of the big financial buildings, which wanted an ER doctor on site in case anyone receiving an allergy shot anaphylaxed. I was getting paid to sit there, and so I was able to devote more time to writing. (Please don’t hate.)

L.L.: There’s a disclaimer in the back of THE QUEEN OF HEARTS that goes something like this (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you are a reader who thinks most fiction is autobiographical, it’s not.” What can you tell us about what’s true and what’s not in this book? So much of it reads like it could be stripped from your real life. And, do you believe there’s truth in fiction?

Kimmery Martin: Unquestionably there is truth in fiction, and unquestionably there is some of me in this book. I have two female protagonists and they each contain bits and pieces of me; despite my disclaimer, I think that is true of all novelists to some extent, and debut novelists in particular. But of course my protagonists also have elements to their personalities that are wholly fictional.

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There’s a funny thing about their appearances that I didn’t appreciate until I started getting some heat from reviewers, who occasionally express consternation that both main characters are physically attractive. In my first drafts of the novel—which I wrote without a clue how to write a novel, but that’s another story—I forgot to include any physical description at all. I didn’t realize it until I had a local editor look it over, and she pointed out that readers would want to know what the main characters look like. So I rustled up some quick descriptions. In Emma’s case, I deliberately made her stunning because I thought it would create an interesting juxtaposition with her social awkwardness. But both of them wound up as blends of some of my real-life doctor girlfriends, who I think are absolutely lovely. Plus Zadie and I share a few physical characteristics, although I am certain she would be more photogenic. So when people started complaining the protagonists were too beautiful, I thought: Huh. That is kind of funny. Also a little embarrassing.

Regarding the events in the novel, though: that stuff is fictional. Fictional, y’all! Except for maybe a few lightly-altered anecdotes about my kids, or something inspired by a day at work. (No real patients but plenty of coalesced/adapted material from my years in the ER.) I’ll also add for the record—because I hear this comparison so much—I may be the only person in the world who has never seen Grey’s Anatomy. I’m just not a big TV watcher. I’m thrilled that people love that show, though!

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L.L.: As a first-time author, what do you think you did ‘right,’ and what do you wish you had known more about?

Kimmery Martin: I think I found my own unique voice right away. I do have to be reined in because I am wordy by nature—my vocabulary is full-on supernerd—but I never struggled with how the narration sounded.

I wish so much I had written a log line for the book first—a simple one-sentence description summarizing the main “hooky” part of the plot. Actually, I wish I could outline a plot, period. It’s hard for me because so many ideas come to me as I am writing, rather than ahead of time. I’d like to get better at that.

“Whip-smart and full of heart, Martin expertly weaves the threads of friendship, love and betrayal into a story that crackles with humor and compassion. The Queen of Hearts is a brilliant debut.”

-Lisa Duffy, author of The Salt House

L.L.: I’m curious about the revision process and working with an editor. How much was on the cutting room floor? And what was the overall timeline from when you started working with an editor to when you had a finished (nearly finished) polished manuscript?

Kimmery Martin: I don’t even know how many times this got re-written. It took about nine months to a year for the first draft, then another year or two of fiddling with it while I queried agents. I had local editing help through that process. Then when my agent pitched Penguin, I wound up with my beloved editor Kerry and we hacked a huge amount out of the original manuscript—probably at least half of it. I rewrote a massive chunk to include a new plot line and a different ending than the original.

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

Kimmery Martin: I’m a travel junkie, and I like writing travelogues. (You can read a few of them HERE.) Someday, I’d like to publish a combo travel guide/travel story book.

Unrelated: I am also obsessed with hygge, the Scandinavian concept of making things cozy when it’s bleak outside. I detest cold.

L.L.: Kimmery, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what your kids are up to? If you’re writing another book? What you ate for breakfast? What your last patient’s chief complaint was?

Kimmery Martin: I have ideas for at least two or three more books! Stay tuned.

L.L.: Thanks for stopping by, Kimmery!

Kimmery Martin: Thank you so much! These were fun, insightful questions.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE QUEEN OF HEARTS, please see:

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Kimmery Martin credit line Stephen B. Dey master photographer CPP HIGH RES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kimmery Martin is a doctor, book reviewer, author interviewer, traveler, and obsessive reader. Her debut novel, The Queen of Hearts, was a huge hit among three of her friends before being picked up by Penguin Random House. Kimmery lives in North Carolina with her husband, three children, and the world’s most obstinate dog. You can read more of her writing, including travelogues, book reviews, and social commentary at http://www.kimmerymartin.com.

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

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Penguin/Random House and used with permission. Author photo credit: Stephen B. Dey, master photographer CPP , images of ‘writer at work’ and TQOH surrounded by books retrieved from K. Martin’s website/Instagram. ‘Truth’ dictionary image retrieved from; book cover with glasses from heart stethoscope retrieved from]

WeekEND Reading: Leah DeCesare uses the Utensil Classification System (UCS) to find “Mr. Right,” plus how nostalgia bolsters health, college years, first jobs, and so much more in FORKS, KNIVES & SPOONS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Nostalgic, witty tale of college girlfriends and their search for Mr. Right in this debut from Leah DeCesare. 

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I tore through FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS mostly because DeCesare has such an easy, relatable writing style. It’s about love and growth, friendship, the murky place between childhood and adulthood, and ultimately: discovery.

Plus, the timing’s right for a pre-Valentine’s Day read.

Amy York is a freshman at Syracuse University. She’s been raised by a single dad who dishes out some timely advice the evening before taking her to college for the first time: there are three types of guys–forks, knives, and spoons. The ultimate goal is a steak knife. He calls this the Utensil Classification System (UCS). It’s lighthearted, but Amy takes it very seriously educating her roommate and other college friends about the UCS.

I was immediately thrust back in time to the last 1980s and early 1990s (when the story is set) and waxed nostalgic at the mention of Benetton sweaters, Swatch watches, Tretorns, George Michael, Aqua Net, Van Halen and so much more. DeCesare completely pegged the time period with complete accuracy.

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There were girls (and guys) of all kinds–those I remember well from my own college days–and her characterizations were spot-on. I wanted to know what happened to these folks and how it all tied up in the end (my predictions were right–and then I breathed a sigh of relief). I also really enjoyed the big, boisterous Italian family described in the second-half of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS.

So whip up a chocolate mousse, or call for some take out Chinese and settle in with me and Leah as we chat about FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS.

Leslie Lindsay: Leah, the Utensil Classification System (UCS) is so original, so different and I really appreciated it. What was your inspiration for it? Was it really your dad, or something else that triggered the idea? And can you give us a brief run-down of what each category represents?

Leah DeCesare: Thanks for reading and having me, Leslie. The inspiration for FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS does come from a real talk my father gave me before sending me off to college in 1988. I wrote the scene of Tom York telling his daughter, Amy, based on how I remember my dad telling me, one difference is my mom was with us too.

In brief, the forks are the arrogant, jerky guys (we all know the forks), the spoons are geeks (remember this was the 80s way before a “geek” was cool, think Revenge of the Nerds), and the knife category is the biggest, he told me, in the knives I could find a good guy, someone who may not be as confident yet around girls, but where I’d find a guy who cared about me.

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L.L.: I was completely smitten with the time period. I was in college in the mid-late 1990s, so by then we had email (but no social media) and pagers (!) but there were still so many universals with the college experience: the painted cinder block walls in dorms, the formals, rush, all of that. How did you make the decision to set the novel in this time period and say, not today, in 2018?

Leah DeCesare: My oldest daughter started college this fall – an unintended life parallel as the story starts with young college freshmen women released – and during our college tour phase, the campuses and dorms and dining halls are all so much nicer and higher end than when we were in school. But, I decided to set the story in the same years I went to college, first, because I thought it would be easier for reference since I’d lived it, that turned out not to be true. It took a ton of research to get things right and accurate – how much did a CD player cost in 1990 anyway? Truthfully, I couldn’t write the same authentic college experience set today without hanging out and planting myself on college campuses, it was more genuine since it was what I had lived.

However, beyond those more technical reasons, I also love that setting the story in a different era highlights the messages of the book. The story is ultimately about friendship and believing in yourself – something that women of all ages need to hear, and hear loudly. The fact that this takes place in the late 80s/early 90s underscores similarities of the times and themes. There is still sexual assault (don’t we know it! #metoo) and excessive drinking; there is still the need to trust others and really connect with people (not behind screens), and there is still a fervent need for women to genuinely believe we can achieve anything, that we must value ourselves, that were are worth being loved, respected and so much more.

Leah DeCesare captured me on the very first line, ‘There are three types of guys: forks, knives and spoons.’ With imagination, highly relatable characters, and witty dialogue we are taken back to our youths – reevaluating and categorizing all of our crushes. A lovely story of friendship, love, and the amazing time between childhood and adulthood.
Dawn Lerman, bestselling author of My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes, New York Times Well Blog columnist

L.L.: Speaking of nostalgia, I just read about there’s a restorative power of nostalgia; it contributes to feelings of optimism, which is linked to improved mood, less pain, and other wellness outcomes like lowering blood pressure and improving GI function. Who knew? Can you expand on that? What did writing about this time period do for you?

Leah DeCesare: Wow! That’s great to hear and it makes sense to me. Books take us to other places and times and allow our minds and hearts to experience new things, to walk in another’s footsteps, to empathize, consider life from another point of view, and to stir self reflection.

Writing FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS definitely let me retrieve and relive old, happy memories. Writing pulled me deeply into thoughts and feelings of my college years, that playful time of youth, and life as a new adult in New York City. Tidbits and kernels of scenes were gleaned from real life memories and still make me smile. I love that time period, as well as that time of my life — though I’m happy where I am now and I’d never want to return.

I like that there’s science behind what we already sense, and I like that reading my book can help contribute to a reader’s wellbeing.

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L.L.:  Along those lines, I was thinking, ‘oh, this would be a great book for a younger girl as she navigates the complexities of late high school/college.’ And then I thought, ‘maybe not’ (due to some more mature themes). The time period made me think the story was for women in their late 30s-early 40s with the 1980s references. Who do you see as your ideal reader? And what genre would  you identify FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS?

Leah DeCesare: So, initially I was thinking the target reader would be women finishing college and entering their first post-college jobs, starting to settle into a career path and finding a partner to love. I also figured there would be interest from “women of a certain age” who had lived this pre-Internet world, so very different from life today. I had beta readers of both age groups and found that the younger women enjoyed the time period even without the nostalgia that older women experienced.

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In traveling and talking with readers about the book, I’ve found some wonderful things happening: mothers and daughters are bonding over the story, younger women tend to gravitate and to use UCS while older women savor the throw-back to earlier times, and there is a big population of women who are in their 40s/50s who appreciate both the nostalgia AND the UCS as they return to the dating world after divorce or loss of a spouse. It was unexpected, but there’s also been a high school readership. I had a woman get in touch with me last spring because she was buying a dozen books for her daughter and her daughter’s friends as a high school graduation gift.

As for genre, I don’t love the term chick-lit because it seems to devalue both the story/writing and the reader – as if it’s simple or fluff. I think of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS as book club fiction, women’s fiction. I like smart stories about women who grow, learn about themselves and change through the course of the story and that’s what I tried to deliver in FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS which is ultimately about women believing in themselves without tying their value to a man. I believe there are a lot of angles and substance, though the book is not heavy, that readers can ponder, evaluate, discuss, and apply to their own lives.

L.L.: I can remember feeling a bit like Amy in college…wondering if I’d ever get a ring. At the tail-end of college, I attended the first wedding of one of my friends and was such a dud at the reception. I didn’t even have a boyfriend and she was getting married! Is college the time to meet one’s spouse? Why do you think we feel that pressure?

Leah DeCesare: You ask the best questions! I’ve pondered this a lot. My parents met at the freshman welcome picnic in college and so on some level, I think I expected to meet my husband in college — I didn’t. I think the opportunity to meet a lot of options for spouses in college makes it a time ripe for meeting “the one.” I definitely wonder if younger women still feel any sense pressure or desire to find a spouse while in school. I wrote an article about this very topic if you’re interested:
Husband-Hunting on Campus.

L.L.:  I adored the big, boisterous Italian family. In that sense, it reminded me of some of Lisa Scottoline’s work. And made me super-hungry for a bowl of pasta. [Good thing we’re going to the Italian Village in downtown Chicago tonight.] And then I read your acknowledgements section and see that it’s peppered with plenty of Italian names. Something tells me you know this Italian family quite intimately?

Leah DeCesare: Ha – yes! My steak knife, I mean, my husband, is 100% Italian and I’m about half+ Italian. I absolutely modeled those scenes of Joey’s family after his family, perhaps amped up a little bit, then again, perhaps not! Those were some of my favorite scenes to write and are still some of my favorites in the book. Anyone who’s got some Italian in their family will relate to those loud, loving moments. They still make me laugh when I read them. p-300x336

L.L.: What do you still pine for from  your college days, even a little bit? What are you glad is over?

Leah DeCesare: It’s hard to believe how far removed I am from my college days. I guess if there’s something I miss, it’s the fun of constantly having people all around, of meeting new people and the spontaneity and the social spirit of school. I also love traveling and my semester abroad was one of the best times of my life.

I love learning and classes and reading, but I had three majors in college and always had a very full course load. I recall the stress of always, always, always, having something I should be doing except on Christmas and summer breaks, so I can say I don’t miss that! Though I guess I always have something I should be doing now, too, but it feels different.

L.L.: Leah, it’s been a pleasure. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Leah DeCesare: I’d love to just mention to your readers that if they like a book, please review it. Those little stars really, really matter to authors. So, on behalf of authors everywhere – THANK YOU!

L.L.: Thanks again and hope your steak knife treats you well this Valentine’s Day!

Leah DeCesare:  It has been such fun – your questions were thoughtful and fantastic!

For more information, to connect with with author via social media, or to purchase a copy of FORKS, KNIVES, SPOONS, please see:

Order Links:

leah decesare croppedABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Leah DeCesare’s childhood dream was to become an author though she never expected her first book to be about parenting. The Naked Parentingseries stemmed from her main gig as mother of three and she writes between car pools and laundry.

Forks, Knives, and Spoons is her debut novel. (SparkPress, April 2017).  Leah has also written articles for publication in The Huffington Post, the International Doula, The Key, and other online outlets and local publications.

Married for over 22 years, Leah’s current parenting adventures revolve around kids, tween and teenagers, creating the basis for her Mother’s Circle parenting blog, where she shares perspectives on parenting from pregnancy through teens.

Her pre-baby professional experience was in public relations and event planning and for the past fifteen years, her career has focused on birth, babies, and early parenting as a certified childbirth educator, a birth and postpartum doula.

She parents, writes and volunteers in Rhode Island.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of L. DeCesare and used with permission. All images retrieved 2.1.18. I ‘heart’ 1908s neon sign from, dining hall rendering from, mothers and daughters reading from, campus image from L. DeCesare’s article book cover with hearts from, ]

Wednesdays with Writers: Cynthia Swanson talks about Mid-century Modern Homes being ‘pure eye candy,’ how homes are confining but also a refuge, working with a developmental editor, her love for reading & more in THE GLASS FOREST

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By Leslie Lindsay 

An enthralling, atmospheric domestic thriller in a somber tone amidst the backdrop of the 1940s-1960s. 

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I loved Cynthia Swanson’s debut, THE BOOKSELLER (see my 2015 interview here) and absolutely had to get my hands on her next book and I am so, so glad I did. THE GLASS FOREST (Simon Schuster/Touchstone, Feb 6 2018) is a stunning read and such a character study as much as it is a quiet thriller.

The Glass family is tied together by a tenuous web of lies. Oh, but at first, like any family, they seem completely ‘normal.’ There’s an underlying sense of doom, of something that’s not quite right that I found irresistible. 

Told from the POV of three women: Angie the young mother/wife, Silja the older mother/wife and missing person, and Ruby, her teenage daughter, THE GLASS FOREST is beautifully written with echoes of Anita Shreve’s THE STARS ARE FIRE and a bit of Celeste Ng’s work.

Angie and Paul Glass are living an idyllic life in Door County, Wisconsin when they get a call that his brother has been found dead and his wife is missing. They rush, with 6 month old PJ in tow, to Stonekill, NY where the other Glass family lives in a gorgeous, sprawling ranch home with floor-to-ceiling windows nestled in the woods to help 17 year old Ruby through the investigation and bereavement. Nothing is right and everything is dark and twisted. DUt4ra8XUAA0euz

The backstory is important and will transport you to the early 1940s in an instant. Swanson’s gift lies in gorgeous details, a languid and almost somber storytelling style that had me mesmerized.

In the end, you’ll find that this story is quite unsettling, smart, and disturbing. Please join me in welcoming Cynthia back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Cynthia, I feel as though with every story, every novel, there’s a ‘jumping off’ point, what was it for you in THE GLASS FOREST?

Cynthia Swanson: This idea for The Glass Forest stewed inside my head for a long time. As with most of my story ideas, it arose from a question: what would it be like to occupy the home of someone who had abruptly gone missing? How could you resist looking for clues around every corner? The story grew from that seed, with the particulars coming to me over a number of years.

I started writing The Glass Forest about a year before The Bookseller was released. It took me 2 ½ years to write The Glass Forest – but I was revising and promoting The Bookseller throughout that time.

L.L.: I’m intrigued with your glass house concept. There’s one near me in Chicagoland: The Farnsworth House. It’s small and really only intended for one person as a retreat from city life, but the Stone Ridge Road house you describe in THE GLASS FOREST is so, so cool. Can you tell us more about your vision?Main-Image_960x528

Cynthia Swanson: I’ve always been drawn to great design. I was an architecture major for the first two years of college, before going back to writing (my first love) and getting an English degree instead. I’ve long been enthralled with glass-walled MCM* homes. I belong to a few MCM enthusiast groups on Facebook, and it’s pure eye candy to scroll through the listings and photos posted in those groups. Looking at those pictures provided inspiration for Silja and Henry’s house. [*MCM = mid-century modern]

In my memory, there were glass houses in Westchester County, NY (where I grew up and where fictional Stonekill is), although I didn’t know anyone who’d lived in one. (I grew up in a 1920s Tudor, and most of my friends lived in ranches, split-levels, or old-town Victorians like the Glasses’ first house in Stonekill.) Because I didn’t know anyone with a glass house in that area, I spent a day driving around Westchester, scouting out homes. I found several that looked something like I pictured Silja’s. And the winding roads through the woods were just as I remembered them.

L.L.: And so the title is related, of course because the family’s name is Glass, the house is so very transparent, and well…there are secrets upon secrets. There’s also the dichotomy of old versus new for the Stonekill Glasses: they once lived in a fixer-upper Victorian in the middle of town before building the glass house. What is it about homes that make us so vulnerable?

Cynthia Swanson: For many of us, “home” represents both refuge and confinement. Our homes are about the physical space, of course, but they’re also about our relationships with other people – those we live with as well as those who aren’t there. A house is not just representative of its inhabitants – it also represents the absence created when someone is missing from the home. Absence manifests in many ways – it could be someone who has never lived there but we wish did, (perhaps a relationship we wish we had), or someone who has moved away (such as a grown child) – or, of course, a death in the family. This is unnerving to think about, and it makes us realize why even within a “safe” physical space, we sometimes feel exposed.

L.L.: The glass house was Silja’s dream home. What might your dream home be like?

Cynthia Swanson: Probably a combination of Silja’s house and my own! We live in a 1958 tri-level that we’ve spent a lot of years “unmodeling” – taking out the 1980s/90s “updates” and replacing them with vintage and retro elements. My house is larger than Silja’s (because in this day and age we all need 3 1/2 bathrooms, right?), but it’s not as stylized as hers. Although my house has more square footage, it feels more homey than I’d envision Silja’s house would – but that could be because we all get along relatively well around here. While we have a large picture window in the living room, we don’t have walls of glass. I would love it if we did!

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L.L.: THE GLASS FOREST is your second book. And it’s amazing. But sometimes authors struggle with that second book. Did you ever feel ‘stuck’ with this one? And if so, how did you get ‘unstuck?’

Cynthia Swanson: The Glass Forest stretched me as a writer on so many levels. It’s much more plot-heavy than The Bookseller, so I had to learn a lot about pacing and structure. As a thriller, it had to wrap up logically. Making sure all those loose ends tied up was important to me.

As for the narrative itself, there was a point where both my agent and I had read the manuscript over and over – and we knew it needed something, but we weren’t sure what. On my agent’s advice, I hired a developmental editor, Pat Mulcahy, who made the excellent suggestion to change Angie’s point of view from third person to first, and Ruby’s from first to third. (Silja’s chapters were always in third person.) Pat’s reasoning was that as readers, we are discovering secrets right alongside Angie, while Ruby is more mysterious – so it makes sense to allow readers direct access to Angie’s thoughts, while Ruby remains a bit removed. It was amazing what a difference that made. I hadn’t seen it, and neither had my agent; we’d needed fresh professional eyes on it, and Pat worked her magic.

L.L.: We creative types need inspiration in all forms. I get inspired when I read, walk into a craft store, look at gorgeous home décor. What inspires you and your writing?

Cynthia Swanson: Reading! I love to read – in the genres I write in (I consider my work a combination of literary thriller, historical fiction, and women’s fiction) as well as in others. I enjoy magical realism, literary fiction, essay collections, and memoir. I’m inspired by the genius of my fellow authors. There are so many amazing books and writers out there. If I could change one characteristic of myself, I’d become a faster reader – because the way things stand, the chances of ever getting through my TBR list are slim-to-none.

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L.L.: Are you working on anything new?

Cynthia Swanson: Yes, my third book is in-progress. Like The Bookseller and The Glass Forest, this one is also a near-history novel. It’s about a complex family during the early years of international adoption. I just returned from a fabulous research trip for the book, and I’m excited to dive back into revisions soon.

L.L.: Cynthia, it’s been a pleasure as always. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Cynthia Swanson: How about: where can readers connect with Cynthia Swanson in the coming months?

My event schedule is here. I’ll be adding more events soon, so be sure to check back.

I also love chatting with book clubs. More info can be found here.

The pleasure is all mine, Leslie. Thank you!

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

Order Your Copy:

Cynthia SwansonABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Bookseller, which is soon to be a motion picture starring Julia Roberts. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction, The Bookseller is being translated into more than a dozen languages. It was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award and the MPIBA Reading the West Award. Cynthia’s second novel, The Glass Forest, is due from Touchstone / Simon & Schuster in February 2018. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of  C. Swanson and used with permission. All images retrived on 1.31.18. Image of contemporary exterior tri-level retrieved from, image of glass sphres in forest from, Farnsworth House retrieved from]

WeekEND Reading: Stunning debut from Naima Coster about Brooklyn, Brownstones, music, motherhood, estrangement; oh, and having Christina Baker Kline as your mentor– plus more in the luminous HALSEY STREET

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By Leslie Lindsay

A gorgeous narrative from debut author, Naima Coster, about gentrification, Brooklyn, complex family relationships, and ultimately, home. 

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The writing in HALSEY STREET (Little A, Hardcover) is oh-so-good. The details, the pictures Coster paints with her words are pure magic. Her knowledge of the landscape–not just of Brooklyn–but of families, complex emotions, visual art, music, and so much were astounding.

Five years ago, Penelope Grand left her family home in Brooklyn to pursue an art career in Pittsburgh. She’s back to help with her ailing father. But she does not stay in his home (her childhood home), even though she’s invited, but feels she must strike out on her own. She rents the attic in a white family’s attic a few blocks away.

But Brooklyn is virtually unrecognizable. Her father’s prized music store is gone; hipsters have moved in and reclaimed the place with their fancy cafes and eateries, their natural foods store. The brownstones are soaring in price and in come the uppity white folks.

And her mother, whom Penelope has never been close to, is sending letters from the Dominican Republic in effort to forge a new relationship.

There’s love and lust and art and music in HALSEY STREET. There’s ailing parents and caretaking, a search for self and reinvention.

And the writing! Did I mention the easy, fluid, effortless writing that absolutely pulls you and has you nodding your head in recognition? 

HALSEY STREET one of those reads that picked me. I had no idea how the ending was going to pan out, but I can assure you, completely resonated and hit me right where I needed it most: the heart.

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Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Naima to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: I adored HALSEY STREET. I’ll be honest: it was one of those books that I wasn’t quite sure about at first because maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t relate. I don’t know much about Brooklyn brownstones and I’m not a visual artist, and no…I’m not black. But HALSEY STREET pulled me in and absolutely gob smacked me. What was your inspiration for this tale?

Naima Coster: I was inspired in the writing of Halsey Street on several levels. First, I was interested in the character of Penelope, as a woman who is summoned home but is ambivalent about her return. I wanted to tell a story about one young woman coming home to a place but also to her family and to a self she’d lost along the way. Then, I was interested in the story of the place she had returned to—how Brooklyn had been transformed while she was away. With those interests, I started writing, and the story grew to contain other characters—her father, her landlords and their daughter, a kind neighborhood bartender, and most of all, her mother, who is enigmatic, estranged and haunts the book. 

“AN EXCEPTIONAL DEBUT.”

–Christina Baker Kline bestselling author of The Orphan Train & A Piece of the World

L.L.: I think we all have these romantic notions about the place—the street—we grew up. In our minds it always seems bigger, tidier, and more innocent than it really is. Why do you think we romanticize that so much? And why is it never quite the same when we return?

Naima Coster: I think that when we talk about home what we’re really talking about who is we were when we were there. We’re not just talking about the trees; we’re talking about how it felt to walk in their shade. We’re not just talking about the fact that children rode their bikes along the sidewalk; we’re talking about how it felt to be one of those children or to watch over them. When we talk about places that have changed, we’re talking about a life, a whole set of feelings and experiences, that we can’t recover. My attachment to place is quite deep, because place is so linked to particular moments in time, different selves that I’ve had a long the way, that I can’t ever re-experience, but that are still a part of me.

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L.L.: As I read, I was just floored with your characterizations of Penelope, Ralph, Mirella. Everyone is so flawed and complex and real. Can you give us a glimpse into how you created these characters? Any tips to writers for developing such authenticity?

Naima Coster: I think of characters as having layers, and my task as a writer is to traverse those layers, going as deep as I can, learning as much as I can, even if all my insight doesn’t make it onto the page explicitly. I constantly ask myself, “Why?” whether a character is making a major decision about her life or just fiddling with something on the table. I think the key to that complexity for me is spending a lot of time with the characters even when I’m not writing. I’ll collect observations, ideas, questions, and make notes, as I’m moving through the world. Even if I’m not putting words on the page, I’m investigating, and gathering the insights that will help me return to the page with something to say, to discover. For instance, in writing Mirella, I thought constantly about motherhood, when I watched films, read, listened to people talk about their lives. As I gathered observations, I was writing her in my mind.

L.L.: On a personal note, I was estranged from my mother for many years (mostly due to her mental illness), but also because she moved to Hawaii, leaving behind domesticity and family in search of something more fulfilling. Like Mirella, she didn’t really find it. Like Penelope, I received letters asking for reconnection. How did this piece of the story develop? And do you have ties to the Dominican Republic?

Naima Coster: I’m touched to hear that the book spoke to you on such a personal level! Thank you for sharing that. I knew that if these two women would be hurting primarily because of the ways they were estranged from each other that the book would have to chronicle the transformation of that hurt—either into an experience of healing, a deeper wound, or something in-between. I think of letters, or writing, as a way for two women who can’t control their anger, who can’t find the words to say when they are in front of each other, whose emotions run away with them, as one of the only viable ways they could express themselves with sincerity and vulnerability. Being vulnerable in front of someone you love who has also hurt you is so hard! And I do have ties to the Dominican Republic, although I’ve never received mail from there! I have family that was born and lived there, and so I spent summers as a child in DR that were beautiful and formative for me.download (62)

L.L.:  Ralph…oh, I loved him. I could easily see his ‘fro, his record store, the leisure suits I imagined he wore. How would you describe his character? And what might we learn from father-daughter relationships through his and Penny’s?

Naima Coster: I see Ralph as a man who had great dreams for his life. As an orphan, he started with very little and built a formidable little kingdom in Brooklyn with his family, his brownstone, his record store. These were the things that gave him a sense of his own importance and value; without them, he flounders and becomes that little boy uncertain about being wanted, uncertain about how to live. He loves music; he’s charismatic; he’s smart and emotional and feeling, but he can get stuck in his own ambitions and desires and gloom. I think one of the lessons in his relationship to his daughter is that it’s important not to get stuck inside your own malaise if you want to remain connected to the people around you. Ralph’s entitled to his feelings of loss, but they become blinders that keep him from seeing the way his daughter, Penelope, is hurting, and the ways that she needs him. I think that’s an important lesson for a whole range of relationships—despite our good intentions, we can get caught inside our own experience and feelings.

L.L.: I read (in your acknowledgements section) that you were urged by Christina Baker Kline (love her work!) to write a novel. And that she was the one who taught you to write short stories. In your opinion, how are novels and short stories different? What makes a successful short story? It’s a form I love, but feel I fail miserably at.

Naima Coster: I think a successful short story, if it’s character-driven, drops us right into the life of the character at a moment when everything is going to change for them. There must be that sense of a radical transformation, even if it’s internal, even if it’s not linked to major action, by the end of the story, as well as a sense of why the transformation matters, which is hard to pull off in such a compressed space. A good short story often feels like a technical feat to me; the novel can be more forgiving, but there’s a never-ending risk of a reader disengaging at any point, so each page must offer discovery, of one kind or another. They’re both thrilling forms to work in, and I learned to approach each with confidence thanks to the support and wisdom of Christina Baker Kline, who has been an exceedingly generous mentor, and is a brilliant, dedicated writer. She’s the real deal. 

L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but what would you like readers to take away from HALSEY STREET?

Naima Coster: I hope that readers can see how deeply loss forms us, whether it’s a fractured relationship between a mother and daughter, or the closing of a beloved family business, or no longer feeling at home in your neighborhood. I hope glimpsing that loss can help the reader feel compassion for characters (and people) behaving badly. I hope the reader, too, can find some hope that reconciliation, recovery are possible, however hard and slow they may be.  

L.L: What’s something you long for, even a little, from your childhood? From your childhood home?

Naima Coster: My childhood home was filled with plants. I have no green thumb, and I’ve killed every plant I’ve ever had, including a succulent. I miss the green and how the plants brightened the space. I long for the time I spent with family when I was young. I have a large extended family and whenever we got together, it was loud and tender and vibrant—it was so special the way we gathered, and I felt like a part of such a rich, expansive community because I was.

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L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what you’re reading, what you ate for dinner last night, what you’re teaching, what your working on?

Naima Coster: These days I’m rereading Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, which I am teaching in a fiction writing workshop to examine voice and point of view. It’s a jarringly wild, exciting, daring book. For dinner last night, I had a lovely red pepper-cauliflower-and potato soup with a warm corn tortilla and a green salad! And I’ve got two fiction projects in the works—one that is a kind of quest story, the other that is a mosaic of interconnected pieces told from different points of view. Both are novels, both are place-based, and both follow women who are trying to carve out lives for themselves without being defined by the past. In that way, these novels build on the work I started with Halsey Street. I’m excited to keep going!

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Naima Author 2017.JPG ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street, a story of family, loss, and renewal, set in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesArts & Letters, Lit Hub, CatapultThe RumpusAster(ix), A Practical Wedding, Guernica, and has been anthologized in The Best of Kweli and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Naima is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2017Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay. Naima studied creative writing at Yale, Fordham University, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing to students in prison, youth programs, and universities. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and is a Senior Fiction Editor at Kweli. Naima tweets as @zafatista and writes the newsletter, Bloom How Must.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of ShreveWilliams and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jonathan Jimenez Perez. Image of letters from , tree-lined street image from book pages/heart retrieved from, succulents from Pinterest, no source noted; all on 2.2.18]