Author Archives: leslie1218

About leslie1218

Author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) frantically working on a novel that should be ready for submission this fall. Mom of two spritely redheads & one chubby basset hound whose stories & images appear in my writing from time-to-time.

WeekEND Reading: Carmela Martino talks about her gorgeously written historical fiction, PLAYING BY HEART, tenacity in publishing, being excited about what you write; math and music, and the little-known Agnesi sisters, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Sweeping historical novel set in 18th century Milan features bright, spirited girls well ahead of their time. 

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Carmela Martino completely transported me to the historical landscape of Italy where girls were destined to become ‘only’ a wife/mother or join the convent. Oh, but the Salvini sisters, Maria and Emilia, have so much more they want to do with their lives.

Emilia, ‘the second sister,’ wants nothing more than to marry a man who loves music as much as she does. Her sister, on the other hand, really desires to take the veil, but her father has insisted she become a scholar–her brilliant language skills are second to none (she has mastered seven!) and her math and astronomy studies are fearless. In fact, he hopes her skills land their large family in noble status.

Every character in PLAYING BY HEART has a strong desire to become something: a mother, a musician, a nun, a nobleman. Their desires are often incongruent with the 18th century culture of Milan. 

I found the writing lucid, the characters well developed, and the story straddling the YA/adult genre. Martino is a gifted storyteller that made the reading of PLAYING BY HEART an absolute joy. While PLAYING BY HEART is billed as a YA historical romance, I didn’t see it as that at all, but more of a determined (and bright) young girl searching for satisfaction in a life she wants so desperately.

Please join me in welcoming Carmela to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Carmela, I so loved this book. I found it inspiring but awed by its roots in history. Maria and Emilia Salvini, the sisters depicted in PLAYING BY HEART are based on actual sisters who lived in 18th century Milan: musician and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi (1720-1795) and mathematician and linguist Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). Can you tell us a bit about how you came to ‘know’ these sisters?

Carmela Martino: First, off, let me say thanks so much for hosting this interview, Leslie, and for your insightful review of Playing by Heart.

I came to know the Agnesi sisters in a rather roundabout way. Even though I have an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. I was appalled that there’d been no mention of 220px-Maria_Gaetana_Agnesiher in any of my math classes or textbooks. Maria Gaetana was a woman I could have looked up to as a role model had I known of her. After reading about her in that article, I began researching her life with the goal of writing a picture book biography to inspire girls who might be interested in math.

As I learned about Maria Gaetana’s life, I was again appalled. This time, because of all the misinformation about her, both in print and online. For example, the current Wikipedia entry states that her father was a math professor. This is false. Pietro Agnesi came from a family of silk merchants. He never taught math. He never even worked in the family business. It seems some writers assumed that the only way Maria Gaetana could have come by her math skills was by learning them from her father. I set out to write a biography of Maria Gaetana that would set the record straight and introduce people to this extraordinary woman, not only her scholarly accomplishments but also her work for the poor. During my research, I also learned about her sister Maria Teresa’s extraordinary musical talents. I’d never heard of her either, even though she’d been one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera.Anonimo,_ritratto_della_compositrice_e_clavicembalista_maria_teresa_agnesi

After Candlewick Press published my middle-grade novel, ROSA SOLA in 2005, I submitted the picture book biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Maria Gaetana’s own writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Maria Gaetana’s personal life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by how both Maria Gaetana and Maria Teresa had struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness. And that’s how I came to write PLAYING BY HEART.  Unfortunately, even less is known about Maria Teresa’s life than about her older sister’s. But I was able to track down a music professor at the University of Chicago who is an expert on the music of 18th-century Milan and he helped me immensely.

I still hope to eventually find a publisher for my biography of Maria Gaetana. Meanwhile, I’ve created a website to help dispel some of the myths about her and her family. The page about Maria Teresa includes a YouTube video of one of her music compositions being performed.

L.L.: And yet PLAYING BY HEART was a hard book for you to write and sell. Like the sisters in the story, you were determined. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Carmela Martino: The amount of research required for this novel was rather daunting. I needed to understand the culture of 18-century Milan—the politics of the time, social standards, clothing, food, music, etc. The few primary documents I found were written in Italian. I have difficulty reading modern Italian, let alone Italian as it was written in the 1700s! I guess I really was determined, as you say, because I stuck with it. I ended up heavily fictionalizing the story of the Agnesi sisters to give me more freedom. I changed the family name to Salvini, and originally called the novel The Second Salvini Sister. It took me about 2 ½ years to get a solid draft. In September 2011, I sent that manuscript to the Candlewick editor who had originally suggested I write the novel. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

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You can imagine my disappointment, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know rejection is simply part of the process. I continued revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. I was encouraged when the manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to PLAYING BY HEART. The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. The contest successes meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel. The feedback I kept hearing was that PLAYING BY HEART was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for an online conference that included pitch sessions with editors. One of the editors was from Vinspire Publishing, a small press that looked like it could be a good match for my novel. With nothing to lose, I pulled PLAYING BY HEART out of the drawer and pitched it. The editor liked my pitch and eventually bought the novel.

L.L.: Which brings me to genre. As a writer, is this something we should concern ourselves with, or is it purely a marketing device?

Carmela Martino: That’s a great question and I’ve heard conflicting answers. I tell my writing students it’s good to know about the market, but that shouldn’t necessarily determine what you write. I believe the most important thing is to write the story that calls to you, that excites you. One of the biggest mistakes I see my students make is to choose their writing project based on what they think will sell. For example, when vampire stories were all the rage, some of my students who’d never even read a vampire novel began writing them. There are several problems with this. First off, if you’re not a fan of vampire novels, it’s going to be tough to stick with the hard work it takes to complete a novel-length story you’re not passionate about. And even if you manage to persevere, readers (and editors) will be able to tell that you weren’t as invested in the story as a writer who really cares about the genre.

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The reason I say it’s good to know about the market is so that you understand the expectations of readers of your genre, and also how to write a novel that complements what’s already been written. I’m a great fan of historical fiction and have been for many years. One of my favorite aspects of the genre is being immersed in the novel’s time and place, and glimpsing what it must have been like to live then. I also love learning about true historical events through fiction. As a result, I worked very hard to accomplish those things in PLAYING BY HEART. So I’m especially pleased with reviews from readers like you who say the novel transported them to 18th-century Milan.

L.L.: I understand you completed your MFA through Vermont College of the Fine Arts. I’ve been intrigued with their program, mostly because one of my favorite authors, Thomas Christopher Greene, is the president of the university. What can you tell us about the process of obtaining the MFA and the importance of having a ‘hive?’

Carmela Martino: The MFA program surpassed all my expectations. The school was called simply Vermont College when I was there, but it’s now the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). For those who may not be familiar with it, the VCFA MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program that takes two years to complete. At the start of each semester, students attend an intensive 10-day residency on campus in Montpelier, Vermont. The residency includes faculty and student presentations, critique workshops, readings, and guest lectures by some of the finest writers in children’s and YA lit. During the residency, students create a work plan for the coming semester and are assigned an advisor who reads and critiques your monthly packets of writing. The program is set up so that you work with a different advisor each semester.vcfa-college-building-72dpi1.jpg

My first semester, I was lucky enough to work with Newbery-honor winning author Marion Dane Bauer. I learned so much from her that I was disappointed that I had to switch to a new advisor my second semester, especially because I was in the middle of the first draft of a novel. But I eventually discovered that each advisor had different things to teach me. Each helped me make amazing leaps in my writing skills. Having to produce both a creative thesis (which turned out to be my middle-grade novel ROSA SOLA), and a critical thesis, meant I grew not only as a writer but in my ability to read critically, too.

The program is quite intense, but the environment is incredibly supportive and nurturing. I ended up forming a strong bond with those in my graduating class, several of whom were already award-winning authors before attending the program. There’s a tradition at VCFA for each graduating class to have a nickname, and our group was christened the “Hive” by a faculty member because we were always “buzzing” about something. We liked the name and called ourselves Bees. There were about fifteen writers in my class. After graduation, we formed a Yahoo group to stay in touch. Seventeen years later, that group still has eleven active members. Hardly a day goes by without someone posting to the group. We share industry buzz, commiserate over rejections, celebrate sales, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. The Bees live all over the United States, but we’ve had several mini-reunions and try to connect at conferences whenever possible. I don’t know how I could have stuck in this business without the support of the Hive, especially after my local critique group disbanded a few years ago.

L.L.: What are you working on now?

Carmela Martino: I’m working on a short story set in the same world as PLAYING BY HEART. I plan to give it away as a thank you gift to my newsletter subscribers. After that, I want to take another crack at the biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi.

L.L.: Since we’re in a season of indulgence, what are some of your guilty pleasures?

Carmela Martino: Well, food wise, I have a terrible sweet tooth. At Halloween, I make my husband hide the candy or I’d eat it all before the trick-or-treaters arrived. I typically don’t keep any candy, cookies or cakes in my house—it wouldn’t last long if I did. But during the holidays, I do indulge my sweet tooth at holiday gatherings.

My other guilty pleasure is reading fiction for fun. I tend to be a workaholic, and between writing, teaching, and blogging, I don’t have much spare time, so reading feels like a guilty pleasure. I’m part of a book club that reads books written for children and teens, so reading the 1-2 titles assigned for that each month is pretty 51ZLy2UkSFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_guiltfree. And I just finished an adult novel (a rarity for me): The Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by Jennifer Chiaverini. Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. She was born less than 100 years after Maria Gaetana Agnesi. The Enchantress of Numbers helped me appreciate some of the parallels in the two women’s lives. And I was pleasantly surprised to find Maria Gaetana mentioned in the novel! (I talk a bit about the novel and two other of my favorite reads from this year in my blog post today at www.TeachingAuthors.com.

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

Carmela Martino: I’ve enjoyed it, too, Leslie. Thank you very much. Or, as Emilia Salvini would say, mille gracie!

I would add that I’m also a writing teacher. I enjoy teaching as much as I do writing, so it’s sometimes a challenge to balance the two. I’m part of a site called TeachingAuthors.com, a blog of writing and teaching tips by six published children’s/YA authors who are also writing teachers. My co-blogger April Halprin Wayland recently posted a guest TeachingAuthor interview with Paul Mosier and we’re hosting a giveaway of his acclaimed middle-grade novel, Train I Ride, through Dec. 20. I invite your readers to check out the blog and enter the giveaway if they’re interested.

I also send out a monthly Creativity Newsletter that includes updates about my publishing news and writing classes as well as creativity tips. Readers can subscribe to the newsletter on my website. If they’d like to read a recent issue first, they can find one here.

For more information, to connect with Carmela via social media, or to purchase a copy of PLAYING BY HEART, please see:

PR BW  portrait.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carmela Martino holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. Her middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick Press), was named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.” Her second novel, the young-adult historical romance Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing), took first place in the Young Adult category of the 2013 Windy City RWA Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. Carmela’s credits for teens and tweens also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and multiple editions of the annual Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Carmela has taught writing workshops for children and adults since 1998, and she blogs about teaching and writing at www.TeachingAuthors.com.

 

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of C. Martino. Image of ROSA, SOLA retrieved from Amazon; images of Agnesi sisters retrieved from Wikipedia, image of excited writer from, image of VCFA from the school’s website,  cover image of ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS from Amazon, 18th c. Milan from Wikipedia, all on 12.14.17]

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Wednesdays with Writers: Amy Impellizzeri is back with a mind-bending tale on truth, reinvention, addition, social media, and so much more in THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA

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By Leslie Lindsay

Dark, intricate, mind-bending tale of truth, addiction, and reinvention. 
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THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA is the third book for Impellizzeri, and it’s such a twisty, gripping ride, you’ll have to buckle up to follow the labyrinth through social media, addiction, and deceitful behavior.

Will is a recovering heroin addict turned counselor, for whom truth is important to recovery. But his past is dark and shrouded with secrets. Now, Will has Thea in his counseling group at Juniper Lane. Thea has been diagnosed with a pathological addition to social media and creating false identities for clients. But there are secrets, and lots of them as Will and Thea unwind this torrid web of deceit.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA is a dark, complex and gripping read. At times, it’s very mind-bending.

I can’t really say much more, or I may give away too much! Kudos to Amy Impellizzeri for this deeply plotted, richly told story.  Please join me in welcoming her back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Amy! Welcome back. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA. Can you tell us what was haunting you when you set out to write this, and why now?

Amy Impellizzeri: Wow. You hit the nail on the head here. I was indeed haunted at the time I wrote this book. I was struggling with the big enormous difference between the selves we hold out to the world and the selves we are stuck living with.  I’ve always thought of myself as a truly authentic person and trusted the authenticity of those in my private circle, but in the last few years the myths of social media and other private struggles (both my own and those of people close to me)  have made me question that perception. Writing this book was really cathartic, but it also helped me understand how truly layered the “truth” really is. 

L.L.: I found the writing dark, edgy and the voice of Thea very well developed. In many instances, I felt I really had to “read hard” to unravel the subtext. Also, I felt I might miss something. Was this intentional on your part, or maybe it was just being a bit…dull?

Amy Impellizzeri: I definitely hoped readers would respond to Thea Brown’s many layers in a positive way – and so far they have! I absolutely loved developing her. I love her voice – it was so different for me to write, and really freeing to write. There are hidden clues all the way through this story to lead you to the final twist – but no one has admitted to picking up on them yet! Kudos to you for the hard read of the subtext! At the same time, though, I don’t really want anyone to guess the ending. My hope is that readers will indeed by stunned, and then want to go back and re-read once they get to the end.

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L.L.: There’s a big, giant piece of reinvention in THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA. Many of the addicts at Juniper Lane are restructuring their lives. I enjoyed meeting the characters in the inpatient substance abuse unit. I felt the portrayal of their stories very authentic. Can you tell us what research you did to get that part right?

Amy Impellizzeri: The characters at Juniper Lane were so important to “get right.” I’m sure – like so many – my life has been touched by many beautiful souls struggling with depression, addiction, and other demons. The patients at Juniper Lane became the aggregate of that personal experience. I love them all, but I confess a special soft spot for Cassandra – who is based loosely on a real person, with her permission.

L.L.: And following up on that reinvention theme. Names become a big deal in THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA. Thea is derived from a figure in Greek mythology meaning ‘truth,’ and also Will Cann comes about his name in an organic sort of way. Plus, there are a few others in the mix that have a deeper subtext. Cassandra, though it’s not spelled out in the story, is also based on  a Greek myth about truth. Can you talk about how these names worked their way into the narrative?

220px-Cassandra1.jpegAmy Impellizzeri: Ah! You’re the first person to pick up on the Cassandra reference. I love your careful eye! Names are often a hard thing for me. I get attached to names from the beginning, making it impossible to change them during the writing process. So I spent some time carving out the names in this story from the beginning. I researched several Greek myths until I came to the “Thea means Truth” revelation. And at the time I started this novel, I didn’t know any Thea’s so it was perfect! Now, of course, I have met lots of Thea’s. Funny how that works.

L.L.: THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA seems like it might require a good amount of intricate plotting. What’s your process like and did anything change drastically during the writing?

Amy Impellizzeri: This was definitely my most ambitious plot to date. I sketched it out carefully from the beginning – which is NOT my usual process.  I knew exactly where I was going. But I confess that there were still some necessary detours along the way.  I had to allow for changes and evolutions – right up until the end. For example, the nuances of Elizabeth Barrett’s storyline developed in a much later draft and surprised even me!

L.L.: I think it would be fair to ask what’s obsessing YOU?

Amy Impellizzeri: Lately, I’m obsessed with authenticity,  empathy, and karma. 

L..L.: Amy, it’s been such a pleasure! Before we go, what’s on your bucket-list for 2018?

Amy Impellizzeri: Finishing my next novel! I’m working on a story that is set in the political scene of one of my favorite cities -Washington D.C. – and yet it’s not really a political book. It’s called WHY WE LIE. I guess I’m not quite done with this authenticity theme yet, can you tell?!

L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Amy Impellizzeri: Well, it’s only just been announced – so you might not have heard – Francis Ford Coppola likes THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA! Well, at least enough to include it in a special new gift from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery as part of their inaugural Books & Bottles package – a curated box of wine, customized recipes, playlists, fiction and more!

For more information, to connect with Amy via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA, please see:

image1ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Impellizzeri is a reformed corporate litigator, former start-up exec, and award-winning author. After spending a decade at one of the top law firms in the country, Amy left to advocate for working women, eventually landing at a VC-backed start-up company, Hybrid Her (named by ForbesWoman as a top website for women in 2010 and 2011), while writing her first novel, LEMONGRASS HOPE (Wyatt-MacKenzie 2014), named a 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Bronze Winner (Romance). Her sophomore novel, SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS was released on December 1, 2016, and was an Editor’s Pick in Foreword Reviews Magazine.
Amy’s third novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA, released in October 2017.

Amy’s first non-fiction book, LAWYER INTERRUPTED, was published by the American Bar Association in May 2015 and has been featured in TheAtlantic.com, Above the Law, ABC27, and more.

Amy is a Tall Poppy Writer, Past President of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a contributor to She is Fierce! and Women Writers, Women’s Books. Amy’s essays and articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Glass Hammer, Divine Caroline, ABA’s Law Practice Today, and Skirt! Magazine, among more.

Amy currently lives in rural Pennsylvania where she works and plays and keeps up on all of the latest research confirming that large volumes of coffee are indeed good for you.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of A. Impellizzeri and used with permission. Image of Greek goddess Cassandra retrieved from Wikipedia on 12.07.17, image of books and ‘believe’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archieves. “Truth” image from.]

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

Be sure to watch the stunning book trailer here: 

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

From the back cover: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Ali x

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

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

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


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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

And those sweet girls and their jailbird mother…

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

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

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

Cathy Lamb: Cookbooks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

 

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Rene to the blog couch:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Janet to the blog couch.

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

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

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

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

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

– Daniel Bergner, author of What do Woman Want?

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

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

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

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

Truth is I wasn’t fit for polite society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Capron:

Q: Is there a next book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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

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