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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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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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Wednesdays with Writers: Jane Robins discusses her first psychological thriller, WHITE BODIES, how she had to ‘unlearn’ many of her journalist traits, her love for psychology, her fascination with twins & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A riveting, well-written psychological suspense from debut novelist Jane Robins, WHITE BODIES explores the intimate bond of twins. Callie and Tilda are adult twins living in London. Callie is the quiet, reserved, ‘observer’ of the two; she doesn’t date much, she works in a bookstore. She has a strange fascination with her sister, eating bits of her hair, fingernails, paper she’s touched.

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Tilda is gregarious, gorgeous, an actress. She has always been the ‘popular’ one, even as children. Yet, something strange is brewing under the surface. When Tilda starts dating Felix, they seem like the perfect couple: young, good-looking, wealthy, and completely in love. Callie is not happy with the union. Felix seems to have a strange emotional and physical hold over her sister. Callie starts researching controlling me on-line and finds herself swept into the web of unsavory individuals, mostly women who are abused. Yet they have dark, sinister plans they hope to implicate Callie. She will stop at nothing to protect her sister. WHITE BODIES is multi-layered, literary, and highly complex. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s popular film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. I found the psychology behind the characters’ motivations absolutely fascinating.

Jane is an acclaimed nonfiction writer in the UK, uniquely qualified to write WHITE BODIES. Her historical true crime has been yielded as ‘vividly characterized, wonderfully atmospheric , and thoroughly gripping.’ (Evening Standard, Books of the Year).

I’m thrilled to welcome Jane Robins to the blog couch.

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Leslie Lindsay: Lately, I’m interested in the ‘hook’ that draws writers (and readers) into the story. You have a wonderful one with: 

“The evidence suggests that Felix showered.” 

How did this first line come to you? And what prompted the story? 

Jane Robins: I had so many first lines! Like titles, I find them difficult, and spend days trying out different versions. I’ve just opened an old file, to see what my first line was in that draft – and this is what I found:

‘If you wish to take this to the next stage, tell me now.

 I stare at the message on the screen.  All I need to do is click, and he will be gone forever.  How sweet it will be – his death, and then the silence.  Never again will I have to listen to his arrogant voice barking orders at my sister, or watch as he makes his claim on her, wrapping his beefy arm around her shoulder in a grotesque imitation of caring.  I have come to loathe the small things – the slant of his ice-blue eyes, the way he stands with his chest so proud, and the force with which he slams the door of his hideous car, my sister inside, before he drives her away.  It has not taken long to make my decision – I will click.  I look at the keyboard and my finger, which is trembling. Not from fear, I think, but exhilaration.’ 

As you see – everything was different! Including the plot, the personality of the 220px-Strangers_on_a_Train_(film).jpgcharacters and the whole tone of the novel – which is more breathy in this earlier incarnation. I just try stuff out – and see what I like. ‘The evidence suggests that Felix showered,’ was much further down the text until a pretty recent draft. Then I thought – I know – I’ll see what that looks like at the top – and I liked that it seems understated, but actually the reader knows that a criminal death is imminent.

It was a similar process with developing the plot. I started out by thinking – what if  the STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN plot was brought into the internet age? And then I kept adding more ‘what ifs’, until I was satisfied that I had something truly exciting and original to work with.

A GOOD HOUSEKEEPING “GREAT READ”

“A deliciously creepy psychological thriller.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

L.L.: WHITE BODIES is loosely based on the classic Hitchcock film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Yet, you’ve modernized it to include the Internet. What intrigues you about old films and also the anonymity of the Internet? 

Jane Robins: I love those films where the viewer is drawn in by questioning the motives and behaviour of characters who, in turn, are all at odds with each other, and questioning each other – and Hitchcock did that brilliantly. In contrast, so many modern films have a strong action element – and as soon as the car chase starts, or ‘the running’ – I’m bored. When my son and I try to decide what movie to watch in the evening, I’ll always ask ‘how much running in it?’ and generally a lot of running will put me off. CHARIOTS OF FIRE excepted, of course.

images (19)As for the Internet. It’s so much part of modern life that you can’t write a contemporary thriller without at least mentioning it. In White Bodies I decided to take the Internet, and use it as a plot device. Then, once I’d started writing, I realised that I could have a lot of fun with it.

L.L.: There’s a good amount of unsettling psychological pathology under all of your characters, but especially Tilda, Felix, and Callie. What, if any research did you do to get it ‘just right?’

Jane Robins: I love reading articles about psychology, and do it all the time – for pleasure. So I think a lot of that material is lodged in my brain, and I draw upon it. Also, two of my non-fiction books are works of historical true crime, and I spent ages – a lot of it in the wonderful British Library in London – reading accounts of the personalities of perpetrators, victims and witnesses of horrific crimes. I was particularly fascinated by witness statements to the police from people who were essentially in a pre-Freudian age. For me, part of the attraction of writing this sort of book is to apply a novelist’s eye to characters, rather than a quasi-medical one.

L.L.: I understand you’re also a former journalist. How did that experience shape that of a novelist, particularly in this [psychological suspense] genre? 

Jane Robins: Actually, I had to unlearn a lot of journalistic habits. The journalist in me wants to get to the point too quickly for a suspense novel, and to state everything too explicitly. I have to remind myself to slow down and ‘show not tell;’ although it’s a myth that ‘telling’ doesn’t work well in fiction – it has its place. As a journalist, I bashed out articles (I’ve worked on a Daily National Paper) and pressed send. As a novelist, I read and reread my text, and beat myself up over the inadequacy of what I’ve just written, and go for a walk to think about it, then delete and rewrite. It’s all so time-consuming!

On the plus side – writing is second nature to me, as I’ve spent many thousands of days over the past decades doing little other than writing. I never agonise over getting started, or having writer’s block. Experience has taught me just to get on with it. Write anything, and even if it doesn’t end up in the final version, you’ll get something out of it. Also, my journalistic past makes me respect spare, fluid prose, tight structure and the dreaded deadlines.

L.L.: There’s a scene toward the end of the book in which Callie and Tilda are wpid-151039_4210500773591_710088986_n1entwined in a slightly incestual moment. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s definitely creepy and unsettling. I think Tilda says something about them being ‘in the womb’ during that moment. Can you talk about how you wrote the dynamic of twins and why they seem so fascinating from a literary stand-point? 

Jane Robins: I suppose I liked the intensity of the image of two people so close and yet so different. Callie really feels that biological bond, and it’s part of her obsessive nature to invest it with a huge amount of meaning. Also, she doesn’t know where she fits in the world, and being a twin helps her feel more secure and less alone. I think this excerpt explains how I felt about the twins relationship; it’s also from that early draft I just opened up on my laptop (which I haven’t read since 2015!):

‘I am tempted to say that Tilda and I understood each other because of the closeness that was forced on us, and began in the womb, but that’s not true – our personalities are too different. It’s better to say that we recognised each other in an intense way, like recognising night or grass or sky, something that would make you die if it was taken away.’

I enjoyed giving Callie something so intense to focus on. She’s quite melodramatic about it – and I loved writing in that voice.

 

 

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

Q: Am I working on another novel? 

A: Yes! In my next novel, I’m minimising the Internet as much as I can – but I’m sure I’ll come back to it some time.

Leslie, thanks for such great questions! It’s been a pleasure.

 

For more information, to connect with Jane Robins via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHITE BODIES, please see:

Jane Robins Author Portrait credit %40Mat Smith.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Robins began her career as a journalist with The Economist, The Independent, and the BBC. She has made a specialty of writing historical true crime and has a particular interest in the history of forensics. She has published three books of nonfiction in the UK,Rebel Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2006), The Magnificent Spilsbury (John Murray, 2010), andThe Curious Habits of Doctor Adams (John Murray, 2013). More recently, she has been a Fellow at the Royal Literary Fund.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Touchstone and used with permission. Image of ‘first line’ from , image of ‘Strangers on a Train’ from Wikipedia, British Library from library archives, all retrieved on 10.21.17 image of of twins in womb from ]

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Baker-Kline, author of Orphan Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay at:

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you again for having me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesdays with Writers: A Smashing Debut from Bianca Marais explores the Apartheid, racism, the Soweto Uprising, motherhood, and so much more in HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

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By Leslie Lindsay

A dazzling debut about a white girl and a black woman from different worlds, drawn together by tragedy set in South America. 

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I’ll be honest: I’ve never read anything like it; but HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS (July 11, 2017 Putnam Books) absolutely amazed and entranced me. I didn’t know much about Apartheid South Africa and Bianca Marais’s richly told story brought it to light. 

Through the alternating voices of the two main characters, (9/10 year old) Robin and her black maid, Beauty, we fall into a deeply moving story of love, loss, sacrifice, racism, mothers and daughters, and so much more. It’s so deep and so multifaceted, it’s really hard to summarize HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS; I might go so far as to say it’s required reading given the political, social, and economic state of our world.

Life under Apartheid created a stable and secure world for Robin Conrad who lived at home with her mother and father (a manager at a local gold mine) in the Hector_pieterson.jpglate 1970s. But in the same country, worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her own children after her husband’s death (he worked in those mines Robin’s dad managed). And then the unimaginable happens: the Soweto Uprising, a protest against black students ignites racial and political unrest. Life changes.

Robin’s parents are dead. Her beloved maid, Mabel leaves. Robin is shuttled to her aunt (her mother’s sister) for her care. But Edith is a jet-setting air hostess for an airline and having a child underfoot is a bit of a nuisance. Though Edith’s character is delightful and fun and things turn out for the best …Edith does have to hire help to care for young Robin.

Meanwhile, Beauty’s story merges with Robin’s in a wondrous and amazing tale of love, sacrifice, growth…and perhaps heroism.

Please join me in welcoming Bianca Marais to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Oh wow…I don’t even know where to start! Thank you for joining us—and for writing such an important story. You grew up in South Africa and were raised by a black maid. I couldn’t help but think you were Robin and your maid was Beauty. Am I close? How much of HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS was inspired by your own experiences?

Bianca Marais: Hi Leslie. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about the book and for those incredibly kind words about it; I really appreciate them!

To answer your question: you’re fairly close. Robin isn’t me, exactly, and Beauty isn’t my childhood caretaker, Eunice, but both characters were inspired by the relationship I was lucky enough to have with her as I was growing up.

Eunice worked for my family from before I was born and has been a huge part of my life. It was my love for her that made me want to write this book and explore what her life may have been like during apartheid. As a child, I took her presence in my life for granted and it was only as I grew older that I realized how many sacrifices she had to make in order to leave her children behind in the Transkei so she could earn a living working as a maid in Johannesburg.

All of the ways in which I experienced the world shaped the way in which I wrote about Robin and her own experience of the racist society she was growing up in.  In the same way it took my loving a black woman for me to have empathy for her 052experience, it took Robin’s loving Beauty for her to understand the cruelty and horror of apartheid.

L.L.: While HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS isn’t exactly a story about mothers and daughters, it plays a prominent role. There are different types of mothering in this story. The love and care of a child by a maid, and also an aunt. The storyline with Victor and his friends…the social worker. Beauty is separated from her children (two sons and an activist daughter). Can you talk a bit about how mothering isn’t exactly between a mother and a child, but how mothering can take on multiple forms?

Bianca Marais: I’m not a mother myself and yet I’ve always been fascinated by motherhood. It’s something that women are just expected to take on, and yet it’s so much more complex that just a biological imperative.

I’m sure we all know women who would make the most amazing mothers and yet aren’t able to have children, and on the other end of the spectrum are women who are completely lacking in maternal instinct and never should have been mothers at all judging by the harm they’ve done to their children.

I volunteered for many years at a children’s sanctuary in Johannesburg and also assisted home-based care workers in the Soweto community, and I saw first-hand how children who had either been abandoned or orphaned were cared for by 220px-Soweto_township.jpgvolunteers, care workers, members of their family or members of the community.

It made me realize that a child can be mothered by many different people in a multitude of ways, and that the people who often do the mothering aren’t mothers in the traditional sense, making the African idiom true: it does take a village to raise a child.

L.L.: And Edith, Robin’s aunt and caregiver after her mother’s death…how I loved her! She was this thin, fashionable, jet-setting air hostess suddenly strapped with a  9-year old child. She made me laugh and cry. Can you talk about her character a bit—and maybe your inspiration for her?

Bianca Marais: I’m so glad you loved Edith! I loved her too but there’s been a mixed reaction to her with many readers disliking her because they see her as selfish and self-absorbed.

I had an aunt who I absolutely adored and she led an unconventional life (not as unconventional as Edith’s) but I always admired the bravery it took for her not to conform to societal expectations. She was fiercely independent, smoked like a chimney, had an amazing sense of humor and was quite eccentric in some regards. I tried to capture her spirit in Edith though I exaggerated it quite a bit. I also think there’s some of myself in Edith which is telling.

My aunt is one of the people that the book is dedicated to and I so wish she’d been able to read this book because I know she would have loved it. She didn’t have an African Grey parrot but she had rats that she kept as pets. Edith would have made her laugh too.

L.L.: Before we get into much detail, can you give us a brief overview of the Apartheid?

Bianca Marais: Apartheid was a system of institutionalized and systemic racism that was in effect in South Africa from 1948 until 1991.

During that time, many laws were put in place to classify and segregate people according to their race, and then to discriminate against them accordingly. Non-white people were removed from their homes and either forced into segregated neighborhoods, or they had their citizenship taken away from them and had to move far away to live in one of the Bantu homelands.

The laws of apartheid were brutal and draconian. They controlled how black people lived, curtailed their freedom of movement, deprived them of a proper education, determined what jobs they could do and who they could associate with. The system was designed so that that white people could benefits from the oppression of non-white people.

L.L.: How have things changed since 1976-1977 when HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS was set?

Bianca Marais:  Apartheid ended in 1991 and South Africa is now a democracy with one of the most advanced constitutions in the world.

There was a decade after Nelson Mandela (Madiba as he was affectionately called) became president when the country had so much promise. He declared it ‘The Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit).jpgRainbow Nation’, set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the atrocities of the past, sanctions were lifted and foreign investment flooded in. I think Madiba was perhaps too optimistic in believing that because he was able to forgive and move on that everyone else could too. The scars from the apartheid years run deep, and just like the US after the Civil Rights Movement, it will take a long time for South Africa to fully heal and recover.

Unfortunately, after the Mandela era, things took a turn and the current leadership of the country doesn’t have the humanitarian focus that Mandela had. The president has been accused of state capture and only wanting to enrich himself and his cohorts. People remain living in terrible poverty and as long as that continues to happen, crime will continue to be a major concern.

The people of South Africa are some of the strongest, most resilient, hospitable and warm people you will ever meet. It breaks my heart that they are being railroaded in this way because they deserve so much better.

Perfect for readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, a perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy.

L.L.: I’m curious about the logistics of writing HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS. When did you begin this story and how long did it take to write, obtain an agent, get published. I ask because it’s such a dense and important read, but so well done.

Bianca Marais: HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS was a story I’d always wanted to write but I was reluctant to tackle it because I honestly didn’t think I could do it. Most of the writing I’d done up until then was comedic,  and dealing with heavy themes like racism, loss and grief seemed beyond the scope of what I was able to do.

I finally began writing the book in 2013 just after we’d moved from Johannesburg to Toronto and I’d started the Creative Writing Certificate at the U of T School of Continuing Studies. At first, I tried not to write from Beauty’s perspective because I absolutely didn’t want to appropriate a voice that wasn’t mine. The more I suppressed her, though, the more she wanted to be heard and so I made a pact with myself that I’d only write her if I did her complete justice.

To that end, I knew I’d have to do a lot of research about apartheid, as well as consult cultural experts and sensitivity readers which is exactly what I did.

The first draft of the book was finished within a year and I managed to get my amazing agent, Cassandra Rogers of The Rights Factory, a few weeks later. She picked the book up out of the slush pile and offered me representation within a week of reading it. There’s a lot of luck in getting the right book in front of the right agent at the right time and I was incredibly lucky.

I worked on rewrites with Cass for a few months and then we submitted to publishers. The feedback was very encouraging, but everyone said the book was too ambitious because it originally spanned four decades.download (34)

I then cut two thirds of the book out and began rewriting it so that it only spanned a year and a bit. The total writing time over all these incarnations was about two and a half years. The book then went out again, and there were many more rejections before it found a perfect home with the amazing Kerri Kolen and the rest of the brilliant Putnam team.

In total, the book was rejected more than a hundred times and I threatened to give up writing it on many, many occasions. I’m incredibly thankful to my fabulous agent, my wonderful husband and my amazing friends who encouraged me to keep going.

L.L.: Here’s a fun little observation: your first name, Bianca, translates to ‘white’ in Italian. And yet here is this book about black and white and race. Can you talk about that a bit?

Bianca Marais:  Wow! I’ve never even thought about that. I know my name means ‘white’ in Italian because when we were in Italy, a waiter told me that his last name meant ‘Chistmas’ in Italian and that if I married him, my name would be “White Christmas’.

My parents named me Bianca because of Bianca Jagger; I don’t think they knew what the name translated to.Bianca_Jagger_2014.jpg

Perhaps it’s true what they say, your name is your destiny because ever since I became aware of the horrors of racial discrimination, it’s always been a huge issue for me.

L.L.: I feel like I could ask so many more questions. But I think I am going to end with this lovely quote from the book, which I feel summarizes it well, “Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room: “Beauty (smiling broadly), Morrie (hair more poofy than usual), Mr. and Mrs. Goldman (bearing gifts), Victor (wearing an aquamarine bowtie because I told him once aquamarine was my favorite color), Johan (minus stitches), Wilhelmina (no longer a baddie!), and Maggie (no longer my only guardian angel). Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all in this together…” I love this. Do you have any other thoughts to add?

Bianca Marais:  Thank you, Leslie! That paragraph summarizes so much of what the book is about and how I feel about the world today. No child is born racist, bigoted or prejudiced. Most children don’t even notice race, sexuality or ethnicity. They notice who treats them well and who they like in return and want to be friends with. A friend of mine once asked her six-year-old son what his friend looked like because she was supposed to pick him up, and her son gave a whole bunch of descriptors, none of which were ‘black’.

So why do we teach children to hate? Why do we raise children in societies that are racist and prejudiced and brainwash all of the innocence and love out of them?

I wish so much that my book wasn’t still so relevant. A story that takes place forty years ago across the world shouldn’t be as pertinent in the US today as it is. I just hope that people can learn from their mistakes so that history isn’t doomed to repeat itself. Violence breeds more violence and hate begets more hate. The cycle can be broken if we choose to break it.

L.L.: Bianca, it was a joy chatting and reading HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS; thank you! 

Bianca Marais: Thank you so much for this amazing interview! I appreciate your wonderful response to HUM and I loved chatting about it with you.

If you have any readers who’d like to include me in their book clubs, there’s a wonderful Book Club Kit on my website, and I’ll love to do Skype sessions with any clubs that would have me. I love interacting with readers and it’s great for them to have authors answer their questions.

I’ve spent the past year working on a sequel to HUM called If You Want to Make God Laugh that I’ve set aside for now as I know the demand for that will depend on how well the first book does. Besides that, I have another book in the works, so if you enjoyed HUM, please keep a lookout for more books from me in the not too distant future!

For more information, to connect with Bianca Marais, or to purchase a copy of HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS, please visit: 

biancamarais1ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s SCS, and her work has been published in World Enough and Crime.

Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers.

Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband.

 

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. Image of Soweto slums and Nelson Mandela & Bianca Jagger retrieved from Wikipedia; image of black maid & white child retrieved from,]

WeekEND Reading: Beloved author of THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS Ann Brashares talks about blended families, houses in the Hamptons, how writers shouldn’t worry about genre, and so much more in her newest novel, THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER. Oh, and lobster salad.

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By Leslie Lindsay

The #1 NYT Bestselling Author Ann Brashares releases new fiction THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER this month (On sale April 25, 2017 Delacorte/RandomHouse)  with a whopping 100,000 copies for the first printing.

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Beloved author of the bestselling THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS series is back with an unforgettable story about fractured families, first love, and loss in her latest novel THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER. You’ll feel the sand between your toes and taste the salty sea air of Brashares’ Long Island beach town setting, the backdrop for Sasha and Ray’s unusual budding relationship.

Summer for Sasha and Ray means the sprawling old house on Long Island. Since they were children, they’ve shared almost everything—reading the same books, running down the same sandy footpaths to the beach, eating peaches from the same market, laughing around the same sun-soaked dining table. Even sleeping in the same bed, on the very same worn cotton sheets.

But they’ve never met.

Sasha’s dad was once married to Ray’s mom, and together they had three daughters; the marriage crumbled, bitterness lingered. Now there are two new families—and neither one will give up the beach house that holds the memories, happy and sad, of summers past.

This summer, the lives of Sasha, Ray, and their siblings intersect in ways no one dreamed. It’s about families, keeping secrets, and most of all, love.

Knock off the sand from your feet, grab a lemonade and join me in chatting with Ms. Brashares about her new look at unconventional families. She also brought along a bit of that lobster salad from the story. 

Leslie Lindsay: Ann, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the blog couch. Like many, I read (and watched the movie, SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS). I was also captivated by MY NAME IS MEMORY. It seems secrets, shared pasts, and love are a bit of a theme for you. Can you talk about that please?

Ann Brashares: Thank you. Very comfortable blog couch you have here.

Yes, those are big themes for me. Love and secrets are staples of fiction and you’re right that I do seem to go in for characters who share their pasts in unexpected ways. In the case of Sasha and Ray they have a huge amount of overlap and intimacy for two people who’ve never met. I hope it adds depth and tension and a high level of expectation when they finally do meet.

L.L.:  Before we delve into the heart of THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER, I’m curious what was haunting you with this one? Why this story now?

Ann Brashares: I wanted to write a story about a family from multiple points of view. I wanted to write about a divorce from inside out and outside in. I come from an unconventional and “broken” family so I guess I am always drawn back to that subject.

“A gorgeously written novel on love, loss and family.”

—Nicola Yoon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Everything, Everything

L.L.: Things are pretty unconventional in THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER. There’s a fractured family, one beach house, lots of secrets. But, that’s life. We often hope the fictional world will bring us some semblance of ‘typical.’ Can you talk a bit about the truth in fiction?

Ann Brashares: A lot of it happens on a semi-conscious level, but I guess I want to attach to my reader by making a fictional world that’s accessible and perhaps in some way universal—populated by characters who feel like real people. I start with what we know as familiar or ‘typical’ and then we, the reader and I, move together into psychologically or emotionally unfamiliar territory.  

L.L.: The setting is best. It’s Long Island. It’s summer. I can taste the juicy peaches, feel my shoulders blistering in the sun, and smell that salty sea air lapping at the shore. Plus, houses! What type of research or ‘pre-writing’ do you do when it comes to setting?

Ann Brashares: For this book I called upon a place I used to know. But the reality of it was buffered by many years of absence. Years ago we used to rent this house in the Hamptons much like the one I describe in the book.  So a lot of the pre-writing was remembering—laying out the place, feeling the landscape, the farmstand we used to go to, the old donut-frying contraption at the market in town. I often use memory to distort and enrich real places I’ve known. Somethings-Gotta-Give-Hamptons-house-lg

L.L.: I’m also curious about genre. THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER is considered YA; however there are some very adult themes under the surface. Even within YA, there are subgenres. Do you write for a specific genre, or do you just tell your story? Should writers worry about this?

Ann Brashares: I wasn’t at all sure this book would be YA. It’s really a family story with adult themes and major adult characters. But I figured I’d write it the way I wanted to write it and figure the rest out after. I don’t think it makes sense to shoehorn your writing to follow a specific genre. You should write what you want. Ideally genres should follow content, not the other way around.

L.L.: This story reminds me a bit of MAMA MIA meets MODERN FAMILY. What do you hope others glean?

Ann Brashares: I hope they enjoy it, mainly. It’s hard to be objective about your own writing, to imagine what it might mean to others, so I just hope readers will get some fraction of the pleasure and companionship out of it that I get from books I like.

L.L.: What’s currently obsessing you? What keeps you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Ann Brashares: I am reading a lot of historical fiction right now. I adore Hilary hilary-mantelMantel’s work—at the moment her book set during the French Revolution. I’m loving historical drama on TV too. I just finished watching Poldark, which was super fun and entertaining.

L.L.: Ann, it was a pleasure! Thank you so very much for popping over. And bringing that lobster salad.

Ann Brashares:  Thank you! And don’t forget to try the bean salad as well.

For more information, to connect with Ann Brashares via social media, or to purchase THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER, please visit these links: 

3116ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Ann Brashares is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, The Here and Now, 3 Willows, The Last Summer (of You & Me), and My Name Is Memory. She lives in New York City with her family. Visit Ann’s website at AnnBrashares.com.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, around these parts of the Internet:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Dutton/Random House and used with permission. Image of Hilary Mantel retrieved from her webpage. Image of house on Hamptons–in fact the house from movie, ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ –retrieved from http://www.hookedonhouses, all on 4.12.17] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Have you ever wondered about your ‘soul mate?’ Jessica Strawser, editor of WRITERS DIGEST explores this, as well as guilt, redemption, forgiveness, motherhood in her debut fiction, ALMOST MISSED YOU, plus writing tips you don’t want to miss (see how I did that?!)

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By Leslie Lindsay 

ALMOST MISSED YOU is smart women’s fiction with a slight suspense bent, questioning the ties of fate. 

ALMOST MISSED YOU

Violet and Finn have it all: a wonderful marriage, good jobs, and adorable 3-year old boy. When they go on their first family vacation to the beach, Violet can’t help but feel completely at ease…if not a bit spoiled. But then the worst nightmare happens: Bear (her little boy) and her husband are missing, just wiped clean out of the hotel, as if they never existed. What happened to Bear? Did he ever exist? Is Violet a little nuts?

What unfolds next is an examination of deep entanglements, friendships, love/romance, guilt/redemption. And fate, a lot of fate. 

Told in alternating POVs and time periods (jumping from ‘present day’ to five years earlier)  we get a hefty dose of backstory, how these characters Finn and Violet came to be, and some secrets along the way.

 I so wanted to know the reasons Finn had for taking Bear and kept turning the pages, frantically trying to piece together this tale of secrets, lies, and more.

One of the major themes I found completely compelling was this idea of fate/coincidences in relationships and how we might be destined to end up with the one we do, for various reasons. Haven’t we all wondered ‘what if’ or ‘how come’ when it comes to the one we’ve fallen in love with?

Book groups will find a HUGE amount to discuss, and I’m so excited for Jessica Strawser, editor of my favorite writing publication, WRITER’S DIGEST on her debut! Please join me in welcoming her to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Jessica! It’s so great to have you here. I read WRITER’S DIGEST cover to cover every month and when I learned you wrote your first book, well I was all over it. Congrats! How does it feel to be on the other side of the publishing world? Or, maybe I should say, another facet of the publishing world?

Jessica Strawser: Thank you for your kind words about WD—all of us on staff really do put our hearts into those pages, so it means a lot to hear that our work resonates! I’ve written nonfiction for the length of my editorial career, but transitioning to fiction is an exciting leap and a lifelong dream. Novels have been my constant companion and comfort since I was old enough to read them. I admit I was a little nervous, at first, about how my efforts would be received, but the writing community has been warm and welcoming, and I couldn’t feel more grateful for their support.

L.L.: Relationships naturally have unique origins, and this goes with the very nature of people: transient, unpredictable, and yet…we wonder if there’s a stronger force at hand (i.e. fate, destiny, serendipity), drawing us together. What drew you to this story? What was haunting you enough to take pen to paper?download (9)

Jessica Strawser: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of fate, of what’s meant to be—or meant not to be. Is there such a thing as a soulmate—and what if you’re convinced that yours is “the one that got away”? What then? I think our culture places not just emphasis but pressure on these questions—I’ve heard Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond say, on the “Dear Sugar” podcast, that angst over finding “the one” is the No. 1 question driving letters to the popular Rumpus column. In particular I think we place a lot of importance on how people first cross paths—go to a 50th wedding anniversary party, and chances are, people will still be asking the couple how they met. (“How I Met Your Mother” was a question that drove a sitcom for how many seasons? Not surprisingly, I loved that show too.)

L.L.: I’ll admit it: I think my husband and I were meant to be. Not that it’s all roses and ponies every day, but I ‘almost missed’ him. Had circumstances been slightly different, I would have been 6 months away in another state…but things changed. I stayed. Our paths crossed. We’ve been married almost 14 years, have two girls. Are you hearing a lot of stories like this now, with the publication of ALMOST MISSED YOU? What’s your ‘relationship’ story?

Jessica Strawser: I hope to hear a lot of stories like that—I love stories like that! I don’t think of my own relationship as one of near-misses, but then again isn’t everyone’s story one of choices made that led us to where we are today? I moved from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati for a job out of college largely on a leap of faith. I knew no one but I also assumed it would be 130719-Eventually-Soulmates-Meet-For-They-Have-The-Same-Hiding-Placetemporary and I’d soon make my way to New York or Chicago, where there are more opportunities to work in magazine publishing. If I hadn’t come here I never would have met my husband. And I’ve stayed in large part because I did. Likewise, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Writer’s Digest I might have moved on to work at a glossier title that had nothing to do with fiction writing, and perhaps would never have written this novel.

L.L.: Being the editor of WRITER’S DIGEST, I bet you have a bevy of writerly tips and advice. What would you say is the top three lessons learned while working on your own novel?

Jessica Strawser:

  1. Read instructional books or articles about writing while you have a work in progress. So many people study techniques first and then try them out second. But the applications will be clearer, the lightbulb moments brighter, when you’re already muddling through with your own characters, themes and a plot.
  2. Make an effort to connect to a network of fellow writers in three camps: Those who are more beginner than you, those who are at your level, and those who are ahead of you in their careers. All three will enrich your writing life in different ways.
  3. As a working mom whose schedule would be full even if I wasn’t writing, I found it really helpful, especially early on, to treat the writing like a relationship (not a hobby or a job). This is something Patricia Cornwell talked about when I interviewed her for WD years ago, and it’s particularly helpful when developing a routine that is seriously committed and yet not more regimented than necessary/manageable.

L.L.: Oh, and your agent—Barbara Poelle—is the WD columnist for “Funny You Should Ask.” How fun is she! Can you illuminate the author-agent relationship a bit and tell us what we should look for in an agent when the time comes?

Jessica Strawser:  She’s fun and also smart and incredibly good at her job. I think it’s fairly normal to feel a little intimidated by a prospective agent, at least at first—but be sure to talk with the agent enough to get a sense of whether you’ll feel comfortable asking questions (because you will have questions, and often you’ll wonder if they’re dumb questions, and the more you wonder that the more you’ll desperately want answers but fear asking). Be sure you can tell the agent is well-read in your genre, even if he/she is newer and doesn’t yet have a track record of sales in your wheelhouse. And never skip the step of asking for client referrals—and don’t just ask the agent’s top clients what they think of her. I got a glowing endorsement for Barbara from a client of hers who she’d been shopping with no takers for quite some time. That spoke volumes.FYSA-1024x407

L.L.: You’re a busy momma of two young kids, an editor, author…how do you do it all?!

Jessica Strawser: As well as I can, in as many hours a day as I can muster, and with no small amount of worry that I’m not doing it well enough, but also no small amount of support from my wonderful husband.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you now? What has your attention? For me, it’s redecorating my bedroom. I find it a fun balance between working on my literary pursuits and letting my brain ‘wander.’

Jessica Strawser: I’m wrapping up a revision on a second stand-alone novel, due out next spring, and that’s getting all of my spare attention right now. But a couple of months after this book launch, there’s a family-friendly resort on a white-sand beach calling my name. I love counting down to a vacation—it’s a total carrot-on-a-stick incentive for me when I’m working in overdrive.

For more information, to connect with Jessica via social media, or to purchase a copy of ALMOST MISSED YOU, please see: 

Jessica_Strawser_credit Corrie Schaffeld.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:  By day, Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest magazine, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. By night, she is a fiction writer with a debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, forthcoming in March 2017 from St. Martin’s Press and another stand-alone novel to follow in 2018. And by the minute, she is a proud wife and mom to two super sweet and super young kids in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans more than 15 years and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. She blogs at WritersDigest.com and elsewhere (if you’d like a guest post, contact me!), tweets fairly regularly @jessicastrawser (please do say hello), enjoys connecting on Facebook, and speaks at writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media hang-outs. Love to see you around!

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. Image of soulmates from Anita’s Notebook: Life is better with stories]

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