Category Archives: WeekEND Reading

WeekEND Reading: Internationally bestselling U.K. Author Clare Mackintosh is back with her third psychological suspense/crime novel, LET ME LIE and it will most definitely keep you guessing


By Leslie Lindsay

I’m so excited to share with you LET ME LIE (Berkley, March 13 2018), the next work of psychological suspense from New York Times and internationally bestselling author of I LET YOU GO and I SEE YOU.

Let Me Lie.jpg

Have you read either of them? 

I was absolutely gobsmacked by the cliff-hanger ending of I LET YOU GO and the cat-and-mouse intensity of I SEE YOU had me on the edge-of-my-seat.

She’s back with her third tale of psychological intrigue and I promise, it will keep you guessing. 






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


clare-mackintosh-us-banner-2018-1[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission. Image of C.M. book banner retrieved from author’s website;  image of infant and mother from, image of Beachy Head retrieved from, Eastbourne pier image retrieved from , image of anniversary card retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Excerpt reprinted with permission from LET ME LIE by Clare Mackintosh from Berkley Publishing Group, copyright 2018.]

WeekEND Reading: Have you ever wondered what ‘really happened’ with the infamous Borden family? Did they just stop loving one another, was Lizzie really an axe murder(ess)? Sarah Schmidt talks about this, finding your own way with a story, how Lizzie ‘haunted’ her for 11 years, and so much more in SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE


By Leslie Lindsay 

Explosive debut novel, part-crime, part-historical, and part family dynamics, Sarah Schmidt reimagines the infamous Lizzie Borden story. 

We’ve all heard the rhyme, about Lizzie Borden taking the ax and whacking her mother and then doing the same to her father, with one more whack. If that’s not chilling enough, being a nursery rhyme and all, what follows in the narrative is just as disturbing.

It’s August 1892 and Fall River, Massachusetts is experiencing a major heat wave. Everyone’s a bit on edge, and ill. Sarah Schmidt, an Australian debut author takes the story we’ve all heard bits and pieces of and breathes life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family with deft skill at bringing the senses to life. In fact, much of why I loved this tale is because of the visceral reactions to I had during the reading experience. That’s not to say a story about a grisly double murder isn’t enough, but it’s Schmidt’s use of language that had me wincing. In this case, that’s a good thing, a testament to her writing. 

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (Atlantic/Grove Press, August 2018) focuses on the stepmother, Abby (it was a remarriage following Lizzie’s mother’s death when Lizzie was just 5), the sometimes temperamental businessman father, Andrew, and the two spinster sisters, Emma and Lizzie, and another, the enigmatic character, Benjamin.

I found the character of Lizzie so well drawn, so real; definitely a character I loved to hate. Schmidt writes her with such psychological precisiona woman who never really grew up as much of her characterizations led me to believe Lizzie younger than her stated 32 years.

Told in alternating POVs, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE focuses mostly on the days surrounding the murder, if not focusing exclusively on the day itself. We hear from several characters, their interpretations of the events, and then we also hear about bit about the trial (but not much), leading us to draw some of our own conclusions. Perhaps Lizzie didn’t kill her parents after all?

I’m so honored to welcome Sarah Schmidt to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Sarah, I loved SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE. In fact, it got me thinking about the case and the characters when I wasn’t reading and then I was drawn to do some more digging. I heard somewhere that you just couldn’t get Lizzie to leave you alone. Can you talk about your inspiration, and how Lizzie ‘haunted’ you?

Sarah Schmidt: I had difficulty letting these characters go and constantly thought about them, so I’m relieved to hear they infiltrated your mind too. I ‘discovered’ this case while I was in a second-hand bookstore in 2005 and initially I wasn’t interested in it at all. However later that night I had a dream: Lizzie was sitting at the end of my bed, poked me in the leg and said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I had this same dream every night for a week and it was only then that I decided to write down the dream and hope Lizzie would leave me alone. She didn’t but the upside was that I was able to write this book. I felt like Lizzie in particular was with me most days and this allowed me to play with her character in unusual ways. It’s quite the gift for a fiction writer to have a set of characters feel absolutely like fresh and bone—in a way it allows you to visit them whenever you like when it’s time to write them.


L.L.: One thing that struck as I was reading is that you are Australian, not American. I had always thought the Lizzie Borden story was pure American folklore, having taken place in Massachusetts, not exactly a worldwide case. Can you expand on that a bit?

Sarah Schmidt: I hadn’t heard of this case until I stumbled upon it however I’ve since learnt that many people in Australia and elsewhere have heard about Lizzie and the case (or at the very least they know the nursery rhyme). This case was a phenomenon: a wealthy white woman from a privileged, respectable family was accused of axing her father and step-mother to death. The details surrounding the case were a total mystery and this only increased interest in the case. I think in many ways the idea that a woman could be so violent was the pulse of the story and this helped push its way around certain parts of the world. The fact that it became American folklore definitely helped keep the story alive.

L.L.: I’m curious about your writing process. I can imagine it would be easy to get bogged down in research. There’s got to be plenty out there on Lizzie Borden and her family, some of it accurate and others not-so-much. How did you decide on what to include and what to jettison?

Sarah Schmidt: Research is often the fun part—it’s the actual writing that can be the downside. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really interested in the case but the fact that Lizzie kept talking about her father in my dreams made me realise that what I was interested in was the family and what these people may have been like. The central questions I wanted to explore were: if Lizzie did do it, why would she commit such a crime? What happens to a family when they no longer love each other?

So initially I began my research by reading anything I could get my hands on and I read a lot of the court transcripts. When I would go to write I felt completely bogged down by the history and facts of the case and I didn’t feel connected which made my writing feel stale. It was then that I decided I would take liberties and simply concentrate on the family. This was completely freeing. I was writing fiction after all.  So I began to research in stages when I needed to: whatever information I retained indicated to me that these were the parts that would resonate within the story and a readership. As I went on, I began looking for things that told me about the humanity of the family. After a few years you begin to intuit what your manuscript needs.

I also decided early on to limit my interactions with other interpretations of the case (whether books or films etc) because I wanted to create my own story and didn’t want to be completely influenced by what had gone before me. This is such a mythologised case: you need to find your own way to a story.


L.L.: And the structure. That’s another major undertaking, weaving all of these different POVs into a seamless whole. Was there ever a time you thought about writing this as a first person POV, say, from Lizzie only? Or a third person narration? Did you try it other ways before deciding on the final outcome?

Sarah Schmidt: I had no idea how I was going to write this book. In the beginning I had Lizzie’s voice but I quickly realised that she was never going to be the narrator I wanted her to be: she was effusive, petulant, annoying. I knew I needed someone else. That’s how Benjamin came to live in the book. But even he had his limitations. Overtime I collected the narrators and the story unfolded as I learnt more about them and what they knew, what they wanted to share with me. I would constantly switch from one narrator to the other when I got bored with them. This process can become complicated and often I got lost in the narrative however in a way, I think this helped create the rhythm of the novel.

Depending on who I was writing the narration would either be in first person or third person (for example Emma was in third person for a very long time) but for this book I found being in first person was the best way to tell this story, especially because it’s such a claustrophobic novel. Being trapped in the heads of these characters helped the mood and shape of the whole thing.

I wish I could write a novel that is told from one POV and sticks to a linear narrative but that’s just not how my brain works!

L.L.: And what more can you tell us about Benjamin? He was quite mysterious. Who was he, exactly?

Sarah Schmidt: Benjamin is a fictional character and was born because I couldn’t handle Lizzie on my own. I liked the idea that there would be a parallel character to Lizzie, one who was just as violent but wore it differently to her. Over time he became his own person and I was able to use him to explore themes such as justice and retribution.

L.L.: Of course I have to mention the visceral reading experience. Oh my! I felt everything deep in my gut. I found myself licking my lips at certain passages and feeling anger and disgust and so many other emotions. Instead of asking how you write that way, what do you do to keep the saw sharp?

Sarah Schmidt: I’m not sure I even know the answer to this only that I try to always follow my gut instinct and pay attention to what is around me. Observing everything and everyone helps as does allowing yourself to sit by your character’s side and let them dictate their world view. It’s very tiring to write this way but it’s the only way I know how. If I feel bored by something or if it doesn’t ring true to me (or to the character) then I have failed creatively and I start again. It’s the only way to keep it fresh.

L.L.: There’s a part in your acknowledgements section that thanks Lizzie for choosing you to tell her story but then you say, ‘it’s time to go.’  Do you still think about her? Does she still ‘find’ you?

Sarah Schmidt:  I haven’t felt truly connected to Lizzie for a good while now but she still pops into my head from time to time. I spent eleven years with her and these people: I think it’s going to take me a while to adjust.

L.L.:  What are you working on now? Another grisly historical fiction?

Sarah Schmidt: I don’t like talking about projects in their infancy however I’m working on a novel that came to me in a dream about five or so years ago. It was a simply image of a woman driving a car toward mountains with a child in the backseat. Nothing was what it seemed. I knew instantly that it was a novel, I just didn’t know what it was. Last year I began to explore this idea and image in depth and it has surprised me. I didn’t set out to write about the past but that’s what it has become. You just follow the feelings of your characters and see where they take you.

L.L.: Sarah, it’s been such a pleasure! Though the tale is horrific, I enjoyed your writing very much. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Sarah Schmidt: Thank you for these questions: they were great!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, please visit:

  • Website
  • Instagram: @ikillnovel
  • Twitter: @ikillnovel
  • Read more about Sarah Schmidt’s experience with Lizzie on her blog

Order Links:

Sarah Schmidt color c Nicholas Purcell StudioABOUT THE AUTHOR:  After completing a bachelor of arts (professional writing/editing), a master of arts (creative writing), and a graduate diploma of information management, Sarah Schmidt currently works as a reading and literacy coordinator at a regional public library. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

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


[Cover and author image courtesy of Grove Atlantic and used with permission. 1892 image of Lizzie Border and the Borden home retrieved from author’s website , image of girl with axe from vimeo rhyme of Lizzie Borden retrieved from, all on 3.7.18] 

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


By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order links:

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

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


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


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


By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

-Lisa Duffy, author of The Salt House

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Order links:


Barnes & Noble




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

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

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


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

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


By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

forks knives spoons.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order Links:

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

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

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

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

She parents, writes and volunteers in Rhode Island.

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


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

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


By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

images (27).jpg

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

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

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of HALSEY STREET, please see:

Order links:

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

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


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

Special Pub Day Edition: Sally Hepworth’s THE MOTHER’S PROMISE now in Paperback


By Leslie Lindsay 

A powerful and emotionally riveting portrait of what it means to be a family, A MOTHER’S PROMISE is poignant, breath-taking, and authentic, perhaps Hepworth’s best to date. 

[2018 edit from Leslie]: I’m re-running this 2017 interview with Sally because it’s so, so timely with Valentine’s Day right around the corner. Plus, there’s the love between a mother and daughter, and just how touching the message portrayed within these pages. I promise,  you will probably ugly-cry, but that’s a good thing. Really.

I flew through this book, not because the topics touched upon are light-hearted; but because the writing is so smooth, so effortless, so authentic and engaging. But be warned: if domestic abuse (including rough sex), miscarriage, cancer, and social anxiety are triggers for you, by all means, select this book with caution. Still, Hepworth does a remarkable job of presenting these situations in a veiled attempt so that we get the gist of what’s happening, but don’t have to relive every raw moment with her characters.

Alice is a 40 year old single mother raising her daughter, fifteen year old Zoe on her own
; Zoe’s father isn’t exactly in the picture. But then Alice gets sick and is given a grim prognosis, she is befriended by her R.N. and social worker who attempt (sometimes erroneously) to correct the “problem.”

THE MOTHER’S PROMISE is searingly honest, emotional, and not at all sugar-coated. It’s about who one can trust in their network of love and support; it’s about ‘what would you do,’ when there’s not exactly a clear winner. THE MOTHER’S PROMISE reframes what it’s like to be alone, but dependent, it’s about finding that network of support when your own flesh and blood may fail. mother%27s-promise%2c-the

So pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee and join me and Sally as we chat about writing, THE MOTHER’S PROMISE, and family.

Leslie Lindsay: Sally, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back! I know from our conversation last year about THE THINGS WE KEEP, you tend to get a lot of story ideas from human interest stories you come across in the media and how it might affect your family. (Hint: me, too…it’s my favorite part of the news). And so, this story THE MOTHER’S PROMISE is no exception. Can you tell us a little about what spurred your TTWK Coverideas into action?

Sally Hepworth: Yes, THE MOTHER’S PROMISE was spurred by the news–an article about a single mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who was searching for a guardian for her eight-year-old son. The woman’s ex-partner was not in the picture, her own parents had passed away and she was an only child. She didn’t have any friends or colleagues who she felt she could ask. I wondered … how does someone end up so alone? I have a big extended family, so this was hard for me to wrap my head around.  I wanted to explore it in a novel. stack-of-newspapers-high-resolution-image2

The more I thought of it, the more I realized there are many ways a person can be alone. Some people are physically alone, others are alone in marriage or a decision. Some claim to feel alone even when people surround them. Before I knew it, I had begun a total exploration of the ways a person can be alone … and the ways they can rejoin the world, even under the toughest of circumstances.

L.L.: I have to say, I fell into the rhythm of reading about Alice and Zoe so quickly.  They were easy to like, slightly flawed, normal people experiencing the extraordinary (in both regards as Alice has cancer and her daughter has debilitating social anxiety). Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for each of these characters? And a little, too about the secondary characters: Kate, the nurse, Sonja the social worker, George the psychologist?

Sally Hepworth: Honestly, I didn’t put a lot of thought into the characters before I began writing. I didn’t set out to make Zoe a certain way and Alice another way, I wanted to let them reveal themselves to me as I wrote. The same is true for the secondary characters. I tend to be a planner when it comes to plot but characters tend to unfold organically without too much help from me.

L.L.: You do a lovely job of blending several different storylines and characters, all of which have a hint of dysfunction and a trace of authenticity that has readers question their own situations and whether they made the ‘right’ decisions at the time. Did you set out to write a controversial medical/emotional tearjerker, or did it sort of evolve into that?

Sally Hepworth: I wouldn’t say I ‘set out’ to do anything much other than telling a good story. That is my primary purpose: to entertain. But I think the best way to entertain people in fiction is to make the characters feel real, and the conflicts they face relevant. If I suck the reader in enough to make them question their own situations, I’ve probably done my job properly. 

L.L.: Your knowledge of Zoe’s teen culture is pretty spot-on, but you yourself are mom to three young kids, one just a newborn. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to download-55‘get into the head’ of a 15-year old?

Sally Hepworth: I spent a fair bit of time talking to teenagers for this book–my babysitters, to the teenage kids of friends, the neighbor’s kids—anyone I could. I adore young people, so this was a real pleasure. And I also watched a few teen American movies. But ultimately, I had to just imagine what it would be like to be fifteen and suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder. That is sometimes the most challenging (and interesting) part of being an author—stepping into someone’s else’s reality and being that person (at least for a few pages).

L.L.: What do you hope folks take away from THE MOTHER’S PROMISE?

Sally Hepworth:  That we are better together. Humans are relational beings. We aren’t meant to be alone. Sometimes life throws us hardships to force us to reach out and help one another.

L.L.: We’re early in the year, so what’s on your 2017 “Bucket List?” It doesn’t have to be literary.

Sally Hepworth: We’re building a house at the moment so getting it finished is on my
bucket list. I’ve written all my novels to date at the kitchen table, so it will be lovely to have an office with a wall of bookshelves from which to create. We’re also taking a family holiday to download-56Bali this year, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I’d also love to take a trip to the U.S. to meet my editor and the wonderful folk at St. Martin’s, but as I have a newborn, that might have to be on my 2018 bucket list.

L.L.: Is there something I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Sally Hepworth: How about…How am I coping with new motherhood? Let’s just say this. 2+1=150,0000 kids.

L.L.: Sally, a true pleasure! Thanks so much for popping by.

Sally Hepworth:  The pleasure was mine.

For more information, to connect with Sally on social media, or to purchase a copy of THE MOTHER’S PROMISE, please see: 



Sally Hepworth Headshot_highest res_credit Mrs. Smart Photography.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES. New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s debut novel as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”. THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES was also the highest selling debut Australian fiction of the year in 2015.
Sally is also the author of THE THINGS WE KEEP, published in January 2016. The Things We Keep was a Library Journal Pick in the U.S. for January 2016, and an Indie Next Pick in the U.S. for February 2016. NYT bestselling author of The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion praised THE THINGS WE KEEP calling it ‘A compelling read that touches on important themes, not least the different forms that love may take.”
Both novels were published worldwide in English and have been translated into over ten languages. Sally is currently working on her next novel. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, around these parts of the tech world:


[Cover and author image courtesy of K. Bassel at SMP and used with permission. Teens at cafe retrieved from Wikipedia; image of Bali retrieved from Wikipedia]

WeekEND Reading: Mira T. Lee talks about her luminous family saga, EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, touching on sisters, mental illness, immigration, and so much more. Plus, her inspiring TBR, and how fiction is a great place to develop empathy and reconcile nuances


By Leslie Lindsay 

A brave, unflinching debut about the tenuous bonds of mental illness, how we define ‘family,’ immigration, and so much more. 

Everything Here Is Beautiful
EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL is one of those literary masterpieces that will captivate and enthrall readers everywhere, perhaps for very different reasons. There’s so much about this book I love–the razor-sharp writing, the way I was transported to another world (South America/Ecuador, Switzerland), and back again (NYC, Minnesota), and then there’s the breadth of scope: mental illness, sisters, love, who we call ‘family,’ life and death, as well as loss and rejuvenation.

Told in alternating, highly distinct POVs from several main characters: Miranda: the older sister who has always been the “responsible one”; Lucia: whose free-spirited nature is dampened by her mental illness; Yonah: the Israeli shopkeeper and first husband of Lucia; Manuel: Lucia’s boyfriend, and father of her child.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL may be best described as a literary family drama (spanning years and continents) with a mental illness theme (and its butterfly93.jpgtreatment) as well as an immigration (and cultural displacement) undercurrent. 

I’m in awe with Mira T. Lee’s ambitious novel. I found it emotional and touching, raw and brave, and skillfully drawn. EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL is about trying to do our best without fully losing ourselves. 

I am thrilled and honored to welcome Mira to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: I just finished reading EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL and I have so many thoughts rumbling around. This is a very multilayered, complex novel, but it’s so well done. I have to ask: what sparked this particular tale, why now?

Mira T. Lee: Hi Leslie, thank you so much for your kind words! So I started off writing short stories, and found that many of them dealt with the same recurring themes – family dynamics, illness, the interplay of different cultures. One story in particular, How I Came to Love You Like A Brother (published by The Missouri Review) contained characters I loved, who I knew I could develop further. Then when my kids were very young, I went through a fallow period where I didn’t write for almost two years, but I had a series of predicaments brewing in my head. I’ve always been drawn to “gray areas,” those murky kinds of situations where good people are in conflict with each other even though no one’s at fault, and I’m forced to see things from more than one person’s perspective. By the time my younger son turned one, I was ready to write, and what emerged was this big, messy, cross-cultural family drama that explored several different relationships, and how the ripple effects of mental illness test family bonds.

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L.L.: Much of the book deals with what it’s like to have a mental illness—and what it’s like to love someone with a mental illness—I so appreciate both of those perspectives because they are often not explored in literature (though we often see the manifestations of ‘crazy behavior’). You take a slightly different angle, that of a more interior experience of mental illness. Can you expand on that, please?

Mira T. Lee: I’ve seen mental illness up close through the struggles of my own loved ones, and I’ve also heard countless stories of mental illness in family support groups I’ve attended. From these experiences I can say that psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder differ from most physical illnesses in one very significant way: the patient, loved ones, and medical professional(s) often disagree on what should be done. Sometimes this is because the patient doesn’t believe they have an illness at all, other times it may be because they disagree with the recommended treatments.  This makes for a tremendous amount of conflict, and creates situations that are fraught and intractable, with no clear right or wrong answers. I wanted to explore multiple sides of multiple conflicts, so this involved delving into the interiors of my main characters and understanding their frustrations, as well as embedding Lucia’s illness within broader storylines. You’re right, the issues involved with psychotic illnesses (e.g. medications, “lack of insight”) are rarely explored in literature – it’s not that surprising, because they’re tough concepts to understand, but that’s part of the reason I felt compelled to tell this story.

L.L.: Along those lines, I really like how you’ve taken the experience of mental illness and shifted it culturally from a white, middle-class incident to that of someone who is Chinese-American. Sadly, mental illness does not discriminate, yet it’s often not represented in other demographics. How did that come about in EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL?

Mira T. Lee: Narratives of mental illness (both memoir and fiction) have been getting a lot more attention in general, which is fantastic, but most do still center around white, middle-class families. I think partly this is because stigma can be especially strong in non-white communities. I didn’t set out to explore mental illness in communities of color, but I’m Chinese-American myself, and multicultural worlds like the ones in the book are what’s most familiar to me. I do hope conversations around the topic become less taboo.


L.L.: My own mother (white, middle-class), had schizoaffective/bipolar with psychotic features/narcissist personality disorder…I saw many of her symptoms overlap with Lucia’s. Yet in the narrative, the diagnosis is a bit abstract. Was this intentional on your part?

Mira T. Lee: Yes, the vagueness was intentional for a couple of reasons. First, diagnoses often fluctuate from one doctor to the next and change over time, and nowadays schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar with psychotic features are often thought of as being on one continuous spectrum (rather than discrete illnesses). Second, I didn’t want this novel to be pigeonholed as a “mental illness book” or Lucia to be thought of only as “that schizophrenic woman.” There is so much stigma attached to those labels, and so many preconceived notions about what they mean. So by foregoing clear labels, I hope readers will be more open to seeing Lucia as an individual, and will come to understand the illness in the context of her entire life, as well as the lives of the people who love her most. I do hope this book will reach readers who might not typically pick up a “mental illness book.”

“A tender but unflinching portrayal of the bond between two sisters—one that’s frayed by mental illness and stretched across continents, yet still endures. With ventriloquistic skill, Mira T. Lee explores the heartache of loving someone deeply troubled and the unbearable tightrope-walk between holding on and letting go.”

–Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere and
Everything I Never Told You

L.L.: I know you’ve said you don’t want this book to be ‘about’ mental illness and here, I’ve asked all kinds of questions about that very theme! There’s also immigration, cultural differences and displacement. Those are some big issues and yet they’re handled so well. How did you structure this novel? Did you know ahead that this was the direction you were headed, or did it sort of evolve?

Mira T. Lee: Oh, that’s okay! I think you’re right in saying that this book appeals to different readers for different reasons. Some people gravitate toward the bond between the sisters, others to Lucia’s struggle to balance family and career, still others to the sisters’ relationships with the men in their lives. One interesting thing I’ve found is that I can almost always tell whether a reader has had personal experience with mental illness by the way they comment on the book. It just hits differently, and I’m glad for that. I hope the book finds its way to many more readers like you!

But back to your question: the novel evolved pretty organically. I rarely sat around making conscious decisions about who my characters were or what the plot would be. I also never consciously thought about “big issues” like immigration or cultural displacement, or wrote with any kind of agenda, for example, around mental illness. People from all different backgrounds have always been a staple of my adulthood, so to me, my characters are very much a reflection of America. My focus was purely on exploring how my characters would cope with the dilemmas they faced, and how their decisions would affect their relationships with the people they loved. I always thought of this as an intimate family story – albeit a messy one!


L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but I won’t. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Something you hope others take away from reading EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL?

Mira T. Lee: I do hope readers will gain a sense of the issues surrounding schizophrenia, which is perhaps still the most severe and stigmatized of all the mental illnesses, but one deserving of just as much compassion. And I hope people see that these illnesses are only one component of a person’s life, and can relate to the humanity at the core of each of these characters – as sisters, mothers, husbands, lovers, as modern women, as deeply flawed human beings who yearn for love and belonging. But most of all, I hope readers will disagree over what these characters should or shouldn’t have done. The world is gray, full of ambiguity. Where is the line between adventure and recklessness? Compromise and resignation? Selfishness and self-preservation? Fiction is a great place to examine nuances, and to challenge ourselves to exercise our powers of empathy.

L.L.: What’s on your TBR list for 2018?

Mira T. Lee: My TBR list is ridiculously long. Anne Raeff’s Winter Kept Us Warm, Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible, Jillian Medoff’s This Could Hurt, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Claire Goenawan’s Rainbirds, Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, for starters. I wish I could spend an entire year just reading!

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L.L.: Oh, and one last question: are you working on anything new?

Mira T. Lee: I have bits and pieces of a few different projects, including some childrens’ picture books. We’ll see what happens…

For more information about the book, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, please see:

Mira T. Lee - © Liz Linder PhotographyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mira T. Lee’s work has been published in numerous quarterlies and reviews, including The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Triquarterly. She was awarded an Artist’s Fellowship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2012, and has twice received special
mention for the Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of Stanford University, and
currently lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her debut novel.

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


[Author and cover image courtesy of Viking/Penguin/Random House and used with permission. ‘Stop the Stigma’ from, ‘Family Drama’  from ‘Empathy and compassion’ image from, winter reading  from  , butterful image from, all retrieved on 1.08.18]

WeekEND Reading: Need to hit the ‘reset’ button on your Parenting/Family Life? Sue Groner, The Parenting Mentor is here with 5 Ways to Rock the New Year, her new book, PARENTING: 101 WAYS TO ROCK YOUR WORLD, and more


By Leslie Lindsay  

In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season we just put behind us, parents might find it a bit challenging to re-center and focus on what’s important: our family. 


I recently had the opportunity to read Sue Groner’s amazing book of parenting tips. The book is slim, but don’t be fooled; it’s jam-packed with practical, hands-on, and very ‘do-able.’ Be sure to check out my review here. 

Today, I have this lovely guest post from Sue on 5 ways parents can hit ‘Reset’ for the New Year; please join us!

“If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a lot of time reading how-to articles and blogs about being the best parent you can be. The amount of advice available to parents is overwhelming and confusing. Thinking that you’re not living up to a parenting gold standard causes stress and anxiety. And it certainly doesn’t make you feel great as a parent.
This year, during our New Year’s family dinner, we did something a little different. Rather than announcing specific resolutions, we went around the table and talked about how we felt about the new year.
The theme that emerged was how we were all excited for this opportunity for a “reset”. Of course, you can choose to reset on any day of the year, but when you reset at the beginning of a brand new year, the timing just feels right!
Like my clients, I have fallen into the no-win cycle of trying to make everything in my family just perfect. What I’ve learned is that Perfect never works. Not only is it truly unattainable, the quest for Perfect seems to make things worse, not better — the exact opposite of what we parents are all striving for.
This year, instead of exhausting yourself trying to make your family what you think it’s supposed to be, here are 5 simple ideas that can help make you and your family life happier and more sane.
#1: Lose the P Word. Striving for Perfection not only causes unnecessary stress for you and your children, it also fosters disappointment. When children live within a Perfection- Oriented environment, they often avoid trying new things for fear of failing. Rather than evaluating results, praise your children for hard work and effort. And rather than judging yourself against a “perfect” ideal, praise yourself for what you do, and what you’ve done. Embrace the delicious feeling of being “good enough.”
#2: Have Realistic Expectations. The best way to ditch the P Word is to reconfigure your expectations. Whether it’s about your child’s birthday party or that much-anticipated date night, if you actually expect that things will sometimes go wrong, you can relax and laugh about it when they do. Learn to enjoy the planning and the process, but let go of the expectation for a flawless outcome. Adjusting expectations helps you go with the flow.
#3: Do Something For Yourself. You know what I find makes a “good” parent? A happy, relaxed parent! Get a babysitter for an hour and watch some mindless television. Accept offers of help from friends and family. Take a bath. Take a nap. These short relaxing snippets are extremely valuable to your health and well-being, and will make you a happier parent almost immediately.
#4:  Try New Things As a Family. This is a simple, practical tip that seems to have a ripple effect. Take turns talking about some activity that you’ve been wanting to try. Cooking a new recipe with some first-time ingredients? Hiking that mountain that’s an hour away? Starting the new year with something other than resolutions? Picking and participating in new activities as a family is bonding, but it can also level the playing field among family members. Maybe the little one wants everyone to take ice-skating lessons. If everyone is a newbie, there’s no telling who will “rule the ice.” New activities let you model realistic expectations and process over outcome for your kids.
#5: Say “Yes” with Joy. This is probably my favorite tip and the one that can instantly move me from stressed out to blissed out. If you know you’re ultimately going to drive your child to the mall, let her have a three-person sleepover, or allow an extra cookie after dinner — just go straight to a happy “Yes!” When you offer up an awesome gesture as if you’re doing your kids a big favor, it takes the fun out of it. It’s so easy to add joy to your delivery with “Sure!” or “I’d be happy to!” or “Let’s do that!” Your enthusiasm will make your child feel even better about your YES, but best of all, it will make you feel great.
When I start my year with a healthy parenting mentality, I have more fun, my family is happier, and we can spend more time and energy on the things that really matter — being together and supporting each other.”
These tips, and more, can be found in PARENTING: 101 Ways to Rock Your World by Sue Groner. 

For more information about the book, the connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of PARENTING: 101Ways to Rock Your World (Daily Success, Nov. 1, 2017), please see:

sue-groner-bioREV2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: As an experienced mother, Sue Groner knows how stressful and overwhelming parenting can be at times. She founded The Parenting Mentor to provide an ally for parents in their quest to raise confident and resilient children.

Sue is also the creator of the CLEARR™ method of parenting, developed through years of trial (and her fair share of errors!) with her own family. CLEARR™ adheres to the belief that parenting strategies should be grounded in six important pillars: Communication, Love, Empathy, Awareness, Rules, and Respect. This has become the cornerstone of her practice as The Parenting Mentor.

A graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a former advertising executive, Sue resides in New York City and Bedford, NY with her husband, two children (when they are not away at school) and two dogs. She is available for private, group, and virtual mentorship sessions nationwide.

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


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[Cover and author image retrieved from S. Groner’s website and used with permission. Image of family dinner from, family hiking image from, family walking with tree from, napping mom retrieved fromall retrieved on 1.5.18. Special thanks to PRbytheBook.] 

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


By Leslie Lindsay 

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

PlayingbyHeart cover 80 percent
Carmela Martino completely transported me to the historical landscape of Italy where girls were destined to become ‘only’ a wife/mother or join the convent. Oh, but the Salvini sisters, Maria and Emilia, have so much more they want to do with their lives.

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Carmela to the blog couch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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