Category Archives: WeekEND Reading

WeekEND Reading: Rachel Khong talks about how we’re all taking care of one another imperfectly, as best we can, memory, her fondness for random facts, how long drives feed her creativity well, and so much more in GOODBYE, VITAMIN

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Off-beat, slightly quirky but oh-so well done tale of love, loss, fathers and daughters, and memory. 

download (1)Clever, tender and wry, GOODBYE, VITAMIN is a study of one family, their descent into decay and then back out again…maybe. It’s a poignant read that sneaks up on you and is filled with such beautiful vignettes of life, love, relationships (romantic, between siblings, father-daughter, mother-daughter). I laughed, I cried, I was reminded of my own childhood, sweet things my father did (Post-It notes every morning), and so much more.

Ruth is 30 years old and recently disengaged from her fiance, Joel when her father’s heath declines and she is ‘called home’ to San Francisco from the east coast to support her mother and mind her father. Her father was once a prominent history professor but now is doing odd, flaky things. Yet his love for his daughter is palpable. 

I’m so honored to welcome Rachel Khong to the blog. Pull up a chair and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Rachel, it’s a pleasure to chat with you about your debut, GOODBYE, VITAMIN. As I was reading, I had to flip to the back jacket to make sure this wasn’t a memoir. It’s not—as far as I know. What prompted this story? Are there any parallels to your real-life?

Rachel Khong:  What prompted this story was the voice of the main character, Ruth. I wrote a short story in her voice and loved it so much I decided to keep doing it in novel format. This book was definitely inspired by my experience as a woman, thinking about the things that a lot of young women think about—namely, failed relationships and whether or not they “count” for something. And I was thinking a lot about memory, and the role that it plays in our relationships, whether with our friends or family, or with ourselves. Memory is so flawed, and yet it makes us who we are.

“A CATALOGUE OF DAYS, A LOVE SONG TO THEIR EPHEMERA, A COLLECTION OF SNAPSHOTS OF QUOTIDIAN CELEBRATIONS AND FAILURES. THE SUM OF THESE BEATS IS A BOOK THAT UNEXPECTEDLY STRIPS YOU DOWN AND LEAVES YOU FEELING MORE FORGIVING—AND FORGIVEN.”

—STEPHANIE DANLER, AUTHOR OF SWEETBITTER

L.L.: GOODBYE, VITAMIN is slightly unconventional in terms of storytelling. There are no chapters; instead, each section is a date over the course of a year; it’s book one could easily finish in a single sitting. But I am sure it took you at least a year to write. Can you tell us a little about your structure and also your time line for writing?

Rachel Khong: It took me more like six years, actually! I always intended to write a book that could be read in a single sitting, because I wanted to be a really 16906138immersive book— a book that would take you away from your real life, and into the lives of these characters, however briefly. I love when an author can get his or her rhythms lodged into your brain, and I wanted that to happen with this book. As for the structure itself, I really wanted it to mimic the day-to-day miscellany of life—for it to contain both the ups and the downs, and for it to be a reflection of those sometimes quieter moments that don’t make it into the grand story we tell ourselves about our lives. But because the book’s form isn’t a straightforward A to B, or particularly plot driven, the revision often wasn’t straightforward either: the process of writing it involved a lot of reflection and accumulation of small details that got layered into the book.

L.L.: I found that there are so many factoids in GOODBYE, VITAMIN that caught me by surprise—not just about Alzheimer’s but about not flushing your (presumed dead) goldfish down the toilet. (I actually had to look those images up on Google!) The origin of the word testify…only fresh materials on the floats in the Rose Bowl parade…I’m curious what—if any—research you did for this book?sZaypU6v

Rachel Khong: For me, writing fiction is a big tangled mess of autobiography, observation, imagination, and also research. You also asked about the writing process—sometimes, when you can’t do one kind of writing, or when your imagination well has run dry, you can at least draw from autobiography, or observation, or just straight-up reading. When I didn’t know what would happen next in the book, sometimes it was useful to do research on topics I was interested in. I did a lot of reading about Alzheimer’s caregivers on online forums, but it’s also true that I have a fondness for fun facts. Again, this is a book about memory, so I’m interested in what random things get lodged in our brains. All our brains are repositories for such strange things.

L.L.: Ruth is given this beautiful gift from her father—a notebook of musings and observations he kept of her younger days. How I love this (and wished I had done something similar for my girls—guess it’s not too late, they are 10 and 12). Is this something your dad has done for you? Mine left rhyming Post-It notes for me each morning which I still treasure.

Rachel Khong: Definitely not. My parents are both civil engineers and not big readers or writers—I’m a black sheep in that way. My dad did make me lunches throughout school—they were always the same: one or two slices of cold cut turkey and a thin layer of mayo, between wheat bread. Keeping a journal is something I hope to do for my kids if I ever have them, though!  Fresh lemons on the rustic tale

L.L.: I think GOODBYE, VITAMIN is a bit of that reversal we all experience in life. First our parents care for us and then we care for them. Was this your intention when you set out to write?

Rachel Khong: I didn’t have any clear-cut intentions when I set out to write, more questions than answers. I was interested in this idea that we are all sort of winging it through life. Your parents are winging it, even as they’re parenting you. We’re all taking care of one another imperfectly, as best we can. 

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

Rachel Khong: This year has been so crazy (two books, lots of travel, I also got married) that I forgot to get a smog check for my car for, oh, six months? In that time, I’ve gotten two tickets for expired registration. I finally just got my smog check, so I hope the DMV sends me my sticker soon!

L.L.: Where do you draw your creative inspiration?

Rachel Khong: Good books! And good comedy. And long walks are helpful for shaking ideas loose. Also long drives.

L.L.: Rachel, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for chatting with us today—and congrats on GOODBYE, VITAMIN. Is there anything else I should have asked?

Rachel Khong: It was my pleasure and honor! Thank you for having me!

For more information, to connect with Rachel via social media, or to purchase a copy of GOODBYE, VITAMIN, please see: 

200058641ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Khong grew up in Southern California, and holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Florida. From 2011 to 2016, she was the managing editor then executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in JOYLAND, American Short Fiction, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and California Sunday. She lives in San Francisco. GOODBYE, VITAMIN is her first novel.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Henry Holt. Image of trivia brain from brainblasttrivia.com, rustic lemons from actively.com, day-at-a-glance image retrieved from target.com, all on 10.7.17]

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Abigail Lawless is ‘good company’ in brooding 1816 Dublin as she uncovers secrets of a Christian sect, mysterious deaths, and more in Andrew Hughes’ THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, plus writing advice, real-crime TV binges, & a historical female hangwoman

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Spunky and bright Abigail Lawless, uncovers evidence that a recent suicide may have been murder in 1816 Dublin. 

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It’s October and that officially means all of us who love a tale of the gloomy and grisly can be at home reading. Even better if rain is drumming down your windows and a you live in a derelict country manor.

A young nursemaid has concealed a pregnancy and then murdered her newborn in the home a prominent family in a radical Christian sect known as the Brethren. Rumors swirl about the identity of the child’s father, but before an inquest can be made, the maid is found dead of an apparent suicide.

And so it begins, a lovely relationship between Abby Lawless and her father, the town’s coroner. Abby is a spunky, slightly quirky young woman with an adventuresome spirit; I was taken with her almost immediately. Plus, she loves science.

Ireland 2014 249But it’s 1816 in Dublin and young women just don’t run around with their academic fathers who teach at Trinity College dissecting the dead. At one point in the story, Abby says [and I’m paraphrasing]:

“Well, if I were a man and had this interest, it would be considered a fascination but I’m a woman and so it’s a macabre fixation.” 

There are a few twists and turns in THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, some good action scenes, and a little romantic relief as well. Hughes does a considerable job of ‘laying the ground,’ and setting a compelling scene of brooding Irish landscape. His research is evident, too and accurately displays a historical tale of murder, suicide, and forensic science.

I am honored to welcome Andrew Hughes to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Lately, I’ve been interested in beginnings. THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER begins like this:

“For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.”

What instigated the beginning of this tale for you and what advice would you give to writers looking for a really fantastic ‘hook?’

Andrew Hughes: Thanks, Leslie. One of the challenges I had early on was to capture Abigail’s voice, her wit and her appreciation of the macabre, particularly as the story was told in the first person. I was imagining a Jane Austen type heroine loose in Regency Dublin, and was thinking about some of the tropes in period fiction when the line popped into my head. I liked it as well because it hints at the relationship she has with her father, his humor and his indulgence of her more morbid interests.

As for advice for writers, I’d say just concentrate on voice and character and don’t get bogged down. Get the plot started as quickly as possible and don’t look back.

L.L.: Andrew, you do a wonderful job depicting 1816 Dublin. The year is known as, “the year without summer.” Can you tell us a little about your research? 

Andrew Hughes: My first book was a social history of Dublin called LIVES LESS ORDINARY, which looked at all the people who lived in one of the city’s Georgian squares. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all that research was giving me a terrific yearwithoutsummersetting for historical fiction and a ready-made cast of characters.

I read about “the year without a summer” a while ago. A dust cloud from the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia settled over Western Europe, bringing frost to mid-July, crop failures and hardship. The sun turned blood-red, and black dots scattered about its disk became clear to the naked eye.

At the same time in Dublin there was a growing conflict between students of the Enlightenment and a burgeoning evangelical movement whose proselytizing would become known as the Second Reformation. For me, the eerie weather, religious fervor and rationalist zeal created a perfect tinder-box atmosphere for historical crime fiction.

In terms of specific research, I found newspaper transcripts of 19th Century inquests to be a great source. Each inquest was its own mini-drama – the description of the victim, particulars of the crime, the testimony of witnesses, often people from the poorest backgrounds whose voices would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

L.L.: I’ve always loved science, but forensics and forensic psychology really fascinate. In fact, I looked up some of the books you mention in the novel, Male’s EPITOME OF FORENSICS, for example. I didn’t find it. I imagine it’s likely in a special collection somewhere? Trinity College, perhaps?

Andrew Hughes: I used a slightly abridged title! In full it’s An Epitome of Juridical or Forensic Medicine; for the use of medical men, coroners, and barristers, and it’s available online here. 

It was published in 1816, which was perfectly timed for me. Male was a surgeon who had grown increasingly frustrated at the inability of coroners to identify cases of murder because of a lack of medical knowledge. He wrote a clear guide outlining the procedures for inspecting a body, the marks associated with violent deaths, the scientific tests to establish poisons, and so on. It became my textbook for Abigail and her forensic adventures.

L.L.: And Abigail Lawless! What a fun, quirky, adventuresome young woman. How did you dream up her character? Is she based off anyone you know?

Andrew Hughes: For me, Abigail was a reaction to my first novel, THE CONVICTIONS OF JOHN DELAHUNT, which was based on a true-life murderer and police informer in 1840s Dublin. That was a first-person narrative told from the murderer’s point of view, and while at times it was fun to inhabit his amoral head, I knew that for my next book I wanted the main character to be the hero. I also wanted to write about a young woman rather than a man, and since she would need plausible access to cases of murder and their investigations, the idea of the coroner’s daughter came to be.

I didn’t base her on anyone in particular. I imagined a modern Irish girl having to make her way in that society, the constraints and prejudices she would have to face. She’s headstrong and rebellious, but also a loving daughter, a kind friend. One of the reviewers over here [in Ireland] called her “great company”, which I liked.31b975f8b7633c47d7a1ba1d3a863ac8

L.L.: Also, I loved the derelict manor of Kilbride. There’s something brooding and intriguing about the obscure, bringing a sense of doom and tension to writing. Does the place exist and if not, what was your inspiration?

Andrew Hughes: Yes, Manor Kilbride is a village about an hour south of Dublin. I remember passing the church there once, St John’s, and being struck by the setting.
It’s a simple chapel perched on a hillside with listing headstones and dark woods surrounding – the perfect gothic location. Mr Darby’s ruined vicarage I just made up myself. I found out later that the village and church were used as sets in the Anne Hathaway film Becoming Jane. Their location scout obviously felt the same way I did.

L.L.: Can you talk a little about the Christian sect, the Brethren, mentioned in THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER? Was this purely fictional, or based in history?

Andrew Hughes: That came out of my LIVES LESS ORDINARY book. The Plymouth Brethren were an evangelical movement that first began meeting in Fitzwilliam Square in the 1820s. Their gatherings in England took place in Plymouth so that’s where they got the name. In a general sense, they were an inspiration for the sect in Plym.jpgTHE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, and their charismatic leader was also called Mr Darby. But in Ireland in the early 19th Century there was a growing evangelical reaction to revolutionary politics and the campaign for Catholic emancipation, not just confined to the Plymouth Brethren. Of course, any such conservative movement would find a natural antagonist in the curious, inconvenient, and intuitive Abigail.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary (and hopefully it’s not grave robbers)!

Andrew Hughes: Apart from worrying about the daily news, I’ve been catching up on a few true-crime series lately. I got through Making a Murderer and The Keepers on Netflix with unseemly haste. Also listened to the latest Serial podcast, S-Town. That was an excellent portrait of an intriguing man, but in the end I got tired of the hooks and cliffhangers that were never quite resolved. I’ve been writing a lot these past few months and have to catch up on my TBR pile, but I’ve started reading THE GINGER MAN again after the death of J.P. Donleavy.

L.L.: Andrew, it was a true joy. Thank you for chatting with us about THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Andrew Hughes: I’ve just finished a new novel, more Irish historical fiction, this time based on a real-life 18th Century character: Lady Betty, the merciless hangwoman of Roscommon! The ink is barely dry on that one, so I’ve not much more news, but keep an eye out for it in 2018.

 For more information, to connect with Andrew Hughes via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE CORONER’S DAUGHTER, please see: 

AndrewHughesABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andrew Hughes was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. It was while researching his acclaimed social history of Fitzwilliam Square—Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922—that he first came across the true story of John Delahunt that inspired his debut novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. Andrew lives in Dublin.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. Image of ‘the year without summer’ retrieved from The Paris Review, image of St. John’s Church/Kilbride retrieved from, image of The Plymouth Brethren retrieved from Wikipedia, all on 9.28.17. Trinity College library from L.Lindsay’s personal archives] 

WeekEND Reading: New York Times Bestselling Author Ken Follet talks about the third book in his Kingsbridge series, A COLUMN OF FIRE, how his wife’s characteristics sometimes appear in female characters, religious freedom, and kick-ass women of the 16th century

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH and WORLD WITHOUT END comes the next epic novel in the Kingsbridge series: A COLUMN OF FIRE. 

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In 1989 Ken Follet published the historical epic THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, a departure for the bestselling writer which stunned reader and critics alike with its ambitious scope and unforgettable cast of characters. That was nearly 30 years ago!. It reached #1 on bestsellers lists across the world, and since become Follet’s most popular novel. Ten years ago, Oprah selected THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH for her Book Club, and the second book in the series was published, WORLD WITHOUT END.

The saga continues with Follet’s new epic, A COLUMN OF FIRE (September 12, Viking). This one introduces a world of spies and secret agents in the 16th century, a time when Queen Elizabeth I ruled. Set during one of the most turbulent and revolutionary times in history, this novel is one of Follet’s most exciting and ambitious works yet. It’s perfect for longtime fans of the Kingsbridge series, but if you weren’t around 30 years ago, it works well as a stand-alone, too.

A COLUMN OF FIRE begins in 1558. The ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral peer over a city torn to shreds by religious conflict. Power in England shifts precariously
between Catholics and Protestants, high principles clash with friendship, loyalty, and love.

I’m honored to welcome Ken Follet to the blog. 

L.L.: Ken, it’s a honor to chat with you. While A COLUMN OF FIRE is part of a series, it still needs to be something you are willing to spend a significant amount of time with. Where did the inspiration for A COLUMN OF FIRE come from?

Ken Follet: I read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I started the first English secret service. That intrigued me, and I read several books about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. I felt sure this could be the basis of an exciting novel.

L.L.: Let’s talk titles for a moment. Why did you choose to call the book A COLUMN OF FIRE? It sounds quite ominous. 

Ken Follet: [It is]. It’s biblical, like THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. Spies are sometimes referred to as a Fifth Column. And a lot of people were burned at the stake in the 16th century.

L.L.: So were you excited about returning to Kingsbridge? [There are numerous towns called Kingsbridge, but the one in Follet’s THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH is fictional]. 

Ken Follet: You bet. We’ve watched the place grow from an Anglo-Norman settlement to a thriving medieval town, and now we see it at the start of the English Renaissance. Kingsbridge is England in miniature. article-1331731-0C1D9C90000005DC-968_634x398

L.L.: We know that A COLUMN OF FIRE is about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. What other themes surround the book?

Ken Follet: Most of my recent books are about people struggling for freedom in one form or another: Welsh coal miners, Russian factory workers, Jews, African Americans. This is about religious freedom.

L.L.: Can you talk about how these themes relate to your own life?

Ken Follet: I’ve always hated people who assume they have authority over me. This made my schooldays a challenge, obviously. A bully makes me angry. I empathize with fictional characters who fight against tyranny.

L.L.: I can’t get over the historical scope of this book. Not to mention, it’s over 900 pages! What sort of research did you do for A COLUMN OF FIRE?

Ken Follet: There’s nobody left to interview, of course. As usual, most of my information comes from history books. I also visited houses and castles built in this period. I looked at 16th century clothing in the London Museum, and I went several times to the National Portrait Gallery to study the faces of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Francis Drake and many others.

L.L.: Did you visit the locations of the key events in A Column of Fire?

Ken Follet: Scotland for Loch Leven, the prison from which Mary Queen of Scots escaped; Belgium for Antwerp, then the banking centre of the western world; Spain for Seville, the richest city in Spain; Paris because it was the headquarters of those who conspired to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.300px-Lochleven_west_wall

L.L.: Plenty of historians have written about this era. Who among them do you particularly like or respect?

Ken Follet: Robert Hutchinson has written well about espionage at this time. Geoffrey Parker is the authority on the long and bloody war in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most useful book was Conyers Read’s three-volume biography MR. SECRETARY WALSINGHAM, about the man who was he Elizabethan equivalent of “M” in the James Bond stories.

L.L.: So, I have to ask, are any of your fictional characters based on real people?

Ken Follet: Not really. I might give a villain the hair style of someone I dislike, and of course the female heroes all have something in them of Barbara, my wife; but my fictional characters are never portraits of real people.

L.L.: A COLUMN OF FIRE  has a number of real historical characters, including several heads of state. Who did you particularly admire?

Ken Follet: Three great 16th century leaders understood the need for religious tolerance, and interestingly they were all women: our Queen Elizabeth I; Caterina dei Medici, who was queen of France and then Queen Mother; and Marguerite de Parme, governor of the Netherlands. In an age of relentless bigotry, each of them tried to persuade people of rival religions to live in peace. For that they were hated. Their efforts were only partly successful.220px-MargarethevonParma01

Each of them was undermined: Elizabeth by repeated plots to assassinate her, Caterina by the ruthless Guise family, and Marguerite by her half-brother King Felipe II of Spain. I admire their idealism, courage and persistence in the face of bloodthirsty opposition.

L.L.: You’ve had a long, illustrious career; what are you most proud of?

Ken Follet: It was a pretty good achievement to write a novel about the rather unpromising subject of building a cathedral in the Middle Ages and turning it into an international No.1. We’ve sold about twenty-six-million copies of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. That’s pretty good for a book a lot of people thought would be too dull.

L.L.: How long did it take you to write?

Ken Follet: The whole thing took three years and three months. After two years I only had about 200 pages, and I felt this was a crisis. And as a novelist the only thing you can do if you want to write faster is work more hours. So I started to work Saturdays and then Sundays as well. The difficulty is simply that you’ve got to keep on making up more and more stuff about the same people. If you write 100,000 words of a thriller, then it’s finished. But after 100,000 words of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH that’s like that much. [He holds open first quarter of the book.] I had all that to go. [He holds open the final three-quarters.] That was the great difficulty. uk_the_pillars_of_the_earth

L.L.: Some writers dread of their books being turned into films or TV series. But have you enjoyed the experience?

Ken Follet: Seeing good actors giving good performances, bringing to life characters I’ve invented and speaking some of the lines I’ve written is a huge thrill. When it all goes well it’s great. When it goes badly you cringe when you see what’s on the screen, but you have to take that risk.

I’m pleased and proud that some of my stories have made good film and TV. It confirms the strength of the story that it can be transformed from one medium to another. And I’m also pleased that my stories have been turned into a stage musical, several board games, and a computer game.

L.L.: Wow! Do I dare ask what’s next?

Ken Follet: I’m working on a new story, but I’m not yet ready to talk about it—sorry!

For more information, to connect with Ken Follet via social media, or to purchase a copy of A COLUMN OF FIRE, please visit: 

Ken Follett.headshot credit Olivier Favre (1).JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ken Follett is one of the world’s best-loved authors, selling more than 160 million copies of his thirty books. Follett’s first bestseller was Eye of the Needle, a spy story set in the Second World War. Follett lives in Hertfordshire, England, with his wife Barbara. Between them they have five children, six grandchildren, and three Labradors.

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

Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Viking. Other images retrieved from Wikipedia, PILLARS OF THE EARTH television adaption image retrieved from Daily Mail, all on 8.26.17] 

WeekEND Reading: This woman’s transformation from nomad shepherd girl in Somali to Mayo Clinic R.N. is nothing short of incredible. CONQUERING THE ODDS, refugee camps, teenage depression, suicide awareness & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Inspiring–and often devastating–story of one Somali woman’s tumultuous childhood as a shepherd girl in the sub-Saharan desert to successful Mayo Clinic R.N. Aport

This book might be slim, but it’s message is mighty and powerful. Born to teenage parents through an arranged marriage, Habibo wailed in her bassinet in a Somali hospital as her young mother was deprived of food and emotional support (at the time, it was the custom of Somali friends and family to provide nourishment to their patients, and not the hospital’s responsibility). When her father came to the front desk, he asked the nurses, “What is the sex of the baby?”

When told she was a girl, he turned and walked away. 

So begins Habibo’s life. Shuttled between her birth parents (who soon divorced) to her grandfather’s home, and then raised by her maternal grandmother, Habibo’s life was rift with emotional neglect, physical and sexual abuse.

At four, she was a shepherd girl caring for 150-plus goats, sheep, cows, coaxing them across the countryside to fertile pastures and clean drinking water. At seven, she reunited with her mother briefly–because the city of Mogadishu had better facilities–to treat her malaria. She was returned to her primitive, nomadic life, and her no-nonsense grandmother who was often harsh, never telling her granddaughter a job well done, or even that she loved her. Through years of starvation, depression, and more, Habibo learns to conquer the odds.

But her journey takes time, heartache, and just when you think nothing is going to improve for this young woman, it does. 

While living in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya, Habibo and her cousin decide to apply for a seemingly untouchable lottery: the selection to leave the camp for America. 

The girls check the lottery postings religiously, every Thursday or Friday afternoon as they are posted on the doors of the UN Center. Weeks go by, then months. Finally, the news they’ve been waiting for–they’ve been chosen.

It’s August of 1998. In a Midwestern college town, thousands of miles away, I am beginning my second year in a 4-year nursing program. My skin is white. My eyes are blue. As I child I had oodles of Barbie dolls, attended Kindergarten, and was given every opportunity to receive an education. I did not witness a crocodile devour a small child, I had not walked for miles in the desert, tired and thirsty and wondering when–or if–I would ever receive a drop of water or find a piece of fruit to stave off the thirst.

Habibo and I are alike in that we are both nurses. We are both women. We both work(ed) for one of the world’s top medical institutions. And while our similarities bind in some ways, our differences are striking.

I am so honored to welcome Habibo to the blog couch. Please join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Habibo, it’s funny the way people are connected. Twenty years ago, I would never have guessed our paths would have crossed. But they did and I find that inspiring. So why this book, why now?

Habibo Haji:  I wrote this book because I want to give people hope. I want them to know that regardless of our past we can always influence how our future turns out.  We do not have to live in our past. Our past does not determine our future. We can leverage our pain to harness our future. Often, people are stuck on the past, the pain, the failure, get into blame game, and lose sight of what is really important.

L.L.: When you look back on your life in Somalia, what three vital lessons stand out?

Habibi Haji:  I have learned that life has many lessons such as pleasant and unpleasant ones. I do not have to live in pain because people who were supposed protected me let me down. I can forgive, work hard, and live my life on my own terms.  In our life whether we are young or old people will disappoint us because they are human but it is up to us not to take things personal.

L.L.: I’ve had the opportunity to travel, but I’ve never been to Africa. Can you set the scene for us? What is Somalia like, geographically? Can you describe the hut you grew up in?

Habibo Haji:  My grandmother lived in a small village called Balcad, which is located eastern Somalia about three miles north of the Indian Ocean. The Shabeelle River runs through Somalia, where everyone in the village got their water, washed their clothing, swam, and watered the animals. Balcad, like many of the villages around it, has about thirty huts, each one surrounded by a fence made from poles and branches to keep the domestic animals in and the wild animals out.  Approximately three hundred men, women, and children live there, along with all their cows, sheep, goats, donkeys and a few chickens here and there.  Surrounding the village life thousands of miles of grasslands, scrub, bush, and forested areas where the people graze their animals. 06512f47fefcfb0ba84a511ef66734ef.jpg

My grandmother’s hut, like all the rest of the huts in the village, was made of tree limbs tied together like an igloo and covered with grass woven mats, which can house an average of about four people.  The huts are built of long grass, woven into many “filiq,” or rugs, which are used to cover a frame made from about twenty tree limbs tied together to form a rounded structure with a wide open door on one side which can be covered by a filiq in bad weather.  The Filiq is handmade by the ladies.

[Leslie’s note: You may appreciate this website of The Somali Museum of Minnesota, which describes the customs and culture of the Somali people]

L.L.: This passage, in CONQUERING THE ODDS, resonated with me, maybe it’s because my daughter is 12, as you were at the time: “I lost a lot of weight due to tape worms, in addition to head lice. You could tell by looking at me that I was not very happy. I was exhausted, tired of being afraid and fighting abuse. I was lonely.” This speaks volumes. You then speak of happiness and becoming a loner. Can you talk more about that, please?

Habibo Haji:  That time was the lowest time in my teen life. I was very depressed, lonely and desperate. I had no one to turn to. I felt abandoned and unwanted. I felt as though the cows were more important than me. As I look back on that experience I am still unsure how I survived. All I know is that something greater was looking out for me.  Because of my childhood experience of being alone and not having much interaction with people especially peers my age made me a bit loner as I gotten older.

L.L.: What might you say to a 12 year old girl now—perhaps your own, or a patient—who confides in not being happy?

refugee-camp-kenyaHabibo Haji:  We have to teach our children how to learn to love themselves.  Help them build self-esteem because when he or she has a good self-image, they are less likely seek approval from others. We have to teach them failure, and disappointment is a part of life but they can lean ways to develop their resilience muscle.  I would tell the young girl to surround herself with positive role models to help her reach her potential.  Ever heard the expression “Birds of a feather flock together”?  She HAS to choose her friends wisely!

L.L.: I’m in such awe about you leaving Dadaab. You mention that your odds of leaving the camp were very slim (about 1 in 150,000). What was that process like and what might have happened had you not been selected for America?

Habibo Haji: WOW!  That was a miracle.  The process was long and it took us about a year interviews, medical check-ups, orientations, and travel plans. My ticket was $892 which I had to pay back to the government once I got a job here in the States.

Had I not being selected, MY life WOULD have been VERY different. I probably would have about 10 kids all living in a tent in the refugee camp(compare to 3 kids now living in a beautiful suburb 4 bed 2 bath home).  I would not have the education I have today. I wouldn’t have a job and would have depended on hand-outs from the World Food Organization which is given once a month.

[Leslie’s note: This June 2016 Washington Times article indicates the refugee camp has subsequently been closed.]6_192016_refugee-18201.jpg

L.L.: What factored into your choice to become a nurse?

Habibo Haji:  I had two jobs paying minimum wage ($4.75 per hour) and I was barely surviving. A neighbor told me about working in a nursing home and getting paid ($10.75 per hour).  I thought wow, now I can become rich!  I took the nursing assistant entrance exam and failed miserably because I did not speak English and did not have any education background.  I was told to study and come back in 3 months.  I went to the library got books and tape, asked for a tutor at the library. After 3 months I took the test and passed. I took the nursing assistant course and got a job at the local nursing home.  That is how I started my nursing careers. I fell in love with the older people in the nursing home. They would share their stories which made me warm and loved.  They use to call me “smiley” they said I always had a smile on my face. I guess I did because I was grateful for being in America and having a job.

L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your family—your daughters and son? And also the family left behind in Africa?

Habibo Haji:  I have two lovely daughters, 16, and 14. They are becoming amazing young ladies. We laugh and joke about my childhood sometimes.

My son is 8 years old, and he is super adorable.

It is not easy to be a single mother of 3 children, but I am thankful every day that God chose me to be their mother. I am honored and grateful for the things I have in my life.  Everything I do today I do it because of them. I want to be the best version of myself. They make me better human. They inspire me. They changed my world view.  

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CONQUERING THE ODDS?

Habibo Haji:   CONQUERING THE ODDS will inspire people to take bold actions in their life. We all have struggles big or small.  It is important not to settle in setbacks and adversity but rather take risks and develop high resiliency in order to overcome the hardships.  Are we holding back from becoming the best version of ourselves because we are afraid of what others will say about us?  Whenever I feel overwhelmed about what other people are saying about me or feel judged, I recite this quote from Les Brown:

“Other people’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.” 

L.L.: Habibo, this has been so touching and so enlightening. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that you would like to share?

Habibo Haji:  Thanks, Leslie for giving me this opportunity to share my journey with your readers.  One of the many reasons, I wrote this book is connect with the youth. I want to use my journey and help them learn they too can be resilient in their own struggles whether that is peer pressure, bullying, alcohol or drugs.

Per the CDC: Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC WISQAR). 4/5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.  I want to be able to reach as many teens as I possibly can to enlighten them about resilience.  I have been going to schools around the Midwest sharing my journey.  I know with force we can help our youth make better decisions. C3nsavEVMAAd5wD

[Leslie’s Note: 2017 World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10th and outreach usually continues the week following. My own mother is a victim of suicide. As a former child/adolescent psych R.N. and mother of two tween girls, this is real, this is important.]

For more information, to purchase a copy of CONQUERING THE ODDS, or to connect with Habibo through social media, please see: 

Haji_1554.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:  From shepherd girl in the dessert of Somalia to a bestselling Amazon author and Registered Nurse at Mayo Clinic, Habibo’s extraordinary story of how she went from struggling nomad and refugee to working at the number medical facility in the world. Habibo has helped people transformed their lives to be the best version of themselves. Habibo helps people realize struggles and hardship can be harnessed to build resilience and positive outlook in life.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of H. Haji and used with permission. Image of Somalian hut retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted, image of children getting water from ibtimes.uk.co, refugee camp tents retrieved from June 2016 Washington Times article, Habibo at Longfellow School via Twitter, all on 9.3.17]

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WeekEND Reading: Holly Chamberlin talks about mouth-watering New England summertime foods, her obsession with jewelry, paring down, and overcoming grief and heartache in her new novel, HOME FOR THE SUMMER.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Three generations of one family–a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter–escape to a beautiful coastal town in Maine to find healing in the wake of heartbreaking loss in bestselling author, Holly Chamberlin’s twentieth (!?!) novel, HOME FOR THE SUMMER.

HOME FOR THE SUMMER

When both her husband (Aaron) and youngest daughter (Ariel) die in a tragic accident on vacation, Frieda Braithwaite is left a bereft mother and widow. There’s survivor guilt and financial and emotional struggles; fearing she’ll lose her remaining daughter, Frieda and Bella leave their home for Maine, where Ruby, Frieda’s mother has always lived in an old farmhouse.

With the help of new friends and old—plus, the healing balm of family, Frieda and Bella mend their broken hearts. HOME FOR THE SUMMER is a sweet, tender read set in a tranquil coastal town that will carry along with those who yearn for simpler times and readers who resonate with the works of Karen White, Diane Chamberlain, Elin Hilderbrand, and Nicholas Sparks.

Come along and join me as I chat with Holly about her newest book, HOME FOR THE SUMMER (Kensington, June 2017).

Leslie Lindsay: Holly, welcome! ‘Coming home’ seems to be a major theme for you and your books. As does summer and the beach. In HOME FOR THE SUMMER, we’re thrust into the world of a grieving wife and mother. Can you share your inspiration for this one?

Holly Chamberlin: Hi, Leslie. Many thanks for having me! Coming home . . . The older I get the more I’m drawn to contemplate my past before late adolescence and early adulthood changed things so radically as they do for all of us. Exploration of my early past is my way of figuratively coming home and yes, the theme in all its variety fascinates me. In this book Ruby, the matriarch of the family, literally summons her daughter and granddaughter to spend the summer with download (31)her so that together, all three women hopefully can heal. Many of my novels take place during the summer months because ideally summer provides a bit of a respite from the daily grind. Even if a person doesn’t get much of an actual vacation, summer brings with it a state of mind in which a person can dream of positive change and a fresh start and that’s conducive to telling the sort of stories I tell.

L.L.:  I’ve been to Maine and loved it. There’s something old-school and simple about it, and yet a bit progressive. I’m always curious about the towns where the books I read are set. I looked up Yorktide, but came up empty-handed. Is it a purely fictional town, or a composite of several? Is it related to York Harbor, Maine?  And why Maine?

Holly Chamberlin: Yup, Yorktide is fictional and a bit of a mash-up of Ogunquit, Cape Neddick, Kennebunk, and yes, York Harbor. At times, I mention actual stores and restaurants but I’ve also created a variety of fictional places. Wainscoting and download (28)Windowseats is a creation; Cross Jewelers is not – and my credit card can attest to that. My husband, Stephen, and I have lived in Maine since 2003 so we’re very much still ‘from away’ which is what Mainers say about people who arrived recently, i.e. less than 30 years ago, and we love it here. And you’re right – there is something old-school and simple about Maine; people here seem to possess a fierce sense of fairness and an impressive work ethic. In addition, the state attracts large numbers of artists, writers, and musicians which makes for a lively environment.

L.L.: I love that Bella works at Wainscoting & Windowseats, though she’s a bit cranky about it. She doesn’t care about candlesticks or drapes…but I do! Can you talk about the character of Bella a little bit? And are you as taken with home décor as I?

Holly Chamberlin: I think Bella can be described as a good egg. She’s fundamentally honest and loving. Her sister’s tragic death has rattled her badly to the point where she’s become a shadow of her true self. By the story’s end Bella has definitely changed from the girl she was before Ariel’s and her father’s deaths, but for the better. She’s mature in ways that she probably wouldn’t yet be if her father and sister were still alive but she hasn’t lost her native optimism and an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world around her.

On to home décor. You’ve caught me at a time when we’re preparing to downsize rather radically so I’ve been going through my credenzas and closets selecting items for Goodwill. Let’s just say that I’ve amassed quite the collection of table linens, vases, candlesticks, serving platters, milk glass objects . . . The list goes on. When we designed this house, the theme was ‘faded elegance’ and boy, did we achieve that look! In our next home, we’re going for a brighter, lighter, and cleaner look though we’ll incorporate some of our current furniture and as much of the art work as possible.

L.L. I have to admit, every time Ruby was in the kitchen, my mouth watered. I was thinking about lobster rolls, fresh corn on the cob, blueberries…and all of the other decadent things she whipped up. What are some of your favorite foods from HOME FOR THE SUMMER and what role would you say food had in the novel?

Holly Chamberlin: In pretty much all of my recent novels gathering for meals has a fairly big role. I mean, it’s traditionally around the family table that feelings are expressed (sometimes to disastrous effect!) and information shared (ditto!). The person providing the meal is offering a gift and to partake of that meal is a way of thanking the provider. Gathering for family dinners isn’t as typical as it used to be download (29)for all sorts of reasons, but in my books, I force the issue. As for favorite foods from the book, I’d have to say the fish! I love a big red lobster fresh from the steamer – especially on a wharf by the harbor – but all the fish is amazing here. Diver scallops, fresh cod, swordfish, oysters! The fish markets on the waterfront are amazing. It’s one of the best things about living here by the sea. And we do have the most amazing wild blueberries, which are quite different from the blueberries you find in grocery stores – smaller and sweeter.

L.L.: Frieda is dealing with a huge amount of grief and change with the death of her husband and daughter (not a spoiler—I promise!). What do you think happens with her in the end?

Holly Chamberlin: Without revealing the specifics of the ending for those of your readers who haven’t read HOME FOR THE SUMMER, I foresee a very positive future for Frieda. She comes to realize that she’s a lot stronger than she thought she was. The very fact that she chooses to engage with her estranged father is an indication that she’s not one to fold up and die. And the fact that she learns to find a balance between caring for her daughter and for herself, between respecting the needs of others as well as her own needs, bodes well for the future. Not all of the characters in my books face as bright a future.

L.L.: Now that summer is a little more than half over (sniff, sniff) how are you doing on you summer ‘bucket list?’

Holly Chamberlin: Summer would be a washout if I didn’t get to enjoy a big bucket of steamers at Chauncey Creek, our favorite lobster dock; hear a local band on the deck at Portland Lobster Company; and spend an evening by the harbor at David’s in Kennebunkport eating truffle potato chips and oysters. But what I love more download (30)than anything is a long walk on the beach in the late afternoon light, collecting interesting stones and beach glass.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you now and why? For me, it’s what color should I paint my kitchen cabinets. Really. I will wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this.

Holly Chamberlin: My current and longtime obsession is jewelry. I’m a collector and enjoy learning about new designers and their techniques and reading about jewelry in different periods of history. At the moment, I am lusting after a grey, rose-cut diamond ring. Several contemporary designers are creating beautiful pieces using ‘imperfect’ stones in this lovely old-fashioned cut. The truth is that I spend way too much time on jewelry websites, blogs, and Instagram accounts. Wait. It’s not too much time! I love it!

L.L.: Holly, it was a pleasure! Thank you for popping over. Is there anything else you’d like to add that I may have forgotten?

Holly Chamberlin: I’d just like to say that, maybe more than a lot of my other characters, I really came to love and respect Frieda, Bella and Ruby as I got to know them. They’re vulnerable but such a strong family, and strong as individuals, too, in the end. I hope my readers agree!

For more information about HOME FOR THE SUMMER, to purchase your own copy, or to connect with Holly on social media, please visit: 

Chamberlin%2c Holly.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Holly Chamberlin was born and raised in New York City. After earning a Masters degree in English Literature from New York University and working as an editor in the publishing industry for ten years, she moved to Boston, married and became a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband now live in downtown Portland, Maine, in a restored mid-nineteenth century brick townhouse with Betty, the most athletic, beautiful and intelligent cat in the world. Readers can visit her website at:  www.hollychamberlin.com

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Kensington Books and used with permission. Summer porch retrieved from House Beautiful, Cross Jewelers from Google+, images of seafood/lobsters/Adirondack chairs from TripAdvisor, all retrieved on 7.6.17]

 

WeekEND Reading: How quickly life can spin out of control…Jennifer Kitses talks about this, how she is constantly buying books, her literary inspirations, time loops, and more in this stunning look at 24-hours in a suburban marriage SMALL HOURS

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By Leslie Lindsay

A tipping point of a novel with tense domestic vignettes leading each character deeper and deeper into destructive behavior. 

Small Hours.jpg
SMALL HOURS is a slow-burn, ‘tinderbox’ of a debut novel (Matthew Thomas, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES) in which we are just waiting for the inevitable to explode. We follow the lives of a married couple, Tom and Helen for 24-hours. Told in alternating POVs (Helen and Tom), we dive into a myriad of secrets, promises, deadlines, children, neighbors, etc. It’s one small step into the danger zone with each paragraph read, with each flip of the page, each turn of the hour.

I kind of wanted to shake these people.

Perhaps that is what makes Jennifer Kitses’s debut so palpable. We can *feel* the tensions arising, see the outcome before her characters and we just want to thrust an arm out and say, ‘Stop!’ But the reading is propulsive; I wanted to keep reading. It was like a bad accident on the side of the road: you don’t want to look, but you do.

Tom and Helen have left NYC for a life in a former mill town to raise their twin daughters. Helen is juggling work, kids, the home and none of it is coming together. There are teenagers from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ who torment her and her young daughters at a local park, deadlines and more. Meanwhile, Tom is struggling to keep afloat at his newspaper job in the city, 90-minute train commutes, and a big secret.

What SMALL HOURS does so well is capture the mundane in a universal look at parenting, suburbia, the workforce, marriage, secrets, and so much more. I couldn’t stop reading; I so wanted to see what kind of train wreck they were going to walk into.

I’m honored to welcome Jennifer to the blog couch. Pull up a seat and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Jennifer, when I first learned of SMALL HOURS, I knew I had to read it. Number one, I was taken with the cover. It gives this torn and mangled look at a domestic setting, much like the story within those pages. Was this your intention all along? Did the design team nail your overall look and feel for the story?

Jennifer Kitses: Thank you so much, Leslie! I love the cover, too and I had no idea what the publisher was planning until I saw the first version. I remember being so happy and excited when I first opened the file, because I loved everything about it: the torn-page illusion, the colors (especially the green, which gets mentioned a lot throughout the book; in my head, that was the color of the novel), and the photo itself, which to me looks just like my fictionalized Hudson Valley town.

The cover designer, Brian Lemus, surprised me by coming to my launch at the Astoria Bookshop in Queens. It was great to meet and thank him in person!storefront cropped

L.L.: I kind of feel like SMALL HOURS is about how little time it takes for our lives to spin out of control. While the premise of the story is to be set within a strict 24-hour time frame, it doesn’t, not exactly. There are some lingering decisions, instances that have occurred in the past (maybe up to three years earlier than the ‘present’ story), yet it all seems to come to a head on this particular day. Can you talk about the structure of the novel?

Jennifer Kitses: Very early on, and to me, this seemed like one of those rare good-luck moments that sometimes happen when you’re writing, I realized I wanted the story to unfold over one day. Back then, when I was starting on my first draft, my own twin daughters were three years old. I was freelancing as a writer and editor, and trying to take care of them at the same time. It wasn’t that unusual for both my husband and me to have work emergencies on the same day, and meanwhile one of our daughters was sick and the other was about to catch it, and then one of us would have a near-explosive encounter with a stranger on the subway or on the street. In those early years, every day felt like a marathon. That was one of the things I wanted to capture with this story, the feeling of how much could happen in a single day.

But I did allow myself a little leeway with the structure. There’s the backstory to get in, how they wound up in these situations, and what they’re already feeling as this day begins, and that’s woven through the early chapters. And even though the clock is pretty much always moving forward, there are a couple of small zigzags in the middle. But I felt that loosening the constraints of the structure made it stronger. At least, that was my hope!

L.L.: I couldn’t stop reading. Your prose is sharp and well-tuned, but it was more of the comedy of errors, the way my eyes would bulge as I read sentence after sentence of what these people were doing (or not).  Were they based on anyone in particular? Inspired by any real stories or people you know?

Jennifer Kitses: A lot of the smaller images and details were borrowed from my own life or moments I’d witnessed, but those details and moments have weird ways of recombining in your head. One of my daughters once spilled Cheerios in a playground and was immediately surrounded by pigeons, and that became part of the story. But the rest of what happens in that scene was drawn from different moments, and also from wondering about what could have happened next.

In her debut novel, Jennifer Kitses spins an intriguing tale about this couple in particular, but also about the choices people make, and what happens when plans go bad… Kitses skillfully builds the tension as our protagonists slide from one crisis to the next. As in a thriller, the reader wants to yell, ‘No! Don’t do that!’
Star Tribune

L.L.: There were some instances that I sort of had the sense SMALL HOURS was a collection of short stories, or even a linked novel. Is this a form you’d be willing to try?

Jennifer Kitses: That’s a really interesting question, and reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten. I did write, or tried to write, a short story that focused on the major problem faced by Tom. At that point, the main character wasn’t Tom, and the other characters weren’t there. Instead of filing the story away, I decided to expand the idea and go bigger.

I don’t know if I’d ever try to do a collection of short stories or a linked novel, because it’s pretty rare that I’ll work on something short. When I do, I think it’s my way of testing an idea. But Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite writers, and I couldn’t love OLIVE KITTERIDGE more. And her recent book, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, would be a close second for a favorite linked novel.

L.L.: I want to talk about the ending a bit—but I don’t want to give away too much! There’s a bit ambiguity and can be interpreted in many different ways. My take: there is no ‘re-setting;’ the concept of sleep is elusive; a perpetual time loop. Can you speak to this, please?  timeloop1

Jennifer Kitses: I did want to leave the ending ambiguous, though I think there are hints about how Tom and Helen might move forward, though readers are free to interpret those hints however they’d like. (I can think of a few very different next days or even years in their lives.) But I think it’s fair to say that Tom and Helen aren’t the same people at the end of this day; what they’ve gone through has changed the way they see each other, and also how they see themselves. To me, that’s a big part of the story: the difference between how we see ourselves and who we really are.

You mentioned a perpetual time loop, and I think feeling like you’re stuck in one is also part of the story: you might experience a life-changing day, but it’s not like you can stop the clock and fix all your problems. Now there’s a new day to face, with all of its usual tasks and problems that you have to deal with in addition to whatever you’re facing below the surface.

L.L.: What from you real-life might be a big secret or mystery that would make a good plot for a novel?

Jennifer Kitses: I’ve thought a lot about this, and I am truly stumped! Maybe that’s because I have trouble facing my biggest secrets and mysteries. Actually, this relates to some of the questions I had in mind when I was writing. How are we able to fool ourselves, even for years, about essential problems in our lives? I’m fascinated by self-delusion, and also by an almost optimistic lack of self-perception: how we sometimes tell ourselves that everything is going to be fine, even when we know it won’t.

L.L.: You’re a fabulous, no frills writer with an ear for dialogue, human behavior, and I’d compare your storytelling style to that of Lauren Acampora (See summer 2015 interview: THE WONDER GARDEN), Tom Perrotta (especially LITTLE CHILDREN), and Catherine McKenzie ( See fall 2016 interview: FRACTURED). Others have compared your writing to Richard Russo. What do you think about the comparisons and who/what do you read to keep inspired?

Jennifer Kitses: Thank you very much for those comparisons! Tom Perrotta is definitely an influence, I’m a big fan of writers I consider storytellers, the ones who pull you into a story so completely that you forget you’re reading, and he’s a master of that. I’m also very influenced by writers I discovered relatively recently (in the last 10 years), like Elizabeth Strout and Kate Atkinson. And I’m a huge fan of crime novels, especially those by Richard Price, and I think that genre has influenced how I handle tension, pacing, and suspense.

As this book was going through copyediting and production, I went on an Elena Ferrante tear. I find her books not only addictive, from a reading perspective, but also inspiring, because Ferrante is not afraid of anger. I love the angry women in her books.

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L.L.: Jennifer, it’s been such a pleasure and I am so, so glad we had the opportunity to chat. Is there anything else you’d like add—like  your summer plans or what your working on next, or something I completely forgot about?

Jennifer Kitses: I wish I had elaborate summer plans, but I think Im going to take it somewhat easy. With kids, summer seems to be about family trips (though there’s plenty of opportunity for drama there). I am working on something, but it’s in early stages. What I’m really looking forward to is getting back to reading. I have an enormous stack of books that I’ve been waiting to read, I buy books constantly, whether I have time to read them immediately or no, and among the ones I’m most excited about are Liz Moore’s THE UNSEEN WORLD, Hope Jahren’s LAB GIRL, and Roxane Gay’s HUNGER.

Thanks so much for these compelling questions, Leslie! It’s been a pleasure.

To connect with Jennifer via social media, or to learn more about SMALL HOURS, or purchase a copy, please visit: 

Jennifer Kitses_credit Timothy KuratekABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Kitses grew up in Philadelphia. She received an MLitt in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and has worked for Bloomberg News, Condé Nast Portfolio, and Columbia Business School. She lives with her family in New York. Small Hours is her first novel.

 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Grand Central Publishing and used with permission. Image of bookstore front from Astoria Bookshop website, image of Hudson Valley stone house via NYTimes ‘great houses’ section, all on 6.26.17 twisty clock from,] 

WeekEND Reading: Julie Buntin explores the deep meaningful teen friendships that shape us over time, plus imagination, memory, death, books and authors who inspire, and so much more in her razor-sharp MARLENA

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A story of two girls–both teenagers–in northern Michigan fighting for their freedom, their passions, and utlimately–their lives. 

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MARLENA is one of those rare gems that feels like the entire dome of humidity that is summer is suffocating you. It’s like peeking inside a 16-year old’s journal and reading all of her dark, intimate thoughts, some that are sharply perceptive, and others that are the general wanderings of someone who doesn’t quite know where she’s going. This is where Julie Buntin’s writing excels; in fact, some may be entirely foiled into believing MARLENA is a memoir; it is not.

Told from a single POV—Cat’s—and Marlena’s bestfriend and in alternating time periods, places (New York present-day and Silver Lake, Michigan about fifteen years earlier), it’s a rare glimpse into deep interiority, of growth and grief. 

Cat and her mother and brother have relocated to northern Michigan after her parents divorce. It’s boring. Cat misses her old life where she attended a fancy prep school. She yearns for her father. And Marlena happens to be there. Two years older than Cat and riddled with her own insecurities and issues (pill-popping, alcohol, among others). Her father is pretty much a deadbeat and her mother, dead. f105071_1295645482

Marlena globs on to Cat, or perhaps it’s the other way around, but needless to say, the girls become inseparable. MARLENA pulls Cat into a litany of firsts: first drink, first kiss, first cigarette, first pill. It becomes insatiable. Cat needs more and more and more, but who is this Marlena, anyway?

Buntin’s skill is that she ‘gets’ screwed up teen girls. Reading MARLENA felt like a long, languid summer day filled with bubble gum lip gloss and the grit of cigarette smoke in your eyes. 

Please join me in conversation with Julie Buntin on her debut.

Leslie Lindsay: Julie, it’s great to have you. I love the first line in MARLENA: “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” I settled in and didn’t want to let go. That first chapter blew me away. It also inspired some of my own writing. What was your inspiration for MARLENA?

Julie Buntin: Thank you, Leslie! I love hearing that the first chapter inspired some of your writing – I know that feeling of reading something that gives you the itch to write, and in some ways, the books that did that for me were my biggest inspirations in writing my own novel. Novels like WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? by Lorrie Moore, BELOVED by Toni Morrison, HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Rita Dove, every single word Margaret Atwood has ever put down on paper. There was something about reading those formative books, how magically and perfectly they expressed feelings I had previously thought were inexpressible, that made me feel an urge to try to capture the world in language, too.

So that’s one answer to your question. Another answer is that I was inspired to write this particular story, about teenage girls and the terrible vulnerability of adolescence, the thrill and danger of it, the passion of early friendship, because my own teenage friendships were so volatile and so formative. When I was in my twenties, a friend from my teenage years passed away, and I found that there wasn’t a vocabulary or framework for that loss. I started thinking about adolescent friendships – the ones that flame up and define us, and so rarely last into adulthood.  Why are they so important and so intense, especially between girls? How do they shape the women we become?

“At the center of Julie Buntin’s debut novel is the kind of coming-of-age friendship that goes beyond camaraderie, into a deeper bond that forges identity; it’s friendship as a creative act, a collaborative work of imagination. . .This generous, sensitive novel of true feeling. . . sweeps you up without too much explication, becoming both a painful exorcism and a devoted memorial to friends and selves who are gone.” New York Times Book Review

L.L.: You write with such fearlessness and gritty, forthcoming details. What scares you about writing?

Julie Buntin:  This is an interesting question. In a way, everything scares me about writing. When I do it, even when I’m making something up, I’m more present to my own mind than I am at any other time. In that way, regardless of whether I’m writing fact or fiction, I am putting my imagination fully out there. And when it’s out there, it can be judged – by me, or other readers. So with writing comes a lot of fear – fear of failure in a broad sense, but also the very specific and horrible fear of failing at translating my inner world into the right words, words that will appropriately render the story or scene or feeling I want so badly to convey. But intimacy and intensity doesn’t scare me in writing – I’m not scared of my characters, of their truths, as much as I’m scared I’ll fail them somehow by not being good enough to capture them as they are in mind. Does that sound sort of crazy? Talking about writing always makes writers sound a little crazy. To be honest, though, I think I’m more scared of not writing than anything else.

L.L.: The timeline and structure of MARLENA is unique in that you flip between present-day New York and past Silver Lake, Michigan. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or something that sort of grew organically?

Julie Buntin: It was a decision that arose during the revision process. I always knew that this story would be narrated by Cat looking back from adulthood – I was very interested in exploring the relationship between memory, imagination, and truth, and in trying to capture how friendships that are so brief, that happen 2612871ff9ea1bfca18fe60303ce92a2when we’re so young, can resonate through our entire lives. I also wanted to have access to an adult woman’s voice – I wanted all the psychic matter of the years between Cat at 15 and Cat in her early 30s to have a bearing on how she saw the world, how she interacted with her own memory of that time. Writing from a teenaged perspective wasn’t as compelling to me – I would have been limited to relaying events as they happened, which would have made the story really more plot-driven, more about the moments leading up to Marlena’s death (which couldn’t have been known by Cat in advance if it were told from a teenaged perspective) and less about grief, memory, time.

But it wasn’t until I was revising the book that the very deliberate back-and-forth structure emerged – in earlier drafts, the adult Cat’s observations and insights had been more twined into the teenaged narrative, less clearly pinned to time and place. The more I got to know Cat as a character, the more I realized how important her drinking was to the story, how that adjacent story in New York (which takes place over a relatively compact 48 hours or so) could be used to hopefully deepen and complicate the past narrative.

L.L.: There’s a theory that writers should imagine their ideal reader—age, sex, even give them a name—that becomes the person you’re writing for. Who would you say is your ultimate reader?

Julie Buntin:  Women of all ages, starting from, maybe 13. I know there’s some heavy stuff in the book so I totally understand if parents were not down with kids under say 16 or 17 reading this novel, but I as I wrote it I hoped that it would strike a chord with any woman who has known that feeling of having a best friend. Of course I hope men like the book too, but when I pictured an ideal reader, I saw a girl about Marlena’s age, maybe a little older – in her twenties or so, trying to figure out who she wants to be, and how where she came from does and doesn’t define her.

L.L.: Shifting gears just a bit, I’m totally curious about publishing in literary journals, on-line and in print. I see you have a nice little collection from O, The Oprah Magazine to The Atlantic. What can you tell us about this process and how important is it?

Julie Buntin: I am very grateful to have been published in magazines and journals – so much of what I learned about writing I learned from being edited by places like One Teen Story, or even writing for women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan. That said, I’m not necessarily the best person to ask, but I’m not a diehard submitter to journals even though I love them and read them (and even used to work at a nonprofit – clmp.org – dedicated, in part, to supporting their work). I don’t write short stories, not really – I think I’ve written maybe two. I do love the essay form, and my work in that realm is very idea directed – I write an essay when I feel an urge to, and then I think about where to pitch or submit it. Sometimes it happens the other way around, where an editor will approach me. There are a lot of ways to sharpen your skills as a writer, and I genuinely believe writing for online venues and print magazines is a really smart way to learn how to write quickly and clearly and with a distinct voice. Sometimes I think I learned more from that process than from writing classes in college.

L.L. What’s on your summer ‘bucket list?’ It doesn’t have to be literary.

Julie Buntin:  My husband’s debut novel, STEPHEN FLORIDA, just came out on June 6th, and we’re traveling to the Bay Area at the end of June to do some events at Green Apple Books and Point Reyes Bookstore. It’s been a very hectic spring, and I’m really hoping we can find an evening to eat some oysters and sit by some water and not touch our phones. Does that count as a bucket list thing?511uha1fo9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

L.L.: What’s next for you?

Julie Buntin:  I’m working on a novel set at a boarding school with a section, right now at least, that’s narrated by a ghost. That’s all I can say about it for fear of disturbing the delicate, half-formed idea for the thing that’s buzzing around in my head – but I am really looking forward to (can I add this to my bucket list?) finding some time to really get to work on the story.

L.L.: What one question should I have asked, but didn’t?

Julie Buntin: Your questions were so good – thank you so much for reading the book so thoughtfully and for taking the time to talk to me about it. I can think of no question you should of asked, but I will take this opportunity to tell you about a few books I absolutely loved and am recommending to everyone. First, THE ANIMATORS – like MARLENA, it’s about two friends, but it’s also a rowdy and intelligent and super fun exploration of what it means to make art. I also loved the tender and so sweetly funny GOODBYE, VITAMIN, by the talented Rachel Khong, who is truly poised to be a household name. That book is forthcoming in July but you should preorder it now.

L.L.: Julie, it’s been a pleasure…and congratulations on such a dynamic debut.

Julie Buntin: Thank you, Leslie!

For more information about MARLENA, to connect with Julie Buntin via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see: 

download (18)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in the AtlanticCosmopolitanOThe Oprah MagazineSlateElectric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction writing at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line sites.

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[Author and cover image retrieved from author’s website. Cover image of STEPHEN FLORIDA retrieved from Amazon, teen girls on porch retrieved from Teen Ink, teen girls at beach retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted, all on 6.13.17] 

WeekEND Reading: What if a dream propelled your story into action? That’s just what happened with Gian Sardar’s luminous debut, YOU WERE HERE, plus past lives, a mystery, Minnesota, & more about this story of the unseen.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Debut novelist Gian Sardar takes us on a journey through the murky world of dreams where the past weaves with the present in a chilling crime, told in a gorgeous lyrical prose.

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I have such a fascination with dreams–nightmares, too–and wonder just what they reveal about our conscious selves, and most of all–our past. That’s what YOU WERE HERE seeks to do; it pulls us into that dream world and reads almost as if you *are* in a dream, but not quite.

Abby Walters is originally from Minnesota but living in L.A. with her screenwriting boyfriend who’s a bit (okay, a lot) commitment shy. She works at an estate jewelry shop appraising and selling antique baubles, yet no ring for her. Like all good stories, we get called away from the known and thrust into the world of the ‘unknown.’ So when Abby starts having those old dreams, the ones she only had in Minnesota, she is called back home to attempt to uncover their meaning.

Unbeknownst to her, there are a grisly slew of rapes and murders happening in her home state. It makes national news within a day or so of her arrival. Her longtime crush from H.S. is there, working now as a detective. But don’t jump to conclusions just yet. YOU WERE HERE is a multi-layered, literary mystery that sweeps you into its arms, pulling you into a sleepy spell.

Back in 1947 there’s another mystery brewing. We learn about several characters from this time period: Claire, Edith, Eva, William and how they are all tied to the present. Or are they? I really enjoyed this piece of the novel–and almost always do in these split-time frame stories.

YOU WERE HERE is at once a mystery, but it’s also a crime novel, literary historical fiction, a love story...it’s a gorgeous melding of several genres, because life just happens to be that way. 

I’m thrilled to welcome Gian Sardar to the blog couch. Pull up a seat and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Gian, I am so, so fascinated with dreams. I almost always remember mine and will tell them to anyone who will listen. Okay, not really. My hubby, mostly. Are you the same? And was there a dream that started YOU WERE HERE?

Gian Sardar: YES, I am for sure the same, and my husband definitely hears way too many of my dreams. There were actually a couple dreams that were the seeds that in many ways became YOU WERE HERE – but to talk about them I might have to go a bit back in time. When I was twelve I had a dream, one of those dreams when you’re you but you’re not you. Have you had one of them? You know the setting, you know the people, you are YOU and you identify as you, but it’s a you that you don’t know. So I had one of those dreams, and in the dream I was running through a forest with a little boy, a person I knew was my (actual) brother. It was during a war. The sky was bone white, leaves on the ground, trees bare. We were running from something, but stopped at a barbed wire fence. And there, when we turned, was a soldier. We couldn’t see his face since he was bundled up in the cold, but we knew he was there to help us. When I woke up, I opened my eyes and he was in my room. Now, I’ve had a strange life, so this wasn’t toooo crazy….so I just blinked my eyes. And he was still there. I blinked again, and he was still there. Finally he was gone, and I just passed it off as a figment of my imagination, or decided I might have still been asleep. Well, fast forward about a year and my mom decided to take me and my friends to a psychic for my 13th birthday. An odd choice, I now see, but like I said I’ve had a bit of a strange life. While we were there, this woman held my hands and said, “You and your brother have been brother and sister in a past life. I see you in a forest, during a war, and you’re running and then you meet a solider.” Of course then I stopped her, and said, “I just had that dream. When I opened my eyes, he was in my originalroom.” She didn’t look surprised (she was psychic after all), and just said “I know, he’s coming back into your life.” Even now, I wonder, who was it? My son? My best friend? My husband? I have no idea, but the idea that perhaps we’ve been here before, that perhaps we’ve known the people in our lives before, was a concept that just seemed right and stuck with me. When I was in my twenties, I was still fascinated by this idea, and decided to try and ask who I was in the past, every night before going to sleep, since I’d read that sometimes a name could come to you.  Over and over I did this, and then one night I had a dream, and it was just a name, repeated again and again. Now, I’m a bit ashamed to say I’ve never investigated the name, but I didn’t know where to begin – what continent, what year, what anything. But it made me wonder, what if a character had a dream of a name, and had just enough to go on? What could she find? In the most basic way, right there, the book was born.

 L.L.: So I have to ask about Minnesota. It was home for a few years. I can clearly see Rochester’s Silver Lake and the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis where the historical part of the story took place. I’m less familiar with Abby’s hometown. But Minnesota, literature-wise is not so well-known. Or is it? Are you aware of other books set there? (Oh wait—I know one: THE LOST GIRLS by Heather Young). And how did you come to this decision to set the story there, being an L.A. girl yourself? 

Gian Sardar: I’ve read some books that are set there, or in the Midwest, not much. What inspired me was my experience in Minnesota. My mother’s side of the family is all from there, and so growing up we’d spend summers there – both in Marshall (where my grandmother lived) and also camping in other parts of the state. Not only did I see how varied and beautiful the landscape is, but I always held the small towns we explored in a rather romanticized, childhood-golden light. Later I Small-Town1.jpglived for a bit outside of Minneapolis, and even later the visits I made there as an adult just sealed the deal: I had to write about it. There are vast, endless plains, which are both breathtaking and haunting. There are forests and lakes and so much that I knew I could have incredibly diverse settings – all within the same state.  And I knew that my almost vintage, romantic, yet slightly haunted remembrance of the small towns would lend itself perfectly for the part of the story that takes place in the past.

 L.L.: There’s a hint of ghosts and reincarnation in YOU WERE HERE. I don’t want to give away too much, but can you talk about how these pieces came into the story?

Gian Sardar: I mentioned the dreams, which is where everything started. But for me, I was always fascinated by the past we can’t see…whether it’s our own past, or even someone who lived in our house a hundred years ago, or someone who took their last breath on the sidewalk where we stand. I love the idea that we are in a living, breathing history, and that maybe we get glimpses of the past – a random feeling in the corner of the room, or an arbitrary thought that we pass off as nothing – glimpses that we ignore because we don’t know their significance. And so showing the past with the present was the perfect way for me to capture and expose one of the layers that composes the current world. images (10)

L.L.: Ultimately, YOU WERE HERE is a story of the unseen. It’s a little obscure, even occult, with flavors of Gothic ruin that might resemble a Poe story and maybe even a little of GONE GIRL [I know, I dislike the comparisons, but there’s a character that just might remind reader’s a bit of GONE GIRL’s Amy]. Can you share with us a bit about how these characters ‘presented themselves’ to you?

Gian Sardar: I love that – “a story of the unseen.” Yes! The characters all evolved as I was writing, but Abby, with her fears and dreams, was definitely inspired by my own worries and dreams. I tend to imagine accidents and horrible things, but not nearly to the degree she does. But it seemed like an interesting jumping point for a character, so I took that and blew it up and created her. I think the rest are people I’d love to know. I love Eva with her brave hope, and her dreams. And I love Claire with her reluctant hope, and her sadness. William and Aidan, the men in the book, they’re completely fictional as well, but again, both are people I would love to know.

L.L.: So, shifting a bit to the more technical elements of writing: do you outline or follow the muse? How many drafts (did you keep count?!) of YOU WERE HERE did you work on? 

Gian Sardar: Oh boy….as far as how many drafts, I don’t even know! It was a lot. For me, so much is discovered in the editing process that I love to have a lot of drafts, because it’s an indication of the evolution of the story. I usually start out with a basic idea of opening and ending, and then I try to loosely fill in the rest in a very basic outline form – but then I just have to wait, and trust that the real meat of the story will appear to me as I’m writing. And it does, and is usually born from the characters that after a while begin to live and breathe and take over.

L.L.: And you are a screenwriter as well? How does that style of writing differ from novelist?

Gian Sardar: I’ve done some screenplay work and worked with an incredible writer or years. For one, with a book or short story I could spend hours on a paragraph, trying to get the description right, finding metaphors and the best way to capture the moment – but with a screenplay you write it just enough description to help set the tone (and show the director etc to your vision), but not too much. Everything is in the choices of what you’re showing, and every line of dialogue better count. You’ve got a fraction of pages to work with, and no one will know if you had a lovely description of the house the characters live in.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from YOU WERE HERE?

Gian Sardar: I hope they wonder about their own lives. About the people they know with whom they always had a connection, or a dislike. Or the places they were drawn to, perhaps places they’ve never been. I hope they start to wonder if maybe it’s not all random coincidence. And I hope they see that in people’s lives there was always a before – reasons for actions, dislikes, and beliefs, reasons we may never know. And sometimes it’s interesting to wonder what those could be, and just how far back they might stretch.

e88e4e8dc9fc1a3ff9d52e9b11f6b647L.L.: What, from your own life might make a compelling mystery?

Gian Sardar: Definitely the story of the dream and the war and the mystery soldier. One day I’d like to write something about him, and about that girl in the forest.


L.L.: What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel?

Gian Sardar: I am! I don’t want to say too much, as it’s early and I don’t want to jinx it.

L.L. I so get that; kind of in the same boat now. Thank you, Gian; really enjoyed chatting.

Gian Sardar: Thank you, I did as well!

For more information about YOU WERE HERE, to connect with Gian via social media, or to purchase your own copy of the book, please see: 

Author Photo_Gian Sardar (c) Joseph Schwehr.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gian Sardar studied creative writing at Loyola Marymount University and is the coauthor of the bookPsychic Junkie. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and insane dog.

 

 

 

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

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[Author and cover images courtesy of Putnam/RandomHouse and used with permission. Image of ‘dreams’ retrieved from hypeorlando.com, small town minnesota retrieved from minnesotanewcountry.com, old house and girl in forest images retrieved from Pinterest, all on 6.6.17]

WeekEND Reading: What happens when your spouse is ‘suddenly struck’ with a major mental illness? Mark Lukach talks about this, stigma, raising their son, mountain biking, and more in his memoir, MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD

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By Leslie Lindsay 

An honest and unflinching view of what it’s like to be the caregiver of someone with a serious mental illness, told with compassion and rawness. MyLovelyWifeinthePsychWard final cover

When I stumbled across MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD (Harper Wave, May 2017), I knew I had to read it. Not only does the author/husband share his name with my dad, but the strikingly similar story of a woman in the prime of her life suddenly falling victim to a strange and disorienting psychosis also rang true. Very true.

My own mother suffered a similar fate at 29, almost the very age Giulia was when psychoses came hunting her. I watched, as a child as my mother spewed delusion after delusion, her fingers blanched as she gripped the car door in protest, and then, as she attempted to exit the moving vehicle on the way to the hospital. I saw too, her mangled mind and tortured thoughts.

The difference is, I was a child. Mark is very much an adult.

I am so, so honored to have Mark on the blog couch today. The entire month of May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. We’re at the tail-end, I realize but that doesn’t negate it’s seriousness. Most everyone will come in contact with someone who has a mental illness—whether it’s a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, and awareness is key.

Leslie Lindsay: Mark, thank you so much for popping over. I’m so in awe with this story. Not only did it take a terrible amount of courage to write, but the similarities with my mother are striking. Before we get into all of that, I’m curious what your inspiration was for writing this story? Was it really the ‘Modern Love’ column in the New York Times?

Mark Lukach:

I’d say that the motivation to write about this was two-fold: the first is personal, the second more universal.

On the personal front, after Giulia’s first episode, she and I were worlds apart. She was finally feeling better after almost a year of a mental health crisis, and she wanted nothing more than to just enjoy herself. Meanwhile, I was completely and totally wiped out by the caregiving experience, and so I slipped into my own depression a bit. She wanted to feel joyful and worry-free, and here I am dumping all of my pent-up anxiety and sadness on her. We tried talking about this, on our own and even in couple’s therapy, but we never really got anywhere and butted heads a lot.

So instead, I turned to writing. I had done so much writing over the year, almost entirely in email form to keep our families updated on what was going on, and I found the writing to be extremely helpful for me to process. So instead of write emails to our parents, I tried to reconstruct the year, in book form, Giulia as the sole audience. I needed her to be able to understand me a bit more, and as it turns out, the writing, reading, and subsequent discussions turned out to play a huge role in our ability to reconnect as a couple.  images (7)

The further I got into writing, the more I suspected that I might have something that was worth publishing, and so the Modern Love column was my way to try and get the book idea out there. That gets to the universal reason to write. As you say in your intro, mental health struggles come with surprisingly universal themes, but when Giulia was hospitalized, I felt more lonely than I’ve ever felt. It was like I was the first person to ever have to do this. I’m a history teacher, so I went online to try and find resources and narratives that could help me make sense of my experience, but I couldn’t find any, which made the loneliness even worse. I knew there were others out there like me, I just couldn’t find them, and that this book might be able to speak to people. It took us a while to decide to go for a fully published book, and in fact, it didn’t happen until well after the Modern Love column and Giulia’s subsequent hospitalizations, as well as the birth of our son, but the motivation really became about trying to help people.

L.L.: And now the similarities. My mom was 29 when this happened to her; Giulia was 27. My mom heard voices of God and the devil speaking to her. She did not want to go the hospital. She tried jumping out of a moving car. At one point, she was discharged AMA (against medical advice). It happened again and again.  My dad—also named Mark—is an avid athlete. He competed in marathons and triathlons; but we were land-locked in Missouri, so no surfing. There are differences, though. I think what this comes down to is the universality of mental illness. Can you talk about that, please?

Mark Lukach: I am constantly shocked by just how common these things are. I’ve received a humbling amount of email from readers over the years, due to the Modern Love column and also a magazine article I wrote in Pacific Standard, and at times I almost feel like I’m reading from myself. I remember speaking with one of the social workers during Giulia’s first hospitalization, and of the 30 or so people who were on the psych ward at that time with Giulia, there were several others with religious delusions that looked almost the exact same as Giulia’s. It’s remarkable. Although I have to say Leslie, your parents’ story seems to be the most similar from anyone else I’ve met. It’s so cool that we connected.

But what does this all mean? I’m not really sure. I do think it means that mental illness is more prevalent than we let on. I understand why people are hesitant to talk about it. It’s such a terrifying thing to experience, whether it’s happening to you, or to someone you love, and we don’t go around telling everyone about life’s biggest struggles. But if we could look inside the homes of all of our neighbors and coworkers, I think we’d be shocked about how many of us suffer in similar ways.

Sometimes I go the way of Yossarian from Catch-22 when I think about this stuff—it’s a crazy world, so the only reasonable response is to go crazy as well, and maybe that’s why mental illness is so prevalent. The world does seem to get more and more pressured and impersonal, so maybe that’s part of it. But I only sometimes download (10)think that way. My most go-to answer is in a mantra that we say a lot in our family—“We’re all in this together.” We say it before dinner, sort of like our version of grace, and the more I connect with people about mental illness, the more I’m convinced that it’s true. We’re all in this together—in our joys and also in our struggles.

L.L.: The biggest difference in MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD and my mom’s mental illness is my parents divorced. I’m not entirely sure if it was the illness that tore them apart, or the symptoms and after-effects; or if there were issues all along. What this speaks to is the tenacity to love someone in sickness and in health. That includes mental health. I can’t imagine how challenging this must be (has been). Can you share a bit of your coping skills and marriage maintenance tips?

Mark Lukach: This really is what the book is about at its core. Giulia and I were thrown this curve ball of a major mental illness, and we responded in desperation and in survival mode. Once the dust settled, we had to re-evaluate who we were, and what our relationship looked like, so that we could continue to stay together. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Crises forced us to take a close look at our relationship, and neither of us necessarily liked what we saw all the time.

But we had this shared history of falling in love so young, and basically growing into adulthood together, and also a belief that we could make it work, so we tried to find ways to reconnect. I think one of the core things that we both had to learn to do better was to listen. I did a lot of talking at Giulia while she was sick, and acting on her behalf. I essentially managed her life for her when she was sick, because I worried so much about what she might do on her own, like hurt herself. In all of that, I didn’t really listen to her that much. What she said was so heartbreaking to her, that I ended up trying to talk her out of her feelings. It took me a while to realize this. I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to comfort her when she felt suicidal, but I realized I was actually, in a small way, denying her experience by trying to talk her out of how she felt.

Similarly, Giulia had to learn to listen to just how difficult it was for me to support her, which as I said above, we largely accomplished through the writing process. I realize looking back just how desperate I was for validation that my struggles were being acknowledged.images (8)

We try to take this lesson of listening to heart every day in our marriage. Of course, not every day is a mental health crisis, and it’s so easy to get busy multi-tasking your way into half-listening, or to shut down things that you don’t like to hear, and I think those can be so damaging to a relationship. We still make mistakes to each other, but we have this anchor now that we always return to—when things are going bad, we try and remind each other how important it is to listen, and that ends up being the first step toward reconciliation.

http://www.today.com/health/too-much-stigma-too-little-awareness-mental-illness-t110946

L.L.: In MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSCYCH WARD, it’s mentioned that Giulia did not have a family history for mental illness, yet so many mental illnesses have genetic roots; they often run in families. I’m curious if you all did any more digging into her family history to find any sort of suggested mental illness?

Mark Lukach: We did do a lot of digging and asking, but Giulia is from Italy, where the conversations around mental illness are much different than they are in the US. I talked to her parents a lot about this, and they certainly didn’t know about any family members with mental illness, but over time they both admitted that just because they didn’t know about them [family members with mental illness], it didn’t mean that they didn’t exist. It just meant that they didn’t know, since this type of thing is basically never talked about over there.

L.L.: And you have a son together. How my heart broke as I read about little Jonas and his elephant costume, his mother away in psych ward, his insisting that there were monsters in the house.  How is he doing? What are some of his passions? And most importantly, can you reiterate the advice you received from your pediatrician about protecting kids in situations like this? 

Mark Lukach: Jonas is the light of our lives. I’ve wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember, and I feel like we won the lottery with Jonas. He’s an active, curious, kind-hearted little boy. He’s just so much fun to be around. He loves books, sports, especially baseball and hockey, Star Wars, Harry Potter, legos. He’s very spiritual, and asks a lot of questions about the bigger questions in life, which I can’t help but to wonder if it’s connected somehow to his mom being hospitalized for delusions twice in his life. But I think his most telling trait is that Jonas likes to be together as a family. It seems like as long as we’re together as a family, he is up for anything. I’m hanging onto these days as tightly as I can, because I know that at some point, he’s going to grow away from always wanting his parents nearby, so I’m trying to treasure it now.

When Giulia was hospitalized for the third time, Jonas was 2 ½ years old, and his pediatrician told me that there might come a situation where I would have to choose to either protect Giulia or Jonas. For example, I knew that Giulia was really anxious to come home, and it felt like she might end up being discharged before she was ready to be around Jonas again. Jonas’ pediatrician was adamant: you have to protect your child first. He was so young, and didn’t have the words to process what he was experiencing, so I had to keep him safe and happy at all costs. Even if that meant rejecting the doctor’s recommendation that Giulia could come home, which can you imagine what that would do to my relationship with Giulia? Thankfully we didn’t have this sort of confrontation, because when Giulia came home, she was the one to realize she probably needed a few days to settle in at home before Jonas was home as well, so he stayed with my parents during that time.

When I became a parent, I never imagined that I would have to at some point crazy-love-4make a choice between my wife or my child. I didn’t know that came with part of the territory. But it’s something I think all parents have to confront at some point or another, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a harder position to be in.

L.L.: And Giulia? How does she feel about this story being out for public consumption? I ask because in the book there’s a line that says something like, “It might be your illness, but it affects us all.”

Mark Lukach: Giulia has been incredible about this. I knew that it took a lot of courage for her to share this story, but I didn’t actually realize just how much courage. Whenever you Google her name, this book comes up. She is the lovely wife, the one whose medical history is shared for anyone to read about. And she’s up for it because she thinks this book can help people, and I find that amazing.

We’ve been doing book readings here in the Bay Area, and Giulia always comes and we do a Q&A together with the audience after I’ve read some passages, and I am so blown away by how she does with the questions. I think it’s the most empowered I’ve ever seen her. It really is incredible. I have always loved and admired Giulia, but that has only grown to see her be so gracious through all of this.

L.L.:  What was the last thing you Googled?

Mark Lukach: Ha, I like this question. The last thing I Googled was for techniques to manage poison oak. I got a really bad case of the rash recently, which comes with the lifestyle of how much time I spend out on trails running and mountain biking. So I usually get poison oak a few times each year—it’s unavoidable. But I went hiking recently and saw this vine climbing up a tree, and I tried to climb up it, not realizing the vine was poison oak. The leaves were way up in the tree, so I couldn’t identify the plant, and I got the worst case of poison oak I think I’ve ever gotten. All over my face, arms, chest, everywhere. It is the worst. When I get poison oak, I race to the internet to find ways to cope with it. Granted, I already have like 50 techniques, but I hope that maybe some new trick has been discovered, and so I have been spending a lot of time trying to Google my way to some new solution that will somehow speed up the healing process. But I think I’m just stuck with it for the next two weeks, no matter how much I Google.

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

Mark Lukach: I’d love to talk about artistic inspiration for the book. I am an avid reader but even more than that, a fan of music, and I think that music inspired this book more than anything. I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ album “Carrie and Lowell” on repeat for much of the writing process, and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. I would literally listen to the album 4 or 5 times a day while writing. The album is download (11)Sufjan’s way of mourning his mother, who battled mental illness as well, and I found the album helped me fully reconnect with the emotions that I wanted to embed into the book.

L.L.: Mark, thank you so very much for your words. MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD is an important read and so courageous. I applaud you for telling your story.

Mark Lukach: I really appreciate your interest in having me on your site, and for the support for the book. I’m a high school history teacher, and it’s so flattering to be included with such an impressive assortment of writers.

For more information about MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD, to connect with Mark via social media, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

profilepicsmall.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Lukach is a teacher and freelance writer. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Wired, and other publications. He is currently the ninth grade dean at The Athenian School, where he also teaches history. He lives with his wife, Giulia, and their son in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mark first wrote about Giulia in a New York Times “Modern Love” column and again in a piece for Pacific Standard Magazine, which was the magazine’s most-read article in 2015.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper Wave and used with permission. Lukach family photo retrieved from Pacific Standard article/author’s personal archives. Catch-22 image retrieved from Wikipedia, “Carrie and Lowell” album cover retrieved from Wiki.en, all on 5.25.17]