What happens when your dad is a fugitive? You run. Tyler Wetherall talks about the fickleness of memory, writing anyway & more in NO WAY HOME

By Leslie Lindsay 

Emotionally detailed and tense, NO WAY HOME is a coming-of-age memoir of a fugitive family on the run from the FBI told from the POV of the youngest daughter.  Here, we chat about her journey to publication, how once you write it you can never ‘un-write’ it, and how she’s back in the U.K. living out of that iconic red suitcase once again.  

Cover. No Way Home
Secrets are the stuff of memoir and NO WAY HOME is stuffed to the gills with them. Tyler Wetherall writes with beautiful prose and raw honesty about what it was like being born into a ‘fugitive family.’ When she’s born, in 1983, the ‘men in black’ were already living on the family’s California property in a small shack. They watched every move, every coming and going of the family because her father, who goes by series of aliases, but whose given name is Ben, was already a criminal.

Tyler doesn’t know her family’s real surname until she is nine years old. She doesn’t know the reason the family had moved thirteen times in her short life. She has no idea that her dad is actually a criminal, or what he’s done.

We know it’s something deplorable, but it’s not revealed until later.  As a young child, Tyler and her older siblings live in various places in Europe. They ski in the Swiss Alps. They scuba dive in St. Lucia, they have a lovely little villa in the same town Picasso once lived in France. They have homes in Portugal and England. The kids attend boarding school. In some ways, it seemed as though they were army brats with every advantage at their fingertips.

But there are also clandestine phone calls with her father from the depths of a phone booth in the woods. Hidden cell phones in attics. Scotland Yard shows up at their home.

Please join me in conversation with Tyler Wetherall. 

Leslie Lindsay: Tyler! Welcome. I found your story so enthralling, yet so devastating. I wanted everything to turn out for the best. Mostly, it does. That’s what I think readers want to know: is the author okay? Is everyone okay? Had things turned out differently, would you still have written it?

Tyler Wetherall: Everyone is okay. More than okay! I think it’s a testimony to the strength of our family and the support our parents always gave us that despite our unconventional upbringing it turned out fine. My sister is a doctor, my brother is a lawyer, and, well, I’m the most vagrant of the bunch as a roving writer. It’s hard to imagine it turning out differently and whether I would have still written it, because that involves imagining myself as a different person. I am the person I am today because of the sequence of events and decisions that led me here.

L.L.:  Memoir is such a fickle form. It’s not told in a vacuum. There are other people—characters—who are involved. At one point in the narrative, it appears as if you’re seeking approval or consent to tell this story. Your mom said something along the lines of, ‘it’s only one version of the truth, anyway,’ and your father said, ‘go ahead, tell it all.’ Of course, there are your siblings and the other fugitives involved…how does a memoirist reconcile the various ‘voices’ and write anyway?

Tyler Wetherall: Even within ourselves we carry many versions of the past. Our relationship to the past changes as we grow, and stories we might have once told about our lives shift to more closely represent who we imagine ourselves to be in any given moment. And that’s true for everyone in our lives. The process of plaiting this into a singular narrative is flawed; it cannot fully represent the web of experience that makes up the past. It can only be one story. I tried to weave some of this into NO WAY HOME, showing where my memory conflicted with my sisters, or saying when I adopted someone else’s memories because they seemed more reliable than my own. I hope in this way the reader might experience the story as something closer to the complexities and contradictions of the lived experience.

Seeking permission from my family was incredibly important to me, and throughout the process of writing I was trying to do this in a way that would cause the least amount of heartache.

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L.L.: Can you talk a little about your road to publication? Early drafts, securing an agent, going out on submission, etc.?

Tyler Wetherall: It’s been a very long road. The book began as a biography of my dad. He had recently got out of prison and he was looking for a ghostwriter to tell his story. At the time, I was 24 and working as a magazine journalist in London, but I didn’t want someone else to tell our story. I quit my job and flew out to LA to begin the process of interviewing him for the book. I soon realized that I didn’t want to write another book about a man’s misadventures with the women and children sidelined to sentimental subplots; I needed to tell it as a daughter who had lived through it. At that point I called it a novel. I was very reluctant to write a memoir, scared of causing any pain, but it was also because I was trying to keep the truth at arm’s length, which never works. After finding an agent in New York – the completely brilliant Emma Parry at Janklow & Nesbit – I started to rework it as a memoir, and the story fell into place.

L.L.: And back to the story. In many ways, your early years were quite magical. You traveled extensively and were able to see and do so much—more than most adults ever experience—do you see that as a bit of a gift?

Tyler Wetherall: I feel incredibly lucky. In between the anxiety of moving and the threat of Dad’s incarceration, we were a happy family. I think that’s what makes it tragic when it falls apart. To this day, you can drop me in any part of the world and I’ll figure out how to get by, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been that way without those years of traveling during my childhood. I’m grateful for that.

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L.L.: I was quite intrigued with your mother and father and their family of origin. Your mother left home at sixteen to pursue a modeling career and to get married. Your father was from a New York Jewish family and shared details about his criminal behavior with them. I am astonished. In what ways do you suppose their youth shaped this fugitive lifestyle? Or, did it?

Tyler Wetherall: I don’t think Dad was naturally suited to the fugitive lifestyle; he adapted to it. He likes to travel and he has a sense of adventure, which he shared with us, but his priorities are the relationships with the people he loves. Leaving family and friends was hard for them both. My mum spent much of her youth moving house for a variety of reasons – her parents were stationed in Calcutta after the war – so I think she was better suited to starting again in a new place. But I don’t think it was a lifestyle either of them would have chosen. Not being able to share your real identity and always being fearful of apprehension is a difficult state to live peacefully in.

L.L.: Despite your father’s crimes, you had a bit of a ‘wild’ spurt during your teenage years. Can you talk about that, please and if you think it was typical teenage rebellion or related more directly to your father’s activities?

Tyler Wetherall: It’s hard to know. Drugs never held the taboo for me that they might have for other teenagers, but there was definitely an element of typical teenage rebellion: shaving my head, non-stop Nirvana and underage everything. I was also willful and curious and determined to demonstrate that I was brave, and that manifested itself at times as being reckless. I don’t regret that moment though; I learned a lot and it set me in good stead for the future.


“Wetherall has written a luminous memoir that no one who reads it will soon forget… She conveys her exceptional yet familiar experiences in language that makes the reader stop and savor… Witty and eloquent.”

 —The Washington Post


L.L.: What advice might you give someone who wants to write about family? Especially when less-than-stellar moments are involved?

Tyler Wetherall: Firstly, I think it’s important to get everything on the page without thinking about the repercussions or who will read it or what they will say. If you listen to the voices that condemn what you’re doing, you’ll never get anything written. At that point you know what you’re working with and can approach the story with more consideration. Compassion and empathy are incredibly important. You’re not venting; you’re trying to understand the past and what it means to you and those around you. Also, when you’re nearing publication, it’s important to remember that once it’s out there it can’t be undone, so if there are details you balk at, think closely about whether they’re necessary to the story at large.

L.L: Is there anything obsessing you these days? What keeps you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Tyler Wetherall: I’ve just started work on my second book – a novel – and the fear I can’t do it again certainly keeps me up at night!  I’m also working on a pilot. Between the two I spend a lot of time spiraling down so-called research tangents.

L.L.: What might I have forgotten to ask, but should have? Maybe what your weekend plans are, if you’re working on something new? Your favorite guilty pleasure…or something related to the book.

Tyler Wetherall: I’m currently back in the UK to see my family and friends (and go to the pub!), and I’m living out of the same giant red suitcase that features in the very first sentence of my book.

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L.L.: Tyler, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you for sharing this story.

Tyler Wetherall: Thank you for reading.

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of NO WAY HOME, please visit: 

Order Links: 

Tyler Wetherall_Credit Sammy Deigh of C.A.N.V.A.S.®.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tyler Wetherall is the author of No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run (St. Martin’s Press; on-sale April 3, 2018). She is a freelance writer living and working in New York City. She has written for The GuardianThe Times, and The Irish Independent. Her short fiction has been published in The Gettysburg Review and others.

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


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[Cover and author images courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission.]

Heather Harpham on her exquisite literary memoir, about love & medicine & parenting, HAPPINESS

By Leslie Lindsay 

Powerful, frank, and uplifting medical memoir deeply infused with love, longing, and motherhood. Plus, she talks about her favorite literary memoirs, making time for creativity, and so much more in this luminous interview. 

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I absolutely loved HAPPINESS, which touched on every single emotion with deftness and bravery. I simply couldn’t get enough–from the charming courtship between Heather and Brain, two personalities of polar opposites (she’s a fun-loving California girl living in NYC; he’s an intellectual homebody writer), to Heather’s unexpected pregnancy, the birth, and the medical mystery that enshrouds the baby’s young life.

There’s reconciliation, how they’ll help this baby girl, and HAPPINESS was recently chosen by Reese Witherspoon as…

Hello Sunshine’s April 2018 book pick!

HAPPINESS encompasses a subtle, brave retelling of Brian and Heather’s unconventional relationship progression, how they come together and it’s all told in such a fluid, graceful way that will have you frantically turning the pages.

Harpham does a beautiful job of describing the NICU, her experiences with medical professionals, her passion for parenting, and her reticence toward adult relationships. HAPPINESS absolutely thrums with energy and is infused with such emotion, it’s hard to set it down

I’m beyond thrilled to welcome Heather to the book couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Heather! This book! Oh my. First of all, it’s gotten all kinds of praise. But it wasn’t exactly easy writing (is any writing ever easy?!). Can you talk about your path and why you wrote it?

Heather Harpham: Leslie, wow! You are a writer’s dream reader –you’re obviously looking for the best in a book. And yes, as you suggest, HAPPINESS was tough to write. I’ve always been a writer, but primarily for the stage; this was my first book and it was daunting. Because this book covers such personal material, and because it describes how my family formed, I felt special obligations to readers and to the people I love most in the world, to get this story as “right” as possible. Or rather to tell it truthfully, but also with respect for what might not belong on the page.

L.L.:  I was telling someone at yoga about HAPPINESS. I said, “It’s like literary fiction meets memoir.” Now, those are two entirely different genres. And yet…that’s how I read it. What’s your response to that? How do you describe the book?

Heather Harpham: Books that bridge genres are the ones I find most exciting. So I take that as a compliment — thank you! My own favorite memoirs include WAVE, THE BRIGHT HOUR, LIT, H IS FOR HAWK and DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT, all of which fall into the murky category of ‘literary’ memoirs. Let’s call this storytelling that pays as much attention to language’s possibilities as it does to recounting events. As a narrative move, this can be tricky — you don’t want to over indulge a stylistic impulse at the expense of strong, straightforward storytelling. At the same time, writers (especially those of us working with material that inherently evokes pathos) owe the reader the breathing room of craft — metaphor, pacing, prosody, etc. Crafted language lifts a reader slightly above the drudgery or pain of events into a more bearable poetic experience.

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In the other half of my creative life, I teach acting and there is a beautifully thin line in great performances between the emotional reality of the actor and the character. This line can be virtually invisible, but it must exist. Audiences need that sliver of distance between the anguish or loss a character experiences and the true person conveying it. Without that sliver, watching is too anxiety producing, which drains the fun; we’re worried for the actor instead of enjoying the story or achieving catharsis. Similarly, with writing, readers need to know that the teller of a story is ‘okay enough’ to tell it.

In HAPPINESS, because I was (in part) writing about sick kids and the deepest loss, I tried to find humor or beauty or absurdity to offer the reader as a kind of ballast against the demands of the material. I felt I owed the reader, at the very least, a little levity and passing pleasure, or we’d be sunk!

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L.L.: Memoir is such a challenging style of writing. Emotions get in the way. Memory is fickle. And then, you worry about how others—the real-life people in your story—will react. How does one reconcile all of that?

Heather Harpham: While writing HAPPINESS, I had to be sure I was telling the story in a way that was bearable and sustainable for my family. In particular, I wanted to portray a period of extreme rupture between myself and the man I am now married to — the novelist Brian Morton — and to describe early, difficult decisions we made without turning the reader irrevocably against him. For our children’s sake, it was essential I describe our separation and differing choices in a way that represented Brian’s point of view, to the best of my abilities. At the same time, I wanted to be honest about the emotional turbulence I experienced while pregnant and on my own. That’s a tough needle to thread and I wasn’t successful on every page, but the beauty of writing a whole book, rather than an essay or an article or even a poem, is that you have time. If you fumble on one page, you try again on the next! I tried to make the gestalt of the book encompass not only Brian’s early rejection of fatherhood, but also his enormous, rare capacity for transformative change into the most extraordinary father and partner I can imagine.

In terms of writing about our kids, it was a tremendous joy for me, as a writer and a mom, to record moments from their early childhood. Brian and I both took a lot of notes when Gracie was sick – not only on her illness or course of treatment– but also on the many things Gracie and Gabriel said and did daily that touched us, or surprised us.

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For the Gracie (who now goes by Amelia) and Gabriel, it’s more complicated. They are both teenagers now and neither of them is fond of having a public portrait drawn of their early childhood or toddlerhood. And, our daughter’s pain is described in detail in the book, in ways that aren’t familiar or recognizable to her. She doesn’t remember the vast majority of what she went through during her bone marrow transplant. Our son remembers even less from that time, which ended when he was only two years old. They both want to be seen as the strong, mature, independent people they’ve become. And I do see them that way, but I also see within them every age they ever were, layered and looping through. But in print, I was only able to capture a snapshot of them, an early version. I hope someday they can enjoy that view. As they enter adulthood, I hope the book can offer them a record of a time that was meaningful or impactful, even as it lies outside of conscious memory. But truly I have no control or insight about what it will mean to them, in the same way we can never know how a reader will receive our work.

L.L.: Without using complete sentences, what was going on in your life as you wrote HAPPINESS?

Heather Harpham: Kids. Lunches. Laundry. Two attempts at dog adoption. Marital fights. Making up. More fights, more reunions. A growth in partnership.  A long search for an affordable, comfortable home. Success — first ever home ownership! Painting walls. Writing group. The beginning of a college teaching career. A new solo show –BURNING. More lunches and laundry and walks. Writing group. California phone chats. Writing group. Long walks, down to the café for a croissant.


“An extraordinary and bewitching book, HAPPINESS has staked a claim among the most beautiful and moving portraits of parenthood and partnership.”

Susan Cheever, bestselling author of Treetops: A Memoir, and Home before Dark


L.L.: And so, your daughter is growing up. She’s okay now. What does she think about her story?

Heather Harpham: Honestly, you’d have to ask her. When she’s been asked in the past, she’s very eloquent on the oddity of having such a personal story – a story that is literally about her deepest physical strata, her bone marrow — told by someone other than herself. She seems to have expected that she’d feel a kind of kinship with the Gracie I describe in the book – that this portrait might offer her a way to recall or even reclaim her younger self – but that didn’t happen. She remembers so little of what I describe, and the little she does remember diverges from what I’ve focused on. I told this story from a mother’s point of view. While she lived it, from the inside. Sadly, neither Brian nor I can ever know exactly what she experienced in that time, as much as we want to.

If you’d like to hear Amelia (aka Gracie) talk about these issues in her own words, she responded to a similar question from Reese Witherspoon in this joint interview (it’s the first question Reese asks her).

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L.L.: Part of what makes HAPPINESS so compelling, at least in my opinion, is the grace and ease you write about the medical professionals, the hospital experience. But at the heart of it all, resides a good deal of fear. Did you ever learn Gracie’s diagnosis? Is it still a mystery?

Heather Harpham: First of all, thanks so much for pointing to the medical professionals described in the book. The gratitude you feel, as a parent (or a sibling or partner or child or friend) for the people who save your beloved, or simply soften their suffering, is indescribable. It’s breathtaking gratitude, knock-the-wind-out-of-you-gratitude. And it never ends. We were lottery winners in medical life — we had many incredible people speeding Gracie’s healing over her four years of treatment. I recently interviewed the woman who was our “primary nurse” during transplant, Bobbie Caraher. For anyone interested in hearing Bobbie’s beautiful philosophy of bedside nursing and the need to humanize medical life, the interview is on the Hello Sunshine website.

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In answer to the second part of your question, I’m a bit hesitant to discuss our daughter’s current medical status publicly – which is a condemnation of the for-profit healthcare system rather than your question! Someday, I shudder to say, the Affordable Care Act might be dismantled enough to reinstate the cruelty of “pre-existing conditions.” This would be very very bad for millions of Americans, including Amelia. At the same time, I can say that she’s totally cured.  And no, bizarrely, we never received a diagnosis.


HAPPINESS is a fast read, a compelling story about life and death, illness and health, and, above all, family.” —Star Tribune


L.L.: What’s next for you? Are you still writing? Are you more focused on acting? And what’s your teaching schedule like these days?

Heather Harpham: I’m teaching enough to keep myself regulated. Without the structure of teaching, I drift through loose, baggy time without accomplishing much… Plus, I love witnessing the artistic enthusiasm of the young actors I teach, as they figure out how to tell stories in the most powerful or original way. I learn from them constantly.

And yes, thanks for asking. I am writing. I try to show up at the keyboard for at least two hours a day. I keep a little spreadsheet to hold myself accountable. And that helps. I respect work, and so I try to make writing feel like a job. Something you clock in and out of. In fact, it is my job; it’s the work I do that most meaningfully contributes to our family’s financial well-being. Still, it’s easy for many of us (maybe particularly women) to think of our creative projects as a lark. A private fancy. This is rubbish; we need to take our talents and creative work as seriously as any employment. Of course that’s a lot easier if you’ve had some success and thus have time to write. I’m amazed by writers who struggle to stay awake and work, after teaching or doing an exhausting “day” job. That’s commitment.

I had a teacher once, a famous clown (truly!), who said that you should offer your own talent a commiserate commitment in terms of time and energy. He said, only you can evaluate your talent and potential. You alone. If you think you’re talented, show up for your talent. Give that talent a room, and as many hours as it requires. That can be scary or disorienting or downright disappointing; sometimes we’re not as talented, or creatively facile, as we hoped. But then again, sometimes we surprise ourselves.

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

Heather Harpham: There is a question I wish people would ask, though, alas it is probably a question for the book I wish I’d written, rather than the one I wrote. This question is about the role of spirituality to sustain us, or destabilize us, in times of exigent duress, fear or even celebration. I found that my own spiritual beliefs were fundamentally challenged by witnessing the loss and suffering of so many innocents during our time on the transplant unit. It was incredibly painful and confusing for me as a believer. It awoke a series of questions I’ve yet to answer about the nature of a God (or if you prefer, the organizing intelligence alive in our universe) who allows for misery with arbitrary abandon. Why is catastrophic loss “allowed” to land anywhere, on anyone, at any time?

On the other hand, we encountered many people during transplant who were disproportionately, even inappropriately (!), kind to us–total strangers who offered lifelines. Why? This is a mystery of equal power. I’m guessing that being tender or generous or compassionate felt good to them; it felt right.

I have no idea why humans are built this way – to bend and help, to care profoundly — but I’m very grateful we are.

I stand in that mystery too. I wanted to express more of this spiritual confusion and appreciation within the book than I was able to. Hopefully I can return to it next time, next book. Unless I have the good sense to write about something less complicated!

L.L.: Heather, it’s been such a pleasure! Thank you, thank you!

Heather Harpham: Leslie, thank you! You read and respond with such care to writers. It’s been a true pleasure.

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

Order Links:

ct-life-stevens-tuesday-happiness-heather-harpham-0801ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Heather Harpham (b. 1967) is an American writer and theater artist. Her fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in Slate, Parents, MORE Magazine, Water~Stone Review and Red Magazine in the UK. Her debut memoir, HAPPINESS The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, was published by Henry Holt in the fall of 2017 and by OneWorld in the UK. Happiness was the April 2018 selection for Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club; chosen for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers Series; and was included on the “Indie Next Pick” list by the American Booksellers Association. Originally from the northern California, Harpham now lives in New York, a short walk from the Hudson River, with her family.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Henry Holt Publishers and used with permission. Author photo credit: David Kumin]

WeekEND Reading: Simon Lelic on his psych thriller, THE NEW NEIGHBORS

By Leslie Lindsay 

What if the house you moved into has a story all its own? Simon Lelic talks about the ‘terrifying’ experience of house-hunting, how he wishes he kept more of his childhood books,writing advice & so much more…

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Dark, twisted U.K. thriller with undertones of paranormal and horror.

I have such a soft-spot for tales of houses and so when THE NEW NEIGHBORS (Penguin Random House, April 10 2018) came across my desk, I knew I had to read it. Syd and Jack are a twenty-something couple seeking their first home together (they are not married) and when they come across the perfect London home, they make an offer. It’s low, but the owner wanted someone young. It almost seems too good to be true when their offer is accepted. 

Once they move in, strange things start happening. For one, the previous owner left all of his furnishings, including taxidermy-ied animals. But the walls seem to permeate an odor and what’s with that stuff in the attic? Jack has been wary all along, but Syd is more nonchalant about the new place.

Told in alternating POVs of Jack and Syd in a written journal-like narrative (the characters refer to it as ‘the manuscript,’), the story can be a little challenging to follow in som regards as different perspectives color the story. But when a murder is committed outside their back door, Syd and Jack become suspects.

One begins to wonder if Syd and Jack are really responsible, is it the house, or something (someone?) else more sinister at work?

THE NEW NEIGHBORS is a tale of duplicity, a ‘he-said,’ ‘she-said’ type of read that will most definitely send shivers through, and perhaps, have you looking over your shoulder (or at least in your attic).

Please join me in welcoming Simon Lelic to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Simon, it’s a pleasure. I always want to know why this story, why now? Was there a character, event, or line that kept drawing you to the keyboard?

Simon Lelic: The main inspiration for The New Neighbors was the house-hunting process, which we’ve all been through in some form at one point or another, and as it happened my wife and I were going through it around the time the novel was written. It’s such a terrifying process – you are asked to commit a vast sum of money, and indeed your family’s entire future, on a property you only really get to see two or three times. It’s only when you’re committed, and you finally move in, that you get to discover what’s really buried beneath the floorboards…

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“A raw, tightly wound thrill ride, a nightmare scenario about a home purchase that goes horribly wrong. And then some. This is a fast-paced, intense, and creepy novel that you won’t be able to put down until you reach the end.”

—David Bell, bestselling author of Bring Her Home


L.L.: I understand this is your first psych thriller, but not your first book. How was this one different? Or, was it?

Simon Lelic: I suppose with psychological thrillers, it’s all a question of degrees. My first novel, A Thousand Cuts, dealt with bullying as a motive for murder, and you could argue that you don’t get much more psychological than that. But The New Neighbors definitely takes this up a notch, in that you are never really sure how much of what is happening is only taking place in the characters’ heads.9780143118619.jpg

L.L.: You’re a former journalist. I’ve found that many former journalists turn to writing thrillers. Any ideas as to why that is? How does your background inform your fiction?

Simon Lelic: I’ve never really thought about this before, but I guess journalism teaches you to write sparely, to make every word count, and this style of writing definitely suits the thriller genre. For a thriller to work well, you need to keep the story moving forwards. 

L.L.: In shifting gears a bit, I am anxious to talk about the house as a character. Is that how you saw it, too—as a character—or was it more of a ‘setting?’

Simon Lelic: It started as just a setting, but quickly took on a personality on the page. At least for me – I can only hope that readers will agree! I’ve always loved haunted house stories – from Shirley Jackson to Mark Z. Danielewski – and I wanted the house in my novel to loom just as large in the reader’s mind as it would if they were reading a ghost story.

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L.L.: Syd’s character is complex, vulnerable, and secrets of her family origin leak.  transforming the narrative a bit into one of violence and perhaps madness. Was that intentional or did it sort of grow organically?

Simon Lelic: Syd was always the key to the story. Without giving too much away, her character, and the reasons for her being the way she is, are fundamental to events in the book. Which isn’t to say Jack’s background doesn’t have significance too…

L.L.:  Jack finds a small box filled with childhood treasures in the attic. What item(s) from your childhood do you long for, if only occasionally?

Simon Lelic: Books! For some reason I will never quite forgive myself for, I gave away whole boxloads of books I’d loved as a kid, I think at some point when I figured I was ‘all grown up’. But now I have children of my own (three of them, all turning into avid readers) I would dearly love to be able to pass on some of those books I devoured when I was their age, many of which no longer seem to be in print.

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L.L.: What aspects of writing have you struggled with and how did you work to strengthen those areas?

Simon Lelic: Writing is always a struggle, at least in the sense that you can invariably do it better. That’s partly why I love it so. It’s a craft, and like any craft, the key to improvement is practice.

L.L.: What has been the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

Simon Lelic: I’m not sure about the best piece of writing advice I’ve received, but the best piece I can give is, be wary of what advice you follow. Find what works for you, and do it.

L.L.: What question do you get asked all the time, that I forgot to ask?

Simon Lelic: The same question every author gets asked: where do you get your ideas? And I’m glad I don’t have to try to come up with an answer!

L.L.: Thank you, Simon. It’s been a pleasure!

Simon Lelic: Thanks so much for having me. I sincerely hope your readers enjoy the book!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to order a copy of THE NEW NEIGHBORS, please see:

Order Links:

244784ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Simon Lelic is a former journalist and the author of the award-winning A Thousand Cuts as well as the critically acclaimed The Facility and The Child WhoThe New Neighbors is his first psychological thriller, inspired by a love of Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King. Simon lives with his wife and three children.

 

 

 

 

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[Cover(s) and author image retrieved from Penguin Random House website. Couple house-hunting retrieved from usatoday.com; all on 4.18.18 ] 

WeekEND Reading: Brad Parks on his new domestic thriller, CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW

By Leslie Lindsay 

What if you went to pick up your child from daycare only to learn he has been taken by social services? That’s what was haunting Brad Park when he set out to write CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW; understanding the emotional arc of his female characters, how being stubborn is his greatest strength at the keyboard, plus Coke Zero & ice cream

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Brad Parks is back with another stand-alone domestic thriller with engaging characters, stunning twists, and chilling discoveries, this time focusing on Child Social Services, a drug bust and more. 

CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW, the latest thriller from Brad Parks, is the perfect encapsulation of everything Parks does so well—shocking twists, compelling, true-to-life characters, and affecting emotional impact.

So when the publishing house reached out to me with this one, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Plus, that cover! It’s so hauntingly typical.

After a childhood spent bouncing between foster care homes, Melanie Barrick finally has the life she’s always wanted. But one day, Melanie goes to pick up her son Alex from childcare and discovers he has been removed by Social Services.

When she arrives home, she learns that her house has been raided by the sheriff’s deputies, who tell her that they’ve found enough cocaine to put her behind bars for years.

Though she maintains her innocence, Melanie knows she will lose Alex forever if she can’t find definitive proof that someone is trying to frame her.

Parks’ first standalone, SAY NOTHING, received rave reviews from top media outlets, genre titans–including Sue Grafton, Lee Child, and Jeffery Deaver–and readers alike. And CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW is just as thrilling. 

Please join me in conversation with Brad Parks. 

Leslie Lindsay: Brad, I’m so thrilled to have you today. I’m always interested to know what inspired a particular title. Can you tell us how you chose to center the plot of Closer Than You Know around the child welfare system?

Brad Parks: As an upper middle class white kid, I grew up with exactly zero experience of the child welfare system. Then I spent a decade as a reporter in Newark, where child protective services was an enormous presence in the lives of many, if not most, poor families. As a political nerd, it fascinated me that in America—a nation founded by guys trying to resist tyranny—we created a system that gives government so much authority over such an intensely personal aspect of citizens’ lives. Think about it: No matter where you live, there is a state or local agency that has legal ability to take your children away from you. Now, most of the time, that authority is only used with great caution and only as a last resort. But what an awesome power. Especially if it was abused. That’s the basic germ that I allowed to take root in CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW that someone who understands the system could manipulate it to steal someone’s baby.

L.L.: What research did you do for this novel? Were there any differences between this book’s research into the judicial system and that of your last book, Say Nothing?

Brad Parks: I spoke with people who work for Virginia social service agencies at a variety of levels—from a former secretary all the way up to a director. They were, without exception, dedicated professionals whose hearts were absolutely in the right place. From them, I learned how the system is supposed to work. Then I spoke with, and read memoirs by, former foster kids. From them I learned how the system actually works. There are some success stories, of course. But for a lot of children, particularly those who enter foster care at later ages, the system creates as many problems as it fixes.  I also spent time hanging around Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court, talking with lawyers and a judge. The great difficult there is that, unlike adult courts, trials involving children are closed. That was probably the greatest difficulty: Not having the opportunity to observe directly. I found myself asking a lot of my sources questions like, “Okay, how does this go exactly? What does this look like?”hqdefault

L.L.: This is your first novel told from the perspective of female protagonists, Melanie Barrick and Amy Kaye. Did you find writing from the perspective of female characters more challenging? How did you ensure that the tone felt authentic? 

Brad Parks: With forty-three years’ experience thinking like a guy—and none thinking like a woman—the prospect of writing from the female perspective definitely intimidated me at first. And there were a handful of scenes where I was cognizant that a woman would experience the events unfolding in a fundamentally different way. But for the most part, once I got into the story, I was amazed how little it actually mattered. In most of the situations these women faced, gender was probably the seventh or eighth most important thing motivating their thoughts and actions. There were other aspects of their personalities that simply mattered more. They were driven by their wants, their needs, their ideals, their hopes. I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t writing female protagonists. I was writing human protagonists who happened to be female.

L.L.: CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW is your eighth novel. How is this one different than your previous stories?

Brad Parks: I always have strong feelings for my characters. But I was more attached to Melanie Barrick than I’ve ever been to any of my previous protagonists, even the one loosely based on me. There were times when I felt this horrible guilt about what I was doing to her—ripping her baby away from her, putting her through this horrible ordeal, sending her to prison. I always talk my characters throughout the writing of a novel. I found myself apologizing to Melanie quite a bit.

L.L.: You write a lot about the bond between a mother and her child in CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW. How were you able to convey this unique relationship on the page so vividly? And did your own experience as a dad shape the narrative?

Brad Parks: I did a tour of duty as a stay-at-home dad with an infant. For many long hours each day, it was just me and this baby. I came to realize that a big part of what our culture calls “motherhood” is really just having another human being who is wholly dependent on you for every need, all the time. So I certainly drew on that physical and emotional experience. But I also came to understand there is another aspect to motherhood, and that’s because I watched my wife parent this same child. She wasn’t with the baby for huge chunks of the day, like I was, and yet there were ways in which her bond with the baby was undeniably closer. That really helped me flesh out Melanie Barrick, because when Alex gets taken from her, she is no longer his caregiver. But, deep in the very core of her, she is—and will always be—his mother.

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L.L.: This novel is so emotionally resonant, but also quite thrilling in that psych-suspense aspect.How do you balance the plot so they are both something the reader will ‘feel’ but also entertaining?

Brad Parks: I write by feel. If I don’t feel something, chances are the reader isn’t going to feel something. And if the reader isn’t feeling something. . . well, really, what’s to stop them from putting this down and playing Sudoku?

L.L.:  Before you were a full-time novelist, you were a successful journalist. How does that inform your work today?

Brad Parks: One year at a daily newspaper brings you into contact with enough fascinating stories and weird characters to fuel at least twenty novels. It also teaches you how to learn (quickly!) about anything at all.

L.L.: Do you miss journalism?

Brad Parks: I miss the people. The newspaper newsroom of yore was a magical place: A collection of bright, talented, irascible folks—many of them temperamentally unsuited for employment in any other industry—who spent half the morning strangling each other and half the afternoon worrying about lunch. But then somehow by the end of the day, they managed to get their act together just enough to publish the equivalent of a full-length novel, complete with pictures, graphics, and the horoscopes. And then they’d get up the next day and do it all over again. It was magical to be even a small part of the whole crazy show.

L.L.: How did you make the decision to transition into writing novels?

Brad Parks: In some ways, the decision was made for me. The newspaper business began entering its death spiral around the time I turned thirty. I came to realize there was no chance I was going to be able to ride that dinosaur all the way to retirement. I took a buyout in 2008, when I was 34, figuring it was better to jump than be pushed. At that time it was frightening. And depressing. Journalism was all I had ever done, all I knew. But looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Under ordinary circumstances, I am far too risk-averse by nature to do something as outrageous as leaving a steady job for the uncertainty of writing novels. It took the collapse of the industry to make me pursue a dream I otherwise would have been too chicken to chase on my own.

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L.L.: Can you tell us something about your process that might surprise people?

Brad Parks: How—for lack of a better word—physical it is. While I’m working on a novel, particularly in that crucial first-draft stage, I treat myself like a professional athlete in season. I do everything I can to maximize performance: I eat right; I don’t drink much (besides Coke Zero); I try to give my brain lots of rest, whether that’s goofing off in the afternoon, or getting eight hours of sleep at night. Don’t get me wrong, I have distractions, like everyone. But my goal is to structure the other twenty hours a day so that those four hours in the chair can be as productive as possible.

L.L.: What do you think is the most important trait you bring to the keyboard?

Brad Parks: Stubbornness. It’s the gas for my writing engine, and I’d like to think I have more of it than most. When my wife was in grad school, she had to learn how to administer intelligence tests and I served as her test dummy. There was one test where you had to rearrange blocks. The scoring was a sliding scale based on how quickly you could complete the task. You didn’t get any points if it took longer than two minutes, but the test administrator couldn’t tell you to stop. I kept fumbling with those stupid blocks for twenty-six minutes before I finally solved that second-grade problem. But that’s the great thing about writing. There’s no stopwatch on you. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I am willing to bash my head against the screen until the words come out right.

“Exciting. . . Parks excels at keeping the pages turning with brisk pacing, relentlessly high tension, and a knotty narrative.”
Publishers Weekly

L.L.: Rumor has it that you’re known to break out into song during author events. Me, too but not at author events…just around the house. And not well. Everyone rolls their eyes. What inspired you to make this a trademark at your events? Were you involved in musical theater during your school years?

Brad Parks: Those rumors are malicious and false. How dare you. . . Uh, okay, guilty as charged. I was all-state chorus, did high school musicals, sang a cappella in college (yeah, I was one of those guys) and have continued to sing in pretty much any forum in which I am not muzzled by either decorum or someone’s hand. It’s just something I love to do. 

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW?

Brad Parks: To my knowledge, there’s never been a thriller that uses the child welfare system as its backdrop. And while I’m not trying to cram a social work textbook down their throats, I would hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of that world and some compassion for those involved in it. That’s one of the things I love about the thriller genre: It’s a vehicle that allows you to explore some weighty social issues, yet do so in a way that’s still wildly entertaining. Done right, it’s like ice cream that’s good for you.

L.L.: Thank you, Brad. It was a pleasure…and now, for that ice cream.

For more information, or to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of CLOSER THAN YOU THINK, please visit:

Order Links:

brad-parks-smile-225-shadowABOUT THE AUTHOR:   International bestselling author Brad Parks is the only writer to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages and have won critical acclaim across the globe, including stars from every major pre-publication review outlet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Parks is a former journalist with The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger. He is now a full-time novelist living in Virginia with his wife and two school-aged children.

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website and used with permission from publisher. Images all retrieved on 3.15.18. Sources as follows: stay at home dad image retrieved from, newspaper newsroom image retrieved from, Juvenile and Domestic Relations court sign retrieved from,]

 

WeekEND Reading: Julie Lythcott-Haims on her new book, ‘REAL AMERICAN’

By Leslie Lindsay

‘Where are you from? No, where are you from, from?’ Julie Lythcott-Haims tackles race, self-love, how poetry helped unleash her voice, the unique structure of REAL AMERICAN–how the formatting was intentional, and so much more

Searingly honest, raw memoir about what it’s like to be biracial in 1970s-today’s America.

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I tore through Lythcott-Haims’s memoir, REAL AMERICAN; this is such an important read, one everyone ought to take the time to read and reflect upon. In fact, after I finished, a barrage of emotions hit me and also, I began cataloging all my interactions with those of a race other than my own.

In first grade, a gangly Black* girl with a head full colorful clips that rattled and clanged as she peered at me through the cracks in the bathroom stall caused me alarm. I told my mother, who was convinced the ‘bussing program’ was a problem. She wanted to have words with my teacher, but I assured her it wasn’t a problem.

Also, in first grade, I was made math partners with an Eastern Indian boy. We worked with plastic stacking cubes while learning our 10s, 5s, etc. The cubes were brown, like candy caramels. I told him, proudly, ‘Hey–your skin is the same color [as those cubes].’ I thought my observation was astute, but was quickly embarrassed when he shrugged and went back to the task at hand.

At some point, in my elementary years, I inspected the freckles on my legs quite regularly. One was particularly dark and a little larger than the others. “Mom,” I said, “Is this what I would look like if I were Black?” I pointed to the freckle. The skin around the freckle started getting pink from all of my poking. My mother nodded and said, “Yes, probably.”

And there was one girl who, like Julie Lythcott-Haims, *was* biracial. Her mother was white, her father black. Just like Julie. She had golden-brown ringlets her mother fastened in two ropy braids alongside her face. She had a gap between her teeth and full lips. Her skin was a beautiful tawny and she was well-liked. She may have been the only biracial girl in my entire elementary school.

There are more stories and tid-bits throughout my years, but this, too is much like Julie’s story.
She recounts her life as a Black girl, mostly and not what it’s like to be ‘white,’ at all. The writing is raw, uncensored, powerful, brave, and bare. It stirred me and made me think of conscious and unconscious racism. And in some instances, I was quite embarrassed with my assessments of others.

“Courageous, achingly honest.”
—Michelle Alexander 

The narrative in REAL AMERICAN is slightly experimental, almost as though Lythcott-Haims is sending a series of emails about her race, her self-esteem, her identity to the big wide world. Pieces of it are quite poetic, but all of it is seriously enlightening.

You may remember Julie from her bestselling book, HOW TO RAISE AN ADULT, which I featured in 2015. She holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. She also served as undergraduate dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford.

Today, I am so, so honored to sit down with Julie Lythcott-Haims and chat about REAL AMERICAN, which may be more important than ever given our social and political climate. Please join us.

[*Black is capitalized throughout REAL AMERICAN, I will keep it that way here, too]

Leslie Lindsay: Julie, oh wow. Just wow. You had me hooked with the first line of REAL AMERICAN:

“Where are you from?”

“Here.”

“No, I mean, where are you from from?”

I’ve been guilty of asking this very question. I was in 9th grade and it was directed toward a boy I had a major crush on. He was dark and gorgeous and a little exotic. His response, “I’m from the same place as you:  Earth.” I don’t think I ever asked that question again. What was the driving force behind your desire to write REAL AMERICAN?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Haha. I guess partly it was from being sick of that question, which I’ve gotten for the better part of 50 years (along with its twin, “What ARE you?”), which connotes, “You are confusing to me, perhaps problematic; I need these answers so I know where to put you in my schema of how humans are valued.”

The driving force behind it was to try to tell a story many of us experience but often don’t talk about, which is the self-loathing we feel when we discover our place in a nation that is built in large part on racist attitudes and practices. The narrative arc of the book goes like this: I am a Black and biracial child with a Black daddy and white momma and I am discovering something is wrong with brown skin. Over time, your racism makes me loathe myself and my Blackness and makes me dislike and distrust Black people. Shame on you for heaping your racism on me. I’ve now done the work to lift your racism off of me. THIS is what I sound like now that I am unrestrained, free.

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L.L.: REAL AMERICAN must tackle the race question because that’s what it’s all about, really. Let’s start with your parents. Your father is Black; a direct descendant of slaves. He was also the assistant surgeon general under President Carter. He met your white mother while living and working in Africa raising his four children from a previous marriage as a single father. Your mother came from Yorkshire, England. They fell in love. They married. You were born in Africa. But you are not African. Your father is American. Your mother is British. You hold American citizenship. Why does this matter? Because, it does.

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I’m proud of have been born in a S***hole country – Nigerians were the first humans I knew outside of my own family. But I am not Nigerian, or African, no. At least, not recently.

The vile movement known as Birtherism made our birth stories matter. I’ve spent over ten years wondering, wait, even if Obama was born in Kenya (which he wasn’t), he’s still an American because he was born to an American, right? This mattered to me because of the circumstances of my birth. I felt like my own American-ness was tarnished whenever the racist birthers slung their mud about Obama.

Because what am I if not American? American is the only citizenship I have ever held (Britain wouldn’t recognize citizenship through the mother at the time of my birth, although they do now; Nigeria would let me claim their citizenship if I applied for it by age 18, which I saw no need to do although I wish I had dual-citizenship now). Who are these people to carve lines between which of us are real Americans and which of us aren’t?  

Beyond the fact of my citizenship, is identity, and like any mixed-race parents, mine were told to “raise her as Black, so she’ll be Black and proud.” It was the prevailing wisdom in the 70s when I was coming up and biracial kids were an anomaly, and it is sound advice still today. But you can’t just tell a kid what their identity is. You have to give them cultural touchstones so they can feel it, hold onto it, make it real. My parents did the opposite by raising me in all white towns. I think this was a way for my father to thumb his nose at white society and demonstrate his status and success all at the same time. He’s been gone for over twenty years now, so I can’t talk to him about this, but Mom says he wanted me to be “comfortable in any room, with any people,” by which he meant he wanted me to make it with white folks. What he overlooked was the importance of being in community with Black folk, who could help me navigate the treacherous line of race, and who could help me back up to my feet when I racism’s blows came. If my father hadn’t passed away over twenty years ago, I think I’d be having this out with him right now.

5982e1e1c7ec62338170b1e625bf1a2cL.L.: And then you were raised in some very ‘white’ places, Madison, Wisconsin for one. You felt not white-enough for the white people and not black-enough for the Black people. I can see how you’d feel in the middle. Can you talk more about that feeling? Also, I feel like Madison is now a very progressive city, but…you were there in the early 1980s. Do you think things have changed?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Madison was and is a huge college town with folks who hail from all over the world. But as with many college towns, go a few miles out of town and you can find yourself in whiteville where you get stupid comments, angry looks, or far, far worse. I went to high school in Middleton, a community on the outskirts of Madison, which was almost entirely white. There, I was subjected to stupid comments from friends, like, “I don’t think of you as Black, I think of you as normal,” and racist remarks from teachers such as: “Blacks have a higher infant mortality rate because Black parents don’t love their children as much as white parents do.” I left in 1985 and never looked back. I can’t speak to whether it has changed, although it has to have.

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L.L.:  Switching gears a bit to the structure of REAL AMERICAN; the pagination and font of the narrative is a bit like an email. It’s not written in chronological order, but more like a series of essays. Some points are reiterated throughout but the overall theme is about identity. Can you talk about how you structured your memoir?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thanks for asking about this. This stuff goes over the heads of most readers but I love talking about it. The genre is creative non-fiction—I let the form support the narrative rather than stuffing the narrative into some pre-determined form. It’s in nine parts, with the first and last parts being summative and analytical, and with parts 2-8 being largely chronological with a few flashbacks here and there and one large piece of backstory on my family. The narrative voice is prose poetry, meaning there are places where the prose violates the rules of grammar and syntax in order to most effectively convey my intent. There is a large right margin on every page which is the omnipresence of whiteness in my life as a Black woman; that is, I’m not entitled to use the whole page but I try to make good use of the space I’ve got. The font is sans-serif as to my mind, serif conveyed a flourish, a flounce, a privilege that I believe betrayed the narrative. Each part consists of chapters demarcated with a roman numeral. Some of the nine parts have only five chapters, some have over thirty. Some of those chapters take up the full page or multiple pages, whereas other chapters are a paragraph long, or a few sentences, or one sentence followed by a completely blank page. By the way, I had to fight like hell with my publisher about all of these structural points; to my dismay they hadn’t realized all of these devices were “intentional” and “integral” to the text even though I sold them a manuscript that looked exactly this way.

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L.L.: There’s a piece in the narrative where  you talk about not liking or ‘getting’ poetry. Actually, your exact words were:

“I hated poetry for its confounding barriers […] obscurity […] wasn’t interested in trying to open that locked gate.” Yet there are pieces of REAL AMERICAN that read very poetically.

For example:

“These words. Like quicksand. A trap. Like a truth that swallows itself.”

Can you talk about how race and poetry both become ‘unlocked’ in REAL AMERICAN?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yep I hated poetry right up until I read Lucille Clifton’s poetry collection, Good Woman. My reaction to her poetry was, “If these words are possible, if she is possible, then maybe I am possible.” To me free verse is our natural state of expression; the notion that words have to be gathered in sentences or rhyme is a fiction, an imposition, designed by whomever was in charge at the time. Our words come to us as they will, and I think my job as a writer is to honor how they came.

I only knew this, believed this, felt this, as my own Black self was healing itself from the wounds racism had inflicted upon me. So as I heaved the cloak of racism off of me, my voice, too, became less constrained by rules, custom, the opinions of others. I became self loving as a Black woman and my voice became more poetic. I can’t say it was causal; on the other hand, I’m hardly surprised that it happened this way.

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L.L.: And going back to identity, do you feel like yours is more cognizant, more actualized after writing REAL AMERICAN? Was the process in any way…cathartic? Did it show you other truths you didn’t expect to discover?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: I feel like I became cognizant and actualized before I wrote the book, which is what allowed me to write it. (Yes, I’ve learned a lot more about myself now being the author of this book, as I get questions and hear commentary from others; but those newer knowings are deepenings and nuances as opposed to stark truths.) I read Clifton in 2005 and it would be three to five years later that I unpacked my ugliest truths of my identity with an executive coach (truths like, as a child I: 1) hated being Black; 2) feared other Black people; and 3) wanted to be what white people wanted. Speaking the truth to my coach was not just catharsis but release, and relief. Then self love and love of all Black people flooded into me. Writing the book was more of a question of, “Okay I know this is true for me, but do I really want to share this with others?” More often than not, the answer was “Yes.”

L.L.: You have two teenaged children, a boy and a girl. How do you hope the world is different for them? Oh, this is a huge question! How do you hope they see race?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Well we’re not post-racial and probably won’t be in their lifetimes, so my job is to equip them to love themselves in an America whose founding, economy, history, systems, narrative, and policies right up to the present exist on a framework of whiteness. My husband is white and Jewish. Our son is unambiguously a man of color. Our daughter passes for white to many people. As a result they will confront racism differently. My son has to love himself regardless of the prejudice against brown skin which is out there, and he has to know how to conduct himself out there so as not to incur the attention of racist law enforcement officers or civilians. My daughter, too, has to love herself regardless of what others think, and carrying the privilege that comes with skin perceived as white, when she overhears people saying racist things about Black folk I hope she’ll be so self-loving that she will call them out and claim me, her Black mother, all the way back to Sylvie, her slave ancestor, rather than act as if these words are not about her.

[Julie mentions a woman, a mother in REAL AMERICAN who is raising two black children and three white. Her post is incredibly powerful and I am grateful to have come across it in REAL AMERICAN. You can read it here.]

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L.L.: Julie, I could probably ask questions all day, but I will stop here. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Sometimes an audience member asks who the book is for.  Drawing ever wider circles of potential audiences for the book, I tell them the smallest circle is Black or biracial people whose heads may nod up and down toward certain passages in the book because they’ve felt what I have felt. (And, I have to say, my book tour was filled with interactions with Black folk, particularly Black women, who did in fact have this reaction often expressed with choked-back tears.) The next larger circle are all the other people of color who can relate. The next circle is anyone who has been made to feel like “the other” in America. And finally, the outermost circle is anyone willing to feel compassion for “the other” and to turn that compassion into radical ally-ship so as to make this country a better place.

L.L.: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you.

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Thanks for your fabulous questions, Leslie.

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

Order Links:

JLHB&WHighResABOUT THE AUTHOR:  I’m interested in the human experience, and I write non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry with the aim of helping humans thrive. I hold a BA in American Studies from Stanford University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. I am a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. I live in Silicon Valley with my partner of close to thirty years, our two teenagers, and my mother.

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

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Henry Holt Publishers and used with permission. GOOD WOMAN cover image retrieved from Amazon, image of ‘race face’ from, ‘girls who dream have vision’ from Pinterest, no source noted, English writing structure retrieved from, white parents with black children retrieved from, black mother with white mother from,; all on 3.21.18]

LESLIE A. LINDSAY….ALWAYS WITH A BOOK.

Writer. Reviewer. Author Interviews. 

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ~Toni Morrison

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

By Leslie Lindsay

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

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Have you read either of them? 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order Links:

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

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

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

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

By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order links:

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

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

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

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

By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Lisa Duffy, author of The Salt House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Order links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

BAM!

IndieBound

Target

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

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

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

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

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

By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She parents, writes and volunteers in Rhode Island.

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

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