Category Archives: WeekEND Reading

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Carmela to the blog couch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

Be sure to watch the stunning book trailer here: 

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

From the back cover: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Janelle Brown on salty snacks and trashy magazines, writing everyday while her kids are at school; identity, the dark side of motherhood, how the ending of WATCH ME DISAPPEAR was changed three times, & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Tantalizing and twisty, this literary suspense is a clever meditation on what it means to be a family, to really know someone. 

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Billie (Sybilla) Flanagan, a beautiful, charismatic Berkeley mom goes on a solo hike in the Desolation Wilderness never to return. It’s been a year and…where is she? Picking up the pieces are her husband and 16 year-old daughter, Olive who are seeking a death certificate as she is now presumed dead (all that’s found of her is a lone hiking boot).

Olive and Jonathan do the best they can, but they are shattered, confused, broken. Jonathan is a writer attempting a loving memoir about his wife and death, Olive attends a prestigious all-girls prep school. But then Olive starts having visions/hallucinations/waking dreams of her mother. Jonathan’s concerned about her emotional stability and schleps her to doctors trying to find the source of the problem. But secrets from Billie’s past surface, leading both Jonathan and Olive the person they once shared a life with. 

Together–and somewhat reluctantly–Jonathan and Olive embark on a quest to discover the true Billie Flanagan, while at the same time, learning important truths about themselves.

I’m super jazzed to have Janelle Brown with us today to chat about her book and writing and everything in between.

Leslie Lindsay: Janelle, it’s great to have you. I find missing people stories so
fear-to-a-great-extent-is-born-of-a-story-we-tell-ourselvesfascinating. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR is such much more than ‘just another missing person.’ Can you tell us what you see as the overarching themes in this story?

Janelle Brown: This book is about the stories that we tell ourselves – about who we are, and about the people we love – and how those stories are so often subjective. We see what we want to see, and blind ourselves to things that are inconvenient to think about. It’s also a bit about the dark side of motherhood, as well as about the journey of losing and/or finding yourself. 

L.L.: How might the story have been different if it were Jonathan who went missing? Why do we have such a fascination with missing mothers and wives?

Janelle Brown:  I think our fascination with missing moms/wives has a lot to do with our notions of the mother – child bond: That it is so unbreakable, that a mother being separated from her child is so much worse than a father. (I personally don’t think this is necessarily true, but culturally that’s the common thinking.) There’s all kinds of gender norms about women being more vulnerable (both physically and emotionally) that supposedly makes it more alarming when a woman goes missing; which is part of why I wanted Billie to NOT be a vulnerable woman, but very much the author of her own fate.

It’s hard for me to imagine the story with Jonathan being missing because it would have been so different. He’s an utterly different kind of character than Billie so really it would have been an entirely new story.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? How was this book conceived and narrated? Do you plot, outline, or let the muse guide you? Do you ever write yourself into corners and think, ‘what have I done?!’

Janelle Brown:  I let the story carry me where it wants to go. I’ll start out with an idea and a rough plot outline, and my characters. But as the characters come to life they start informing & changing the story. So I often end up in places that I didn’t necessarily intend to go, and end up reshaping the book to fit the new direction.

This book was reshaped and rewritten about four times, including some very radical changes. (The whole ending changed, three times!)

“Poignant and captivating…Brown deftly peels away the layers of a loving marriage to reveal a haunting mystery and a devastating truth: that no matter how much you love someone; you can never truly know them.”

–Award-winning author Laura McHugh

L.L.: I enjoyed Olive so much—especially her visions/seizures. And also your reference to Lois Duncan novels! In fact, I just dug my old Lois Duncan books out of their 30 year hiding place and presented them to my daughter.  She loves them! What kind of research—if any—did you do to make Olive’s visions so tangible?

Janelle Brown:  Well, a lifetime of fascination with stories of the paranormal helped. (I was a huge Lois Duncan fan as a kid, and it’s evolved from there.) I also did some reading – including books by Oliver Sacks about grief & hallucinations, a lot of reading on paranormal sites, etc. I wanted Olive’s visions to feel very loisduncan.pngdistinctive and grounded in the reality of her relationship with her mother; and also be experiences that could be explained in many different ways depending on what you want to see.

L.L.: I wanted to talk about the title a bit. WATCH ME DISAPPEAR can be applied to just about any character in the book: Billie, for obvious reasons but also Jonathan and Olive. I think the important thing here is that the characters somehow grow and change. Can you talk about that, please? And did the title stay from your working title to the final?

Janelle Brown: The title came after I’d already written half of the book (after a LOT of brainstorming), and it’s something that actually grew on me thematically as I was writing the second half of the book (and then rewriting it again). You’re right, the book is about not just the physical disappearance of Billie but also about both people disappearing emotionally – from their relationships with other people, and into themselves – as well as evolving into other people entirely and losing who they once thought they were.

L.L.: What is a fact few people know about you? Do you have any writing rituals or routines? Guilty pleasures? An obsession?  

Janelle Brown:  Writing routines: I go to an office that I share with a bunch of other writers in Silver Lake (Los Angeles, where I live).  We have a great little community. I try to sit down and write every day, while my kids are in school; which isn’t always easy but I at least have my rear end in a chair and am staring at a screen.

Obsessions? Books. I read a ton. Probably too much, if that’s possible.

Guilty pleasures? Salty snacks. Trashy magazines.

L.L.: Janelle, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask about but should have?

Janelle Brown: Not at all, it’s been a pleasure! (Not a guilty one, either.)

For more information about the book, to connect with Janelle through social media, or to purchase a copy of WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, please see: 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Janelle Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Watch Me Disappear, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, and This Is Where We Live. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Wired, Self, The Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. Previously, she worked as a senior writer at Salon, and began her career as a staff writer at Wired during the dotcom boom years, working on seminal Web sites like HotWired and Wired News. A native of San Francisco and graduate of UC Berkeley, she has since defected to Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Greg, their two children, and a geriatric lab mix named Guster.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Random House/Speigel & Grau and used with permission. Author image credit: Michael Smiy. Image of Lois Duncan novels retrieved from the New York Public Library website, Cheryl Strayed quote from on 10.16.17]

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—STEPHANIE DANLER, AUTHOR OF SWEETBITTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L.L.: Wow! Do I dare ask what’s next?

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

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

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

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

Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

HOME FOR THE SUMMER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

I kind of wanted to shake these people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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