Category Archives: Write On Wednesday

Wednesdays with Writers: Lisa Ko talks about her stunning debut, THE LEAVERS, what it means to be restless & stubborn & independent, how music provides a sense of identity, cultures, reinvention and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

THE LEAVERS is at first a story of immigration/deportation, social justice, adoption, but it is so much more: it’s about heart, family, culture, and dare I say: required reading. 
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It’s hard to believe Lisa Ko’s THE LEAVERS (May 2, Algonquin Books) is a debut.
It’s eloquently crafted, well-researched, and absolutely beautifully executed. In fact, Lisa is the latest winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver to a novel that addresses contemporary issues of social justice.

Timely, topical…and oh, so emotionally rich, it’s really hard to categorize THE LEAVERS–but ultimately, it’s darn good fiction with well-developed, fully dimensional characters; I loved every one of them and for different reasons.

Deming Guo’s mother, Polly (Peilan), an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to come home from work (a nail salon) one day, and he’s left on his own. He’s eleven. (On a personal note, I have 10 and 12 year old daughters–I couldn’t imagine!). He’s in limbo for awhile while family friends decide what’s best for him. Deming is eventually adopted by ‘older’ American (white) professors at a local college, Kay and Peter Wilkinson. They change his name to Daniel. They give him an all-American life. They love him. But Deming/Daniel struggles to accept his new life. What happened to his mother? And why does he feel so out-of-place?

Told in sections, traversing NYC and China, from the POV of both Deming/Daniel and Peilan/Polly, we learn just what happened to his mother and a bit about why (though it’s still pretty unfair and ambiguous).

THE LEAVERS was inspired by recent, real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose U.S.-born children were taken away from them and adopted by an American family.  This story is fiction…but there are so many truths within these pages.holidayinn

THE LEAVERS is truly a book for everyone: mothers, children, adoptive parents…and most of all, the human spirit. It’s about finding oneself, reinvention, doing what’s right and adhering to expectations.

I am so honored and touched to chat with Lisa Ko, author of THE LEAVERS. Please join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Lisa—welcome and oh—what a story! The cultural and emotional challenges of the scope of THE LEAVERS is huge. There’s immigration, deportation, adoption…poverty. This is tough stuff. What propelled you to delve into such prickly subjects?

Lisa Ko: Thanks! When I first read real-life stories about immigrant mothers being separated from their children, I was furious that this was happening, and that our government has and continues to criminalize immigrants for profit. But to me, the novel is less about tackling prickly subjects and more about simply wanting to write about the world we live in. We can’t separate ourselves from class, race, gender, and politics. The issues that surround Polly and Deming are part of this, but the novel is more about themes like assimilation and culture, identities and survival, and definitions of home and family.

L.L.: I loved all the characters in THE LEAVERS. But I really connected with Polly/Peilan. What a strong, independent woman! She’s funny, snarky, deep…there’s a lot to her. I guess my question is two-fold: one, in China, women/girls are sort of disregarded and not brought up to be…independent. What do you think might have happened to Peilan/Polly had she stayed in China the entire course of the novel? And how did you connect with her character?

Lisa Ko: I’d hesitate to generalize about the treatment of girls and women in China—sexism in America is certainly going strong! For Polly, moving to the U.S. allows her to live a life far from her small hometown. In New York City, she can be anonymous, away from the expectations of her family and neighbors, though this comes with a literal and emotional price. I’d like to say that if Polly had stayed in China, she would have found a way to get out of her hometown and still retain her independence. Maybe she’d move to a big city with her son and create a new life there. She’s too stubborn, too restless—and these traits easy for me to connect with her character—to stay in one place for long.

L.L.: My read of THE LEAVERS is that it is not just a novel about immigration, deportation, adoption…but at the heart, it’s about reinvention. It’s about identity as culture and family and fitting in while also standing out. Did you learn anything new about yourself, or our world as you wrote this story?

Lisa Ko: Through my research, I learned a lot about immigration, deportation, and adoption—both about individual stories and about larger policies. Questions of belonging and reinvention were things I was exploring throughout. Writing the novel raised more questions than answers, which is why I write fiction.

L.L.: I’m a bit intrigued about your research into the factory life—not just here in the U.S., but also in China. It sounds positively grueling and of another world. In your acknowledgements, you mention a few books you referenced: FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang and SMUGGLED CHINESE by Ko-lin Chin. Can you give a little more insight, however harrowing, into that life?

Lisa Ko: One thing that stood out for me was how factory work can be both economically and socially empowering for young women, despite of, or in addition to, the grueling conditions. It’s done out of choice as well as out of necessity, and provides a way for rural residents to migrate to urban areas and reinvent themselves. That was something Polly experiences in the book.

L.L.: There’s this lovely section in THE LEAVERS in which Peilan/Polly is recounting her time away from her son. It’s told in fragments, vignettes with deep imagery: ‘Starry night. Grassy field. Cricket chorus. Clucking chicken. You. […] Glass of water. Cup of tea. Wet kisses. Leon. I tried to relax, hoping for a few hours of sleep before the first bed check. Warm hands. Loud music. You.’ Can you tell, us, in a similar style what was going on in your life as you wrote THE LEAVERS (which I realize spans 8 years)?

Lisa Ko: Binge writing. Deleting drafts. Binge writing. Deleting drafts. Many jobs and many daydreams.

L.L.: I have to touch on music. Deming/Daniel strongly connects with the musical world. It’s a place he can let down, express emotion, and sort of lose himself. Can you speak to that, please? How did this aspect of his character develop?

Lisa Ko: Music has always influenced my writing. I gave Deming music because I needed to bring some joy into his life and give him something that he could hold onto for himself, even in times of chaos. It’s a way that he’s able to form an identity for himself that goes beyond the expectations of his adoptive parents. Language is also a central part of the novel, and music is Deming’s third language, a language of his very own.

L.L.: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Ko: Thank you, Leslie!

For more information about THE LEAVERS, to connect with Lisa Ko via social media, or to purchase a copy, please see: 

Lisa-Ko-Bartosz-Potocki_2MBABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Apogee Journal, Narrative, O. Magazine, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Algonquin Books and used with permission. Young Lisa with parents retrieved from author’s website . ‘Factory Girls ‘and ‘Smuggled Chinese’ cover images retrieved from Amazon, all on 7.17.19] 

WeekEND Reading: James William Brown talks political unrest, shadow puppetry, the resilience and spirit of the Greek people, and so much more in his sweeping novel, MY LAST LAMENT

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own–and a nation’s–epic struggle in the aftermath of WWII.

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I was definitely intrigued with MY LAST LAMENT (Penguin/Random House, April 2017). The cover is gorgeous, plus I spent about a month living with a Greek family as a teenager. And then there’s the economic strife Greece is currently facing…in fact, it’s so bad in areas, one of our neighbors recently brought her mother (who was living in Greece) to her U.S. home to work and save money that she could send back to her family.

Another little fun fact: I recently watched an episode of WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE featuring John Stamos; much of the episode was filmed in Greece. The imagery is gorgeous, the people strong…but not without shame, hard work, and more.

MY LAST LAMENT is ‘told’ on a cassette tape by Aliki–an old woman and the last of the village lamenters–women who compose lament-poems for grieving families (this provides a very intimate storytelling method and would be fabulous heard as an audiobook). Aliki agrees to speak with an American ethnographer about her fading art. In the process, Aliki begins to sing her own story–as a fourteen year old girl, she witnessed her father’s execution for stealing a squash…at the hands of Nazi soldiers.

While I’ve read several stories about WWII, this one was entirely different…yet, the same. There are Jewish refugees, public executions, economic strife, makeshift families, unique trades/hobbies (in this case, puppeteering), but I can honestly say, I’ve yet to read a story about Greece during the aftermath of WWII.

I’d like to say I were sitting on a white-washed patio tucked into the hills of Santorini sipping Roditis with James William Brown…alas, we’ll have to make do with my suburban Chicago patio and Nebraska varietal. If wine’s not your thing, grab a beverage of choice and plop down.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, James. I’m curious about the title, MY LAST LAMENT. Did it come before or after you wrote the book? Was it in complete relation to Aliki, your main character, or was it somehow derived from another place? 

James William Brown: I always have trouble coming up with titles and I usually complete a work without one and then have to work it out.  That was the case here.  The manuscript was finished but had no title.  I knew that I wanted a line that was in Aliki’s tone of voice so I re-read the work carefully, looking for something that could represent the whole book and I found it on page 333, where she says this is probably her last lament.  As the whole book is really a lament for her life and times, the line seemed to suit, so I called it Probably My Last Lament.  My editor didn’t like “probably” and thought it was more dramatic just as MY LAST LAMENT. 


L.L.: You have a personal connection to Greece, having lived there in the 1960s teaching English. You loved it so much, you found other ways to sustain yourself and stayed…for ten years! Can you talk about that experience, please?

James William Brown: I lived in Greece from 1967 to 1977, teaching and writing.  I began my first village short stories there and one grew into my first novel, BLOOD DANCE.  When I  arrived, a military junta was running the country.  On the surface, everything looked normal but in fact the jails and detention centers were full of people who had dared to criticize the government.  Reports of torture were ancient-Magical-Phoenixwidespread and elections and public gatherings were forbidden and there was both press and mail censorship.  I worked with a group of people, Greeks and foreigners, to smuggle documentation of what was going on to Amnesty International in London which lobbied other governments to put pressure on the Greek government and as a result, many of the political prisoners were released.  After the junta fell in 1974, I wrote articles for The Nation and other publications about how Greece was adjusting to the aftermath of seven and half years of military rule.  It was a heady time with a rebirth of arts, music, political life and optimism about the future.  Greece is really like the mythological bird, the phoenix, which is destroyed in fire and re-born again and again.

Years later when I was working for an educational publisher here in Boston, the publisher acquired an Athens-based publishing house and I became the liaison between the editorial departments in Boston and Athens.  And my wife and I return to the same village on one of the islands as often as we can so the country remains part of our lives. Some parts of MY LAST LAMENT were written in that village. Greece is a complicated and often maddening place but endlessly fascinating.

L.L.: I am so curious about the role of a village lamenter. In all honesty, I had never heard of one before. My sense is, a lamenter composes chants/songs/poems for a grieving family specific to the person who has passed. Do I have that right? At times, too it reminded me of the practice of hospice care. Can you illuminate the profession for us?

James William Brown: Yes, that’s right.  It’s an ancient folk custom originally practiced throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and North Africa.  But it has largely died out in modern times.  I first got interested in it when I was living in a house that overlooked a village cemetery.  When a funeral procession entered the greek-cemetery-14334963cemetery, old women in black would stand by the gates making bird noises to ward off bad spirits.  I found out that some of these women were professional lamenters who composed lament poems about the dead at the request of relatives.  In a sense they eulogized the dead and honored them at a time when the actual bereaved family and friends were probably too overcome with grief to be able to do so.  In that way, lamenters performed a service for the bereaved family, the community and for the dead themselves.

L.L.: There are some really tough things that Aliki witnesses in her life: her father’s execution ranks high, but there’s also poverty, smuggling of Jewish refugees, a makeshift type of family. But this was WWII and just after. How does this time period compare with the local political and economic landscape of Greece?

James William Brown: I suppose the most obvious similarity between then and now is that Germany occupied Greece during WWII and today, because of its role in the European Union which is more or less regulating the present Greek economy, Germany has now what might be called a financial occupation of Greece.  Many of the present day problems in Greece have grown out of the aftermath of the War and the bitter civil war which followed it, as chronicled in MY LAST LAMENT. Distrust of government, unwillingness to pay taxes to it, a dense bureaucracy that strangles innovation, lack of opportunities for youth which encourages them to move abroad—these are just a few of the problems.  And of course Greece is on the forefront of receiving massive amounts of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa at a time when the country teeters toward default on the many e0693b66b86a759fb1686856e9f16259--vintage-italy-foto-vintageloans it has taken from the EU just to keep economically afloat.  But it has to be said that Greeks in general have many gifts: resilience, a sense of humor, a light heartedness contrasted with a certain ferocity and tenacity of spirit, along with a great capacity for joy and a sense of the irony in life.  And these have allowed them not only to endure but to prevail.  I tried to get many of those qualities into the character of Aliki, who narrates MY LAST LAMENT.

L.L.: I have to ask about puppetry…this is fun to me. Different. I have to wonder…is the act a little about suspending the horrific plight of the country and adding a little levity, in addition to a way of earning money?

James William Brown: I wasn’t really trying to add levity but I don’t mind if it reads that way.  Shadow puppetry is another centuries-old folk custom once prevalent in the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe.  In Greece it flourished mostly 220px-Karagoz_theatre_06315during the 400 or so years when the country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks Karagiozis, the main character, is the scheming villager who plays dumb in order to outwit the Turkish overlords.  These comedies were originally for children but Stelios, the puppeteer, brings them into the present by making a puppet based on Takis, one of the other characters, helping to outwit the occupying Germans.  Then there were also more serious historical plays enjoyed by adults too such as The Hero Katsandonis, which Stelios, Aliki and Takis perform several times in MY LAST LAMENT  For uneducated rural audiences, this was a way of learning their cultural history when the times they were living through were as terrible as the times in the play.   So there is a sense of stories within the story, levels of time overlapping such as when Stelios makes puppets based on himself and Aliki along with the Takis puppet in a story about what happened back in their own village which changed their lives and started their travels together as puppeteers.

L.L.: And madness. Always a fascination of mine. What is your take of the mental unrest in MY LAST LAMENT?

James William Brown: The only mentally unbalanced character is poor Takis who demonstrates traces of both childhood schizophrenia and bipolar behavior.  Of course the question is what conditions were present in him to begin with and what were brought on (or exacerbated) by events such as the village massacre by the Germans in which his mother, and Stelios’s mother, were killed and for which Takis initially received much of the blame.  There’s no way of knowing.  What’s clear is that his rock to cling to is Aliki but he’s too young to understand that she’s on the cusp of young womanhood.  So her love for Stelios drives him into fits of jealousy and worsens his other conditions. Still, he’s a lost little boy, deserving of love and pity and so much more than life can possibly give him.  There was little if any help for children with these kind of psychiatric problems in that place and time.  I cared deeply about all my characters but I cared the most about Takis.

L.L.: I don’t know about you, but I’ve drained my glass of wine…is there anything more you’d like to add about MY LAST LAMENT, your summer plans, if you’re going back to Greece anytime soon, what you’re working on next, or something completely different?

James William Brown: My wine is nearly gone too.  One thing I’d like to mention is that MY LAST LAMENT, in spite of many terrible events, is also a funny book.  Aliki’s tone of voice as she records her life is by turns wry, ironic, crabby, irreverent and altogether down to earth in its humor.  And, as she says near the end, “Hope, that’s all we’ve got, isn’t it, our most important word?”

No special plans for summer but my wife and I may go to Greece in September.  I’m working on another novel in which both Aliki and Takis continue to be characters (they won’t let go of me).  There’s a scene later in MY LAST LAMENT in which Aliki sees a photograph in a newspaper of Takis grown into a young man in a military uniform in the 1970’s.  That photograph is the launch of another story because as Stelios said, “We become the stories we tell.”

L.L.: Thanks so much for chatting with me—it’s been a pleasure!

James William Brown: Thank you. Leslie.  Here’s to you!  Now the wine is done.  On to the next story.

For more information about MY LAST LAMENT, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see: 

2141017.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: James William Brown is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Blood Dance, which the New York Times said, “…conveys the layered history of a small Greek island where the past is everywhere.  An assured and seductive debut.”  His short stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in a number of publications including most recently Narrative Magazine and Fiction International.  A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, Brown has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and is a two-time winner of writing fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts.  He has served as editorial director of publishing houses specializing in materials in the fields of applied linguistics and English as a second language in New York, Boston and Athens and was formerly the host of BookNotes, a weekly radio book review program in Massachusetts. Originally from Illinois, he lived and taught in Greece for ten years but presently lives with his wife in the greater Boston area.  They return annually to a village on the Greek island of Evia.  He is currently at work on his third novel, also set in Greece. [Author photo credit: Jane McLachlan Brown]

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from Penguin Random House’s website. Greek grandmas retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Shadow puppetry image from Wikipedia, mythological phoenix retrieved from ancientorgins.com, all on 7.12.17] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Benjamin Ludwig talks about how being a foster parent to a child with autism inspired his brilliant debut GINNY MOON, waking at 3 a.m. to write, how his superintendent denied a request for a leave of absence for a book tour, & so much more.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Heartwarming and refreshingly honest and delightful story about a young autistic girl, her struggles in life, and an American family struggling to be one. 

GinnyMoon-3d-cvr GINNY MOON (Park Row Books, May 2 2017)…oh how you’ve won me over!! Forever Blue, Forever Family, Forever Ginny…you are absolutely delightful, but I have to give you credit to your author,Benjamin Ludwig who writes with searing honesty, authenticity, and such delight that I found parts funny, poignant, sad–and at times–wanted to knock some sense into the characters.

Fourteen year old Ginny has recently been adopted by Maura and Brian Moon, her Forever Parents.
From all outside perspectives, Ginny appears to be a typical teenager. She loves Michael Jackson, she attends public school and reads classics in her language arts class…but she also gets ‘pulled aside’ where she interacts with a few ‘special kids.’

Ginny has ‘issues,’ but she’s working through them. On ‘the other side of Forever,’ she had a Birth Mother who abused and neglected her. She was bruised and emaciated when social services intervened.

Even though her new, Forever Home is warm and loving, it’s about to turn upside-down with the arrival of the couple’s first biological child. Ginny is very singularly minded, very literal. She is concerned with a baby doll she left behind in a suitcase with her Birth Mother. Everyone is perplexed, until they learn just what Ginny is referring to.

Told entirely in Ginny’s peculiar POV, she’s easy to love, plucky and adorable, even when she makes bad choices. GINNY MOON is quirky and charming and I absolutely loved it all.

Join me in welcoming Benjamin Ludwig to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Wow. I just devoured GINNY MOON. I know many of your inspirations to write this story came from your personal involvement at a foster parent. I think many of our first stories are just that: brought forth from a place or an experience in our ‘real lives.’ Can you talk about that, please?

Benjamin Ludwig: Glad to! As you mentioned, my wife and I are foster parents — and in 2009 we adopted a young lady with autism.  So right there, there’s the experience from my real life.  My wife and I are very socially conscious people.  She’s a computer scientist, so right out of graduate school, she was offered quite a lot of money by quite a few companies to come work for them.   Instead, [my wife] decided to volunteer for a year to live and work in a shelter for battered homeless women.  As for me, I’d been teaching for years, and had had a good number of foster and homeless children in my classroom.  Both of us have a lot of compassion for people who need homes, especially children.  Because man, if we can’t take care of children – who rank among the voiceless in our society – what business do we have doing anything else?  It’s incomprehensible for me to know that there are kids out there without homes or families. download (33)

It didn’t make sense or occur to me when I was writing GINNY MOON, but really the book gives a voice to a character (Ginny) who wouldn’t otherwise have one.  That’s what I want to do with my life, on every level: to give voice to people who don’t have a voice.

L.L.: So you’re an English teacher.  But you’ve always been a writer. I read somewhere (your acknowledgements section?) that you had a professor who said, “Don’t teach. Wait tables if you have to, but don’t teach.” It seems like you showed him! But you’re doing both. How do the two balance one another?

Benjamin Ludwig: I may have showed him, but he was still right in that teaching took up all my time.  I mean all of it.  So if I wanted to write, I had to give something up – and that meant sleep.  I get up at 3:30 every day to write, mainly because my kids get up around 6:00.  Then I’m a full-time dad, because we have a three-year-old.  He’ll be in pre-K all day next in the fall, so I’ll be able to get a lot more work done.

When I signed my book contract, I learned that I would have to tour for basically two full months (January and May) – and during those two months, school is very much in-session.  I asked my superintendent if I could take a leave of absence, and she said no.  So I quit my job.  Believe me, I didn’t want to!  I could go back to teaching public school, but not to the same place.  My position has been filled (I was a new-teacher mentor and department head – awesome gig!) and isn’t likely to open up again anytime soon.  My hope now is to teach writing at the university level.  So if there are any MFA directors out there looking to hire…

“Benjamin Ludwig gives us a remarkable heroine in Ginny Moon.  Writing poignantly and yet starkly believably from an autistic girl’s point of view, he allows us to see the world in all its glorious mess, full of people trying to do their best and often failing, but heroically so.”
—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times Best Selling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue

L.L.: At times, the writing and storytelling of GINNY MOON reminded me of Emma Donogue’s acclaimed ROOM. GINNY MOON is primarily literary fiction, at times it reads a bit like a domestic suspense as the pacing is there and there are some deeper psychological issues at heart. Can you talk a bit about your planning process for this novel, the structure? And are you a plotter or a pantser:

Benjamin Ludwig: (Find something from one of the other pieces here, about the voice.) I didn’t plan to write GINNY MOON at all – the voice came to me in a very mysterious, exciting way – so in that sense, I don’t think I can claim to be a plotter.  Not for this one, anyway.  Before GINNY, I’d written at least ten other books, all of them unpublished, and I planned out every single one of them.  But with GINNY, I came home one night in 2013 from my daughter’s Special Olympics basketball practice with a voice ringing in my ears.  It wasn’t my daughter’s voice, and it wasn’t the voice of any of the other kids I’d just been talking with at practice.  It was a desperate, quirky, driving voice – one that demanded to be written.  So I sat and I wrote, and immediately saw that I had something beyond exciting.  After that I wrote out an outline – but Ginny refused to do what the outline said.  And thank goodness!  Her direction proved to be much better. GettingReadytoRead-290x300

So I think I’m a plotter-turned-pantser.  The book I’m working on now is following the same format: I started with a voice, and am simply letting the voice go where it needs to go.  GINNY may have made a convert out of me.

L.L.: GINNY MOON touches on some of the children who have fallen through the cracks in our educational system, as well as adoption, foster families, and so much more. Can you share a bit about your thoughts on these subjects, what would you like others to know about the ‘system?’

Benjamin Ludwig: Yes!  I’d like to say that social workers are doing the best they can.  These aren’t folks who go into their professions expecting to make lots of money, like doctors and lawyers.  Most parents don’t dream about their children going off to college to become adoption case-workers.  It’s not exactly the American Dream.  The social workers my wife and I met have been genuine, hardworking, insightful people who enriched our lives tremendously by helping us to find and adopt our daughter. 

Are there problems in social services?  I suppose there must be.  After all, when you’re dealing with people who have had their parental rights severed, and children who have been taken forcibly away from their homes, and caregivers who feel they must protect children at all costs, someone isn’t going to be happy.  That’s a very different situation than the one we see in public schools.  In a public school, if there’s a student who needs help, everyone has the potential to benefit.  The parent, the child, the teacher, the school – everyone can enjoy the child’s success.  But in an adoption, someone has been taken away from someone, and that’s at least two very distressed people.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for social workers.  And for public school teachers as well. But if one of the two groups has a harder row to hoe, I’d say it’s the social worker by far.  And like I said, they did a great job for us!   

L..L.: If you were to explore another character or storyline in GINNY MOON, which one are you most drawn to?

Benjamin Ludwig: Funny you should ask that.  I don’t foresee there being a sequel to the book, but when I finished it, I couldn’t quite let Ginny go.  Just as you guessed, there are other characters and storylines I wanted to explore, PLUS I missed Ginny herself.  So I gave her a section of my newsletter.  Each month she updates readers as to her continued adventures.  Right now she’s trying to capture her neighbor’s cat (remember Mrs. Taylor, who lives across the street from the Blue House?), and she’s going to meet a new friend with a very different set of special needs.  The newsletter is available here (for free of course).  Each month I share book news, my thoughts about my journey from teacher to writer, and of course Ginny’s section. 

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

Benjamin Ludwig: I looked up the origin of the phrase “on par” because I wanted to use it in an article I’m writing for a magazine in Italy.  It’s a golf phrase, of course – and since golf originated in Scotland, I think I’m going to play it safe and not use it. download (32).jpg

L.L.: It’s been such a pleasure! I’m so glad to have been ‘introduced’ to GINNY MOON. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have—like what you’re working on next, your summer plans, what’s on your nightstand, what you had for breakfast?

Benjamin Ludwig: Likewise!  It’s been a lot of fun, Leslie, and I can’t thank you enough! I’ll tell you that yes, I’m definitely working on another book – and if folks sign up for the newsletter they can follow its journey.  This one is about a little boy who grows up to be a poet.  It’s a very different book, told in third-person, and one that’s very personal.  I hope people love it!

For breakfast?  Hardboiled eggs with salt, and a handful of radishes.  Best way to start the day!

For more information, to connect with Benjamin Ludwig on social media, or to purchase a copy of GINNY MOON, please see: 

BEN-photo.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: A life-long teacher of English and writing, Ginny Moon is Benjamin Ludwig’s first novel. Shortly after he and his wife married they became foster parents and adopted a teenager with autism. The novel was inspired, in part, by his conversations with other parents at Special Olympics basketball practices.

 

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. “Getting Ready to Read” photo credit: Perry Smith. ‘on-par’ image retrieved from this NYT article]

 

 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Fiona Barton is back with her much anticipated second book, THE CHILD; what she learned this time around, the images that were haunting her, the fine balance of motherhood and career & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

“You can bury the story…but you can’t hide the truth…” so begins the hook for the second crime drama/suspense, THE CHILD (Berkley Hardcover, June 27 2017) by Fiona Barton.

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You may recall Fiona Barton’s 2016 summer debut, THE WIDOW at the top of the New York Times bestseller list… a global phenomenon.

She’s back this summer with a brand-new story, but featuring Kate Waters, the investigative journalist we ‘met’ in THE WIDOW. This time, she plays a more central role.

Set in London, THE CHILD encompasses the lives of three women and one baby.
But there’s a twist: the baby is missing or dead or…we don’t entirely know.

Workmen uncover the tiny skeleton of an infant while demolishing an old house in London. It’s been buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters it’s the perfect story. Who is this baby? Why wasn’t s/he given a proper burial? With journalism and newspapers quickly being replaced by more amateur-ish reporting (i.e. Internet/FB/Twitter), it’s a story she feels compelled to investigate.

As Kate digs into the past, she finds there are several grisly secrets rising to the surface.  THE CHILD is a bit more forensic-procedural-crime-driven read, but it has a very satisfying end.

Please join me in welcoming Fiona Barton back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Hello and welcome back, Fiona! THE CHILD begins with a pretty grisly discovery: an infant skeleton is uncovered in a former garden as workmen are demolishing a building. What did you discover about yourself as you were writing THE CHILD?

Fiona Barton:

  1. How to write a second book. Steep learning curve.
  2. Ability to waste hours of time when should be writing (working on this)
  3. Patience (essential when ideas are cooking)
  4. That, after 30 years of news journalism, invention is the most wonderfully liberating thing.

L.L.: The image of a buried newborn sort of haunted me as I read (I think this is what you intended—so bravo!), and clearly it haunts your character, Angela, whose infant daughter was abducted from the hospital just days old. What was haunting you enough that you wrote THE CHILD?download (26)

Fiona Barton: The same thing. For THE WIDOW, I had the voice of my main character Jean in my head, driving me on but it was an image for THE CHILD. I could see a baby, wrapped in newspaper, being buried secretly and I wrote this scene first because it was so vivid. I remember trying to read it to a friend and having to stop. I’d written it in the first person and it was completely overwhelming.

L.L.: You’re a former journalist and I can only imagine that experience colored the character of your character, Kate Waters. They say journalism is changing; there’s the 24-hour news cycle, more people who claim to be ‘experts,’ and writing about things maybe they shouldn’t…can you talk about ‘good news’ and ‘bad news,’ how we consume current events…

Fiona Barton: Although it is only two years since she broke the story of the abduction of Bella Elliott [in THE WIDOW], Kate’s world in THE CHILD has changed beyond recognition. News is now 24/7, online, visual, powered by social media, algorithms and the multiple news platforms available to the public.download (25)

I think it is fantastic that news and information can reach so many people instantly but the downside is that perhaps we have focused so hard on the technology for delivering news that we have lost sight of the quality of the content. The boast that everyone is a journalist because they are on social media has turned out to be a hollow one. They are not journalists. Journalism is gathering facts, checking the truth of statements, analyzing information and telling the story. The millions on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al are sometimes reporting facts but more often, they are giving their opinion. Not the same. And I am convinced it  has opened the door to the horror that is Fake News.

I have addressed this head-on with Kate because it is an issue that affects many journalists of my vintage. In THE CHILD, she is paired up with a new, young online reporter and finds her ideas of accuracy and news values under threat.  Her complaint that news websites rely on “Hate a celebrity, dressed up as news” is a heartfelt one…

L.L.: What I found striking about THE CHILD was the common thread: motherhood. All the mothers in this story are very different. There’s Jude and Emma, Angela, and Kate. Can you talk about how they vary as mothers and who you identified with most (I think I can guess the answer)?

Fiona Barton: The emotions, responsibilities – and the pain – of motherhood are unique to each of us with children. Ask any woman and she will have her own story to tell.

For THE CHILD I chose three very contrasting mothers: Angela, who lost her daughter before she could form a relationship; Jude, who chose to send her daughter away and Kate, the working mother, juggling ambition and family.

Jude was the most difficult to write because her traumatic years with her adolescent daughter, Emma and her decision to throw her out, were so alien to me. But, with Angela, I’d interviewed two or three women who had to give up their babies at birth and I’ve never forgotten their accounts of the pain of those partings.

motherhoodRFD-custom1In confidence, I didn’t have to look too far to write about Kate’s guilt when a story threatens to take priority over her children. But you’ll have to ask my two if I got it right…

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

Fiona Barton: The thrill of the ride! Anything else will come from them. We all read in such an individual way that we create our own version of a book. As the famous English writer, Dr. Johnson, said several hundred years ago: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

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

Fiona Barton: Wish I could say literary quotes or forensic facts…but it was train times!

 “Fiona Barton has outdone herself with THE CHILD. An engrossing, irresistible story about the coming to light of a long-buried secret and an absolutely fabulous read—I loved it!”

Shari Lapena, New York Times bestselling author of The Couple Next Door

L.L.: What book would you take with you on holiday? 

Fiona Barton: Am collecting candidates and in my beach bag so far are THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrere, LAST STOP TOKYO by James Buckler and THE GO BETWEEN  by L.P. Hartley. Room for more…

L.L.: Fiona, as always, it was a pleasure. Was there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Fiona Barton: I am writing my next book as we speak. And Kate is still there with her foot in the door.

For more information about THE CHILD, to connect with Fiona Barton via social media, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

download (27)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: My career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.

But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, by visiting these sites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission. Motherhood image retrieved from the NYTimes, multimedia journalism image retrieved from College of Media and Publishing, 

Wednesdays with Writers: In her fourth book of domestic suspense Mary Kubica tackles a grieving young mother, a marriage rife with secrets, and the dark folds of one’s mind in EVERY LAST LIE, set in the western Chicago suburbs

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By Leslie Lindsay 

When Mary Kubica arrived on the scene in 2014 with her twisty, dark and obsessive THE GOOD GIRL, I was hooked. And I think it’s safe to say that many others are, too. She’s a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, making her summer books a quick read, and ones I look forward to every year.

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EVERY LAST LIE (June 27, 2017) takes a desperate and grieving young window to the edge. Clara Solberg is shattered when she learns her husband is suddenly killed in a car crash. She answers the door with her days-old infant son in her arms, wet spots on the front of her shirt. She hasn’t slept in days. Her 4-year old daughter, Maisie, also in the car at the time is unharmed. But Nick is dead.

Maisie starts having nightmares and is talking in her sleep about ‘a bad guy.’ But the crash was deemed an accident; a one-car accident due to Nick’s speeding. Still, Maisie’s response has Clara concerned, and perhaps a little unhinged.  Could someone have been out to kill Nick? But who? And why? He was an upstanding man, a dentist, a father. 

Check out the chilling book trailer of EVERY LAST LIE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsYzpz_z0AY

Clara is plunged into a desperate attempt to find out what *really* happened that late afternoon as the sun bore down on the winding road on the way home from Maisie’s ballet lesson. I felt every raw emotion from pity, sympathy, disbelief, even anger.

Told in alternating POVs: Clara’s “after” and Nick’s “just before,” Kubica does a lovely job of writing domestic suspense, her strength I think, is bringing Chicgaoland to life; her characters are fully developed, flawed, and unique. There are plenty of red herrings, too but they are presented in such an authentic way that doesn’t feel forced; in many cases, everyone becomes a suspect. EVERY LAST LIE is chock full of hair-pin twists and chilling revelations.

So pull up a chair and join me and Mary for a little coffee break. By-the-way, she only drinks hot coffee, not the iced frou-frou stuff I prefer.

Leslie Lindsay: It was a few years ago as we were talking about PRETTY BABY at a local coffee shop that I asked what was brewing for your next book. You had just turned in the edits for DON’T YOU CRY.  You leaned forward and said, “It’s in its very early stages but a father and young daughter in a car. There’s an accident. The daughter remembers things that might make it seem as if the father was murdered.” Of course I was intrigued.  What ultimately inspired the storyline for EVERY LAST LIE?download (16)

Mary Kubica: While most of my novels stem solely from my imagination, EVERY LAST LIE was inspired by a news article that caught my eye.  The headline read something to the effect of: girl’s nightmares help solve the mystery of her father’s death, and immediately I was intrigued.  I knew right away that I wanted to do something with this, but being only partway through writing DON’T YOU CRY at the time, I had to table the idea for a bit.  But of course, the wheels in my mind were already turning, creating Nick and Clara long before I began to write their story down on paper.

L.L.: All of your books have been set in the Chicagoland area, which living here, I know is immense (thanks to some stats in EVERY LAST LIE, I now know it tops out at ten million). PRETTY BABY took place in the city, so too did parts of DON’T YOU CRY (also resort communities across Lake Michigan). THE GOOD GIRL was home to a wealthy North Shore community and remote Minnesota. But this book—EVERY LAST LIE—takes place nearly in my backyard. My daughter played a soccer tournament at Commissioner’s Park where Clara met with Kat. My kids will one day attend the high school on Harvey Road where Nick met his death. I know about the sex shops and seedy motels on Rt. 30; the myriad of dental practices lining Rt. 59. I think I might even know the exposed beam converted warehouse where Maisie takes ballet lessons. I’ve driven Douglas Road and Wolf’s Crossing. On a regular basis. So the question is: why this area? And might it have something images (11)to do with the fact that these tragedies often happen to just about anyone, anywhere, or something more?

Mary Kubica: I set EVERY LAST LIE in the western suburbs of Chicago because like you, this is home to me.  My own children grew up playing at Commissioner’s Park – which they dubbed the hippo park themselves, an anecdote that made its way into the novel – and many of the locations mentioned in the story are based loosely on places I know (the police station and Maisie’s ballet studio, for example, as well as the hairpin turn where Nick meets his death).  My previous novels have all been set in the city of Chicago but for this one I wanted something different and new; the suburbs fit the bill perfectly.    

L.L.: Clara’s mother is suffering from dementia. She reminds me a bit of Alex’s father in DON’T YOU CRY who is an aloof alcoholic. I like how you balance two storylines, often one with medical underpinnings. Is this deliberate on your part, or does it just sort of ‘come’ to you?

Mary Kubica: Rarely in our lives are we able to tackle just one mishap at a time.  How often do we ask ourselves, Why does everything have to happen at the same time?  We take on too much, we give too much of ourselves until we’re pulled in all directions and don’t have a second in our days to spare.  To me, Clara’s mother’s dementia is an example of real life.  Many people in Clara’s generation are dealing with aging parents while trying to raise families of their own.  It puts plenty of stress on an individual.  Add in a newborn baby and the unexpected loss of a spouse, and it’s enough to throw Clara into a tailspin.  Not only does the inclusion of Louisa help round out Clara’s character for me and give her some depth and emotion aside from her immediate family, but it’s authentic.  Many of us are bogged down by more stressors than we can handle.  If a tremendous tragedy were to occur, there’s noburroakdistance telling how we might respond.

L.L. And Clara. She is a brand-new mother having just given birth to little Felix, plus running after 4-year old Maisie when the knock arrives at the door that her husband has been in an accident. You convey a sleep-deprived, grief-stricken mother so well. Please tell me this isn’t based on fact.

Mary Kubica: I think most mothers and fathers can relate to those sleep-deprived days, weeks and months after a baby is born, when the amount of sleep we reap is slim and because of the overwhelming fatigue, we go through the motions, there but not there all at the same time.  This is something I can relate to though, thank goodness, I never had a tragedy like Clara’s to contend with at the same time.  I think some readers will be unsympathetic to Clara; she’s overwhelmed, she’s grieving, and she makes a number of poor decisions, especially where her children are concerned.  I tend to feel sorry for her because I don’t think any of us can know for certain how we’d respond in a similar situation unless we were in Clara’s shoes.

L.L.: I know you’re not a plotter, but do you start out with a sentence, or perhaps only a premise? John Grisham says an author should always know the ending before he even begins writing. I tend to disagree. Where do you sit on that debate? And do you have little hacks to keep your story moving forward…note cards, post-its? Have you ever written yourself into a corner?


Mary Kubica:
I start out with an idea, usually some sort of problem that my characters will spend the next three hundred pages sorting through.  With EVERY LAST LIE, it began with the idea that a recent widow comes to believe her husband’s death wasn’t accidental, but rather a murder.  Rarely do I know the ending of my novels when I begin; I need time to get to know my characters and figure out how the story will go before I can decide how it will end.  I write myself into corners from time to time, mostly because I’m not a plotter, because I don’t rely on notecards or post-it notes to keep my thoughts organized, but have a tendency to dive right into the writing (my favorite part!), wing it a little and see what happens.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it takes a little backtracking and a lot of editing to get my ideas clearly across.  Sounds a little pell-mell on paper, but it’s a method that works well for me.

L.L.: There were so many ways this story could have gone. Do you ever have multiple endings in mind? Do you have difficulty deciding which direction to take? I know I would!

Mary Kubica: Yes, there are always many ways the story could go!  Truly, I consider them all before attempting to rule out the most obvious solutions.  I try and decide how the reader will envision the ending, and then do a 180 in the hopes of taking readers by surprise!  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, my main goal is that readers enjoy tagging along on Nick and Clara’s journey.

L.L.: You’re a busy mom and yet your summer is filled with a Midwest book tour, a bit of a break and then back at it this fall. Plus, you obviously need time to write. download (17)How do you balance the demands of a family with that of in-demand author? Do you ever have to say ‘no’?

Mary Kubica: I do have to say no, and it’s been happening with more frequency lately.  I hate passing up on any opportunity, but my kiddos aren’t so little any more – they’re 9 and 11 now, very soon to be 10 and 12 – and I’m coming to the awful realization that they won’t want to hang out with Mom much longer.  I relish these days we can spend together, and make every attempt to keep my family my number one priority in life, which means that I can’t always do the travel and publicity that’s part and parcel of a writing career.  I do as much as I can from home, and many libraries, bookstores and book clubs have been wonderful to Skype or FaceTime with me to cut down a bit on travel.  Beyond that, my travel has been streamlined to help me better maintain that work life balance.  A day will (unfortunately) come when my kids don’t need me quite as much, and then I’ll have more hours in my day to commit to my career.

L.L.: Can you give us a little glimpse as to what’s next for you? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Mary Kubica: I’m just finishing up my fifth novel, called 11 DAYS, which is a story about identity and infertility, and will be released next summer.  Beyond that, my family has a trip to Hilton Head planned this summer.  I’m so looking forward to a little time away!

L.L.: As always, it was a pleasure, Mary. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Is there anything else I should have asked but may have forgotten?

Mary Kubica: I think you covered everything, Leslie!  Thank you for including me again, and I look forward to chatting over coffee sometime soon.  Enjoy your summer!

For more information about EVERY LAST LIE, to connect with Mary, or to purchase your own copy of the book, please visit: 

Mary Kubica-9ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mary Kubica is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of four novels.  A former high school history teacher, Mary holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children, where she enjoys photography, gardening and caring for the animals at a local shelter.

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

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Park Row Books and used with permission. Image of Harvey Rd. retrieved from Trulia.com/public images. Burr Oak tree on Katy Trail in McBain, MO retrieved from bikekatytrail.com] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Would you stop to help a stranded motorist? In the rain? What if that person was found murdered the next day? B.A. Paris explores this and more in her smashing psychological thriller, THE BREAKDOWN as well as writing pressure, ideas for the next book, and so much more!

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By Leslie Lindsay 

The highly anticipated second book from B.A. Paris following last summer’s stunning, bestselling BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. 

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I could. Not. Put. This. Book. Down. You know the books that make you ignore your family and other responsibilities like work and feeding your children? This is one of those. If you read 2016’s BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, Paris’s debut psychological thriller and were totally swept away, THE BREAKDOWN (June 20 2017, St. Martin’s Press) is just as good, if not better.

Cass Anderson is a newly married woman living in a quiet little hamlet in England with her very handsome husband. She’s struggling though after spotting a car on a lone winding lane during a torrential downpour, with a woman sitting inside…a woman who is later killed.

She’s trying to put the crime out of her mind, but it haunts her. Should she have done something? Pulled over? Perhaps if she had not taken that shortcut…

And now Cass’s memory is at stake
. Little things at first, then bigger things. But she can’t forget this woman, this car, this murder.

I don’t want to give away too much, other than the writing is breakneck speed, the short, choppy sentences are riveting. I simply did not want to put this book down; a page-turner in every sense of the word.

So, grab a cup of tea or coffee and eavesdrop on our conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: B.A., it’s a pleasure to have you back! I tore through this chilling tale, I simply could not put it down. I even dragged my children to the pool so I could lounge in the sun reading. I have to ask, what was the inspiration behind this one?

B.A. Paris: It’s a pleasure to be back, thank you for inviting me again. I love the image of you lying in the sun reading THE BREAKDOWN – probably safer than reading it at night! The inspiration behind the story actually came from two sources. The first was from a personal experience. I was driving home through some woods one afternoon when the sky suddenly darkened and I found myself caught up in a huge storm. There was no-one around and I began to wonder what would happen if I broke down, or if I saw someone who had broken down. If it was the middle of the night, would I stop to help or would I drive on? I thought it would be a great opening for a story. The second source was images (12)from various friends who had witnessed dementia in their parents and were kind enough to share their experiences with me. I’d already had an idea for a story where the central character feared she was suffering from early onset dementia, so I decided to bring these two ideas together to create THE BREAKDOWN.

L.L.: I think your skill lies in swift pacing, building anticipation, planting doubt and suspicious; truly brilliant. Yet, from the reader’s perspective, everything sort of feels stream-of-consciousness. Are you novels carefully plotted?

B.A. Paris: No, not at all. I always know what the opening scene is going to be, and I know the end I want to get to. The journey between these two points is a voyage of discovery!

“This psychological thriller is even harder to put down than Paris’ 2016 best-seller debut Behind Closed Doors; schedule reading time accordingly. With two in a row, Paris moves directly to the thriller A-list.” – Booklist, Starred Review!

L.L.: There’s so much I want to ask you, but don’t want to give it away! Can you tell us if you did any research on this story? Are the places real? Castle Wells? Browbury? I started Googling them, but came up empty-handed. What can you tell us about the setting?

B.A. Paris: As well as listening to my friends’ first-hand experiences of the effects of dementia on their parents, the internet proved to be a great source of information regarding early onset dementia. As for Castle Wells and Browbury, they exist only in my imagination, although they are loosely based on towns I know in England, around where I grew up.  

L.L. I have to draw a few similarities between BEHIND CLOSED DOORS and THE BREAKDOWN. First, they both feature young/newly married couples. BEHIND CLOSED DOORS it’s more recent—like Honeymoon stage and THE BREAKDOWN is within the first year. Children are not present in either of the books. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, other than what might intrigue you about young, childless couples?

B.A. Paris: That’s a good question! I don’t think it was intentional that I chose young, childless couples, I think it was more of a sub-conscious thing. People usually enjoy reading about young, newly married couples and children make stories more complicated, which is why I chose not to give Cass and Matthew any in THE BREAKDOWN. The plot was already complicated with the two different strands – the murder and the dementia – running through it.

L.L.: Can you share, without using complete sentences, what was going on in your life as you wrote THE BREAKDOWN?images (13)

B.A. Paris: Pressure!

L.L.: This is your second book. Was there any more (or different) pressure this time around? Can you talk about that, please? What might you have done better or differently?

B.A. Paris:  This question is great, as it explains my answer to your previous question. There was definitely a lot of pressure whilst I was writing THE BREAKDOWN. When I wrote BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, I didn’t know it was going to be published, so I was basically writing it for myself, with no particular audience in mind. With THE BREAKDOWN, I was writing it for all those who had loved BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, so the pressure to deliver the same kind of reader experience was definitely there. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, but maybe if I’d had more confidence that I could write another psychological thriller I wouldn’t have felt quite so stressed.

L.L.: What in your real life might be a mystery or a psych thriller?

B.A. Paris: I really have to think about this one […] I would love to be able to tell you something amazing, but I’m afraid my life has always been quite ordinary. However, a few years ago one of my daughters had an experience which I may use as the basis for a future book. I can’t tell you what it was at I don’t want to give anything away!

L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but I want to let others get out there and get their hands on this book; it’s that good. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

B.A. Paris: I’d just like to tell you about my next book, if I may. It’s another psychological thriller and also features a couple with no children. But they do have a dog! It’s very different to BEHIND CLOSED DOORS and THE BREAKDOWN, and will be out in 2018.

L.L. B.A., it was a complete pleasure. Happy summer!

B.A. Paris:  Thank you so much for your questions, Leslie, a happy summer to you too!

For more information, to connect with B.A. Paris, or to order a copy of THE BREAKDOWN, please see: 

BA Paris_CREDIT Ev SekkidesABOUT THE AUTHOR: B.A. PARIS is the New York Time, USA Today, and internationally bestselling author of Behind Closed Doors. She grew up in England but has spent most of her adult life in France. She has worked both in finance and as a teacher and has five daughters.

 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. Image of wooded road retrieved from Shutterstock, writer at work from CafePress, all on 6.19.17]  

Wednesdays with Writers: Lori Rader-Day talks about her summer plans to teach at distinguished writing institutions, her latest book, THE DAY I DIED, and how it got it’s start at a writer’s workshop nearly 10 years ago, handwriting analysis, what she loves (and hates) about being a novelist and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

THE DAY I DIED explores the fascinating and unique aspects of handwriting analysis to help track down a killer/kidnapper told in a dark, glimmering prose. 

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Lori Rader-Day burst onto the literary scene in 2014 with her debut mystery, THE BLACK HOUR, which won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. And then her second book, LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, won the Mary Higgins Clark award and was named a 2015 “most arresting crime novel” by the notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews.

That’s nothing to sneeze at. Now, with a new publisher, William Morrow, Lori returns with THE DAY I DIED (April 11, 2017), an unforgettable tale o f a mother’s search for a lost boy.

Anna Winger is on the run. We know she has secrets, but what exactly are they? This is part of mystery #1. The second is that there’s a 2-year-old boy missing from the town in which she and her 13 -year-old son are currently living. The sheriff calls her in, asks if she can take a look at some handwriting samples to discern where this young child is and perhaps who may have taken him.

And there’s more, too. Why is there a dead nanny in a bathroom stall? And who killed her?

Anna is working so, so hard to cover up this past of hers, the one she’s running from and trying her best to shield her son from.
But the current events with the missing child is dredging up some dark memories.

Told entirely in Anna’s POV, we travel from small town Indiana to a Wisconsin lake, from present to past, and back again. Rader-Day’s skill lies in writing so authentically about the Midwest, getting into the heads of her characters, and weaving a tangled web of possibilities.

Please join me in welcoming Lori Rader-Day back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Lori, it’s great to have you back. I always think of one of our first chats in which you told me that you could write anywhere, and that you once amassed many pages on a cruise ship. What are your summer plans this year?

Lori Rader-Day: My plans include writing, writing, and more writing, but probably not on a cruise ship. I’m teaching at Yale Writers’ Workshop (I’ll be in New Haven when this post launches) and Antioch Writers’ Workshop this summer, traveling to Mackinac Island to do a library talk and stay at the magnificent Grand Hotel, and did I mention writing?thumbs_grand-hotel-mackinac-island-americas-summer-place

L.L.: I understand THE DAY I DIED was written as a short story during your creative writing program nearly a decade ago (I’m going to come back to that soon), what was it then that was the seed for this story?

Lori Rader-Day: I needed something new to bring to my workshop, so I went to a library and trolled around for inspiration. I found a book on the shelf, facing out, about handwriting analysis and thought, “Well, I don’t anything about that.” The short story is still in the book, though it’s bookended by a new beginning, some new scenes, and about 350 more pages after the story “ends.”

L.L.: And so THE DAY I DIED didn’t become your first published book. Or your second. Sometimes I think our best ideas take time to percolate. Was it that way for you, or something else?

Lori Rader-Day: The idea for THE DAY I DIED was a good one, but it was a complex one and one that I was not ready to perfect. When I finished the first full draft in 2009, I was in the middle of a day-job career transition and I think what I needed was distance from this story. I also needed something new to write in the mean time. The new thing turned into my first published novel, THE BLACK HOUR. After I turned in LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, I thought to return to THE DAY I DIED, to see if I was a good enough writer to make it what I had hoped it would be. The distance I had given it worked really well. It had been about six years by that point, and I was able to see where I’d set myself up badly. Revisions still took time, but at least my vision for the book was clear.

L.L.: I love, love the idea of handwriting analysis.[graphology]. As I was reading, I told my family about the premise of the book and got a few raised eyebrows, much like Sheriff Keller’s view of it being ‘woo-woo.’ What can you tell me about this practice? And I’d love to hear a few ‘truths,’ about handwriting styles, too. Have you ever had yours analyzed?

Lori Rader-Day:  I don’t have the training that Anna Winger does in the book; I’ve only done a little research in order to do the book. That said, I learned a few things, enough to intuit some vague ideas about someone’s handwriting. I have also had the chance to meet a couple of handwriting experts since I published the book; one of them did my Chicago launch event with me. We talked about the book a little, but then I interviewed him about his work and learned enough to do a sequel! He analyzed my handwriting for the audience, which was fun. (And he was kind, maybe suspiciously so.) One story he told that I’m fascinated by was one in which he worked with a farmer who claimed a contract with his “X” on it had not been signed by him. notebook-letter_300His X—he meant this literally—had indeed been forged, and this expert could tell just by the way the fibers in the paper showed the direction of the pen on each hash of the X. One letter, and this guy could tell that the X had indeed been forged. I’m not sure what I think of handwriting analysis when it gets into psychological attributes. I’m probably with the sheriff on this one. [there are several self-tests on handwriting on the Internet, which may be of interest. Here are my favorites. From Reader’s Digest, RealSimple.]

L.L.: Lately, I’ve been curious about life paths and how things end up. Fate, I guess. Happiness, too. And if we’re doing what we’re ‘supposed’ to be doing with our lives. Big deep questions. So…how it is being a novelist? What about the job are you wild about and not-so-wild about?

Lori Rader-Day: I’m definitely doing the thing I should be doing, but even so, I know what you mean. It’s a lot of work for a person who likes to sit around and read books, so even I have my doubts. Being a novelist is both fantastic and challenging. I love the writing and I hate the writing. I love the promotions and I hate the promotions, mostly because it’s exhausting. But then I’m the one who sets up my promotions for the most part. I’m the one in charge. I should just control my calendar a little bit more, right? But it’s been a joy to travel around talking about my book and meeting new readers. Oh, and seeing friends in each city. That is a real perk.

“Beautiful prose and tack-sharp observations round out this slow-burning but thought-provoking meditation on the ravages of domestic violence.”
— Publishers Weekly

L.L.: There’s part of me that sort of kind of feels THE DAY I DIED could be a series. Do you ever think about tossing your characters from one book into a new story?

Lori Rader-Day: I’m not sure I could do it. For each book, someone says it could be a series. Sure, I could figure it out. But the writing is what I enjoy, and part of why I enjoy it is because it’s a new puzzle of character and plot. I love series books and admire those who do them well, but I’m not sure when or if I’ll decide to continue one of my characters because I love the fresh new story so much. It started when I was writing during my lunch hours at a very demanding full-time job. If the story hadn’t been new and compelling to me, I would never have finished the book.
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That said, I did get some ideas for a follow-up from that handwriting expert I talked with. Never say never! My next book, however, is another stand-alone. I love stand-alones.

L.L.: Anna is all about staying off social media, the Internet. But there’s some digging that has to be done in the story. What was the last thing you Googled? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Lori Rader-Day:  Hmm. I was Googling author websites this morning to a link to a book cover for a June release I added to Mystery Writers America Midwest Chapter. I’m the chapter president right now, but also apparently the web mistress. Yesterday I went through all my saved links looking for story ideas and organizing them into things I had saved for writing certain projects. I think that’s called procrastination.

L.L.: Lori, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked, but may McGulpin-Point-Lighthouse_72dpi.jpg-nggid0273-ngg0dyn-220x190x100-00f0w010c011r110f110r010t010have forgotten?

Lori Rader-Day: Most people want to know about my next project… As yet untitled mystery set in a dark sky park in Michigan, out from Harper Collins William Morrow in spring 2018. (I’ll let you all Google “dark sky park.”) Thanks, Leslie!

For more information about the book, to connect with Lori via social media, or to order your own copy of THE DAY I DIED, please visit: 

Rader-Day_Lori-lo-221x300ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lori Rader-Day’s debut mystery, The Black Hour, won the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and was a finalist for the 2015 Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second novel, Little Pretty Things, won the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and was a nominee for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. Little Pretty Things was named a 2015 “most arresting crime novel” by Kirkus Reviews andone of the top ten crime novels of the year by Booklist. Her third novel, The Day I Died, will be released by Harper Collins William Morrow on April 11, 2017. She lives in Chicago.

 

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

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[Author and cover image courtesy of WilliamMorrow/HarperCollins and used with permission. Other images as follows, all on 6.9.17: McGulpin Point Lighthouse Dark Sky Park  MI retrieved from http://www.darkskypark.org, image of exterior of Grand Hotel from grandhotel.com/galleries. Letter and flower from Pinterest, no source noted.]

Wednesdays with Writers: Damian McNicholl talks about his luminous new book inspired by the first American female matador Patricia McCormick, tips on writing realistic characters, sexism, Hemingway, nature, and more in THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

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After a trip to a Mexican bullfight with her father, Kathleen Boyd is mesmerized with the art of bullfighting. She spends her childhood practicing in the family’s backyard with a red cloth and their Great Dane. Now, a discontent 19-year old art student in 1950s Texas and Kathleen still wants to make her dream happen.

I was immediately drawn into the world of Kathleen, her character well-developed and intriguing. In fact, I found myself thinking about her (and the real Patricia McCormick) when I wasn’t reading. The entire concept of the book, I thought, was entirely original. While there are plenty of historical fiction on the shelves, what brought THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (Pegasus, June 6 2017) alive for me was the time period, the unique location (set primarily in Mexico), but most of all–the unique aspirations of bullfighting from a woman’s POV.

Plus, The Houston Chronicle *just* named THE MOMENT OF TRUTH one of the top 10 books to read this June.

Damian McNicholl is a graceful, fluid writer whose words flow effortlessly. His descriptions are rich and textured. Trust me, THE MOMENT OF TRUTH is so wholly original, you don’t want to miss it.

Today, I am absolutely honored have Damian on the blog couch. So pull up a seat and grab a coffee, you’re in for a treat.

Leslie Lindsay: Damian, I’m thrilled to have you. I’ll be honest—I had never heard of Patricia McCormick, the real-life inspiration behind THE MOMENT OF TRUTH. But you got me Googling her! I learned she was originally from St. Louis, Missouri—as am I! What more can you tell us about her? Was Kathleen Boyd in THE MOMENT OF TRUTH pretty much a true composite of her?

Damian McNicholl: Patricia McCormick was an absolutely fascinating character and I didn’t know about her until I stumbled across her obituary while surfing the net. She’d been captivated by the world of the bulls ever since her father took her to a bullfight when she was a very young girl. That experience was seminal and she left for Mexico as a young woman in the forties to train to become an apprentice. The world of the bulls is, as you can imagine, very masculine and, while she did enjoy great success, she was never able to become a member of the matador’s union because no professional matador would sponsor her to take the PatriciaMcCormick1954alternativa, the ceremony wherein an apprentice becomes a matador de toros. She ended up working as a secretary in California and eventually moved back to Texas where she died in 2013. At her peak, she was a celebrity both in Mexico and the US.

Kathleen Boyd’s character, experiences and journey in the novel does not mirror McCormick’s. The goal I had in writing the novel was toexplore the lot of women in the 1950s—the career limitations, sexism and male chauvinism and what would happen if an ambitious, talented and determined young woman wanted to do the same job as a man in the period.

L.L.: I can’t help but chuckle a bit—you’re a man from Northern Ireland with a background in law and yet you’re writing about an American woman who wants to fight bulls in Mexico. Yet you do it so well. I’m curious…what was your inspiration?

Damian McNicholl: I’m lucky in that I’ve never had difficulty writing male or female characters. I grew up in a family of three boys and two girls which helps. That’s not to say I don’t get stuck as I’m creating characters. What I do before starting a novel is do lots of research about the period I want to write about, including the social mores, habits, styles and speech until I feel comfortable. For THE MOMENT OF TRUTH, I read many books and articles on the Internet about bullfighting and women who fought bulls in the period, including Ms. McCormick’s biography (1954), which didn’t really discuss sexism or the obstacles she encountered during her rise. I looked at photos of people who lived during the period. Then I wrote out character descriptions, where they were born, physical attributes, likes, dislikes, strengths and flaws, etc.  And finally I put myself in the head of Kathleen and imagine living the situation or crisis I put her in, what she’d say during a conflict and how she’d react to given situations, etc. If I wasn’t sure how she would react in a very unique situation I asked my female friends. That’s the only way I know how to try and make men and women come alive in the pages. The most important thing is to never feel intimidated about the reality you’re a man writing about a woman or vice versa.

L.L.: I can only imagine THE MOMENT OF TRUTH was pretty research-heavy in order to get the technical aspects of bullfighting just right. Can you walk us through that process?

Damian McNicholl: You’re right. I knew little about bullfighting when I started the novel and research was intense. The names and number of passes the matadors250px-Toreroexecuted both with the cape and the muleta was enormous and I had to become familiar with them to the extent, when I described them, the prose flowed naturally and the technicalities didn’t interfere with the story. I started off with Ernest Hemingway’s writing and went from there. I was surprised about the number of books written on the subject and the amount of material available on the Internet. After the novel was written, I was fortunate to have Terin Miller read the parts when Kathleen is fighting in the ring and his advice on the technical aspects were invaluable. Also John Hemingway, an aficionado, Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, also read the novel and gave it a great quote. That made my day when I got that.    

L.L.: Ultimately, bullfighting is considered an art, theater. I can see that. There’s very much a performance aspect to it. The brightly colored and beaded suit of lights, the roaring crowd. And Kathleen’s an art student. How do you see the two overlapping?

Damian McNicholl: In the 1950s when the novel is set, it was definitely viewed by many as art and/or theater rather than sport. It was seen as man pitting himself against the monster, the battle and triumph of good over evil with the poor bull representing the darkness. Kathleen is very artistic, studies art at college in Texas prior to leaving for Mexico, and immediately connects the way in which the matadors and bulls move closer and closer as they spar with one another as a form of theater.  She saw this as a child during a bullfight and the flashing suits and magenta cape, the band playing and the applauding crowd. At one point, as she enters the arena as an apprentice, she also compares it to ancient Rome and the gladiators entering the Coliseum. The story takes place in an era where bullfighting was extremely popular and bullfighters were feted and adored like movie stars and musicians and it was considered a form of art. Indeed, Ms. McCormick was featured in magazines and newspapers the same way they featured actors. Today, of course, she’d be castigated for comparing bullfighting to art or theater.

L.L.: One of your secondary characters, Sally (Kathleen’s friend) is in New York City becoming a model. I think it shows a very yin-yang view of women in the 1950s. Was this deliberate on your part?

Damian McNicholl: Actually, I don’t see Sally and Kathleen as the yin-yang view of women. In the 1950s women were expected to work as secretaries, nurses and teachers until they married, whereupon their roles changed to homemakers and mothers. During the Second World War, women were ‘allowed’ to serve their country by working for the military machine, working as bomb makers and welding aircraft parts together, etc. ThinkRosie the Riveter. After the war, they were fired because the men were home again and society was patriarchal and wanted them back in the kitchens and rearing their children. You can imagine how frustrating this was to many women who wanted to stay in their jobs or who didn’t want to get married. Women_working_at_Douglas_Aircraft

Kathleen and Sally represent women who were independent- minded and determined to have careers, albeit Sally seeks her fame in the world of glamour and Kathleen seeks hers in the bullringwith all the conflicts and jealousies it creates with men who feel threatened by a women trying to break into that masculine world.

L.L.: Speaking of the time frame—1950s—traditional and conservative view of women and their place in society, I found that several scenes made me bristle. For example, in Mexico women were expected to have a chaperon, not drive a vehicle. Fermin beats his wife, makes fun of her size, has affairs. There’s a violent rape. Kathleen doesn’t see all of her earnings. Have things changed? Have there been more women in the bullring?

Damian McNicholl: As mentioned earlier, women were expected to work in education, nursing and other low paying jobs because society believed their true vocation was as homemakers cooking for their husbands, etc. Women did not protest in the 1950s and women’s liberation groups didn’t exist. A friend in my writer’s group worked at an advertising agency in the 1950s and she told me her job and career was always viewed as secondary to her husband’s, much to her chagrin. She and her husband worked at the same firm and she had to give up her job and follow him when he was sent to work at other corporate offices throughout the US. That’s images (9)what was expected of wives. At one point she didn’t want to leave her work when her husband was sent to live in another city, but her boss, admitting she was brilliant at the job, said they would fire her if she did not go with him because her first job was to be a homemaker.

Major changes have occurred for women since the 1950s, but it would be incorrect to assume women have true equality. Women still do not get equal pay for equal work. The Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing true equality regardless of gender has still not passed.Also, while much progress has been made, women are still sexually harassed in the work place and women are still raped, physically abused and sexually exploited today. There is much work to do still.

There are female bullfighters in Spain and Mexico today. Three of the most famous women are Karla de los Angeles, Lupita Lopez andHilda Tenorio who are now recognized professionally as matadors, something that was denied Patricia McCormick.  According to news articles I’ve read, the women still encounter sexism and promoters do not hire them because of their gender. Today, the women also face the vitriol of animal rights groups who want bullfighting banned due to its cruelty.

L.L.: What is obsessing you now? What inspires you? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Damian McNicholl: I planted flowers seeds in the garden beds several weeks ago and they’re now tender shoots and I’m obsessed with keeping the rabbits at bay. They eat everything. I try to scare them and they scamper a few feet away and they look back disdainfully. We do have a family of foxes including two cute cubs living in the nearby woods and I’ve seen them on patrol at dusk. So the rabbits are increasingly wary and I’m hoping they’ll pack up their bags soon._75618493_497996961

Nature inspires me. After a day’s writing, I love to sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and listen to the birds. We lost a lot of mature trees during Hurricane Sandy, which created glades in the woods and it’s amazing the variety of bird life that’s come to live there. There’s bluebirds, cardinals, wrens, small and large woodpeckers and morning doves. And of course we get deer and foxes. The fawns and cubs are adorable.

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

Damian McNicholl: If I’m writing anything new. My next novel explores an Irish woman who emigrated to the US in the late eighties. At 19, Deirdre got pregnant and gave up her career as a musician to marry an attorney who is quite conservative and becomes increasingly difficult through the years. When she receives a bad diagnosis at thirty-nine, she evaluates her life and marriage and decides to try and reactivate her career. She must overcome obstacles from her husband and two children, including her son who disappoints his father by refusing to go to law school and who wants to marry someone her husband can never accept.

L.L.: Damian, it’s been truly illuminating. Thank you!

Damian McNicholl: Thanks so much for having me, Leslie. I enjoyed it.

To learn more about THE MOMEMENT OF TRUTH, or to connect with Damian McNicholl via social media, please see: 

Damian McNicholl_Courtesy of Ruair+¡ BoylanABOUT THE AUTHOR: Damian McNicholl was born in Northern Ireland, is an attorney and the author of three novels. His critically acclaimed first novel, A SON CALLED GABRIEL (2004) was an American Booksellers Association Book Sense Pick and a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards and independent publishers ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. THE MOMENT OF TRUTH is published by Pegasus Books and has been chosen as Houston Chronicle’s 10 Books to Read in June. Damian has appeared on CBS, WYBE Public Television, National Public Radio and other media outlets in the United States and United Kingdom to discuss his work. Pegasus Books will republish A SON CALLED GABRIEL in Fall 2017 with a new ending and Author’s Afterword. He lives in Bucks County Pennsylvania and is at work on a new novel.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. Images of Patricia McCormick, muleta, and women working on aircraft in 1942 all retrieved from Wikipedia; image of 1950s-era job poster from Pinterest, no source noted. Bunnies in the garden retrieved from the bbc.com, all on 6.5.17] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Abandoned insane asylums, ghosts, lush prose, a mystery, writing amidst chaos, a brief tutorial in short stories and linked novels, and so much more from Karen Brown. Oh, and her new novel, THE CLAIRVOYANTS.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Lush, descriptive, wholly original psychological mystery in which one woman’s desires and abilities are put to the test.

Flattened-199x300THE CLAIRVOYANTS is the second novel of Karen Brown (her first, THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS came out in 2013. Be sure to check out my interview with her here.

Karen’s prose is complex, vivid, and poetic. THE CLAIRVOYANTS is a hot, roiling simmer encased with erotic undertones, complex layers, a highly Gothic vibe that will have you wrapped in a hypnotic dream-state questioning your own reality. 

Martha Mary and her slightly unstable younger sister, Del (Delores) claim to see ghosts. They are the charlatans of their small coastal town, offering seances and readings of the dead in exchange for a few bucks to buy lip gloss and drug-store flip-flops.

But maybe she *can* see ghosts after all?

Martha Mary leaves that coastal town and settles in Ithaca, New York in attempt to be a bit more ‘grounded,’ to attend college. There she falls in love with photographer/professor William Bell and together, along with her sister and other friends try to piece out the mystery of a missing, presumed dead girl, Mary Rae.

But dark, twisty things happen. More deaths. More ghosts. More mystery and intrigue. THE CLAIRVOYANTS is one of those books that will linger long after you’ve closed the cover for the last time.

Please join me in welcoming Karen Brown back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Karen, it’s been a few years! It was 2013 when we chatted last—about THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS, your debut novel. I can only imagine you’ve been busy writing and teaching. Can you fill us in?TheLongingsofWaywardGirls

Karen Brown:  I wish I could say that I’ve done some world traveling, but you’re pretty much spot on: Since we last chatted I’ve been mostly teaching and writing. I teach at the University of South Florida—my alma mater, where I first decided to become a writer, and where I produced my first short stories. Each semester I teach three sections of the same fiction writing courses I took myself years ago. Being a teacher means that each semester I am dropped into the fictional worlds of my students while trying to maintain the fictional world in my own work. Since LONGINGS appeared I’ve revised two novels, and have begun work on a new one—still tentative and very incomplete. The revisions can be just as time-consuming as starting from scratch—every small change can present entirely new plot directions. For me, revising is very close to drafting—I am always open to making big changes, and each version—for THE CLAIRVOYANTS it was twelve—takes the story further away from the original.

L.L.: I’m always, always intrigued about what sparks a writer into action on a particular title. I have to know, what was it for THE CLAIRVOYANTS?

Karen Brown: THE CLAIRVOYANTS started as a short story, “Galatea,” published first in Crazyhorse, and reprinted in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES.  As I expanded the story into a novel it became three sections—one set in Ithaca, NY, one in Florida, and one in the Caribbean. Martha Mary was the main character in each section, and the sections represented three different time periods of her life. The book was very long and convoluted, and after getting some initial reads I decided to simply focus on the Ithaca section. There are aspects of the other sections that I held on to and worked into the Ithaca story—Owen, Martha’s nephew and Anne, with her glioblastoma. Even the yachties in the Caribbean get to play a small role in the new version. The novel began as a story of a young woman with a troubled past who is seeking love. The addition of the ghosts and the spiritualist camp came about after I reconnected with a childhood friend whose parents bought a house in Pine Grove, a small spiritualist community in Niantic, CT. I was intrigued with the spiritualists and the mediums, and I wanted to add this component to the novel. Martha Mary is named after her great aunt, a nun, who dies in a car accident, and the themes of doubt and belief play into her sighting of Auntie Sister as a ghost when she is a child. In Ithaca, it seemed natural to give her a ghost to draw her into the ongoing mystery.

L.L.: One observation I made while reading THE CLAIRVOYANTS is that it could very well be any time period. The names of your characters: Martha Mary. Anne. Randy. Del. William. Mary Rae. Geoff. Well, they all seem kind of Nancy Drew-ish. Yet, they have cell phones, so it’s not exactly a period piece. But it could have been. Was this intentional on your part?

Karen Brown: I lived in an area similar to that of the novel for a year while I attended graduate school—a  small, rural town thirty minutes from the closest movie theater, mall, and Pizza Hut. The drive in to the university was on a road that cut through a vast, open area of fields, the roadside dotted with occasional small businesses—a place that sold garden statuary, a bridal shop. Little kids wore blaze orange caps when they played outside and the big thing for girls was baton lessons. Guys drove muscle cars or trucks, and the professors lived in farmhouses down long wooded lanes. Isolated settings tend to create a sense of timelessness, and I wanted to capture that feeling. I like old-fashioned names (and I love Nancy 20150827-38-Westfield-New-York-21922691918-700x525Drew), and perhaps subconsciously the names seemed to fit the setting. The novel focuses on a quirky group from a small, isolated town that gathers around an artist—Anne. Though they aren’t off the grid, the traditions they follow—the New Year’s Eve hunt, the recipes from old cookbooks, the games of Bridge, the Aaron Copland music—seem things borrowed from another time and recast as part of their small community. The addition of cell phones was practical—I needed the story to be set in a time long enough after the asylums were closed down—most in the 1970s—to have the one in the novel deteriorate.

L.L.: I have to say, I loved the old, abandoned places that creep into the narrative. There are at least two, though there could be more, depending on your read. Are these real places, what was your inspiration for them? Having been a former psychiatric R.N., I’m especially taken with the abandoned asylum.

Karen Brown: I became interested in artists whose work focused on abandoned places, particularly abandoned asylums. Shaun O’Boyle’s asylum images, particularly those of Northampton and Buffalo State hospitals, formed the basis for the asylum in the novel. I was drawn to the colors in his images, and the way he made the deterioration of the buildings seem so beautiful. Many of the details of the asylum in the novel are from O’Boyle’s images. The area in central New York state where the novel is set is filled with abandoned houses and trailers, but for the

abandoned cottage in the woods, I relied on a fellow student in my MFA program years ago, who told us about hiking in woods in the Ithaca area and discovering an abandoned cottage with dishes still on the table, as if the people had just risen from their places and left. Her description stuck with me.

L.L.: There are definitely some twisty-turny moments in THE CLAIRVOYANTS. Are you a pantser or a plotter? What’s your writing space like?

Karen Brown: I almost always start with a setting, and then decide what sort of people I might put there. Once the characters are established, I like to live in the world a bit with them and see what kind of trouble they can get into—mostly creating scenes, which I do even when I am not writing. I sit down in the morning to work for as long as I have time. On teaching days that is usually until noon, but on other days, or like now, in the summer, I’ll go as long as I can stand to sit still.

I don’t have a desk—I write sitting on a couch in the middle of the house. At any given time there is passing traffic on the four-lane boulevard, my husband on the phone in his office, my son asking would I please, please make some eggs for breakfast. Today, a cat we’ve taken in is in heat, a man is sanding our old windows outside in preparation for painting, my son is watching a movie in an adjoining room, just returned from morning class. I’ve always written in the midst of a kind of chaos, but I must admit I prefer a quiet space—early mornings before the late-sleepers in the house awaken are my best days.4

L.L.: You have two collections of short stories. Of course the novel and short story are two totally different forms. In your opinion, what are the similarities, the differences?

Karen Brown: Most of my short stories contain one novel, at least. When I write a story, I know far more than I ever reveal about the setting, the characters, and the events that have shaped the conflict they find themselves struggling with. There are backstories and histories and scenes in the characters’ lives that simply aren’t needed to build up to the pivotal moment a story depends on. The art of the short story is choosing what to leave out and deciding which moment will be the one to highlight as most revelatory. Novels do the same thing, though they use a handful of moments that necessarily rely on each other to accomplish the same feat—give a reader a world inhabited by people whose thoughts and actions reveal something vital about our own lives.

L.L.: In a related question, a form I’m super-curious about is a linked novel, a novel in short stories. Can you educate us on that, too?

Karen Brown:  Some of my favorite books are novels in stories, or linked short stories. Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO, for example, or more contemporary books like Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD or Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE. I’ve always been attracted to the genre, and wrote my PhD dissertation as a novel in stories. From a writer’s perspective, this genre provides the best of both worlds. You get to use the short story to capture a particular moment in a character’s life, yet by stringing stories together—ones that explore other characters’ perspectives, or the same character at another point in her life—you can reveal the hidden parts of the larger story that must necessarily, by the nature of the short story form itself, be left out. These leaps between characters through time present a sense of a larger picture—that of a community or a family or a set of characters whose relationships alter and change through time. The stories in these books are linked by character or place—or both. One of my favorites, OUR KIND, by Kate Walbert, uses a communal narrator. Often, the setting becomes a character in the story, as in Rebecca Barry’s excellent LATER, AT THE BAR. Just talking about the form makes me want to write another one.

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

tumblr_nm8ud2wGzR1qm7imdo1_500.jpgKaren Brown: I’m working on a novel set in Tampa. When I first moved here in the early 80s, I bartended in a rock club, and I remember a customer talking about Drew Park girls,” the classification clearly derogatory. The club was located on the edge of Drew Park, whose boundaries included two busy thoroughfares and Tampa International Airport. I was in the middle of a scene and wondered what I might find out about Drew Park if I looked it up: “The core of Drew Park is occupied by light industry, adult entertainment establishments, and several homes, due to its mixed-use zoning.” The area has been the focus of police raids for prostitution, operating without a license, and the illegal selling of alcohol. So, if you actually grew up in Drew Park, it might be in a house across the street from the Pink Pony Showgirls, or Buddies Adult Video, or Redline Express Couriers. Those poor Drew Park girls couldn’t live down their reputation if they tried.

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

Karen Brown: Last time, you asked me what I was reading, and since I’m always reading, I’m always eager to share the books that are intriguing me now. I just started Edan Lepucki’s WOMAN NO.17. I’m enthralled with California and noir, and this book brings all of that to life through the darkly funny voice of its narrators. I’m also reading Jan Marsh’s CHRISTINA ROSSETTI: A WRITER’S LIFEmy work-in-progress deals with an artistic sister and brother and their correspondence, and well, the Rossetti’s! For my upcoming classes I’m checking out Benjamin Percy’s THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION. Students are in love with genre, and I want them to write what they love, but write it well.

L.L.: Karen, it was a pleasure! Thanks so much for popping over.

Karen Brown: Thanks so much for having me, Leslie!

For more information, to connect with Karen via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE CLAIRVOYANTS, please see:

Personal Branding Photography for EntrepreneuersABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Brown was born in Connecticut. She is the author of a novel, The Longings of Wayward Girls (July 2013), and two short story collections, Pins & Needles (July 2013) and Little Sinners and Other Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and named a Best Book of 2012 by Publishers Weekly. Her work has been featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, and Good Housekeeping,and in many literary journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.

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

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[Cover image retrieved from author’s website, as well as other covers of previous works. Author image courtesy of Henry Holt and used with permission. Image from Westfield, NY retrieved from onlyinyourstate.com, images of interior abandoned asylum retrieved from Shaun O’Boyle’s website, woman on laptop/couch retrieved from shutterstock, reading in field from rebloggy.com, all on 5.23.17]

Wednesdays with Writers: What if your mother–a flaming narcissist–died and left you a mound of debt and unanswered questions? Debut novelist Gina Sorell delves into family secrets, grief, reinvention, and so much more in MOTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A riveting story of a woman’s quest to understand her recently deceased mother, a glamorous, cruel narcissist who left her only child a mound of debt, mysteries, threats, and questions. 

Mothers and Other Strangers Final

Gina Sorell has my attention. I loved her searing debut, MOTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS and absolutely reveled in the mystery surrounding both of her characters, daughter Elsie (Elspeth) and her mother, Rachel/Devedra.

Just take a read of the first, magical line: 

“My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.” 

I found MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS written in such a crisp, flow-y manner propelling the story forward, making it a challenge to set it down. I wanted to know moreThe prose is absolutely stunning, the mystery absorbing, and Elsie’s mother–troubling. Sorell writes with such authenticity it was a bit hard to believe this wasn’t a memoir.

I’m so honored to have Gina on the blog couch this morning.

Leslie Lindsay: I’m always so, so intrigued about what propels a writer forward with a particular story. What was it for you in MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS?

Gina Sorell: For me it was that opening line. It rattled around in my head for a very long time and then I thought, who would say that? What if she was a mother? And then what kind of woman says that to a child? And then I was off creating my characters and their world.

L.L.: There is a good deal of backstory in MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS, and this is probably the crux of the entire story. One of the main characters is dead after all, and we need to understand the person she was to make sense of the story; I feel our past so very much shapes our present. Can you speak to that, please?

Gina Sorell: I agree, that’s a great way to put it. Our past does shape us, often in ways that we are unaware of, and hopefully later in ways that we can recognize and address. One of the things I always had in the forefront of my mind while writing this, is that you can’t really know where you are going, until you know where you’ve been. And the protagonist Elsie, is in many ways stuck where she is as a result of not really knowing the full extent of her and her mother’s past. She needs to understand how her past shaped her, so that it can hopefully no longer define her.

“This dark gorgeous jewel of a novel probes the secrets we keep and the complex ties of family, love and loss. Shattering and brilliant, this marks the debut of an astonishing talent.”

—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World and Pictures of You

L.L.: Elsie is a professional dancer and I found reading about her practice and profession quite fascinating. I understand you were also a performer, much like Elsie, but as an actress. How do the two overlap and what research did you conduct to bring authenticity to the dance world?

Gina Sorell: To me being an artist is about communicating, about telling a story and creating a shared experience that will hopefully touch people and make them stop and think and feel. As an actor I had the benefit of a script to help me do that. As someone who danced for many years, but not at Elsie’s level, I had to rely on my body and the music and how I related to it, to convey my thoughts and feelings. I adore dance and spent a lot of time practicing it, and later watching it, and I think all that personal experience really helped me bring that authenticity to Elsie’s world.

images (2)L.L.: And her mother! How I loved to hate Rachel/Devedra. May is actually Mental Health Awareness Month and I have to say, you really brought narcissism to light. In fact, I was worried this might be based off your own mother. It’s not, I hope?! How was the character of Rachel/Devedra conceived?

Gina Sorell: Thankfully Rachel/Devedra is not based on my own mom! I have a wonderful mother, and I am grateful. But I will say that neither of my parents had very easy relationships with their own parents growing up, distance, divorce, tragedy, many things were a factor, and while they had good relationships as adults, I was always struck by how amazing my parents were, in spite of not having had it easy. As an actor who worked in the entertainment industry, I am no stranger to narcissism, it’s a place where that kind of thing can thrive, and understandably so. But what happens to someone when their whole world is no longer about them? What happens to someone when one of their greatest commodities, their beauty, starts to fade? And what does life look like for someone who feels that their best years were robbed from them by fate and an unplanned pregnancy? I wanted to explore those things, and that really is Rachel; a woman who in many ways felt she was cheated and never got her chance, and was unable to mother Elsie properly as a result.

L.L.: And mothers in general. Since it’s May and we just celebrated Mother’s Day and the title bears the name…I have to highlight your lovely blog series, ‘Discover Your Mother.’ Many of us really don’t know who our mothers are, or were ‘before.’ What did you learn about your own mother in this process?

Gina Sorell: Thank you, doing the ‘Discover Your Mother’ series has been really wonderful. I always knew that my mom was a young mom, three kids by the time she was 25, but finding those pictures of her dancing and laughing, and being social and glamorous and adventurous, really showed me who she was out in the world. A world before her kids came along. And it also really drove home how brief that time was for her, from her parent’s house to living and marrying my Dad. It was hardly any time at all, and it made me really appreciate how much she has given of b6b18a25fe5d4373d1e7af0c25ff51aeherself to all of us all while being supportive and kind and loving. She’s a great mom and friend.

L.L.: Death, grief, finding oneself, reinvention. These all seem to be themes in MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS. What this deliberate on your part, or did they just sort of reveal themselves? Ultimately, how important is theme?

Gina Sorell: Theme to me is very important as a guiding principle when I am writing, but the themes also grow and open themselves up and reveal themselves to me. I started with this idea as I’ve mentioned of how can you go forward until you know where you’ve been, which grew into the larger theme of identity and how all the things that you’ve stated above; death, grief, finding oneself, reinvention, along with secrets and lies, shape that identity.

L.L.: You’re awfully busy mothering, working, writing. And that’s a good thing. I think it helps focus writing time. What are some of your hacks?

Gina Sorell: Oh that’s a good question. I do a lot of work with clients on the west coast, which means that as an east coaster, my day goes longer, but I can also grab an hour or two in the morning to walk and write. Walking is a great way for me to get into my writing frame of mind. I also bribe myself with coffee and treats to stay at the desk, on the days when I want to get up and go because it feels to hard. And I usually get a three hour chunk on the weekend, from my husband and son to focus on my writing. But often there are work deadlines that take precedence during my week, and when that happens, I try not to get grumpy and focus on what needs to get done and reward myself with a whole day of writing at the end of it.

L.L.: What do you like to do when you’re alone? It doesn’t have to be literary.  [Hint: I love cleaning/organizing while singing—badly—along with my iPod].

Gina Sorell: I love design blogs. And design in general. And I like to walk, listen to the radio, a good podcast and also bake. I’ve been known to read cookbooks to relax. ce91266e28f38ae85a387b0ba29e4f6d.jpg

L.L.: What lasting words of wisdom about writing might you impart?

Gina Sorell: In the beginning I think you need to establish some sort of routine; an hour or three a day, whatever you can, and keep it consistent. I did that for a very long time, until I could trust that I could find my way back after a break. And then I think you need to trust that you can be flexible, and that not everything needs to perfect in order to create, you just need to do it. I also am a big believer in having a beautiful or inspiring space, for example, I always have a mason jar of flowers on my desk, and will blast some favorite songs to get me in the mood and then I get to it. And I always try to stop at a place that gives me a good place to start the next time, so that I have something to look forward to.

L.L.: Gina, it’s been a tremendous pleasure! Thanks for popping by.

Gina Sorell: The pleasure has been all mine! I really appreciate your thoughtful questions. And I am thrilled that you loved the book! I can’t wait to read yours one day too!

For more information, to connect with Gina via social media, or to purchase your own copy of MOTHERS & OTHER STRANGERS (for yourself or a gift), please see: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gina Sorell credit Ian Brown.jpgGina Sorell was born in South Africa and raised in Toronto. A former actor, Gina was part of the first ever performing arts school in Canada, Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts, and among the first students admitted to the school in its inaugural year. She attended CWSA and Earl Haig as a drama major and dance minor, and would go on to attend The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Throughout her school years Gina wrote and often created and produced her own work.

Gina’s first job as an actor was at an off-off Broadway theater company called Theater on Three; creating work with inner city kids who had stories to tell. She then returned to Toronto where she wrote and performed in a successful sketch troupe called The Stupid Goodlookings, and later at Second City Mainstage. One of the first plays she performed in was the first ever adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones, and she had the pleasure of studying playwriting with the late Carol Bolt. After moving to Los Angeles with her actor husband Jeff Clarke, Gina returned to her first love writing, and honed her craft at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, graduating with distinction. It was at UCLA that she met her mentor, the New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt, who contacted Gina after reading the first sentence of her novel Mothers and Other Strangers, to say that she had a book, and encouraged her to pursue it. After a decade in Los Angeles, Gina returned to Toronto to be with her family and raise her own, in her old beloved neighborhood of Riverdale, which has always felt like home. Learn more at http://www.ginasorell.com.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Prospect Park Books and used with permission.   Mason jar of flowers and vintage mother and daughter found on Pinterest, no source noted. Mental Health Awareness logo retrieved from Mental Health America, all on 5.15.17]