Family Estrangement is very real and very hurtful. Harriet Brown talks about this, plus forgiveness and writing with an open heart in SHADOW DAUGHTER

By Leslie Lindsay 

An interwoven tapestry of personal story and research, SHADOW DAUGHTER: A MEMOIR OF ESTRANGEMENT  sets out to uncover the guilt, trauma, rage, betrayal, and more when it comes to family estrangement. 
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Research shows that seven percent of all people are estranged from a parent or sibling. But what, exactly, does estrangement consist of? No contact whatsoever? A greeting card here and there? What if you just try to avoid that person? And what about the shame factor? What kind of person breaks ties with their family? And so it goes.

Harriet Brown deftly interweaves her personal story of estrangement with her mother, along with anecdotes, plus research from clinicians and researchers, giving a broader definition of ‘estrangement.’ SHADOW DAUGHTER (DaCapo Press, November 2018) reads a bit academically–that is, it’s packed with much research–but don’t let that fool you. Brown is sympathetic, intelligent, and nurturing. She and her mother have gone in cycles of connection and estrangement nearly all of her life. On the day of her mother’s funeral, following a battle with cancer, Brown is 5,000 miles away, hiking in Hawaii with her husband and two daughters.

I completely identified with Brown’s experience. My own mother ‘died’ when I was ten and she had her first psychotic episode. Over the years, her illness would improve, and so would our relationship. We were estranged when she died by suicide.

In SHADOW DAUGHTER, Harriet presents dozens of narratives from people who have been estranged–men and women, young and old, and those of all professions–she uncovers many of the causes of estrangement–physical or sexual abuse; others from emotional or psychological trauma, manipulation. I found myself nodding at the stories because I ‘got it,’ I had lived it.

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Harriet Brown is a journalist and author of numerous previous books, including Body of Truth and Brave Girl Eating. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, Psychology Today, and many other publications.

I am honored to welcome her to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Harriet, I started in on your prologue and already knew SHADOW DAUGHTER was going to resonate. My mother also died. We had been estranged. And while I did attend her funeral, my husband, two daughters, and I recently hiked in Hawaii, a place where my mother ‘ran away’ to live. I felt her there. And the problem with estrangement is, it never really goes away. Can you talk about that a bit, and also a little of why this book, why now?

Harriet Brown:

Starting with the why now—I guess because my mother has been dead long enough for me to do a lot of the processing work I couldn’t do while she was alive. It took about a year after her death for me to feel safe enough to let myself feel the full range of emotions I had about her and our relationship.

In terms of estrangement not really going away, well, that’s true in the sense that the relationship with a parent or sibling or child never really ends. You have to process it and work through the feelings that come up whether you’re in touch with the person or not. But sometimes it’s the best choice in the situation.


“With fascinating insights and deep intelligence, Brown’s brave, profound and oh my God, yes, gripping memoir turns everything we’ve been taught about dealing with impossible family members on its head. This is a must-read for anyone who needs to loosen up tangled family knots—or cut those cords forever.”

—Caroline Leavitt, author, Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow


Leslie Lindsay:

You speak about this haunting type feeling throughout SHADOW DAUGHTER. I was especially drawn to a dream sequence you tell—you and your mother are on opposite sides of a door. You are trying to push is closed with all of your weight and she is trying to wrench it open. I have had the exact same dream. Multiple times. There’s so much metaphor there. Quite literally, ‘I’m closing the door on you.’ Can you talk about that, please?

Harriet Brown:

One of my mother’s most common phrases used about our relationship was “My door is always open to you.” And I think over time I came to have negative associations with that image because our interactions were so painful and toxic for me. I’m sure she meant it as a positive idea but by the time we formally estranged it had come to feel like a threat to me. I think that’s what’s behind that dream for me. 

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Leslie Lindsay:

When I started writing about my mother’s life—her tumultuous childhood, her even wilder teen years, her family of origin (and yes, I learned there’s a bit of a family history of estrangement), I started to feel a sort of complicated tenderness for her. There’s a lovely quote you mention in SHADOW DAUGHTER from Mother Theresa:

“We cannot hate someone whose story we know.”

That’s so profound. What more can you share on that?

Harriet Brown:

I’m not sure I agree fully with Mother Theresa but I take her point, and I think that compassion and tenderness are so important. They’re the qualities I aspire to as a human being and I think every one of us deserves them. I don’t hate my mother. But I do hate some of the things she did.

One of the people I learned from along this long journey, who I wrote about in the book, is Dr. Frederic Luskin, whose work focuses on forgiveness. I took a day-long workshop with him years ago and something he talked about really stuck with me. I was explaining to him that to protect myself I felt I needed to put distance between my mother and me, physical and emotional, and he asked:

“Yes, but can you do with an open heart?”

That question helped me envision a way in which I could be compassionate toward my mother but still protect myself. It helped me see that I could let myself feel some of that complicated tenderness but still choose to keep my distance.

Leslie Lindsay: 

What bits of self-care might you offer to someone who is estranged from a family member? 

Harriet Brown: 

First, trust your feelings. People who estrange themselves from a family member nearly always have good reason to contemplate taking that step. Gaslighting and other emotional manipulations are often part of the reason people choose to estrange, and it can be very easy to doubt your own feelings and reactions when that’s happening. Second, let yourself feel those feelings, whether it’s anger, hurt, grief, sorrow, or others. Trying to repress those feelings or deny them only leads to other kinds of problems. You can feel rage or hurt without acting it out. Third, understand that it’s not only OK to prioritize your own needs in the situation—it’s crucial. And finally, remember that you’re not alone. As a culture we don’t talk about estranged families, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. You’re not the only person who has had to face a difficult family relationship and who’s made this choice.

Leslie Lindsay: 

Harriet, thank you for taking the time to chat with us on this very important topic. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? 

Harriet Brown: 

We often hear experts and others talk about the problem of estrangement. And it’s certainly a fraught topic, and one that can cause pain and inspire guilt and other difficult feelings. I’m not advocating for casual estrangement. But in my experience, and for so many of the people I’ve talked to, estrangement isn’t the problem; it’s the solution to an otherwise unresolvable problem. Sometimes the best thing you can do is keep yourself safe, whether from physical, emotional, or financial harm. Many of us feel a huge sense of relief and liberation after estrangement from a family member, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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

Order Links: 

download (2)ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  I started my writing life at age 12 as a poet, and eventually made my way to nonfiction. The truest thing about me as a writer is this six-word story: I write so I’m not alone. I’ve lived in New York City, Madison, Wisconsin, and now Syracuse, New York, where I teach magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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#memoir #selfcare #estrangement #mothersanddaughters #family #forgiveness #secrets 

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website on 3.12.19. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram]

Jessica Strawser is back with her third book–FORGET YOU KNOW ME–about adult female friendships, being in over your head, and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

Friendships grow stale, a marriage erodes, and a woman is in over her head in this domestic drama/women’s fiction, the third from the very talented Jessica Strawser. 

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FORGET YOU KNOW ME is about crackling life-long friendships, eroding marriages, precarious health, and the wobbly years of mothering young children. It examines the tumultuous evolving relationships between girlfriends, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, women and men/just friends, and even neighbors–maybe that single dad could be an object of your affection?

Strawser is definitely a talented writer and absolutely ‘gets’ the busy mom-life of raising two young children. She’s snappy and highly observant ala Jennifer Weiner meets Emily Giffin so if you like their work, I think you’ll find a nice cross-over appeal.

Molly and Liza have been best friends since childhood. But Molly gets married, settles down and raises her children in their hometown of Cincinnati while Liza remains single and leaves for Chicago, though she’s really not happy. Meanwhile, things are growing stale with Molly—mom to Grant, 5 and Nori, 3. Her relationship with husband, Daniel, is strained and well, she’s not feeling all that healthy these days, either.

There are plenty of secrets and stress and lies and how they all tie together in the tangled web of being at our best-or not. FORGET YOU KNOW ME has an ongoing underlying theme of ‘getting in over your head.‘ 


“Strawser is a clear master of the craft, drawing together a plot that seems at once impossible and fully believable. The novel’s pulsing anxiety continues through the triple narration … The tapestry of story and character will lure book clubs and lovers of emotionally complex fiction.”

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Told in multiple POVs, we get a glimpse of how all these relationships work. Or don’t. I enjoyed the small-town setting of the book and appreciate Strawser’s snappy dialogue and acute skills of observation.

Please join me in welcoming Jessica back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Jessica, I am always so interested the seed of a book for an author—was it a situation, a character, a setting…what got your wheels turning?

Jessica Strawser:

Usually I write from a central question or a theme, but with this story, it was the opening scene—or, rather, the rapid-fire opening sequence of scenes—that came to me and would not let go.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I think it’s normal for people—women in particular—to grow apart from once-close girlfriends. Sometimes we meet because of circumstance—we’re in the same high school bio class, for example, or college roommates, neighbors—at the time it works, but then we just sort of grow apart once the stress of marriage, work, and kids come into the picture. Have you experienced this personally?

Jessica Strawser:

Well, I’ve reached a stage of (bracing myself to say this word…) midlife where I’ve observed a lot of once-close relationships growing apart, often in spite of the best efforts of all involved. Particularly if you have young children and if your closest friends are not in the same city or at the same life stage, as is true for the characters in FORGET YOU KNOW ME, those tend to take a backseat as we put our families first. It’s wonderful to get together with old friends and pick up right where we left off, but I sometimes feel a little sad afterward, because it punctuates that we aren’t in touch with each other’s day-to-day the way we once were, the way we might still wish to be.

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Leslie Lindsay:

I love the cover of FORGET YOU KNOW ME and find it reflects the intimacy of relationships and small-towns. Can you talk a little more about that—and the danger of being ‘too close?’ And also—that tiny little airport—like a blast from the past!

Jessica Strawser:

FORGET YOU KNOW ME isn’t exactly set in a small town, but in the suburbs of Cincinnati, where I live—though I took care with the location, featuring some outlying points that are meaningful to me, and thus become so to my characters. There’s a lot of forced intimacy, particularly between Molly and her neighbor—who is present (physically and emotionally) in ways that her husband is not—and between Liza, her brother and his pregnant wife, who end up taking her in. Tiny Lunken Airport, where Liza takes a job, really is like stepping back in time, and she meets some inescapably influential characters there. And the Cincinnati Nature Center pivotal to Molly’s story line thrives with a close-knit community of members, volunteers and visitors.

Leslie Lindsay:

But there’s a darker, slightly more sinister aspect of ‘being in over your head’ for almost all of your characters in FORGET YOU KNOW ME—was this a theme you wanted to explore, or did it just sort of evolve?

Jessica Strawser:

I set out with this in mind. They’ve been in over their heads for a while, and what happens in that opening video chat is going to force everyone to face up to the things that have come between them—whether being honest with themselves as well as the people they love means finding a way to reverse course, or parting ways.

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Leslie Lindsay:

What do you think of when you find yourself avoiding the page? Is there something—or someone—who seems to ground you? Maybe that Nature Center that appears in the book?

Jessica Strawser:

I actually write at the Nature Center quite a bit; I love the library there and the freedom to walk the trails when my mind needs a breather. I’m bullheaded about forward momentum, so tend to write through frustration more than I avoid the page—but usually when I’m procrastinating it means there’s something I haven’t thought through enough, some plot points I haven’t connected yet that are holding me back. That’s when I often need to step back, take a macro rather than micro view of the story, and regroup.

Leslie Lindsay:

What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Jessica Strawser:

My kitchen! Thanks to a random electrical storm, the overhead light fixture died the same day FORGET YOU KNOW ME came out, and it turns out replacing this particular fixture isn’t so simple. Naturally there were also some related upgrades we’d been putting off… But home improvement projects and book tours don’t mix!

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For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of FORGET YOU KNOW ME, please visit: 

Order links:

Jessica_Strawser_credit Corrie Schaffeld (2)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Strawser is the editor-at-large at Writer’s Digest, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade and became known for her in-depth cover interviews with such luminaries as David Sedaris and Alice Walker. She’s the author of the book club favorites Almost Missed You, a Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction pick, and Not That I Could TellBook of the Month selection now new in paperback. Her third novel, Forget You Know Me, released to raves in February 2019 (all from St. Martin’s Press).

Currently serving as the 2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Strawser has written for The New York Times Modern Love, Publishers Weekly and other fine venues, and lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She tweets @jessicastrawser, enjoys connecting on Facebook, and speaks frequently at book clubs, libraries, writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.

Let’s stay in touch. Join my email list for (very) occasional updates and hellos.

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

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#womensfiction #domesticfiction #families #marriage #Ohio

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

 

 

Sweeping historical fiction from Sara Ackerman; how setting is its own character, growing up in Hawaii, & her emotional response to Pearl Harbor

By Leslie Lindsay

Set against the backdrop of WWII and the attack at Pearl Harbor, THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE is richly detailed, emotional, and compellingly transportive historical fiction. 

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I fell in love with Sara Ackerman’s debut, THE ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS (2018), and was excited to learn she was working on more historical fiction set in Hawaii against the backdrop of homeland WWII –which I think gives this time period and somewhat more refreshing perspective.

Still, THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE can be grisly at times. It’s November 1941 and everyone is caught off guard when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Eva Cassidy is en route on the Lurline, traveling as a nurse to Hawaii with the Army Corps of NursesShe’s leaving behind a sister and some deeper secrets back in Michigan…but what?

Combing mystery and intrigue with romance, (war) scandal, medicine, and even an adorable dog, THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE is compelling historical fiction told with much love, tenderness, and courage. I loved the cinematic aspects if Ackerman’s writing–it’s richly detailed and evocative of the tropics (she’s born and raised in Hawaii and the authenticity shows)…I could taste that salty sea air, see the mist on the green mountains, and almost had that feeling of dipping my toes into the turquoise waters. And–oh, Ackerman’s research is evident because the information on the war, medicine and nursing really come to life.

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Please join me in welcoming Sara back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sara, I am blown away with THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE! First of all, I think it might actually be better than your first book and that’s saying a lot. There are a lot of rumors and misconceptions in the writing world that the second book is ‘harder.’ Do you agree? Can you talk about that, please?

Sara Ackerman:  

What an amazing compliment, especially coming from you! You have no idea how happy I am to hear this because it is terrifying when you first send your book out into the world.

I may or may not be the norm here because my first book was actually the fourth novel that I wrote. The others are (as of yet) unpublished. After ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, my publisher wanted more historical fiction so I had to come up with new ideas. My first three are contemporary, though one has a 1945 thread woven through. So, I at least felt confident that I could write another novel and by then had established a process. But every time I write a novel, I am plagued by doubt and have no idea if people are going to like it or not or if it will be any good. It’s impossible to be objective with your own work, but I feel like when I cry a lot when I’m writing, it’s a good sign. And trust me, I cried a lot with this one! I also had a hard time imagining how to wrap up the ending so I worried about that. Having a great editor helps. For the first time, too, I had a deadline and so I just sat myself down in the chair and wrote most days. The most challenging part was that my father was dying as I wrote this book and he was living with us, so there were definitely days where I did not feel inspired, to say the least. I wish he could have lived long enough read it!

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Leslie Lindsay:

I suppose we ought to back up—what was haunting you when you started out on THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE? Was it a character, a scene, a time period, or something else? My editor tells me that all stories begin with a question. Was this the case for you? And did you find an answer?

Sara Ackerman:  

As with the last one, this book arose from my grandmother’s stories. She had come over to Hawaii on the Lurline in the 1930s to meet up with my grandfather, and on the crossing, she met a military officer and fell for him. But my grandfather was waiting on the dock in Honolulu and proposed. She hardly knew him but ended up saying yes. Over the years, she never forgot about this man and spoke about him often. I guess you could say that I wanted to create a story around that. Little did I know until I began my research, that the Lurline actually docked several days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was on its way back to California on December 7. I wasn’t really sure what the heart of the novel was going to be about until I discovered that one piece of information. And that led me down the path to my story. I love the magic in that!

I think I found an answer in that I had to place myself in Hawaii during the attack as best I could, and recreate it. I now have a much deeper understanding happened. But of course I still have questions about how all the signs (there were many) were missed and how a huge fleet of ships could manage crossing the ocean undetected and sneaking up on our islands. It’s mind blowing.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Your research just breathes on the page. I’m a former RN and so I found myself nodding with much of the medical stuff, even the way nurses were (are?) treated. It’s historical fiction, and so I’d like to believe things have changed…but also your dive into Pearl Harbor and WWII research. Can you talk a bit about your research, please?

Sara Ackerman:

I’m so glad you approved! It’s always scary to write about something that you aren’t an expert in. I found several amazing books that were essential to my writing, and they are listed in the back in the Author’s Note. Before I started writing, I read all of them and took copious notes. One was a book by a doctor all about the war in the Pacific, and I could not have written the medical part without it. Another was a lovely picture book about the five day crossing on the Maston Steamship Lurline. I loved that book! It made me so envious of those who got to travel back then in such flair and style. And another amazing book on Joe Rochefort, the main codebreaker at Pearl Harbor who was instrumental in outsmarting the Japanese. It was a biography but also had impeccable research about everything involving Pearl Harbor. I also read several other Pearl Harbor books and a book about nurses in the war, as well as lots of internet research. And of course, I returned to Pearl Harbor, which is always a very emotional experience no matter how many times you’ve been.

My father was a young boy during the attack and someone in his class assembled accounts of all his classmates on that fateful day. Those firsthand recollections were quite astounding. Living through something like this is so beyond most of our comprehension. On the day before my father’s memorial last year (2018), we had the Ballistic Missile Warning here in Hawaii that later turned out to be false. But for 40 minutes, those words THIS IS NOT A DRILL were running through my mind. It was surreal and scary as we tried to figure out what to do. It was the same line that the people in Hawaii heard on the radio during the attack on Pearl Harbor. And it gave me a tiny glimpse of their fear. Only, their’s was for real.

I grew up on Pearl Harbor stories, but it wasn’t until I wrote the book that it all came to life for me. I have so many questions I wish I could ask my grandparents now.

Leslie Lindsay:

I was recently in Hawaii—Oahu—where THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE is set—and oh my! You totally nailed the setting! It was terrific fun to relive my trip through your words. You live in Hawaii, and so that’s a huge credit to you. Can you talk about how your location has influenced and informed your writing?

Sara Ackerman:

I love Hawaii! We live in such a special place. My parents were big on taking us on adventures and we grew up mostly outdoors, so I developed a great appreciation for the natural beauty of the islands and our delicate ecosystem. (I secretly wish I was a biologist or an ornithologist). My first novel is actually a bit of an adventure novel that deals with believed-to-be-extinct native birds, and my others are very nature oriented. Another one of my unpublished novels has many underwater scenes, which were fun to write.

Also, it’s often when I’m out on a hike or a paddle or exploring that I get ideas for books. And I have so many cool experiences to draw from. I hope that comes across in my writing. I am very attuned to my own environment (where I live and work and play) so I think setting is very important to me in general. I have heard that setting is its own character and I fully believe that. I love reading books set in other places that transport me there and I aspire to do the same in mine. I feel like there are so many untold stories here, I hope I get to keep sharing them. 

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Leslie Lindsay:

Can you tell us what a perfect writing day is like for you?

Sara Ackerman:  

The perfect day of writing is waking up and writing for an hour or two (in bed or at the table) with no one disturbing me. Weirdly, I don’t drink coffee but I have water with lemon or if it’s cold (I live in Waimea which is at 2700 ft elevation and is chilly for Hawaii) I have hot chocolate or a decaf soy mocha. I am not someone who can write all day, so I then go for a hike or paddle or swim, eat a yummy brunch of frittatta or french toast, and then settle down for another writing session. I aim for 750-1000 words a day. Also, I always leave off mid scene, so that the next time I sit down to write, I have a jumping off point. This saves me. It’s not always easy and some days I feel like I’m writing crap, but I keep at it. I love when the unexpected happens and catches me off guard. New characters or something in the plot that I had not foreseen.

These are my dream days, but as of now, I still teach, which I enjoy and it also gets me out of the house. Writing is so solitary, it’s nice to have the mix.

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Leslie Lindsay:

How do you challenge yourself to grow as a writer?

Sara Ackerman:

I go to writers conferences and I also study books I love. I went to the Kauai Writers Conference last November because Alice Hoffman was there and I took a master class with her, Christina Baker Kline and Kristin Hannah. Alice is an idol of mine and she did not disappoint. My most recent favorite book is Where The Crawdad’s Sing (I’m not alone here) and I am dissecting her pages and how she [Delia Owens] does it. I came down with a severe case of author envy while reading that book. It is brilliant!

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you talk about what’s next for you?

Sara Ackerman:

I just finished a third novel with MIRA. They wanted yet another WWII historical, so this one is set at Volcano and the Kilauea Military Camp (fascinating history) at the outbreak of the war. It centers around an unlikely cast of characters thrust together in a rainforest hideaway as they await the anticipated Japanese invasion. It’s a story about unexpected love and how family is where you find it. There is also a thin thread of magical realism woven through.

As an example of how Hawaii inspires my writing, I came upon this old house one day while hiking at Volcano and was immediately intrigued. It was out in the boonies and beautiful, with huge windows and trellised vines. When I looked into the history of the house, I knew that I would write about it someday. So when my editor asked if I had another historical novel in me, I immediately thought about this place. I tied this story in with another one about two young German girls who are left alone after their parents are taken away by the FBI and held in internment camps for a year and a half.

I love the book, though it still needs a lot of work, and I hope others will too!

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Leslie Lindsay:

Sara, it’s been wonderful—as usual. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like…what’s obsessing you or where your last hike took you, or anything else?

Sara Ackerman:

Right now, I’m excited about what I’ll write next. We will soon be pitching a contemporary novel that I completed after Sweet Pies (also set at the Volcano), so I need to do some revisions on that. Then, if all goes well, I can’t wait to get started on a book set along the Kohala Coast in the 1960s. I’m also looking forward to summer (I teach high school part time) and going on a road trip and possibly a book tour along the West Coast. Being on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific has its disadvantages when it comes to book tours and events.

Thank you so much for having me! I love to talk writing and books.

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For more information, to connnect with the auythor via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE, please visit: 

Order Links: 

SaraAckermanWebABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sara writes books about love and life, and all of their messy and beautiful imperfections. She believes that the light is just as important as the dark, and that the world is in need of uplifting and heartwarming stories. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. Prior to practicing acupuncture, she worked as a high school counselor and teacher on the famed north shore of Oahu. She is the author of historical novels Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers and The Lieutenant’s Nurse, with several more in the works

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

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#historicalfiction #WWII #PearlHarbor #Hawaii #Nursing #authorinterview #amreading IMG_2249.JPG

[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Images of Pear Harbor from L.Lindsay’s personal archives. Artistic cover image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this: @LeslieLindsay1]

 

 

 

 

The intersection of art and madness, of never giving up, children’s literature, & so much more in Laurel Davis Huber’s THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER

By Leslie Lindsay

Gorgeous rendering of the true story of a famous author mother and her equally, if not more famous visual artist daughter, THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER will capture and delight audiences of historical fiction. 

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Winner of the 2017 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction

The intersection of art and madness has always intrigued–and so when I came across THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER (SWP, 2017) I knew I needed to read it. And I’m so glad I did. Told from multiple, alternating first-person POVs, readers get a luminous insight into the lives of Margery Williams Bianco, the author of the children’s classic, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, and her daughter, child prodigy artist, Pamela Bianco. 

Reading historical fiction almost always brings to the surface lives I had little or no knowledge of, and is always such a delight. Of course, I knew of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, but never really gave its author much thought. Huber writes with such a tender hand, bringing this tale of motherhood, creativity, and mental illness to light; I loved every minute.


“. . . a masterpiece. . . . Incandescent, pitch-perfect, and destined for greatness.” 

–Library Journal, starred review


The writing is gorgeous, but it’s the themes of family, art, secrets, and more that truly enthralled. Plus, the chapters are short, giving us that ‘just one more’ quick pacing we love. Some readers may struggle with the genre–it’s not entirely historical fiction, but almost an imagined memoir–and it’s not always linear. I happened to really enjoy this technique. Huber’s research is absolutely remarkable and her characters breathe on the page. I found myself so engrossed in Margery and Pamela’s lives, I was seeking out more information on their lives.

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Laurel Davis Huber to the author interview series:

Leslie Lindsay:

Laurel, I am so, so fascinated with this story. But in all honesty, I never really gave much thought to the author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, her daughter, or her personal life. That’s why I think historical fiction is so great. BUT—first, tell us what drew you to the story?

Laurel Davis Huber:

I never gave much thought to the author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, either! And to tell the truth, though I was well aware of the famous children’s book, I never read it (or had it read to me) as a child. It wasn’t until I started working on my book that I discovered anything about Margery Williams Bianco. I began my journey because of a fluke, one of those wow! moments that sometimes descend on one out of thin air like a fairy cloud. I was working on another book and getting nowhere and in a fit of procrastination I reached for one of my old childhood favorites, BEGINNING WITH A. The illustrations had entranced me since I was a child. But I had never paid attention to the author’s name – Pamela Bianco. To further procrastinate, I Googled her name and found out she was a child prodigy artist in the early 20th century. Intrigued, I kept digging. I became obsessed and decided to write about her. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I discovered that her mother was the author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT – and then the story really took off!

Leslie Lindsay:

I’m truly amazed that this story hasn’t been told before. I can only imagine what the research process was like for you. Did you enjoy diving into it? What challenges did you encounter? Are you one to research all at once, up front, or do you sprinkle it in as you write? And can you give us a sense of your timeline for THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER?

Laurel Davis Huber:

As THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is my first novel, I had no experience to go on. What ended up happening was that I would research a bit, then write scenes around the most interesting material, then I would research some more. I traveled to Indiana, to upstate New York, to Columbia University, and to lots of other places. I wrote to museums here and in London. I pored over letters and photographs in university and library archives. I spent hours staring at rolls of microfiche. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. Needless to say, there was a treasure trove out there—and the more I found, the more I became astounded, as you were, that this story has never been told before. As for my timeline…well, I’ll get to that.

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I’m curious about the structure, too. THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is told in alternating, multiple first-person POVs, which give it a very intimate feel. Was it always in this form, or did you go through several iterations?

Laurel Davis Huber:

That day referred above when I pulled out BEGINNING WITH A was in June of 2006. Eleven years later, and seven iterations later, I had the final version of THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER. (Note to everyone: never, ever give up.) The structure changed many times—in fact, the very first completed draft largely spotlighted just Pamela, the artist. Her mother gained equal weight only much later. The idea of alternating voices in short chapters only came to me during my very last attempt. At last I thought I had it right.

Leslie Lindsay:

As for genre, it’s probably historical fiction, but it also seems like it could be an imagined memoir. Can you talk about that, please?

Laurel Davis Huber:

I’m glad you think it’s like an imagined memoir. You mentioned the “intimate” feel of the novel, and I truly believe that could have been accomplished only after living with and writing about these characters for so many years. They were my mother, my sister. The book is classified as historical fiction (and I am happy to say it won the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction when it came out!)—but some have called it fictional biography, which is just as accurate.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Of course, I loved the art. Margery’s writing. All of that intrigued, but what really piqued my interest was the mental illness piece of THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER. Pamela suffered from bouts of depression and maybe mania, too? What did you learn about her precarious mental state—and how?

Laurel Huber Davis:

I love this question. One of the biggest surprises to me was the number of readers who wrote about the mental illness aspect of the novel. One woman in Australia said that she had always wanted to write about her daughter who suffered from depression, and now she didn’t need to because my novel was her story. Wow. It’s not that I didn’t realize that much of the book delves into the vicious grip that depression (which in those days was called “melancholia”) has on Pamela, it’s just that I didn’t think of it as a focus when I was writing. This is called being too close to your own work. I was just telling the story. But I see now that many readers like you homed in on that aspect of the book. The portrayal of Pamela’s illness is, unfortunately, quite accurate. I had both her own letters and her mother’s that portrayed quite vividly the effects of Pamela’s mania/madness/depression. There is little doubt that today she would be diagnosed as bipolar.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I could probably talk your ear off, but alas we both have other things to do. Before I let you go, what should I have asked you about, but may have forgotten?

Laurel Davis Huber:

It’s interesting that at book clubs or other presentations, I rarely get asked about Diccon, the man Pamela was obsessed with for over a decade. He has a big role in the book, but everyone is interested in the women, which is fine with me! An interesting side note, however, is that Diccon, whose real name is Richard Hughes, was the one whose fame lasted. He is still hailed in Britain as a lion of literature. I remember reading his novel, A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, in school. Although he and Pamela went their separate ways, they remained in touch. In his 60s, Diccon even came to New York with his wife to visit Pamela. And now you know something that is not in the book!

Leslie Lindsay:

Laurel, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you!

Laurel Davis Huber:

This has been such fun for me. I am so happy you invited me! (And, any readers out there—I am always delighted to answer questions at laurel@laureldavishuber.com)

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Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER, please visit: 

Order Links: 

authorcolorABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laurel Davis Huber grew up in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. She is a graduate of Smith College. She has worked as corporate newsletter editor, communications director for a botanical garden, high school English teacher, and as senior development officer for both New Canaan Country School and Amherst College. Ms. Huber and her husband split their time between New Jersey and Maine. THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is her first book.

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

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LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#historicalfiction #art #NYC #Europe #TheVelveteenRabbit #TheVelveteenDaughter #mentalillness #mentalhealth 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of L. Huber and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more images likes this]

 

 

With stunning grace and precision, openness, and empathy, Sarah Fawn Montogomery talks about her outstanding memoir & her struggles with mental illness

By Leslie Lindsay 

Brilliant and incredible debut work of nonfiction, about the author’s life with myriad mental health diagnoses, QUITE MAD, should be required reading for all, but especially those who have been touched with mental illness, either in a personal or professional manner. 

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With searing intelligence, unflinching honesty, and a breadth of research, Sarah Fawn Montgomery has left me in complete awe. QUITE MAD (Mad Creek Books, 2018) is a gorgeous melding of literary journalism meets memoir and is focused mostly on women in the U.S. and their relationship with mental illness.

But.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery had a challenging family of origin, too. Much of this tumultuous upbringing is chronicled throughout the pages–delving into both of her parents’ backgrounds, their own anxiety, their desire to adopt a houseful of ‘special needs’ kids (abandoned at birth, drug-addicted babies, and those who otherwise weren’t cut out for foster care and their subsequent diagnoses). I read with interest, with disbelief, with shock.


“A wrenching account of a difficult upbringing and a chaotic brain that will leave readers marveling at the author’s endurance. . . . The author offers a gripping picture of the real pain and suffering of someone diagnosed with chronic mental illness.”

 Kirkus Reviews


The prose poetic, literary, thoughtful, raw, honest, and poignant. In QUITE MAD, Sarah takes the reader into a history of mental illness in the U.S. [of mostly women] marked with abuse, misunderstanding, social faux pas, medications, lack of healthcare, therapy, the paternalistic nature of psychiatry, and so much more. Much of this made me cringe, but it’s also, still reality. And things need to change.

We volley between this and Sarah’s personal story: her struggles with severe anxiety, her OCD, her disordered eating, and more. It’s all so well done and I couldn’t stop flagging pages.

Truly, an important, humane read that is very thought-provoking, while simultaneously evoking empathy.

I am so, so honored to welcome Sarah to the author interview series. Please join us.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sarah Fawn, I am in such awe of your debut non-fiction, QUITE MAD. It’s honest, authentic, kinetic. I was right there with you. I always, always want to know what was haunting a writer when they set out to write a particular title. With this, I think I know. Would you mind telling us, in your own words, what was driving you?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

I wrote the book that I needed as a patient. When I was first diagnosed with various mental illnesses, I desperately wanted information about my symptoms and treatments, and to counter the misinformation and medical sexism I faced. Being a mental health patient is isolating and frustrating, for your lived experiences are often invalidated by others who do not believe your symptoms and stories to be true. Doctor visits, often only a few minutes, focused on what was “wrong” with me and on medication, much of which proved ineffective and even dangerous for me, and I wanted to challenge this narrative. I also wanted to connect with other patients who felt the same. I wanted to explore a national history that has silenced and abused mental illness patients despite the American narrative that promises we’ve come a long way in our mental illness treatments even as mental illness rates in this country have steadily risen. This desire for research alongside patient perspective is why I wrote a hybrid text, part memoir, part journalism, a way to weave personal experience with medical authority.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

The research! Oh, the research! I was enamored with the stats, the data, everything. Can you walk us through a brief timeline of your process—did you research as you went or all up front? How—when—does a writer say: ‘enough’ and get on with the writing?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

I’m so glad! I’m a bit of a research nerd—I love geeking out on topics, surprising myself, finding new directions. The majority of the research happened before the writing, because I researched as a patient before I researched as a writer. So many patients have to advocate for themselves because our current for-profit healthcare model simply does not provide patients the time they need to ask physicians extensive questions, to explore different options and opportunities, and to learn the histories behind their diagnoses. The stigma surrounding mental illness also means that many patients do not receive the support or seek out the community they deserve. Research becomes a way for patients to fill in the gaps left by our healthcare system, and to understand themselves within the larger history of patient experience.

My research process began with medical research on psychopharmacology and prescribing patterns, as I wanted to know about the various medications I encountered, many of which had detrimental side effects. But as I began to experience frustration with the medical care I received, I examined the history of mental illness treatment in the United States, focusing on the ways my frustrations echoed what patients experienced a hundred or more years ago. This is when I also began to write, because I wanted to use my personal experience to voice the historical narrative of being silenced, shamed, and erased. There definitely comes a point when the research has to stop—for me, the research stopped when I began to write, for I’d used it to figure out how I felt, to understand my experience more fully, and in many ways to anger me enough into tackle the telling.

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Photo by Ibrahim Asad on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Since a good chunk of QUITE MAD reads like history—a dark but fascinating—examination of mental illness in women. I wonder if you could give us a few highlights from the last three-hundred years or so? For example, uh…genital massage?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

Goodness, there is so much! Past treatments, particularly for women, were barbaric. The Rest Cure, for example, where women who were too loud, too excited, too adventurous, etc., were expected to go to bed for months at a time, unable to read, write, receive visitors, even bathe or feed themselves. Men, however, were treated with The West Cure, which focused on grand adventure and rugged horseback riding and hunting. Lobotomy was performed primarily on women who had not given content, but whose fathers and husbands were concerned by behavior they did not feel was ladylike. The results, of course, were that patients became docile and agreeable, easily controlled. And as you mention, genital massage was considered treatment, though the results were labeled medical rather than sexual, as women at the time were not seen as capable of desire or orgasm. Medical sexism continues today, women diagnosed and treated at much higher rates than men, prescribed psychopharmaceuticals—the first of which was described as “a chemical lobotomy”—at much higher rates, though rarely do we consider or discuss the ways violence and abuse of women, imposed silence and resulting anger, might contribute to mental illness.

Leslie Lindsay:

And your family. Tumultuous. Saintly. Dysfunctional. Healing. How might you describe them—and to what extent do you feel your struggles were a product of nature versus nurture?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

My family is a complex intersection of experiences—I am one of eight siblings ranging in age from nearly fifty to fifteen. Five of my siblings are adopted from various racial and economic backgrounds, but no matter our family of origin, each of us has struggled with severe abuse and mental health challenges. While the intention behind this blended family was good, to bring us together in love and support, growing up in this dynamic was difficult, in part because stability was rare and because so many people needed physical and mental health care. The origins of mental illness are complex—part genetics, part circumstance—but to bring so many hurting people together often amplified tensions and pain, and our working-class background meant that we didn’t always have access to the care we needed or the knowledge about mental illness that it takes to properly attend to needs.

Leslie Lindsay:

But you broke free. You left for college and graduate school and a relationship of your own. You’re successful and happy. Can you talk about that? Did the distance strengthen you?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

Making the decision to distance myself from my family both emotionally and physically—they all live in California while I live just outside Boston in Massachusetts—was a difficult choice, but one ultimately aimed at protection, preservation a kindness, for us all. As I mentioned before, my family narrative is one that centers on seeking out trauma and trying to force recovery, even when it is not possible. Ours is a story of desperate hope and the pain that comes when recovery cannot be fulfilled. The patterns established in each of us through nurture and nature, as well as the unique ecosystem we created when we come together is one that simply could not sustain me. So I chose the distance, the solitude that works best for me, choosing care rather than chaos. It was and still is to a certain extent, painful and lonely, but my mental health improved tremendously, while my siblings and parents continue to struggle in their patterns.

The distance has strengthened me individually but it has actually been the publication of this book that has strengthened my relationship with my parents. I was incredibly worried about how they would react to a memoir that exposes our family’s vulnerabilities, our members’ many flaws, and their own insecurities as parents, but I found that the process of writing about their choices allowed me to understand them a bit more, and I have grown fiercely protective of them through the process of speaking about them in interviews and book tour events.

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Leslie Lindsay:

Yet at the heart of your struggle, anxiety prevails. What was it like writing about it? Did it heighten your anxiety?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

Writing nonfiction, no matter the topic, always requires vulnerability, but I definitely felt an increased pressure with QUITE MAD, in part because I write very closely about what happened to my brain and body, but also because prior to the book’s publication, I’d spoken very little about my experiences with mental illness. Part of what I want to do with the book is destigmatize mental illness—according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness—by speaking openly about my struggles, even if this meant exposing myself and risking anxiety. While there were certainly challenges in describing and to a certain extent “proving” my experience to a public that often doubts or suspects those with mental illness, my main anxiety came from whether or not I accurately represented the mental illness community. I was less interested in convincing those who are quick to judge than I was about getting it right for those of us who have faced this ableism.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

There’s so, so much in QUITE MAD, I could ask questions all day. What is it you hope others take away?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

My main hope is that those who live with mental illness will find a sense of comfort in community. Mental illness is incredibly lonely and it is difficult to advocate for yourself when the world doesn’t believe you, reacts instead with doubt and suspicion. But there is great comfort in finding others with similar lived experiences, whose stories remind you that you are not alone or strange or broken, but instead part of a larger community that supports and sustains.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sarah Fawn, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery:

Thank you! I’m so honored you spent time with my words and story!

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Photo by Daniel Frank on Pexels.com

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

Order links: 

Sarah_Fawn_Montgomery_QUITE_MAD_author_photo.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018), and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems of Mad WomenLeaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard ReviewDIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.

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

f361308f-8e47-46bd-ab06-5662fe502b14LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#mentalillness #mentalhealth #amreading #memoir #OCD #family #estrangement #stigma #historyofmentalillness

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[Cover and author images courtesy of author and used with permission.]

Would you read a book about dead people? You should–there’s so much life thrumming within the pages of THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD

By Leslie Lindsay

“Death is the subtext of life,” writes the author in her introduction of THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD, and she would be right.

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PBS NewsHour Best Book of the Year 


One of the Top Ten Books of the Year, Newark Star-Ledger

Poetic vignettes of 60+ individuals (including one dog and one goldfish), Winik captures the beauty of living in this slim book. Plus, that cover!

Longtime commentator of NPR’s “All Things Considered” (1991-2006), Marion Winik reviews books for Newsday, People, and Kirkus, and is host of The Weekly Reader podcast. I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to relish in her poetic, yet sparse writing. 

And relish, I did. Although THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD is a slim volume (heck, it could almost fit in your pocket), you might be tempted to breeze right through it in one sitting.

But don’t. 


Every short essay
(2-3 pages at most) deserves your full attention, a careful read. I was amazed and awed with how vivid a portrait Ms. Winik could paint with few words. There’s hope, love, family, pain all succinctly wrapped in a tidy package.

THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD features ‘death’ in the title, and you might be wondering if you want to sit and read about death …because doesn’t that sound a bit depressing? Well, do it anyway. It’s not as dull or macabre as it might sound.

Winik writes with a graceful and amazingly light hand about a less-light subject. In essence, Winik’s observations are more of a lesson for the living, a glimmering memorial, and nuanced observations of the world we live.

Please join me in welcoming Marion Winik to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Marion, welcome! I found THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD most insightful, though unusual. I understand it’s a follow-up to your earlier title, THE GLEN ROCK BOOK OF THE DEAD (Counterpoint, 2008). But there are other books—and a decade between the two—can you talk about why this book, why now?

Marion Winik:

Right after I finished GLEN ROCK, my mother died, my husband left, and I moved to Baltimore. Since I had been with one man or another pretty much continuously since I was 27, I assumed a new guy would turn up right away. Instead, about two years of utter ridiculousness ensued, and that became HIGHS IN THE LOW FIFTIES: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living. Also in this time I started a bi-weekly column called Bohemian Rhapsody in the Baltimore Fishbowl — I’ve been keeping up with that ever since, which is eight years now, though I did switch from bi-weekly to monthly a few years ago. The column was and is a great outlet for my creative energy. (And if you want to read them, sign up over here, you’ll get a notification each month when it comes out. Also all 200 old ones are archived on the site.) So at this point, with seven books of memoir under my belt, I felt like I really had nothing more to write about if my life had to be the focus. So, I then spent 3 years — god, was it really that long? — working on a novel about a memoir teacher who has a student who becomes famous. It was called The Acknowledgments. I guess it still is. But literally dozens of publishers rejected it, so at this point, it’s staying in the drawer.

So — aren’t you glad you asked this question? Oy vey this is a long answer — at this point I realized for the third time that I just can’t write fiction and if I want to do anything worthwhile I better get back in my wheelhouse. THE GLEN ROCK BOOK OF THE DEAD is one of my favorite books I’ve ever written, and it was really a great experience to write it. Both the communing with dead part, and the creating 400-word essays part. What else could I do that would be sort of like that? I tried and tried, and couldn’t think of anything. Then I realized it was 2018, a lot of people had died since 2008, and I could probably just do the same thing again! I proposed the idea to Jack Shoemaker at Counterpoint, the publisher of GLEN ROCK, and he said, show me. And … well, it worked out really well, I think.

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Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay: 

And so where does that leave you now? If you feel you can’t write fiction? Does this mean more memoir?

Marion Winik:

Actually, I’m now working on dead people again, because we’ve decided that instead of bringing out BALTIMORE in paperback this fall, there’s going to be a BIG BOOK OF THE DEAD which will merge GLEN ROCK and BALTIMORE and includes 13 new pieces! 125 total, divided into four chronological sections.

Leslie Lindsay: 

Should I say oy vey?

Marion Winik: 

Yes, yes. I think you should!

Leslie Lindsay:

And just to clarify, there’s not a lot of ‘Baltimore’ per se, but you titled this based on where you wrote it, yes? Can you expand on that, please?

Marion Winik:

It has turned out that the “Baltimore” in the title has sort of worked against me, because a.) people in other places think it’s not for them and b.) people think it’s about Baltimore’s murder problem. Actually, I was just following the pattern established in GLEN ROCK of naming it for the place it was written. But since no one ever heard of Glen Rock, mentioning it in the first title didn’t have much of an effect at all — Baltimore is a different story.

And this is another reason I’m so excited about THE BIG BOOK OF THE DEAD! Not only do I get rid of the geography, it has a bit of an irreverent ring which may help correct the impression that the book is depressing and morbid. I have Jenny Alton, my editor at Counterpoint, to thank for thinking of it.


“An affecting collection of brief, incisive portraits of departed figures both public and private.” 
People


Leslie Lindsay:

I’m so, so interested in genre these days. It seems like it should be pretty straight-forward, but that’s not always the case. Many books are genre-bending, genre-crossing. THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD is a little of everything—non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, essay—can you give us a little more insight and should writers worry about genre?

Marion Winik:

No they should not! I think a lot of the most interesting work we’re seeing today is hybrid genre. Auto-fiction, for example, like the work of the great Lucia Berlin, is a really interesting category. The books of the dead could be considered prose poems, auto fiction, or memoir. The only reason to think about genre is because it affects the marketing. Jack had mentioned the idea of publishing THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD as fiction. Because as much as the essays are based on fact and are very carefully researched, approved and checked by someone who knew the person, there’s also a lot of imagination that goes into it — I’m writing about events I didn’t not attend, sometimes people I barely knew. But since GLEN ROCK had already been published as memoir, we really didn’t have that option.

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

There are over sixty stories—but those stories encompass so much living, so many lives—was there one or two that really surprised you? Perhaps they illuminated a piece of yourself—or someone else in a new light. Can you talk about that, please?

Marion Winik:

Well, as I just mentioned, each piece is researched with family or friends of the person, so I found out tons of things I didn’t know. Like in ‘The Perfect Couple,’ I had planning to write about just the wife. But when I interviewed my friend, her daughter, I realized that the story of her father dying of AIDS was all entwined with it, and it should be about both of them. And the seaplane crash in ‘The Cat With Nine Lives’ — I had only foggy memories of that, but I was able to research it both with the son of the person (my cousin) and in the archives of the New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger. The story of David Bowie’s ‘Thin White Duke’ character I really knew nothing about until I started reading books about Bowie’s career. I could go on and on, because almost every one of the pieces is based on research and interviews. That’s why the Acknowledgments are so long. [You can read excerpts from THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD here.]

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Leslie Lindsay:

What challenged you the most during the writing of THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD? Did you worry about how others might respond—or maybe they didn’t want to be in your story?

Marion Winik:

The subjects are all dead, so they are unable to weigh in on whether they’d like to be in the book. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t use their names. But I do get permission from the survivors and actually no one has said no yet. Sometimes there are bumps in the road because they don’t like the first draft I show them, but I keep going back and forth until they are okay with it. It’s often a pretty collaborative process.

Leslie Lindsay:

Marion, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to chat. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Marion Winik:

No, I think this was great. Thanks so much, Leslie — thanks for reading my book and taking the time to talk to me.

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

Order Links: 

Marion Winik Author Photograph by Maeve Secor & Jane SartwellABOUT THE AUTHOR: Longtime All Things Considered commentator MARION WINIK is the author of First Comes LoveThe Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and seven other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com has received the Best Column and Best Humorist awards from Baltimore Magazine, and her essays have been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Sun, and many other publications. She is the host of The Weekly Reader radio show and podcast, based at the Baltimore NPR affiliate. She reviews books for NewsdayPeople, and Kirkus Reviews and is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore.

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#prosepoems #amreading #TheBaltimoreBookoftheDead #authorinterview #memoir #autofiction

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Counterpoint Press and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Join me on Instagram]

NOW IN PAPERBACK! Robin Oliveira talks about her love for Albany NY, bike riding, researching books to be accurate yet emotional, & more in WINTER SISTERS

By Leslie Lindsay 

A haunting tale of a horrific New York blizzard that leads to missing girls, a court case, and dead parents. 

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK!

Winter Sisters
It’s March 1879, fourteen years after the Civil War. The day begins like any other. A light snow is falling as the O’Donnell family leave their simple home for work and school. But an epic blizzard has obliterated the city, separating children from parents and families from homes. Both of the O’Donnell parents area dead and the girls, Emma and Claire (ages 10 and 7) are nowhere to be found.

Close family friends, Dr. Mary Stipp (nee, Sutter)–whom we met in Oliveira’s earlier book, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, and her husband, Dr. William Stipp, begin a tireless search for the girls, turning over every orphanage, church, home, school…the girls are nowhere to be found. The police feel they must have died in the river. Yet, scandal is brewing.

Meanwhile, Mary’s mother, Amelia and niece (Elizabeth) return from their stay in Paris where Elizabeth had been in the Paris Conservatory studying violin. Together, with the Drs. Stipp, the search continues, as well as grieving for the lost.

I found the writing absolutely glorious, with rich detail to the historical period, making every piece of the story feel very authentic and accurate (though some creative liberties were taken with the dates, as explained in the author’s note). Oliveira’s descriptions sing, as does her experience as a former critical care R.N., bringing so much of this 19th century doctor to life.

The last third of WINTER SISTERS was almost exclusively focused on a trial, which Oliveira depicts in such flourish and beauty, sharp dialogue, and clever characters. I was so taken with this part of the story and couldn’t get enough. Much of the themes angered me, but had me cheering for the ‘good guy,’ too.

Part family saga, part medical drama, part thriller, all set in a historical setting, WINTER SISTERS is sure to delight and enrage as it traverses unspeakable evil to tremendous good. 

I am so, so honored to welcome Robin to the author interview series. Please join us!

Leslie Lindsay:

Robin, I loved WINTER SISTERS so much. I’m curious what drew you to this story? I know you’re from Albany, New York, but there has to be more to it other than it being your hometown. Can you elaborate?

Robin Oliveira:

Thank you, Leslie. I’m so glad you loved the book. I love to hear when readers connect with one of my novels. Because we writers write in a vacuum, it is lovely to receive notes of appreciation.

I grew up in Loudonville, which is just north of Albany on Route 9, but we often drove into the city to attend church, visit the doctor, shop, go out to dinner. From the wide back seat of my mother’s Bonneville, I formed indelible memories of the city: the Hudson River seemed wide and forbidding, the trains traveling right down the middle of Broadway spoke of faraway places, and the grand, rococo spires of the churches were enthralling and historic. Albany wears its history on its sleeve. Much of its 19th century architecture remains intact, giving Albany a distinctly visible link to its past. There were wooden row houses and elegant brownstones and verdant parks and enormous government buildings that to a child seemed like the larger world. Of course, it wasn’t Paris or Manhattan, but at that time, to my eyes, Albany was a fascinating, dangerous, romantic place, full of story and drama. That impression, and the desire to convey Albany’s legacy, has lingered with me in the years since.

In the 19th century, Albany was not a city in decline but a significant player on the world stage, a vital crossroads between east and west, which makes it a rich setting for a novel. The Hudson River, the railroads, and the Erie Canal all played an important role in the prosperity of the nation. Hemmed in on one side by the river, high and low society lived cheek by jowl: the rough and tumble lumbermen, barons of industry, tumultuous politics and politicians, and a more genteel society several generations removed from its methods of enrichment. Separated from Manhattan City by only a four-hour dayboat ride or train trip, in its heyday Albany was intimately connected with the commerce of the entire country. This story, WINTER SISTERS, in particular, begged to be set in this thriving, small city, where gossip and scandal could impact multiple levels of society.

What drew me to the story itself is another question entirely. I didn’t set out to bring Mary back. But in the process of researching an entirely different book, I discovered that in 1879, in New York State, the age of consent was ten years old. That changed everything. I knew I had to write about it, and as I discovered that a doctor’s services would be called upon in the book, I thought Mary Sutter might make a cameo appearance. But the issues explored turned out to be grave, and I knew that if Mary got wind of them, she wouldn’t stay silent or stand by while somebody else dealt with the problem. She wouldn’t be content with having a distant role. So, she needed to be intimately affected by the events of the novel. And voila! A new Mary Sutter novel was born.

Leslie Lindsay:

WINTER SISTERS picks up about fourteen years after the Civil War. In your previous book, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, we’re introduced to a brilliant, headstrong midwife who eventually becomes a Civil War surgeon. Dr. Mary Sutter (now married to Dr. William Stipp), is back in this tale, but this isn’t exactly a series, is it? Is there a literary term for this type of character cross-over? And what is it about Mary that you—and readers—love so much?mary-sutter-250

Robin Oliveira:

I know,it isn’t quite a series, is it? Shall we invent a term? Connected novels, like connected short stories? Though I have received many requests from readers over the years to ‘bring Mary back,’ I could never find a story that seemed as necessary or compelling to tell as the one I had already told about her. I felt as if I’d solved all her problems, and that nothing else would ever be as exciting or interesting as becoming a surgeon in the midst of war. What I think compels readers—and me—to love Mary Sutter is that she is a bright, clear-headed, courageous woman who speaks her mind, ignores societal conventions, slices directly into the heart of things, runs into trouble rather than away from it (the definition of a hero), and persists no matter the roadblock. I particularly love her verbal comebacks. She thinks of and says the apt rebuke or bon mot we all wish we were able to say in similarly fraught moments. There are many situations in my life where I think, Well, Mary wouldn’t have let that person speak to her like that. Why did you? Of course, it took me three or more drafts to write the words she wields as deftly as a sword. But what I think I adore most about Mary is that she is at heart an entirely moral human being. She rejects the frivolous—fashion, status, appearance—for the pursuit of much higher goals.

Leslie Lindsay:

Like Mary, you have experience in the medical field as a former critical care nurse. Your knowledge shines through in those medical scenes (I was a former psych R.N.) and so I’m curious how you made the switch from nursing to writing and how your past experience informs your present writing.

Robin Oliveira:

Before I ever thought about becoming a nurse, I was a reader. From early in my life, you could find me buried in a book somewhere in a corner, oblivious to the world around me, enthralled by a story. Since you and I have a lot in common—we are both readers, writers and nurses—I think you would probably agree that what connects those occupations is empathy. Writing is nothing if not an act of empathy, as is nursing. We inhabit differing realities, seek out hidden sources of pain, and do what we can to craft meaning from the lives we encounter, or in fiction, the characters we create. On a practical level, my transition to writing began with education. Having failed at making much progress in learning to write on my own, I started taking writing classes at the local community college, then moved on to university extension evening courses, and finally received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I have made a number of changes over the years. My first undergraduate degree was in Russian, a reflection of my love of language.

All of these things—reading, nursing, my love of language—inform my present writing. But more specifically, nursing brought me close to people on the verge of mortality. The intimacy of the act of nursing the critically ill breeds the kinds of instinct that work well for a writer: notice everything, try to draw meaning from sometimes inchoate gestures or requests, ask multiple questions to understand what someone’s true desire might be, especially at the end of life. In addition, I probably am able to write about medicine with more precision than another writer, who isn’t in the medical field. But I think that medicine and illness—even cursory illness— isn’t utilized enough in fiction. I often wonder about books covering many years in which no character ever suffers even a cold. It’s important as we write to acknowledge the weaknesses of the body as well as the soul. Nurses and physicians who write may be more focused on this.

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“A true tour de force, Winter Sisters is the best period thriller I’ve read since The Alienist. Robin Oliveira is…working at the height of her powers.”
   —Thomas Christopher Greene, author of The Headmaster’s Wife and If I Forget You


Leslie Lindsay:  

I absolutely loved the piece about the courtroom showdown, which takes place in the last third of WINTER SISTERS. I was in awe of the quick wit, the cleverness, and I was thinking, ‘how did she pull this off?’ What research did you do for these scenes?

Robin Oliveira:

I spent a lot of time reading 17th and 19th-century trial transcripts. I began with reading the Old Bailey transcripts from England—now available online—which were helpful in terms of tone but less helpful in terms of procedure and law. But New York trial transcripts, also recently digitized, are available from the early 1880’s, close enough to 1879 to be useful to me. I ferreted out procedure from these, as well as language and the kinds of questions lawyers were asking victims and witnesses.

In my first drafts, I didn’t quite know how to portray that court scene, never having written one, and not being a fan of television crime dramas. I couldn’t quite figure out how to craft those scenes so that they were tight and yet still portrayed what would have occurred in the courtroom. At first, I wrote endlessly long scenes recounting events and information that readers already knew. My editors, after reading the 200,000-word draft I sent them on my first deadline, implored me to cut the dross. It was excruciating figuring out which details to include and which to summarize in order to make the scene move with the kind of speed required to keep a reader’s attention without sacrificing any important details. As far as wit and cleverness go—thank you!—that was just rewriting. I went through multiple drafts. I included repartee because the events of the trial are so weighty that I felt the reader needed some comic relief in order to stay with me.

Leslie Lindsay:

There’s a lot to this book. There are missing girls, family drama, music in form of the violin, the natural disasters of the blizzard and flood, medical procedures, and of course that courtroom scene(s). They are all interrelated and form a delicious whole, but is there one aspect you enjoyed writing more than others?

Robin Oliveira:

I like learning new things. It’s the perennial student in me. I knew nothing about playing the violin—I can’t play a single instrument and am tone deaf—so I enjoyed figuring out how to write about a character who knew how to play the violin really well. I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching performances and listening to violin instructors explain things. I went to a Hilary Hahn concert to study her phrasing and watched her physicality as played. I went to Paris to visit the Conservatoire, which was wildly fun. Not trusting my two years of college French in conversation, I composed a note that I presented at the door of the school, which explained that I was writing a book and that part of it was set in the conservatory. Could I please come in to see the building and the famous concert hall? Yes! They let me in! I love the French. Then came the challenge of writing about the conservatory and about playing the violin convincingly enough, which was both a terror and a joy. This might be a good time to mention tha

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you talk a little more about the music piece? In this sense, this story reminded me a bit of Carmela Martino’s PLAYING BY HEART. What was your intention with Elizabeth and her violin?

Robin Oliveira:

One of the reasons I chose to include music in the story was that I needed Elizabeth to stand very much in opposition to her aunt. Their differences, both in personality and profession, provide a source of conflict that pushes one of the narrative threads. Mary Sutter is a physician who from an early age was scientifically grounded, practical in the extreme, and as a result seems better equipped to handle the kinds of issues that arise in WINTER SISTERS. By contrast, Elizabeth has always been artistic and emotional, and as a result not only feels far more vulnerable than perhaps her aunt ever has, but also, at first, seems to have very little to offer when the crisis presents itself. But each of them is a prodigy in their own right, and Elizabeth has something to provide that it turns out that Mary, with all her medical skill, cannot. Elizabeth’s musical genius reaches into the soul—and this story cried out for every tool available to respond to the story’s tragedy.

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you give us a few “Robin” facts, maybe something few know?

Robin Oliveira:

I love to ride my bicycle around the San Juan Islands in Washington. I studied in Moscow, USSR, in January 1976, when I was just twenty-two years old. I once skinny-dipped in Puget Sound. (I don’t recommend it. Too cold.) I’m addicted to watching eagle cams so I can observe growing eaglets while I write. I’m afraid of sailboats. I almost drowned when I was four years old on a family vacation in Cape Cod. I included one of my childhood dreams in WINTER SISTERS. I love the ballet. I was a Girl Scout, but probably sold the fewest boxes of cookies of any Girl Scout ever. And I met President Carter on a trip to the White House in 1977, and President Obama when he was raising funds for his first run for the White House.

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Leslie Lindsay:

What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Robin Oliveira:

Perhaps the question I most often receive about my books is how authentic is the history in my books?

The answer is 99% of it. If I ever differ from established history, I explain how and why in my author notes. As you alluded to earlier, for WINTER SISTERS I moved a famous blizzard from 1888 to 1879. I did that because I needed my characters to be a certain age, and since they had already appeared in a prior book, I had to fudge that timing. But given the history of deadly winter storms in the northeast, I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch.

I like to put my readers—and myself—back in time. I do this by making my characters contend with reality as it was then. For instance, every boat or train they take adheres to historic schedules. In MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, I wouldn’t allow Mary to possess more medical knowledge than was available at the time. This of course led her to make mistakes, but it was important to show medicine as it was, not medicine as I wanted her to know it. Also, I make certain never to move my historical characters from one place to another unless I can make a good case for how it might have happened. Again in MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, I knew that President Lincoln gave a speech on a certain day very near General Lee’s house in Arlington, Virginia, where most of the Union Army had decamped after a blistering defeat at Manassas. I thought it was possible that Lincoln could have traveled on to visit the general who had mismanaged the battle, so I felt comfortable writing a scene set there. In I ALWAYS LOVED YOU, a story about the impressionist artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, I kept a detailed timeline of where every single artist in their circle was at any given time so that I wouldn’t have them meet while one was in Paris, say, and the other in Aix.

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It’s very important to me to underpin historical story with historical fact. However, emotional character arcs, in my mind, are fair game for interpretation in fiction. While I never go against anything that can be historically verified, story is not made up of facts. It is instead made up of emotion—the why something happened, which at its core speaks to motivation. Characters make decisions based on desire, and story ensues. That’s what makes historical fiction differ from history. That said, when I write about historical characters, I make heavy use of diaries, letters, reports, newspaper stories, etc. so that I can better get to the heart of who they were and what they wanted. Never is a historical figure a pawn in my story about them. Rather, I try to understand their story in order to portray it as intimately and emotionally true as I am able.

Leslie Lindsay: 

Robin, it’s been such a pleasure! Thank you.

Robin Oliveira:

The pleasure is all mine!

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

Order Links:

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK!

Robin Oliveira - © Shellie Gansz 2017.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Robin Oliveira grew up just outside Albany, New York in Loudonville. She holds a B.A. in Russian, and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow, Russia. She worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, specializing in Critical Care and Bone Marrow Transplant. In 2006 Robin received an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2007 she was awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship for her debut novel-in-progress, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER, then entitled The Last Beautiful Day. MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER also received the 2011 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction and the 2010 American Historical Fiction Honorable Mention from the Langum Charitable Trust. The book was chosen as an all-city read for both Schenectady, N.Y. and Roswell, Georgia, and in 2015, the all-state read for Iowa. Her book, I ALWAYS LOVED YOU, was published by VIKING in 2014. WINTER SISTERS is her newest, set for publication on February 27th, 2018. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Euphony and Numero Cinq. Robin is the former fiction editor at the literary magazine upstreet and a former assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. She lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her husband, Andrew Oliveira. She is the mother of two grown children, Noelle and Miles.

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

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Winter Sisters

[Interview originally appeared in February 2018. This is a ‘reprint.’ Cover and author image courtesy of Viking/Penguin Random House and used with permission. Author photo credit: Shellie Lansz. Paris Conservatory images retrieved from Wikipedia; signs and storefronts of c. 1892 Albany NY from  Albany mansion from, nurse reading from, backroads biking on San Juan from , image of old letters from; all on 2.15.18]

NYT Bestselling author Dani Shapiro talks about her sublime new memoir–finding herself, DNA, paternity, and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

Wildly thought-provoking medical, ethical, and genetic mystery, Dani Shapiro opens up about her journey of identity in INHERITANCE. 

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Washington PostVultureBustleReal SimplePopSugar, and LitHub 

Most Anticipated Book of 2019 

A New York Times Bestseller

Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of four memoirs, HOURGLASS, STILL WRITINGDEVOTION, and SLOW MOTION, and five novels including BLACK AND WHITE and FAMILY HISTORY. Her books span diverse subjects from her tumultuous upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community and the tragic death of her father to her explorations of spirituality and the nature of our deepest relationships.

Praise for INHERITANCE call it ‘important and timely,’ ‘beautiful but heartbreaking,’ and an ‘introspective mystery’ that is both ‘captivating and traumatic.’

I finished INHERITANCE (Knopf, January 15 2019) in just two sittings (but it could have been one if I had been more disciplined). Here, she begins with a lovely childhood memory of waking in the morning hours and scurrying to the bathroom where she perches on the sink to gaze at her reflection in the mirror.

Who is this girl? 

Seems this question has pierced Ms. Shapiro’s consciousness all her life. Quite different in her appearance than other family members, Dani’s skin was/is lighter, her cheeks pink discs, and her hair–so golden she could have been used as a ‘bread-getter’ in Nazi Germany. But she was full-blooded Jewish. The only child of devout Orthodox Jews, Dani never had reason to question her paternity. Until her husband says, rather off-handedly, that he’s going to order away for one of those DIY DNA kits, and did Dani want one, too?

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What results is a medical/genetic mystery: Dani is not her father’s daughter. So, who’s daughter is she? And what of her personal identity, her culture, her religion?

Ms. Shapiro writes with a gentle hand in this lyrical and deeply moving memoir. I was absolutely captivated and felt right there with her as she spun through time and memoryI felt her anguish and confusion, her defeat. And yet, she rises above it all–and just as any ‘good’ character, she is transformed from the experience. 

Not only does Ms. Shapiro weave in childhood memories, but she also
 touches on the history of artificial insemination, flashbacks to her younger parents, and how family secrets and identity have played pivotal roles in her other memoirs, as well as novels. 

INHERITANCE is presented in such a way that I found very captivating and even a few gasp-out-loud moments. This is one of those books that would make a good book discussion group–how many of us have used the services of Ancestry.com or 23andMe, or a similar test? What about genetics and ethics, and paternity…what would you have done in a similar situation?

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Dani Shapiro to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Dani, you open INHERITANCE by gazing at your face in the mirror. It was if you wanted to know and understand your reflection, but never quite connected because it looked radically different from the family you knew. For me, the opposite was true. My face looks staggeringly similar to my own mentally ill mother’s. I thought, ‘if I could look more like my dad, maybe I won’t become crazy?’  Can you talk about this, and how we are more than our outward appearance?

Dani Shapiro:

When I stared at my own face in the mirror as a child, I was searching for something I couldn’t have possibly articulated. Of course, we’re much more than our outward appearance, but in my case, my appearance – which was so starkly different from my parents – was a clue to my identity. I couldn’t have dared the thought that my beloved dad wasn’t my biological father – I was so bonded to him (and not to my mother) that it was out of the question. But that’s what the staring was about. My outward appearance did not match my inward sense of self, and the family I believed myself to have come from. If I had always known the truth, this feeling would have been different, I imagine. The secret was reflected back at me in the mirror.

Leslie Lindsay:

Like you, I spit into a tube and mailed it in. I waited. I got the results. I thought I’d be half-German. I wasn’t, though it was there in smaller amounts. I felt some relief. Maybe I’m not my mother’s daughter after all. I also learned I’m a tiny part Jewish. And this cleared up a few things: like, why I sometimes call my daughter Bubbe. [a psychic once told me my daughter had once been my grandmother]. How do you think these DNA tests will affect future generations?

Dani Shapiro:

Well, I think that soon, there will be no more secrets, at least in this regard. Anonymity is a thing of the past. And I believe that in future generations, the idea that we ever kept such secrets from each other will seem ludicrous, unethical, just plain wrong. 

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Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

You’ve been super-prolific in your writing career and INHERITANCE isn’t your first memoir. How does this one differ from the others? Or, does it?

Dani Shapiro:

I’ve written five novels and five memoirs. I turned from fiction to memoir because I was digging into questions about my family history (with the exception of Hourglass, my memoir before Inheritance, which is an inquiry into long-lasting marriage) and Inheritance answers those questions. In a sense, it’s as if all my previous books led to this one. With the discovery about my dad, and about the massive secret that was kept from me, I was given a lot of answers, and also a lot of questions. Which led to the writing of this book.

Leslie Lindsay:

INHERITANCE is obviously deeply personal, but it’s also universal. We all desire to feel at ease with ourselves, to know who we ‘really’ are. Do we ever? Aren’t we always evolving? How can writers—especially those writing memoir—make a deep and lasting connection with their readers?

Dani Shapiro: 

Writers of memoir would be well-advised to keep away from trying to write the “definitive” memoir, or, as I think of it, the “kitchen sink” memoir. Memoirs are stories. And good memoirs connect with readers when the specificity of a story connects with the universal thread. Though the writer can’t be sitting at her desk thinking “wait, is this universal?”  That kind of question sets off the inner censor – which I write a lot about in my book Still Writing – the censor will stop you in your tracks. Indeed, we are always evolving. What we’re trying to do is pin down a particular story from a particular moment.  The me-now examining what happened to the me-then. Therefore, there is never a definitive “got it” moment. And also, this is why it’s possible to write multiple memoirs, if one has that bent.


“Shapiro recognized that what she had experienced
was ‘a great story’—one that has inspired her best book.
“Before focusing on memoirs, Shapiro drew from her family life in her fiction. In her latest, she delves into an origin story that puts everything she previously believed and wrote about herself in fresh perspective.”

KIRKUS, a starred review


Leslie Lindsay:

I imagine the family you call Walden in INHERITANCE is supremely private. But I found them [mostly] warm and accepting in the narrative. Can you give us a bit of insight as to what is going on with them now that the book is available? How do they feel about this now?

Dani Shapiro:

Sorry, but I’m not talking about the Waldens beyond what happens in INHERITANCE. We are in each other’s lives, and they understandably would like our relationship to be private moving forward, as would I. It’s a lot for private people – even those whose identity I have protected – to have a book written about their experience. And I totally respect that.

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Dani, it’s been such a pleasure and delight. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Dani Shapiro:

Well, I do think it’s interesting that so many people are making these discoveries because of easy and accessible DNA testing. Last year alone, twelve million people bought these kits. Many of those people – as much as 2% — are making discoveries that are intense for them. Hundreds of thousands of people are discovering that they didn’t know significant aspects of their own identities. It’s really staggering on so many levels

Leslie Lindsay:

Oh! One more thing: what’s obsessing you? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Dani Shapiro:

Oat milk. Seriously.

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

Order Links: 

Shapiro.photoABOUT THE AUTHOR: DANI SHAPIRO is the author of the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Also an essayist and a journalist, Shapiro’s short fiction, essays, and journalistic pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and many other publications. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University; she is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

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

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#memoir #INHERITANCE #amreading #authorinterviewseries #DNA #identity 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Knopf and used with permission. Family photos of the author courtesy of D. Shapiro and used with permission. Cover images of other Shapiro books retrieved from Knopf website. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram

 

 

 

Menacing, Melancholic debut from Emma Rous, THE AU PAIR, captures the English countryside, identity, and family secrets sublimely

By Leslie Lindsay

Entrancing, melancholic and atmospheric narrative alternating between two female perspectives about identity, family, and secrets. 

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Dark family secrets prevail in this debut from Emma Rous (Berkley Trade Paperback original, January 8 2019). There’s scandal, infidelity, a seaside estate, a nanny, and suicide. Plus, what about those mysterious twins? I fell in love with the setting–the Summerbourne Estate captured my heart because I absolutely adore homes in general. And what stories those walls may tell–or in this case, the nanny.

It’s 1991/92 and The Mayes family have hired Laura Silveira to help care for young Edwin, opening their lives up to some scrutiny. Laura is eighteen and needing a bit of respite from her failed A levels, taking a gap year to ‘sort herself out.’

Alternating perspectives dive into Seraphine’s present-day story in which she is struggling with the after-effects of her father’s recent death. When Seraphine–a twin–discovers an old photograph of her mother just after her birth, holding just one baby–who or where is the other twin? And why did her mother jump to her death just hours after giving birth? Seraphine finds herself quickly ensnared in a mystery and a web of family deceit–even threats–as she attempts to get to the bottom of this mystery.

I found the juxtaposition of Seraphine and Laura’s story, set approximately 25 years apart, a compelling structure. There’s so much to love about THE AU PAIR–the setting, the juicy scandals, the hair-raising twists and the almost-vintage Danielle Steel vibe of the late 1980s.

Please join me in welcoming Emma Rous to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Emma, welcome! I am still reeling after finishing THE AU PAIR. So curious about the origins of this story—was there a character, a situation, a place—that propelled you?

Emma Rous:

Thank you, Leslie. I guess, looking back, it was the situation that I started with – the events in the hours surrounding Seraphine’s birth. I had no agent or publisher at that stage, so my ambition was simply to write the sort of story I’d like to read, and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with tales about uncertain identities. The setting was firmly in my mind from the beginning too – this big, old, crumbling manor house on the coast. Everything else spiraled out from there in the planning stage – which is funny when I look back on it, because the characters soon came to feel like real people to me, and yet they only came to life once the other elements were in place.

Leslie Lindsay:

I loved Summerbourne. I love old homes in general—and then you placed it on a seaside cliff in England—swoon! Can you tell us more about that estate? Is it purely fictional or does it have some roots in reality?

Emma Rous:

It’s purely a product of my imagination, although I’m sure my subconscious stitched it together from all sorts of English country houses I’ve visited with my family over the years. I moved home a lot when I was growing up, and I wanted to explore the concept of having strong emotional roots in a place – something I’ve never experienced – so I needed Summerbourne to be the sort of house you could fall in love with, almost a character in its own right. I’m so glad you liked it!

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Leslie Lindsay:

There are a good deal of characters in THE AU PAIR—and I know this is a tough question—but is there anyone (or two) you felt a particular affection for? Was there anyone you had difficulty embracing?

Emma Rous:

I didn’t think about this aspect while writing the story, but with hindsight I do have a special fondness for Ruth. We only really see Ruth through Laura’s eyes, but it’s enough to give glimpses of both sides of her – the moody, mercurial, headache-claiming side, but also the incredibly strong woman who perseveres in trying to do the right thing for her little boy despite suffering a heart-breaking loss, and in the face of villagers gossiping that she doesn’t behave like a ‘real mother’. Poor Ruth!

I didn’t struggle writing any of them though – I’m fond of them all, despite their sometimes questionable actions!


‘Entrancing, compelling, atmospheric, reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier. A beautiful read that delivers a shocking and satisfying ending’

 –Liv Constantine, bestselling author of The Last Mrs Parrish


Leslie Lindsay:

What kind of writer are you? Do you carefully plot and cogitate or do you let the pen (muse?) guide you? Maybe a little of both?! Did anything surprise you?

Emma Rous:

I like to believe I’m a careful plotter right up until the point I actually start writing, and then I remember it’s never that simple and I see where my typing fingers take me!

Leslie Lindsay:

I understand you were first a veterinarian, but always wanted to write. Can you tell us a bit about your transition from vet to author? In terms of writing and securing an agent, what do you think you did right and what do you wish you had known before?

Emma Rous:

Yes, I worked as a veterinarian for over eighteen years, but I always had a desire to write fiction. I have three children too, and I found it impossible to juggle all three roles – mother, veterinarian and writer. I reached a point, after turning forty, where I decided it was now or never – I had to give writing a go, or I’d never know if I could do it. I left my vet job and threw myself into writing full time, and I discovered that I loved it. I’m so glad I took the leap!

I did as much research as I could into finding an agent (all online) and I took the submission process very seriously. I submitted the manuscript of THE AU PAIR to fifteen agents, and since they all asked for something slightly different (different numbers of pages or chapters, different length synopses) it took me about two weeks just to send them all off. What do I wish I’d known before? I agonised over writing ‘perfect’ synopses, but I think agents just take a quick look at them to see the overall shape and outcome of the story – it’s the writing in the manuscript that really counts.

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Photo by Trinity Kubassek on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

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

Emma Rous:

I certainly am! It’s about a girl growing up at an isolated former artists’ colony, who’s always been warned that outsiders are not to be trusted, and it’s about the two sisters who went to live at that artists’ colony seventeen years earlier, and the secret that one of them has guarded ever since.

Leslie Lindsay:

What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Emma Rous:

I think you’ve covered the important stuff! People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever worked as an au pair, and I have to say no… But I did go off to live with farmers’ families for weeks at a time from the age of fifteen, to gain work experience for vet school, so I do have an inkling of how it feels to arrive all alone at a big house and to try to make yourself useful without getting into trouble!

Leslie Lindsay:

Emma, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time.

Emma Rous:

I enjoyed it too, Leslie, thank you.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Order Links:

author photo, emma rous, 2018ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Emma grew up in England, Indonesia, Kuwait, Portugal and Fiji, and from a young age she had two ambitions: to write stories, and to look after animals. She studied veterinary medicine and zoology at the University of Cambridge, then worked as a small animal veterinary surgeon for eighteen years before switching to full time writing in 2016. Emma lives in Cambridgeshire, England, with her husband and three sons.

The Au Pair is her first novel. It will be published in ten countries, in nine languages. She is currently writing her second book.

 

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1]

 

 

 

Can one ever escape the ‘family roles’ we’re given? Lynda Cohen Loigman explores this and more in her smashing historical family drama set in WWII

By Leslie Lindsay 

Captivating and stunning examination of family dysfunction, disharmony, sisterhood, and WWII in Lynda Cohen Loigman’s THE WARTIME SISTERS. 

 

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I had such admiration for Ms. Loigman’s debut, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE (2016), and was delighted to see that she chose to continue her writing journey into historical fiction; she truly shines when exploring complicated familial relationships, and it makes for such authentic writing.

Now, Lynda returns with her second novel, THE WARTIME SISTERS 
(St. Martin’s Press, Jan 22 2019) and it’s every bit as good–if not better–than her first. This is a mesmerizing tale of sisterhood, lies, betrayal, rivalries, motherhood, withheld communication, even religion.

Told in alternating POVs with distinct places and time periods (1930s Brooklyn; 1940s Springfield, MA), the voices truly sing. 

Ruth and Millie have never been close–not as toddlers sharing a bedroom in their Brooklyn apartment, not as teenagers navigating suitors and school (Ruth was the homely but smart sister and Millie the less-studious gorgeous sister), and certainly not as mothers with young children of their own. Ruth has always been the ‘responsible older sister’ who had to shoulder the burden of many of life’s struggles while Millie was doted upon and wanted by everyoneRuth has always resented the attention Millie garnered and so when she married, she was happy to get away from her sister.

With WWII on the horizon, Ruth’s husband is offered a job at the Springfield Armory. Life is great. They have a home, manicured lawns, friends, book clubs, twin daughters, and a great distance from Millie. But that all changes when Millie–three years younger and five years estranged–writes Ruth with news that her husband is gone.

Loigman’s pacing is mesmerizing, her descriptions spot-on; you can tell she spent a significant time researching the Springfield Armory, the time periods she worked in, plus the family dynamics were so carefully and thoughtfully rendered. Subtle references to Jewish customs are mentioned and this so enhanced the storytelling, making me feel so much closer to the characters.

Perfect historical fiction with a satisfying ending; I loved it.

Please join me in welcoming Lynda back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Lynda, I am in awe. I started THE WARTIME SISTERS on vacation and didn’t want it to end—the story or the vacation! I think it was the family dynamics you so deftly portrayed. And the swift pacing. Can you tell us a bit about your spark for this book?

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

Hi Leslie! Thank you for having me – I’m so excited to talk about THE WARTIME SISTERS with you!

This novel became a very different book from the one I originally set out to write. Although I always intended to write about sisters, I was planning to set the novel in a much later time period. My first wave of inspiration came from the move my mother’s family made in the early 1960’s from Brooklyn, New York, to Springfield, Massachusetts. Although my mother was only eighteen years old when she moved, I’m not sure she ever considered Springfield her home. To her, New York was the center of the universe, and Springfield might as well have been the North Pole. Her sisters and parents moved a few months before she did because she wanted to finish her senior year of high school in Brooklyn.

When I first thought about my novel, I wanted to capture the feelings my mother and aunts used to convey to me in the stories they told me about that time in their lives – I wanted to write about sisters in transition, the disappointment of leaving a big city, and the complications of being left behind.

I also wanted to include an unsuccessful marriage in my story. My grandmother’s marriage was never a happy one, and though she and my grandfather lived only fifteen minutes from us, we almost never saw him. She would have meals at our house a few times a week, but he never accompanied her.

As I began to piece my novel together, I had an idea for a minor character whose backstory would involve a job at the Springfield Armory during World War II. It was while I was engaged in that research that a second wave of inspiration hit me. I came upon the armory’s “Forge of Innovation” website, which included over a dozen recorded interviews with women (and a few men) who had worked and/or lived at the armory. They came from all kinds of backgrounds and held a diverse array of positions – one was an officer’s wife, and one a single mother tasked with assembling triggers. I couldn’t stop thinking about those women. Because of them, I decided to push the time period of my novel to the 1940’s and to expand my original cast of characters. What began as a novel about only two sisters was revised to include the sisterhood of women who worked and lived at the Armory during the early years of World War II.

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

There’s something so compelling about multigenerational tales—they’re enough removed from the present, but woven into our DNA—and an intriguing exercise to reimagine the relationships and stories. What did you discover—about yourself or your family—while writing THE WARTIME SISTERS?

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

As I was writing the early Kaplan family scenes set in Brooklyn, I thought a lot about how the way parents treat their children shapes not only the parents’ individual relationship with that child, but also the relationships siblings have with each other. Florence Kaplan does not treat her daughters equally, and she has very different expectations for each of them. Her words and her actions impact Ruth and Millie in terms of how each one sees herself. But her treatment also has negative consequences for Millie and Ruth’s relationship as sisters. The scene where Florence gives Ruth her old earrings is a perfect example of this. When Ruth finds out that her mother is saving her most valuable piece of jewelry (an opal ring) for Millie, Ruth can’t help but feel resentment toward her sister. Millie doesn’t even know the ring exists at this point, but that doesn’t prevent Ruth from holding her partially to blame. Years later, the ring becomes an important symbol for Ruth, one that triggers the renewal of past anger and jealousy.

Writing about the different ways parents treat their children made me think a lot about the way I treat my own children now, the way my parents treated me and my brother when I was young, and what I remember of the way my grandmother treated her three daughters. Of course, I try to treat my son and daughter equally, but “equal” is an impossible goal to achieve because they are different people with completely different personalities. I wrote a scene about Ruth struggling with this issue for THE WARTIME SISTERS because I thought it would be fascinating to explore her fears of repeating the same mistakes her own mother made.

I’m not sure I had any real revelations or discoveries about myself or my family as I worked through these themes, but exploring them on paper made me much more aware of potential disparities. No parent is perfect and no two children are the same, but I do think it is important to keep parental influence in mind when we think about the relationships our children have with each other.

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Photo by Marta Branco on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Also, the whole concept of familial roles is intriguing to me. “The Smart One,” “The Cute One,” “The Musical One,” it can go on and on. You do a fabulous job of bringing these attributes to the surface in Millie and Ruth and depicting the way their parents (and others) treat them. Even outside of fiction, and into adulthood, we continue to fall into these roles in the presence of our family of origin. Can we ever break free from those roles?

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

That question is one of the main themes I wanted to explore with this story. I think that in certain contexts, reinvention is attainable. Teenagers, for example, look forward to college in order to meet new people and have a fresh start. People leave jobs where they can’t move forward in their career paths. But in the context of a family, reinvention is much more difficult. Your relatives have known you since birth or early childhood, and they know (or think they know) everything about you. Siblings or cousins have nicknames for you, relatives have old photographs they like to display and stories they repeat at holiday gatherings. All of these pieces add up to a broader family mythology, and that mythology is almost impossible to revise.


“A riveting tale of sibling rivalry and the magnetic dissonance of family, filled with heart-stopping truths that are both tender and wise. One of my favorite books of the year.”

—Fiona Davis, national bestselling author of The Masterpiece


Leslie Lindsay:

Yet—there’s an important distinction in THE WARTIME SISTERS. It’s not all about biological sisters, but the ‘sisterhood’ of all wartime women. Can you talk about that please?

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

I love the idea of writing about both kinds of sisters – biological sisters, and also sisters of circumstance and/or choice. When I first listened to the interviews of the real women who worked at the armory during World War II, I was struck by the wide range of their experiences. One was a single mother working in the factories, and one was an accomplished musician and the wife of the commanding officer. I listened to an interview with a woman who had been a teenager living at the armory with her family, and another with a woman who spoke about getting accepted to the armory training school to become a draftsperson. I read about the women who were nurses on site, the women who drove trucks, and who operated the machinery. There were high school girls who worked as messengers, and older mothers who had lost sons in the war. Together, they formed a powerful sisterhood, and I wanted to provide a glimpse into their world.

A common theme of the recorded interviews was the sense of community that working and living at the armory provided. Everyone mentioned how happy they were to work at the armory, to be connected to it somehow, and to be doing their part for the war effort. They felt a common sense of purpose that brought them joy and fulfillment even in a dark time in our history. I loved writing about Millie’s first day of work, and the woman who trains her to assemble triggers. Regardless of age or experience or background, the women in that environment looked out for each other.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Let’s shift gears and chat about your fabulous research into the Springfield Armory.  I love this kind of research! But it can often get overwhelming. How do you know when to stop—because it can quickly turn into a rabbit hole!

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

It’s SO hard to stop! I started with the armory website and then began reading whatever I could find about the Springfield Armory during World War II. In the summer of 2016, I made my first of three visits to the armory to meet with the curator of the Springfield Armory Museum. He walked me through a former officer’s home and let me explore the inside of the commanding officer’s residence.

When I saw the area where the manufacturing buildings had once been located, I began to see the armory as two separate worlds – the pristine, park-like sanctuary of Armory Square and the manufacturing center of Federal Square, just across the street. The setting reminded me of the sisters in my novel: physically close, yet with distinct and opposite temperaments.

During my second visit to the armory, I looked through every issue of The Armory Newsletter–a monthly pamphlet that was written, illustrated, and published by employees from the fall of 1941 to August of 1943. The pamphlets were a window into daily armory life, and I honestly could have kept on reading them forever. Each newsletter was 30-40 pages long, and each page was full of wonderful material: articles recapping an employee’s first day on the job; gossip pages listing engagements and weddings; sports pages detailing the scores for armory sports teams; hand-drawn cartoons poking fun at the war; and spotlight pieces about employees with special talents and backgrounds. It took a lot of willpower to finally put them away.

I also listened to a lot of the music from that time period. The music was an important building block for Arietta’s character and all of her scenes. For months, I kept my car radio tuned the 1940’s Sirius Radio channel.

I’m not going to lie – burying yourself in research is a lot of fun. It gives you a perfect excuse to avoid writing – you can pretend that you’re working when you’re really just procrastinating. I did this several times, and each time I had to force myself to stop and go back to the story. At one point, for example, I became obsessed with how armory residents received their mail. They didn’t have mailboxes, so where was it delivered? Was there a separate mail room? Mail slots in the doors? I never found the answer, but ultimately, I knew it didn’t matter. Detailing the specific path of a letter from the post office to my character’s hands wasn’t going to move my plot along. I had to let it go.

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Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

THE WARTIME SISTERS is your second novel. It’s wonderful, it’s fabulous. But there’s always so much anxiety over the second one. What do you think you did right? Who or what kept you going?

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

This book was more difficult to write than my first, partly because I wrote it in less than half the time, and partly because of the story itself. It’s a more ambitious project than THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE because it doesn’t focus on only one family and one setting. There are more plotlines and characters, and weaving together the different timelines was extremely complicated. Setting the novel in such a historically significant place added to the pressure. I pushed myself with the research because I didn’t want to get anything wrong.

With THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE, some readers felt that the big secret was revealed too early, so with this book I was very careful to reveal information to the reader in a more controlled way. That kind of precision made the writing process more intricate.

I guess we’ll find out whether readers think I got it right!

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Leslie Lindsay:

What’s next for you? More historical fiction?!

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

My next book is set in the early 1900’s and is about a trio of immigrants who make their way to this country and settle in Boston’s North End. None of them know each other when they arrive, and they have all fled from dangerous or unhappy circumstances. Two are from southern Italy, one is from eastern Europe, and each one of them possesses a unique skill or talent. There are complicated family relationships (of course), two love triangles, and some very colorful characters.

Leslie Lindsay:

Is there something I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what you’re reading, if you have any travel plans? What you’re most looking forward to this year…

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy lately, which is unusual for me.

I recently finished Sisters of The Winter Wood by Rena Rossner, a historical fairy-tale about two Jewish sisters that was inspired, in part, by Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market. It has a Hansel and Gretel meets Fiddler on the Roof feeling to it, and the writing is lush and beautiful. It is Rossner’s debut, and I’m so excited to see what she will write next.

I also read Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. This book was such a clever and smart re-imagination of the traditional Rumpelstiltskin story. The main protagonist is a young girl who follows in her grandfather’s footsteps to become a successful moneylender. I love Novik’s take on spinning straw into gold, and I thought the way she wove Jewish themes into her novel was absolutely brilliant.

Leslie Lindsay:

Lynda, it was a pleasure and delight. Thank you for chatting with us!

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

Leslie, thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. You are such a careful and insightful reader, and I so appreciate it!

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Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE WARTIME SISTERS, please visit: 

Order Links: 

lynda-loigman_credit-randy-matusowABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. The Wartime Sisters is her second novel.

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

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#historicalfiction #sisters #amreading #authorinterview #WWII #family #secrets #tallpoppybogger

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press via Kathleen Carter Communications and used with permission. Artful cover image designed and photographed by L. Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]