Category Archives: Write On Wednesday

Wednesdays with Writers: A riveting new look at ‘the quest for rest,’ the mysteries of sleep, dreams, its tie to creativity; how structure for books is like the frame of a house; his worry about teen screen time, and so much more in Michael McGirr’s SNOOZE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A fascinating and insightful collection of essays and thoughts on sleep, why we do it and so much more. 

Snooze
I absolutely loved this book! 

SNOOZE: The Lost Art of Sleep is a great read and so very different from anything I’ve ever read on the subject.While it’s billed as non-fiction, it is not a textbook;  it’s not a how-to sleep hygiene book, either. One might call it part memoir, part essays on sleep-related topics, part survey in western civilization, and part pop psychology intermingled with a little hard scienceIn fact, SNOOZE is a bit like FREAKANOMICS, Sleep edition (if there were one) or Malcolm Gladwell meets Bill Bryson…on sleep.

Here’s a sampling of topics: Sleep disorders, beds (making those beds), staying in bed, medications designed to help induce sleep (and side-effects), philosophy, the demise of sleep in our fragmented world, famous people and their quirks (Flo Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Homer, Plato, Thomas Edison, Shakespeare, etc.), even the effect of war/PTSD on sleep. 

There were some laugh out loud moments as McGirr, a former Jesuit priest talks about his sermons, life as a priest, then parenting…not just *a* child, but a toddler and *then* a set of twins. Not to worry, the narrative doesn’t get bogged down with parenting asides; SNOOZE is very focused writing (and reading).

I found McGirr witty and delightful and kind of think this would make a great download (48)audio book read by the author. 

Oh, and he’s here today to chat with us about his book, what keeps him awake and so much more.

Leslie Lindsay: Michael, it’s a great pleasure. Thanks for popping by. Sleep is by far one of my favorite…uh…pastimes. Does that make me seem dull? Actually, I work and play hard, too. What prompted your interest in the subject?

Michael McGirr: Thanks Leslie for your great response to Snooze. I was delighted by your kind words. Sleep came at me from three directions. The first was my own struggle over many years with a couple of sleep disorders without realizing how serious they are. People laugh at snorers or are annoyed by them but don’t always understand they are engaged in a life and death battle to breathe. Next, I found myself in my early forties suddenly with 3 children under the age of two, including twins, and none of them understood the meaning of a decent night’s sleep. But most of all, the book came at me from a profound sense that we are living in a culture that is approaching exhaustion and its main response seems to be to keep people more and more tired. A city that never sleeps is one that is never fully awake.102150-The-City-That-Never-Sleeps.jpg

L.L.: I was fascinated by your sleep study. And I learned about sleep latency…that time period between lying down to go to sleep and falling asleep. [Hint: if it’s less than 10 minutes, you’re probably sleep deprived]. Can you walk us through the process?

Michael McGirr: You’ve explained it very well. At present, I am a school teacher doing marking [grading] late at night. I am asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow. This is not great. Nor is it great to be awake for an hour before you fall asleep. A good night’s sleep begins with a process known as fading. It actually starts before you get into bed: the brain responds well to rituals and pre-bed rituals can be a great help: brushing your teeth, hanging up your clothes, etc. in the same order every day and trying to go to bed at the same time. Ideally, this will allow you to gently fade into sleep once you are in bed.

[Leslie’s note: You may like these tips about establishing sleep rituals]

L.L.: I tend to fall asleep reading. (But certainly not SNOOZE!) In fact, last night, I sat down to read (not in bed).  It was only 8:14pm. “Wow…all kinds of glorious time to read,” I thought. “Maybe, I’ll finish this book!” Ah, such lofty aspirations. My lids grew heavy and my head started bopping. I was out. It wasn’t even 9:00pm [the time your research in SNOOZE says my body starts producing melanin in earnest].  And I happened to really like the book I was reading. What’s up with that?

Michael McGirr: It’s fine. Your brain and body have had enough of you for the day. They want you and your agenda out of the way so they can get on with their most important work, which happens when you are asleep. Sleep is the most creative part of the day because it is when our ego gets out of our way. You can get up early to keep reading. I love doing that. I love the half-hour before the next person in the house wakes up. But don’t forget there are millions of books. You are never going to read them all. Accept that there is only so much you can fit into a single day, not to mention a single lifetime, and you will rest in greater peace. Sleep means letting go. 

L.L.: The structure of SNOOZE is so clever, so fun. Its chapters are arranged in clock times when folks might be asleep. The first chapter, for example, begins at 8pm. Along with a time, a date is given. So Chapter One is 8pm and 1969. The narrative does not follow a linear time frame. Well, wait—it does. Can you talk about how you discovered this structure?

Michael McGirr: Thank you. Finding the structure of a book is always a big deal for me. It’s like building the frame of a house. Then you can start to sort out what will actually fit in the house. I always have more material than I can use and the amount available on sleep is endless. My book before this, called BYPASS, was about download (49)the Hume Highway which is the main road between Sydney and Melbourne, the two biggest cities in Australia. I found the structure for that book by riding a pushbike along the 900km of the road. In the case of SNOOZE, I tried several ideas. Finally, I settled on structuring it as a night’s sleep, choosing incidents from history, both recent and ancient, that can be associated with different times of the night. I liked it because it gave me an eclectic structure. The book is a bit of a salad with many different flavours!

L.L.: Here’s another thing I learned from SNOOZE: “the dreamer has the dream, or the dream has the dreamer.” I’m not sure who to attribute that quote to, but what more can you tell us? I am fascinated by dreams and find they definitely help with not just my self-awareness, but creativity, too. Can you tell us more, please?

Michael McGirr: I think I may have made up that phrase. Dreams are fascinating. But not as simple a guide to the unconscious as Freud may have thought. For example, you never dream as much in your life as when you are in the womb. This is when almost all your sleep is REM sleep, which is the phase in which dreams take place. The next dreamiest time is when you are a baby. The amount you dream decreases over a lifetime. 

[Consider]: If dreams at some level involve the processing of your waking experience, why do we dream most when we have least experience? Why do we dream least when we have most to deal with? I don’t know the answer. One theory is download (47)that dreaming is essential for testing synapses in the brain before we are born. We continue to dream because it is pleasurable, a bit like continuing to have sex after you’ve had your kids. But some dreams are not pleasurable. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be literally a nightmare of bad dreams. There is an awful lot to think about. The tendency to forget dreams is one of our major defense mechanisms.

L.L.: What kind of research did you do for SNOOZE? I see there is a very extensive “sources” section at the end of the book…but how much time did your research take, what aspect of sleep might you want to explore further?

Michael McGirr: I was lucky with this topic. Almost every major thinker in history has had things to say about sleep and I enjoyed jousting with a good number of them. This is because sleep is such a fundamental part of human being that you can hardly explore the human condition without coming across it. Someone’s attitude to sleep reveals their entire attitude to life; I found this to be the case with many philosophers and writers. In one sense, I spent my whole life researching this book because I have spent such a lot of my life reading. When I settled on this topic, I went back to writers and thinkers who have been my companions for years, from Plato to Dickens. I am not drawn to a project unless I think I am going to enjoy the research. It needs time.

L.L.: I think anyone who has parented young children, infants especially, know just what it’s like to be exhausted. We tried Ferberizing as well. Horrendous. But the kid sleeps like a log now. How are your twins, Clare and Jake? And Benny? (Just this morning, I smirked as I recalled his comment about making beds and, “If God made the world, why can’t he make my bed?”)

Michael McGirr: I told him God made the world so he might have a place in which to make his own bed.  I don’t think that is the only reason God made the world. The twins are now twelve and Benny is 14. They are an endless source of existential joy and financial grief. I am concerned about the intrusion of screens in their lives. Benny has his first speaking part in a play which starts at school tonight. Clare is learning bassoon. She is a force of nature. Jacob wants to be a high jumper and movie maker. We are working on an internet site for oldies. We are going to call it Thou Tube.

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

Michael McGirr: I am writing a book about reading. It is called (at the moment) 52 THINGS TO READ BEFORE 25. It has my students in mind: it is a challenge to them to have crucial reading experiences in the years after they leave school when their brains are fresh and can bend to all the yoga postures of the mind that a rich reading life asks for. Young people will commit to the gym and their career. But they are much less likely to take the growth of their minds as seriously. So I want to stir them up.

L.L.: Michael, it’s been such fun. I could probably ask you questions all day…or night. What might I have forgotten to ask but should have?dsc_3626a2__880

Michael McGirr: I have loved your questions. This has been delightful. Thank you. SNOOZE is really a book about the quest for rest. That is broader than sleep, although sleep is a big part of it. The world is restless. It keeps screaming at us like an over-tired baby demanding attention. Tired people are vulnerable because they can’t think. They resort to clichés. They are comforted by meaningless platitudes. Sleep and rest are the wells of creativity.

[Leslie’s Note: Oh my gosh! You have got to visit this amazingly creative momma’s website, boredpanda.com. She’s turned her baby’s naptimes into clever dreamscapes]

For more information about SNOOZE, to connect with Michael McGirr through social media, or to purchase a copy, please see: 

MichaelMcGirr_auphoto_creditBill Spierings.jpegABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael McGirr is an essayist, reviewer, prize-winning short-story writer and teacher. A former Jesuit priest, he is also the author of Things You Get For Free and Bypass: The Story of a Road. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, Jenny, and their three rapidly growing children.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. ‘City that Never Sleeps’ image retrieved from , sleep at night image from http://www.everydayhealth.com, sleeping baby from dailymail.uk.co, Sleeping baby with crane, from, which I highly recommend a visit to! All on 9.13.17]

Wednesdays with Writers: Hiking through Ireland, lush prose, a woman at the brink, the environment, and the healing power of art, plus Irish myths and so much more in Julie Christine Johnson’s new book, THE CROWS OF BEARA

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By Leslie Lindsay CROWSCOVER.jpg

Gorgeous landscapes intermingle with the moods, magic, and mysticism of southwest Ireland in this story of self-discovery and environmentalism. 

Julie Christine Johnson has a gift for writing lush, glittery prose. Each and every word is literally dripping with spark. And her stories are as much self-discovery as they are armchair travel. Having been to both Ireland and France (where her first book, IN ANOTHER LIFE is set), I can attest to her vividly capturing both the ‘feel’ and setting of each place.

Annie Crowe is battling severe demons in her Seattle life: she’s a recovering alcoholic, her marriage is in disrepair, and her job at a PR firm is hanging in the balance. She’s at a very brittle place in her life. Of course, there’s an opportunity, however perilous to her mental health to travel to Ireland with work on an environmental mission of sorts.

When she arrives to the Beara Peninsula, Annie learns the copper mine which she is advocating for encroaches on the endangered life of the red-billed Chough where it makes its home (and nesting grounds). Residents of the area are fiercely protective of that mine, including Daniel Savage.

But Daniel, a visual artist, is struggling in multiple ways. He and Annie don’t immediately see eye-to-eye about the mine, or much about anything…yet…there’s something that continues drawing them together.

I’m honored to welcome Julie back to the blog couch. So, grab a delicious buttered scone and a cup of Irish Breakfast and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Julie, it’s a pleasure to have you back. THE CROWS OF BEARA is such a lush, lyrical read. I was right there with Annie and Daniel on that Irish peninsula. I am always eager to know, why this book, why now?

Julie Christine Johnson: Hi Leslie! Thank you so much for hosting me again, and for your beautiful review. When I began sketching characters and ideas for a novel in January 2014, I knew it would be set in Ireland and have an Irish legend or some element of magical realism woven through it. I just didn’t know where in Ireland or which legend.

I happened upon the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, who was raised on the Beara Peninsula and teaches poetry at University College Cork. Her collections, An download (45)Chailleach Bheara, which tells the story of the legend of the “Hag of Beara, and The Mining Road,” which was inspired by the late 18th century copper mining industry and the miners who toiled there, brought me, almost overnight, to my novel.

I knew before I began that my central character, Annie, would be an addict trying to put her life back together. Once I had my themes of environment vs. economic growth, an Irish legend based on the strength and resiliency of women and of the Irish culture, and the healing power of art, the words poured out of me. I wrote the first draft in ten weeks.

Even though it’s been over three years since I first conceived this story and these characters, the novel’s central theme—the healing power of art—seems even more relevant today. America has become so polarized in this anxious, stressful time. Art, whether visual, literary, musical or theatrical, provides a way to cope with, articulate, escape from and celebrate all that speaks to our hearts.

L.L.: I know that you are a hiker and a yogi. How did those experiences influence and inform your writing of THE CROWS OF BEARA?

Julie Christine Johnson: I first traveled to Ireland in 2002 to hike the Beara Way, the same route which Daniel leads hikers, where Annie falls in love with the Beara and Tourist-board-walking-1with Daniel. The peninsula, and the experience, turned my soul inside out. Never have I been more homesick for a place I couldn’t actually call home. Many hikes in Ireland later and I knew I’d be writing about it someday. I hiked the Wicklow Way, the Dingle and Kerry Peninsulas, parts of the Burren and Co. Galway. It’s a brilliant way to explore a place: the country unfolds before you slowly, giving you a chance to savor, to meditate, to take it all in. You become a part of the land you walk on, the sky above you, the rain as it falls, the sun as it warms you. And at night, there’s a hot shower and a cold beer.

L.L.: And your publisher, Ashland Creek Press, is focused on ecofiction—animals, the planet, the environment. It’s a diversion from your first publisher. [IN ANOTHER LIFE]. What more can you tell us about Ashland Creek?

Julie Christine Johnson: There couldn’t have been a more perfect home for THE CROWS OF BEARA than Ashland Creek Press. To work with publisher committed to using the literary arts to educate readers about the strength and fragility of the environment speaks to my heart and my intellect. Often, fiction can reach us and teach us in ways that creative non-fiction and journalism cannot. We lose ourselves in a story and from that, our hearts shift and change and we understand viscerally what’s at stake. Stories speak in ways that perhaps facts and figures cannot. Ashland Creek is at the forefront of ecofiction, or “cli-fi” and I’m honored to be part of the vanguard.

L.L.: Annie’s an alcoholic [not a spoiler, this is all covered in the first few pages]. As I’m reading, I’m thinking, ‘oh no…Julie is an alcoholic, too.’ That’s because you do such a good job of conveying the alcoholic’s struggles. Plus, I didn’t realize AA was in Ireland. I’m guessing it’s worldwide? Can you tell us more about your research into this piece of Annie’s character?

Julie Christine Johnson: It’s amazing to me that you say this. I’m honored to know that my approach touched you, for it was critical to me to get it right. When I wrote the first drafts of THE CROWS OF BEARA in 2014 and 2015, addiction had touched me, but only tangentially. Friends had shared their own struggles or that of 45f68edf62488232d797fad7d8921aec--tree-tattoo-back-tree-tattoosloved ones, and much of Annie’s experiences were informed by those conversations.

But last year, as I worked with my publishing editors on revisions of CROWS, I fell in love with a man who had long struggled with substance. A redemptive ending is easy to come by in fiction; much harder in real life. Our relationship ended recently, and I am forced to accept my limitations to affect change in another’s life, but I do not regret my capacity to love. I will continue to pray for this beautiful soul, to hope for his healing. His experiences brought truth to my work. CROWS is in fact dedicated to him and it stands in tribute to all that he has lived and shared with me, to the man I know him to be when alcohol is not present in his life.

L.L.: So The Old Woman on the hill…the Hag. You have to tell us more about her magical, mystical presence. Is this myth real(ha!), because it’s something from Ireland I am not familiar?

Julie Christine Johnson: An Chailleach Bheara. She’s as real as Ireland’s rain and stone fences and green, green hills. Her legend extends from Ireland through Scotland and it has dozens of variations, but at the heart is a goddess who is associated with water, stone, and animals, a deity who controls the weather. In Ireland, she became a mother figure, a goddess who represents all phases of a woman’s life; seven, to be exact. So I created seven women in THE CROWS OF BEARA who serve as spiritual guides to Annie.300px-Lightmatter_cliffs_of_moher_in_County_Clare_Ireland

L.L.: And the crows. I found this on your website, and thought it gives such a wonderful insight as their presence, and your writing style:

Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax. The name begins at the lips and rolls down the throat in an elegant lamentation for the endangered birds with blue-black feathers and crimson beaks that congregate on the side of a cliff overlooking the North Atlantic[…]A fragile population of Red-billed chough has found refuge on the Beara Peninsula, a lean claw of land off Ireland’s southwest coast[…]”

What more can you tell us?

Julie Christine Johnson: Without making a conscious choice to do so, I seem to be featuring birds in my novels: an eagle, a falcon, and a dove in IN ANOTHER LIFE; the Red-billed chough in THE CROWS OF BEARA; a main character in my novel-on-submission is named Tui, which is a native bird of New Zealand, where the story is set.

My process notebook contains pages of notes about the chough, a species of crow, but I couldn’t tell you how I landed on this little creature. I must have been Chough_(Pyrrhocorax_pyrrhocorax)_(8)researching endangered species in southwest Ireland, and found my bird that nests on the Beara Peninsula. It’s no longer endangered in this particular area, but as Daniel points out in the story, the chough is a harbinger: if something goes wrong with the chough, it signals a greater breakdown of the environment.

L.L.: Is there anything that scares you about writing?

Julie Christine Johnson: Not writing scares me. Between a full-time day job, promoting my first and now second novel, managing a freelance editing business and teaching, generating new material seems to have fallen to the bottom of the priority list. I do have another novel on submission and I’m starting a fourth project, but I’m not writing to my soul’s full need or potential.

L.L.: What’s on your to-do list this fall? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Julie Christine Johnson: I’m saving my pennies to get started on my first 200 hours of yoga teacher certification, for starters. I’m also returning to the writing classroom for the first time in about 15 months: I’m teaching a flash-fiction workshop starting in October, and a few stand-alone writing workshops in the autumn, as well. I’ve decided to take a different approach to building my platform and spreading the word about my works. Teaching instead of bookstore appearances. So much more satisfying. And the pay is better! I’ll also be working to increase my manuscript and editorial consultation business. I love working with writers!

Looking forward to finding a home for my third novel, and to digging into writing the opening pages of my fourth.remette

L.L.: Julie, it’s been great catching up! Is there anything I forgot to ask?

Julie Christine Johnson: Q: The most recent book I read and loved!

A: I have two: Sarah Perry’s historical fiction THE ESSEX SERPENT and Dani Shapiro’s memoir HOURGLASS: TIME, MEMORY, MARRIAGE.

For more information, to connect with Julie Christine Johnson, or to purchase a copy of THE CROWS OF BEARA, please visit: 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie Christine Johnson is the award-winning author of the novels In Another Life (Sourcebooks 2016) and The Crows of Beara (Ashland Creek Press September 2017), as well as numerous short stories and essays. Visit juliechristinejohnson.com for more information about her writing, and to learn about Julie’s developmental editing and writer coaching services.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of J. Johnson and used with permission. University of Cork image retrieved from ucc.ie.co. Beara Way image of tourists hiking retrieved from myiefinder.fr, tree growing from book retrieved from Pinterest; typewriter image retrieved from Ashland Creek Press, seriously cute–I may need to order! Cliffs of Moher, chough, both retreived from Wikipedia on 9.8.17] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Marcia Willett takes us on a sun-drenched stroll through the moorlands of the UK, how characters beckon their stories, never wanting to be a writer, and so much more in INDIAN SUMMER

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A gentle, cozy, tender read about ‘autumn’ friendships in the English countryside. 
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INDIAN SUMMER is Willet’s sixteenth book to be published in the U.S. and it’s almost exactly what I needed as I settled into a busy new school year with two active kiddos. Grab a spot of tea, this is a story you’ll want to settle in for; and it’s a fast read so you might need only one ‘warm up.’

Sir Mungo is a retired actor living in his family’s cottage in rural Devon. It’s summer and friends and family flock to the parcel of land to join in camaraderie, seek advice and solace. James is a self-published author working on something new, Kit an interior decorator who is tired of being the ‘expert’ in the room, but there are others, too and all bring a colorful array of antics, needs and loyalties to the gathering.

INDIAN SUMMER is a subtle, relaxing read with the undercurrent of secrets and old memories chipping at the surface.  Willett’s strength lies in the setting: a bucolic trip through Devon’s countryside.

I’m honored to welcome Marcia Willett to the blog couch to chat about writing, INDIAN SUMMER, friendships and pets.

Leslie Lindsay: Marcia, it’s lovely to have you. Thank you for popping over. I really love the Devon setting. I understand it’s also home for you. Can you talk with us a bit about your charming little town and if it’s challenging to set a story there?

Marcia Willett: From the very first book this beautiful, magical west country, Devon and Cornwall especially, has played a major part. It’s really the main character. Small market towns, fishing villages, long sandy beaches and little coves, high moorland: what’s not to like? 220px-Land's_End,_Cornwall,_England

L.L.: Much of INDIAN SUMMER is about memories and also friendship, how do these two themes play off of one another for the characters in this story

Marcia Willett: It’s always good when characters reappear unexpectedly from previous books so I was delighted when Kit Chadwick turned up with all her past which included Mungo. So exciting for me to watch it all play out in the present! Then when Jake reappeared, too, I knew it was going to be full of drama!!

L.L.: Like many of your characters, you are also in the ‘autumn years’ of you life. In fact, your first book was written rather reluctantly at the age of fifty at the suggestion of your writer husband.  Clearly, he was on to something! You have written—how many books—twenty six?! How do you keep up with the relentless pace?  What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Marcia Willett: I think that one of my advantages was that I had no desire to be an aspiring writer. An avid reader, yes. But not a writer. When, because of a financial crisis, I reluctantly decided to give it a go, I discovered, as I walked the moors and the cliffs with my dogs, that the characters and my alternative universe were all waiting for me. They come and tell me their stories, they decide the location, I simply write it all down. So far, they haven’t failed me. The stories are there waiting to be told.1431739935516-151119-dog-on-lead-nt-jv.jpg

L.L.: I have to say, I loved the animals in INDIAN SUMMER.  I’m an animal lover, anyway, but Sammy and Boz, Bozzy and Sam! Can you share their inspiration? Do you have animals yourself?

Marcia Willett: I don’t have a dog at the moment but I love them. Whereas the characters are always new to me the dogs are very familiar and I feel I’ve known them always.

L.L.: What do you hope others get from reading your books?

Marcia Willett: Escapism, amusement, hope, a sense of identity.

L.L.: I always feel as if September is a good time to settle in, clear the slate, and gear up. What’s on your to-do list this fall? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Marcia Willett: Oh, but it will be!  The copy editing for the book to be published next year has just arrived! And a new story is beginning to beckon . . . I need to go and find my people in their own environment: to note the flora and fauna, what they see and hear, where they walk their dogs – the beaches and the moors – where they go for coffee, which pubs they use. Sigh. Research is so exhausting!! wine-graphics-2001_1018901a

L.L.: Marcia, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask?

Marcia Willett:  I can’t think of anything. Thank you so much for having me on your blog sofa, Leslie. It’s been great fun.

For more information, to connect with Marcia via social media, or to purchase your own copy of INDIAN SUMMER, please visit: 

Author photoAUTHOR BIO: Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, MARCIA WILLETT was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to study to be a ballet teacher. Her husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. She has published many novels in England and around the world.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these sites:

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Wednesdays with Writers: Ella Joy Olsen talks about the fascination of genealogy, a tie-in from her first book; grief, hope, love, pre-pub jitters, the development of a title and so much more in her new book, WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A thoughtful and wholesome story about love, grief, hope, resilience, but also family history and genealogy.

where the sweet bird sings (2)
WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS (Kensington, August 29 2017) is Ella Joy Olsen’s second novel, and you’ll find a lovely little twist between the two titles, though they are intended as stand-alone reads.  

Emma Hazelton and her husband are at a crossroads since the death of their darling—and much wanted child, Joey—died due to a rare genetic disease. Emma’s been trying to move on, but it’s just so hard. Meanwhile, Noah is ready for them to try again for another baby. It’s been a year, but…Emma agrees to help her mother sort through her recently-deceased grandfather’s belongings and she stumbles across a perplexing 1916 wedding photograph. WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is told entirely in Emma’s POV, whereas Olsen’s first book, ROOT PETAL THORN was told by multiple narrators.

WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is about family, deeply hidden and buried secrets, hope, and the interesting marriage of family history/ancestry with genealogy. I found the story–and mystery–richly told and interwoven with heartfelt emotion, authentic responses, and more.

So pull up a seat, grab your favorite beverage and join me and Ella in conversation about WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

Leslie Lindsay: Ella, it’s a great treat to have you back again this August. I so 61326197907c470e6e353f539a02d6f8--english-cottage-gardens-english-cottagesenjoyed ROOT, PETAL, THORN because…well, old houses, women, secrets, one hundred years. This new book, WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a bit of a related story, did the seed of inspiration grow from writing your first book? Can you talk about that, please?

Ella Joy Olsen: Thank you so much for having me again, Leslie. I’m a huge fan of your interviews! WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is related to my debut in that it takes
place in my hometown, Salt Lake City, Utah.
I knew I had a few more words left to write about this place and there are several things unique to the city that I wanted to explore.

Genealogy has long been big business in SLC, due to the import that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts on the keeping, researching, and recording of connections between us and our ancestors. But lately genealogy has received a face-lift. There are television specials about long-lost ancestral ties to royalty and people are tracing their DNA and discovering ancestors in uncommon places. I wanted to explore this world-wide fascination, thus the seeds of inspiration were planted.

[Nerdy tid-bit from Leslie: My husband and I often have date-nights in which we binge-watch “Who Do You Think You Are,” and also “Finding Your Roots.”]

As I pondered storylines to incorporate this topic, I realized there were plenty of family secrets in ROOT, PETAL, THORN that I could more fully explore, and I could do it by leafing through the branches of a family tree.

L.L.: But you don’t have to have read ROOT, PETAL, THORN one in order to understand WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, right?

Ella Joy Olsen: Right! The tie-in between the two books is a fun surprise but the books can be read independently or in either order. SWEET BIRD answers a few of the lingering questions presented in ROOT, PETAL, THORN. On the flip-side ROOT, PETAL, THORN fleshes out the stories of a couple of characters you meet in passing in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS. It was a challenge to write but great fun to re-visit some of the beloved characters from my debut.

L.L.: And so the title…nowhere in the text, did WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS come into dialogue or a character’s thought—unless I missed it! Can you tell us how the title was selected? Was it your working title, or did it get changed in revisions, suggested through marketing…

Ella Joy Olsen: I’ve heard from several readers that they’re confused by the title. But I love it!

Here’s how it came about: Many of the secrets that my character confronts are hidden in the branches of her family tree. I wanted a title that spoke to a “family tree” and proposed many titles with the words branch, root, bough…but the marketing department felt that references to a “tree” wouldn’t sell a book. So, in one frantic weekend I searched poetry books and song lyrics for a subtle reference. images (17)WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a riff from a Shakespearean sonnet, “Where late the sweet birds sang…” When combined with the cover art, it also gives a nod to I KNOW WHERE THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou. So, where does the sweet bird sing? In a family tree.

L.L.: I know we’ve talked about this before, but since it’s such a big part of both of your novels, and you are not Mormon, but the story takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah—but there’s definitely a Mormon connection.  What might readers need to know?

Ella Joy Olsen: What might they need to know? That sounds like I might have a compelling reason to convert. I don’t because as you said, I’m not a believer. However, I do love my hometown. I think the history of the predominant religion is interesting to readers who don’t know much about the faith and might wonder at the cultish reputation it carries. I want my local readers to appreciate the balanced approach I took in discussing the church and the benefits and perceived oddities it brings to people living in Utah. The two books are not religious, but any work of fiction, set in a particular location, will pick up the flavor of the place.

L.L.: Likewise, the Family History Library you mention in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS…oh! Wow. I’ve always been curious—the vast volumes it must contain, the search engines, etc. Can you walk us through the labyrinth of those records?SLC_family_history_library-cba11799385957d8cd8483f5f4a02569

Ella Joy Olsen: The Family History Library is actually pretty easy to navigate and it’s incredibly well-staffed. Many retired couples choose to serve a Mormon Mission to Salt Lake City and work in the library, so they are eager to help. Much of the information available has already been digitized, and like I detail in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, there are speedy computers (utilizing a variety of search engines) available for all-comers.

If you live nowhere near Salt Lake City, the church’s ancestry website can be accessed from a computer near you. If you’re deeply interested in genealogy and planning to visit, I recommend anyone (and everyone) check out the actual library. In SWEET BIRD my character spends much time there. The story documents her search using the numerous of leather-bound volumes and other physical resources available.

The library is not just for [church] members and if you visit there’s no pressure to convert (or even learn about the church). Believe me. While writing the book I visited many times and as far as I know I’m still not a member.

L.L.: How did you organize your writing—and the family history your characters were uncovering? It seems it could be mind-boggling.

Ella Joy Olsen: Like many writers, when it comes to organizing my work I’m a big believer in Scrivner. Right from the applicable part in my manuscript I could link to a source website to easily double-check facts on the fly. However, I will say that my copy editor did catch a few mistakes. Early in the story I’d detailed an obituary listing four deceased brothers. Amazingly one of those brothers was alive to answer a telephone call later in the story. I also had a character graduating with a medical degree when he was only seventeen. Thank goodness for copy editors!

L.L.: How was writing your second book different from your first? What do you think you did ‘right’ and what do you wish you could have done better?

Ella Joy Olsen: Writing WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS was very different from writing ROOT, PETAL, THORN in that I was writing with a deadline. I wrote every day for four months straight. My buttocks and fingers cramped but it gave me confidence that I can write under pressure. SWEET BIRD is also different in that it has one narrator (RPT has five).

220px-Autorecessive.svgWHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS still required much research, especially regarding Canavan Disease (a rare Ashkenazi Genetic disorder), genealogical research techniques, brain injuries/medically induced comas, and DNA specifics (I even took a DNA test to be sure the process I described was authentic)…but I didn’t have to create five separate voices and story arcs, or braid the stories together.

What did I do right? I think I wrote a compelling story and I love how my debut and sophomore novels enhance one another, yet are entirely different stories. That was an interesting challenge!

What could I do better? [Since it’s] just days before the book publishes. I’m mired in pre-pub self-doubt so my off-the-cuff answer would be everything. I know from my writer friends this is a common emotion, so I’m taking comfort that I’m not alone in my fear.

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

Ella Joy Olsen: The tragic protests in Charlottesville (and the craziness that exploded from the president in the aftermath). I read a term in a news article that referenced the ideology Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil). I’d never heard of it, so I looked it up. I had no idea how popular the sentiments were during the rise of the Nazi Party. In some ways it feels like we’re there again and it’s horrifying.

L.L.: Ella, it’s been a pleasure re-connecting! What’s one question I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Ella Joy Olsen: One question? Will you write another book based in Utah?

The answer: I don’t think so. I’m ready to explore the world in my next novels. Thank you so much for having me back and for reading WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS and ROOT, PETAL, THORN!

For more information, to connect with Ella Joy Olsen, or to purchase a copy of WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, please visit: 

Biophoto2.JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years analyzing facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a historical fiction course at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

ROOT, PETAL,THORN (September 2016) was her debut and coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of E. Olsen and used with permission. Image of The Family History Library retrieved from their website, image of Canavan Disease genetics retrieved from Wikipedia, image of brick bungalow and roses found on Pinterest, no source noted, all on 8.26.17]

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Helen Simpson talks about her collection of stories in COCKFOSTERS, how a short story is really like a geological core sample~’skipping the gossip and going for the jugular,’ how an empty nest is invigorating, her to-read pile, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Quiet, honest and wry short stories about women in middle-age is as tender as it is disturbing.
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Helen Simpson has been writing short stories for a long time–in fact, COCKFOSTERS (Alfred A. Knopf, June 2017) is her *sixth* collection–and I’ve just now been introduced to her?! She’s British, and that might be part of it, but still. I see her as a contemporary to Flannery O’Connor, Richard Russo, Tom Perrotta, Alice Munro, and perhaps Lorna Lanvick and Joyce Carol Oates. 

Included stories revolve mostly around women in their 40s and 50s focusing on identity, reinvention, changing bodies/sex lives, empty-nesters. There’s a gaze toward the horizon, as many of these women are entering the ‘autumn’ of their lives. Time is ticking, and it’s felt in this collection, a hum that is the steady pulse of suspense.

These nine stories are deceptively quiet and honest, bringing to light a very authentic recognition of life, of children, of marriages, of friendships between women; there are betrayals and acceptance, complexities as well as simplicities.

You’ll find there’s a bit of travel, too—to Berlin through London, and also the U.S.

I promise, regardless of your age—or your sex—you’ll find a thread of commonality in at least one of these stories for they are all built on the truest feelings: love, belonging, joy, the tug of familiarity and history, and the recognition that change—and growing older—is inevitable.

So join me for a spot of tea—or whatever you like to drink—and welcome Helen Simpson to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay: Helen, welcome! It’s an honor to have you. I know you’ve been writing for a long time—your first published collection of stories came out in 1990. Every five years, you treat us with another collection. Can you talk about the inspiration—or perhaps the selection process—for COCKFOSTERS?

Helen Simpson:  Thank you Leslie, and the honour is all mine!  Here I am, ready for our conversation, a cup of tea at my elbow.

With one volume of stories every five years,  I’ve come to think of this as coral-reef writing, slow but steady—a process of accretion.  I don’t choose a theme in advance, so each volume reflects whatever it is that was obsessing or amusing me during the years it took to write.

L.L.: Let’s talk about form for a bit. The short story is very much *not* a ‘small novel.’ Can you talk about your perceptions of the short story and why do you prefer this medium?

Helen Simpson:  The challenge for a short-story writer is, maximum power for minimum length—it’s lightness of touch you’re after as well as power.  In novels you expand,you elaborate; you explain when, where, how things are happening; you go on and on.  You don’t need to do any of that, really, with a short story. You can just skip all the gossipy stuff and go for the jugular. download (44)

Also you can slide great subjects under the nose of the reader without solemnity, smuggle them in by stealth.  While apparently describing banal domestic issues you can explore the history and psyche of nations.  In “Moscow,” [all stories mentioned here in Helen’s response are contained in COCKFOSTERS] a Russian man comes to repair the kitchen freezer of an English business-woman and her historian husband; as they chat over the condenser coils, the strongman myth of machismo-and-masochism is shown to be alive and kicking across the globe.  In “Cheapside,” an older London attorney takes a possible intern to a fish restaurant, and during the course of their lunch the details and conditions of a life in the law are laid bare in excruciating detail.  And in “Berlin,” where a struggling middle-aged couple go on an opera trip to that city, themes of loyalty and betrayal and how to digest history are explored at both personal and national levels.

L.L.: I’ll admit the idea of writing a short story sounds appealing to me, but I find I often don’t know what to write about. Something I can wrap up in—say twenty pages and not four-hundred! How do you mine the topics for your short stories? And do you plot them, or let the muse guide you?

Helen Simpson:  I think the great appeal of the form from the writer’s point of view is that it means you can do something new every time. With every new story you can do something different, formally—shape them differently from each other.  That’s a good part of the pleasure of writing them, finding the right form each time.  I find once I’ve got the subject and the shape of it, the fun lies in the reading and the notes and the thinking and circling round it before writing it—I have a thick file of notes for every story I’ve ever written.  But it’s a very time-profligate way of writing, the way I do it; it’s like spending hours cooking a meal only to see it wolfed down in a few minutes.

As to mining a topic, I think a good short story can be like a core sample.  Think how much a geologist can learn from a core sample—it’s the same!  If it’s a good one, you’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about the history and geography and inhabitants and social conditions of the area, in wonderfully concise form.

images (18)And as for plot and the short story: something has to happen but not too much…

L.L.: Many of these stories are about women (though men factor in, too) who are approaching their golden years. They may have already raised children, sent them off, and are trying to make sense of their place in the world. It’s sort of
depressing! Yet I kept flipping the pages; it was like I was ‘preparing’ for what this stage of life might feel like (I’m in my late 30’s). Can you talk about that, please?

Helen Simpson: I like “golden years!”  They still call it “old age” over here—although, no, come to think of it that’s changing too; in news reports now, someone who would have been referred to as an “old person” has become “an older person” even if they’re 93…  The characters in most of these stories aren’t old (or even older) yet, but yes, they can see change ahead.  I am pleased you felt compelled to read on, that you trusted the truthfulness of the stories.  I know as a reader that sentimentality doesn’t work for me; it’s only ever honesty in fiction that feels worth it.

As for feeling depressed at the thought of work pressure slacking off, children having left home etc, you really mustn’t be!  So many of my contemporaries report feeling unexpectedly exhilarated at having more time and less responsibilities than in their 41xpkc6XPDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_thirties and forties, at no longer being plagued with the anxieties and doubts of their twenties.  Women in particular might agree with Zoe in “Early One Morning”(inc. in IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT)—

“Perhaps the shape of life would be like an hour-glass, clear and wide to begin with, narrowing down to the the tunnel of the middle years, then flaring wide again before the sands ran out.” 

Now I’ve started quoting—and because it may lift the spirits when you think of getting older— I hope you’ll let me conclude with this from “Berlin” [as found in COCKFOSTERS]:

“And how is it that even though we sit at the end of the Atlantic storm track, one day of sun leaves us convinced that summer’s here?  That why we still make resolutions and think of new ways to approach life after all this time: because we’re human and we need to be reminded and encouraged and refreshed.  Again and again.  Right to the end.”

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

Helen Simpson: The news: what’s been happening in the world during the last eighteen months.  I don’t think I’m alone in this…51A9lGpxANL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

The weather: while writing several stories about the weather [ as in IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT], I realised the theme of climate change is one of the hardest of subjects for fiction if it’s to be done without didacticism or statistics or collapsing into dystopia.  But I’ve stayed interested.

L.L.: I’m sure there are a million things we could talk about—your favorite books, if you’re working on anything now, advice for aspiring writers, what your holiday plans are…but is there anything I forgot, but should have asked?

Helen Simpson: Enough here, I think!

This anniversary year has given me a cast-iron excuse to re-read Jane Austen; also to turn to those novels of Henry James which I haven’t yet read.  But my favourite books tend to be the ones I’m reading, or am about to read, which at the moment are: THE COMPLETE STORIES by Anita Desai; THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich;  A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT by Akhil Sharma; SINGLE, MELLOW & CAREFREE by Katherine Heiny;  LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders; JANE AUSTEN, THE SECRET RADICAL by Helena Kelly; MIDWINTER BREAK by Bernard MacLaverty; ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE by Elizabeth Strout; THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrère.

Yes, I’m working on something new set in London.

Advice for aspiring writers? Be brave, be honest and only write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write.

As for summer holidays: a week in Ibiza (sunny, but savagely expensive particularly with sterling’s Brexit plunge against the Euro); and a week in rainy Lancashire download (43)culminating in a wedding near Wigan where the sun broke through the clouds and against all probability shone brightly on the bride.

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

Helen Simpson: Well, thank you, Leslie!  The pleasure has been mutual.

For more information about COCKFOSTERS, to connect with Helen Simpson, or to purchase a copy, please visit:

© Derek Thompson - Color copy (1)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: HELEN SIMPSON was born in Bristol in 1959. She spent five years writing forVogue. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

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

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

[Cover and author image courtesy of Knopf and used with permission. Author photo credit: Derek Thompson. Image of ‘rainy’Lancashire retrieved from Mona’s Musings, couple playfully riding bikes from petebarrett.com, H. Simpson’s other book cover images retrieved from Amazon, all on 8.22.17] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Wendy Walker talks about breaking the cycle of narcissism in families, letting creative ideas in even when they deviate from the outline, hitting ‘send’ and more writing anxieties in her psychologically twisted tale, EMMA IN THE NIGHT

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Where does the truth lie and darkness begin? That is the question overarching this entire book, but there’s more: it’s about love, obsession, mental illness, jealousy, revenge, and so much more. 

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“We believe what we want to believe. We believe what we need to believe.” So begins EMMA IN THE NIGHT (Aug 8, St. Martin’s Press) and immediately, I was hooked. This is a voice-driven character and right away, I can tell she has a skewed version of the world. And what’s more intriguing than reading about an unreliable narrator?

Three years ago on a foggy night, 15 and 17-year-old sisters, Cass and Emma Tanner disappeared from their home, seemingly walking into the shore of the beach ala Virginia Woolf. Everyone suspects they’re dead…and the investigation has come to a stand-still.

And then, with just the clothes on her back, Cass returns home…without her sister. She talks of kidnapping and isolation, a mysterious island off the coast of Maine where the girls were held in a home by two strangers, a husband and a wife. But–her story doesn’t all add up. There are inconsistencies. There’s talk that maybe Cass isn’t operating on all four cylinders…

Told in alternating POVs–Cass’s (first-person) and also Dr. Abby Winter’s (third-person), EMMA IN THE NIGHT is a bit of a mind-bending, staggering read. I felt I was reading a bit slower than typical, fearing I’d miss something. The prose is hypnotic and disturbing, fragmented and I think this is intentional…because…

We’re dealing with a very dysfunctional blended family. 

Please join me and Wendy Walker as we delve into this heady read.

Leslie Lindsay: Wendy, it’s great to have you! So many times a story is brewing because it’s something we’ve lived. But in your acknowledgements section, you make it pretty clear EMMA IN THE NIGHT is not about you or your family. And that’s a good thing! What was the inciting moment for this story?  What did you seek to explore?

Wendy Walker: [EMMA IN THE  NIGHT] started with the concept of a young woman disappearing and then returning home. Something about that fascinated me – what it would be like to return, and how easy it would be for her to manipulate the truth about where she’s been and why she left. From there, I needed a reason for this woman to manipulate people – and that’s when I came up with the ending. Of course, I love to explore real issues and psychological illnesses. After reviewing my research notes, I landed squarely on narcissistic personality disorder (or NPD) because it just fit this story so perfectly! The entire plot was then built around the ending and the mental illness of NPD.

L.L.: The mother of Cass and Emma is most suffering from a pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is handled quite well and I *almost* felt as if I were reading an abnormal psych textbook, yet we were hearing things from forensic psychologist Abby Winter. Can you tell us a bit about your research? I think you nailed it, by-the-way, and I’m a former psych R.N. Also, full disclosure: I’m pretty sure my own mother suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Wendy Walker: That’s a relief – I always worry when experts and professionals read my descriptions of these illnesses! As a family law attorney with training as a guardian for children in custody disputes, I learned the basics about personality cb1fd2746c65c59894b241f7e802cbaf--abuse-quotes-a-quotes (1)disorders and how they affect children. From this base of knowledge, I launched into research using the Internet and also the mental health professionals who have been generous enough to consult with me. It was a real challenge to get the technical information across to the reader without slowing down the plot. However, I really wanted readers to understand the complexities of this illness, and especially how underneath the narcissist’s confident alter ego, lies a fractured, deeply insecure true ego. This understanding is essential to following the plot, and the huge twist at the end!

L.L.: And kidnappings! I have to say, I have a bit of a strange fascination with them, as I think others might too. Here’s why: it could happen to anyone, anywhere. Missing kids on milk cartons, the fear, the threat…you mention a couple of contemporary cases [in the book] in the media: the Cleveland, OH girls and also Elizabeth Smart. What can you tell us about your research into kidnappings for EMMA IN THE NIGHT and why do you think we have such a fascination with them?

Wendy Walker: The book started with this very fascination! I think there is something uniquely terrifying about being held against your will. Can I escape? What will happen if I try? Can I accept this as my new reality? How long will it last? Will someone find me? Maybe today? And, for those left behind with the loss but also the uncertainty, a unique kind of emotional torment. Is she dead? Is she alive? Is it easier to keep looking and clinging to hope? Or to give up and grieve? Will I ever find her? Will I find her today? I read a lot of Internet material about the psychological rollercoaster for those taken and those left behind and tried to construct the characters around that research. I also tried to put myself in Cass’s head – because, after all, she grew up in a highly dysfunctional family so her reactions would not be quite the same as another young woman.

“In this searing psychological thriller…Walker’s portrayal of the ways in which a narcissistic, self-involved mother can affect her children deepens the plot as it builds to a shocking finale.”

  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

L.L.: How do you write? Do you follow an outline or let the pen guide you?

Wendy Walker: I always try to have an outline, especially when I am building to an ending like the one in this novel. It’s so important to find that balance of delivering clues but not enough for readers to guess. Everything has to fit like a puzzle, with the last piece being hidden until the very end. As I go along, however, I do deviate from the plan as the characters take shape in my head and new ideas find themselves onto the page. Sometimes, if I like the new idea enough, I will go back and rewrite passages to support that new idea. It is the depth of the characters that really makes a book enjoyable, so I think this process of development and rewriting is just as important as having the tight outline for the plot.

L.L.: What is/are the best thing(s) an inspiring writer can do to hone his or her craft? 

Wendy Walker: Just keep writing! It is helpful to read as well, but once you find your voice, it’s more important to listen to what your readers say about that voice – what they like, what they find difficult – and then to fine tune it to make your work accessible to a wide audience. The goal with commercial fiction, I think, is to tell a great story in a way that a very broad audience can enjoy. And to do that requires constant fine tuning, rewriting, and listening to feedback from all sources.

L.L.: Can you tell us, without using complete sentences, what was going on in your life as you wrote EMMA IN THE NIGHT?

Wendy Walker: One year. Writing. Revising again and again. One son applying to all-is-not-forgotten-wendy-walker-paperback-1college. A new relationship with an old friend. General emotional chaos resulting. Launching ALL IS NOT FORGOTTEN. Excited. Nervous. Major life changes on all fronts.

L.L.: You’re stories are often about scary things: kidnappings, mental illness, violence, lost memories. What scares you about writing?

Wendy Walker: There is a twinge of terror every time I sit before a blank screen to write a new page. Even though writers are portraying made up characters, the thoughts and words and actions of those characters have to come from somewhere inside the writer’s head. I don’t think we ever stop feeling vulnerable when we put those things on a page and let others read them! There is also fear after hitting “send” – whether to a trusted reader, agent or editor. Is it any good? Does it work? Is it moving fast enough? Fear of failure with something as subjective as writing never leaves me. And then – the worst terror of all – setting the book free in the world of readers and reviewers. Sometimes I think I need thicker skin for this business! But then I’m not sure I would be able to reach the emotional depths that I like to weave into my work. In my next life – maybe a career as an accountant!

L.L.: Wendy, it’s been a pleasure! Before I let you go, is there anything else I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what’s left on your summer to-do list, your nightstand reading, what you ate for dinner last night, if you’re writing another book, and if you miss practicing law? [you don’t have to answer all of those!]

Wendy Walker:  Back to school shopping. Karin Slaughter’s THE GOOD DAUGHTER. Steak. Yes. No. Seriously, I think something most readers find surprising about a writer’s life is that it is nowhere near as seamless as it appears on our social media pages! Most of us are sitting at a desk, still in pajamas, pounding coffee or Red Bull, feeling anxious about a blank screen, a deadline, reviews, sales numbers, or a plot that just won’t come together. We clean up for events and photos, but then we are right back to work. It has huge ups and huge downs and can be very isolating. Even so, I wouldn’t trade this career for anything – I fought for it for many years and I am very grateful for every person who buys and reads one of my books!

For more information, to connect with Wendy Walker via social media, or to purchase a copy of EMMA IN THE NIGHT, please visit:

Purchase EMMA IN THE NIGHT here:

Wendy-Walker-Headshot-350wABOUT THE AUTHOR: Wendy Walker is a former family law attorney in Fairfield County, Connecticut who began writing while at home raising her three sons. She published two novels with St. Martin’s Press and edited multiple compilations for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series before writing her debut psychological thriller, All is Not Forgotten. Her second thriller, Emma In The Night, will be released August 8, 2017.

Wendy earned her J. D., magna cum laude, at the Georgetown University Law Center where she was awarded  the American Jurisprudence award for her performance in Contracts and Advanced Criminal Procedure.  She received her undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University and attended The London School of Economics and Political Science as part of her undergraduate studies.

Prior to her legal career, Wendy was a financial analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co., in the mergers and acquisitions group. She has also volunteered at the ACLU, Connecticut Legal Services and Figure Skating in Harlem where she served on the Board of Directors for over twelve years.

Wendy is currently writing her third thriller while managing a busy household.

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. Image of narcissistic personality disorder quote retrieved from Pinterest no source noted, all on 8.8.17]

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa Ko: Thank you, Leslie!

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

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

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join me in welcoming Benjamin Ludwig to the blog couch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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

 

 

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona Barton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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