Special Pub Day Edition: Caroline Leavitt on her ‘hippie days,’ being a ‘fall chicken, and this most lovely–but gritty & intense–CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, now in paperback.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist of PICTURES OF YOU, IS THIS TOMORROW, and GIRLS IN TROUBLE, Caroline Leavitt returns with her eleventh novel, a stellar read intersecting family, new love, and an anxious time in American history.

Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Manson Murders, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD (Algonquin Books, Oct 4 2016) is at first blush, a coming-of-age tale, but the story grows immensely darker, about the perils of young love, controlling partners, and responsibility.

Sixteen year old Lucy is about to run away with her much older High School English teacher to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that has dire consequences for she and her older sister, Charlotte.Leavitt_CruelBeautiful_jkt_2MB_HR.jpg

Like most novels, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is based on a smidgen of truth, a real-life crime concerning a girl who sat in front of Ms. Leavitt in a high school class for two years, who had a relationship with a thirty-year old man. It began for Leavitt as a ‘what-if ‘question, the kind that often propels a story from merely thinking about them, to getting them on paper.

Join me as I chat with Caroline about her inspiration and process behind CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.

Leslie Lindsay: I understand that CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD has been percolating for some time, that the seeds for this novel first sprouted when you were sixteen. But it wasn’t ready to be written just yet. Can you tell us more about that and why, might some stories have to incubate before getting to the page? And do you know whatever happened to that girl in your high school?

Caroline Leavitt: I have been wanting to write this for so long, but I didn’t have the knowledge I needed. I was sixteen and sitting behind this wonderful, funny, smart girl in study hall, and we always talked. I was dreaming of going to Paris to be a writer and having all these adventures and romances, but she was—to my surprise—engaged, and to a much older and “sort of controlling” man. I just didn’t get it.  When I got out of high school, I found out that she had decided to go back to school, have a life, break up—and her boyfriend murdered her, stabbing her 43 times.

I was haunted and really upset, but I couldn’t write about her because I didn’t understand how she could have stayed with someone like that. Didn’t she see signs?

Fast forward ten years. Two weeks before my wedding, my fiancé dropped dead of a heart attack in front of me. The grief was cataclysmic. I cried so hard in my apartment that neighbors called the police—twice! I roamed all over the country talking to psychics, came back and decided I couldn’t grieve anymore. I decided to get into a relationship, despite my friends and family and my grief counselor’s warning that this was the worst idea ever.

My new boyfriend was at first kind, but gradually became controlling. He spoke in such a soft, gentle voice that I began to believe everything he told me—that at 95 pounds I was too fat summeroflovecolor.jpgand needed to diet, that my black clothing made me look dead and I should wear pastels, that my friends were nuts and I shouldn’t see them. Why would I stay with someone so controlling? Because if I left him, I’d grieve, and that seemed so much worse.  I began to understand my high school friend and I finally got up the strength—when he rewrote part of my novel-in-progress without asking—to leave.

But it wasn’t until four years ago, when I saw an online posting from my high school friend’s sister who was still looking for answers to what happened, that I got the missing piece. I added a sister, I changed the relationship and what happened, and suddenly the book began to make sense to me.

L.L: You do a wonderful job with character development. In the case of CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, did the characters of Lucy, Charlotte (the older sister) and Iris (the older mother/aunt/caretaker) come fully formed, or did you carefully cultivate them? Were they composites at all of anyone in your life?

Caroline Leavitt: What a great question. It took about 18 drafts to get it right. At one point, Lucy, Charlotte and Iris were all angry at one another and my genius editor Andra Miller said, “find the love, too”—so I did, and it changed everything.

I have to admit that Iris is based on my mom, who was jilted at 19, married a sullen brute on the rebound (my father), and went into independent living resigned to her life being over—and instead, like Iris, she bloomed! Her story is not really Iris’, but my mom fell in love “for the first time” at 93! She and her beau Walter had four wonderful years together until she got dementia and then he died. But dementia is a sort of gift for her because she thinks Walter is still alive.

Charlotte and Lucy are not my sister and I—but the feelings of “us against the world” certainly were. I also will admit that like Charlotte, I make lists and that like Charlotte, my biggest task in life is to learn to stop trying to fix everything, to just let life wash over me. It’s hard!

“Two sisters — impulsive Lucy and sensible Charlotte — make decisions that will haunt the rest of their lives. Set in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Cruel Beautiful World is a riveting novel about love and loss, secrets and lies, and what it means to be a family. Its twists and turns will keep you reading late into the night.”

Christina Baker-Kline, author of Orphan Train

L.L.: Reading CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD was like sitting on a sun-soaked porch and having the wind whisper a story in my ear [and how I relish in that; thanks for the early copy, Algonquin!]. It’s at once alarming and beautiful, thought-provoking, and richly told, but it has a dark undercurrent. Could it be that that is how the world was in 1969 (that was a little before my time, so I can’t say)?  And would you call this historical fiction? IS THIS TOMORROW was set in the 1950s, do I sense a theme?

Caroline Leavitt: Ah, I’m no spring chicken (I call myself a fall chicken). I was really young in the 60s, but not in the 70s, and I definitely felt and saw the change. The 60s were all goofy and wonderful. You were “going to San Francisco to meet some gentle people and wear flowers in your hair”—and I was dying to go but couldn’t because I was too young. But my sister, 220px-san_francisco_be_sure_to_wear_some_flowers_in_your_hair_sheet_music_1967who is older, took me to all the Be-Ins and Love-Ins (which were the same things—big celebratory parties with balloons and free food and music, held outside in some park–) in Boston and schooled me in being a hippie.  Everyone had such hope that there was going to be real, lasting and profound change—and it would be peaceful change, too. I hitched everywhere by myself, barefoot, in full hippie regalia, and I never had a problem. Even something like drugs was done as a spiritual quest, and hoards of people were “going back to the land” to farm and be one with nature. There were also all these free schools popping up where you could learn whatever you wanted, when you wanted. Everyone thought they were building a Utopia. Of course, this was what it was like for middle-class suburban kids, not for those living with the terrifying racism and horrific poverty of the time.

But then the 70s hit. The kids who ran away to San Francisco to meet those gentle people? They were living on the streets. The kids who dropped out of school to farm? They had no idea how to grow crops and they were starving, too. The Peace Movement turned ugly, with groups like The Weatherman and SDS and The Black Panthers—all advocating violence and guns. There was Kent State and the infamous sign at universities “They can’t kill us all” and I began to wonder if maybe they could.

No one hitched anymore. People were dying from harder drugs. And then I entered Brandeis a year after two students, Susan Saxe and Katharine Ann Power had robbed a bank “for the revolution” and killed a cop—the father of 9 kids. They went underground and were on the

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Kent State massacre, May 1970. This is 14-year old runaway collapsing at the body of a student shot by the Ohio National Guard  minutes before. The photographer won a Pulitzer for this image.

FBI’s Most Wanted List for years. The Brandeis students I talked to who were there at the time said they were so unsettled, hoards of kids left school to drive up to Maine and stay there for a while.

I was in Madison the day the National Guard in silver riot gear lined the streets because there was a student protest over a student being caught—the kid had blown up a building and killed a professor. I was walking back to my dorm (I’m a pacifist and could never condone blowing up anything), they began to tear gas, and I was so terrified, I ran back to my place and bolted the door.

But more than anything, there were the Mansons. The Beach Boys were the sunniest group around but they actually inadvertently led to the Sharon Tate murders.Sharon Tate murders. Dennis Wilson picked up two pretty hitchhikers and took them home.  They began to talk about gurus. Dennis’ was the Maharishi, and the two girls said, “Our guru is Charlie Manson.” Dennis met Charlie, they wrote songs together—one is even on a Beach Boys record, but not credited to Charlie. Dennis introduced Charlie to Terry Melcher, a record producer, who nixed Charlie. Furious, Charlie began to be threatening. Dennis and Terry cut off ties, and Terry was so frightened, he moved out of his house—the same house that the Mansons approached to do their murders.

It terrified me, seeing those girls in the news. They were all pretty and singing and happy and holding hands. And Charlie was everything to them.

I definitely think this is historical fiction, but my next two novels are set in the present.

the_beach_boys_1965L.L.: Let’s talk structure for a bit, because this can be tricky for a writer, even if she (or he) has plot points in mind. I find structure tough because there are so many directions a story can go, so many possibilities and then…the characters sometimes take over, wrinkling your smooth narrative! Can you speak to this, please?

Caroline Leavitt: Oh, boy. Structure. That’s my thing. I used to write very loosey-goosey, following the muse, and I would end up with 800 pages and have no idea what the heck I had written. Then about ten years ago, a student of mine told me about Truby story structure. John Truby is a Phd from Yale who worked with movie studios and read a zillion books and mapped out their structure and he discovered that the best stories have a deeper moral component. I liked that idea. So I began to study his stuff, and I sort of stalked him until I met him.

I map out everything before I start. That takes me about 6 months. Then I show it to three story structure people I know and that means more rewriting. Then I show it to writers I respect. More rewriting. I end up with a 40 page “writer’s outline” and I know that as I write everything is going to change a bit. And that’s okay!  What never changes is the basic moral idea. For me, in CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, that idea was that sometimes you cannot change or fix things, no matter how much you want to. Sometimes you have to let life wash over you. That informed every decision that I made. If it didn’t have something to do with that, then it had to go!

And I will say that I end up doing at least 20 drafts before a novel is finished.

 L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD?

Caroline Leavitt: I want people to understand what I just said above, that sometimes you cannot fix everything, and that is all right. We are all human.

I also hope people see and feel the incredible hope that was in the sixties and how it soured and failed, but then there was hope again.

I want people to think about all the different kinds of love there are—controlling and dangerous, saving and nurturing, sisterly love mixed with conflict, friend love.

I hope readers will feel that after reading my novel, they see the world a little differently.

L.L.: What’s got your attention these days? What gets you out of bed? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Caroline Leavitt: Oh so, many things. My husband, who is playful and funny and smart. My son who is at college studying to be an actor. My writing. Other writers. My friends. Really, my mother and sister call me Pollyanna, because I tend to have this very positive outlook on everything. I’m always looking for the joy!

Of course, I’m worried about the election, and the world in general.  And I’m fascinated by quantum physics.

L.L.: Did I forget to ask anything?

Caroline Leavitt: Ask me how the songs of that era informed the novel! If you go look up Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, you’ll see this truly terrible view of older man/younger girl, which is in my novel. The whole stupid song blames the girl! With lines like, “You’d better run, girl. You’re much too young, girl,” the song is indicating that he is about to attack.  And that was a very popular song of its day!

L.L.: Caroline, always a pleasure to chat with you. Thanks so much for popping by! All the best with CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.

Caroline Leavitt: Thank you so much! I hope I didn’t go on too long. I’m honored to be interviewed by you! 

***You can connect with Caroline through these various social media channels*** 

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD now available in paperback! Get a copy, give a copy!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eleven novels,including the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a book critic for People, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay at:

[Cover and author image courtesy of Algonquin Books and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jeff Tamarkin. “Hippie Caroline” photos courtesy of C. Leavitt’s personal archives and used with permission. Scott McKenzie 1967, Kent State 1970, The Beach Boys circa 1964 image(s) retrieved from Wikipedia on 9.9.16]  

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Wednesdays with Writers: This stunning–and personal story, SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS–is so wonderful, so multifaceted, and gorgeously written, but there’s more. Amy Impellizzeri talks about character development, how she likes surprises in writing, Keith Urban, being a survivor and her next book.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the award-winning author of LEMONGRASS HOPE comes a haunting new story of unbearable love, loss, and redemption, with a thread of magical realism woven from the Mayan myths of Guatemala and a poignant and surprising reveal you will never see coming. 

Secrets_of_Worry_Dolls_COVER_Booklist (1) (1) (1).jpgAmy Impellizzeri is a gifted writer and I don’t say that lightly. I was taken with LEMONGRASS HOPE, but this book, SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS, sealed my vote. I loved this book.

When Lu(na) and her mother’s home in suburban New York is hit by a plane bound to Guatemala, old memories surface. Why didn’t Lu go on that school field trip to the Twin Towers on 9/11? Why was her life spared and not her twin’s? And Mari, she’s grieving the loss of her firefighter husband in that horrific event (not spoilers–I promise, this is important backstory and set-up).

It’s now 2012 and nearing the end of the Mayan calendar. (Some) Americans believe the end-of-the-world is looming. Mari, a 9/11 widow and Guatemalan immigrant is keeping secrets from her 23-year old daughter, Lu; they simply cannot be contained in the tiny Worry Dolls Mari holds near and dear. But Lu’s kind of had it with her mother; their relationship is fraying.

A plane crash changes everything. Secrets leak. Pasts are uncovered. SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS is absolutely compelling, gorgeously written with vivid characters transporting the reader to NYC and Guatemala and back again. I found I was flipping pages at a quick pace to find out what happened in the past and how it’s affecting the future.

L.L.: Amy, it’s a pleasure to have you back. I loved SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS. The story is so multifaceted and built upon layers of lovely prose and backstory, yet true to the present-day story. I loved it. I cried, I cheered, I sighed those delicious moments of relief. Tell us, what was haunting you to write this story?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh, thank you, Leslie! You have asked the perfect question – what was haunting me? I was indeed haunted for many years by events that occurred in the tiny seaside town of Belle Harbor, New York – where I was living in 2001, before, during and after 9/11. As I explain in the Author’s Note to this novel, I survived a plane crash on my residential corner on November 12, 2001, whereas many others did not. Writing this story of loss and survival was very cathartic and was a story that lived inside me for more than a decade before I figured out a way to tell it.

L.L.: I have to say, the 9/11 bit worried me a bit. We’re still living in this time where the horrors of the attack are very present…yet it was sixteen years ago.  You manage to add a soft hand to that fact and portray 9/11 in a sensitive light. Did you find writing about such a tragedy a challenge? What did you do to ‘get it right?’

Amy Impellizzeri: This was a tremendous challenge, and one that I never took lightly. I drew my inspiration from the scrappy resiliency of Belle Harbor (upon which one of the novel’s settings (Rock Harbor)  is based). Belle Harbor lost more of its population in 9/11 than any other town in the country, but also rebuilt from 9/11 and subsequent tragedies with breathtaking generosity. I knew that any 9/11 theme would have to be treated with the reverence demanded, and I also knew that while it is a universal grief shared by all of us, it’s important to acknowledge that there is – quite simply – loss that belongs very personally to some, and not others.220px-Flight_587_NOAA_Photo_of_Crash_Site

L.L.: Similarly, what scares you—in general—about writing?

Amy Impellizzeri: Let’s see. How much time do you have?! Getting it wrong is a very real fear for me. When writing – as I love to do – about places, people, and cultures outside of my own personal experience, I strive for empathy and authenticity, but am always petrified about getting it wrong. But I think that’s a good fear to have. I hope it keeps me from taking shortcuts. I hope that fear keeps me on my toes, researching, interviewing, talking, and listening.

L.L.: I’m curious about character development. Lu and Mari are so flawed and fully-developed, yet so vivid. What (or whom?) was your inspiration in developing these two? How does character development look to you? Do you complete character sketches, collages? Do you just write and try to let them develop organically?

Amy Impellizzeri: So, at a very primitive level, Mari is based loosely on my childhood recollections of my own late grandmother – a perfectly imperfect character in her own right. She struggled with mental illness and a long history of bad decisions and tragic circumstances. When I knew her, she was trying to reclaim some sort of redemption for abandoning her two daughters (one of whom is my mother) and she was, for me – an amazingly interesting – but still so flawed – human being. Of course, since I wanted Mari to be a Mayan woman with ties to Guatemala, she took on a life all her own, with a backstory drawn from my extensive research into the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war – particularly from  the 1970’s into the 1990’s. Consequently, Mari evolved – along with her secrets – and Lu, for that matter – as the story evolved. For me, character development has to occur along with the story. As I am writing, I will sketch out backstory and other character traits on the side of the novel. I often discover interesting facets of the characters that I simply did not know when I started. But then I try to share all of the relevant backstory and development on the pages with the reader. So if there are any outstanding questions about individual characters at the end of the book, I promise you, I don’t know the answers either!

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L.L.: This story is so complex, yet it’s not a challenge to read. Everything just flows. How did you structure the story? Was there careful plotting behind the scenes to give it that effortless read?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh boy, organizing this book’s structure gave me such agita! The decision for strictly alternating viewpoints (Mari’s and Lu’s) came nearly a year into the writing and helped tremendously with the flow. I am not a steadfast plotter, and have to leave room for the story to surprise even me. Still, this book required a lot of pausing in between drafts for careful outlining. Every few months, I’d stop and spend a few days just outlining what the story arc looked like at that point, where the holes were, and determining where the pace had slowed. It took about 2 years of pretty steady writing to create the finished product.

L.L.: You have a special touch that isn’t quite magic, isn’t quite fantasy, but definitely a hand in the slightly paranormal/mythical realm. Can you talk about that a bit? Is that just ‘you’ as a writer?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh, I love this description. It has surprised no one more than me that my first two books have landed in fantasy and magical fiction categories, among others. When a well known paranormal/science fiction blog found and featured LEMONGRASS HOPE I was so thrilled and yet surprised, because I didn’t set out to write a book that was anything other than “real.” I love that readers have also embraced the mystical elements of SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS.  The truth is, I enjoy writing about the slivers of shared human experience that can – at times – defy scientific explanation. The deja vu of LEMONGRASS HOPE and the mystical elements of SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS represent in a unique way (I hope!) those shared experiences that we can’t quite explain, but that affect us all, just the same.

L.L.: Also, can you talk about the Mayan Calendar a little bit? I recall thinking [in 2012], it had a very Y2K feel about it. I wasn’t really buying into the fact that the world was coming to an end, but well…I guess you can never be sure! Where do/did you sit on the subject?download (35)

Amy Impellizzeri: I didn’t really buy it either! But, I was just starting to work on SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS everyone was talking about the end of the Mayan calendar in late 2012, and I thought it would be a fabulous metaphor. What if the world really WAS ending? But not the way people said it was ….

 

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

Amy Impellizzeri: So funny! Busted! I just googled Keith Urban tickets. I heard they went on sale locally and I want to take my kids to see him! (Seriously, are there any better storytellers than country musicians??)

L.L.: Amy, as always, it was a pleasure reconnecting. Is there anything else I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Oh! I know….can you tell us about your next book?

Amy Impellizzeri: THANK YOU, Leslie! It’s a huge honor to be featured on your site. I’m excited to announce that my next novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA, is currently available for pre-order – releasing on October 17, 2017. At first glance, it might seem 51Big2HcJ4L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_like a bit of a departure for me – a psychological thriller about a woman diagnosed with pathological social media addiction – but one early reviewer made me so happy when she said: “The author keeps true to her style sprinkling in aspects of the mystic but develops a thriller so strong you will read well past your bedtime.”

THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA marks the first time I’ve used my 13-year corporate law background to incorporate legal suspense elements into one of my novels. It’s definitely my most ambitious plot ever, with plenty of twists, and like SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS it has (I hope!) a surprising ending. Tell you what, I have an advance copy with your name on it. If you enjoy it, I wouldn’t mind inviting myself back to chat about it another time! (How’s that for subtle?!)

Thank you again for having me!

For more information about SCRETS OF WORRY DOLLS, to connect with the author, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

headshot (1) (1).pngABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Impellizzeri is a former corporate litigator and award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, Lemongrass Hope (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing 2014) was a 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Bronze Winner and a National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist. A favorite with bloggers and book clubs, Lemongrass Hope was named the #1 reviewed book in 2014 by The Literary Connoisseur, and topped several  bloggers’ “Best of” Lists in 2015. Amy’s second novel, Secrets of Worry Dolls, was released December 1, 2016 by Wyatt-MacKenzie, and was featured as an Editor’s Pick by Foreword Reviews that month. Secrets of Worry Dolls has been named a Bronze Winner in the INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards (Multicultural Fiction) and a Finalist in the WFWA STAR Awards. Amy’s third novel, The Truth About Thea is set to release in October 2017 by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. Amy is represented by Bob Diforio of D4EO Literary Agency.

Amy is also the author of the peer-reviewed nonfiction book, Lawyer Interrupted, published by the American Bar Association in 2015, and which has been featured by, among others, ABC27, The Huffington Post, TheAtlantic.com, and Law360. 

Amy is a frequent invited speaker at legal conferences and writing panels across the country. She is Past President of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, an international community of 800+ writers. Amy is also an invited member of the Tall Poppy Writers, an innovative marketing co-op of award-winning, best-selling and acclaimed women writers.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of A. Impellizzeri and used with permission. THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA image retrieved from Amazon, Mayan Calendar retrieved from Historic Mysteries, image of Lake Atitlan retrieved from Wikipedia, 2001 Belle Harbor flight crash image retrieved from Wikipedia, all on 8.1.17].

Wednesdays with Writers: A Smashing Debut from Bianca Marais explores the Apartheid, racism, the Soweto Uprising, motherhood, and so much more in HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

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By Leslie Lindsay

A dazzling debut about a white girl and a black woman from different worlds, drawn together by tragedy set in South America. 

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I’ll be honest: I’ve never read anything like it; but HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS (July 11, 2017 Putnam Books) absolutely amazed and entranced me. I didn’t know much about Apartheid South Africa and Bianca Marais’s richly told story brought it to light. 

Through the alternating voices of the two main characters, (9/10 year old) Robin and her black maid, Beauty, we fall into a deeply moving story of love, loss, sacrifice, racism, mothers and daughters, and so much more. It’s so deep and so multifaceted, it’s really hard to summarize HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS; I might go so far as to say it’s required reading given the political, social, and economic state of our world.

Life under Apartheid created a stable and secure world for Robin Conrad who lived at home with her mother and father (a manager at a local gold mine) in the Hector_pieterson.jpglate 1970s. But in the same country, worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her own children after her husband’s death (he worked in those mines Robin’s dad managed). And then the unimaginable happens: the Soweto Uprising, a protest against black students ignites racial and political unrest. Life changes.

Robin’s parents are dead. Her beloved maid, Mabel leaves. Robin is shuttled to her aunt (her mother’s sister) for her care. But Edith is a jet-setting air hostess for an airline and having a child underfoot is a bit of a nuisance. Though Edith’s character is delightful and fun and things turn out for the best …Edith does have to hire help to care for young Robin.

Meanwhile, Beauty’s story merges with Robin’s in a wondrous and amazing tale of love, sacrifice, growth…and perhaps heroism.

Please join me in welcoming Bianca Marais to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Oh wow…I don’t even know where to start! Thank you for joining us—and for writing such an important story. You grew up in South Africa and were raised by a black maid. I couldn’t help but think you were Robin and your maid was Beauty. Am I close? How much of HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS was inspired by your own experiences?

Bianca Marais: Hi Leslie. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about the book and for those incredibly kind words about it; I really appreciate them!

To answer your question: you’re fairly close. Robin isn’t me, exactly, and Beauty isn’t my childhood caretaker, Eunice, but both characters were inspired by the relationship I was lucky enough to have with her as I was growing up.

Eunice worked for my family from before I was born and has been a huge part of my life. It was my love for her that made me want to write this book and explore what her life may have been like during apartheid. As a child, I took her presence in my life for granted and it was only as I grew older that I realized how many sacrifices she had to make in order to leave her children behind in the Transkei so she could earn a living working as a maid in Johannesburg.

All of the ways in which I experienced the world shaped the way in which I wrote about Robin and her own experience of the racist society she was growing up in.  In the same way it took my loving a black woman for me to have empathy for her 052experience, it took Robin’s loving Beauty for her to understand the cruelty and horror of apartheid.

L.L.: While HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS isn’t exactly a story about mothers and daughters, it plays a prominent role. There are different types of mothering in this story. The love and care of a child by a maid, and also an aunt. The storyline with Victor and his friends…the social worker. Beauty is separated from her children (two sons and an activist daughter). Can you talk a bit about how mothering isn’t exactly between a mother and a child, but how mothering can take on multiple forms?

Bianca Marais: I’m not a mother myself and yet I’ve always been fascinated by motherhood. It’s something that women are just expected to take on, and yet it’s so much more complex that just a biological imperative.

I’m sure we all know women who would make the most amazing mothers and yet aren’t able to have children, and on the other end of the spectrum are women who are completely lacking in maternal instinct and never should have been mothers at all judging by the harm they’ve done to their children.

I volunteered for many years at a children’s sanctuary in Johannesburg and also assisted home-based care workers in the Soweto community, and I saw first-hand how children who had either been abandoned or orphaned were cared for by 220px-Soweto_township.jpgvolunteers, care workers, members of their family or members of the community.

It made me realize that a child can be mothered by many different people in a multitude of ways, and that the people who often do the mothering aren’t mothers in the traditional sense, making the African idiom true: it does take a village to raise a child.

L.L.: And Edith, Robin’s aunt and caregiver after her mother’s death…how I loved her! She was this thin, fashionable, jet-setting air hostess suddenly strapped with a  9-year old child. She made me laugh and cry. Can you talk about her character a bit—and maybe your inspiration for her?

Bianca Marais: I’m so glad you loved Edith! I loved her too but there’s been a mixed reaction to her with many readers disliking her because they see her as selfish and self-absorbed.

I had an aunt who I absolutely adored and she led an unconventional life (not as unconventional as Edith’s) but I always admired the bravery it took for her not to conform to societal expectations. She was fiercely independent, smoked like a chimney, had an amazing sense of humor and was quite eccentric in some regards. I tried to capture her spirit in Edith though I exaggerated it quite a bit. I also think there’s some of myself in Edith which is telling.

My aunt is one of the people that the book is dedicated to and I so wish she’d been able to read this book because I know she would have loved it. She didn’t have an African Grey parrot but she had rats that she kept as pets. Edith would have made her laugh too.

L.L.: Before we get into much detail, can you give us a brief overview of the Apartheid?

Bianca Marais: Apartheid was a system of institutionalized and systemic racism that was in effect in South Africa from 1948 until 1991.

During that time, many laws were put in place to classify and segregate people according to their race, and then to discriminate against them accordingly. Non-white people were removed from their homes and either forced into segregated neighborhoods, or they had their citizenship taken away from them and had to move far away to live in one of the Bantu homelands.

The laws of apartheid were brutal and draconian. They controlled how black people lived, curtailed their freedom of movement, deprived them of a proper education, determined what jobs they could do and who they could associate with. The system was designed so that that white people could benefits from the oppression of non-white people.

L.L.: How have things changed since 1976-1977 when HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS was set?

Bianca Marais:  Apartheid ended in 1991 and South Africa is now a democracy with one of the most advanced constitutions in the world.

There was a decade after Nelson Mandela (Madiba as he was affectionately called) became president when the country had so much promise. He declared it ‘The Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit).jpgRainbow Nation’, set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the atrocities of the past, sanctions were lifted and foreign investment flooded in. I think Madiba was perhaps too optimistic in believing that because he was able to forgive and move on that everyone else could too. The scars from the apartheid years run deep, and just like the US after the Civil Rights Movement, it will take a long time for South Africa to fully heal and recover.

Unfortunately, after the Mandela era, things took a turn and the current leadership of the country doesn’t have the humanitarian focus that Mandela had. The president has been accused of state capture and only wanting to enrich himself and his cohorts. People remain living in terrible poverty and as long as that continues to happen, crime will continue to be a major concern.

The people of South Africa are some of the strongest, most resilient, hospitable and warm people you will ever meet. It breaks my heart that they are being railroaded in this way because they deserve so much better.

Perfect for readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, a perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy.

L.L.: I’m curious about the logistics of writing HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS. When did you begin this story and how long did it take to write, obtain an agent, get published. I ask because it’s such a dense and important read, but so well done.

Bianca Marais: HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS was a story I’d always wanted to write but I was reluctant to tackle it because I honestly didn’t think I could do it. Most of the writing I’d done up until then was comedic,  and dealing with heavy themes like racism, loss and grief seemed beyond the scope of what I was able to do.

I finally began writing the book in 2013 just after we’d moved from Johannesburg to Toronto and I’d started the Creative Writing Certificate at the U of T School of Continuing Studies. At first, I tried not to write from Beauty’s perspective because I absolutely didn’t want to appropriate a voice that wasn’t mine. The more I suppressed her, though, the more she wanted to be heard and so I made a pact with myself that I’d only write her if I did her complete justice.

To that end, I knew I’d have to do a lot of research about apartheid, as well as consult cultural experts and sensitivity readers which is exactly what I did.

The first draft of the book was finished within a year and I managed to get my amazing agent, Cassandra Rogers of The Rights Factory, a few weeks later. She picked the book up out of the slush pile and offered me representation within a week of reading it. There’s a lot of luck in getting the right book in front of the right agent at the right time and I was incredibly lucky.

I worked on rewrites with Cass for a few months and then we submitted to publishers. The feedback was very encouraging, but everyone said the book was too ambitious because it originally spanned four decades.download (34)

I then cut two thirds of the book out and began rewriting it so that it only spanned a year and a bit. The total writing time over all these incarnations was about two and a half years. The book then went out again, and there were many more rejections before it found a perfect home with the amazing Kerri Kolen and the rest of the brilliant Putnam team.

In total, the book was rejected more than a hundred times and I threatened to give up writing it on many, many occasions. I’m incredibly thankful to my fabulous agent, my wonderful husband and my amazing friends who encouraged me to keep going.

L.L.: Here’s a fun little observation: your first name, Bianca, translates to ‘white’ in Italian. And yet here is this book about black and white and race. Can you talk about that a bit?

Bianca Marais:  Wow! I’ve never even thought about that. I know my name means ‘white’ in Italian because when we were in Italy, a waiter told me that his last name meant ‘Chistmas’ in Italian and that if I married him, my name would be “White Christmas’.

My parents named me Bianca because of Bianca Jagger; I don’t think they knew what the name translated to.Bianca_Jagger_2014.jpg

Perhaps it’s true what they say, your name is your destiny because ever since I became aware of the horrors of racial discrimination, it’s always been a huge issue for me.

L.L.: I feel like I could ask so many more questions. But I think I am going to end with this lovely quote from the book, which I feel summarizes it well, “Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room: “Beauty (smiling broadly), Morrie (hair more poofy than usual), Mr. and Mrs. Goldman (bearing gifts), Victor (wearing an aquamarine bowtie because I told him once aquamarine was my favorite color), Johan (minus stitches), Wilhelmina (no longer a baddie!), and Maggie (no longer my only guardian angel). Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all in this together…” I love this. Do you have any other thoughts to add?

Bianca Marais:  Thank you, Leslie! That paragraph summarizes so much of what the book is about and how I feel about the world today. No child is born racist, bigoted or prejudiced. Most children don’t even notice race, sexuality or ethnicity. They notice who treats them well and who they like in return and want to be friends with. A friend of mine once asked her six-year-old son what his friend looked like because she was supposed to pick him up, and her son gave a whole bunch of descriptors, none of which were ‘black’.

So why do we teach children to hate? Why do we raise children in societies that are racist and prejudiced and brainwash all of the innocence and love out of them?

I wish so much that my book wasn’t still so relevant. A story that takes place forty years ago across the world shouldn’t be as pertinent in the US today as it is. I just hope that people can learn from their mistakes so that history isn’t doomed to repeat itself. Violence breeds more violence and hate begets more hate. The cycle can be broken if we choose to break it.

L.L.: Bianca, it was a joy chatting and reading HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS; thank you! 

Bianca Marais: Thank you so much for this amazing interview! I appreciate your wonderful response to HUM and I loved chatting about it with you.

If you have any readers who’d like to include me in their book clubs, there’s a wonderful Book Club Kit on my website, and I’ll love to do Skype sessions with any clubs that would have me. I love interacting with readers and it’s great for them to have authors answer their questions.

I’ve spent the past year working on a sequel to HUM called If You Want to Make God Laugh that I’ve set aside for now as I know the demand for that will depend on how well the first book does. Besides that, I have another book in the works, so if you enjoyed HUM, please keep a lookout for more books from me in the not too distant future!

For more information, to connect with Bianca Marais, or to purchase a copy of HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS, please visit: 

biancamarais1ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s SCS, and her work has been published in World Enough and Crime.

Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers.

Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband.

 

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. Image of Soweto slums and Nelson Mandela & Bianca Jagger retrieved from Wikipedia; image of black maid & white child retrieved from,]

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:

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[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]

 

 

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

HOME FOR THE SUMMER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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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, 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

I kind of wanted to shake these people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

High Res EVERY LAST LIE (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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