Tag Archives: author interview

WeekEND Reading: Internationally bestselling U.K. Author Clare Mackintosh is back with her third psychological suspense/crime novel, LET ME LIE and it will most definitely keep you guessing


By Leslie Lindsay

I’m so excited to share with you LET ME LIE (Berkley, March 13 2018), the next work of psychological suspense from New York Times and internationally bestselling author of I LET YOU GO and I SEE YOU.

Let Me Lie.jpg

Have you read either of them? 

I was absolutely gobsmacked by the cliff-hanger ending of I LET YOU GO and the cat-and-mouse intensity of I SEE YOU had me on the edge-of-my-seat.

She’s back with her third tale of psychological intrigue and I promise, it will keep you guessing. 






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


clare-mackintosh-us-banner-2018-1[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission. Image of C.M. book banner retrieved from author’s website;  image of infant and mother from, image of Beachy Head retrieved from, Eastbourne pier image retrieved from , image of anniversary card retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted. Excerpt reprinted with permission from LET ME LIE by Clare Mackintosh from Berkley Publishing Group, copyright 2018.]

Special Pub Day Edition: #1 NYT bestselling author of THE HISTORIAN, Elizabeth Kostova’s new book, THE SHADOW LAND now out in paperback about Bulgaria, horrific labor camps, the magic of music and so much more


By Leslie Lindsay 

[original post 5.7.17]


#1 New York Times Bestselling Author of THE HISTORIAN, Elizabeth Kostova takes us on a cultural wandering the troubled hills of Bulgaria seeking truth and peace in the mesmerizing THE SHADOW LAND. 

Alexandra Boyd is a 26-year old American who is seeking for something: truth, peace, belonging. She finds a job teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria, a country she knows little about, but was a ‘beautiful green country on a map her brother found fascinating.’ With Jack no longer living, Alexandra sets forth on her adventure, in part to finally put her brother to rest.

Immediately, I was drawn into Alexandra’s story as she arrives jet-lagged and forlorn at a rustic hostel in the heart of Sofia. An encounter with a Bulgarian family, an accidental switch of bags, and a taxi propels the story into present-day action. Alexandra is left holding the bag, quite literally, of another man’s ashes.

We continue along a jaunty journey meeting various Bulgarians, a monastery, and horrors of a century of civil unrest.

“Kostova has the gift of hypnotic storytelling. [The Shadow Land] overflows with her lush language and descriptions that set the scene of every chapter brilliantly…inspiring.”—The Free Lance-Star

Alexandra will have to uncover the secrets of the talented musician who is was shattered by political oppression, his dreams crushed—yet, she will find that in doing so, she is ultimately in danger.

Please join me in conversation with Elizabeth Kostova, a gifted storyteller, whose characters are constantly evolving, looking to connect past with the present, in the hope that perhaps meaning can be found in the rubble.

Leslie Lindsay: Elizabeth, it is a pleasure and honor to host you today. Thank you, thank you for being here. You visited Bulgaria in 1989 just a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Subsequently, Bulgarian communist dictatorship crumbled then, too. You were taken with this ancient place, so much that you fell in love…in more ways than one. Am I right in saying this experience shaped your narrative for THE SHADOW LAND? Can you shed a little more light on your inspiration behind the book?

Elizabeth Kostova:  I first went to Bulgaria in 1989, when I was twenty-four, to do fieldwork on traditional singing in villages there, with two American friends.  It was an incredible experience, especially as the Berlin Wall fell a week before we arrived, bringing down with it the 45-year Bulgarian communist dictatorship.  The country was in turbulence, but also much more open to foreigners, especially in the villages, than it would have been just weeks earlier.  We were able not only to travel to beautiful and remote places but even sometime to stay in people’s homes while we interviewed them about how they’d learned the old songs of their regions.  It was amazing.  While I was there, I met my future husband, and we’ve returned to the country together many times over 28 years.

L.L.: I’ll be honest, I know very little about Bulgaria. But I do know [from reading your author’s note in THE SHADOW LAND] that this land is one of the first settled by Homo sapiens. Can you tell us more? I find that really fascinating.Devetashka-Bulgarian-Cave

Elizabeth Kostova:  Well, those early settlements are among the first settled by our species just in Europe—you can see the remains of those very early humans in several parts of the country, including some cave digs In fact, Bulgaria is a hotbed for archaeologists, because it contains remnants of so many different cultures from over millennia—not only Neolithic, but also ancient Greek, Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian, to name some of the major ones.  Bulgaria has always been a crossroads, culturally and geographically.

L.L.: Alexandra Boyd, the 26-year old American protagonist in the story has a secret [revealed fairly early in the story]. Was her character based on anyone in particular? Is there some symbolism between her story and the one of Stoyan Lazarov? I found that they mimicked one another in several ways. Was that intentional?

Elizabeth Kostova:  Alexandra isn’t based on anyone in my own life, but I did try to imbue her with the sense of newness, strangeness, and excitement I felt when I first went to Bulgaria at about her age!  (Fortunately, I never got into as much trouble as she does in the story.)  And I have a very vivid picture of her in my mind.  I did indeed want her 21st-century story and the story of my older character, from the 1940s and on–Stoyan Lazarov–to be parallel.  She is a stranger in a strange land, and he becomes a stranger in his own land.

“The Shadow Land is thrilling, and not just as a gripping tale. It’s also thrilling to watch such a talented writer cast her spell. The central character actually begins this deft novel in an urn, only to emerge as one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a long time.

— Richard Russo, author of Everybody’s Fool

L.L.: And Stoyan Lazarov, the man whose ashes Alexandra is frantically trying to reunite with his family, his past is quite storied. In fact, nearly half the book is fraught with his time in Zelenets, a Bulgarian work camp. I’m so saddened to hear of this piece of history, which in many ways closely resembles the Holocaust. Can you talk about that?

Elizabeth Kostova:  Bulgaria, like most of the Soviet East Bloc, was riddled with different kinds of persecution of citizens, including the use of forced-labor camps that the regime filled with “enemies of the people.”  This was a way to frighten the population and push people to carry out surveillance against each other, and is one of the darkest moments in Bulgarian history.  Zelenets, the camp in my book, is a fictional setting, but closely based on details of some of the real camps in Bulgaria.  I was 18428370_401inspired to include it by my unexpected experience of visiting the ruins of a real camp—dilapidated and closed to the public—while I was doing research in Bulgaria for THE SHADOW LAND.  It was one of the emptiest, eeriest places I’ve ever seen, and it made me feel a responsibility to write about it.  Stoyan’s story also includes some joyful things, like a great love—and his love of his violin.

L.L.: And music! How I loved Stoyan’s use of distraction while he was a ‘walking skeleton’ at that horrific camp. How did Vivaldi and the violin come to the forefront of THE SHADOW LANDS? Do you play yourself?

Elizabeth Kostova:  I don’t play an instrument myself but am lucky enough to have three professional classical instrumentalists in my family!  I interviewed them extensively.  I love music myself, and the Bach and Vivaldi Stoyan plays in the novel are close to my heart.

L.L.: There is so much going on in THE SHADOW LANDS, from the exquisite foreign setting, to the deep grief of a lost life, the work camp, historical and cultural significance, Alexandra’s journey…what do you hope others glean?

Elizabeth Kostova:  My hope is that readers will feel that, like Alexandra, they get to visit and travel all over Bulgaria, a place we don’t usually put on our bucket lists!  Since the book came out, I’ve been hearing from a lot of American readers who are now planning to do just that, which thrills me.203px-Oilcape

L.L.: What’s got your attention these days? What inspires you?

Elizabeth Kostova:  I missed my characters so much as I finished editing THE SHADOW LAND that I started a new novel in October—I’m excited about it, but still developing the story.  It’s definitely going to involve more research travel.

L.L: I’m eager to know a little more about your Foundation for Creative Writing. What can you tell us?

Elizabeth Kostova:  When I first went to Bulgaria on book tour, with THE HISTORIAN (one third of that book is set in Bulgaria in the 1950s), I observed that a lot of Bulgarian writers and translators were working very hard but had very few formal opportunities to apply for—there just weren’t many prizes, programs, conferences, and so on.  And it had become hard for them to publish their own work in Bulgaria after the fall of the Wall, because a flood of books translated from English came into the country.  I wanted to be part of a solution rather than part of this problem!  In 2007, with a Bulgarian publisher, I co-founded the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation,  which offers some of those opportunities on a competitive basis and also bring writers from the English-writing world to Bulgaria to meet with Bulgarian writers.  It’s been very fulfilling, and a lot of fun, as well.

L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Elizabeth Kostova:  You haven’t asked if I write with a pen or a laptop!  I’m grateful.

L.L.: Elizabeth, it’s been the utmost pleasure. Best wishes on THE SHADOW LANDS.

Elizabeth Kostova:  Thank you so much—it’s been a real pleasure to think about your questions.  I appreciate everything you do for books and writing.

For more information on THE SHADOW LAND, to connect with Elizabeth Kostova via social media, or to purchase a copy, please visit these links:


KostovaPicks40flat3.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Kostova was born in Connecticut in 1964. She is the author of three novels, The Historian (Little, Brown, 2005), The Swan Thieves (Little, Brown, 2010), and The Shadow Land (Random House, 2017). The Historian was the first debut novel in U.S. publishing history to debut at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, has been translated into 40 languages, and won Quill and Independent Bookseller Awards. The Swan Thieves was also a New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 28 languages. Her short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in such periodicals and anthologies as The Mississippi Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Best American Poetry, The Michigan Quarterly, and Another Chicago Magazine.

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


[Cover and author image retrieved from E. Kotova’s website on 5.8.17. Author image credit: Lynne Harty. Image of Bulgarian workcamp retrieved from dw.com, image of Maslen nos Primosko/Black Sea Coast retrieved from Wikipedia, and images of ancient caves retrieved from ancient-origins.net, all on 5.8.17]




WeekEND Reading: Have you ever wondered what ‘really happened’ with the infamous Borden family? Did they just stop loving one another, was Lizzie really an axe murder(ess)? Sarah Schmidt talks about this, finding your own way with a story, how Lizzie ‘haunted’ her for 11 years, and so much more in SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE


By Leslie Lindsay 

Explosive debut novel, part-crime, part-historical, and part family dynamics, Sarah Schmidt reimagines the infamous Lizzie Borden story. 

We’ve all heard the rhyme, about Lizzie Borden taking the ax and whacking her mother and then doing the same to her father, with one more whack. If that’s not chilling enough, being a nursery rhyme and all, what follows in the narrative is just as disturbing.

It’s August 1892 and Fall River, Massachusetts is experiencing a major heat wave. Everyone’s a bit on edge, and ill. Sarah Schmidt, an Australian debut author takes the story we’ve all heard bits and pieces of and breathes life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family with deft skill at bringing the senses to life. In fact, much of why I loved this tale is because of the visceral reactions to I had during the reading experience. That’s not to say a story about a grisly double murder isn’t enough, but it’s Schmidt’s use of language that had me wincing. In this case, that’s a good thing, a testament to her writing. 

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (Atlantic/Grove Press, August 2018) focuses on the stepmother, Abby (it was a remarriage following Lizzie’s mother’s death when Lizzie was just 5), the sometimes temperamental businessman father, Andrew, and the two spinster sisters, Emma and Lizzie, and another, the enigmatic character, Benjamin.

I found the character of Lizzie so well drawn, so real; definitely a character I loved to hate. Schmidt writes her with such psychological precisiona woman who never really grew up as much of her characterizations led me to believe Lizzie younger than her stated 32 years.

Told in alternating POVs, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE focuses mostly on the days surrounding the murder, if not focusing exclusively on the day itself. We hear from several characters, their interpretations of the events, and then we also hear about bit about the trial (but not much), leading us to draw some of our own conclusions. Perhaps Lizzie didn’t kill her parents after all?

I’m so honored to welcome Sarah Schmidt to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Sarah, I loved SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE. In fact, it got me thinking about the case and the characters when I wasn’t reading and then I was drawn to do some more digging. I heard somewhere that you just couldn’t get Lizzie to leave you alone. Can you talk about your inspiration, and how Lizzie ‘haunted’ you?

Sarah Schmidt: I had difficulty letting these characters go and constantly thought about them, so I’m relieved to hear they infiltrated your mind too. I ‘discovered’ this case while I was in a second-hand bookstore in 2005 and initially I wasn’t interested in it at all. However later that night I had a dream: Lizzie was sitting at the end of my bed, poked me in the leg and said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I had this same dream every night for a week and it was only then that I decided to write down the dream and hope Lizzie would leave me alone. She didn’t but the upside was that I was able to write this book. I felt like Lizzie in particular was with me most days and this allowed me to play with her character in unusual ways. It’s quite the gift for a fiction writer to have a set of characters feel absolutely like fresh and bone—in a way it allows you to visit them whenever you like when it’s time to write them.


L.L.: One thing that struck as I was reading is that you are Australian, not American. I had always thought the Lizzie Borden story was pure American folklore, having taken place in Massachusetts, not exactly a worldwide case. Can you expand on that a bit?

Sarah Schmidt: I hadn’t heard of this case until I stumbled upon it however I’ve since learnt that many people in Australia and elsewhere have heard about Lizzie and the case (or at the very least they know the nursery rhyme). This case was a phenomenon: a wealthy white woman from a privileged, respectable family was accused of axing her father and step-mother to death. The details surrounding the case were a total mystery and this only increased interest in the case. I think in many ways the idea that a woman could be so violent was the pulse of the story and this helped push its way around certain parts of the world. The fact that it became American folklore definitely helped keep the story alive.

L.L.: I’m curious about your writing process. I can imagine it would be easy to get bogged down in research. There’s got to be plenty out there on Lizzie Borden and her family, some of it accurate and others not-so-much. How did you decide on what to include and what to jettison?

Sarah Schmidt: Research is often the fun part—it’s the actual writing that can be the downside. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really interested in the case but the fact that Lizzie kept talking about her father in my dreams made me realise that what I was interested in was the family and what these people may have been like. The central questions I wanted to explore were: if Lizzie did do it, why would she commit such a crime? What happens to a family when they no longer love each other?

So initially I began my research by reading anything I could get my hands on and I read a lot of the court transcripts. When I would go to write I felt completely bogged down by the history and facts of the case and I didn’t feel connected which made my writing feel stale. It was then that I decided I would take liberties and simply concentrate on the family. This was completely freeing. I was writing fiction after all.  So I began to research in stages when I needed to: whatever information I retained indicated to me that these were the parts that would resonate within the story and a readership. As I went on, I began looking for things that told me about the humanity of the family. After a few years you begin to intuit what your manuscript needs.

I also decided early on to limit my interactions with other interpretations of the case (whether books or films etc) because I wanted to create my own story and didn’t want to be completely influenced by what had gone before me. This is such a mythologised case: you need to find your own way to a story.


L.L.: And the structure. That’s another major undertaking, weaving all of these different POVs into a seamless whole. Was there ever a time you thought about writing this as a first person POV, say, from Lizzie only? Or a third person narration? Did you try it other ways before deciding on the final outcome?

Sarah Schmidt: I had no idea how I was going to write this book. In the beginning I had Lizzie’s voice but I quickly realised that she was never going to be the narrator I wanted her to be: she was effusive, petulant, annoying. I knew I needed someone else. That’s how Benjamin came to live in the book. But even he had his limitations. Overtime I collected the narrators and the story unfolded as I learnt more about them and what they knew, what they wanted to share with me. I would constantly switch from one narrator to the other when I got bored with them. This process can become complicated and often I got lost in the narrative however in a way, I think this helped create the rhythm of the novel.

Depending on who I was writing the narration would either be in first person or third person (for example Emma was in third person for a very long time) but for this book I found being in first person was the best way to tell this story, especially because it’s such a claustrophobic novel. Being trapped in the heads of these characters helped the mood and shape of the whole thing.

I wish I could write a novel that is told from one POV and sticks to a linear narrative but that’s just not how my brain works!

L.L.: And what more can you tell us about Benjamin? He was quite mysterious. Who was he, exactly?

Sarah Schmidt: Benjamin is a fictional character and was born because I couldn’t handle Lizzie on my own. I liked the idea that there would be a parallel character to Lizzie, one who was just as violent but wore it differently to her. Over time he became his own person and I was able to use him to explore themes such as justice and retribution.

L.L.: Of course I have to mention the visceral reading experience. Oh my! I felt everything deep in my gut. I found myself licking my lips at certain passages and feeling anger and disgust and so many other emotions. Instead of asking how you write that way, what do you do to keep the saw sharp?

Sarah Schmidt: I’m not sure I even know the answer to this only that I try to always follow my gut instinct and pay attention to what is around me. Observing everything and everyone helps as does allowing yourself to sit by your character’s side and let them dictate their world view. It’s very tiring to write this way but it’s the only way I know how. If I feel bored by something or if it doesn’t ring true to me (or to the character) then I have failed creatively and I start again. It’s the only way to keep it fresh.

L.L.: There’s a part in your acknowledgements section that thanks Lizzie for choosing you to tell her story but then you say, ‘it’s time to go.’  Do you still think about her? Does she still ‘find’ you?

Sarah Schmidt:  I haven’t felt truly connected to Lizzie for a good while now but she still pops into my head from time to time. I spent eleven years with her and these people: I think it’s going to take me a while to adjust.

L.L.:  What are you working on now? Another grisly historical fiction?

Sarah Schmidt: I don’t like talking about projects in their infancy however I’m working on a novel that came to me in a dream about five or so years ago. It was a simply image of a woman driving a car toward mountains with a child in the backseat. Nothing was what it seemed. I knew instantly that it was a novel, I just didn’t know what it was. Last year I began to explore this idea and image in depth and it has surprised me. I didn’t set out to write about the past but that’s what it has become. You just follow the feelings of your characters and see where they take you.

L.L.: Sarah, it’s been such a pleasure! Though the tale is horrific, I enjoyed your writing very much. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Sarah Schmidt: Thank you for these questions: they were great!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, please visit:

  • Website
  • Instagram: @ikillnovel
  • Twitter: @ikillnovel
  • Read more about Sarah Schmidt’s experience with Lizzie on her blog

Order Links:

Sarah Schmidt color c Nicholas Purcell StudioABOUT THE AUTHOR:  After completing a bachelor of arts (professional writing/editing), a master of arts (creative writing), and a graduate diploma of information management, Sarah Schmidt currently works as a reading and literacy coordinator at a regional public library. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

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


[Cover and author image courtesy of Grove Atlantic and used with permission. 1892 image of Lizzie Border and the Borden home retrieved from author’s website , image of girl with axe from vimeo rhyme of Lizzie Borden retrieved from, all on 3.7.18] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Debut author, A.J. Finn on his HOT bestselling psych thriller, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, how he hates the ‘post-truth era,’ his favorite ear worm of 2018 (so far), lifting the stigma on mental health, plus those black & white films that inspired the book


By Leslie Lindsay 

Intricate and suspenseful and utterly unputdownable, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is on-par with smart, psychological thrillers that will stay with you long after you close the book for the final time. 

Woman in the Window_HC.JPG

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is the most widely acquired novel of all time. Prior to publication, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (William Morrow, January 2 2018) had been sold 38 territories around the world, and Fox 200, the makers of LIFE OF PI and HIDDEN FIGURES preempted the film rights, with Oscar winner Scott Rudin producing and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts writing the script.

Stephen King loves it. So does Gillian Flynn and Ruth Ware.

Oh, and it’s a debut for A.J. But it doesn’t read like one. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is smooth, rich, complex, and layered. 38 year old Anna Fox is a child psychologist by training but dealing with a severe case of agoraphobia herself.  Alcoholism plays a role, too and so does her faulty memory.

Anna Fox has been a prisoner of her own NYC brownstone for 10 months. She lives alone, separated from her daughter and husband. She spends her days watching neighbors outside her window, playing Chess on-line, watching old black and white thrillers, and participating in an on-line chat group for shut-ins. Yet something’s not right. We learn this (and what lead to Anna’s agoraphobia) about 2/3 into the story.

But there’s also what Anna *thinks* she saw happen in the home near hers. Something horrific and unimaginable. But no one believes her. She’s a drunk. She’s delusional.

The chapters are short and punchy and I found the reading experience flew. I had my own theories about what was really going on and some of it panned out, yet there were still plenty of surprises. Everyone always wants to know the ending in tales like this and if there’s a twist.

There is. That’s all I’ll say. 

So pull up a spot on the couch and join me and A.J. in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to chat with you about this stunning debut. I know that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW draws on your lifelong long of suspense fiction, both on the page and screen; was that your ultimate inspiration for this tale, or was it something else?

A.J. Finn: Thanks for making time for me! Here’s the spark: One night in 2015, while parked on my sofa watching Rear Window, I clocked a light in my peripheral vision: my neighbor across the street, switching on a living-room lamp. In accordance with New York City custom, I watched her for a moment as she settled herself in her armchair and aimed a remote at the TV. Behind me, Thelma Ritter spoke up: “I can smell trouble right in this apartment,” she chided Jimmy Stewart as he peered into Raymond Burr’s window. “You look out. You see things you shouldn’t. James-Stewart-Rear-WindowTrouble.” When I turned back to the screen, she was glaring at me.

Interesting, I thought, how—sixty years later—I’m spying on my neighbors exactly as Stewart did his. Voyeurism dies hard.

L.L.: I heard somewhere that you wanted THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW to have a similar cinematographic feel as some of your favorite classic thrillers. In fact, reading this inspired me to re-watch GASLIGHT and REBECCA. Can you talk more about your fascination with those old movies?

A.J. Finn: As a teenager, I lived down the road from an art-house cinema, where I camped out every weekend. The managers hosted classic-movie nights, film noir retrospectives, Hitchcock marathons… and I steeped myself in all of it. I chased Harry Lime through Viennese sewers in The Third Man. I watched the conspiring women of Les diaboliques drown a man in a bathtub. I boarded Nicole Kidman’s yacht in Dead Calm. And I checked into the Bates Motel with Marion Crane—who, of course, wound up making an early exit.

I love the look, tone, and pace of older films: they’re stylish; they‘re sophisticated; they take their time establishing their characters and building suspense. And they appreciate and reinforce the value of restraint and suggestion. By contrast, many modern films rocket forward at a breathless pace; they appear to have been shot and edited without much care or craft; and they stoop to shock tactics and cheap scares.

L.L.: Anna lives in a large NYC brownstone. Oh, how I love old houses! What was your inspiration for the setting of this story? Do you think it would have worked as well if she were, say, living in a suburban split-level in Ohio?

A.J. Finn: Ultimately, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is a novel about loneliness. It explores how difficult it is to connect to others—and how easy it can be to misinterpret them. That’s why I decided to set the action in one of the world’s most densely populous cities: I wanted to demonstrate how even in a place where people are living shoulder-to-shoulder alongside others, they can still feel isolated, even alienated. Also, New York is a city familiar to fans of classic movie thrillers—Rear Window and Rope, to name but two. The urban environment lends a menace and mood to the story. Or so I hope!

L.L.: Dr. Anna Fox, your protagonist has severe agoraphobia. She’s basically been a victim of her very home for the last 10 months as a shut-in. She’s also a former well-regarded child psychologist. What kind of research did you do to get those pieces of her illness and profession ‘just so?’

A.J. Finn: I drew upon my own experience with depression, which over the years—and until my diagnosis and medication were corrected three years ago—had periodically left me unable to prize myself from bed, let alone leave the house. I also consulted psychiatrists specializing in anxiety disorders, as well as agoraphobes living in Manhattan. It was important to me to communicate, accurately and effectively, Anna’s condition.

L.L.: I’m grateful you shared this tid-bit about yourself. It seems stigma is lifting. There are books—memoirs—popping up all over. We hear about mental illness more in the public (I’m really getting tired of saying ‘media’). What are your thoughts about all of this? How does it inform your writing? Or does it?

A.J. Finn: We’ve got quite a ways to go, but I agree that there’s more discussion about and around mental health today than in years past. That said, mental illness is still perceived as a failing or defect, when in fact it’s as natural—and in many cases as treatable—as any other illness. I feel it’s informed my writing insofar as I try to create psychologically nuanced characters—characters with complications and contradictions, characters who struggle. As everyone struggles, in one way or another. My experience with mental health has also endowed me with what I consider a pretty potent sense of empathy—an invaluable asset, I think, in writing fiction.  

Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller

“Astounding. Thrilling. Amazing.” –Gillian Flynn

“Unputdownable.” –Stephen King

“A dark, twisty confection.” —Ruth Ware

“Absolutely gripping.” —Louise Penny

L.L.: Besides old black & white thrillers, what’s keeping you awake at night?

A.J. Finn: I’m deeply troubled by what some call the ‘post-truth era’ in which we live. We’re at the point where it’s broadly acceptable—at least in the political sphere—to dismiss disagreeable or unflattering facts as ‘fake news’; we hear elected officials suggesting that we ‘agree to disagree’ about inarguable facts. As a writer of fiction, I can appreciate as much as anyone else that there’s a clear, bold line between reality and make-believe. Cross or obliterate that line, and chaos ensues.

L.L.: Are you working on new?

A.J. Finn: I’m working on my second book, another psychological thriller—this time set in San Francisco, probably America’s most mysterious and romantic city. In this novel, characters actually set foot outdoors, which is a blessed relief.

L.L.: A.J., it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like, what you had for lunch, if you have a dog, or what ear worm is currently plaguing you? [I cannot get Bruno Mars’s “Cadillac” song to go away).

A.J. Finn: I don’t have a dog at the moment, although I grew up with six of them (not at the same time). I’ll be getting two pooches later this year: a puppy (French bulldog) and a senior rescue dog (Lab or mixed-breed). And my song of the year thus far is ‘Slower Than Usual’, by Ariel Beesley. Propulsive 80s-tinged electropop—very much my speed.

For more information, to connect with A.J. Finn via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, please see:

Order Links:

AJ Finn author photo color_photo courtesy of the authorABOUT THE AUTHOR: A. J. Finn has written for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Times Literary Supplement (UK). A native of New York, Finn lived in England for ten years before returning to New York City. WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is his first book.

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



[Cover and author image courtesy of William Morrow/Harper Collins and used with permission. Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window from.Movie poster images from Wikipedia, all retrieved 3.5.18]. 

Wednesdays with Writers: What do you call a book with recurring characters that isn’t a series? A ‘connected novel,’ perhaps? Robin Oliveira talks about this, her love for Albany NY, bike riding, researching books to be accurate yet emotional, how her former career as a critical care RN informs her writing and more in WINTER SISTERS


By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am so, so honored to welcome Robin to the blog couch. Please join us in conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Oliveira: I like learning new things. It’s the perennial student in me. I knew nothing about playing the violin—I can’t play a single instrument and am tone deaf—so I enjoyed figuring out how to write about a character who knew how to play the violin really well. I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching performances and listening to violin instructors explain things. I went to a Hilary Hahn concert to study her phrasing and watched her physicality as played. I went to Paris to visit the Conservatoire, which was wildly fun. Not trusting my two years of college French in conversation, I composed a note that I presented at the door of the school, which explained that I was writing a book and that part of it was set in the conservatory. Could I please come in to see the building and the famous concert hall? Yes! They let me in! I love the French. Then came the challenge of writing about the conservatory and about playing the violin convincingly enough, which was both a terror and a joy. This might be a good time to mention that 90% of my research doesn’t make it to the page; however, I think what I learn imbues the narrative with more depth than it would otherwise hold.  

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Robin Oliveira: The pleasure is all mine!

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

Order Links:

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

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


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

Wednedays with Writers: Inspired by her grandmother’s stories of WWII, an adorable lion cub, delicious berry pies, and the gorgeous landscape of Hawaii, debut novelist Sara Ackerman takes us on her journey, touching on acupuncture, paddleboarding, and more in ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLIDERS


By Leslie Lindsay 

Wartime novel set among the lush landscape of Hawaii about friendship, loyalties, and love. 

I fell right into the folds of this novel, as the glittering paradise of Hawaii came to life with Ackerman’s detail and ease. It’s 1944 and Violet and her daughter, 10-year old Ella are piecing their lives back together after her husband and high school principal, Herman goes missing. It’s been a year and still no final word on Herman’s fate. Suspicions and rumors swirl–was he a spy? Was he as loyal as others believed?

And then there’s Ella; she knows something but isn’t saying. Ella struggles at school and is trying to move forward, but something–or someone–seems to be holding her back.

Told in alternating POVs, between Violet and Ella, ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is historical fiction about fiction, racism, war, mother-daughter relationships with a dash of suspense and romance. I found I really fell in love with Ella and could see a bit of myself in her. This is a different take on the usual WWII stories that have been popular in recent books–with mostly a European experience; ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS is more of a ‘homefront’ read about love, loyalties, and family. 

As for the suspense and the missing father/husband…I don’t want to give away too much, but things are resolved with the help of a pet…lion.

All in all, I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this one, the grit of war set in the sparkling setting of Hawaii.

So pull up a seat, grab a slice of pie, and join me in conversation with Sara Ackerman.

Leslie Lindsay: Sara, I think for all novels, there’s a falling-off point that reels you in as an author. I think I might know what it is for you, but I’m going to let you tell us.

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe the lion was what drew me in initially.  He was my spark.  My grandmother always talked about this lion that the Marines had with them at Camp Tarawa in Waimea.  As a young girl, I was enthralled by the idea that there was a lion in Hawaii that wasn’t in a zoo.  Not only that, but this same lion rode in my grandmother’s car!  She never mentioned him by name, but when I got curious and Googled him, there he was sitting on the front of a jeep with a bunch of kids around him.  As it turned out, my mother was one of those kids petting Roscoe.  I formed my story around that, and the feeling that I got from my grandmother that the war had been a terrifying and tragic time, but also a very meaningful time. I wanted to portray both sides of that coin.  The friendships and bonds that held them together.  That was my jumping off point.

[image caption from 2011 newspaper: Stilson snuggles up to Roscoe, the 5th Marine Division’s mascot – they had to leave behind in Hawaii when they hit the beaches at Iwo Jima. Baby on lion from]

L.L.: You have to tell us about Roscoe, the pet lion cub. As I read with my adoring basset hound on my lap, I often pretended her coarse, oily fur was Roscoe!

Sara Ackerman: Roscoe [really] was my inspiration and one of the main reasons I wrote this book!  I love animals and I write about them extensively in all my novels.  The story of how the Marines brought him over from the Los Angeles zoo and how he lived with them and became a mascot was so appealing to me.  I remember my grandmother talking about stopping to pick up some Marines as they trudged up the hot and winding road from Kawaihae (the beach) to Waimea where their camp was.  She was terrified to have a lion in her car, but the men persuaded her that he would be fine.  That was how she ended up with a lion breathing down her neck as she drove them up the hill.  She never tired of telling this story, and as a young girl, I never tired of hearing it.


L.L.: And so the war is near and dear to you. Your grandparents really colored the world of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS for you. Are you often swayed by the nostalgic pull of family? I recently read that if you decorate your home with a few ancestral artifacts (old wedding photos, for example, or something your mother may have used), it makes you happier, connecting you to previous generations.

Sara Ackerman: My mother has an old photograph of my grandparents, the sugar plantation manager, and all of the students at Laupahoehoe School, who were mostly Japanese at the time, that I absolutely love.  This was just before the war and it is priceless.  It wasn’t until I was older that I gained more curiosity and compassion for what my grandparents––on both sides––went through while living through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rest of the war.  It is beyond my comprehension to fathom the fear that they had to live with on a daily basis for all those years.  I recently got a small dose of that with the Ballistic Missile threat fiasco here in Hawaii.  For about 40 minutes, we thought the message was real and all kinds of crazy thoughts ran through my mind.  I kept just thinking, wow, so this is how it ends.  It was very surreal.  I also remembered that radio message that went out about Pearl Harbor…This Is Not A Drill, This is the Real McCoy, especially because I had just listened to it while researching for my next novel.  It was both terrifying and enlightening. I felt connected to my grandparents in a way that I never had before, and understood their fear a little more deeply.  I keep asking my mom for this picture.


L.L.: And where did the idea of those delicious pies originate? Do you enjoy baking? Do you have a favorite pie from the book?

Sara Ackerman: When I was growing up, my father’s girlfriend, Marilyn Carlsmith, was a fabulous cook and she was the one who helped me to fall in love with pies.  Every time we came to the Big Island from Oahu, we would stop at Kilauea Volcano and pick blackberries or ohelo berries or akala berries (Hawaiian rasberries) and make pies.  To me, the berry or fruit picking is my favorite part.  It makes the pies that much more special when you get to forage for the berries and fruit yourselves.  It’s a bonding thing, too.  We would take our pickings down to the beach house and hole up there for a week, living on homecooked pie, cobbler, berry pancakes and freshly caught fish.  Those are some of my best memories, and I still go berry picking every chance I get.  Sometimes it involves a long hike across the lava or picking out worms, but that only makes the pies sweeter!


L.L.: You’re a native Hawaiian. Lucky you! I know you’ve said you blame Hawaii for your writing bug. Can you elaborate?

Sara Ackerman: (I’m actually not a native Hawaiian, though I was born and raised here, as were my parents and my grandfather and great grandmother on my dad’s side.)  I’m what you would call a Kama’aina, which translates to ‘child of the land,’ regardless of your ancestry.  Hawaii is a unique and beautiful place full of history and lore.  I was fortunate enough to be born here and raised by parents who appreciated the unique nature of it and took us outdoors every chance they could and taught us to love and respect the land and the ocean.  I am continuously uncovering interesting stories that would make for great books, and the ideas keep stacking up––whether about the mysterious death of a world famous botanist, Mark Twain’s missing manuscript, or a native Honeycreeper believed to be extinct, there are too many to count.  Also, to me, setting is such an essential part of the story.  Setting is its own character in most of my books, so much so that I’m not sure if I could write a story set anywhere else but Hawaii.  I am so connected to these islands, that I can’t not want to write about them.

L.L.: But you also practice acupuncture.  How does one inform the other? Or, do they?

Sara Ackerman:  The two seem like strange bedfellows, and yet for me, they go hand in hand.  Both are such a part of me, that they seep into all aspects of my life.  Oddly enough, I started writing novels around the same time I began acupuncture school, in 2012.  Both were new and intriguing and overwhelming.  In the beginning, I wondered if I would be able to master writing well enough to land a traditional publishing deal, and I worried that between the Chinese language and memorizing hundreds of acupuncture points and herbs, I might not be cut out for Chinese Medicine either.  But what I began to learn as I went along, was that acupuncture was the perfect remedy for someone in the throes of novel writing. Acupuncture has a calming effect on the nervous system and opens channels for the free flow of energy, also known as Qi.  Not only that, but the insertion of needles into acupuncture points releases endorphins which help with focus, a feeling of wellbeing, and enhanced creativity.  Without even realizing it, I was boosting my own brain power!


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

Sara Ackerman:   Aside from obsessing over several of my books in the works, ones I have already written but am revising, I’m in love with exploring the Big Island.  Even though my grandparents lived here and I’ve been coming here my whole life, I only moved here two years ago from Oahu.  On the weekends, I love going to the Volcano and adventuring out into the lava fields to watch the eruption or hiking through the rainforest and seeking out the adorable endangered native birds––i’iwi, apapane, and amakihi to name a few––which are only found high on our volcanoes.  I’m looking to join some local reforestation groups to help plant more native trees and give these little birds a better chance at survival. We also have some of the most beautiful ocean in Hawaii just fifteen minutes away, so I take my stand up paddleboard, my mask and snorkel and paddle up and down the coastline every chance I get.  Right now it’s humpback whale season and they come in very close here,  so on any given day, you’re likely to see a handful of whales.  There is so much beauty here, I feel very blessed!

L.L.: What’s next for you? More historical fiction, something else?

Sara Ackerman: I have another historical fiction manuscript due to my publisher tomorrow! This one is another WWII story set around Pearl Harbor.  I also have a handful of other contemporary novels all set in Hawaii that blend love, intrigue, a dash of history, and adventure.  I love them all and hope to share them with the world soon.  On top of that, I have two more book ideas that I can’t wait to get started on, as well as partnering up with my friend Lilly Barels on a book project.  I’m intrigued at the idea of co-writing a book and can’t wait to try it.

L.L.: Sara, it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? 

Sara Ackerman:  No, but I love to talk writing, so if anyone has any questions, feel free to visit my website or follow me on Twitter or Instagram!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, please see:

Order Links:

SaraAckermanWebABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born and raised in Hawaii, Sara studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine.  Prior to practicing acupuncture, she worked as a high school counselor and teacher on the famed north shore of Oahu, where surf often took precedence over school.  She is the author of six novels –  Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, Fallen WatersVolcano House, The Ranch at Redwater, Salt and Seaweed, and Honeycreepers – with a bunch more itching to be written.  She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories.

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


WP_20180123_13_37_56_Rich_LI (3).jpg

[Cover and author image courtesy of S. Ackerman and used with permission. Bird images from Wikipedia, berry picking in HI retrieved from , woman paddleboarding from Pinterest, no source noted; sugar cane weigh station retrieved from, all on 2.15.18]

WeekEND Reading: A Child Raffled Off at a World’s Fair? Jamie Ford tackles that and the seedier side of life in his third historical novel, LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, plus he feels the first draft took too long, women’s rights, embracing his identity as Chinese-American & more


By Leslie Lindsay

From the bestselling author of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET comes a powerful novel of inspired by a true story of a young boy raffled off at a little known World’s Fair (AYP/Seattle), which left me hopeful and nostalgic, and definitely a fan of Jamie Ford. 

I so enjoyed LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, which captivated me from the first page and sent me into a the lovely dual time periods of the early 20th century (1902-1911) and the mid-twentieth century (1962) as we follow Ernest Young from underprivileged China, then stripped from his mother to board a cramped ship en route the U.S. The first few chapters are particularly harrowing and are a bit reminiscent of the African slave trade; it will pull at your heart strings

Ernest (whose name was changed from Kun-ai), is placed in an orphanage in Seattle, attends a fancy boarding school as a charity student, but he’s not happy. An opportunity arises for more ‘adventure’ and Ernest is raffled off at the AYP (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific) World’s Fair. He’s 12 years old.

vancouver-bc-may-30-2017-copy-photo-of-1909-alaska-yukBut who has the winning raffle ticket is what will blow your mind. Ernest is not sent to a loving family who desperately want a child; his life is on the seedier sides of the track, so to speak. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving it away, but we are met with a cast of very colorful characters, issues involving race (Ernest is half-Chinese, half-Caucasian), of not really fitting into either culture, and also love and issues of morality.

In 1962, we meet Ernest’s grown daughters and their quest to learn the truth of their dad’s past. One daughter is an investigative journalist and she handles this story with aplomb and sensitivity.

Jamie Ford is such a gifted writer and was completely thrust into his world, the scenery is amazing, his use of historical facts truly organic and relevant; I found LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES a glimpse into not just the heart of the characters, but also the author. Absolutely Stunning!

Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Jamie Ford to the blog. Please join us in conversation.

Leslie Lindsay: Jamie, wow. The second chapter—the imagery, the desperation, the harrowing tale you set out to describe blew me away. I know stories have to capture not just the reader, but the writer as well. It’s evident that your fascination with Chinese-American history inspired LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, but what more can you tell us about the impetus of this tale?

Jamie Ford: Um, yeah, there’s a dark moment early in the book. (Sorry about that). So dark that a friend bought the book, began reading, and then texted me: THERE’S DEAD BABY ON PAGE 8. THIS BETTER GET HAPPIER IN A HURRY, FORD. So, there’s that.

And really, the impetus for that scene is centered around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which limited migration of Chinese workers to the US safely, but opened a black market of human trafficking, indentured servitude, and misery. Tragically, people risked life and limb to get here and many died in the process. Not unlike many coming to this country today.170px-Chineseexclusionact.JPG

L.L.: LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES struck a chord with me in several ways, but one is that I have a twelve year old daughter myself. I couldn’t imagine sending (giving?) her away! But this is 2017 and the world is a different place. Or is it? Also, my own grandfather was once ‘sold.’ He was the second boy in a family of four. He was small and scrappy. The family traveled and didn’t have much money. They exchanged money for their son. The man took him to a barber shop for a haircut and learned he had lice. My grandfather wasn’t wanted and returned to his family. His parents were angry about returning the money. I share this because Ernest Young endured a similar fate. The buying and selling of children is ghastly. Also, another point is the truth behind your fiction is that in ‘real life,’ the child raffled off at the 1909 fair was an infant, not a 12 year old. Can you talk about that, please?

Jamie Ford: It’s true that a boy was donated by the Washington Children’s Receiving home and raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle. His name was Ernest. And in reality, he was an infant. But, as an author, I wanted a point-of-view character who could see and remember the fair, so I made him an older child.

The genesis of that again came from a contemporaneous article in a Washington newspaper in which a woman wrote in asking for a 12-year-old boy—basically she said, “I want the ugliest boy you have. I know hard work will bring out the best in such a lad.” And a gentleman from the receiving home, the same man depicted in the book, wrote back saying he had a boy she could have. The casual nature of adoption and the implication of servitude drove much of the narrative in my novel.

“Irresistibly magnificent . . . How does a novel genius top himself? Jamie Ford’s newest takes an extraordinary moment in history, where vice lives alongside innocence, and transforms it into a dazzling, hold-your-breath story about the families we make and the ones we are thrust into, about who we are, and who we dreamed we could be.”—Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World

L.L.:  Much of LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES is about race and culture and mixed race individuals not really feeling at home in any particular place. This is true of many biracial individuals, yourself included. Can you shed a little more light on that?

Jamie Ford: It’s always a challenge when you have each foot planted into a different culture. I was often confused growing up. I never felt Chinese enough, because I didn’t speak Cantonese like my dad. And I never felt white enough, because…we ate weird things like chicken feet and dried cuttlefish. So, while growing up is always a weird search for identity and self-definition, it’s even harder when compounded by culture.

Now I happily identify as Chinese American, but for years, when filling out student loan applications, for example, and there’s a box for WHITE or ASIAN—I never knew which to select.

As a mixed-race friend once joked, “Just ask yourself, which parent do I love more today?”

L.L.: The seedier side of life is depicted….well, beautifully in this novel. There’s political and social unrest, the red-light district of Seattle, and even the selling of virginity. What kind of research did you embark upon for LOVE & OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES?

Jamie Ford: As I was heading out on book tour, my publicist suggested, “You really should talk about your personal experiences as they relate to the novel.” Um…I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in brothels or what the mean average for brothel-time is in America, but whatever the average is, I can assure you I’m well below it.

However, I did find some amazing people to interview. One was a brilliant and charismatic woman named Maggie McNeil, who is an expert on Seattle’s historical red-light district and sex work in general. That’s because Maggie is both a librarian, and a high paid escort. She changed my perceptions of librarians and sex workers at the same time. [Image below: ‘World’s largest house of prostitution,’ Public Street in Seattle, WA; retrieved from]


L.L.: Similarly, how long does it take for you to write a solid draft of this breadth?

Jamie Ford: Ooooooohhh…tricky question. My knee-jerk reaction is it took too long. Which is my fault, really. I think three months for a draft is reasonable, but this one took a year, mainly because I was too self-conscious. With a first novel, there are no expectations, but after the success of both Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost, I was suddenly writing with the world looking over my shoulder. Not really, but certainly in my mind. It took a while to just get back to writing for the sake of writing.

L.L.: I liked the 1962 period of the story, too. Do you find you like working in this bifurcated narrative? Do you write in order, or all historical pieces at once then braid in the ‘present-day’ sections? What’s your method?

Jamie Ford:  I do love bouncing around I time, but I always write in a linear fashion—as the chapters flow in the book, regardless of time period, is the way it spills out of my brain. It might have been easier to write all of the 1909 chapters, then all of the 1962 scenes, and later weave them together, but for some reason the back and forth is more enjoyable in its construct.

I’m taking it further with the next book, which will be both historical and speculative. Wish me luck!


L.L.: I feel I could ask questions all day! What do you hope others take away from LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES?

Jamie Ford: Hmmm…the takeaway. I guess I’d hope that readers appreciate the roles of women and how they’ve changed (or haven’t changed) from 1909 to the 60s and later today.

By that I mean, my grandmother was born at a time when women couldn’t vote. And one of the books I used for research was titled What Can a Woman Do? It was published in 1884, and the author was Mrs. M. L. Rayne—so the author couldn’t even write a book under her own name, it was her husband’s name on the cover.
So much has changed. But still, not nearly enough.

L.L.: What’s keeping you up at night? I’ll be honest, for me, it’s redecorating my writing space. I think it might help with the muse.  

Jamie Ford:  My new book, honestly. It’s weirder, more ambitious, and more sprawling in scale than anything I’ve ever tackled. I’d tell you more about it, but then I’d be up all night, again.

L.L.: Jamie, it’s be such a pleasure! Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Jamie Ford:  You forgot to ask my go-to karaoke song? Seriously, everyone should have one. Mine would be anything that’s a duet—that’s the move—the have someone else to share the shame with. Aside from that, thanks for the interview, and to folks out there—thanks for reading!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION  PRIZES, please see:

Order links:

JamieFordMinChungABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 35 languages. His latest novel, Love And Other Consolations Prizes was published September 12, 2017. [about image: One is me, one is my great-grandfather, Min Chung, who later changed his name to William Ford (long story…)]

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


[Cover, author image, and footer retrieved from author’s webpage with permission of author. Bird’s eye view of AYP World’s Fair retrieved from, first page of Chinese Exclusion Act retrieved from Wikipedia, What Can a Woman Do image retrieved from; all on 2.14.18]


WeekEND Reading: Leah DeCesare uses the Utensil Classification System (UCS) to find “Mr. Right,” plus how nostalgia bolsters health, college years, first jobs, and so much more in FORKS, KNIVES & SPOONS


By Leslie Lindsay 

Nostalgic, witty tale of college girlfriends and their search for Mr. Right in this debut from Leah DeCesare. 

ForksKnivesSpoons final
I tore through FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS mostly because DeCesare has such an easy, relatable writing style. It’s about love and growth, friendship, the murky place between childhood and adulthood, and ultimately: discovery.

Plus, the timing’s right for a pre-Valentine’s Day read.

Amy York is a freshman at Syracuse University. She’s been raised by a single dad who dishes out some timely advice the evening before taking her to college for the first time: there are three types of guys–forks, knives, and spoons. The ultimate goal is a steak knife. He calls this the Utensil Classification System (UCS). It’s lighthearted, but Amy takes it very seriously educating her roommate and other college friends about the UCS.

I was immediately thrust back in time to the last 1980s and early 1990s (when the story is set) and waxed nostalgic at the mention of Benetton sweaters, Swatch watches, Tretorns, George Michael, Aqua Net, Van Halen and so much more. DeCesare completely pegged the time period with complete accuracy.

There were girls (and guys) of all kinds–those I remember well from my own college days–and her characterizations were spot-on. I wanted to know what happened to these folks and how it all tied up in the end (my predictions were right–and then I breathed a sigh of relief). I also really enjoyed the big, boisterous Italian family described in the second-half of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS.

So whip up a chocolate mousse, or call for some take out Chinese and settle in with me and Leah as we chat about FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS.

Leslie Lindsay: Leah, the Utensil Classification System (UCS) is so original, so different and I really appreciated it. What was your inspiration for it? Was it really your dad, or something else that triggered the idea? And can you give us a brief run-down of what each category represents?

Leah DeCesare: Thanks for reading and having me, Leslie. The inspiration for FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS does come from a real talk my father gave me before sending me off to college in 1988. I wrote the scene of Tom York telling his daughter, Amy, based on how I remember my dad telling me, one difference is my mom was with us too.

In brief, the forks are the arrogant, jerky guys (we all know the forks), the spoons are geeks (remember this was the 80s way before a “geek” was cool, think Revenge of the Nerds), and the knife category is the biggest, he told me, in the knives I could find a good guy, someone who may not be as confident yet around girls, but where I’d find a guy who cared about me.

forks knives spoons.jpg

L.L.: I was completely smitten with the time period. I was in college in the mid-late 1990s, so by then we had email (but no social media) and pagers (!) but there were still so many universals with the college experience: the painted cinder block walls in dorms, the formals, rush, all of that. How did you make the decision to set the novel in this time period and say, not today, in 2018?

Leah DeCesare: My oldest daughter started college this fall – an unintended life parallel as the story starts with young college freshmen women released – and during our college tour phase, the campuses and dorms and dining halls are all so much nicer and higher end than when we were in school. But, I decided to set the story in the same years I went to college, first, because I thought it would be easier for reference since I’d lived it, that turned out not to be true. It took a ton of research to get things right and accurate – how much did a CD player cost in 1990 anyway? Truthfully, I couldn’t write the same authentic college experience set today without hanging out and planting myself on college campuses, it was more genuine since it was what I had lived.

However, beyond those more technical reasons, I also love that setting the story in a different era highlights the messages of the book. The story is ultimately about friendship and believing in yourself – something that women of all ages need to hear, and hear loudly. The fact that this takes place in the late 80s/early 90s underscores similarities of the times and themes. There is still sexual assault (don’t we know it! #metoo) and excessive drinking; there is still the need to trust others and really connect with people (not behind screens), and there is still a fervent need for women to genuinely believe we can achieve anything, that we must value ourselves, that were are worth being loved, respected and so much more.

Leah DeCesare captured me on the very first line, ‘There are three types of guys: forks, knives and spoons.’ With imagination, highly relatable characters, and witty dialogue we are taken back to our youths – reevaluating and categorizing all of our crushes. A lovely story of friendship, love, and the amazing time between childhood and adulthood.
Dawn Lerman, bestselling author of My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes, New York Times Well Blog columnist

L.L.: Speaking of nostalgia, I just read about there’s a restorative power of nostalgia; it contributes to feelings of optimism, which is linked to improved mood, less pain, and other wellness outcomes like lowering blood pressure and improving GI function. Who knew? Can you expand on that? What did writing about this time period do for you?

Leah DeCesare: Wow! That’s great to hear and it makes sense to me. Books take us to other places and times and allow our minds and hearts to experience new things, to walk in another’s footsteps, to empathize, consider life from another point of view, and to stir self reflection.

Writing FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS definitely let me retrieve and relive old, happy memories. Writing pulled me deeply into thoughts and feelings of my college years, that playful time of youth, and life as a new adult in New York City. Tidbits and kernels of scenes were gleaned from real life memories and still make me smile. I love that time period, as well as that time of my life — though I’m happy where I am now and I’d never want to return.

I like that there’s science behind what we already sense, and I like that reading my book can help contribute to a reader’s wellbeing.


L.L.:  Along those lines, I was thinking, ‘oh, this would be a great book for a younger girl as she navigates the complexities of late high school/college.’ And then I thought, ‘maybe not’ (due to some more mature themes). The time period made me think the story was for women in their late 30s-early 40s with the 1980s references. Who do you see as your ideal reader? And what genre would  you identify FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS?

Leah DeCesare: So, initially I was thinking the target reader would be women finishing college and entering their first post-college jobs, starting to settle into a career path and finding a partner to love. I also figured there would be interest from “women of a certain age” who had lived this pre-Internet world, so very different from life today. I had beta readers of both age groups and found that the younger women enjoyed the time period even without the nostalgia that older women experienced.


In traveling and talking with readers about the book, I’ve found some wonderful things happening: mothers and daughters are bonding over the story, younger women tend to gravitate and to use UCS while older women savor the throw-back to earlier times, and there is a big population of women who are in their 40s/50s who appreciate both the nostalgia AND the UCS as they return to the dating world after divorce or loss of a spouse. It was unexpected, but there’s also been a high school readership. I had a woman get in touch with me last spring because she was buying a dozen books for her daughter and her daughter’s friends as a high school graduation gift.

As for genre, I don’t love the term chick-lit because it seems to devalue both the story/writing and the reader – as if it’s simple or fluff. I think of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS as book club fiction, women’s fiction. I like smart stories about women who grow, learn about themselves and change through the course of the story and that’s what I tried to deliver in FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS which is ultimately about women believing in themselves without tying their value to a man. I believe there are a lot of angles and substance, though the book is not heavy, that readers can ponder, evaluate, discuss, and apply to their own lives.

L.L.: I can remember feeling a bit like Amy in college…wondering if I’d ever get a ring. At the tail-end of college, I attended the first wedding of one of my friends and was such a dud at the reception. I didn’t even have a boyfriend and she was getting married! Is college the time to meet one’s spouse? Why do you think we feel that pressure?

Leah DeCesare: You ask the best questions! I’ve pondered this a lot. My parents met at the freshman welcome picnic in college and so on some level, I think I expected to meet my husband in college — I didn’t. I think the opportunity to meet a lot of options for spouses in college makes it a time ripe for meeting “the one.” I definitely wonder if younger women still feel any sense pressure or desire to find a spouse while in school. I wrote an article about this very topic if you’re interested:
Husband-Hunting on Campus.

L.L.:  I adored the big, boisterous Italian family. In that sense, it reminded me of some of Lisa Scottoline’s work. And made me super-hungry for a bowl of pasta. [Good thing we’re going to the Italian Village in downtown Chicago tonight.] And then I read your acknowledgements section and see that it’s peppered with plenty of Italian names. Something tells me you know this Italian family quite intimately?

Leah DeCesare: Ha – yes! My steak knife, I mean, my husband, is 100% Italian and I’m about half+ Italian. I absolutely modeled those scenes of Joey’s family after his family, perhaps amped up a little bit, then again, perhaps not! Those were some of my favorite scenes to write and are still some of my favorites in the book. Anyone who’s got some Italian in their family will relate to those loud, loving moments. They still make me laugh when I read them. p-300x336

L.L.: What do you still pine for from  your college days, even a little bit? What are you glad is over?

Leah DeCesare: It’s hard to believe how far removed I am from my college days. I guess if there’s something I miss, it’s the fun of constantly having people all around, of meeting new people and the spontaneity and the social spirit of school. I also love traveling and my semester abroad was one of the best times of my life.

I love learning and classes and reading, but I had three majors in college and always had a very full course load. I recall the stress of always, always, always, having something I should be doing except on Christmas and summer breaks, so I can say I don’t miss that! Though I guess I always have something I should be doing now, too, but it feels different.

L.L.: Leah, it’s been a pleasure. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Leah DeCesare: I’d love to just mention to your readers that if they like a book, please review it. Those little stars really, really matter to authors. So, on behalf of authors everywhere – THANK YOU!

L.L.: Thanks again and hope your steak knife treats you well this Valentine’s Day!

Leah DeCesare:  It has been such fun – your questions were thoughtful and fantastic!

For more information, to connect with with author via social media, or to purchase a copy of FORKS, KNIVES, SPOONS, please see:

Order Links:

leah decesare croppedABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Leah DeCesare’s childhood dream was to become an author though she never expected her first book to be about parenting. The Naked Parentingseries stemmed from her main gig as mother of three and she writes between car pools and laundry.

Forks, Knives, and Spoons is her debut novel. (SparkPress, April 2017).  Leah has also written articles for publication in The Huffington Post, the International Doula, The Key, and other online outlets and local publications.

Married for over 22 years, Leah’s current parenting adventures revolve around kids, tween and teenagers, creating the basis for her Mother’s Circle parenting blog, where she shares perspectives on parenting from pregnancy through teens.

Her pre-baby professional experience was in public relations and event planning and for the past fifteen years, her career has focused on birth, babies, and early parenting as a certified childbirth educator, a birth and postpartum doula.

She parents, writes and volunteers in Rhode Island.

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


[Cover and author image courtesy of L. DeCesare and used with permission. All images retrieved 2.1.18. I ‘heart’ 1908s neon sign from, dining hall rendering from, mothers and daughters reading from, campus image from L. DeCesare’s article book cover with hearts from, ]

Wednesdays with Writers: Cynthia Swanson talks about Mid-century Modern Homes being ‘pure eye candy,’ how homes are confining but also a refuge, working with a developmental editor, her love for reading & more in THE GLASS FOREST


By Leslie Lindsay 

An enthralling, atmospheric domestic thriller in a somber tone amidst the backdrop of the 1940s-1960s. 

GlassForest low res
I loved Cynthia Swanson’s debut, THE BOOKSELLER (see my 2015 interview here) and absolutely had to get my hands on her next book and I am so, so glad I did. THE GLASS FOREST (Simon Schuster/Touchstone, Feb 6 2018) is a stunning read and such a character study as much as it is a quiet thriller.

The Glass family is tied together by a tenuous web of lies. Oh, but at first, like any family, they seem completely ‘normal.’ There’s an underlying sense of doom, of something that’s not quite right that I found irresistible. 

Told from the POV of three women: Angie the young mother/wife, Silja the older mother/wife and missing person, and Ruby, her teenage daughter, THE GLASS FOREST is beautifully written with echoes of Anita Shreve’s THE STARS ARE FIRE and a bit of Celeste Ng’s work.

Angie and Paul Glass are living an idyllic life in Door County, Wisconsin when they get a call that his brother has been found dead and his wife is missing. They rush, with 6 month old PJ in tow, to Stonekill, NY where the other Glass family lives in a gorgeous, sprawling ranch home with floor-to-ceiling windows nestled in the woods to help 17 year old Ruby through the investigation and bereavement. Nothing is right and everything is dark and twisted. DUt4ra8XUAA0euz

The backstory is important and will transport you to the early 1940s in an instant. Swanson’s gift lies in gorgeous details, a languid and almost somber storytelling style that had me mesmerized.

In the end, you’ll find that this story is quite unsettling, smart, and disturbing. Please join me in welcoming Cynthia back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Cynthia, I feel as though with every story, every novel, there’s a ‘jumping off’ point, what was it for you in THE GLASS FOREST?

Cynthia Swanson: This idea for The Glass Forest stewed inside my head for a long time. As with most of my story ideas, it arose from a question: what would it be like to occupy the home of someone who had abruptly gone missing? How could you resist looking for clues around every corner? The story grew from that seed, with the particulars coming to me over a number of years.

I started writing The Glass Forest about a year before The Bookseller was released. It took me 2 ½ years to write The Glass Forest – but I was revising and promoting The Bookseller throughout that time.

L.L.: I’m intrigued with your glass house concept. There’s one near me in Chicagoland: The Farnsworth House. It’s small and really only intended for one person as a retreat from city life, but the Stone Ridge Road house you describe in THE GLASS FOREST is so, so cool. Can you tell us more about your vision?Main-Image_960x528

Cynthia Swanson: I’ve always been drawn to great design. I was an architecture major for the first two years of college, before going back to writing (my first love) and getting an English degree instead. I’ve long been enthralled with glass-walled MCM* homes. I belong to a few MCM enthusiast groups on Facebook, and it’s pure eye candy to scroll through the listings and photos posted in those groups. Looking at those pictures provided inspiration for Silja and Henry’s house. [*MCM = mid-century modern]

In my memory, there were glass houses in Westchester County, NY (where I grew up and where fictional Stonekill is), although I didn’t know anyone who’d lived in one. (I grew up in a 1920s Tudor, and most of my friends lived in ranches, split-levels, or old-town Victorians like the Glasses’ first house in Stonekill.) Because I didn’t know anyone with a glass house in that area, I spent a day driving around Westchester, scouting out homes. I found several that looked something like I pictured Silja’s. And the winding roads through the woods were just as I remembered them.

L.L.: And so the title is related, of course because the family’s name is Glass, the house is so very transparent, and well…there are secrets upon secrets. There’s also the dichotomy of old versus new for the Stonekill Glasses: they once lived in a fixer-upper Victorian in the middle of town before building the glass house. What is it about homes that make us so vulnerable?

Cynthia Swanson: For many of us, “home” represents both refuge and confinement. Our homes are about the physical space, of course, but they’re also about our relationships with other people – those we live with as well as those who aren’t there. A house is not just representative of its inhabitants – it also represents the absence created when someone is missing from the home. Absence manifests in many ways – it could be someone who has never lived there but we wish did, (perhaps a relationship we wish we had), or someone who has moved away (such as a grown child) – or, of course, a death in the family. This is unnerving to think about, and it makes us realize why even within a “safe” physical space, we sometimes feel exposed.

L.L.: The glass house was Silja’s dream home. What might your dream home be like?

Cynthia Swanson: Probably a combination of Silja’s house and my own! We live in a 1958 tri-level that we’ve spent a lot of years “unmodeling” – taking out the 1980s/90s “updates” and replacing them with vintage and retro elements. My house is larger than Silja’s (because in this day and age we all need 3 1/2 bathrooms, right?), but it’s not as stylized as hers. Although my house has more square footage, it feels more homey than I’d envision Silja’s house would – but that could be because we all get along relatively well around here. While we have a large picture window in the living room, we don’t have walls of glass. I would love it if we did!



L.L.: THE GLASS FOREST is your second book. And it’s amazing. But sometimes authors struggle with that second book. Did you ever feel ‘stuck’ with this one? And if so, how did you get ‘unstuck?’

Cynthia Swanson: The Glass Forest stretched me as a writer on so many levels. It’s much more plot-heavy than The Bookseller, so I had to learn a lot about pacing and structure. As a thriller, it had to wrap up logically. Making sure all those loose ends tied up was important to me.

As for the narrative itself, there was a point where both my agent and I had read the manuscript over and over – and we knew it needed something, but we weren’t sure what. On my agent’s advice, I hired a developmental editor, Pat Mulcahy, who made the excellent suggestion to change Angie’s point of view from third person to first, and Ruby’s from first to third. (Silja’s chapters were always in third person.) Pat’s reasoning was that as readers, we are discovering secrets right alongside Angie, while Ruby is more mysterious – so it makes sense to allow readers direct access to Angie’s thoughts, while Ruby remains a bit removed. It was amazing what a difference that made. I hadn’t seen it, and neither had my agent; we’d needed fresh professional eyes on it, and Pat worked her magic.

L.L.: We creative types need inspiration in all forms. I get inspired when I read, walk into a craft store, look at gorgeous home décor. What inspires you and your writing?

Cynthia Swanson: Reading! I love to read – in the genres I write in (I consider my work a combination of literary thriller, historical fiction, and women’s fiction) as well as in others. I enjoy magical realism, literary fiction, essay collections, and memoir. I’m inspired by the genius of my fellow authors. There are so many amazing books and writers out there. If I could change one characteristic of myself, I’d become a faster reader – because the way things stand, the chances of ever getting through my TBR list are slim-to-none.

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L.L.: Are you working on anything new?

Cynthia Swanson: Yes, my third book is in-progress. Like The Bookseller and The Glass Forest, this one is also a near-history novel. It’s about a complex family during the early years of international adoption. I just returned from a fabulous research trip for the book, and I’m excited to dive back into revisions soon.

L.L.: Cynthia, it’s been a pleasure as always. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Cynthia Swanson: How about: where can readers connect with Cynthia Swanson in the coming months?

My event schedule is here. I’ll be adding more events soon, so be sure to check back.

I also love chatting with book clubs. More info can be found here.

The pleasure is all mine, Leslie. Thank you!

For more information, to connect with Cynthia via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE GLASS FOREST, please see:

Order Your Copy:

Cynthia SwansonABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Bookseller, which is soon to be a motion picture starring Julia Roberts. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction, The Bookseller is being translated into more than a dozen languages. It was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award and the MPIBA Reading the West Award. Cynthia’s second novel, The Glass Forest, is due from Touchstone / Simon & Schuster in February 2018. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado.

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


[Cover and author image courtesy of  C. Swanson and used with permission. All images retrived on 1.31.18. Image of contemporary exterior tri-level retrieved from, image of glass sphres in forest from, Farnsworth House retrieved from]

WeekEND Reading: Stunning debut from Naima Coster about Brooklyn, Brownstones, music, motherhood, estrangement; oh, and having Christina Baker Kline as your mentor– plus more in the luminous HALSEY STREET


By Leslie Lindsay

A gorgeous narrative from debut author, Naima Coster, about gentrification, Brooklyn, complex family relationships, and ultimately, home. 

The writing in HALSEY STREET (Little A, Hardcover) is oh-so-good. The details, the pictures Coster paints with her words are pure magic. Her knowledge of the landscape–not just of Brooklyn–but of families, complex emotions, visual art, music, and so much were astounding.

Five years ago, Penelope Grand left her family home in Brooklyn to pursue an art career in Pittsburgh. She’s back to help with her ailing father. But she does not stay in his home (her childhood home), even though she’s invited, but feels she must strike out on her own. She rents the attic in a white family’s attic a few blocks away.

But Brooklyn is virtually unrecognizable. Her father’s prized music store is gone; hipsters have moved in and reclaimed the place with their fancy cafes and eateries, their natural foods store. The brownstones are soaring in price and in come the uppity white folks.

And her mother, whom Penelope has never been close to, is sending letters from the Dominican Republic in effort to forge a new relationship.

There’s love and lust and art and music in HALSEY STREET. There’s ailing parents and caretaking, a search for self and reinvention.

And the writing! Did I mention the easy, fluid, effortless writing that absolutely pulls you and has you nodding your head in recognition? 

HALSEY STREET one of those reads that picked me. I had no idea how the ending was going to pan out, but I can assure you, completely resonated and hit me right where I needed it most: the heart.


Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Naima to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: I adored HALSEY STREET. I’ll be honest: it was one of those books that I wasn’t quite sure about at first because maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t relate. I don’t know much about Brooklyn brownstones and I’m not a visual artist, and no…I’m not black. But HALSEY STREET pulled me in and absolutely gob smacked me. What was your inspiration for this tale?

Naima Coster: I was inspired in the writing of Halsey Street on several levels. First, I was interested in the character of Penelope, as a woman who is summoned home but is ambivalent about her return. I wanted to tell a story about one young woman coming home to a place but also to her family and to a self she’d lost along the way. Then, I was interested in the story of the place she had returned to—how Brooklyn had been transformed while she was away. With those interests, I started writing, and the story grew to contain other characters—her father, her landlords and their daughter, a kind neighborhood bartender, and most of all, her mother, who is enigmatic, estranged and haunts the book. 


–Christina Baker Kline bestselling author of The Orphan Train & A Piece of the World

L.L.: I think we all have these romantic notions about the place—the street—we grew up. In our minds it always seems bigger, tidier, and more innocent than it really is. Why do you think we romanticize that so much? And why is it never quite the same when we return?

Naima Coster: I think that when we talk about home what we’re really talking about who is we were when we were there. We’re not just talking about the trees; we’re talking about how it felt to walk in their shade. We’re not just talking about the fact that children rode their bikes along the sidewalk; we’re talking about how it felt to be one of those children or to watch over them. When we talk about places that have changed, we’re talking about a life, a whole set of feelings and experiences, that we can’t recover. My attachment to place is quite deep, because place is so linked to particular moments in time, different selves that I’ve had a long the way, that I can’t ever re-experience, but that are still a part of me.


L.L.: As I read, I was just floored with your characterizations of Penelope, Ralph, Mirella. Everyone is so flawed and complex and real. Can you give us a glimpse into how you created these characters? Any tips to writers for developing such authenticity?

Naima Coster: I think of characters as having layers, and my task as a writer is to traverse those layers, going as deep as I can, learning as much as I can, even if all my insight doesn’t make it onto the page explicitly. I constantly ask myself, “Why?” whether a character is making a major decision about her life or just fiddling with something on the table. I think the key to that complexity for me is spending a lot of time with the characters even when I’m not writing. I’ll collect observations, ideas, questions, and make notes, as I’m moving through the world. Even if I’m not putting words on the page, I’m investigating, and gathering the insights that will help me return to the page with something to say, to discover. For instance, in writing Mirella, I thought constantly about motherhood, when I watched films, read, listened to people talk about their lives. As I gathered observations, I was writing her in my mind.

L.L.: On a personal note, I was estranged from my mother for many years (mostly due to her mental illness), but also because she moved to Hawaii, leaving behind domesticity and family in search of something more fulfilling. Like Mirella, she didn’t really find it. Like Penelope, I received letters asking for reconnection. How did this piece of the story develop? And do you have ties to the Dominican Republic?

Naima Coster: I’m touched to hear that the book spoke to you on such a personal level! Thank you for sharing that. I knew that if these two women would be hurting primarily because of the ways they were estranged from each other that the book would have to chronicle the transformation of that hurt—either into an experience of healing, a deeper wound, or something in-between. I think of letters, or writing, as a way for two women who can’t control their anger, who can’t find the words to say when they are in front of each other, whose emotions run away with them, as one of the only viable ways they could express themselves with sincerity and vulnerability. Being vulnerable in front of someone you love who has also hurt you is so hard! And I do have ties to the Dominican Republic, although I’ve never received mail from there! I have family that was born and lived there, and so I spent summers as a child in DR that were beautiful and formative for me.download (62)

L.L.:  Ralph…oh, I loved him. I could easily see his ‘fro, his record store, the leisure suits I imagined he wore. How would you describe his character? And what might we learn from father-daughter relationships through his and Penny’s?

Naima Coster: I see Ralph as a man who had great dreams for his life. As an orphan, he started with very little and built a formidable little kingdom in Brooklyn with his family, his brownstone, his record store. These were the things that gave him a sense of his own importance and value; without them, he flounders and becomes that little boy uncertain about being wanted, uncertain about how to live. He loves music; he’s charismatic; he’s smart and emotional and feeling, but he can get stuck in his own ambitions and desires and gloom. I think one of the lessons in his relationship to his daughter is that it’s important not to get stuck inside your own malaise if you want to remain connected to the people around you. Ralph’s entitled to his feelings of loss, but they become blinders that keep him from seeing the way his daughter, Penelope, is hurting, and the ways that she needs him. I think that’s an important lesson for a whole range of relationships—despite our good intentions, we can get caught inside our own experience and feelings.

L.L.: I read (in your acknowledgements section) that you were urged by Christina Baker Kline (love her work!) to write a novel. And that she was the one who taught you to write short stories. In your opinion, how are novels and short stories different? What makes a successful short story? It’s a form I love, but feel I fail miserably at.

Naima Coster: I think a successful short story, if it’s character-driven, drops us right into the life of the character at a moment when everything is going to change for them. There must be that sense of a radical transformation, even if it’s internal, even if it’s not linked to major action, by the end of the story, as well as a sense of why the transformation matters, which is hard to pull off in such a compressed space. A good short story often feels like a technical feat to me; the novel can be more forgiving, but there’s a never-ending risk of a reader disengaging at any point, so each page must offer discovery, of one kind or another. They’re both thrilling forms to work in, and I learned to approach each with confidence thanks to the support and wisdom of Christina Baker Kline, who has been an exceedingly generous mentor, and is a brilliant, dedicated writer. She’s the real deal. 

L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but what would you like readers to take away from HALSEY STREET?

Naima Coster: I hope that readers can see how deeply loss forms us, whether it’s a fractured relationship between a mother and daughter, or the closing of a beloved family business, or no longer feeling at home in your neighborhood. I hope glimpsing that loss can help the reader feel compassion for characters (and people) behaving badly. I hope the reader, too, can find some hope that reconciliation, recovery are possible, however hard and slow they may be.  

L.L: What’s something you long for, even a little, from your childhood? From your childhood home?

Naima Coster: My childhood home was filled with plants. I have no green thumb, and I’ve killed every plant I’ve ever had, including a succulent. I miss the green and how the plants brightened the space. I long for the time I spent with family when I was young. I have a large extended family and whenever we got together, it was loud and tender and vibrant—it was so special the way we gathered, and I felt like a part of such a rich, expansive community because I was.

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L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what you’re reading, what you ate for dinner last night, what you’re teaching, what your working on?

Naima Coster: These days I’m rereading Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, which I am teaching in a fiction writing workshop to examine voice and point of view. It’s a jarringly wild, exciting, daring book. For dinner last night, I had a lovely red pepper-cauliflower-and potato soup with a warm corn tortilla and a green salad! And I’ve got two fiction projects in the works—one that is a kind of quest story, the other that is a mosaic of interconnected pieces told from different points of view. Both are novels, both are place-based, and both follow women who are trying to carve out lives for themselves without being defined by the past. In that way, these novels build on the work I started with Halsey Street. I’m excited to keep going!

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

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Naima Author 2017.JPG ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street, a story of family, loss, and renewal, set in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesArts & Letters, Lit Hub, CatapultThe RumpusAster(ix), A Practical Wedding, Guernica, and has been anthologized in The Best of Kweli and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Naima is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2017Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay. Naima studied creative writing at Yale, Fordham University, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing to students in prison, youth programs, and universities. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and is a Senior Fiction Editor at Kweli. Naima tweets as @zafatista and writes the newsletter, Bloom How Must.

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


[Cover and author image courtesy of ShreveWilliams and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jonathan Jimenez Perez. Image of letters from , tree-lined street image from book pages/heart retrieved from, succulents from Pinterest, no source noted; all on 2.2.18]