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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.A. Paris: Pressure!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

WeekEND Reading: Julie Buntin explores the deep meaningful teen friendships that shape us over time, plus imagination, memory, death, books and authors who inspire, and so much more in her razor-sharp MARLENA

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A story of two girls–both teenagers–in northern Michigan fighting for their freedom, their passions, and utlimately–their lives. 

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MARLENA is one of those rare gems that feels like the entire dome of humidity that is summer is suffocating you. It’s like peeking inside a 16-year old’s journal and reading all of her dark, intimate thoughts, some that are sharply perceptive, and others that are the general wanderings of someone who doesn’t quite know where she’s going. This is where Julie Buntin’s writing excels; in fact, some may be entirely foiled into believing MARLENA is a memoir; it is not.

Told from a single POV—Cat’s—and Marlena’s bestfriend and in alternating time periods, places (New York present-day and Silver Lake, Michigan about fifteen years earlier), it’s a rare glimpse into deep interiority, of growth and grief. 

Cat and her mother and brother have relocated to northern Michigan after her parents divorce. It’s boring. Cat misses her old life where she attended a fancy prep school. She yearns for her father. And Marlena happens to be there. Two years older than Cat and riddled with her own insecurities and issues (pill-popping, alcohol, among others). Her father is pretty much a deadbeat and her mother, dead. f105071_1295645482

Marlena globs on to Cat, or perhaps it’s the other way around, but needless to say, the girls become inseparable. MARLENA pulls Cat into a litany of firsts: first drink, first kiss, first cigarette, first pill. It becomes insatiable. Cat needs more and more and more, but who is this Marlena, anyway?

Buntin’s skill is that she ‘gets’ screwed up teen girls. Reading MARLENA felt like a long, languid summer day filled with bubble gum lip gloss and the grit of cigarette smoke in your eyes. 

Please join me in conversation with Julie Buntin on her debut.

Leslie Lindsay: Julie, it’s great to have you. I love the first line in MARLENA: “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” I settled in and didn’t want to let go. That first chapter blew me away. It also inspired some of my own writing. What was your inspiration for MARLENA?

Julie Buntin: Thank you, Leslie! I love hearing that the first chapter inspired some of your writing – I know that feeling of reading something that gives you the itch to write, and in some ways, the books that did that for me were my biggest inspirations in writing my own novel. Novels like WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? by Lorrie Moore, BELOVED by Toni Morrison, HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Rita Dove, every single word Margaret Atwood has ever put down on paper. There was something about reading those formative books, how magically and perfectly they expressed feelings I had previously thought were inexpressible, that made me feel an urge to try to capture the world in language, too.

So that’s one answer to your question. Another answer is that I was inspired to write this particular story, about teenage girls and the terrible vulnerability of adolescence, the thrill and danger of it, the passion of early friendship, because my own teenage friendships were so volatile and so formative. When I was in my twenties, a friend from my teenage years passed away, and I found that there wasn’t a vocabulary or framework for that loss. I started thinking about adolescent friendships – the ones that flame up and define us, and so rarely last into adulthood.  Why are they so important and so intense, especially between girls? How do they shape the women we become?

“At the center of Julie Buntin’s debut novel is the kind of coming-of-age friendship that goes beyond camaraderie, into a deeper bond that forges identity; it’s friendship as a creative act, a collaborative work of imagination. . .This generous, sensitive novel of true feeling. . . sweeps you up without too much explication, becoming both a painful exorcism and a devoted memorial to friends and selves who are gone.” New York Times Book Review

L.L.: You write with such fearlessness and gritty, forthcoming details. What scares you about writing?

Julie Buntin:  This is an interesting question. In a way, everything scares me about writing. When I do it, even when I’m making something up, I’m more present to my own mind than I am at any other time. In that way, regardless of whether I’m writing fact or fiction, I am putting my imagination fully out there. And when it’s out there, it can be judged – by me, or other readers. So with writing comes a lot of fear – fear of failure in a broad sense, but also the very specific and horrible fear of failing at translating my inner world into the right words, words that will appropriately render the story or scene or feeling I want so badly to convey. But intimacy and intensity doesn’t scare me in writing – I’m not scared of my characters, of their truths, as much as I’m scared I’ll fail them somehow by not being good enough to capture them as they are in mind. Does that sound sort of crazy? Talking about writing always makes writers sound a little crazy. To be honest, though, I think I’m more scared of not writing than anything else.

L.L.: The timeline and structure of MARLENA is unique in that you flip between present-day New York and past Silver Lake, Michigan. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or something that sort of grew organically?

Julie Buntin: It was a decision that arose during the revision process. I always knew that this story would be narrated by Cat looking back from adulthood – I was very interested in exploring the relationship between memory, imagination, and truth, and in trying to capture how friendships that are so brief, that happen 2612871ff9ea1bfca18fe60303ce92a2when we’re so young, can resonate through our entire lives. I also wanted to have access to an adult woman’s voice – I wanted all the psychic matter of the years between Cat at 15 and Cat in her early 30s to have a bearing on how she saw the world, how she interacted with her own memory of that time. Writing from a teenaged perspective wasn’t as compelling to me – I would have been limited to relaying events as they happened, which would have made the story really more plot-driven, more about the moments leading up to Marlena’s death (which couldn’t have been known by Cat in advance if it were told from a teenaged perspective) and less about grief, memory, time.

But it wasn’t until I was revising the book that the very deliberate back-and-forth structure emerged – in earlier drafts, the adult Cat’s observations and insights had been more twined into the teenaged narrative, less clearly pinned to time and place. The more I got to know Cat as a character, the more I realized how important her drinking was to the story, how that adjacent story in New York (which takes place over a relatively compact 48 hours or so) could be used to hopefully deepen and complicate the past narrative.

L.L.: There’s a theory that writers should imagine their ideal reader—age, sex, even give them a name—that becomes the person you’re writing for. Who would you say is your ultimate reader?

Julie Buntin:  Women of all ages, starting from, maybe 13. I know there’s some heavy stuff in the book so I totally understand if parents were not down with kids under say 16 or 17 reading this novel, but I as I wrote it I hoped that it would strike a chord with any woman who has known that feeling of having a best friend. Of course I hope men like the book too, but when I pictured an ideal reader, I saw a girl about Marlena’s age, maybe a little older – in her twenties or so, trying to figure out who she wants to be, and how where she came from does and doesn’t define her.

L.L.: Shifting gears just a bit, I’m totally curious about publishing in literary journals, on-line and in print. I see you have a nice little collection from O, The Oprah Magazine to The Atlantic. What can you tell us about this process and how important is it?

Julie Buntin: I am very grateful to have been published in magazines and journals – so much of what I learned about writing I learned from being edited by places like One Teen Story, or even writing for women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan. That said, I’m not necessarily the best person to ask, but I’m not a diehard submitter to journals even though I love them and read them (and even used to work at a nonprofit – clmp.org – dedicated, in part, to supporting their work). I don’t write short stories, not really – I think I’ve written maybe two. I do love the essay form, and my work in that realm is very idea directed – I write an essay when I feel an urge to, and then I think about where to pitch or submit it. Sometimes it happens the other way around, where an editor will approach me. There are a lot of ways to sharpen your skills as a writer, and I genuinely believe writing for online venues and print magazines is a really smart way to learn how to write quickly and clearly and with a distinct voice. Sometimes I think I learned more from that process than from writing classes in college.

L.L. What’s on your summer ‘bucket list?’ It doesn’t have to be literary.

Julie Buntin:  My husband’s debut novel, STEPHEN FLORIDA, just came out on June 6th, and we’re traveling to the Bay Area at the end of June to do some events at Green Apple Books and Point Reyes Bookstore. It’s been a very hectic spring, and I’m really hoping we can find an evening to eat some oysters and sit by some water and not touch our phones. Does that count as a bucket list thing?511uha1fo9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

L.L.: What’s next for you?

Julie Buntin:  I’m working on a novel set at a boarding school with a section, right now at least, that’s narrated by a ghost. That’s all I can say about it for fear of disturbing the delicate, half-formed idea for the thing that’s buzzing around in my head – but I am really looking forward to (can I add this to my bucket list?) finding some time to really get to work on the story.

L.L.: What one question should I have asked, but didn’t?

Julie Buntin: Your questions were so good – thank you so much for reading the book so thoughtfully and for taking the time to talk to me about it. I can think of no question you should of asked, but I will take this opportunity to tell you about a few books I absolutely loved and am recommending to everyone. First, THE ANIMATORS – like MARLENA, it’s about two friends, but it’s also a rowdy and intelligent and super fun exploration of what it means to make art. I also loved the tender and so sweetly funny GOODBYE, VITAMIN, by the talented Rachel Khong, who is truly poised to be a household name. That book is forthcoming in July but you should preorder it now.

L.L.: Julie, it’s been a pleasure…and congratulations on such a dynamic debut.

Julie Buntin: Thank you, Leslie!

For more information about MARLENA, to connect with Julie Buntin via social media, or to purchase a copy of the book, please see: 

download (18)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in the AtlanticCosmopolitanOThe Oprah MagazineSlateElectric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction writing at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

 

 

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line sites.

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[Author and cover image retrieved from author’s website. Cover image of STEPHEN FLORIDA retrieved from Amazon, teen girls on porch retrieved from Teen Ink, teen girls at beach retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted, all on 6.13.17] 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

WeekEND Reading: What if a dream propelled your story into action? That’s just what happened with Gian Sardar’s luminous debut, YOU WERE HERE, plus past lives, a mystery, Minnesota, & more about this story of the unseen.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Debut novelist Gian Sardar takes us on a journey through the murky world of dreams where the past weaves with the present in a chilling crime, told in a gorgeous lyrical prose.

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I have such a fascination with dreams–nightmares, too–and wonder just what they reveal about our conscious selves, and most of all–our past. That’s what YOU WERE HERE seeks to do; it pulls us into that dream world and reads almost as if you *are* in a dream, but not quite.

Abby Walters is originally from Minnesota but living in L.A. with her screenwriting boyfriend who’s a bit (okay, a lot) commitment shy. She works at an estate jewelry shop appraising and selling antique baubles, yet no ring for her. Like all good stories, we get called away from the known and thrust into the world of the ‘unknown.’ So when Abby starts having those old dreams, the ones she only had in Minnesota, she is called back home to attempt to uncover their meaning.

Unbeknownst to her, there are a grisly slew of rapes and murders happening in her home state. It makes national news within a day or so of her arrival. Her longtime crush from H.S. is there, working now as a detective. But don’t jump to conclusions just yet. YOU WERE HERE is a multi-layered, literary mystery that sweeps you into its arms, pulling you into a sleepy spell.

Back in 1947 there’s another mystery brewing. We learn about several characters from this time period: Claire, Edith, Eva, William and how they are all tied to the present. Or are they? I really enjoyed this piece of the novel–and almost always do in these split-time frame stories.

YOU WERE HERE is at once a mystery, but it’s also a crime novel, literary historical fiction, a love story...it’s a gorgeous melding of several genres, because life just happens to be that way. 

I’m thrilled to welcome Gian Sardar to the blog couch. Pull up a seat and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Gian, I am so, so fascinated with dreams. I almost always remember mine and will tell them to anyone who will listen. Okay, not really. My hubby, mostly. Are you the same? And was there a dream that started YOU WERE HERE?

Gian Sardar: YES, I am for sure the same, and my husband definitely hears way too many of my dreams. There were actually a couple dreams that were the seeds that in many ways became YOU WERE HERE – but to talk about them I might have to go a bit back in time. When I was twelve I had a dream, one of those dreams when you’re you but you’re not you. Have you had one of them? You know the setting, you know the people, you are YOU and you identify as you, but it’s a you that you don’t know. So I had one of those dreams, and in the dream I was running through a forest with a little boy, a person I knew was my (actual) brother. It was during a war. The sky was bone white, leaves on the ground, trees bare. We were running from something, but stopped at a barbed wire fence. And there, when we turned, was a soldier. We couldn’t see his face since he was bundled up in the cold, but we knew he was there to help us. When I woke up, I opened my eyes and he was in my room. Now, I’ve had a strange life, so this wasn’t toooo crazy….so I just blinked my eyes. And he was still there. I blinked again, and he was still there. Finally he was gone, and I just passed it off as a figment of my imagination, or decided I might have still been asleep. Well, fast forward about a year and my mom decided to take me and my friends to a psychic for my 13th birthday. An odd choice, I now see, but like I said I’ve had a bit of a strange life. While we were there, this woman held my hands and said, “You and your brother have been brother and sister in a past life. I see you in a forest, during a war, and you’re running and then you meet a solider.” Of course then I stopped her, and said, “I just had that dream. When I opened my eyes, he was in my originalroom.” She didn’t look surprised (she was psychic after all), and just said “I know, he’s coming back into your life.” Even now, I wonder, who was it? My son? My best friend? My husband? I have no idea, but the idea that perhaps we’ve been here before, that perhaps we’ve known the people in our lives before, was a concept that just seemed right and stuck with me. When I was in my twenties, I was still fascinated by this idea, and decided to try and ask who I was in the past, every night before going to sleep, since I’d read that sometimes a name could come to you.  Over and over I did this, and then one night I had a dream, and it was just a name, repeated again and again. Now, I’m a bit ashamed to say I’ve never investigated the name, but I didn’t know where to begin – what continent, what year, what anything. But it made me wonder, what if a character had a dream of a name, and had just enough to go on? What could she find? In the most basic way, right there, the book was born.

 L.L.: So I have to ask about Minnesota. It was home for a few years. I can clearly see Rochester’s Silver Lake and the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis where the historical part of the story took place. I’m less familiar with Abby’s hometown. But Minnesota, literature-wise is not so well-known. Or is it? Are you aware of other books set there? (Oh wait—I know one: THE LOST GIRLS by Heather Young). And how did you come to this decision to set the story there, being an L.A. girl yourself? 

Gian Sardar: I’ve read some books that are set there, or in the Midwest, not much. What inspired me was my experience in Minnesota. My mother’s side of the family is all from there, and so growing up we’d spend summers there – both in Marshall (where my grandmother lived) and also camping in other parts of the state. Not only did I see how varied and beautiful the landscape is, but I always held the small towns we explored in a rather romanticized, childhood-golden light. Later I Small-Town1.jpglived for a bit outside of Minneapolis, and even later the visits I made there as an adult just sealed the deal: I had to write about it. There are vast, endless plains, which are both breathtaking and haunting. There are forests and lakes and so much that I knew I could have incredibly diverse settings – all within the same state.  And I knew that my almost vintage, romantic, yet slightly haunted remembrance of the small towns would lend itself perfectly for the part of the story that takes place in the past.

 L.L.: There’s a hint of ghosts and reincarnation in YOU WERE HERE. I don’t want to give away too much, but can you talk about how these pieces came into the story?

Gian Sardar: I mentioned the dreams, which is where everything started. But for me, I was always fascinated by the past we can’t see…whether it’s our own past, or even someone who lived in our house a hundred years ago, or someone who took their last breath on the sidewalk where we stand. I love the idea that we are in a living, breathing history, and that maybe we get glimpses of the past – a random feeling in the corner of the room, or an arbitrary thought that we pass off as nothing – glimpses that we ignore because we don’t know their significance. And so showing the past with the present was the perfect way for me to capture and expose one of the layers that composes the current world. images (10)

L.L.: Ultimately, YOU WERE HERE is a story of the unseen. It’s a little obscure, even occult, with flavors of Gothic ruin that might resemble a Poe story and maybe even a little of GONE GIRL [I know, I dislike the comparisons, but there’s a character that just might remind reader’s a bit of GONE GIRL’s Amy]. Can you share with us a bit about how these characters ‘presented themselves’ to you?

Gian Sardar: I love that – “a story of the unseen.” Yes! The characters all evolved as I was writing, but Abby, with her fears and dreams, was definitely inspired by my own worries and dreams. I tend to imagine accidents and horrible things, but not nearly to the degree she does. But it seemed like an interesting jumping point for a character, so I took that and blew it up and created her. I think the rest are people I’d love to know. I love Eva with her brave hope, and her dreams. And I love Claire with her reluctant hope, and her sadness. William and Aidan, the men in the book, they’re completely fictional as well, but again, both are people I would love to know.

L.L.: So, shifting a bit to the more technical elements of writing: do you outline or follow the muse? How many drafts (did you keep count?!) of YOU WERE HERE did you work on? 

Gian Sardar: Oh boy….as far as how many drafts, I don’t even know! It was a lot. For me, so much is discovered in the editing process that I love to have a lot of drafts, because it’s an indication of the evolution of the story. I usually start out with a basic idea of opening and ending, and then I try to loosely fill in the rest in a very basic outline form – but then I just have to wait, and trust that the real meat of the story will appear to me as I’m writing. And it does, and is usually born from the characters that after a while begin to live and breathe and take over.

L.L.: And you are a screenwriter as well? How does that style of writing differ from novelist?

Gian Sardar: I’ve done some screenplay work and worked with an incredible writer or years. For one, with a book or short story I could spend hours on a paragraph, trying to get the description right, finding metaphors and the best way to capture the moment – but with a screenplay you write it just enough description to help set the tone (and show the director etc to your vision), but not too much. Everything is in the choices of what you’re showing, and every line of dialogue better count. You’ve got a fraction of pages to work with, and no one will know if you had a lovely description of the house the characters live in.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from YOU WERE HERE?

Gian Sardar: I hope they wonder about their own lives. About the people they know with whom they always had a connection, or a dislike. Or the places they were drawn to, perhaps places they’ve never been. I hope they start to wonder if maybe it’s not all random coincidence. And I hope they see that in people’s lives there was always a before – reasons for actions, dislikes, and beliefs, reasons we may never know. And sometimes it’s interesting to wonder what those could be, and just how far back they might stretch.

e88e4e8dc9fc1a3ff9d52e9b11f6b647L.L.: What, from your own life might make a compelling mystery?

Gian Sardar: Definitely the story of the dream and the war and the mystery soldier. One day I’d like to write something about him, and about that girl in the forest.


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

Gian Sardar: I am! I don’t want to say too much, as it’s early and I don’t want to jinx it.

L.L. I so get that; kind of in the same boat now. Thank you, Gian; really enjoyed chatting.

Gian Sardar: Thank you, I did as well!

For more information about YOU WERE HERE, to connect with Gian via social media, or to purchase your own copy of the book, please see: 

Author Photo_Gian Sardar (c) Joseph Schwehr.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gian Sardar studied creative writing at Loyola Marymount University and is the coauthor of the bookPsychic Junkie. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and insane dog.

 

 

 

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

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[Author and cover images courtesy of Putnam/RandomHouse and used with permission. Image of ‘dreams’ retrieved from hypeorlando.com, small town minnesota retrieved from minnesotanewcountry.com, old house and girl in forest images retrieved from Pinterest, all on 6.6.17]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WeekEND Reading: What happens when your spouse is ‘suddenly struck’ with a major mental illness? Mark Lukach talks about this, stigma, raising their son, mountain biking, and more in his memoir, MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD

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By Leslie Lindsay 

An honest and unflinching view of what it’s like to be the caregiver of someone with a serious mental illness, told with compassion and rawness. MyLovelyWifeinthePsychWard final cover

When I stumbled across MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD (Harper Wave, May 2017), I knew I had to read it. Not only does the author/husband share his name with my dad, but the strikingly similar story of a woman in the prime of her life suddenly falling victim to a strange and disorienting psychosis also rang true. Very true.

My own mother suffered a similar fate at 29, almost the very age Giulia was when psychoses came hunting her. I watched, as a child as my mother spewed delusion after delusion, her fingers blanched as she gripped the car door in protest, and then, as she attempted to exit the moving vehicle on the way to the hospital. I saw too, her mangled mind and tortured thoughts.

The difference is, I was a child. Mark is very much an adult.

I am so, so honored to have Mark on the blog couch today. The entire month of May has been Mental Health Awareness Month. We’re at the tail-end, I realize but that doesn’t negate it’s seriousness. Most everyone will come in contact with someone who has a mental illness—whether it’s a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, and awareness is key.

Leslie Lindsay: Mark, thank you so much for popping over. I’m so in awe with this story. Not only did it take a terrible amount of courage to write, but the similarities with my mother are striking. Before we get into all of that, I’m curious what your inspiration was for writing this story? Was it really the ‘Modern Love’ column in the New York Times?

Mark Lukach:

I’d say that the motivation to write about this was two-fold: the first is personal, the second more universal.

On the personal front, after Giulia’s first episode, she and I were worlds apart. She was finally feeling better after almost a year of a mental health crisis, and she wanted nothing more than to just enjoy herself. Meanwhile, I was completely and totally wiped out by the caregiving experience, and so I slipped into my own depression a bit. She wanted to feel joyful and worry-free, and here I am dumping all of my pent-up anxiety and sadness on her. We tried talking about this, on our own and even in couple’s therapy, but we never really got anywhere and butted heads a lot.

So instead, I turned to writing. I had done so much writing over the year, almost entirely in email form to keep our families updated on what was going on, and I found the writing to be extremely helpful for me to process. So instead of write emails to our parents, I tried to reconstruct the year, in book form, Giulia as the sole audience. I needed her to be able to understand me a bit more, and as it turns out, the writing, reading, and subsequent discussions turned out to play a huge role in our ability to reconnect as a couple.  images (7)

The further I got into writing, the more I suspected that I might have something that was worth publishing, and so the Modern Love column was my way to try and get the book idea out there. That gets to the universal reason to write. As you say in your intro, mental health struggles come with surprisingly universal themes, but when Giulia was hospitalized, I felt more lonely than I’ve ever felt. It was like I was the first person to ever have to do this. I’m a history teacher, so I went online to try and find resources and narratives that could help me make sense of my experience, but I couldn’t find any, which made the loneliness even worse. I knew there were others out there like me, I just couldn’t find them, and that this book might be able to speak to people. It took us a while to decide to go for a fully published book, and in fact, it didn’t happen until well after the Modern Love column and Giulia’s subsequent hospitalizations, as well as the birth of our son, but the motivation really became about trying to help people.

L.L.: And now the similarities. My mom was 29 when this happened to her; Giulia was 27. My mom heard voices of God and the devil speaking to her. She did not want to go the hospital. She tried jumping out of a moving car. At one point, she was discharged AMA (against medical advice). It happened again and again.  My dad—also named Mark—is an avid athlete. He competed in marathons and triathlons; but we were land-locked in Missouri, so no surfing. There are differences, though. I think what this comes down to is the universality of mental illness. Can you talk about that, please?

Mark Lukach: I am constantly shocked by just how common these things are. I’ve received a humbling amount of email from readers over the years, due to the Modern Love column and also a magazine article I wrote in Pacific Standard, and at times I almost feel like I’m reading from myself. I remember speaking with one of the social workers during Giulia’s first hospitalization, and of the 30 or so people who were on the psych ward at that time with Giulia, there were several others with religious delusions that looked almost the exact same as Giulia’s. It’s remarkable. Although I have to say Leslie, your parents’ story seems to be the most similar from anyone else I’ve met. It’s so cool that we connected.

But what does this all mean? I’m not really sure. I do think it means that mental illness is more prevalent than we let on. I understand why people are hesitant to talk about it. It’s such a terrifying thing to experience, whether it’s happening to you, or to someone you love, and we don’t go around telling everyone about life’s biggest struggles. But if we could look inside the homes of all of our neighbors and coworkers, I think we’d be shocked about how many of us suffer in similar ways.

Sometimes I go the way of Yossarian from Catch-22 when I think about this stuff—it’s a crazy world, so the only reasonable response is to go crazy as well, and maybe that’s why mental illness is so prevalent. The world does seem to get more and more pressured and impersonal, so maybe that’s part of it. But I only sometimes download (10)think that way. My most go-to answer is in a mantra that we say a lot in our family—“We’re all in this together.” We say it before dinner, sort of like our version of grace, and the more I connect with people about mental illness, the more I’m convinced that it’s true. We’re all in this together—in our joys and also in our struggles.

L.L.: The biggest difference in MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD and my mom’s mental illness is my parents divorced. I’m not entirely sure if it was the illness that tore them apart, or the symptoms and after-effects; or if there were issues all along. What this speaks to is the tenacity to love someone in sickness and in health. That includes mental health. I can’t imagine how challenging this must be (has been). Can you share a bit of your coping skills and marriage maintenance tips?

Mark Lukach: This really is what the book is about at its core. Giulia and I were thrown this curve ball of a major mental illness, and we responded in desperation and in survival mode. Once the dust settled, we had to re-evaluate who we were, and what our relationship looked like, so that we could continue to stay together. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Crises forced us to take a close look at our relationship, and neither of us necessarily liked what we saw all the time.

But we had this shared history of falling in love so young, and basically growing into adulthood together, and also a belief that we could make it work, so we tried to find ways to reconnect. I think one of the core things that we both had to learn to do better was to listen. I did a lot of talking at Giulia while she was sick, and acting on her behalf. I essentially managed her life for her when she was sick, because I worried so much about what she might do on her own, like hurt herself. In all of that, I didn’t really listen to her that much. What she said was so heartbreaking to her, that I ended up trying to talk her out of her feelings. It took me a while to realize this. I thought I was doing the right thing by trying to comfort her when she felt suicidal, but I realized I was actually, in a small way, denying her experience by trying to talk her out of how she felt.

Similarly, Giulia had to learn to listen to just how difficult it was for me to support her, which as I said above, we largely accomplished through the writing process. I realize looking back just how desperate I was for validation that my struggles were being acknowledged.images (8)

We try to take this lesson of listening to heart every day in our marriage. Of course, not every day is a mental health crisis, and it’s so easy to get busy multi-tasking your way into half-listening, or to shut down things that you don’t like to hear, and I think those can be so damaging to a relationship. We still make mistakes to each other, but we have this anchor now that we always return to—when things are going bad, we try and remind each other how important it is to listen, and that ends up being the first step toward reconciliation.

http://www.today.com/health/too-much-stigma-too-little-awareness-mental-illness-t110946

L.L.: In MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSCYCH WARD, it’s mentioned that Giulia did not have a family history for mental illness, yet so many mental illnesses have genetic roots; they often run in families. I’m curious if you all did any more digging into her family history to find any sort of suggested mental illness?

Mark Lukach: We did do a lot of digging and asking, but Giulia is from Italy, where the conversations around mental illness are much different than they are in the US. I talked to her parents a lot about this, and they certainly didn’t know about any family members with mental illness, but over time they both admitted that just because they didn’t know about them [family members with mental illness], it didn’t mean that they didn’t exist. It just meant that they didn’t know, since this type of thing is basically never talked about over there.

L.L.: And you have a son together. How my heart broke as I read about little Jonas and his elephant costume, his mother away in psych ward, his insisting that there were monsters in the house.  How is he doing? What are some of his passions? And most importantly, can you reiterate the advice you received from your pediatrician about protecting kids in situations like this? 

Mark Lukach: Jonas is the light of our lives. I’ve wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember, and I feel like we won the lottery with Jonas. He’s an active, curious, kind-hearted little boy. He’s just so much fun to be around. He loves books, sports, especially baseball and hockey, Star Wars, Harry Potter, legos. He’s very spiritual, and asks a lot of questions about the bigger questions in life, which I can’t help but to wonder if it’s connected somehow to his mom being hospitalized for delusions twice in his life. But I think his most telling trait is that Jonas likes to be together as a family. It seems like as long as we’re together as a family, he is up for anything. I’m hanging onto these days as tightly as I can, because I know that at some point, he’s going to grow away from always wanting his parents nearby, so I’m trying to treasure it now.

When Giulia was hospitalized for the third time, Jonas was 2 ½ years old, and his pediatrician told me that there might come a situation where I would have to choose to either protect Giulia or Jonas. For example, I knew that Giulia was really anxious to come home, and it felt like she might end up being discharged before she was ready to be around Jonas again. Jonas’ pediatrician was adamant: you have to protect your child first. He was so young, and didn’t have the words to process what he was experiencing, so I had to keep him safe and happy at all costs. Even if that meant rejecting the doctor’s recommendation that Giulia could come home, which can you imagine what that would do to my relationship with Giulia? Thankfully we didn’t have this sort of confrontation, because when Giulia came home, she was the one to realize she probably needed a few days to settle in at home before Jonas was home as well, so he stayed with my parents during that time.

When I became a parent, I never imagined that I would have to at some point crazy-love-4make a choice between my wife or my child. I didn’t know that came with part of the territory. But it’s something I think all parents have to confront at some point or another, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a harder position to be in.

L.L.: And Giulia? How does she feel about this story being out for public consumption? I ask because in the book there’s a line that says something like, “It might be your illness, but it affects us all.”

Mark Lukach: Giulia has been incredible about this. I knew that it took a lot of courage for her to share this story, but I didn’t actually realize just how much courage. Whenever you Google her name, this book comes up. She is the lovely wife, the one whose medical history is shared for anyone to read about. And she’s up for it because she thinks this book can help people, and I find that amazing.

We’ve been doing book readings here in the Bay Area, and Giulia always comes and we do a Q&A together with the audience after I’ve read some passages, and I am so blown away by how she does with the questions. I think it’s the most empowered I’ve ever seen her. It really is incredible. I have always loved and admired Giulia, but that has only grown to see her be so gracious through all of this.

L.L.:  What was the last thing you Googled?

Mark Lukach: Ha, I like this question. The last thing I Googled was for techniques to manage poison oak. I got a really bad case of the rash recently, which comes with the lifestyle of how much time I spend out on trails running and mountain biking. So I usually get poison oak a few times each year—it’s unavoidable. But I went hiking recently and saw this vine climbing up a tree, and I tried to climb up it, not realizing the vine was poison oak. The leaves were way up in the tree, so I couldn’t identify the plant, and I got the worst case of poison oak I think I’ve ever gotten. All over my face, arms, chest, everywhere. It is the worst. When I get poison oak, I race to the internet to find ways to cope with it. Granted, I already have like 50 techniques, but I hope that maybe some new trick has been discovered, and so I have been spending a lot of time trying to Google my way to some new solution that will somehow speed up the healing process. But I think I’m just stuck with it for the next two weeks, no matter how much I Google.

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

Mark Lukach: I’d love to talk about artistic inspiration for the book. I am an avid reader but even more than that, a fan of music, and I think that music inspired this book more than anything. I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ album “Carrie and Lowell” on repeat for much of the writing process, and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. I would literally listen to the album 4 or 5 times a day while writing. The album is download (11)Sufjan’s way of mourning his mother, who battled mental illness as well, and I found the album helped me fully reconnect with the emotions that I wanted to embed into the book.

L.L.: Mark, thank you so very much for your words. MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD is an important read and so courageous. I applaud you for telling your story.

Mark Lukach: I really appreciate your interest in having me on your site, and for the support for the book. I’m a high school history teacher, and it’s so flattering to be included with such an impressive assortment of writers.

For more information about MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD, to connect with Mark via social media, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

profilepicsmall.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Lukach is a teacher and freelance writer. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Wired, and other publications. He is currently the ninth grade dean at The Athenian School, where he also teaches history. He lives with his wife, Giulia, and their son in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mark first wrote about Giulia in a New York Times “Modern Love” column and again in a piece for Pacific Standard Magazine, which was the magazine’s most-read article in 2015.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper Wave and used with permission. Lukach family photo retrieved from Pacific Standard article/author’s personal archives. Catch-22 image retrieved from Wikipedia, “Carrie and Lowell” album cover retrieved from Wiki.en, all on 5.25.17]

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

But maybe she *can* see ghosts after all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

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

WeekEND Reading: Heather Gudenkauf on her most personal thriller yet, who her favorite character is, why nurses aren’t boring, grit, determination, oh–and a dead body–in her new book, NOT A SOUND

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By Leslie Lindsay 

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf churns out her most personal, and powerful story yet with NOT A SOUND, rife with medical mysteries and a murder, too. 

Not A Sound cover
When a tragic accident leaves ER nurse Amelia Winn deaf, she spirals into a depression that ultimately causes her to lose anything she ever cared about: her career, her husband, and her 7-year old stepdaughter, Nora.

It’s two years after that fateful night in which Amelia loses her hearing when she stumbles across a dead body in the dense brush by the river where she likes to paddleboard–someone she knows. I don’t want to give away too much, but it goes without saying that she gets wrapped up in the murder case. Clues seem so familiar to her own, earlier accident which caused her deafness. Could the two be related?

Told entirely from Amelia’s first-person POV, the writing in NOT A SOUND is taut, emotional, fast-paced, and Gudenkauf’s research clearly shows.
Amelia Winn is strong, capable and I was definitely rooting for her. And her service dog, Stitch, who really kind of became the star, at least for me.

I’m super-thrilled to welcome Heather back to the blog couch to chat about her amazing new novel, NOT A SOUND (Park Row, May 30). Plus, it’s a REAL SIMPLE magazine pick of the month! 

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome back, Heather! I practically devoured NOT A SOUND. It was a rainy weekend in Chicagoland and I couldn’t put it down. I might be wrong in saying this, but I felt the pace of this one was much faster than your other books. Can you speak to that, please?

Heather Gudenkauf: Thank you, Leslie! NOT A SOUND does have a swift pace. I think I structured the novel this way for several reasons, the first being that at its heart NOT A SOUND is a thriller and the brisk pace lends itself to the tension and suspense that I hoped to achieve. Also a good amount of the novel is set along the Five Mines River and like a fast moving river, the events in NOT A SOUND tumble along at a break neck speed. timthumb

L.L.: I guess before we get too far into the narrative, I’m very curious why this story, why now? I know two things: 1) you’re partially deaf yourself and 2) your son has battled cancer. Those two things alone are hugely personal and sometimes personal things make great fiction, sometimes not. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for NOT A SOUND?

Heather Gudenkauf: For me, I tend to weave little snippets of my life – locations, some small experiences – into my novels. And while NOT A SOUND isn’t autobiographical it is the first time that I included such personal topics. I was born with a profound hearing loss that was discovered when I was in elementary school. I’m deaf in my left ear which makes it hard for me to be able to tell where sounds are coming from and in noisy situations I can have a very difficult time understanding others, but most of the time I don’t think twice about it.

My son did battle cancer as a young teen and is now doing great! The entire experience was heartbreaking, painful and absolutely devastating but we also found many blessings during this very difficult time. We had an incredible medical team, family, friends and community there to support us the entire way.

I’ve always wanted to write a story that featured a heroine that happened to be deaf and I knew I wanted to explore the topic of health care and cancer in one of my novels. Writing from the point of view of a character who happens to be deaf was challenging and it was important for me to portray a deaf character accurately and respectfully – I hope I did Amelia justice.

download (5)L.L.: And Amelia! I loved her. A writer friend once said long ago (I’m paraphrasing), “Nurses as characters are boring. Nothing ever happens to them; they are always conscientious and thoughtful and busy saving lives.” I chewed on that a bit. I’m a former R.N. I don’t think of myself as ‘boring.’ I’ve toyed with the idea of a nurse protagonist, too but…well, I lived it and discounted it. Can you talk a little about your research into the nursing profession, procedures and terminology? [P.S. May is also National Nurse Appreciation Week/Month]

Heather Gudenkauf: I absolutely don’t think of nurses as boring! I grew up watching medical dramas like M*A*S*H and Trapper John, MD and was entranced by the capable, methodical nurses who always kept their cool. I knew early on that the nursing profession wasn’t for me, I get a bit woozy around blood, but I’ve been in awe of nurses my entire my life. My mom was a nurse, as was my sister-in-law. Then, of course, there were the nurses who took care of my son during his illness.

For the novel, when it came to the technical aspects of the medical profession, I definitely relied on the experts ~including a great friend who is a nurse and my sister-in-law who is a physician.

L.L.: Amelia isn’t your ‘typical’ goody-two-shoes nurse. She paddle boards and lives in a cute little A-frame on the banks of a river. She’s getting divorced. She has some demons. And then she finds this dead body. How did Amelia’s character evolve for you as you wrote her story?

Heather Gudenkauf: Amelia is definitely not a typical wife, mother or nurse. She came to me in bits and pieces over the course of the novel. I knew she was going to be strong and independent, but her other character traits emerged as I wrote the novel. At the outset, Amelia is just getting her life back together after hitting rock bottom. She’s starting from scratch and finally lands a new job and gets to spend time with her step-daughter when she comes upon a grisly discovery while paddling boarding. Immediately Amelia is thrust into a mystery that threatens her own well-being and she needs to utilize every bit of her determination, grit and intelligence to survive.

L.L.: In the terms of medicine, we’re always under the impression that ‘doctor 41m+qEX4S7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_knows best.’ When we’re in the throes of a medical emergency or a grim diagnosis, we have to put our trust in the trained professionals. In fact, there’s a brand-new memoir [THE TINCTURE OF TIME] out about a mother whose infant was having mysterious strokes and she put all her faith in the medical community. Not everything turned out for the best. So if you were to complete this sentence, “Putting your trust in medicine is____,” what might you say?

Heather Gudenkauf: I love reading memoirs ~ I’ll have to check this one out. I would say “Putting your trust in medicine is absolutely necessary.” But that said, it’s imperative to listen to that little internal voice that tends to pipe up once in a while. Ask the questions, get the second opinion. It can be scary when you have to rely on the expertise of others especially in life and death situations. It’s important to feel comfortable with the care you or a loved one is receiving. Fortunately, my son received top-notch care while he was battling cancer ~ and we are forever grateful for this.

L.L.: What, in your real-life might make a plot for a mystery?

Heather Gudenkauf: Oh, wow! I live a completely boring, nondescript kind of life so I’m afraid that the extent of intrigue in my life comes down to remembering where I lay down my glasses and the book I’m currently reading!

“Twisting, atmospheric and dark, Heather Gudenkauf’s Not A Sound will draw you right into the silent world of Amelia Winn and keep you riveted. This is a thrill ride to be sure, but it’s also a gripping tale of tragedy and redemption. If you haven’t read Heather Gudenkauf yet, now’s the time.”

—Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of The Red Hunter

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

Heather Gudenkauf: I’m trying to make healthier meals at home so I Googled a recipe for fried cauliflower rice. It was surprisingly delicious!

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

Heather Gudenkauf: Thank you, Leslie ~ I always enjoy chatting with you!   I do want to give a shout out to who is perhaps my favorite character in NOT A SOUND – Stitch, Amelia’s service dog. On more than one occasion Stitch manages to steal the show. He’s a loyal, loveable and excellent in a crisis!images (5)

For more information about NOT A SOUND, to connect with Heather via social media, or to purchase (pre-order, available May 30 2017) your own copy of the book, please see: 

HeatherGudenkauf credit Morgan HawthorneABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heather Gudenkauf is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and These Things Hidden. Heather was born in Wagner, South Dakota, the youngest of six children. At one month of age, her family returned to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where her father was employed as a guidance counselor and her mother as a school nurse. At the age of three, her family moved to Iowa, where she grew up. Having been born with a profound unilateral hearing loss (there were many evenings when Heather and her father made a trip to the bus barn to look around the school bus for her hearing aids that she often conveniently would forget on the seat beside her), Heather tended to use books as a retreat, would climb into the toy box that her father’s students from Rosebud made for the family with a pillow, blanket, and flashlight, close the lid, and escape the world around her. Heather became a voracious reader and the seed of becoming a writer was planted.

Heather Gudenkauf graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education, has spent her career working with students of all ages and continues to work in education as a Title I Reading Coordinator. Heather lives in Iowa with her husband, three children, and a very spoiled German Shorthaired Pointer named Lolo. In her free time Heather enjoys spending time with her family, reading and hiking. She is currently working on her next novel.

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

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Park Row Books and used with permission. Image of nurse retrieved from iStockphotos.com, image of service dog retrieved from anythingispawasble.com. Image of Tincture of Time retrieved from Amazon, all on 5.19.17]

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

Mothers and Other Strangers Final

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

Just take a read of the first, magical line: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesdays with Writers: #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Elizabeth Kostova Takes Us on Cultural Wandering Through Bulgaria, Music, Mystery, and More

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By Leslie Lindsay 

#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. 

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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.

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.

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[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]