Wednesdays with Writers: James Han Mattson on developing rich characters, 2018 reading goals, how technology can help but also harm; writing stories about events on the fringe, and so much more in his debut, THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES, inspired by the Tyler Clementi case

By Leslie Lindsay

An intimate portrayal of one boy’s search for his place in this world, connection, intimacy, and, ultimately, love.

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Add in the complexities of grappling with one’s sexual identity, the allure and anonymity of the Internet, and yet the isolating power of bullies, drama, and tragedy all lurk there and in one’s own backyard.

Meet Ricky Graves: He’s vulnerable. He’s confused. He’s reaching out. What does that even mean, ‘reaching out,’ he wonders? But he’s there, on-line. A gay chat room. A cyber crush. A call for help. And yet…

Told in alternating POVs of six intertwining lives, THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES is about our relationships with one another, with social media, the faces we show to the real world, and the ones we must confront in our darkest moments.

Sparked by the 18-year old Rutgers student (Tyler Clementi) who was a victim of a horrific act of cyber-harassment and humiliation, THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES (Little A Publishing, December 1, 2017), touches on the “It Gets Better Project,” survivors, and the ultimately—love and friendship.X8HDaU7FThis is a tough read. But it’s so, so important. As the first interview of 2018, I challenge you to look within, seek a deeper meaning, and realize that kindness, empathy, and karma are all part of this life, however brief.

Please join me in welcoming James Han Mattson to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: James, I was so taken with THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES It pulled me in right away. You bring such compassion and depth to the story. What propelled you?

James Han Mattson: Thank you! I prefer writing stories about people on the fringes, and as you mentioned earlier, the Tyler Clementi case inspired the book’s beginnings. I wanted to somehow meld the themes of bullying, culpability, and technology, but I wanted to do so in a non-didactic way—there’s enough written on the inherent dangers of social media, the insidious effects of bullying, and the fault of (insert issue here) for America’s violent crimes. My main aim, then, was to complicate these ideas and show them in a more nuanced light: sometimes the bullied becomes the bully, sometimes nobody and everybody is at fault, and sometimes technology helps and harms.

“Mattson’s first novel is an excellent, character-driven work of literary fiction that will continue to resonate with the reader long after the final page.” —Booklist

L.L.: I had to remind myself that THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES was not a memoir. Can you talk about how you brought such authenticity to the narrative?

James Han Mattson: Authenticity is tricky to talk about, especially when discussing fictional characters. It often gets construed in umbrella-experience terms, assigning categories to complex existences. For example, I often get asked how I write women, how I’m able to write about an experience I know nothing about personally, and my response is usually: I don’t “write women.” I don’t actually know what that means. Every woman is unique, and is a culmination of myriad factors, so to say that someone, especially a man, “gets” the “female experience” is really short-sighted. I write characters, and I try to write characters with rich interior lives, and while race, gender, and sexual orientation, curate these characters’ lives, the demographic details are not all-defining—what’s more important to me is painting a holistic, complicated life, focusing both on how characters perceive the world and how the world perceives them.

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L.L.: Since the book is inspired by the case of Tyler Clementi, the college student who took his own life due to gay bullying and humiliation, it is not exactly that story. Can you tell us more? What research did you do?

James Han Mattson: This book is very voice-driven—each section is told by a different character in first person. As such, I needed to really “hear” the voices. I spent three summers in southern Maine, mostly just listening to the people around me, noting voice inflections, cadences, and tics. Since the story takes place in present day, I didn’t have to do a whole lot of historical research, and the town itself is fictional, so I just had to make sure I understood it spatially. (I drew a couple maps.)

L.L.: What do you hope others take away from THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES? And what might we do to prevent such atrocities from happening?

James Han Mattson: I’d love if the book elicited some nuanced conversations about the three themes I mentioned earlier—bullying, technology, and culpability. I don’t have a tidy answer regarding teen bullying/suicide prevention, but I do think a good place to start is through deep, penetrative self-examination—that is, understanding the differences between current adult selves and former adolescent selves. Momentarily seeing the world through former adolescent eyes before reaching out to troubled teens will enlarge empathy, and perhaps generate efficacious suicide prevention programs.

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L.L.: Switching gears a bit, I understand you semi-recently traveled to Seoul, South Korea to reunite with your biological family after nearly thirty years separation. What was that experience like and does it have any place in a future book?

James Han Mattson: The experience was very intense. I was there for two years, and it took a huge toll on me, both mentally and physically. I’m not sure if I’ll write a book about it specifically (though I think about it from time to time), but themes of alienation, isolation, and cultural ambiguity always tend to creep into my work.

L.L.: What’s on your literary to-do list this year? Books to read, classes to teach, writing to do? Something else?

James Han Mattson: I’m so far behind on reading, but I’m going to make sure I finish at least 25 books this year. I just started Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and am really enjoying it. I’m also excited to read Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know. Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing, Taylor Brown’s River of Kings, and Oliver Sacks’ The River of Consciousness are also on my list. (Admittedly, I’ve already read Sightseeing, but I found the stories so beautiful and evocative that I can’t wait to read them again.) I hope to finish a draft of my new novel sometime next fall—an ambitious goal, I understand, but I’m hoping this summer will prove productive. 

L.L.: James, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I should have asked about, but may have forgotten?

James Han Mattson: I can’t think of anything off hand! Thank you for asking such incisive questions!

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE LOST PRAYERS OF RICKY GRAVES, please see:

Jim Mattson_c Tara Mattson (002).jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Han Mattson was born in Seoul, Korea and raised in North Dakota. A Michener-Copernicus Fellowship recipient and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has taught at the University of Iowa, the University of Cape Town, the University of Maryland, the George Washington University, and the University of California – Berkeley. He has worked as a staff writer and editor for Pagoda Foreign Language Institute, the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, and Logogog – South Africa. In 2009, he traveled to Korea and reunited with his birth family after 30 years of separation. His first novel, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves,was an Amazon Literature and Fiction Pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, a Publishers Lunch Bookseller Pick, a Kindle First Pick, and was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He currently lives in Maryland.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Little A/Shreve Williams Public Relations. Author image credit: Tara Mattson; used with permission. ‘Not Going to Be Easy’ retrieved from , Southern Maine coastal town image retrieved from

Write On, Wednesday: Author Kimberly McCreight of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA (2013) with GIVE-A-WAY!!

By Leslie Lindsay Product Details

I am super-excited to spend some time chatting with NYT bestselling debut author, Kimberly McCreight of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA.  While this book was a Target Book Club pick and my local book discussion group selection, I am in awe as to how this literary wonder woman does it all.  She’s a mom to two young girls, runs marathons, and has several unpublished manuscripts just lying about. Oh, and she’s a former attorney. To accomplish all of that, you’d have to say the woman is driven, hands down.

RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA appealed to me for several reasons: it’s been compared to Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, has a Jodi Picout-like quality in that it alternates between view points, and perhaps most importantly, the storyline is ripped right from current trends in mean girl behavior, also know as social aggression–a trend I am not proud to associate with the female culture. So, without futher ado…please welcome Kim McCreight.

LL: Thank you, Kim for taking the time to chat with us about your book, RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA (Harper Perennial, 2013). I am currently in the last quarter of the book and find myself racing to the end to find out what really happened to young Amelia. Without giving away too much, did you intend for the book to be a mystery?

Kimberly McC: Reconstructing Amelia was inspired first and foremost by my experiences as a mother, specifically my fears for my daughters as they grow older.  And I don’t think I set out to write a mystery per se.  I didn’t set out to write any particular kind of book.  But as much as I cared about the characters while writing Reconstructing Amelia I was also very interested in the puzzle aspect of the story.  And I knew from the outset that a central question driving the narrative would be the “why” of what happened to Amelia.  For me, that’s the question at the heart of all great mysteries.

LL: Cyber-bullying has become such an unfortunate trend in young people’s lives—from texts to blogs, to Facebook. You tap into this environment surprisingly well—the teen slang, the secrets, their mannerisms, yet your own children are young.  Can you give us a glimpse into your ‘research’ for the book?

Kimberly McC: I was certainly influenced by many news accounts of bullying, though the book wasn’t inspired by any one story in particular.  I also did a fair amount of Internet research, exploring what teenagers talk about and what mediums they use.  There was a lot that surprised me about the ways teens use social media these days, for better and for worse.  I’m amazed how different their definitions of “privacy” and “friend” are from mine.  I also talked to local teens while writing Reconstructing Amelia.  I grew up in the suburbs, so I needed to get a sense of how the details of life differ for an urban teenager—where they go one weekends, after the school, etc.  But much of Amelia’s character was inspired by my own memories of being a teen.  And her voice came very naturally, which maybe should concern me more than it does.

LL: Speaking kids…as an author, how do you structure your writing time while still remaining an engaging parent? My own kids are 7 and 8 and I write like mad while they are at school, but sometimes that’s not near enough!  My characters keep “talking” to me as I help with homework, prepare dinner, etc. Can you share some tips for ‘trying to do it all?’

Kimberly McC: Ever since I left the practice of law to write fiction, I’ve tried to treat writing as a full-time job with regular hours and a clear structure.  That was less complicated, of course, before I had children.  But then, life for any working parent is a constant juggle.  I feel very lucky that I at least have the flexibility (and proximity) most days to be at school at the drop of a hat to pick up a sick child.

These days, I write from 9-6 pm, five days a week, which means my girls are in aftercare or with a sitter after school.  Having lots of strict deadlines (and sub-deadlines, and sub-sub deadline helps) and I rely heavily on a great to-do app.

But you’re right that even that isn’t always enough.  Just last night, I had to sit across from my older daughter revising something as she finished her homework because I had a deadline.

Also, I am always jotting story notes in my iPhone—while watching my kids play sports or while cooking dinner (which might explain why I’m such a terrible cook) and, yes, sometimes even when they’re talking to me.  In that case, of course, I feel totally guilty, but mostly do it anyway).

McCreight Kimberly ap1_credit Justine CooperBecause you can’t control when a new idea or the solution to a vexing narrative problem will come to you.  And if you don’t grab it, it can disappear.  But I find that as long as I’ve made a detailed note, it will usually keep until whenever I can return to it during my regular work hours.

LL: I understand your first manuscripts are stored someplace under your bed or in your hard drive; RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA is actually your fifth attempt at writing a novel, right?  You must have really, really been determined to get a book out. What advice would you give to emerging novelists?

Kimberly McC: Keep writing.  That’s really obvious, but it’s also an incredibly important point.  And by that I mean don’t give up, but also:  write to get better at writing.  My work has certainly improved over the years.  I think feedback is critical, too.  Find a great critique partner or, better yet, a terrific writers group.   Then listen to what they have to say about your work.  That doesn’t mean you have to do everything they say, but keep an open mind.  There is no way to improve in a vacuum.

LL: Moving on to agents. You say you’ve gone through several, yet we struggling writers would be happy with just one!  What tips might you offer for finding that perfect fit, crafting a stellar query letter, and ultimately getting a book in the hands of readers?

While it’s certainly important to approach agents who represent your kind of work and who are accepting new clients, I think it’s easy to get bogged down in the research phase of finding an agent.  The “who to approach” part, instead of getting to the “actually approaching” phase.

I would recommend casting a wide net.  Part of finding an agent is a numbers game: sending out enough queries to enough agents (keeping in mind always to notify them that yours is a simultaneous submission) until you find that perfect match.

I’d start with a group of ten agents and see what response you get to your query letter.  If only a very few (or none) ask to see pages, your query letter probably isn’t strong enough.  Stop and revise it.  Writing a great query letter takes a lot of time.  More than you’d ever think a single letter could possibly take.

It’s also really hard.  How to write a good query is something I would recommend researching extensively.   You can start online, there are lots of great articles there. Then imagine you’re writing the jacket copy for your book.  You don’t need to tell the reader everything, you just need to grab their interest.  On that note, be sure that your letter is written in the same tone as your book.  If your novel is funny, make your letter funny.  Wrote a mystery?  Make sure your letter is suspenseful.  And don’t be gimmicky.  Agents get more queries then you can possibly imagine.  You want to stand out, but not for the wrong reasons.

LL: What’s next for you?  When will we see more of your books on the shelves?

Kimberly McC: I’m at work on revisions for my next book, another mystery with a strong character element.  Don’t know when it’ll be out, but I’d expect in about a year or so.  I’ve also started the first book in a YA trilogy that I’m really excited about. 

Thank you so very much for being here today, Kim! It’s been an absolute pleasure. Best wishes!

THANK YOU!! Apraxia Monday:  He Talks Funny Author Jeanne Buesser & Give-a-Way

And now for the book give-a-way!!  One lucky winner will be drawn at random to WIN a FREE copy of RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA. All you have to do is share this interview via email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. and let me know you shared (if you don’t let me know, I can’t enter your name).  How do you do that?!  Easy. Just leave a comment on this blog or shoot me an email at leslie_lindsay (at) hotmail.com with subject line, “I shared…enter my name!” *

For more information, please follow Kimberly’s social media:

Twitter:   @kimmccreight

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/mccreight.kimberly

website:  http://www.kimberlymccreight.com

*Fine Print: Give-a-way is open to US residents only. Must comment or email leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com so I know to enter your name after you’ve shared via social media. Contest runs Wednesay, January 22-Saturday, January 26. Please check your in-box/junk/spam for an email from me indicating you won. Please respond promptly with your mailing address. Book will be sent to you from HarperCollins Publishers. Good luck!!

[book image retrived from Amazon.com on 1.21.14; author image courtesy of Harper Collins Pub with permission of Kimberly McCreight]

The Teacher is Talking: The Energy Bus Book Review

By Leslie Lindsay

I just can’t get enough of my books this week!  I think you will agree that today’s “The Teacher is Talking” meshes well with yesterday’s post about speech disorders and bullies.  Product Details

The Energy Bus by Jon  Gordon came to us by way of a birthday gift for my 6-year old.  She’s a full-day kindergarten student who hops on the big yellow every day, so a book about school buses made perfect sense.  But this is not just any school bus–it’s Miss Joy’s Energy Bus!  (image source: Amazon.co 2/12/13)

I love how this book teaches the young character that he is in charge of his own positivity–his own good thinking, and his own outcome.  It’s about coming to school ready for the day and being your best self.  When some of the older kids at school bother him, he just uses his special energy bus powers to put ’em in their place.  Of course, there are a few bumps along the road, but what one learns from the energy bus is something we can all take with us on our journey.

From the website:

“The Energy Bus for Kids shows children how to overcome negativity, bullies and everyday challenges to be their best and share their positive energy with others.

When you get kids on The Energy Bus, you’ll infuse their lives with vision, hope, love and positivity.”

For more information, see:

[No compensation for this post has been provided.  The author owns this book and is not affiliated in any way with the author.  This is not a give-a-way]

Special Guest Post: Author Darryl Nyznyk of “Mary’s Son: A Tale of Christmas”

By Leslie Lindsay

 (image source: http://www.marysson.com/aboutdarryl.html)
Darryl Nyznyk

I am thrilled to host author Darryl Nyznyk of Mary’s Son: A Tale of Christmas.  Winner of 3 Mom’s Choice Awards (middle grade reader), bestselling Mary’s Son: A Tale of Christmas by Darryl Nyznyk is a modern-day story that portrays the true meaning of Christmas, much like the classics did.  Here, Darryl gives us wonderful tips on how to raise your children to be givers.  Since that’s the ‘reason for the season,’ why not start teaching them that vital lesson now?   (image source: http://www.marysson.com/marysson.html)
 
In fact, a tradition at our house is to present our children a “Christmas Book” in the first few days of the holiday season.  It’s a great way to build their holiday library.  Why not add “Mary’s Son” to your gift-giving list?  It would make a wonderful treat for Godparents, Godchildren, Sunday school teachers, and others. 

Or, you may WIN a signed COPY!! Be sure to take a look below for contest details! 

Okay…take it away, Darryl!

My wife and I raised four daughters through school day traumas of isolation, rejection, ostracism and dissociation, and bullying. While none of our daughters were on the receiving end of all of these hateful practices, each experienced one or more personally, and each saw them foisted upon others. It was our duty, as parents, to guide them through these experiences by teaching them how to deal with the pain, and by helping rebuild their shattered psyches after each experience.

We found it was just as important to instill in them empathy and compassion for others suffering through the same trauma. We wanted to teach them to look less at the pain they were experiencing and more to the pain of others who they could help.  Our belief was that our kids needed to learn how to give of their compassion, understanding, and love in their every day lives. Here are five basic concepts that helped us in our efforts.

1. You are a good person.  One of the most important elements in a giving heart is a sense of self worth that enables a person to step away from his own problems and focus on the issues of others. To be true givers, children need to have confidence in themselves.  Build their self-esteem, but not because they might be the “prettiest,” “smartest,” “best athlete,” or “most popular,” but rather because they are empathetic and compassionate people. If they cry when a person they know dies or they understand the pain when a friend gets hurt or they help a neighbor in need, it is these feelings and actions that make them good people.

2. Discuss issues of evil and sadness in the world.  Getting children to sit and carry on a discussion about the issues of the day can be virtually impossible. With homework, music lessons, sports practice, electronics, friends, and every other conceivable interference, it’s difficult to find a moment to have a conversation other than “hi.”  But it’s vital that we do. It is our task to find those moments where we can say “Did you hear about …?” and “Do you think there’s anything we could (or should) do about …?”  We need to ask them about any sad or evil events of which they are aware, and how they feel “we” should react. Despite the hesitation our child may express at first, the truth is that once we get them talking, we have moved them away from focus on self and to thoughts about the plight of others – an essential step in imprinting the concept of giving onto their hearts.

3. Think of someone at school who needs help.  Encourage your child to think of someone at school who might need empathy, compassion, or simply a friend. Suggest they look beyond their immediate circle of friends and identify someone who might be viewed as a “geek,” a “nerd,” an outcast. Talk to your child about how that person must feel; try to get your child to try on that person’s shoes so that they understand how painful that person’s experiences are. Then discuss how your child might be able to help, even with something as simple as a kind word.

4. Talk to friends at school about those in need.  Encourage your children to step up in their peer groups to convince friends not to judge those previously deemed below them. “I heard his parents can’t afford to get him good soccer shoes; maybe we can figure out a way to help. He’s a pretty good player.” “Her mother’s been really sick.  Maybe we should ask her to join us and see if she needs help.” Or just plain, “She looks weird, I know, but she’s a nice person, just a little shy.” 

The point here is that our child steps up and gives herself to the pain and suffering of those ridiculed by her group. Peer pressure makes this one very difficult, and a parent’s discussion about the proper approach to the peers is essential. It doesn’t require that your child take over the leadership role from the “king” or “queen” of the group, but rather that she use her subtle influence and intelligence to move the leader to compassion that the others will follow.

5. Stand up against injustice even if alone.  Our children know right from wrong because we have taught and continue to teach them the difference. When they see bullying or other injustice in their schools or other social settings, they must step up to protect the weak and bullied. 

The most difficult thing for the normal “non-leader” child is to become visible by asserting themselves. It’s difficult because by standing up within the group or outside the group, the child is challenging leadership and risks becoming the butt of jokes or the one who is bullied. This is why parental guidance in the art of subtlety within the group, and of strength of purpose outside the group is essential. In conjunction with that guidance, our child’s knowledge that we, as parents, have his back when he steps up, gives him the strength he needs to stand tall.

Teaching our children to give is the essence of our duty as parents. It’s an enormous undertaking, yet what better gift can we give our world than a child who “gives” herself in the fight against injustice, cruelty and inequality?

Bio: Darryl Nyznyk is a full-time storyteller and father of four grown daughters. As a parent, he began to take a hard look at the world around him – one of extreme political and social divisiveness – and as an author, he wanted to share the message with the world that he had been telling in his own home for years….a message of hope, love and faith. He is the author of Mary’s Son: A Tale of Christmas

***Enter the Mary’s Son: A Tale of Christmas contest!***

Readers: Comment on the post with what your favorite charity is and why. Darryl will choose a grand prize winner and match a donation of up to $100. The winner will also receive a signed copy of Mary’s Son. [Comments must be placed on the blog to be considered for the give-a-way]

What if you don’t win?  Or, maybe you just want to get the book now…Never fear!   Darryl is offering the e-book for only .99 cents the week of November 26 and then for only $2.99 all of December!