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WeekEND Reading: Carmela Martino talks about her gorgeously written historical fiction, PLAYING BY HEART, tenacity in publishing, being excited about what you write; math and music, and the little-known Agnesi sisters, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Sweeping historical novel set in 18th century Milan features bright, spirited girls well ahead of their time. 

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Carmela Martino completely transported me to the historical landscape of Italy where girls were destined to become ‘only’ a wife/mother or join the convent. Oh, but the Salvini sisters, Maria and Emilia, have so much more they want to do with their lives.

Emilia, ‘the second sister,’ wants nothing more than to marry a man who loves music as much as she does. Her sister, on the other hand, really desires to take the veil, but her father has insisted she become a scholar–her brilliant language skills are second to none (she has mastered seven!) and her math and astronomy studies are fearless. In fact, he hopes her skills land their large family in noble status.

Every character in PLAYING BY HEART has a strong desire to become something: a mother, a musician, a nun, a nobleman. Their desires are often incongruent with the 18th century culture of Milan. 

I found the writing lucid, the characters well developed, and the story straddling the YA/adult genre. Martino is a gifted storyteller that made the reading of PLAYING BY HEART an absolute joy. While PLAYING BY HEART is billed as a YA historical romance, I didn’t see it as that at all, but more of a determined (and bright) young girl searching for satisfaction in a life she wants so desperately.

Please join me in welcoming Carmela to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Carmela, I so loved this book. I found it inspiring but awed by its roots in history. Maria and Emilia Salvini, the sisters depicted in PLAYING BY HEART are based on actual sisters who lived in 18th century Milan: musician and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi (1720-1795) and mathematician and linguist Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799). Can you tell us a bit about how you came to ‘know’ these sisters?

Carmela Martino: First, off, let me say thanks so much for hosting this interview, Leslie, and for your insightful review of Playing by Heart.

I came to know the Agnesi sisters in a rather roundabout way. Even though I have an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history. I was appalled that there’d been no mention of 220px-Maria_Gaetana_Agnesiher in any of my math classes or textbooks. Maria Gaetana was a woman I could have looked up to as a role model had I known of her. After reading about her in that article, I began researching her life with the goal of writing a picture book biography to inspire girls who might be interested in math.

As I learned about Maria Gaetana’s life, I was again appalled. This time, because of all the misinformation about her, both in print and online. For example, the current Wikipedia entry states that her father was a math professor. This is false. Pietro Agnesi came from a family of silk merchants. He never taught math. He never even worked in the family business. It seems some writers assumed that the only way Maria Gaetana could have come by her math skills was by learning them from her father. I set out to write a biography of Maria Gaetana that would set the record straight and introduce people to this extraordinary woman, not only her scholarly accomplishments but also her work for the poor. During my research, I also learned about her sister Maria Teresa’s extraordinary musical talents. I’d never heard of her either, even though she’d been one of the first Italian women to compose a serious opera.Anonimo,_ritratto_della_compositrice_e_clavicembalista_maria_teresa_agnesi

After Candlewick Press published my middle-grade novel, ROSA SOLA in 2005, I submitted the picture book biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Maria Gaetana’s own writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Maria Gaetana’s personal life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by how both Maria Gaetana and Maria Teresa had struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness. And that’s how I came to write PLAYING BY HEART.  Unfortunately, even less is known about Maria Teresa’s life than about her older sister’s. But I was able to track down a music professor at the University of Chicago who is an expert on the music of 18th-century Milan and he helped me immensely.

I still hope to eventually find a publisher for my biography of Maria Gaetana. Meanwhile, I’ve created a website to help dispel some of the myths about her and her family. The page about Maria Teresa includes a YouTube video of one of her music compositions being performed.

L.L.: And yet PLAYING BY HEART was a hard book for you to write and sell. Like the sisters in the story, you were determined. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Carmela Martino: The amount of research required for this novel was rather daunting. I needed to understand the culture of 18-century Milan—the politics of the time, social standards, clothing, food, music, etc. The few primary documents I found were written in Italian. I have difficulty reading modern Italian, let alone Italian as it was written in the 1700s! I guess I really was determined, as you say, because I stuck with it. I ended up heavily fictionalizing the story of the Agnesi sisters to give me more freedom. I changed the family name to Salvini, and originally called the novel The Second Salvini Sister. It took me about 2 ½ years to get a solid draft. In September 2011, I sent that manuscript to the Candlewick editor who had originally suggested I write the novel. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

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You can imagine my disappointment, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know rejection is simply part of the process. I continued revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. I was encouraged when the manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to PLAYING BY HEART. The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. The contest successes meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel. The feedback I kept hearing was that PLAYING BY HEART was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for an online conference that included pitch sessions with editors. One of the editors was from Vinspire Publishing, a small press that looked like it could be a good match for my novel. With nothing to lose, I pulled PLAYING BY HEART out of the drawer and pitched it. The editor liked my pitch and eventually bought the novel.

L.L.: Which brings me to genre. As a writer, is this something we should concern ourselves with, or is it purely a marketing device?

Carmela Martino: That’s a great question and I’ve heard conflicting answers. I tell my writing students it’s good to know about the market, but that shouldn’t necessarily determine what you write. I believe the most important thing is to write the story that calls to you, that excites you. One of the biggest mistakes I see my students make is to choose their writing project based on what they think will sell. For example, when vampire stories were all the rage, some of my students who’d never even read a vampire novel began writing them. There are several problems with this. First off, if you’re not a fan of vampire novels, it’s going to be tough to stick with the hard work it takes to complete a novel-length story you’re not passionate about. And even if you manage to persevere, readers (and editors) will be able to tell that you weren’t as invested in the story as a writer who really cares about the genre.

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The reason I say it’s good to know about the market is so that you understand the expectations of readers of your genre, and also how to write a novel that complements what’s already been written. I’m a great fan of historical fiction and have been for many years. One of my favorite aspects of the genre is being immersed in the novel’s time and place, and glimpsing what it must have been like to live then. I also love learning about true historical events through fiction. As a result, I worked very hard to accomplish those things in PLAYING BY HEART. So I’m especially pleased with reviews from readers like you who say the novel transported them to 18th-century Milan.

L.L.: I understand you completed your MFA through Vermont College of the Fine Arts. I’ve been intrigued with their program, mostly because one of my favorite authors, Thomas Christopher Greene, is the president of the university. What can you tell us about the process of obtaining the MFA and the importance of having a ‘hive?’

Carmela Martino: The MFA program surpassed all my expectations. The school was called simply Vermont College when I was there, but it’s now the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). For those who may not be familiar with it, the VCFA MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program that takes two years to complete. At the start of each semester, students attend an intensive 10-day residency on campus in Montpelier, Vermont. The residency includes faculty and student presentations, critique workshops, readings, and guest lectures by some of the finest writers in children’s and YA lit. During the residency, students create a work plan for the coming semester and are assigned an advisor who reads and critiques your monthly packets of writing. The program is set up so that you work with a different advisor each semester.vcfa-college-building-72dpi1.jpg

My first semester, I was lucky enough to work with Newbery-honor winning author Marion Dane Bauer. I learned so much from her that I was disappointed that I had to switch to a new advisor my second semester, especially because I was in the middle of the first draft of a novel. But I eventually discovered that each advisor had different things to teach me. Each helped me make amazing leaps in my writing skills. Having to produce both a creative thesis (which turned out to be my middle-grade novel ROSA SOLA), and a critical thesis, meant I grew not only as a writer but in my ability to read critically, too.

The program is quite intense, but the environment is incredibly supportive and nurturing. I ended up forming a strong bond with those in my graduating class, several of whom were already award-winning authors before attending the program. There’s a tradition at VCFA for each graduating class to have a nickname, and our group was christened the “Hive” by a faculty member because we were always “buzzing” about something. We liked the name and called ourselves Bees. There were about fifteen writers in my class. After graduation, we formed a Yahoo group to stay in touch. Seventeen years later, that group still has eleven active members. Hardly a day goes by without someone posting to the group. We share industry buzz, commiserate over rejections, celebrate sales, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. The Bees live all over the United States, but we’ve had several mini-reunions and try to connect at conferences whenever possible. I don’t know how I could have stuck in this business without the support of the Hive, especially after my local critique group disbanded a few years ago.

L.L.: What are you working on now?

Carmela Martino: I’m working on a short story set in the same world as PLAYING BY HEART. I plan to give it away as a thank you gift to my newsletter subscribers. After that, I want to take another crack at the biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi.

L.L.: Since we’re in a season of indulgence, what are some of your guilty pleasures?

Carmela Martino: Well, food wise, I have a terrible sweet tooth. At Halloween, I make my husband hide the candy or I’d eat it all before the trick-or-treaters arrived. I typically don’t keep any candy, cookies or cakes in my house—it wouldn’t last long if I did. But during the holidays, I do indulge my sweet tooth at holiday gatherings.

My other guilty pleasure is reading fiction for fun. I tend to be a workaholic, and between writing, teaching, and blogging, I don’t have much spare time, so reading feels like a guilty pleasure. I’m part of a book club that reads books written for children and teens, so reading the 1-2 titles assigned for that each month is pretty 51ZLy2UkSFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_guiltfree. And I just finished an adult novel (a rarity for me): The Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace by Jennifer Chiaverini. Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. She was born less than 100 years after Maria Gaetana Agnesi. The Enchantress of Numbers helped me appreciate some of the parallels in the two women’s lives. And I was pleasantly surprised to find Maria Gaetana mentioned in the novel! (I talk a bit about the novel and two other of my favorite reads from this year in my blog post today at www.TeachingAuthors.com.

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

Carmela Martino: I’ve enjoyed it, too, Leslie. Thank you very much. Or, as Emilia Salvini would say, mille gracie!

I would add that I’m also a writing teacher. I enjoy teaching as much as I do writing, so it’s sometimes a challenge to balance the two. I’m part of a site called TeachingAuthors.com, a blog of writing and teaching tips by six published children’s/YA authors who are also writing teachers. My co-blogger April Halprin Wayland recently posted a guest TeachingAuthor interview with Paul Mosier and we’re hosting a giveaway of his acclaimed middle-grade novel, Train I Ride, through Dec. 20. I invite your readers to check out the blog and enter the giveaway if they’re interested.

I also send out a monthly Creativity Newsletter that includes updates about my publishing news and writing classes as well as creativity tips. Readers can subscribe to the newsletter on my website. If they’d like to read a recent issue first, they can find one here.

For more information, to connect with Carmela via social media, or to purchase a copy of PLAYING BY HEART, please see:

PR BW  portrait.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carmela Martino holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. Her middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick Press), was named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.” Her second novel, the young-adult historical romance Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing), took first place in the Young Adult category of the 2013 Windy City RWA Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. Carmela’s credits for teens and tweens also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and multiple editions of the annual Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Carmela has taught writing workshops for children and adults since 1998, and she blogs about teaching and writing at www.TeachingAuthors.com.

 

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of C. Martino. Image of ROSA, SOLA retrieved from Amazon; images of Agnesi sisters retrieved from Wikipedia, image of excited writer from, image of VCFA from the school’s website,  cover image of ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS from Amazon, 18th c. Milan from Wikipedia, all on 12.14.17]

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Wednesdays with Writers: Amy Impellizzeri is back with a mind-bending tale on truth, reinvention, addition, social media, and so much more in THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA

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By Leslie Lindsay

Dark, intricate, mind-bending tale of truth, addiction, and reinvention. 
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THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA is the third book for Impellizzeri, and it’s such a twisty, gripping ride, you’ll have to buckle up to follow the labyrinth through social media, addiction, and deceitful behavior.

Will is a recovering heroin addict turned counselor, for whom truth is important to recovery. But his past is dark and shrouded with secrets. Now, Will has Thea in his counseling group at Juniper Lane. Thea has been diagnosed with a pathological addition to social media and creating false identities for clients. But there are secrets, and lots of them as Will and Thea unwind this torrid web of deceit.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA is a dark, complex and gripping read. At times, it’s very mind-bending.

I can’t really say much more, or I may give away too much! Kudos to Amy Impellizzeri for this deeply plotted, richly told story.  Please join me in welcoming her back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Amy! Welcome back. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA. Can you tell us what was haunting you when you set out to write this, and why now?

Amy Impellizzeri: Wow. You hit the nail on the head here. I was indeed haunted at the time I wrote this book. I was struggling with the big enormous difference between the selves we hold out to the world and the selves we are stuck living with.  I’ve always thought of myself as a truly authentic person and trusted the authenticity of those in my private circle, but in the last few years the myths of social media and other private struggles (both my own and those of people close to me)  have made me question that perception. Writing this book was really cathartic, but it also helped me understand how truly layered the “truth” really is. 

L.L.: I found the writing dark, edgy and the voice of Thea very well developed. In many instances, I felt I really had to “read hard” to unravel the subtext. Also, I felt I might miss something. Was this intentional on your part, or maybe it was just being a bit…dull?

Amy Impellizzeri: I definitely hoped readers would respond to Thea Brown’s many layers in a positive way – and so far they have! I absolutely loved developing her. I love her voice – it was so different for me to write, and really freeing to write. There are hidden clues all the way through this story to lead you to the final twist – but no one has admitted to picking up on them yet! Kudos to you for the hard read of the subtext! At the same time, though, I don’t really want anyone to guess the ending. My hope is that readers will indeed by stunned, and then want to go back and re-read once they get to the end.

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L.L.: There’s a big, giant piece of reinvention in THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA. Many of the addicts at Juniper Lane are restructuring their lives. I enjoyed meeting the characters in the inpatient substance abuse unit. I felt the portrayal of their stories very authentic. Can you tell us what research you did to get that part right?

Amy Impellizzeri: The characters at Juniper Lane were so important to “get right.” I’m sure – like so many – my life has been touched by many beautiful souls struggling with depression, addiction, and other demons. The patients at Juniper Lane became the aggregate of that personal experience. I love them all, but I confess a special soft spot for Cassandra – who is based loosely on a real person, with her permission.

L.L.: And following up on that reinvention theme. Names become a big deal in THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA. Thea is derived from a figure in Greek mythology meaning ‘truth,’ and also Will Cann comes about his name in an organic sort of way. Plus, there are a few others in the mix that have a deeper subtext. Cassandra, though it’s not spelled out in the story, is also based on  a Greek myth about truth. Can you talk about how these names worked their way into the narrative?

220px-Cassandra1.jpegAmy Impellizzeri: Ah! You’re the first person to pick up on the Cassandra reference. I love your careful eye! Names are often a hard thing for me. I get attached to names from the beginning, making it impossible to change them during the writing process. So I spent some time carving out the names in this story from the beginning. I researched several Greek myths until I came to the “Thea means Truth” revelation. And at the time I started this novel, I didn’t know any Thea’s so it was perfect! Now, of course, I have met lots of Thea’s. Funny how that works.

L.L.: THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA seems like it might require a good amount of intricate plotting. What’s your process like and did anything change drastically during the writing?

Amy Impellizzeri: This was definitely my most ambitious plot to date. I sketched it out carefully from the beginning – which is NOT my usual process.  I knew exactly where I was going. But I confess that there were still some necessary detours along the way.  I had to allow for changes and evolutions – right up until the end. For example, the nuances of Elizabeth Barrett’s storyline developed in a much later draft and surprised even me!

L.L.: I think it would be fair to ask what’s obsessing YOU?

Amy Impellizzeri: Lately, I’m obsessed with authenticity,  empathy, and karma. 

L..L.: Amy, it’s been such a pleasure! Before we go, what’s on your bucket-list for 2018?

Amy Impellizzeri: Finishing my next novel! I’m working on a story that is set in the political scene of one of my favorite cities -Washington D.C. – and yet it’s not really a political book. It’s called WHY WE LIE. I guess I’m not quite done with this authenticity theme yet, can you tell?!

L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Amy Impellizzeri: Well, it’s only just been announced – so you might not have heard – Francis Ford Coppola likes THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA! Well, at least enough to include it in a special new gift from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery as part of their inaugural Books & Bottles package – a curated box of wine, customized recipes, playlists, fiction and more!

For more information, to connect with Amy via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA, please see:

image1ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Impellizzeri is a reformed corporate litigator, former start-up exec, and award-winning author. After spending a decade at one of the top law firms in the country, Amy left to advocate for working women, eventually landing at a VC-backed start-up company, Hybrid Her (named by ForbesWoman as a top website for women in 2010 and 2011), while writing her first novel, LEMONGRASS HOPE (Wyatt-MacKenzie 2014), named a 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Bronze Winner (Romance). Her sophomore novel, SECRETS OF WORRY DOLLS was released on December 1, 2016, and was an Editor’s Pick in Foreword Reviews Magazine.
Amy’s third novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT THEA, released in October 2017.

Amy’s first non-fiction book, LAWYER INTERRUPTED, was published by the American Bar Association in May 2015 and has been featured in TheAtlantic.com, Above the Law, ABC27, and more.

Amy is a Tall Poppy Writer, Past President of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a contributor to She is Fierce! and Women Writers, Women’s Books. Amy’s essays and articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Glass Hammer, Divine Caroline, ABA’s Law Practice Today, and Skirt! Magazine, among more.

Amy currently lives in rural Pennsylvania where she works and plays and keeps up on all of the latest research confirming that large volumes of coffee are indeed good for you.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of A. Impellizzeri and used with permission. Image of Greek goddess Cassandra retrieved from Wikipedia on 12.07.17, image of books and ‘believe’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archieves. “Truth” image from.]

Wednesdays with Writers: Poetic and lyrical Rene Denfeld on our fascination with lost children, memory, imagination, the Oregon wilderness, and so much more in THE CHILD FINDER

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By Leslie Lindsay 

An exquisitely written tale of s little girl lost, her striking imagination and how we often have to be lost in order to be found. 

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I found THE CHILD FINDER to be disturbing and haunting and I was absolutely spell-bound, not wanting to sit the book down. In fact, I didn’t; I read THE CHILD FINDER in one day. While the story is ultimately bleak (there’s hope, though), it’s dazzlingly written. It’s lush, melodic, while at the same time, stark.

A bit about the plot: Maddie Culver goes missing in the Oregon wilderness while her family is cutting down their Christmas tree. It’s been three years. Her parents are beside themselves and insist she’s still alive. But three years is a long time. The Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny ability to find lost children.

Diving into the icy, remote Skookum Forest, Naomi attempts to uncover all possibilities, unearthing old mines, digging up old homesteads, and stalking out the corner grocery. 

And then another–unrelated case–presents itself. Naomi doesn’t like taking two cases at once, but she’s drawn to the circumstances.

Yet, there’s something mysterious about Naomi herself–something tugging at her and making us as readers feel her urgency. Who is Naomi and what does her past hold?

Please join me in welcoming Rene to the blog couch:

Leslie Lindsay: Rene, I devoured THE CHILD FINDER. I know you have a background in journalism, but also investigator work and you’re a foster parent. Was it all of those things that inspired THE CHILD FINDER, or was it something else?

Rene Denfeld: Thank you for having me! THE CHILD FINDER was inspired by my investigative work—I’ve been a licensed investigator now for over a decade. I’ve worked hundreds of cases, including missing persons. It was also inspired by my amazing kids. I adopted three kids from foster care and have fostered others. I think both experiences came together in this novel, along with my love of poetry.

L.L.: I have to say, I haven’t read many books set in Oregon, but now I’m seeking them out. My family and I visited Oregon for the first time this past summer. It’s a beautiful state! And haunting, too…the geological formations, the way one can go from forest to desert to mountains and sea in a matter of hours. I found THE CHILD FINDER to be so atmospheric. Are you an Oregon native? What more can you tell us about the location of the Skookum National Forest?

Rene Denfeld: I grew up here in Oregon. It is such a beautiful state! You can go from the beach to snowy mountains to flinty desert reservations here in a day. Growing up here I also learned about our heritage, which comes through in the novel. I populated
the novel with real Oregonians, from city folk to rural farmers to those who live the same lives their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
But as beautiful our wildernesses, Oregon can also be dangerous. Every year dozens of people go missing in our endless forests. For that reason I named the remote snowy mountain region in the novel after a native word for “dangerous place.” That’s what Skookum means, and the region is modeled after our real mountains ranges.oregon_hike.jpg

L.L.: Madison Culver has such a rich imagination. She loves fairy tales and has a colorful interior world. I think there’s a place in the book that talks about her ability to cope to be extreme. Can you talk about how creativity and imagination lead to resilience?

Rene Denfeld: I love this subject. You know, I’ve written about how I survived extreme abuse and poverty as a child. My sanctuary was the local library, where I lost myself in the world of books. Stories saved my life—literally. I learned to imagine myself into a different world. Doing the work I do, and being a therapeutic foster parent, I believe the key to survival is in power of our imaginations. Think about it. If you have an imagination, you can imagine yourself in a different future.
You can imagine the steps it would take to go to college, or be a better parent than the one you had. This is why it is so important that we teach imagination, and literacy. Once a child has an imagination the future is limitless. They can make claim to their own story, their right to exist in this world. They can create a sense of self.

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L.L.: Lost children seem to be a tormented fascination of mine. I think I’m in good company, because there are plenty of books surrounding this theme. Yet, they are all unique. Why do you think readers are so fascinated with this topic? Why are you?

Rene Denfeld: That’s such a good question. I think it goes layers deep. There is the fear losing something  precious to us—the thought strikes terror into any parent. Then there is the fear of being lost ourselves, of not being able to be found. One reason I think readers are fascinated with the topic is because there are so many times in life we all feel lost or trapped. Right now a lot of people in our country feel lost and trapped. We want to know a way out of the wilderness. We are desperate to find the path home. Much of THE CHILD FINDER is about that journey. It is about our capacity to find each other, even in the worst circumstances when everyone is telling us it is too late. At heart it is a story of hope. It is about courage, faith and redemption. As the novel says, it is never too late to be found.

L.L.: Do you have any writing rituals or routines? About how long does it take you to get a first draft of a manuscript written? Are you a pantser or plotter?

Rene Denfeld: I am a poetic pantser! Once I hear the voice of a character the story comes pouring out. For me writing is pure deliciousness. It is like falling down the rabbit hole and waking up in a new world. I get so absorbed that my kids can walk in the room and wave their hands in my face and I am just…gone. That said it isn’t all easy. The hard work for me is after that first draft pours out. That’s when I have to take a more sensitive editorial role, guiding the story, which by then feels and is real people to me. It usually takes me about a year to write a novel.

L.L.: I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood. I just completed writing a memoir. There were so many things I had to look up on Google. Toys I played with, books I read, clothes I wore. I wanted to make sure I got it right. Do you think we can accurately recall our childhoods? What, if anything from your childhood do you still yearn for, even a little?

Rene Denfeld: That’s such a wise point. I’m fascinated with memory. I had a therapist tell me once, “it is the feeling that matters.” We approach memory like a court of law, wanting every fact to be right. Of course if it is about a court of law and there is an accusation, that is the way to go! But when it comes to our daily lives I think its okay to let some of our memories be dreams, colored by time and want and desire or sadness. I admire you for writing a memoir. It frustrates me when I see memoirists get criticized for not getting some fact perfect. You can have five people in a family and all will have different memories of the same event, even if they were all there. That’s part of the beauty of humanity to me.

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

Rene Denfeld: It’s been wonderful! The only thing I can think of is great books I’ve read lately. I love to share with readers! Some great books out now include Andrea Jarrell’s memoir I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY, Alice Anderson’s memoir SOME BRIGHT MORNING I’LL FLY AWAY, Jacqueline Woodson’s ANOTHER BROOKLYN, and Gayle Brandies THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS.

For more information about the book, to connect with Rene via social media, or to order a copy of THE CHILD FINDER, please see:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rene is the author of the acclaimed novels The Child Finder and THE ENCHANTED, as well as essays in publications such as the New York Times. Rene’s new literary thriller, THE CHILD FINDER, explores themes of survival, resiliency and redemption  It has received much acclaim, including a starred Library Journal review, major press, and an Indie Next pick. Landing as  the #1 fiction bestseller at Powell’s within its first week, THE CHILD FINDER became a top #10 bestseller in Canada and a bestseller in the United States.

Rene’s lyrical, beautiful writing is inspired by her work with sex trafficking victims and innocents in prison. Rene was the Chief Investigator at a public defender’s office and has worked hundreds of cases. In addition to her advocacy work, Rene has been a foster adoptive parent for twenty years. She will be awarded the Break The Silence Award at the 24th Annual Knock Out Abuse Gala in Washington, DC on November 2, 2017, in recognition for her advocacy and social justice work.

The child of a difficult history herself, Rene is an accomplished speaker who loves connecting with others. Rene lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is the happy mom of three kids adopted from foster care.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins and used with permission Image of Oregon forest retrieved from,. Girl in library from bbc.com, childhood memories from; all retrieved on 10.30.17. Fall Wreath from L.Lindsay’s personal archives]. 

WeekEND Reading: Rachel Khong talks about how we’re all taking care of one another imperfectly, as best we can, memory, her fondness for random facts, how long drives feed her creativity well, and so much more in GOODBYE, VITAMIN

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Off-beat, slightly quirky but oh-so well done tale of love, loss, fathers and daughters, and memory. 

download (1)Clever, tender and wry, GOODBYE, VITAMIN is a study of one family, their descent into decay and then back out again…maybe. It’s a poignant read that sneaks up on you and is filled with such beautiful vignettes of life, love, relationships (romantic, between siblings, father-daughter, mother-daughter). I laughed, I cried, I was reminded of my own childhood, sweet things my father did (Post-It notes every morning), and so much more.

Ruth is 30 years old and recently disengaged from her fiance, Joel when her father’s heath declines and she is ‘called home’ to San Francisco from the east coast to support her mother and mind her father. Her father was once a prominent history professor but now is doing odd, flaky things. Yet his love for his daughter is palpable. 

I’m so honored to welcome Rachel Khong to the blog. Pull up a chair and join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Rachel, it’s a pleasure to chat with you about your debut, GOODBYE, VITAMIN. As I was reading, I had to flip to the back jacket to make sure this wasn’t a memoir. It’s not—as far as I know. What prompted this story? Are there any parallels to your real-life?

Rachel Khong:  What prompted this story was the voice of the main character, Ruth. I wrote a short story in her voice and loved it so much I decided to keep doing it in novel format. This book was definitely inspired by my experience as a woman, thinking about the things that a lot of young women think about—namely, failed relationships and whether or not they “count” for something. And I was thinking a lot about memory, and the role that it plays in our relationships, whether with our friends or family, or with ourselves. Memory is so flawed, and yet it makes us who we are.

“A CATALOGUE OF DAYS, A LOVE SONG TO THEIR EPHEMERA, A COLLECTION OF SNAPSHOTS OF QUOTIDIAN CELEBRATIONS AND FAILURES. THE SUM OF THESE BEATS IS A BOOK THAT UNEXPECTEDLY STRIPS YOU DOWN AND LEAVES YOU FEELING MORE FORGIVING—AND FORGIVEN.”

—STEPHANIE DANLER, AUTHOR OF SWEETBITTER

L.L.: GOODBYE, VITAMIN is slightly unconventional in terms of storytelling. There are no chapters; instead, each section is a date over the course of a year; it’s book one could easily finish in a single sitting. But I am sure it took you at least a year to write. Can you tell us a little about your structure and also your time line for writing?

Rachel Khong: It took me more like six years, actually! I always intended to write a book that could be read in a single sitting, because I wanted to be a really 16906138immersive book— a book that would take you away from your real life, and into the lives of these characters, however briefly. I love when an author can get his or her rhythms lodged into your brain, and I wanted that to happen with this book. As for the structure itself, I really wanted it to mimic the day-to-day miscellany of life—for it to contain both the ups and the downs, and for it to be a reflection of those sometimes quieter moments that don’t make it into the grand story we tell ourselves about our lives. But because the book’s form isn’t a straightforward A to B, or particularly plot driven, the revision often wasn’t straightforward either: the process of writing it involved a lot of reflection and accumulation of small details that got layered into the book.

L.L.: I found that there are so many factoids in GOODBYE, VITAMIN that caught me by surprise—not just about Alzheimer’s but about not flushing your (presumed dead) goldfish down the toilet. (I actually had to look those images up on Google!) The origin of the word testify…only fresh materials on the floats in the Rose Bowl parade…I’m curious what—if any—research you did for this book?sZaypU6v

Rachel Khong: For me, writing fiction is a big tangled mess of autobiography, observation, imagination, and also research. You also asked about the writing process—sometimes, when you can’t do one kind of writing, or when your imagination well has run dry, you can at least draw from autobiography, or observation, or just straight-up reading. When I didn’t know what would happen next in the book, sometimes it was useful to do research on topics I was interested in. I did a lot of reading about Alzheimer’s caregivers on online forums, but it’s also true that I have a fondness for fun facts. Again, this is a book about memory, so I’m interested in what random things get lodged in our brains. All our brains are repositories for such strange things.

L.L.: Ruth is given this beautiful gift from her father—a notebook of musings and observations he kept of her younger days. How I love this (and wished I had done something similar for my girls—guess it’s not too late, they are 10 and 12). Is this something your dad has done for you? Mine left rhyming Post-It notes for me each morning which I still treasure.

Rachel Khong: Definitely not. My parents are both civil engineers and not big readers or writers—I’m a black sheep in that way. My dad did make me lunches throughout school—they were always the same: one or two slices of cold cut turkey and a thin layer of mayo, between wheat bread. Keeping a journal is something I hope to do for my kids if I ever have them, though!  Fresh lemons on the rustic tale

L.L.: I think GOODBYE, VITAMIN is a bit of that reversal we all experience in life. First our parents care for us and then we care for them. Was this your intention when you set out to write?

Rachel Khong: I didn’t have any clear-cut intentions when I set out to write, more questions than answers. I was interested in this idea that we are all sort of winging it through life. Your parents are winging it, even as they’re parenting you. We’re all taking care of one another imperfectly, as best we can. 

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

Rachel Khong: This year has been so crazy (two books, lots of travel, I also got married) that I forgot to get a smog check for my car for, oh, six months? In that time, I’ve gotten two tickets for expired registration. I finally just got my smog check, so I hope the DMV sends me my sticker soon!

L.L.: Where do you draw your creative inspiration?

Rachel Khong: Good books! And good comedy. And long walks are helpful for shaking ideas loose. Also long drives.

L.L.: Rachel, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for chatting with us today—and congrats on GOODBYE, VITAMIN. Is there anything else I should have asked?

Rachel Khong: It was my pleasure and honor! Thank you for having me!

For more information, to connect with Rachel via social media, or to purchase a copy of GOODBYE, VITAMIN, please see: 

200058641ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Khong grew up in Southern California, and holds degrees from Yale University and the University of Florida. From 2011 to 2016, she was the managing editor then executive editor of Lucky Peach magazine. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in JOYLAND, American Short Fiction, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and California Sunday. She lives in San Francisco. GOODBYE, VITAMIN is her first novel.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Henry Holt. Image of trivia brain from brainblasttrivia.com, rustic lemons from actively.com, day-at-a-glance image retrieved from target.com, all on 10.7.17]

 

Special Pub Day Edition: Debut author Bryn Greenwood talks about ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, how writing about the hard stuff is important, how this is NOT autobiographical, and more–now available in PAPERBACK!

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By Leslie Lindsay 

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is as raw as it is compassionate. A writer I know sometimes says, “I was brave on the page today,” and that’s exactly what I think of Wavonna (Wavy), the main character in this title, as well as the debut author Bryn Greenwood. She was brave on the page and there’s truth to it right here–she’s the daughter of a (mostly reformed) drug dealer just like Wavy, and she has a habit of falling in love with much older men, and perhaps she also not just brave on the page, but “writes what she knows.”

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This is a brave, insightful read from a very talented new writer and I thoroughly enjoyed the language and rhythm to the prose, however, I will say that this is not a book for everyone. It’s a bit like LOLITA meets…I’m not sure. Be prepared for some rawness and uncomfortable things going on in ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS.

We first meet Wavy (short for Wavonna) when she is just 5 years old. She’s got a creepy-goofy mom whom she’s often scared of, especially when mom’s high. Her dad’s no better. Wavy keeps her mouth shut and stays out of sight. Selectively mute, she eats in secret, and finds many others hard to trust. That is until she meets Kellen (Also known as Jesse Joe Barfoot). Kellen is much older than Wavy (who is now 8 years old), yet they are in love. Or perhaps it’s more brotherly at first, him protecting her while she’s a vulnerable child and her parents are too strung out to parent. But then a love definitely develops.

Tragedy rips the family apart and well-meaning aunt steps in. There’s foster care, drugs, jail time, death/murder/suicide and so much more in this gorgeously told literary suspense ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS.

So, grab your cup of coffee and join me as we get to know Bryn Greenwood.

Leslie Lindsay: Oh goodness, I just finished ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS and I have to say, the title is quite fitting. Are you one of those writers who can’t set pen to paper before knowing a title, or does it develop organically?

Bryn Greenwood: It’s important for me to have a working title that resonates with me, but always with the awareness that it probably won’t end up being the title the book is published under. The working title for ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS was rather unimpressively THIRTEEN, in reference to Wavy’s age when her life changes dramatically. It’s a good thing I don’t get too attached to my working titles, as this book actually went through three title changes on its road to publication. The line referencing “all the ugly and wonderful things” existed from the first draft, however, so it was fitting that it ended up being the title.

L.L.: So…”writing what you know,” I have to say, I also love memoir and as I’m reading, there’s so much truth and raw honesty with your characters and the situations they get themselves into, yet ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is not a memoir. Can you discuss your understanding of the difference between “writing what you know” and a full-fledged memoir?

Bryn Greenwood: Writing a memoir would require me to take careful stock of a lot of memories, and do a lot of research to fact check the events of my life. It would also require me to decide how many people I’m willing to be estranged from. Writing what I know, however, allows me to pick and choose from the things I remember vividly and fill in the blanks with people and events of my own imagination. Still, I feel that fiction calls upon the same level of introspection and emotional honesty as memoir. In terms of ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, is some of it true? Yes. My father was a drug dealer, and I’ve done and seen some pretty crazy things as a result. Do some of the characters resemble people I knew? Without a doubt. At the age of thirteen I started an intense love affair with a man more than twice my age. He and I are both in these pages in some very filtered form. Does it approach autobiography? Absolutely not.

L.L.: Many folks are comparing ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS to LOLITA. Talk about a narrative with lots of uncomfortable situations! How do you respond to those comparisons?220px-lolita_1955

Bryn Greenwood: I’m a big fan of Nabokov, and I think LOLITA is an incredible novel, perhaps even one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Breaking it down to its bare bones, though, it doesn’t have anything in common with ALL THE UGLY AND
WONDERFUL THINGS. Humbert Humbert is a sexual predator who marries a single mother and, following her convenient death, kidnaps her daughter for what I can only describe as a cross-country pedophilic rape-fest. As a first person narration, we have only Humbert’s perspective on his relationship with Lolita, and I don’t trust him. ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS has none of those plot elements, and the characters involved are quite different, as is the dynamic of their relationship. Yes, there’s an increasingly uncomfortable and inappropriate relationship between a young girl, Wavy, and Kellen, a man thirteen years her senior, but I do not consider Kellen a predator or a pedophile. Also it is my hope that the multiple narrative angles allow readers to see a much more balanced view of their relationship and come to their own conclusions.

“Greenwood’s powerful, provocative debut chronicles a desolate childhood and a discomfiting love affair… It’s no storybook romance, but the novel closes on a note of hard-won serenity, with people who deserve a second chance gathered together….Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental.”

~Kirkus Reviews (STARRED)

L.L.: What did you learn about yourself writing ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS?

Bryn Greenwood: I learned that there are things I thought I’d let go of that still have their hooks in me. This was simultaneously a happy and a sad lesson, because some of the things that still have a hold on me are full of sorrow, while others are full of joy. Accessing some of those memories allowed me to release a lot of the shame that other people had pressed upon me. As a society, we have a few set narratives about certain things, like the way “inappropriate” relationships between young people and older people are viewed and discussed. The approved narrative is that the younger person is a victim. If you have an experience that doesn’t fit, or if you decline to identify with being a victim, people will try to shame you. If you won’t be a victim, then there must be something wrong with you seems to be the message. Writing this book, I was able to shrug off that shame for something more constructive.

I also learned that I’m more stubborn than I knew I was, and I thought I was pretty stubborn. I received a lot of rejections on this book, but at no point did I consider giving up.

L.L.: There are so many things going on in this story, but it’s all handled well. In some ways, it feels like a mystery/thriller and in other regards, it feels a bit like…well, a coming of age romance, though I cringe to liken it to romance, because it’s not really that. Plus, the writing is very lyrical, polished, and emotionally resonate. Perhaps it’s literary fiction. What genre do you feel ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is? And in the end, does genre matter?

Bryn Greenwood: I think of it primarily as literary/mainstream fiction. It obviously has many hallmarks of a coming of age story–for several of the characters–but there are a lot of other elements at play within the story, as you observe. Like you, I hesitate to think of it as romance, because romance novels tend to glorify and glamorize the love stories they tell. Although ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS definitely contains a love story, it’s not particularly romantic. That said, I suspect genre only matters as much as we tell ourselves it does. I read across all genres, and I know from the contents of my inbox that readers of all kinds have connected with my book.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away after reading ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS?

Bryn Greenwood: I hope that most readers will simply spend some time thinking about the issues that surround the characters: drug abuse, neglect, family, love, loss, food. As much as we want life to be black and white, there’s a whole lot of gray. I think we get to that understanding, and to sympathy, by acknowledging the issues that inhabit that gray area.

For readers who find that the book makes them uncomfortable, I hope they will spend a little time thinking of other readers for whom this book is a mirror. Wavy and Kellen’s lives may seem alien or repulsive, but there are people who have lived or are living these lives. Those people deserve to see their stories told with sincerity just as much as anyone else.

“It’s a troubling tale, but the rich characterization makes it all but impossible to set aside.” 

~St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Best Books of 2016

L.L.: I’m a bit curious about place and how that affects us as writers. Or, does it? I understand you’re a fourth generation Kansan. I’m at least a fifth generation Missourian. I’m drawn to raw, uncensored stories about family, love, and human behavior. Could just be me, but perhaps there’s some mid-America influence there. Can you share your thoughts on that?

Bryn Greenwood: Although I’ve written about other places, I feel like much of my writing is informed by my family connection to Kansas, and to the West. [See Bryn’s website to glimpse her other writing] Part of that is this sense of a massive, flat, open space, of being able to see not just the next town twenty miles away, but the actual curvature of the earth. I always feel like I’m trying to bring that breadth of vision to my writing. The other element of place that crops up in my work is this damned impenetrable stubbornness. During the Dust Bowl, when a 220px-dust-storm-texas-1935lot of people fled from Western Kansas, my family stayed, possibly out of pure bullheadedness. That bleeds through in how we feel about our relationships and our place in the world. We can be very insular, but are passionate and loyal. 

L.L.: In fact, as I’m reading ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, I’m reminded of several other titles that are written (and set) by Missouri authors (Laura McHugh’s THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD comes to mind as does Daniel Woodrell’s WINTER’S BONE). What stories, authors, and genres influence you? What ignites your creative spark?

Bryn Greenwood: I read all different genres, because I never know where I’ll stumble across the kinds of stories and characters I love. I enjoy sci fi and fantasy, often because I feel like the same thing that lets them cross the boundaries of our reality lets them access emotions and relationships that we don’t always find in contemporary fiction. (Some of my current recommendations are Sherri L. Smith, Holly Black, and always Ursula K. LeGuin.) I’m a big believer in reading work by women, because we’ve so often been silenced. Some of my favorites are Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, and Isabelle Allende.

L.L.: I understand you used to work with Planned Parenthood. Can you tell us a bit about that? This particular experience netted you a good number of publications.

Bryn Greenwood: In the 1990s I worked at Planned Parenthood of Kansas (Now PP Great Plains) as a sex educator. As is the nature of teaching, it was hugely educational for me. I did hundreds of presentations for high school students, social services clients, inmates at juvenile and adult facilities. I saw so much of humanity and heard so many stories that I was radically changed in my understanding of the world. I can’t help but feel a lot of that experience comes through in my writing as well. In terms of what I tweeted about in the aftermath of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shootings last year, that whole experience is a great illustration about social media. You cannot control what catches people’s attention. It turned out that a lot of people wanted to know more about what I’d experienced as a Planned Parenthood employee.

L.L.: What question should I have asked but forgot?

 Bryn Greenwood: One of my favorite things to ask other writers is what newspapers, websites, etc. they like to read on a casual basis, because I’m interested in people’s daily mental perambulations. Of course, having mentioned this, I now have to admit that I love reading trashy tabloids online. I think it’s that underneath all the celebrity gossip and Florida crime reports, I know there are real stories. I like to imagine what has really happened behind all the sordid and sensationalist nonsense. Tabloids render it all as grotesque– “Famous Athlete Arrested in Altercation at Strip Club” or “Florida Woman Shoots Husband and His Lover, Her Own Mother” –but I enjoy trying to develop narratives for the headlines that reveal actual people having actual human emotions.

L.L.: Bryn, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for chatting with us today.

Bryn Greenwood: Thank you for inviting me to talk about my book and all my random obsessions. It’s been wonderful, Leslie!

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ALL THE UGLY AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS is now available in PAPERBACK. You can also find Bryn Greenwood ON TOUR this fall in the Midwest:

For more information on ALL THE UGLY AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS, or to connect with Bryn Greenwood via social media, please see: 

bryn-greenwood-credit-jennifer-stewart-newlinAuthor Bio: Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned a MA in Creative Writing and continues to work in academia as an administrator. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is her debut novel. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where she is married to an extensive home remodeling project, and is raising a small herd of boxers and hairless cats.

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

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Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1

[Special thanks to K. Bassel at SMP. Author and cover images courtesy of SMP and used with permission. Lolita cover image retrieved from Wikipedia on 9.8.16, Dust Bowl image also retrieved from Wikipedia.] 007.JPG

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

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By Leslie Lindsay CROWSCOVER.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more can you tell us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WeekEND Reading: NYT Bestselling author or THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR talks about being an emotional writer, why we like being frightened (in a safe environment), new beginnings, and more in her stunning new psych thriller, A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Last summer, Shari Lapena burst on the psychological thriller scene with her runaway bestseller, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR. They were young, attractive, a sweet baby…and yet.

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She’s back with another stunning story—one that will have you flipping the pages so fast, they might ignite. A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE (Viking, August 15) is perfect for those who love fast-paced domestic psychological thrillers ready for the beach, or backyard, or airplane, or wherever you happen to be reading from. And trust me, you will read this in a weekend. Easy.

A woman with a secret—multiple, faceted secrets—and a husband who doesn’t know what to believe when his wife is found on the wrong side of town in a car crash she doesn’t remember, or is trying hard to forget. A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE is one of those stories, that once you think you  have it figured out, it changes a bit. Signature twists and turns only Shari Lapena can do; I raced through A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE and didn’t want it to end.

Join me in welcoming Shari Lapena back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Shari, I loved this book. I read it on vacation—the driving sort—when I wasn’t helping my husband navigate or taking in the scenery, or minding the kiddos, my nose was in this book. The story haunted me as I read it, so I wonder: what was haunting you as you wrote this one? What was the seed?

Shari Lapena: Thanks, Leslie! I’m so glad to hear it haunted you!  I’m interested in the secrets people keep from one another and the very different kinds of lives one person can live within one lifetime. Sometimes people have pasts that they are running from, or want to keep buried because they want a new beginning. That was the situation with Karen. I wanted her to have her new beginning, but it’s hard to outrun your past.

L.L.: You have a former career as a criminal attorney. How does that experience color your fiction world? For example, there were some lawyer-meetings and legalese in A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE. Perhaps had you not had a background in law, you would have had to do some research?

Shari Lapena: Oh no, I was never a criminal attorney. I practiced commercial law mostly, and only for a couple of years. I’ve never thought my law practice influenced me much in my writing, but I did find that this one started turning into a bit of a legal thriller, which surprised me. I probably would have had to do more research than I did had I not gone to law school.

“Smart, twisty and compulsive. Suspense and suspicion accumulate relentlessly, toying with your expectations and your emotions right up until the packs-a-punch ending. Don’t miss it, and don’t expect to be able to put it down.”

—Gilly Macmillan, New York Times bestselling author of WHAT SHE KNEW

L.L.: There are definitely some unsettling situations in A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE—the main character—Karen is badly injured in a car accident on the ‘wrong’ side of town (not a spoiler, it’s all on the back cover). There’s the friend/neighbor who’s a bit ‘off’…a reference to infertility, another to domestic violence. It’s all very authentic and a bit of a wreck, yet we can’t stop reading, we can’t stop worrying about these characters. Why do you think we enjoy feeling unsettled?

Shari Lapena: I’m not entirely sure. Why do people enjoy horror movies and riding on roller coasters? We seem to like to be frightened, but in relatively safe circumstances. Perhaps it’s a way of letting off steam or exploring emotions without the actual danger.

L.L.: Can you talk a little about your process? I am curious if a situation (plot) presents itself to you first or if a character sort of ‘appears?’ Or is there something else that influences your writing?

Shari Lapena: With me it always starts with a situation and a character. I have never been able to come up with a plot fully formed without writing most of the book first. I start with a premise that interests me and has a lot of potential to take off in different directions and different ways. For instance, I had the idea of a housewife who has an accident in a bad part of town, and I knew a murder would soon be discovered. There are so many ways that can go that it gives me a lot to work with as I get to know the characters and what they’re like. Other than this starting premise, I really didn’t know what the book was going to be about. But the characters take shape and do things that affect the plot and things happen that affect the characters and it progresses. It’s all very organic for me.

L.L. Creative folks are inspired by other ‘Creatives.’ In fact, on vacation, I stumbled into several art galleries, feeling moved by the landscapes, the sculpture, the instrumental music in the background. It made me want to write. What (or whom) influences—or ignites—your writing?

Shari Lapena: I love paintings, but I can’t say they inspire me to write.  My inspiration is all from ideas, feelings, and situations that elicit an emotional response in me. I’m an emotional writer. I like to keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration. The rest is discipline.

L.L.: What was the last thing that scared you? Does anything frighten—or provoke anxiety—in your writing?

Shari Lapena: Yesterday an idiot in a truck cut across four lanes of traffic and almost hit me. That scared me. Random things like that, where other people behave badly, even murderously, over which you have no control, scare me. When I’m writing, I love it when my characters have that feeling of chaos, of losing control, of escalating dread. For some reason, my readers seem to like it too.

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

Shari Lapena: Q: What are you looking forward to reading next?

A: I’ve just got A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, about an old aristocrat held captive by the Bolsheviks and then the Soviets under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel for thirty years.  I’ve heard it’s brilliant.51YCzUi5OJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)

L.L.: Shari, it’s been a pleasure, as always! Thank you and enjoy the rest of summer.

Shari Lapena: Thank you—for reading and for inviting me to your comfy blog couch!

For more information, to connect with Shari via social media, or to get your own copy of A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE, please visit: 

DSC_0481-300x200ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shari Lapena worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She has written two award-winning literary novels, and her suspense debut, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, was a New York Times and an international bestseller. A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE is her second thriller.

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

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House/Viking. Author photo credit: Tristan Ostler.]

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

We’re dealing with a very dysfunctional blended family. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase EMMA IN THE NIGHT here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Bianca Marais to the blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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