Tag Archives: Leslie Lindsay

Wednesdays with Writers: A riveting new look at ‘the quest for rest,’ the mysteries of sleep, dreams, its tie to creativity; how structure for books is like the frame of a house; his worry about teen screen time, and so much more in Michael McGirr’s SNOOZE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A fascinating and insightful collection of essays and thoughts on sleep, why we do it and so much more. 

Snooze
I absolutely loved this book! 

SNOOZE: The Lost Art of Sleep is a great read and so very different from anything I’ve ever read on the subject.While it’s billed as non-fiction, it is not a textbook;  it’s not a how-to sleep hygiene book, either. One might call it part memoir, part essays on sleep-related topics, part survey in western civilization, and part pop psychology intermingled with a little hard scienceIn fact, SNOOZE is a bit like FREAKANOMICS, Sleep edition (if there were one) or Malcolm Gladwell meets Bill Bryson…on sleep.

Here’s a sampling of topics: Sleep disorders, beds (making those beds), staying in bed, medications designed to help induce sleep (and side-effects), philosophy, the demise of sleep in our fragmented world, famous people and their quirks (Flo Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Homer, Plato, Thomas Edison, Shakespeare, etc.), even the effect of war/PTSD on sleep. 

There were some laugh out loud moments as McGirr, a former Jesuit priest talks about his sermons, life as a priest, then parenting…not just *a* child, but a toddler and *then* a set of twins. Not to worry, the narrative doesn’t get bogged down with parenting asides; SNOOZE is very focused writing (and reading).

I found McGirr witty and delightful and kind of think this would make a great download (48)audio book read by the author. 

Oh, and he’s here today to chat with us about his book, what keeps him awake and so much more.

Leslie Lindsay: Michael, it’s a great pleasure. Thanks for popping by. Sleep is by far one of my favorite…uh…pastimes. Does that make me seem dull? Actually, I work and play hard, too. What prompted your interest in the subject?

Michael McGirr: Thanks Leslie for your great response to Snooze. I was delighted by your kind words. Sleep came at me from three directions. The first was my own struggle over many years with a couple of sleep disorders without realizing how serious they are. People laugh at snorers or are annoyed by them but don’t always understand they are engaged in a life and death battle to breathe. Next, I found myself in my early forties suddenly with 3 children under the age of two, including twins, and none of them understood the meaning of a decent night’s sleep. But most of all, the book came at me from a profound sense that we are living in a culture that is approaching exhaustion and its main response seems to be to keep people more and more tired. A city that never sleeps is one that is never fully awake.102150-The-City-That-Never-Sleeps.jpg

L.L.: I was fascinated by your sleep study. And I learned about sleep latency…that time period between lying down to go to sleep and falling asleep. [Hint: if it’s less than 10 minutes, you’re probably sleep deprived]. Can you walk us through the process?

Michael McGirr: You’ve explained it very well. At present, I am a school teacher doing marking [grading] late at night. I am asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow. This is not great. Nor is it great to be awake for an hour before you fall asleep. A good night’s sleep begins with a process known as fading. It actually starts before you get into bed: the brain responds well to rituals and pre-bed rituals can be a great help: brushing your teeth, hanging up your clothes, etc. in the same order every day and trying to go to bed at the same time. Ideally, this will allow you to gently fade into sleep once you are in bed.

[Leslie’s note: You may like these tips about establishing sleep rituals]

L.L.: I tend to fall asleep reading. (But certainly not SNOOZE!) In fact, last night, I sat down to read (not in bed).  It was only 8:14pm. “Wow…all kinds of glorious time to read,” I thought. “Maybe, I’ll finish this book!” Ah, such lofty aspirations. My lids grew heavy and my head started bopping. I was out. It wasn’t even 9:00pm [the time your research in SNOOZE says my body starts producing melanin in earnest].  And I happened to really like the book I was reading. What’s up with that?

Michael McGirr: It’s fine. Your brain and body have had enough of you for the day. They want you and your agenda out of the way so they can get on with their most important work, which happens when you are asleep. Sleep is the most creative part of the day because it is when our ego gets out of our way. You can get up early to keep reading. I love doing that. I love the half-hour before the next person in the house wakes up. But don’t forget there are millions of books. You are never going to read them all. Accept that there is only so much you can fit into a single day, not to mention a single lifetime, and you will rest in greater peace. Sleep means letting go. 

L.L.: The structure of SNOOZE is so clever, so fun. Its chapters are arranged in clock times when folks might be asleep. The first chapter, for example, begins at 8pm. Along with a time, a date is given. So Chapter One is 8pm and 1969. The narrative does not follow a linear time frame. Well, wait—it does. Can you talk about how you discovered this structure?

Michael McGirr: Thank you. Finding the structure of a book is always a big deal for me. It’s like building the frame of a house. Then you can start to sort out what will actually fit in the house. I always have more material than I can use and the amount available on sleep is endless. My book before this, called BYPASS, was about download (49)the Hume Highway which is the main road between Sydney and Melbourne, the two biggest cities in Australia. I found the structure for that book by riding a pushbike along the 900km of the road. In the case of SNOOZE, I tried several ideas. Finally, I settled on structuring it as a night’s sleep, choosing incidents from history, both recent and ancient, that can be associated with different times of the night. I liked it because it gave me an eclectic structure. The book is a bit of a salad with many different flavours!

L.L.: Here’s another thing I learned from SNOOZE: “the dreamer has the dream, or the dream has the dreamer.” I’m not sure who to attribute that quote to, but what more can you tell us? I am fascinated by dreams and find they definitely help with not just my self-awareness, but creativity, too. Can you tell us more, please?

Michael McGirr: I think I may have made up that phrase. Dreams are fascinating. But not as simple a guide to the unconscious as Freud may have thought. For example, you never dream as much in your life as when you are in the womb. This is when almost all your sleep is REM sleep, which is the phase in which dreams take place. The next dreamiest time is when you are a baby. The amount you dream decreases over a lifetime. 

[Consider]: If dreams at some level involve the processing of your waking experience, why do we dream most when we have least experience? Why do we dream least when we have most to deal with? I don’t know the answer. One theory is download (47)that dreaming is essential for testing synapses in the brain before we are born. We continue to dream because it is pleasurable, a bit like continuing to have sex after you’ve had your kids. But some dreams are not pleasurable. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be literally a nightmare of bad dreams. There is an awful lot to think about. The tendency to forget dreams is one of our major defense mechanisms.

L.L.: What kind of research did you do for SNOOZE? I see there is a very extensive “sources” section at the end of the book…but how much time did your research take, what aspect of sleep might you want to explore further?

Michael McGirr: I was lucky with this topic. Almost every major thinker in history has had things to say about sleep and I enjoyed jousting with a good number of them. This is because sleep is such a fundamental part of human being that you can hardly explore the human condition without coming across it. Someone’s attitude to sleep reveals their entire attitude to life; I found this to be the case with many philosophers and writers. In one sense, I spent my whole life researching this book because I have spent such a lot of my life reading. When I settled on this topic, I went back to writers and thinkers who have been my companions for years, from Plato to Dickens. I am not drawn to a project unless I think I am going to enjoy the research. It needs time.

L.L.: I think anyone who has parented young children, infants especially, know just what it’s like to be exhausted. We tried Ferberizing as well. Horrendous. But the kid sleeps like a log now. How are your twins, Clare and Jake? And Benny? (Just this morning, I smirked as I recalled his comment about making beds and, “If God made the world, why can’t he make my bed?”)

Michael McGirr: I told him God made the world so he might have a place in which to make his own bed.  I don’t think that is the only reason God made the world. The twins are now twelve and Benny is 14. They are an endless source of existential joy and financial grief. I am concerned about the intrusion of screens in their lives. Benny has his first speaking part in a play which starts at school tonight. Clare is learning bassoon. She is a force of nature. Jacob wants to be a high jumper and movie maker. We are working on an internet site for oldies. We are going to call it Thou Tube.

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

Michael McGirr: I am writing a book about reading. It is called (at the moment) 52 THINGS TO READ BEFORE 25. It has my students in mind: it is a challenge to them to have crucial reading experiences in the years after they leave school when their brains are fresh and can bend to all the yoga postures of the mind that a rich reading life asks for. Young people will commit to the gym and their career. But they are much less likely to take the growth of their minds as seriously. So I want to stir them up.

L.L.: Michael, it’s been such fun. I could probably ask you questions all day…or night. What might I have forgotten to ask but should have?dsc_3626a2__880

Michael McGirr: I have loved your questions. This has been delightful. Thank you. SNOOZE is really a book about the quest for rest. That is broader than sleep, although sleep is a big part of it. The world is restless. It keeps screaming at us like an over-tired baby demanding attention. Tired people are vulnerable because they can’t think. They resort to clichés. They are comforted by meaningless platitudes. Sleep and rest are the wells of creativity.

[Leslie’s Note: Oh my gosh! You have got to visit this amazingly creative momma’s website, boredpanda.com. She’s turned her baby’s naptimes into clever dreamscapes]

For more information about SNOOZE, to connect with Michael McGirr through social media, or to purchase a copy, please see: 

MichaelMcGirr_auphoto_creditBill Spierings.jpegABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael McGirr is an essayist, reviewer, prize-winning short-story writer and teacher. A former Jesuit priest, he is also the author of Things You Get For Free and Bypass: The Story of a Road. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, Jenny, and their three rapidly growing children.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. ‘City that Never Sleeps’ image retrieved from , sleep at night image from http://www.everydayhealth.com, sleeping baby from dailymail.uk.co, Sleeping baby with crane, from, which I highly recommend a visit to! All on 9.13.17]

WeekEND Reading: New York Times Bestselling Author Ken Follet talks about the third book in his Kingsbridge series, A COLUMN OF FIRE, how his wife’s characteristics sometimes appear in female characters, religious freedom, and kick-ass women of the 16th century

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH and WORLD WITHOUT END comes the next epic novel in the Kingsbridge series: A COLUMN OF FIRE. 

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In 1989 Ken Follet published the historical epic THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, a departure for the bestselling writer which stunned reader and critics alike with its ambitious scope and unforgettable cast of characters. That was nearly 30 years ago!. It reached #1 on bestsellers lists across the world, and since become Follet’s most popular novel. Ten years ago, Oprah selected THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH for her Book Club, and the second book in the series was published, WORLD WITHOUT END.

The saga continues with Follet’s new epic, A COLUMN OF FIRE (September 12, Viking). This one introduces a world of spies and secret agents in the 16th century, a time when Queen Elizabeth I ruled. Set during one of the most turbulent and revolutionary times in history, this novel is one of Follet’s most exciting and ambitious works yet. It’s perfect for longtime fans of the Kingsbridge series, but if you weren’t around 30 years ago, it works well as a stand-alone, too.

A COLUMN OF FIRE begins in 1558. The ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral peer over a city torn to shreds by religious conflict. Power in England shifts precariously
between Catholics and Protestants, high principles clash with friendship, loyalty, and love.

I’m honored to welcome Ken Follet to the blog. 

L.L.: Ken, it’s a honor to chat with you. While A COLUMN OF FIRE is part of a series, it still needs to be something you are willing to spend a significant amount of time with. Where did the inspiration for A COLUMN OF FIRE come from?

Ken Follet: I read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I started the first English secret service. That intrigued me, and I read several books about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. I felt sure this could be the basis of an exciting novel.

L.L.: Let’s talk titles for a moment. Why did you choose to call the book A COLUMN OF FIRE? It sounds quite ominous. 

Ken Follet: [It is]. It’s biblical, like THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. Spies are sometimes referred to as a Fifth Column. And a lot of people were burned at the stake in the 16th century.

L.L.: So were you excited about returning to Kingsbridge? [There are numerous towns called Kingsbridge, but the one in Follet’s THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH is fictional]. 

Ken Follet: You bet. We’ve watched the place grow from an Anglo-Norman settlement to a thriving medieval town, and now we see it at the start of the English Renaissance. Kingsbridge is England in miniature. article-1331731-0C1D9C90000005DC-968_634x398

L.L.: We know that A COLUMN OF FIRE is about spies and secret agents in the 16th century. What other themes surround the book?

Ken Follet: Most of my recent books are about people struggling for freedom in one form or another: Welsh coal miners, Russian factory workers, Jews, African Americans. This is about religious freedom.

L.L.: Can you talk about how these themes relate to your own life?

Ken Follet: I’ve always hated people who assume they have authority over me. This made my schooldays a challenge, obviously. A bully makes me angry. I empathize with fictional characters who fight against tyranny.

L.L.: I can’t get over the historical scope of this book. Not to mention, it’s over 900 pages! What sort of research did you do for A COLUMN OF FIRE?

Ken Follet: There’s nobody left to interview, of course. As usual, most of my information comes from history books. I also visited houses and castles built in this period. I looked at 16th century clothing in the London Museum, and I went several times to the National Portrait Gallery to study the faces of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Francis Drake and many others.

L.L.: Did you visit the locations of the key events in A Column of Fire?

Ken Follet: Scotland for Loch Leven, the prison from which Mary Queen of Scots escaped; Belgium for Antwerp, then the banking centre of the western world; Spain for Seville, the richest city in Spain; Paris because it was the headquarters of those who conspired to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.300px-Lochleven_west_wall

L.L.: Plenty of historians have written about this era. Who among them do you particularly like or respect?

Ken Follet: Robert Hutchinson has written well about espionage at this time. Geoffrey Parker is the authority on the long and bloody war in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most useful book was Conyers Read’s three-volume biography MR. SECRETARY WALSINGHAM, about the man who was he Elizabethan equivalent of “M” in the James Bond stories.

L.L.: So, I have to ask, are any of your fictional characters based on real people?

Ken Follet: Not really. I might give a villain the hair style of someone I dislike, and of course the female heroes all have something in them of Barbara, my wife; but my fictional characters are never portraits of real people.

L.L.: A COLUMN OF FIRE  has a number of real historical characters, including several heads of state. Who did you particularly admire?

Ken Follet: Three great 16th century leaders understood the need for religious tolerance, and interestingly they were all women: our Queen Elizabeth I; Caterina dei Medici, who was queen of France and then Queen Mother; and Marguerite de Parme, governor of the Netherlands. In an age of relentless bigotry, each of them tried to persuade people of rival religions to live in peace. For that they were hated. Their efforts were only partly successful.220px-MargarethevonParma01

Each of them was undermined: Elizabeth by repeated plots to assassinate her, Caterina by the ruthless Guise family, and Marguerite by her half-brother King Felipe II of Spain. I admire their idealism, courage and persistence in the face of bloodthirsty opposition.

L.L.: You’ve had a long, illustrious career; what are you most proud of?

Ken Follet: It was a pretty good achievement to write a novel about the rather unpromising subject of building a cathedral in the Middle Ages and turning it into an international No.1. We’ve sold about twenty-six-million copies of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. That’s pretty good for a book a lot of people thought would be too dull.

L.L.: How long did it take you to write?

Ken Follet: The whole thing took three years and three months. After two years I only had about 200 pages, and I felt this was a crisis. And as a novelist the only thing you can do if you want to write faster is work more hours. So I started to work Saturdays and then Sundays as well. The difficulty is simply that you’ve got to keep on making up more and more stuff about the same people. If you write 100,000 words of a thriller, then it’s finished. But after 100,000 words of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH that’s like that much. [He holds open first quarter of the book.] I had all that to go. [He holds open the final three-quarters.] That was the great difficulty. uk_the_pillars_of_the_earth

L.L.: Some writers dread of their books being turned into films or TV series. But have you enjoyed the experience?

Ken Follet: Seeing good actors giving good performances, bringing to life characters I’ve invented and speaking some of the lines I’ve written is a huge thrill. When it all goes well it’s great. When it goes badly you cringe when you see what’s on the screen, but you have to take that risk.

I’m pleased and proud that some of my stories have made good film and TV. It confirms the strength of the story that it can be transformed from one medium to another. And I’m also pleased that my stories have been turned into a stage musical, several board games, and a computer game.

L.L.: Wow! Do I dare ask what’s next?

Ken Follet: I’m working on a new story, but I’m not yet ready to talk about it—sorry!

For more information, to connect with Ken Follet via social media, or to purchase a copy of A COLUMN OF FIRE, please visit: 

Ken Follett.headshot credit Olivier Favre (1).JPGABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ken Follett is one of the world’s best-loved authors, selling more than 160 million copies of his thirty books. Follett’s first bestseller was Eye of the Needle, a spy story set in the Second World War. Follett lives in Hertfordshire, England, with his wife Barbara. Between them they have five children, six grandchildren, and three Labradors.

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

Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Viking. Other images retrieved from Wikipedia, PILLARS OF THE EARTH television adaption image retrieved from Daily Mail, all on 8.26.17] 

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] 

WeekEND Reading: This woman’s transformation from nomad shepherd girl in Somali to Mayo Clinic R.N. is nothing short of incredible. CONQUERING THE ODDS, refugee camps, teenage depression, suicide awareness & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Inspiring–and often devastating–story of one Somali woman’s tumultuous childhood as a shepherd girl in the sub-Saharan desert to successful Mayo Clinic R.N. Aport

This book might be slim, but it’s message is mighty and powerful. Born to teenage parents through an arranged marriage, Habibo wailed in her bassinet in a Somali hospital as her young mother was deprived of food and emotional support (at the time, it was the custom of Somali friends and family to provide nourishment to their patients, and not the hospital’s responsibility). When her father came to the front desk, he asked the nurses, “What is the sex of the baby?”

When told she was a girl, he turned and walked away. 

So begins Habibo’s life. Shuttled between her birth parents (who soon divorced) to her grandfather’s home, and then raised by her maternal grandmother, Habibo’s life was rift with emotional neglect, physical and sexual abuse.

At four, she was a shepherd girl caring for 150-plus goats, sheep, cows, coaxing them across the countryside to fertile pastures and clean drinking water. At seven, she reunited with her mother briefly–because the city of Mogadishu had better facilities–to treat her malaria. She was returned to her primitive, nomadic life, and her no-nonsense grandmother who was often harsh, never telling her granddaughter a job well done, or even that she loved her. Through years of starvation, depression, and more, Habibo learns to conquer the odds.

But her journey takes time, heartache, and just when you think nothing is going to improve for this young woman, it does. 

While living in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya, Habibo and her cousin decide to apply for a seemingly untouchable lottery: the selection to leave the camp for America. 

The girls check the lottery postings religiously, every Thursday or Friday afternoon as they are posted on the doors of the UN Center. Weeks go by, then months. Finally, the news they’ve been waiting for–they’ve been chosen.

It’s August of 1998. In a Midwestern college town, thousands of miles away, I am beginning my second year in a 4-year nursing program. My skin is white. My eyes are blue. As I child I had oodles of Barbie dolls, attended Kindergarten, and was given every opportunity to receive an education. I did not witness a crocodile devour a small child, I had not walked for miles in the desert, tired and thirsty and wondering when–or if–I would ever receive a drop of water or find a piece of fruit to stave off the thirst.

Habibo and I are alike in that we are both nurses. We are both women. We both work(ed) for one of the world’s top medical institutions. And while our similarities bind in some ways, our differences are striking.

I am so honored to welcome Habibo to the blog couch. Please join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Habibo, it’s funny the way people are connected. Twenty years ago, I would never have guessed our paths would have crossed. But they did and I find that inspiring. So why this book, why now?

Habibo Haji:  I wrote this book because I want to give people hope. I want them to know that regardless of our past we can always influence how our future turns out.  We do not have to live in our past. Our past does not determine our future. We can leverage our pain to harness our future. Often, people are stuck on the past, the pain, the failure, get into blame game, and lose sight of what is really important.

L.L.: When you look back on your life in Somalia, what three vital lessons stand out?

Habibi Haji:  I have learned that life has many lessons such as pleasant and unpleasant ones. I do not have to live in pain because people who were supposed protected me let me down. I can forgive, work hard, and live my life on my own terms.  In our life whether we are young or old people will disappoint us because they are human but it is up to us not to take things personal.

L.L.: I’ve had the opportunity to travel, but I’ve never been to Africa. Can you set the scene for us? What is Somalia like, geographically? Can you describe the hut you grew up in?

Habibo Haji:  My grandmother lived in a small village called Balcad, which is located eastern Somalia about three miles north of the Indian Ocean. The Shabeelle River runs through Somalia, where everyone in the village got their water, washed their clothing, swam, and watered the animals. Balcad, like many of the villages around it, has about thirty huts, each one surrounded by a fence made from poles and branches to keep the domestic animals in and the wild animals out.  Approximately three hundred men, women, and children live there, along with all their cows, sheep, goats, donkeys and a few chickens here and there.  Surrounding the village life thousands of miles of grasslands, scrub, bush, and forested areas where the people graze their animals. 06512f47fefcfb0ba84a511ef66734ef.jpg

My grandmother’s hut, like all the rest of the huts in the village, was made of tree limbs tied together like an igloo and covered with grass woven mats, which can house an average of about four people.  The huts are built of long grass, woven into many “filiq,” or rugs, which are used to cover a frame made from about twenty tree limbs tied together to form a rounded structure with a wide open door on one side which can be covered by a filiq in bad weather.  The Filiq is handmade by the ladies.

[Leslie’s note: You may appreciate this website of The Somali Museum of Minnesota, which describes the customs and culture of the Somali people]

L.L.: This passage, in CONQUERING THE ODDS, resonated with me, maybe it’s because my daughter is 12, as you were at the time: “I lost a lot of weight due to tape worms, in addition to head lice. You could tell by looking at me that I was not very happy. I was exhausted, tired of being afraid and fighting abuse. I was lonely.” This speaks volumes. You then speak of happiness and becoming a loner. Can you talk more about that, please?

Habibo Haji:  That time was the lowest time in my teen life. I was very depressed, lonely and desperate. I had no one to turn to. I felt abandoned and unwanted. I felt as though the cows were more important than me. As I look back on that experience I am still unsure how I survived. All I know is that something greater was looking out for me.  Because of my childhood experience of being alone and not having much interaction with people especially peers my age made me a bit loner as I gotten older.

L.L.: What might you say to a 12 year old girl now—perhaps your own, or a patient—who confides in not being happy?

refugee-camp-kenyaHabibo Haji:  We have to teach our children how to learn to love themselves.  Help them build self-esteem because when he or she has a good self-image, they are less likely seek approval from others. We have to teach them failure, and disappointment is a part of life but they can lean ways to develop their resilience muscle.  I would tell the young girl to surround herself with positive role models to help her reach her potential.  Ever heard the expression “Birds of a feather flock together”?  She HAS to choose her friends wisely!

L.L.: I’m in such awe about you leaving Dadaab. You mention that your odds of leaving the camp were very slim (about 1 in 150,000). What was that process like and what might have happened had you not been selected for America?

Habibo Haji: WOW!  That was a miracle.  The process was long and it took us about a year interviews, medical check-ups, orientations, and travel plans. My ticket was $892 which I had to pay back to the government once I got a job here in the States.

Had I not being selected, MY life WOULD have been VERY different. I probably would have about 10 kids all living in a tent in the refugee camp(compare to 3 kids now living in a beautiful suburb 4 bed 2 bath home).  I would not have the education I have today. I wouldn’t have a job and would have depended on hand-outs from the World Food Organization which is given once a month.

[Leslie’s note: This June 2016 Washington Times article indicates the refugee camp has subsequently been closed.]6_192016_refugee-18201.jpg

L.L.: What factored into your choice to become a nurse?

Habibo Haji:  I had two jobs paying minimum wage ($4.75 per hour) and I was barely surviving. A neighbor told me about working in a nursing home and getting paid ($10.75 per hour).  I thought wow, now I can become rich!  I took the nursing assistant entrance exam and failed miserably because I did not speak English and did not have any education background.  I was told to study and come back in 3 months.  I went to the library got books and tape, asked for a tutor at the library. After 3 months I took the test and passed. I took the nursing assistant course and got a job at the local nursing home.  That is how I started my nursing careers. I fell in love with the older people in the nursing home. They would share their stories which made me warm and loved.  They use to call me “smiley” they said I always had a smile on my face. I guess I did because I was grateful for being in America and having a job.

L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your family—your daughters and son? And also the family left behind in Africa?

Habibo Haji:  I have two lovely daughters, 16, and 14. They are becoming amazing young ladies. We laugh and joke about my childhood sometimes.

My son is 8 years old, and he is super adorable.

It is not easy to be a single mother of 3 children, but I am thankful every day that God chose me to be their mother. I am honored and grateful for the things I have in my life.  Everything I do today I do it because of them. I want to be the best version of myself. They make me better human. They inspire me. They changed my world view.  

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CONQUERING THE ODDS?

Habibo Haji:   CONQUERING THE ODDS will inspire people to take bold actions in their life. We all have struggles big or small.  It is important not to settle in setbacks and adversity but rather take risks and develop high resiliency in order to overcome the hardships.  Are we holding back from becoming the best version of ourselves because we are afraid of what others will say about us?  Whenever I feel overwhelmed about what other people are saying about me or feel judged, I recite this quote from Les Brown:

“Other people’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.” 

L.L.: Habibo, this has been so touching and so enlightening. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that you would like to share?

Habibo Haji:  Thanks, Leslie for giving me this opportunity to share my journey with your readers.  One of the many reasons, I wrote this book is connect with the youth. I want to use my journey and help them learn they too can be resilient in their own struggles whether that is peer pressure, bullying, alcohol or drugs.

Per the CDC: Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC WISQAR). 4/5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.  I want to be able to reach as many teens as I possibly can to enlighten them about resilience.  I have been going to schools around the Midwest sharing my journey.  I know with force we can help our youth make better decisions. C3nsavEVMAAd5wD

[Leslie’s Note: 2017 World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10th and outreach usually continues the week following. My own mother is a victim of suicide. As a former child/adolescent psych R.N. and mother of two tween girls, this is real, this is important.]

For more information, to purchase a copy of CONQUERING THE ODDS, or to connect with Habibo through social media, please see: 

Haji_1554.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR:  From shepherd girl in the dessert of Somalia to a bestselling Amazon author and Registered Nurse at Mayo Clinic, Habibo’s extraordinary story of how she went from struggling nomad and refugee to working at the number medical facility in the world. Habibo has helped people transformed their lives to be the best version of themselves. Habibo helps people realize struggles and hardship can be harnessed to build resilience and positive outlook in life.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of H. Haji and used with permission. Image of Somalian hut retrieved from Pinterest, no source noted, image of children getting water from ibtimes.uk.co, refugee camp tents retrieved from June 2016 Washington Times article, Habibo at Longfellow School via Twitter, all on 9.3.17]

Wednesdays with Writers: Marcia Willett takes us on a sun-drenched stroll through the moorlands of the UK, how characters beckon their stories, never wanting to be a writer, and so much more in INDIAN SUMMER

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A gentle, cozy, tender read about ‘autumn’ friendships in the English countryside. 
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INDIAN SUMMER is Willet’s sixteenth book to be published in the U.S. and it’s almost exactly what I needed as I settled into a busy new school year with two active kiddos. Grab a spot of tea, this is a story you’ll want to settle in for; and it’s a fast read so you might need only one ‘warm up.’

Sir Mungo is a retired actor living in his family’s cottage in rural Devon. It’s summer and friends and family flock to the parcel of land to join in camaraderie, seek advice and solace. James is a self-published author working on something new, Kit an interior decorator who is tired of being the ‘expert’ in the room, but there are others, too and all bring a colorful array of antics, needs and loyalties to the gathering.

INDIAN SUMMER is a subtle, relaxing read with the undercurrent of secrets and old memories chipping at the surface.  Willett’s strength lies in the setting: a bucolic trip through Devon’s countryside.

I’m honored to welcome Marcia Willett to the blog couch to chat about writing, INDIAN SUMMER, friendships and pets.

Leslie Lindsay: Marcia, it’s lovely to have you. Thank you for popping over. I really love the Devon setting. I understand it’s also home for you. Can you talk with us a bit about your charming little town and if it’s challenging to set a story there?

Marcia Willett: From the very first book this beautiful, magical west country, Devon and Cornwall especially, has played a major part. It’s really the main character. Small market towns, fishing villages, long sandy beaches and little coves, high moorland: what’s not to like? 220px-Land's_End,_Cornwall,_England

L.L.: Much of INDIAN SUMMER is about memories and also friendship, how do these two themes play off of one another for the characters in this story

Marcia Willett: It’s always good when characters reappear unexpectedly from previous books so I was delighted when Kit Chadwick turned up with all her past which included Mungo. So exciting for me to watch it all play out in the present! Then when Jake reappeared, too, I knew it was going to be full of drama!!

L.L.: Like many of your characters, you are also in the ‘autumn years’ of you life. In fact, your first book was written rather reluctantly at the age of fifty at the suggestion of your writer husband.  Clearly, he was on to something! You have written—how many books—twenty six?! How do you keep up with the relentless pace?  What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Marcia Willett: I think that one of my advantages was that I had no desire to be an aspiring writer. An avid reader, yes. But not a writer. When, because of a financial crisis, I reluctantly decided to give it a go, I discovered, as I walked the moors and the cliffs with my dogs, that the characters and my alternative universe were all waiting for me. They come and tell me their stories, they decide the location, I simply write it all down. So far, they haven’t failed me. The stories are there waiting to be told.1431739935516-151119-dog-on-lead-nt-jv.jpg

L.L.: I have to say, I loved the animals in INDIAN SUMMER.  I’m an animal lover, anyway, but Sammy and Boz, Bozzy and Sam! Can you share their inspiration? Do you have animals yourself?

Marcia Willett: I don’t have a dog at the moment but I love them. Whereas the characters are always new to me the dogs are very familiar and I feel I’ve known them always.

L.L.: What do you hope others get from reading your books?

Marcia Willett: Escapism, amusement, hope, a sense of identity.

L.L.: I always feel as if September is a good time to settle in, clear the slate, and gear up. What’s on your to-do list this fall? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Marcia Willett: Oh, but it will be!  The copy editing for the book to be published next year has just arrived! And a new story is beginning to beckon . . . I need to go and find my people in their own environment: to note the flora and fauna, what they see and hear, where they walk their dogs – the beaches and the moors – where they go for coffee, which pubs they use. Sigh. Research is so exhausting!! wine-graphics-2001_1018901a

L.L.: Marcia, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask?

Marcia Willett:  I can’t think of anything. Thank you so much for having me on your blog sofa, Leslie. It’s been great fun.

For more information, to connect with Marcia via social media, or to purchase your own copy of INDIAN SUMMER, please visit: 

Author photoAUTHOR BIO: Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, MARCIA WILLETT was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to study to be a ballet teacher. Her husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. She has published many novels in England and around the world.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these sites:

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

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]

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Helen Simpson talks about her collection of stories in COCKFOSTERS, how a short story is really like a geological core sample~’skipping the gossip and going for the jugular,’ how an empty nest is invigorating, her to-read pile, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Quiet, honest and wry short stories about women in middle-age is as tender as it is disturbing.
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Helen Simpson has been writing short stories for a long time–in fact, COCKFOSTERS (Alfred A. Knopf, June 2017) is her *sixth* collection–and I’ve just now been introduced to her?! She’s British, and that might be part of it, but still. I see her as a contemporary to Flannery O’Connor, Richard Russo, Tom Perrotta, Alice Munro, and perhaps Lorna Lanvick and Joyce Carol Oates. 

Included stories revolve mostly around women in their 40s and 50s focusing on identity, reinvention, changing bodies/sex lives, empty-nesters. There’s a gaze toward the horizon, as many of these women are entering the ‘autumn’ of their lives. Time is ticking, and it’s felt in this collection, a hum that is the steady pulse of suspense.

These nine stories are deceptively quiet and honest, bringing to light a very authentic recognition of life, of children, of marriages, of friendships between women; there are betrayals and acceptance, complexities as well as simplicities.

You’ll find there’s a bit of travel, too—to Berlin through London, and also the U.S.

I promise, regardless of your age—or your sex—you’ll find a thread of commonality in at least one of these stories for they are all built on the truest feelings: love, belonging, joy, the tug of familiarity and history, and the recognition that change—and growing older—is inevitable.

So join me for a spot of tea—or whatever you like to drink—and welcome Helen Simpson to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay: Helen, welcome! It’s an honor to have you. I know you’ve been writing for a long time—your first published collection of stories came out in 1990. Every five years, you treat us with another collection. Can you talk about the inspiration—or perhaps the selection process—for COCKFOSTERS?

Helen Simpson:  Thank you Leslie, and the honour is all mine!  Here I am, ready for our conversation, a cup of tea at my elbow.

With one volume of stories every five years,  I’ve come to think of this as coral-reef writing, slow but steady—a process of accretion.  I don’t choose a theme in advance, so each volume reflects whatever it is that was obsessing or amusing me during the years it took to write.

L.L.: Let’s talk about form for a bit. The short story is very much *not* a ‘small novel.’ Can you talk about your perceptions of the short story and why do you prefer this medium?

Helen Simpson:  The challenge for a short-story writer is, maximum power for minimum length—it’s lightness of touch you’re after as well as power.  In novels you expand,you elaborate; you explain when, where, how things are happening; you go on and on.  You don’t need to do any of that, really, with a short story. You can just skip all the gossipy stuff and go for the jugular. download (44)

Also you can slide great subjects under the nose of the reader without solemnity, smuggle them in by stealth.  While apparently describing banal domestic issues you can explore the history and psyche of nations.  In “Moscow,” [all stories mentioned here in Helen’s response are contained in COCKFOSTERS] a Russian man comes to repair the kitchen freezer of an English business-woman and her historian husband; as they chat over the condenser coils, the strongman myth of machismo-and-masochism is shown to be alive and kicking across the globe.  In “Cheapside,” an older London attorney takes a possible intern to a fish restaurant, and during the course of their lunch the details and conditions of a life in the law are laid bare in excruciating detail.  And in “Berlin,” where a struggling middle-aged couple go on an opera trip to that city, themes of loyalty and betrayal and how to digest history are explored at both personal and national levels.

L.L.: I’ll admit the idea of writing a short story sounds appealing to me, but I find I often don’t know what to write about. Something I can wrap up in—say twenty pages and not four-hundred! How do you mine the topics for your short stories? And do you plot them, or let the muse guide you?

Helen Simpson:  I think the great appeal of the form from the writer’s point of view is that it means you can do something new every time. With every new story you can do something different, formally—shape them differently from each other.  That’s a good part of the pleasure of writing them, finding the right form each time.  I find once I’ve got the subject and the shape of it, the fun lies in the reading and the notes and the thinking and circling round it before writing it—I have a thick file of notes for every story I’ve ever written.  But it’s a very time-profligate way of writing, the way I do it; it’s like spending hours cooking a meal only to see it wolfed down in a few minutes.

As to mining a topic, I think a good short story can be like a core sample.  Think how much a geologist can learn from a core sample—it’s the same!  If it’s a good one, you’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about the history and geography and inhabitants and social conditions of the area, in wonderfully concise form.

images (18)And as for plot and the short story: something has to happen but not too much…

L.L.: Many of these stories are about women (though men factor in, too) who are approaching their golden years. They may have already raised children, sent them off, and are trying to make sense of their place in the world. It’s sort of
depressing! Yet I kept flipping the pages; it was like I was ‘preparing’ for what this stage of life might feel like (I’m in my late 30’s). Can you talk about that, please?

Helen Simpson: I like “golden years!”  They still call it “old age” over here—although, no, come to think of it that’s changing too; in news reports now, someone who would have been referred to as an “old person” has become “an older person” even if they’re 93…  The characters in most of these stories aren’t old (or even older) yet, but yes, they can see change ahead.  I am pleased you felt compelled to read on, that you trusted the truthfulness of the stories.  I know as a reader that sentimentality doesn’t work for me; it’s only ever honesty in fiction that feels worth it.

As for feeling depressed at the thought of work pressure slacking off, children having left home etc, you really mustn’t be!  So many of my contemporaries report feeling unexpectedly exhilarated at having more time and less responsibilities than in their 41xpkc6XPDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_thirties and forties, at no longer being plagued with the anxieties and doubts of their twenties.  Women in particular might agree with Zoe in “Early One Morning”(inc. in IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT)—

“Perhaps the shape of life would be like an hour-glass, clear and wide to begin with, narrowing down to the the tunnel of the middle years, then flaring wide again before the sands ran out.” 

Now I’ve started quoting—and because it may lift the spirits when you think of getting older— I hope you’ll let me conclude with this from “Berlin” [as found in COCKFOSTERS]:

“And how is it that even though we sit at the end of the Atlantic storm track, one day of sun leaves us convinced that summer’s here?  That why we still make resolutions and think of new ways to approach life after all this time: because we’re human and we need to be reminded and encouraged and refreshed.  Again and again.  Right to the end.”

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

Helen Simpson: The news: what’s been happening in the world during the last eighteen months.  I don’t think I’m alone in this…51A9lGpxANL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

The weather: while writing several stories about the weather [ as in IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT], I realised the theme of climate change is one of the hardest of subjects for fiction if it’s to be done without didacticism or statistics or collapsing into dystopia.  But I’ve stayed interested.

L.L.: I’m sure there are a million things we could talk about—your favorite books, if you’re working on anything now, advice for aspiring writers, what your holiday plans are…but is there anything I forgot, but should have asked?

Helen Simpson: Enough here, I think!

This anniversary year has given me a cast-iron excuse to re-read Jane Austen; also to turn to those novels of Henry James which I haven’t yet read.  But my favourite books tend to be the ones I’m reading, or am about to read, which at the moment are: THE COMPLETE STORIES by Anita Desai; THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich;  A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT by Akhil Sharma; SINGLE, MELLOW & CAREFREE by Katherine Heiny;  LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders; JANE AUSTEN, THE SECRET RADICAL by Helena Kelly; MIDWINTER BREAK by Bernard MacLaverty; ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE by Elizabeth Strout; THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrère.

Yes, I’m working on something new set in London.

Advice for aspiring writers? Be brave, be honest and only write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write.

As for summer holidays: a week in Ibiza (sunny, but savagely expensive particularly with sterling’s Brexit plunge against the Euro); and a week in rainy Lancashire download (43)culminating in a wedding near Wigan where the sun broke through the clouds and against all probability shone brightly on the bride.

L.L.: Thank you, Helen! It’s been a pleasure!

Helen Simpson: Well, thank you, Leslie!  The pleasure has been mutual.

For more information about COCKFOSTERS, to connect with Helen Simpson, or to purchase a copy, please visit:

© Derek Thompson - Color copy (1)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: HELEN SIMPSON was born in Bristol in 1959. She spent five years writing forVogue. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

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

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

[Cover and author image courtesy of Knopf and used with permission. Author photo credit: Derek Thompson. Image of ‘rainy’Lancashire retrieved from Mona’s Musings, couple playfully riding bikes from petebarrett.com, H. Simpson’s other book cover images retrieved from Amazon, all on 8.22.17] 

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. 

Emma-in-the-Night-534h
“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,]