Tag Archives: Leslie Lindsay

WeekEND Reading: Mira T. Lee talks about her luminous family saga, EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, touching on sisters, mental illness, immigration, and so much more. Plus, her inspiring TBR, and how fiction is a great place to develop empathy and reconcile nuances

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A brave, unflinching debut about the tenuous bonds of mental illness, how we define ‘family,’ immigration, and so much more. 

Everything Here Is Beautiful
EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL is one of those literary masterpieces that will captivate and enthrall readers everywhere, perhaps for very different reasons. There’s so much about this book I love–the razor-sharp writing, the way I was transported to another world (South America/Ecuador, Switzerland), and back again (NYC, Minnesota), and then there’s the breadth of scope: mental illness, sisters, love, who we call ‘family,’ life and death, as well as loss and rejuvenation.

Told in alternating, highly distinct POVs from several main characters: Miranda: the older sister who has always been the “responsible one”; Lucia: whose free-spirited nature is dampened by her mental illness; Yonah: the Israeli shopkeeper and first husband of Lucia; Manuel: Lucia’s boyfriend, and father of her child.

EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL may be best described as a literary family drama (spanning years and continents) with a mental illness theme (and its butterfly93.jpgtreatment) as well as an immigration (and cultural displacement) undercurrent. 

I’m in awe with Mira T. Lee’s ambitious novel. I found it emotional and touching, raw and brave, and skillfully drawn. EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL is about trying to do our best without fully losing ourselves. 

I am thrilled and honored to welcome Mira to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: I just finished reading EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL and I have so many thoughts rumbling around. This is a very multilayered, complex novel, but it’s so well done. I have to ask: what sparked this particular tale, why now?

Mira T. Lee: Hi Leslie, thank you so much for your kind words! So I started off writing short stories, and found that many of them dealt with the same recurring themes – family dynamics, illness, the interplay of different cultures. One story in particular, How I Came to Love You Like A Brother (published by The Missouri Review) contained characters I loved, who I knew I could develop further. Then when my kids were very young, I went through a fallow period where I didn’t write for almost two years, but I had a series of predicaments brewing in my head. I’ve always been drawn to “gray areas,” those murky kinds of situations where good people are in conflict with each other even though no one’s at fault, and I’m forced to see things from more than one person’s perspective. By the time my younger son turned one, I was ready to write, and what emerged was this big, messy, cross-cultural family drama that explored several different relationships, and how the ripple effects of mental illness test family bonds.

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L.L.: Much of the book deals with what it’s like to have a mental illness—and what it’s like to love someone with a mental illness—I so appreciate both of those perspectives because they are often not explored in literature (though we often see the manifestations of ‘crazy behavior’). You take a slightly different angle, that of a more interior experience of mental illness. Can you expand on that, please?

Mira T. Lee: I’ve seen mental illness up close through the struggles of my own loved ones, and I’ve also heard countless stories of mental illness in family support groups I’ve attended. From these experiences I can say that psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder differ from most physical illnesses in one very significant way: the patient, loved ones, and medical professional(s) often disagree on what should be done. Sometimes this is because the patient doesn’t believe they have an illness at all, other times it may be because they disagree with the recommended treatments.  This makes for a tremendous amount of conflict, and creates situations that are fraught and intractable, with no clear right or wrong answers. I wanted to explore multiple sides of multiple conflicts, so this involved delving into the interiors of my main characters and understanding their frustrations, as well as embedding Lucia’s illness within broader storylines. You’re right, the issues involved with psychotic illnesses (e.g. medications, “lack of insight”) are rarely explored in literature – it’s not that surprising, because they’re tough concepts to understand, but that’s part of the reason I felt compelled to tell this story.

L.L.: Along those lines, I really like how you’ve taken the experience of mental illness and shifted it culturally from a white, middle-class incident to that of someone who is Chinese-American. Sadly, mental illness does not discriminate, yet it’s often not represented in other demographics. How did that come about in EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL?

Mira T. Lee: Narratives of mental illness (both memoir and fiction) have been getting a lot more attention in general, which is fantastic, but most do still center around white, middle-class families. I think partly this is because stigma can be especially strong in non-white communities. I didn’t set out to explore mental illness in communities of color, but I’m Chinese-American myself, and multicultural worlds like the ones in the book are what’s most familiar to me. I do hope conversations around the topic become less taboo.

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L.L.: My own mother (white, middle-class), had schizoaffective/bipolar with psychotic features/narcissist personality disorder…I saw many of her symptoms overlap with Lucia’s. Yet in the narrative, the diagnosis is a bit abstract. Was this intentional on your part?

Mira T. Lee: Yes, the vagueness was intentional for a couple of reasons. First, diagnoses often fluctuate from one doctor to the next and change over time, and nowadays schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar with psychotic features are often thought of as being on one continuous spectrum (rather than discrete illnesses). Second, I didn’t want this novel to be pigeonholed as a “mental illness book” or Lucia to be thought of only as “that schizophrenic woman.” There is so much stigma attached to those labels, and so many preconceived notions about what they mean. So by foregoing clear labels, I hope readers will be more open to seeing Lucia as an individual, and will come to understand the illness in the context of her entire life, as well as the lives of the people who love her most. I do hope this book will reach readers who might not typically pick up a “mental illness book.”

“A tender but unflinching portrayal of the bond between two sisters—one that’s frayed by mental illness and stretched across continents, yet still endures. With ventriloquistic skill, Mira T. Lee explores the heartache of loving someone deeply troubled and the unbearable tightrope-walk between holding on and letting go.”

–Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere and
Everything I Never Told You

L.L.: I know you’ve said you don’t want this book to be ‘about’ mental illness and here, I’ve asked all kinds of questions about that very theme! There’s also immigration, cultural differences and displacement. Those are some big issues and yet they’re handled so well. How did you structure this novel? Did you know ahead that this was the direction you were headed, or did it sort of evolve?

Mira T. Lee: Oh, that’s okay! I think you’re right in saying that this book appeals to different readers for different reasons. Some people gravitate toward the bond between the sisters, others to Lucia’s struggle to balance family and career, still others to the sisters’ relationships with the men in their lives. One interesting thing I’ve found is that I can almost always tell whether a reader has had personal experience with mental illness by the way they comment on the book. It just hits differently, and I’m glad for that. I hope the book finds its way to many more readers like you!

But back to your question: the novel evolved pretty organically. I rarely sat around making conscious decisions about who my characters were or what the plot would be. I also never consciously thought about “big issues” like immigration or cultural displacement, or wrote with any kind of agenda, for example, around mental illness. People from all different backgrounds have always been a staple of my adulthood, so to me, my characters are very much a reflection of America. My focus was purely on exploring how my characters would cope with the dilemmas they faced, and how their decisions would affect their relationships with the people they loved. I always thought of this as an intimate family story – albeit a messy one!

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L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but I won’t. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Something you hope others take away from reading EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL?

Mira T. Lee: I do hope readers will gain a sense of the issues surrounding schizophrenia, which is perhaps still the most severe and stigmatized of all the mental illnesses, but one deserving of just as much compassion. And I hope people see that these illnesses are only one component of a person’s life, and can relate to the humanity at the core of each of these characters – as sisters, mothers, husbands, lovers, as modern women, as deeply flawed human beings who yearn for love and belonging. But most of all, I hope readers will disagree over what these characters should or shouldn’t have done. The world is gray, full of ambiguity. Where is the line between adventure and recklessness? Compromise and resignation? Selfishness and self-preservation? Fiction is a great place to examine nuances, and to challenge ourselves to exercise our powers of empathy.

L.L.: What’s on your TBR list for 2018?

Mira T. Lee: My TBR list is ridiculously long. Anne Raeff’s Winter Kept Us Warm, Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible, Jillian Medoff’s This Could Hurt, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Claire Goenawan’s Rainbirds, Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, for starters. I wish I could spend an entire year just reading!

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L.L.: Oh, and one last question: are you working on anything new?

Mira T. Lee: I have bits and pieces of a few different projects, including some childrens’ picture books. We’ll see what happens…

For more information about the book, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL, please see:

Mira T. Lee - © Liz Linder PhotographyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mira T. Lee’s work has been published in numerous quarterlies and reviews, including The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Triquarterly. She was awarded an Artist’s Fellowship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2012, and has twice received special
mention for the Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of Stanford University, and
currently lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her debut novel.

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

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[Author and cover image courtesy of Viking/Penguin/Random House and used with permission. ‘Stop the Stigma’ from, ‘Family Drama’  from ‘Empathy and compassion’ image from, winter reading  from  , butterful image from, all retrieved on 1.08.18]

Wednesdays with Writers: Sheena Kamal talks about her fierce, ‘difficult woman’ character, Nora Watts, gender violence, the ‘red market,’ how this is a different kind of missing girl thriller, mining in Vancouver, and so much more in her debut, THE LOST ONES

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Dark, Edgy, psychological suspense debut, the first in a series featuring a brilliant, fearless, slightly chaotic and deeply flawed heroine much like Lisbeth Salander.

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Nora Watts: deeply troubled, edgy and dark yet clear and distinct; she’s complex, disturbed, and not one you’ll easily forget. Residing somewhere between DEAR DAUGHTER (Elizabeth Little) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Stieg Larsson) meets THE GATES OF EVANGELINE (Hester Young), Sheena Kamal’s debut, THE LOST ONES (William Morrow, July 25 2017) will toss your into a tailspin of controversy, conflict, and a good amount of action intermingling with psychological suspense.

Nora Watts receives a phone call early in the morning. A girl has gone missing. She’s a P.I. assistant and so this isn’t entirely out of the realm. But the girl is also happens to be the baby she gave up for adoption fifteen years ago. She never wanted that baby; and now the police are labeling the girl a chronic runaway. Her adoptive parents are desperate and so they’ve hired Ms. Watts. Do they realize she is also the girl’s birth mother? Wasn’t it a sealed adoption? Nora discovers a dangerous conspiracy and embarks on a journey of deception and violence that takes her from the rainy streets of Vancouver to the snow-capped mountains of the Canadian Rockies to the island where she will once again face her past and the daughter she wished had never been born.

I was stunned by the twists and turns, the lucid writing from Sheena and also the ‘why’s’ behind Bronwyn (Bonnie’s) disappearance.

Please join me in welcoming Sheena Kamal to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Sheena, wow! What a tale. I have heard that writers ‘ought’ to write about something they obsess about, but rarely talk about, or rather, is not ‘polite’ conversation. There are so many controversial themes in THE LOST ONES: foster care, adoption, multicultural race, immigration, the ‘red market,’ runaways, rape, alcoholism, and so much more. What was haunting you when you set out to write this?

Sheena Kamal: Thank you, Leslie. It’s lovely to be on the blog couch with you. Haunting is a good word for what got me started, actually. Gender violence was the primary motivator for this story, and I couldn’t ignore how it intersects with class and race. I wanted to write about a difficult woman, one whom it is easy to dislike and dismiss. I wanted to show her humanity and guide her through her own complicated feelings toward motherhood in a different kind of ‘missing girl’ thriller. Nora’s character compelled me, first and foremost. All the other issues came about in the writing.

L.L.: So I have to ask about the title, THE LOST ONES. Bronwyn (Bonnie) is obviously missing, but she’s not the only one who is lost. Can you elaborate on that, please? Also, the U.K. title is EYES LIKE MINE and there’s definitely a reason for that. Can you elaborate? 

Sheena Kamal: Ah, the title drama. The reason there are two titles is because different publishers had their individual preferences. Neither liked DEEP CURRENT, which was the original title of my manuscript. EYES LIKE MINE (the UK title) was lifted from the text and THE LOST ONES (US) spoke to Nora’s character, as well as the situation faced by her missing daughter, Bonnie. I love both titles and I can see how they both fit the book.

L.L.: Backing up a bit: can you tell us more about the ‘red market’ and what that research you did to get that piece ‘just so?

Sheena Kamal: The red market is the underground market for blood, organs, human parts and human bodies. This book is about family, so I thought it was fitting to bring the corporeal elements of blood connections to the forefront. I spent most of my research time looking into the shady world of blood and organ harvesting, and how the wealthy benefit at the expense of the poor. It’s quite chilling what money can buy. It can buy life. There’s a fantastic book called The Red Market by Scott Carney that was my jumping off point to this research, which also introduced me to the term ‘red market’.

“Sheena Kamal has created a fresh and original character who grips the reader with her grit and courage. We’re rooting for Nora Watts from the outset and I can’t wait to read more of her story.” ~Sarah Ward, CRIMEPIECES

L.L.: I’m also curious about your touches of eco-fiction in THE LOST ONES. There’s a good amount of mines and the environment. What inspired that? And do you consider this to be a work of eco-fiction?

Sheena Kamal: I personally don’t consider it to be eco-fiction, but I understand why people would think that. I didn’t set out to write with any kind of agenda other than to tell a good story, but I wanted to write place authentically. Give a snapshot of the concerns of the region. The mining angle, as well as the focus on the environment both came about because these are topics that shape Vancouver, and the west coast at large. Canada as a country has an interesting relationship to the global mining community, one that continues to interest me.

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L.L.:  THE LOST ONES is the first in a series. How long is the series predicted to be? Can you give us a little glimpse of what’s coming up?

Sheena Kamal: The second book in the series is called IT ALL FALLS DOWN and will take Nora to Detroit, to look into the mystery of her father’s past. I’ve long found
Detroit
to be a fascinating place and every time I go there I like it even more. It’s very different from Vancouver, but I chose it because I wanted to take Nora out of her comfort zone and have her get into some trouble in a place where she doesn’t know the rules and still, somehow, has to survive. IT ALL FALLS DOWN will be out summer 2018. I’d originally planned a trilogy, but I have a feeling I won’t be done with Nora after the third book. Just a little inkling.36341212

L.L.: What are you excited about reading this year?

Sheena Kamal: Poetry. I’ve left this literary landscape unexplored, mostly out of fear and confusion, but I have vowed to be moved by some poetry this year, damn it. What kind of poetry, I have yet to decide.

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

Sheena Kamal: You forgot to ask me to give writing advice and I, for one, am thankful for it because now I don’t have to come up with any.

L.L.: Sheena, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you for chatting with us and all the best in 2018!

Sheena Kamal: Thank you! Wishing you a wonderful 2018 as well.

For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of THE LOST ONES, please see:

S. H. Kamal ap (c) Malcolm TweedyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sheena Kamal was born in the Caribbean and immigrated to Canada as a child. She holds an HBA in political science from the University of Toronto, and was awarded a TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership and activism around the issue of homelessness. Kamal has also worked as a crime and investigative journalism researcher for the film and television industry. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, and enjoys beaches and Dark ‘n’ Stormys.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper Collins and used with permission. IT ALL FALLS DOWN cover image retrieved from GoodReads, Vancouver image from]WP_20171208_11_32_26_Rich_LI (5)

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Author-Editor Team Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen Pen First Psych Thriller Together, THE WIFE BETWEEN US, about exes, lies, perception, memory; plus friendship, movie deals and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay

Spectacular, mind-bending, romantic thriller about all sides of a marriage, infidelity, betrayal, and more.

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When a copy of THE WIFE BETWEEN US (forthcoming, January 9 2018 from St. Martin’s Press) landed on my doorstep, I was immediately intrigued. It’s co-authored (Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen), which lends well to the ‘wife between us’ concept; that is, there’s always more than meets the eye when it comes to complex relationships like marriage.

What calls to mind with THE WIFE BETWEEN US is a smart, edgy psychological thriller in the vein of THE LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE meets Gillian Flynn’s earlier work (SHARP OBJECTS), meets DEAR DAUGHTER (Elizabeth Little), a subtle twist in vein of HER (Harriet Lane) with a flavor of GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Paula Hawkins); but it’s probably not what you’re expecting.

Vanessa’s seemingly perfect husband, Richard abruptly leaves her. She’s forced out of their four-bedroom Colonial and into her aunt’s apartment. She drinks. She worries after her aging aunt. She reluctantly takes a job as a sales associate at Saks. She keeps a close eye on her “replacement,” the new, young assistant Richard is now engaged to marry. download (57)

But it’s not just about a jealous ex-wife. It’s not even about her being lonely and worried. It might not even be about the new woman.

There’s definitely a twist with THE WIFE BETWEEN US, and I guarantee you’ll be flipping the pages frantically to discover the truth, which will reveal itself by the end.

Please join me in welcoming Greer Henricks and Sarah Pekkannen to the blog.

Leslie Lindsay: Greer and Sarah, it’s such an honor to have you! I understand you have worked together in the past—but not as co-authors. Can you talk a bit about how you came to collaborate on THE WIFE BETWEEN US? And what was the instigating moment for this particular title?

Sarah: After working together on seven novels as an author-editor team, we knew we had a unique relationship.  Not only do we share strikingly similar narrative instincts and approaches to storytelling, but we get along beautifully as friends. When we discovered we were both itching to write a psychological page-turner – one as twisty, complex, and fresh as possible – it almost seemed predestined.

Greer: We both studied journalism and psychology, which makes us curious students of human nature.  In THE WIFE BETWEEN US, we wanted to explore how memories are colored by the lenses through which we view our worlds – and how people can share an experience but carry away markedly different perspectives and emotions. Little did we know that it would take every ounce of our collective brain power to keep track of the literary kaleidoscope we wanted to create.

L.L.:  In watching your YouTube video, I can see that your working chemistry is so natural. It really seems like you had fun with this title. Were there any challenges co-authoring?

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Greer: Our biggest challenge is technology. Because we write every word together we rely on google docs and google hangouts. Most of the time these tools work beautifully, but when they don’t it’s incredibly frustrating.

Sarah: Aside from technological glitches, we did have a lot of fun!

THE WIFE BETWEEN US delivers a whip smart, twisty plot in a taut, pacy narrative. It’s terrific and troubling. This is one scary love triangle where you won’t know who to trust. I loved it.”

Gilly Macmillan, New York Times bestselling author of What She Knew

L.L.: As for the story, my read was that a complex relationship like a marriage is so very multifaceted it’s hard to tell where one truth begins and another ends. It’s not just marriage; those lines can be blurred in just about any romantic entanglement. Can you elaborate on that, please?

Greer: There are three sides to every marriage: the husband’s, the wife’s and the truth. This is true for any relationship.

Sarah: One of our hopes was that THE WIFE BETWEEN US  would cause readers to reevaluate their own perceptions.

L.L.: I have to admit, my mind was reeling as I read THE WIFE BETWEEN US. I had to read ‘very carefully,’ for fear I might miss something. I had lots of theories. I can only imagine you did, too. Did you ever write yourself into a corner, and if so, how did you back out?

Greer:  We have two words for you: Cake Topper.

Sarah: We definitely backed ourselves into a corner with that one. It only took about 80 hours of conversation before we figured out a way to fix it!

L.L.: I understand THE WIFE BETWEEN US is to become a major motion picture. From the producers of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, no less! How thrilling! What can you tell us about the process and when might it be in theaters?

Sarah: We spent a day talking to various producers who were interested in our manuscript, and signed a contract with Amblin Entertainment, which is Steven Spielberg’s production company. They are currently working with a screenwriter to create the script based on our book!

L.L.: Are you collaborating on something new?

Greer: Yes, our next novel is also a psychological thriller, tentatively titled You’re Invited. It features twists and turns, of course, as well as strong female protagonists.

L.L: What’s keeping you awake at night? And let’s hope it’s not a faulty alarm system.

Greer: The plot of our new novel is as twisty and complicated as our first book and I think we are both becoming quite obsessed with all the potential twists and turns. We often email each other in the middle of the night with random ideas. Most of the time they still make sense in the morning.

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

Sarah: Please check out our website for more information on our book – and hopefully we’ll get to meet a lot of readers on tour!

L.L.: Ladies, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here today. Happy New Year!

Greer and Sarah: Thanks for having us!

For more information, to connect with the authors, or to get a copy of THE WIFE BETWEEN US, please see:

Greer:

Sarah:

Buy the Book!

Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks_photo credit Bill MilesABOUT THE AUTHORS:  Sarah Pekkanen is the internationally and USA Today bestselling author of seven previous novels. A former investigative journalist and feature writer, she has published work in The Washington Post, USA Today, and many others. She is the mother of three sons and lives just outside Washington, D.C.

Greer Hendricks spent over two decades as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Prior to her tenure in publishing, she worked at Allure magazine and obtained her Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Greer lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children. THE WIFE BETWEEN US is her first novel.

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

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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press and used with permission. Image of split wedding couple retrieved from, frustrated writer image from, unboxing image from L.Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 1.5.18] 

WeekEND Reading: Need to hit the ‘reset’ button on your Parenting/Family Life? Sue Groner, The Parenting Mentor is here with 5 Ways to Rock the New Year, her new book, PARENTING: 101 WAYS TO ROCK YOUR WORLD, and more

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By Leslie Lindsay  

In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season we just put behind us, parents might find it a bit challenging to re-center and focus on what’s important: our family. 

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I recently had the opportunity to read Sue Groner’s amazing book of parenting tips. The book is slim, but don’t be fooled; it’s jam-packed with practical, hands-on, and very ‘do-able.’ Be sure to check out my review here. 

Today, I have this lovely guest post from Sue on 5 ways parents can hit ‘Reset’ for the New Year; please join us!

“If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a lot of time reading how-to articles and blogs about being the best parent you can be. The amount of advice available to parents is overwhelming and confusing. Thinking that you’re not living up to a parenting gold standard causes stress and anxiety. And it certainly doesn’t make you feel great as a parent.
This year, during our New Year’s family dinner, we did something a little different. Rather than announcing specific resolutions, we went around the table and talked about how we felt about the new year.
The theme that emerged was how we were all excited for this opportunity for a “reset”. Of course, you can choose to reset on any day of the year, but when you reset at the beginning of a brand new year, the timing just feels right!
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Like my clients, I have fallen into the no-win cycle of trying to make everything in my family just perfect. What I’ve learned is that Perfect never works. Not only is it truly unattainable, the quest for Perfect seems to make things worse, not better — the exact opposite of what we parents are all striving for.
This year, instead of exhausting yourself trying to make your family what you think it’s supposed to be, here are 5 simple ideas that can help make you and your family life happier and more sane.
#1: Lose the P Word. Striving for Perfection not only causes unnecessary stress for you and your children, it also fosters disappointment. When children live within a Perfection- Oriented environment, they often avoid trying new things for fear of failing. Rather than evaluating results, praise your children for hard work and effort. And rather than judging yourself against a “perfect” ideal, praise yourself for what you do, and what you’ve done. Embrace the delicious feeling of being “good enough.”
#2: Have Realistic Expectations. The best way to ditch the P Word is to reconfigure your expectations. Whether it’s about your child’s birthday party or that much-anticipated date night, if you actually expect that things will sometimes go wrong, you can relax and laugh about it when they do. Learn to enjoy the planning and the process, but let go of the expectation for a flawless outcome. Adjusting expectations helps you go with the flow.
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#3: Do Something For Yourself. You know what I find makes a “good” parent? A happy, relaxed parent! Get a babysitter for an hour and watch some mindless television. Accept offers of help from friends and family. Take a bath. Take a nap. These short relaxing snippets are extremely valuable to your health and well-being, and will make you a happier parent almost immediately.
#4:  Try New Things As a Family. This is a simple, practical tip that seems to have a ripple effect. Take turns talking about some activity that you’ve been wanting to try. Cooking a new recipe with some first-time ingredients? Hiking that mountain that’s an hour away? Starting the new year with something other than resolutions? Picking and participating in new activities as a family is bonding, but it can also level the playing field among family members. Maybe the little one wants everyone to take ice-skating lessons. If everyone is a newbie, there’s no telling who will “rule the ice.” New activities let you model realistic expectations and process over outcome for your kids.
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#5: Say “Yes” with Joy. This is probably my favorite tip and the one that can instantly move me from stressed out to blissed out. If you know you’re ultimately going to drive your child to the mall, let her have a three-person sleepover, or allow an extra cookie after dinner — just go straight to a happy “Yes!” When you offer up an awesome gesture as if you’re doing your kids a big favor, it takes the fun out of it. It’s so easy to add joy to your delivery with “Sure!” or “I’d be happy to!” or “Let’s do that!” Your enthusiasm will make your child feel even better about your YES, but best of all, it will make you feel great.
When I start my year with a healthy parenting mentality, I have more fun, my family is happier, and we can spend more time and energy on the things that really matter — being together and supporting each other.”
These tips, and more, can be found in PARENTING: 101 Ways to Rock Your World by Sue Groner. 

For more information about the book, the connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of PARENTING: 101Ways to Rock Your World (Daily Success, Nov. 1, 2017), please see:

sue-groner-bioREV2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: As an experienced mother, Sue Groner knows how stressful and overwhelming parenting can be at times. She founded The Parenting Mentor to provide an ally for parents in their quest to raise confident and resilient children.

Sue is also the creator of the CLEARR™ method of parenting, developed through years of trial (and her fair share of errors!) with her own family. CLEARR™ adheres to the belief that parenting strategies should be grounded in six important pillars: Communication, Love, Empathy, Awareness, Rules, and Respect. This has become the cornerstone of her practice as The Parenting Mentor.

A graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a former advertising executive, Sue resides in New York City and Bedford, NY with her husband, two children (when they are not away at school) and two dogs. She is available for private, group, and virtual mentorship sessions nationwide.

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from S. Groner’s website and used with permission. Image of family dinner from, family hiking image from, family walking with tree from, napping mom retrieved fromall retrieved on 1.5.18. Special thanks to PRbytheBook.] 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesdays with Writers: Elizabeth Berg on the busyness of the season, Christmas cards, exhaustion, and everything our mothers did to make the holidays great. Oh, and her newest book, ARTHUR TRULUV

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By Leslie Lindsay 

I recently had the opportunity to read this very poignant story by veteran author, Elizabeth Berg.

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THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV is thought-provoking, endearing, and oh-so-sweet. In fact, I woke up at 2:30 in the morning just to finish! Click here to read my review on GoodReads. Serioulsy, this is a book for anyone and everyone; I was so thrilled Random House sent me a copy.

Truluv is a novel for these contentious times. We could all use a bit of Arthur’s ego-free understanding and forgiveness of fellow human beings.”

USA Today

Today, I have a lovely guest piece from Elizabeth, about the busyness of the holiday season, about holiday cards, and trying to out-do our mothers. I’m pretty sure you’ll find truth and humor and nostalgia all wrapped up in this one. Enjoy!

THE YEAR I RUINED CHRISTMAS

by Elizabeth Berg

As a child, I saw my mother prepare for Christmas every year, and it never occurred to me that labor was involved. I thought it was my mother’s joy and privilege to hang tinsel on the tree strand by strand, to make sure that every room in the house had a touch of Christmas, down to the Santa-themed rug and hand towels in the bathroom. She would sit at a card table night after night to carefully and
creatively wrap gifts, she baked hundreds of Christmas cookies,  hand-wrote messages on Christmas cards that went near and far, and she planned, shopped for and served a Christmas dinner
that was nearly unbearably delicious: turkey, stuffing, ham, green bean bake, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, reception salad, cucumbers in sour cream, rolls and butter, and cranberry sauce that in later years, courtesy of Susan Stamford, got fancied up. I always wanted to drink the gravy my mom made right out of the boat. (And if there was any left after dinner, I did exactly that. And then I used a Parkerhouse roll to scrape up out any remains.) For dessert, there were homemade pies and Christmas cookies and chocolates you could pluck out of the king-sized box of Whitman’s that my parents bought every year. Oh, that messenger boy!vintage-christmas-list1

When I grew up, I realized the truth. My mother prepared for the holidays joyfully, but she also labored mightily. Still, when she was well up into her eighties, she continued doing it.  Oh, she lightened her load a little bit: she prepared certain dishes the day ahead, and guests brought some side dishes that she always used to make. But she still did the bulk of the labor, including laying a tablecloth beneath the elegantly set wedding china that was older than I and guess how many stains were on it? Zero, that’s how many, because all her life, up until the day she went into the hospital for the last time, my mother was a laundress extraordinaire.  If there were a category in the Olympics for laundry, my mother would have been a gold-medal winner.  Year after year after year, my mother prepared and served and helped clean up after huge holiday dinners. And the woman did not even have a dishwasher until she was 89 years old, when she moved into an apartment for independent living, where, ironically, she finally stopped hosting holiday dinners.

It was after she had moved into independent living that we were on the phone one day when Christmas was a few weeks away, and she told me how much she missed getting Christmas cards. “Nobody sends them anymore,” she told me. “Or if they do, they send emails or those pre-printed photographs, and that’s not the same.”

She was right. It wasn’t the same as getting all those envelopes in your mailbox, and opening them to find all those different, often glittery images, all those verses written in the card as well as a handwritten note—or even a multi-page letter!– from the person who’d sent it to you. When you got those cards, you understood that this was from someone you knew, who knew you. My mom used to keep all her Christmas cards in a basket bedecked with red ribbon, and I used to love to look at them all, and read all the letters. All those people, still keeping in touch.  I even liked reading the letters from people I didn’t know, because it was an honest and reassuring peek into
someone else’s life.
But by the time my mom reached her 90s, many of the people who used to send her cards had died. And the people who were left mostly didn’t send cards anymore. I always sent my mom the most beautiful card I could find, and she displayed it like it was a Van Gogh. My sister and brother sent her beautiful cards, too. But that was about it.bce8c8e26748afb0bc85c289bbeef83b--vintage-christmas-cards-vintage-cards

So that Christmas, her last Christmas, as it turned out, I got an idea. I asked everyone on Facebook to send my mom a “real” Christmas card. I thought she might even get one hundred or so, and wouldn’t that be fun?  I told my sister, who lives in Minnesota where my Mom lived, and we decided to keep it a secret from my mother.

Several days after I made the request, my mom called me and said, “You know what? I got six Christmas cards in the mail today, and are they ever pretty, and I don’t even know these people!”

“Oh, really?” I said, and even though we were on the phone, I fought to disguise my smile.

Well.

By time the experiment was finished, my mom had gotten well over 1,200 cards. My sister had to start opening the envelopes for my mom because it wore my mom’s hands out, slicing open so many envelopes. The cards were arriving in those big plastic mail bins and were delivered straight to her door, since there was no way they’d fit in her mailbox. They came from all over the U.S. and from a few places outside the U.S. And not only did the people send cards, they sent notes along with them: Stories. Memories. Good wishes. Compliments to my mother for being a good writer—after the cards first started coming, she wrote a thank you letter that she asked me to post on Facebook and so, for the first time, she was both was on-line and published. (She had always had a dream of being a published writer. In fact, when I became a writer, my father told me, “You got HER job!”)  My mother became a minor celebrity in her building. There was a story done about her in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I still have one of those cards that my mom kept with her when she went into hospice. It features three angels shown in a kind of 3-D way. In dim light, you’d swear they were real, and floating in the air for the sake of your consolation. After my mom died, I put the card face out on a bookshelf and if I’m having a bad day, I sit and look at it.

So. When the first Christmas without my mom came around, I felt I needed to do something really special. I invited my out-of-town daughter and her husband and three children to spend the holiday with me. Also, I invited my son-in-law’s mother. With my other, nearby  daughter and her husband and my partner Bill and me, it would be a full house. I was thrilled. I wanted to recreate all the things my mother used to do.  And I intended for everything to be perfect, just as it was when she did it. I suppose I was hoping to bring her back, at least in some way.

I decorated the house. Each room had something: mini Christmas trees or snow globes or whimsical things like dogs dressed as angels.  By the fireplace was a big basket holding Christmas-themed books for both children and adults, and in the TV room, I lined up all the Christmas movies, including my favorite, “A Christmas Story,” which I could hardly wait for us all to watch together. I bought tickets to the Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker” so that I could take my three grandchildren to it and we could all thrill to it snowing on stage.

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I wanted to make all the food on Christmas Day, so that it would be as fresh as possible. The pies—all homemade, of course, including the crust—would be made in the early morning. (Maybe it would snow! I thought. Maybe I would be rolling out dough while everyone was upstairs sleeping, and huge, lacy flakes would be beautifully drifting and Christmas music would be softly playing and when people got up the coffee would be ready and they’d sit at the table in their pajamas and say, “Ohhhh, something smells so good!”)

 I decided I wouldn’t make the white bread and the cornbread that would be used for stuffing, and I would buy dinner rolls, that was my only concession. Otherwise, everything would be made from scratch. (My son-in-law’s mom once joked, “When you cook, you make the hydrogen and the oxygen for the water you use.”) I figured I would cook my brains out all day and the others could amuse themselves in any way that they wanted: playing games, talking, taking walks in the neighborhood, going downtown, maybe reading together from the big pile of Christmas books.

You see where this is going, no doubt. You know what happens when your expectations are as high as the moon.

Things did not go well. People kind of didn’t know what to do. When my sweet granddaughter came in the kitchen and said she wanted to make a pie of her own, I did not delight in this but instead thought, NO NO NO, I don’t have TIME! She made her little pie, but everything about the experience was off. There was no joy in Mudville.

At one point, when everything was prepared and the turkey was roasting in the oven, I realized how exhausted I was. I truly felt like I was going to keel over. I told my partner I was going to go upstairs and take a nap.  And that’s what I did. With a houseful of people whom I loved and had invited to spend Christmas with me, I went upstairs to my bedroom and went to sleep.  It was like throwing a party, opening the door to the guests and saying, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I will say the food was great. And I will say things marginally improved when my grandchildren and I decided to write a play (The Ugliest Cat at the Shelter) and perform it to an admittedly biased audience of a few relatives who applauded it heartily.

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After my guests left, I did a post-mortem, and I realized a few things. I am not my mother, and I am not honor-bound to try to do all the things she did in the way that she did them. I don’t have the stamina or the patience or the foresight or the skill or even the desire. I am now and forever the one who gets tired easily, who becomes overwhelmed by too many people in the house or too many things to do. And I can’t get stains out of anything, not even with OxiClean.

No, I am not my mother. I am deeply, endlessly grateful for what she did and who she was, but I am a different kind of person. And as appreciative as she was of tradition, I think she would be the first to say, “For heaven’s sake, you don’t have to do what I did!”

There is one way I tried to be like her that I don’t regret, though, and that is in trying to bring back the idea of handwritten cards. And I am happy to say that that idea took root in other ways, too. After the experience with my mother, one Facebook friend asked that cards be sent to honor her parent’s 75th wedding anniversary; one inspired people to send beautiful cards to nursing homes, to be given to people who rarely if ever got mail.  It reminded me of what Christmas is supposed to be about. Good Will. Kindness. Sharing. Wonder. Spontaneity. Generosity. Small but meaningful things that take root in the heart, and blossom, and stay.

Incidentally, the year after the year I ruined Christmas, I went to my daughter’s house for Christmas. It was wonderful. I had such a good time I cried.

For more information, to connect with Elizabeth via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV, please see:

Elizabeth Berg (©Teresa Crawford)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels, including Open House (an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Talk Before Sleep, and The Year of Pleasures, as well as the short story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year. She adapted The Pull of the Moon into a play that enjoyed sold-out performances in Chicago and Indianapolis. Berg’s work has been translated into twenty-seven languages, and three of her novels have been turned into television movies. She is the founder of Writing Matters, a quality reading series dedicated to serving author, audience, and community. She teaches one-day writing workshops and is a popular speaker at venues around the country. Some of her most popular Facebook postings have been collected in Make Someone Happy. She lives outside Chicago.”

“Fans of Meg Wolitzer, Emma Straub, or [Elizabeth] Berg’s previous novels will appreciate the richly complex characters and clear prose. Redemptive without being maudlin, this story of two misfits lucky to have found one another will tug at readers’ heartstrings.”

—  Booklist

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[Cover, author image, and guest piece courtesy of Random House and used with permission. Image books from L.Lindsay’s archives. Image of  woman with list from , woman decorating cookies is a 1948 General Mills ad and retrieved from, holiday card writing from,]

 

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

Please join me in welcoming Carmela to the blog couch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesdays with Writers: Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker talks about the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK), the evolution of sex work, how our justice system isn’t always fighting, his forthcoming book, and more in his true-crime narrative LOST GIRLS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY top ten book of 2013 about an infamous Long Island serial killer (LISK).

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Award-winning investigative reporter, Robert Kolker delves into the LOST GIRLS like someone writing fiction. LOST GIRLS (Harper, 2013) is  deeply researched and backstories of all the girls (who worked as on-line escorts) are explored. For this, I found the writing very compelling and humanizing. Kolker goes back, way back, to the origins of these girls’ lives, namely foster care and other challenging situations. We see how easy it might be to fall into the throes of prostitution: drugs, drama, death, dollars…it seems like an easy way to make a buck.

That would be the first quarter or so of the book. The next half or so is about how these girls–Melissa, Maureen, Megan, Amber, Shannan go missing, end up dead. Is there a serial killer on the loose? Is it just coincidence that their bodies all wash up on the same Oak Beach shore, could it be that death is the fate of sex workers? It’s hard to say. Kolker does an exceptional job of giving a clear and unbiased portrait of each girls’ family. 

And then we dive into the forensics of the matter. There are some ‘whodunit’ moments and cast of suspects, but no one seems to be talking.

Please join  me in welcoming Bob Kolker to the blog couch as we chat about this deeply researched, yet completely unsettling, true crime tale.

Leslie Lindsay: Bob, it’s great to have you. I know LOST GIRLS is a work of nonfiction about five women connected by the same criminal investigation—a suspected serial killer (or killers) operating in Long Island from about 1996 until about 2010. What struck you about this case that you had to dive in? Is it your geographic proximity, being in Brooklyn, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Thanks, Leslie—I’m glad to have the chance to talk about LOST GIRLS.

I first learned about the five women in LOST GIRLS while covering the case of the Long Island serial killer for New York magazine in early 2011, shortly after the first four bodies were discovered along a desolate stretch of highway near the southern coast. By then, people who followed the headlines knew that the five women all connected by this case were oddly similar: petite, in their twenties, and working as escorts online. But when I started to learn more about these women’s lives, and I saw that everything that society might commonly assume about them was wrong. They weren’t social outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families—their mothers and sisters, and, in some cases, ex-husbands and children. What they had in common, I discovered, was that they all came from parts of the country the media overlooks—poor, struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow has become a valid, almost normal option. 

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What started as reporting on crime and murder became also about misogyny and class, and the shocking differences in how our criminal justice system treats the rich and poor. While I hoped the book would maintain visibility for the case, I also hoped the LOST GIRLS would help explain why these women where more than just what the media was painting them as. I wanted to find out why they felt they had to work in the shadows to survive—and to explain how the shadows sadly became the perfect place for a killer to find them.

L.L.: LOST GIRLS is such an intricate web of drugs, death, drama, and yet you find a way for readers to ‘get to know’ these girls, their families of origin, and little quirks about them. Can you tell us what your research process was like?

Bob Kolker: I’m very lucky to have had spent 17 years as a writer of feature and cover stories at New York magazine, where I got a lot of experiencing interviewing vulnerable sources for articles involving a variety of sensitive issues, including sexual abuse, the loss of family members on 9/11, and the police shooting of Sean BellIn each case, I do what I can to be sensitive and even empathetic in my reporting, while retaining the impartiality and distance that is required for responsible storytelling. That’s a challenging line to walk, but I’m grateful to have a lot of experience walking that line.

When I approached the women’s families about a book, I made it clear that I considered it my responsibility to move beyond the headlines and present complete portraits of each woman. I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  It took a lot of time, but I’m very grateful to all of the families for their candor and trust.

“[Lost Girls‘s] sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker’s lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you’re reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
                                                                       – Dwight Garner, The New York Times

L.L.: We should back up a little and say, the women all involved were sex workers. In the late-1990s and early 2000s, the industry shifted a bit with the introduction of the Internet. Now prostitutes/call girls/escorts could lure johns anonymously through on-line ads on Craigslist and also Backpage. Since LOST GIRLS was published in 2013, how do you see that Internet sex world evolving? And do you believe the investigation would have been handled differently if the women weren’t sex workers?

Bob Kolker: You’re totally right that the Internet has revolutionized sex work. There’s no need to walk down a dark street anymore to be a sex worker, or to have a pimp, or to work for an escort service that takes most of your earnings. You don’t ever have to leave your own house. And so more women who lead more or less normal lives are often drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise. All five women I wrote about grew up in families where, in the social sense, prostitution was not seen as a move up. And yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves.

Since LOST GIRLS was published, the sex work conversation has gone mainstream, with cover stories about legalizing prostitution in the New York Times Magazine and New York magazine.  I’ve seen the coverage of serial-killer cases skew more toward treating the victims as real people and not stock characters in some police procedural. And the inequities of the criminal justice system are getting a lot more attention now, from media outlets like The Marshall Project. If LOST GIRLS played some part in that, I’m of course very happy.

But to answer your question: Yes. I absolutely believe that if these women came from a different social strata, the police would have taken their disappearances more seriously and worked to find them and solve their murders more aggressively. That aspect of the mystery is, at least to me, not unsolved. It’s crystal clear.LostGirls_AF

L.L.:  There are new developments in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) case. In 2016, Shannan Gilbert’s younger sister killed her mother in cold-blood, it appears. The sister was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and pleaded insanity. Shannan was believed to be bipolar. Does mental illness factor in to this case at all?

Bob Kolker: I continue to follow the case closely, and while there are still no suspects, there’s always something new happening. I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore, but I certainly was brought low by Mari Gilbert’s [Shannan’s mother] murder. Mari is a major character in LOST GIRLS, which of course reflects how large she loomed in real life. She had worked so hard to get justice for her daughter Shannan, and for the police to treat all of the victims with respect and dignity. That her mentally ill daughter Sarra ended up killing her while experiencing delusions seems worse than unfair. Many have suggested that mental illness was something that Sarra shared with Shannan. I’m concerned that might be too pat an explanation for why Shannan disappeared: Just saying Shannan was crazy lets a lot of culpable people off the hook.

I’m also paying special attention to the case of James Burke, the police official in Suffolk County who was jailed recently after rising up to the department’s top spot, even though it was widely known just how jaw-droppingly corrupt he was. It seems clear that Burke worked to keep the FBI away from the LISK case, presumably because the feds were investigating him for various abuses and he didn’t want them anywhere near him. Imagine if the FBI had been able to help earlier. Maybe we’d have a suspect by now. There’s no telling what effect the corruption of the Suffolk County justice system had on this case.download (54)L.L.: There’s also the mystery of Dr. Peter Hackett, and his involvement in Shannan’s disappearance. According to the investigation, Shannan knocked in his beach cottage door demanding help. He denies this. But then he’s also called her mother offering condolences. It seems he’s hiding something. He’s since moved from Long Island and is living in Florida. It seems to me that the authorities would have their guy if bodies stopped piling up on Oak Beach now that he’s not there. But perhaps it’s not that simple?

Bob Kolker:  The police never seemed to take Hackett serious as a suspect, but he certainly seems to be at the center of the events at Oak Beach on the night of Shannan Gilbert’s disappearance. I have an exclusive interview with Hackett in LOST GIRLS, and you can see in our conversation how he seems to dissemble even when asked the simplest, most verifiable questions. I am convinced that Hackett and other neighbors at Oak Beach are hiding something important about what happened to Shannan that night. I think we’d have much to learn from what they know.

As for the overall serial killer case, I’m as astonished as anyone that the police don’t have stronger leads, though that may well be because no one took these women’s disappearances seriously when they first vanished. I’m concerned that this might be a case that’s resolved five or ten or fifteen years later after someone confesses. That seems to happen a lot in serial killer cases. But it’s terrible that the perpetrator is still out there. I hope for an arrest as soon as possible. And I also hope for a greater understanding of what made these women so vulnerable to a predator. Their case is still very much alive, and readers can keep that in mind as they sift through all the clues themselves in LOST GIRLS.

L.L.: I could ask questions all day about the case, but I want to know more about your next book, HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD about a mid-century family who has a virulent string of schizophrenia in their family. How did you stumble across this find and what message do you hope to impart?

Bob Kolker: I’ve been very privileged to be interviewing a large family about everything they went through as mental illness tore through their lives at a moment when even less was known about mental illness than is known now. This family’s case was significant enough to be studied by NIH, but no one has told their story before. Along the way, I’ll also be telling the broader story of science’s search for the causes of schizophrenia. I hope this book does a little of what LOST GIRLS did, which is to offer readers a pathway into a world not quite like their own.

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

Bob Kolker:  My family just adopted a puppy. We did it kind of on impulse, which is very unlike us. None of us have had a dog before, either, so we’re freaking out and delighted all at the same time (shhh, it’s nap time).   On the literary side, I’ve loved Megan Abbott’s YOU WILL KNOW ME and Adam Sternbergh’s THE BLINDS.

L.L.: Bob, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? What you had for breakfast, what’s on your wish list this holiday season, your favorite book, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Once I stop researching my current book, I can’t wait to read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann.

 

For more information about the book, to connect with Bob via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOST GIRLS, please see:

KolkerAuthorPhoto.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls, named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2013. As a journalist, his work has appeared in New York magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Oprah, and Men’s Journal. He is a National Magazine Award finalist and a recipient of the Harry Frank Guggenheim 2011 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of R. Kolker and used with permission. PEOPLE magazine image retrieved from author’s website, girls in case retrieved from Boston Globe books in a row from Amazon, ‘reading is my superpower’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.18.17] 

 

WeekEND Reading: Gayle Brandeis talks about her new memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, her mother’s suicide, the juxtaposition of life and death, mental illness, STRANGER THINGS 2, books she’s reading, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Razor-sharp, raw, poetic memoir about mothers and daughters, suicide, mental illness, and grief.

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Gayle Brandeis’s mother disappeared shortly after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child, Asher. Several days later, her body was found hanging in the utility closet of parking garage of an apartment building for the elderly.

THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is a gorgeous read about a less-glamorous time. Gayle is struggling with grief and heartache, as well as the soupy surreal time of postpartum. Gayle takes this dichotomy of death and birth and weaves it into a coherent, poetic narrative that brings readers into the grief experience.

What’s more is the family history surrounding a series of bizarre medical symptoms that often masked themselves as psychoses. Or was it psychosis, after all? It’s hard to say because the symptoms tend to overlap: delusions, paranoia, factitious disordersfactitious disorders; Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, porphyria. For the last few years of Gayle’s mother’s life, she was working on a documentary about these
disorders, called THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS. Gayle takes that script and braids it, along with her own feelings and experiences into the narrative. images (23)

Be sure to watch the stunning book trailer here: 

I found the writing clear and glittery, the medical mystery fascinating, but most of all–I wondered, what really happened?

From the back cover: 

“Written by a gifted stylist, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS delves into the tangled mysteries of the disease, mental illness, and suicide, and comes out the other side with grace.”

I am so, so honored to welcome Gayle to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Gayle, I find your story so important and so honest and I thank you for sharing it with us. Like you, I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother. Like you, I lost her to suicide a little over two years ago. I dont have to ask what was haunting you when you set out to write THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS; I know. But I am curious about what kept you going with the writing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much, Leslie—I’m so grateful for your kind words and so happy to appear on your blog. I’m sorry that you are part of this suicide loss survivor club, too—it’s not a community I’d wish on anyone, but I very much appreciate connecting with other survivors. Our stories are so often kept in the shadows, and I think when we share this complicated form of grief, we can help reduce stigma, help release shame. That was part of what drove me, but what drove me on a more personal level was the compulsion to dig and dig and dig until I could come to some place of understanding—or, if not understanding, at least a place of greater peace—with my mom, her life as well as her death. I wanted to make some kind of sense out of the chaos.

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L.L.: While THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is as much about death as it is birth. Your youngest son, Asher was born just a week before your mother took her life. You share several beautiful passages in the narrative about Asher/Ashes/Ash/er/es []  its very poignant and also a nod to grief; I think we often grasp at small connections as our mind absorbs loss. We want to make sense of the tragedy.  You also share a really strong image of your sister carrying your mothers ashes in one hand and Asher in his car seat in another arm. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of life and death?

Gayle Brandeis: Life and death are always around us, of course—cue “The Circle of Life” music!—but losing my mom a week after giving birth drove that home in such an intense way. That moment where my sister was walking down the hall holding my baby Asher at the same times he was holding our mom’s ashes, embodies that juxtaposition so perfectly for me, the beginning and end of life in her hands (and realizing those two words—Asher, Ashes—are just one letter apart; just one breath apart, as I write in the book). Having a new baby kept me from running off the rails, I think—I’m so grateful he brought his ray of light to ground us and bring joy through that painful time. I’m very glad I took notes as it was all happening because both grief and giving birth can give one a kind of amnesia—some part of me must have known that, and took notes to guard against this double whammy. Those notes helped greatly once I was ready to write this story—they brought me right back to the intensity of the experience, of holding the reverberations of grief and birth in my body all at once.

L.L.: Shifting gears a bit to the medical side of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSISyour mother believed she (and  your family) suffered from a couple of rare medical syndromes: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and also porphyria. Later, theres mention of factitious disorder and malingering syndrome. You had me Googling all kinds of things! Can you break down what you understand about these illnesses, please?

Gayle Brandeis: I feel like I still don’t understand as much about Ehlers-Dalos syndrome and porphryria as my mom had wanted me to. Both are genetic disorders; Ehlers-Danlos is a connective tissue disorder which has a several manifestations—the most common seem to be the hyper mobility type, in which joints are extra loose, and the vascular type, which affects blood vessels (as well as other parts of the body) and can lead to issues like rupture of the aorta (my mom felt certain that this type ran in the family). Just in the last couple of years, several people I know have been diagnosed with EDS, or a family member has, or it’s been suspected by doctors, so it’s possible that my mom was right when she believed it’s not a rare disease, just rarely diagnosed. Porphyria is a metabolic disorder that has all sorts of physical and mental presentations, including some pretty wild ones, like a thirst for blood and “werewolfism”; it may be what drove King George “mad” (and thus helped America become America.) There is something kind of mythic about it, although of course it leads to very real suffering. As I mention in the book, I was kind of disappointed when it turned out I didn’t have porphyria, after all—if I had to be chronically ill (and of course I would rather not be!), that was an interesting illness to be associated with.

Factitious disorders were a more recent discovery for me. In the book, as you know, I talk about how I prolonged my illness for a year after it went into remission when I was a teenager because I didn’t know how not to be “the sick girl”—it had become my identity. A few years ago, a friend mentioned the word “malingering” and I knew I had heard it but didn’t fully understand what it meant; when I looked it up and discovered that it meant gaining some sort of reward from pretending to be ill, I thought, well, that’s what I was doing as a teenager. I later learned, though, that those who malinger get some sort of material benefit from their charade—money, etc.—but those with factitious disorders get their reward directly from the experience of being ill and the attention it inspires. That struck home all the more. The most serious form of this is Munchausen syndrome (named for Baron von Munchausen, a character who made up outlandish tales); there’s also Munchausen by proxy, in which a person, often a mother, will make someone else, often their child, ill through a variety of means. My mom didn’t have Munchausen by proxy, but our relationship as “the sick girl” and “the mother of the sick girl” was definitely an unhealthy and co-dependent one.

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L.L.: And yet, and yet…at times your mother seemed to suffer from some kind of mental illness. As I read, several diagnoses came to mind: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, narcissism. What do you think was really going on?

Gayle Brandeis: It is still wild and ironic to me that I went out of my way to appear ill when I wasn’t and she refused to acknowledge she had mental illness when she did. After doing my own research and interviewing psychiatrists, it seems likely that she had a paranoid delusional disorder, which is different from schizophrenia and is apparently incredibly hard to treat. Even if she had ever been properly diagnosed, it’s unlikely there would have been a medication or other therapy that could have significantly  helped. Learning this was a relief in a way—I had been beating myself up, wondering what I could have done differently, how I could have helped her more, and when a psychiatrist I interviewed said there really isn’t anything I could have done, it helped me let go of some of the guilt I had been carrying. I do think she had narcissistic personality disorder, as well—the world very much revolved around her.

L.L.: THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS teeters between time periods and also is told, in part, by letters you wrote to your mother after her death at the urging of your therapist. There are a million ways you could have structured this narrative. How is that you decided on this structure?

Gayle Brandeis: The structure evolved as I worked on the book. The letter my therapist suggested I write to my mom was something I truly had started writing for myself alone, and as I delved into my history with my mom, at some point I realized that this letter could provide a deeper context for our relationship in the book, since the present tense narration around her suicide was urgent and immediate and didn’t really allow for that kind of reflection. The film transcription came in a bit later in the process—I had decided to borrow my mom’s title but I hadn’t considered using the film itself in the memoir, mostly because I hadn’t been ready to watch it after her death. Once I did let myself view it, I realized that braiding the film into the book could give my mom a chance to speak for herself on the page. And the research elements came in naturally, too—they were part of my investigation and it made sense to weave them in. It seems fitting that the story ended up being told in a complicated, fragmented way—it mirrors how complicated grief after suicide can be (but it also allowed me to create form out of chaos in a very satisfying way.)

L.L.: There are other memoirs about mental illness and suicide; mothers and daughters, but this one is illuminating and uplifting in some regards; redeeming in others. What do you think sets THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS apart? What do you hope readers take away? And did it transform you in writing it?

Gayle Brandeis: Of course every story of suicide is unique because of the voice and vision of the person writing, but there are also important points of connection between our stories. I take a dance class called “Groove” where the guiding principle
is “unified but unique”—you are given a few simple movements to do with each song that are touchstones for everyone in the class, but then you make the movements your own, layer on your own quirky stuff. I think of my book that way—I hope people who have gone through similar experiences will find a sense of solidarity and community, that it will help them feel less alone, but I also hope that this book will offer something new—a fresh approach to form, a singular experience told through my very particular (and sometimes peculiar, as was said in a review, which I love) body and mind. I very much hope readers leave the book with a sense of hope (and perhaps some inspiration to tell their own stories.)

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Writing this book transformed me more than I could ever say. I was asked to do a self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, and I ended up asking myself “How did writing this book change you?” eleven times, with eleven different answers, and I could have kept going. I am a different person than I was when I began writing the book—a stronger person, a braver person, a more open person. I am so deeply grateful for the journey of this book.

L.L.: Gayle, its been such a pleasure. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that I should have? Like, maybe whats on your end-of-the-year-bucket list, what are you reading, what your guilty pleasures are, or how Asher is doing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much for having me—this has been a treat! I don’t think you forgot anything at all, but I’m happy to answer these questions! Not sure I have an end-of-the year bucket list, but I do want to see the Northern Lights before I
die.
  Speaking of death, I’m reading a book that comes out next year, I AM, I AM, I AM: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, which is a beautiful exploration of how awareness of death can help us appreciate life all the more deeply. As for guilty pleasures, hmmm…I gobbled down Stranger Things 2, but I don’t feel guilty about that at all! Hot baths are perhaps my guiltiest pleasure—guilty because I don’t like to waste water, but I sure do love a good, long, hot soak. And Asher’s doing great! It’s kind of amazing to me that he’s 8 now—he is such a barometer of how long I’ve lived without my mom. He’s just about as tall as my armpits these days. Time is so weird. Thanks for asking about my sweet boy (and thanks for all of your other great questions—so very grateful!)29906170001_4871960491001_4871918106001-vs

For more information, to connect with Gayle via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, please see:

Gayle_Brandeis_by_Rachael WareckiABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Beacon Press and used with permission. Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights image retrieved from USAToday.com, quirky carpet layers from , the world revolves around me from, Life & Death Tree from Pinterest, no source noted, reading/book image from L. Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.16.17]