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

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By Leslie Lindsay CROWSCOVER.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more can you tell us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author photoAUTHOR BIO: Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, MARCIA WILLETT was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to study to be a ballet teacher. Her husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. She has published many novels in England and around the world.
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Wednesdays with Writers: Wendy Walker talks about breaking the cycle of narcissism in families, letting creative ideas in even when they deviate from the outline, hitting ‘send’ and more writing anxieties in her psychologically twisted tale, EMMA IN THE NIGHT

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By Leslie Lindsay 

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

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

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

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

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

We’re dealing with a very dysfunctional blended family. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase EMMA IN THE NIGHT here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesdays with Writers: What happens when you sleep? Could you be capable of murder? Chris Bohjalian explores this and more in his latest novel, THE SLEEPWALKER, plus rising early, following characters onto the page, being a teen magician

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By Leslie Lindsay 

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Guest Room comes a spine-tingling novel of lies, loss, and buried desire–the mesmerizing story of a wife and mother who vanishes from her bed late one night.

Psychologically astute rift with family secrets, mystery, and a terrifying sleep disorder, THE SLEEPWALKER is at first a family portrait swallowed in the throes of grief.

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With an author like Chris Bohjalian, you’re in good hands; expert hands, in fact. When I learned about THE SLEEPWALKER, I knew I had to read it: missing people, mothers especially, are a fascination of mine. So too is sleep and dreams. Toss in a lovely flawed family portrait and I am putty in your hands.

When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. She once spray-painted the front hydrangeas silver, and yet…things always work out just fine.

But this time it’s different. This time, she can’t be found. Days turn to weeks. An investigation ensues. Speculation swirls. What happened to Annalee Ahlberg, a healthy, fit architect?

Infused with lovely snippets of research about sleep and their accompanying disorders, THE SLEEPWALKER is a gorgeously written family drama.

Join me in welcoming Chris Bohjalian to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: I’ve long been a fan of your work, Chris.  Your books cover a lot of ground…YA, historical, mystery, gothic, literary suspense. I’m always curious: why this book, why now? What inspired THE SLEEPWALKER?

Chris Bohjalian: Originally I thought I was going to write a book about dreams, that great Freudian abyss. And so I went to have lunch with a sleep doctor to understand the physiology of the brain when we dream. He had just come from a patient who was a sleepwalker, and our conversation rather naturally went. We discussed how people sleepcook, sleepdrive, sleepjog, sleepsex, sleepmurder – and I was hooked.

Check out THE SLEEPWALKER’S book trailer: 

L.L.: Your research into sleep disorders is evident. Can you talk a bit about that process?

 Chris Bohjalian: I always love my research, but this was especially interesting because sleep study is such a new field. The term “arousal disorder” wasn’t even coined until 1968. Medicine didn’t begin to categorize parasomnias until 1979. And forensic sleep medicine, the investigation of sleep crime? As a discipline, it only dates back to 2007.

L.L.: I personally love to sleep! I find it’s a great place to flesh out some of my creative download (8)processes. The best is when I fall asleep reading. My brain sort of takes over and creates a whole new story. Do you ever dream about your works-in-progress? Do you ever get ideas for novels this way?

Chris Bohjalian: I think you’re on to something. I have heard that sleep really does recharge creativity. Now, I don’t precisely dream of my books, but I know that I have to go directly to my desk when I awake at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning.  I do almost all of my writing then. It’s far and away the most productive time of the day for me, and I believe that is not merely because I am most rested: I believe it is because of my mind’s connection to sleep and the subconscious.

L.L.: Let’s talk character for a bit. You do a beautiful job of ‘getting into the head’ of a 21-year old college female. How did you make the decision to tell the story from Lianna’s POV, and not…say, her English professor father who might be more aligned with you as a male author?

Chris Bohjalian: My daughter, a young actor in New York City, once said to me after reading a rough draft of one of my novels, “Dad, take this as a compliment, because I mean it that way. But I think your sweet spot as a writer is seriously messed-up young women.” She’s right. Just think of Laurel Estabook (“The Double Bind”), Emily Shepard (“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands”), Serafina Bettini (“The Light in the Ruins”), or all the young female survivors of the Armenian Genocide in “The Sandcastle Girls.”

There are a lot of reasons why sometimes I write across gender. Originally, “The Sleepwalker” was a traditional, third-person Jamesian novel. But about halfway in, it began to feel to me a lot like a story of mothers and daughters and loss. And so I tried it from Lianna’s perspective and liked where the book seemed to go. I liked the wistfulness of first-person past in this case.

L.L.: Lianna is an amateur magician, giving magic shows for kids’ parties, etc. How did that piece of her character develop? Is it a sort of metaphor for the overall narrative? Appearance/disappearance themes?

Chris Bohjalian: Yes. You nailed it. She can make anything reappear except her mother. Also? I was a teenage magician. Everything in Lianna’s set was in my set. I did those children’s birthday parties.

“Scary, limiting and downright dangerous, sleepwalking inspires a hard-to-put-down story that also mixes sex and a mystery in a polished package. . .Bohjalian is on top of his already stellar game with The Sleepwalker.”
— Amanda St. Amand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

L.L.:  For you, does structure follow plot points or is it more character-driven?

Chris Bohjalian: Well, I never know where my stories are going. I have no plot. I have only a premise and a character. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. It is – to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow – driving at night. You can only see 200 feet ahead of you, but you have the confidence that eventually you will get where you’re going. 

L.L.:  Do you have any writing rituals or routines? A few  “Chris facts?” 

Chris Bohjalian:  I begin my day by skimming a dictionary for an interesting word or two. Then I watch movie trailers for ten minutes, usually enjoying three or four. They instantly catapult me into the right head space. Usually they have nothing to do with the book I’m writing in terms of subject. It’s all about the emotion.

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

Chris Bohjalian:  These were great. Thanks!

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

Chris Bohjalian.jpg ABOUT THE AUTHOR: CHRIS BOHJALIAN is the author of nineteen books, including Close Your EyesHold Hands; The Sandcastle GirlsSkeletons at the FeastThe Double Bind; and Midwives. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of EdenMidwives, and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media contacts. Love to see ya ’round!

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Doubleday. Collage of previous works from author’s website. Image of ‘sleep and creativity’ from YouTube, all retrieved 3.16.17]

Wednesdays with Writers: Six-times NYT Bestselling author Margaret George on her love for travel, history, poetry and how competitive sports is like writing in her new historical saga, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

With a perfect streak of over six New York Times bestsellers, and 1.5 million books sold, MARGARET GEORGE turns her gaze to the ‘bad boy’ Emperor of Ancient Rome.

THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO is meticulously researched, gloriously written, and transports the reader to the heart of Rome and beyond.

Margaret George burst onto the scene in 1986 with her historical fiction of Henry VIII…and she continued writing critically-acclaimed biographical novels of historical figures, including MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE, CLEOPATRA, among others.

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 “With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression. This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second will be eagerly awaited.”

—Booklist

Emperor Nero. Many things come to mind at the mention of his name: Spoiled. Murderer. Tyrant. Pervert. Hedonist. Many of these caricatures are put in motion through Hollywood and rumors as ancient as the forum. Having come to power at the tender age of sixteen, THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO follow his life in a two-part saga (this is the first book; both are written to stand-alone). Enshrined in power and raised by a cunning and ambitious mother, Nero is the 5th Roman Emperor, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Julius Caesar. We follow his young life from about age four to mid-twenties, just before the Great Fire of Rome.

Nero’s life is riddled with murderers, rivalries, plots, orgies, and incest. Sensational on its own—but the story is not just about revisiting these instances—there’s reclamation in Nero as an artist, a musician, an athlete. In fact, George’s book had me cheering for Nero at times, in fact, completely changing my opinion of him.

Today, I am so very humbled to welcome Margaret George to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Margaret, it’s truly an honor. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I’m so in awe of the breadth of knowledge, your impeccable research, and the magical way you are able to weave a deeply moving, stunningly visual narrative of Nero. Before we get into specifics, I am curious why Nero, why now?

Margaret George: I’ve actually been thinking of Nero for a long time—for over twenty years, in fact.  I was all afire to do this back in the 1990’s.  But all the stereotypes you mention above were in full force then, and people weren’t interested in exploring farther, they were so prejudiced against him.  Since then the climate has changed; in 2003 there was a major revisionist biography, and three big Nero exhibits—two in Rome and one in Germany—have been outstandingly popular, the last one in 2016.  His moment has come, and at last he can make his case.220px-Nero_1

L.L.: You’re known for your meticulous research. In fact—you’ll laugh; I’m no sybil—but I dreamed you researched this book for twenty years!  In your ‘afterward,’ you list some amazing titles referenced in writing; do you have any research rituals?

Margaret George: Isn’t that funny, maybe you are a sybil.  As I said above, I started doing research on Nero back in the 1990s and continued on even as I was writing other books.  The research for HELEN OF TROY (early 2000s) in Greece was also Nero research because he was so nuts about Greece and made a big ‘arts tour’ there that lasted sixteen months.

I don’t have any rituals per se, but I do like to take things in a certain order.  First read the books, then go to the sites, and last of all do the writing.  It’s best to have done the reading research before going to the sites, because then I am more aware of what I need to notice. I also like to write out notes by hand because I think it registers in my brain better that way.

I take a lot of photos on site and buy any kitsch relating to my characters I find, because it shows they are still  ‘real’ to modern people.  As a result I have a 10’ x 4’ Nero flag, Nero candles, Nero matches (what else?), Nero rubber duckies, and Nero tote bags.  There were even bottles of Nero wine at the German exhibit!

L.L.:  Just like with the Internet nowadays, ancient Romans loved gossip. How were you able to tease out what was ‘real’ and not?

Margaret George: It’s hard after two thousand years to be able to sort out the National Enquirer material, because, well, even the National Enquirer has true material.  (Remember the Bruno Magli shoes that O.J. was wearing, caught in a National Enquirer photo?)  I had to take into consideration the source of the material, and whether it was ‘canned’ and repeated elsewhere about other people, or whether it was just unbelievable and obviously a character assassination.  For example, any time anyone died Tacitus, Suetonius, or Dio Cassius (the main three sources for Nero) claimed it was poison, and that Nero did it.  In many instances it made no sense—why would he poison Burrus, his Praetorian prefect? Often the gossip in one is contradicted in the other, for example, one historian says Burrus died of a throat ailment, not poison.  Another silly piece of gossip is that Agrippina and Nero had sex in the royal litter, and when they got out, their clothes were wrinkled and stained, visual proof of it.  In the novel I even have Nero commenting that, since he had a whole palace at his disposal, why would he resort to a litter in the streets in broad daylight?

L.L.: What details, if any, do you invent?

Margaret George: I actually do invent a number of details, if they are plausible. For example, the horse farm outside Rome where Nero selects the team he wants to train for chariot 240px-Ritratto_di_claudia_ottavia,_da_roma,_via_vareseracing.  Now, we know there were horse farms.  We know his right-hand man, Tigellinus, was a former horse trainer and breeder. We know Nero raced chariots But we have no information about where or how he got his horses.  So I imagined that scene, which I thought would show something about horses and the special training they underwent for chariot racing.  And there are other scenes like that: his secret athletic training under an alias when he was a boy, his visit to the Roman brothel, his wedding night with Octavia.

Some of the details that may sound invented aren’t.  We know Nero had bad eyesight and used an uncut emerald held up before his eye to watch chariot races.  (It probably didn’t work.)  We know he had a special drink named after himself (the decocta Noroonis) made of boiled and re-cooled snow.  We know he didn’t like wearing togas and switched to tunics whenever he could, including flowered ones.   

L.L.: You do a beautiful job of reconstructing a stunning visual landscape for ancient Rome. Your visceral details are quite poetic lending to a tremendous sense of place. Instead of asking, ‘how do you do it’—what do you keep the saw sharp?

Margaret George: That’s very kind of you. I worry that I don’t have enough details!  But I am a student of Ray Bradbury’s (figuratively not literally) and his writing is very ‘visceral’ or I would say ‘sensual’—of the senses.  He explained it this way:

“Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture.  If the reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves, half your fight is won.” ~Ray Bradbury

I try to keep that in mind.  Most descriptive writing is heavy on the visual but if you can bring in the other senses it gives a real feeling of being there.autobiography-of-henry-VIII

L.L.: Can you tell us a little about your early writing days? What do you think you did ‘right?’ What do you wished you had done ‘better?’

Margaret George: It took me a long time to hit my stride, I think.  My father read over my first handwritten draft of HENRY VIII (what a martyr!) and noted two things: one, that writing in the first person isn’t just writing in the third person and replacing all the ‘he’s’ with “I’s” which he said I did, and second, that I was best when I cut loose from the strict historical recounting and used my imagination. 

I think he was right and I believe I corrected those weaknesses, after much trial and error.  As to what I have done wrong, or wished I had done better—-I have gone overboard in memoirs-of-cleopatra-1including everything, which reached its apex with CLEOPATRAI listened to it all on tape and realized as I did so (since you can’t skim with an audio) that, instead of standing the reader before a bulging closet and saying, “Here it all is!” I should have selected the best clothes for him or her.  That’s the job of the writer—to select and present.

NERO is a lot more spare but I am pleased that you didn’t feel I skimped.  Less is more…maybe. (Although Nero himself wasn’t known for his minimalism.)

L.L.: I have to believe Nero would be beyond proud of THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO. I know I was rooting for him! What might he say if he read the book?

Margaret George: Oh, I’d love it if he would say I had gotten it exactly right, and how did I KNOW?  That’s what I strove for, to let him speak again and have it be true to character.  I would love to know what he thinks, but I’d be crushed if he didn’t like it after all!

L.L.: What inspires you? What has your attention? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Margaret George: Poetry is a great inspiration—such economy of words to say so many things.  I have a friend who said, “It’s friends and poetry that get you through the hard times.”  She is right.  Friends, of course, and travel, which is endlessly fascinating and the opposite of navel-gazing, an occupational hazard of writers.

Like Nero in the novel, I like sprinting—100 and 200 meters, because for those seconds the whole world vanishes and all you see is the finish line.  The world of competitive sports is so different from the literary one, although there are similarities, too.  Both have starting blocks, finish lines, medals, rankings, and prizes, and both require a lot of solitary hours spent in practice for just a little while in the spotlight.  

L.L.: I’m curious what the next book entails. I have to read it! Can you give a glimpse?

Margaret George: The second part of Nero’s life is as tumultuous as the first.  It opens with the Great Fire of Rome, the largest fire in antiquity, which burned for nine days and destroyed most of the city.  Nero deals with the aftermath, rebuilds Rome according to new urban planning, builds his revolutionary Domus Aurea (Golden House), punishes the Christians, deals with a far-reaching conspiracy against him, involving some of those closest to him,  holds his second Neronian Games, races in the Circus Maximus (image below), Poppaea dies, he stages a spectacular entrance to Rome for King Tiridates of Parthia, he goes to Greece for a year long round of music and athletic competitions, returns to Rome and is overthrown, finally committing suicide with his famous last words, “Qualis artifex pereo”—“what an artist dies in me!”  And he was only thirty years old by then.  What a life story!

L.L.: Margaret, it was a true pleasure. Thank you!

Margaret George: Thank you for having me, Leslie.

Circus_Maximus_in_RomeFor more information, to connect with Margaret George, or to purchase THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO, please see:

Website

Facebook

GoodReads

Pinterest

Barnes&Noble Best New March 2017 Fiction 

Amazon 

Check out this video of Margaret on her inspiration for Nero

Margaret-George-Hi-RES.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest, The Confessions of Young Nero, will be published in March. All six of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

She especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

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

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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website, as well as covers of Henry VIII and Cleopatra. Historical images of Nero, Octavia, Circus Maximus all retrieved from Wikipedia on 3.08.17. Special thanks to L. Burnstein of Berkley/RandomHouse] 

Writers on Wednesday: Bestselling author John Hart talks about REDEMPTION ROAD, writing a female protagonist for the first time, the gritty South, finding zen on the farm, & how writing allows us the ability to explore things we love and loathe.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Since 2011, when his last New York Times bestseller, IRON HOUSE, shot out of the gate, gripping readers and winning resounding praise, fans around the world have been waiting.download-14

Five years later, phenomenal storyteller John Hart returns with his dark, gritty Southern fiction with a literary slant aptly titled, REDEMPTION ROAD (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, May 3 2016). Trust me, if you want to feel as if you’re in the hands of a seasoned pro, get REDEMPTION ROAD, revel in it, and then wish you could write like that (or at least see all story elements that you’re sure to miss the first time around); the man can flat-out write. Set in small town North Carolina, REDEMPTION ROAD is all about tortured souls, traumatized children, corrupt law enforcers, and a serial killer. Toss in a little religious undercurrent, and it’s very emotionally charged powerhouse of a novel that will leave your head spinning. There’s so much going on in REDEMPTION ROAD, it’s challenging to summarize, but that’s the sign of a good book, at least in my opinion.

Elizabeth Black (Liz) is Hart’s first female protagonist and he writes her beautifully. She’s a loner and a giver, a fallen cop trying to do all the right things in the wrong ways. Her first (former) partner (Adrian Wall) has been imprisoned for the last thirteen years and is just about to be released when things to start happening. Could it be that Wall was wrongly accused of his crime? Elizabeth is determined to prove the justice system wrong. Meanwhile, in a cold, damp basement in an abandoned home lies a pretty rich girl badly raped and beaten. Her tormentors shot not once, or twice, or six times…but eighteen.

Way out yonder is an abandoned church. Bodies pile up at the altar. Some of whom have been missing. And why does Elizabeth hate her father so?

Join me as I welcome the only author to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John Hart.

Leslie Lindsay: John, it’s an honor to have you today. Thank you for taking the time to pop over. I’m always fascinated with what inspires an author to write a certain story at a certain time; so why REDEMPTION ROAD, why now, and what were some of your limitations?

John Hart: Hi Leslie. The pleasure is mine. Thanks for the interest in what I do. As I never write from an outline it’s hard to summarize any set of reasons explaining why I wrote REDEMPTION ROAD. I begin with an idea for the main character then try to find a story that allows deeper exploration of what fascinates me about that person. I never thought I would write a “serial killer story.” It’s not what I read. So Redemption Road, as it exists, was the merest glimmer of an idea when I began.

The original conceit was to write a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. I loved the concept of a good man made bitter and hard through wrongful imprisonment, and the 220px-louis_francais-dantes_sur_son_rocherquestions of what he might do once released. I wrote close to an entire book along those lines before realizing that I was telling the wrong person’s story. It wasn’t the released prisoner who fascinated me, but a young detective who’d always believed in his innocence. I started the book over, telling it as her story instead. She’s my first female protagonist, and I’ll admit to a certain trepidation in writing her. I’ve always believed, though, that if a writer is not working in a state of near-constant discomfort then the writer is not pushing the envelope hard enough.

L.L.: I understand you’ve stepped away from your previous career(s) as a criminal defense attorney, but REDEMPTION ROAD deals with so many criminal-like issues: corrupt police officers for one, prison abuse, catching the bad guys…did your background lead organically to the fictional construction of some of these grim realities?

John Hart: No writer should allow background experiences to limit what or how one writes. The world is too big, in my opinion, to simply “write what you know.” That said, there’s always some amount of reality that filters into a novel. My time around cops and jails and prisons certainly colors my perceptions about those worlds. Largely, I remain in terrified awe of the institutional callousness that – by necessity, I imagine – defines so much of life in and around our prison system. It’s easy to build on that reality, to demonize faceless authority and elevate systemic indifference to something brutal and cruel. That’s the beauty of fiction. We get to explore the things we love and fear and hate.

L.L.: I would classify REDEMPTION ROAD as a Southern literary thriller with a strong crime story at the heart. Yet it’s so very character-driven. Do characters sort of “present” themselves to you, or are they carefully cultivated? And you mention trepidation in writing Elizabeth (Liz) Black…I think that’s a normal response.

John Hart: I’d say that characters tend to present themselves, though I’d qualify that statement as oversimplification. So much of writing happens between the lines. Where do our thoughts go as we drive the car, mow the lawn, drift in and out of sleep? I’m always thinking about the book, the characters. What feels “presented” likely derives from more of a slow build than I might otherwise imagine. When I do “see” them though, I see them close to fully formed. That said, there’s always room to be surprised. And yes…the female lead of REDEMPTION ROAD was supposed to be a bit player. She had other ideas.

L.L.: And of course, I love the South! There’s something bucolic about the slower pace of life, the tie to the land, the sun dappling from wrap-around porches, and the connection of generations. Yet this story is dark, gritty. And so, too can the South be tormented. Can you speak to that, please?

John Hart: Life in the South involves all the good things you mention, but our past is virginia-plains-farmhouse-rear2.jpgtortured and bloody. The shadow of slavery and racism lies over everything. So do persistent pockets of endemic poverty. The friction between haves and have-nots makes fertile ground for storytelling. Bear in mind, too, that memories of the Civil War are more vivid here. Cities were burned, families destroyed. That’s rich soil, too.

L.L.: You’re married, you have two daughters…I’m curious how your writing life blends with your family; it’s so challenging sometimes to turn off the stories in one’s head. And what do your kids think of their bestselling dad?

John Hart: I’ve learned to stay present when I’m with the family, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. Writing for a living means that the story is always in your thoughts. Sometimes its more real than the conversation you’re ignoring or the appointment you’ve just forgotten. If you’re making it as a writer then the world forgives those little sins. The same rule should never apply to family. If my daughter is playing hockey, I want to be there. When my wife speaks, I try hard to listen. Believe it or not, that’s a learned skill for a full-time writer. The books work because we immerse ourselves. As for my kids, I think “Dad” is just “Dad.” I go to work. I take out the trash. My career is rarely a topic of conversation.

L.L.: What’s captured your attention lately? What gets you out of bed in the morning? It doesn’t have to be literary.

John Hart: I’ve found my way to an appreciation of the simple pleasures in life. For me, that’s working on the farm. If it’s a pretty day, I can’t wait to hit my word count and get on the tractor. I like to keep the fields cut, the trails clear. My dogs are with me. There’re deer and turkey everywhere. It’s my zen.

L.L.: What’s next for you?

John Hart: I’m wrapping final pages on my next book – THE HUSH – which comes out in July of next year. It’s a sequel to my third novel, THE LAST CHILD [click here to learn more]. It’s the first time I’ve revisited characters I know and love from an earlier book. It’s more fun than I thought it would be.

“Big, bold, and impossible to put down, Redemption Road had me from page one. John Hart is a master storyteller.”

– Harlan Coben

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

John Hart: You forgot nothing. The questions were perfect. I will take a moment to say what an absolute gift the writing life has proven to be. It’s isolating and lonesome at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for retirement, a pile of money or any other career. I consider it the ultimate expression of personal freedom, and encourage any aspiring writers to pursue it as passionately as I have. I wrote two failed novels before my third was published, and I know many famous authors with similar stories. Success in this business demands perseverance as much or more than it requires talent.

L.L.: It was a privilege to connect with you today, John. All the best!

John Hart: Many thanks.

For more information about REDEMPTION ROAD, or to purchase, please see links below: 

download-2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Hart is the author of REDEMPTION ROAD, and of four New York Times bestsellers, THE KING OF LIES, DOWN RIVER, THE LAST CHILD and IRON HOUSE. The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John has also won the Barry Award, the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Award for Fiction, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty languages and can be found in over seventy countries. A former defense attorney and stockbroker, John spends his time in North Carolina and Virginia, where he writes full-time.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these various social media channels. Hope to see you around.

 

[Special thanks to J. Velella at SMP. Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. The Count of Monte Cristo original cover image retrieved from Wikipedia on 10.11.16. Virginia farmhouse retrieved from, other John Hart cover images retrieved from author’s website, also on 10.11.16]

Wednesdays with Writers: Self-sabotage, fear of failure, handling rejections, the S-word, and amazing writing advice from Robin Black’s CRASH COURSE, even when it rains in the summer

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Oh my goodness. This book. Every writer, would-be-writer, aspiring writer, closet-writer, bestselling and debut writer *needs* this book. Trust me. It’s like Robin Black crawled inside my head and accessed every single thought I’ve had about crash-coursemotherhood, the writing life, and the life in writing. It makes me want to be a better writer. And that, right there, is hugely powerful.

CRASH COURSE is an insightful, beautiful, and searingly honest account of the writing life told with wisdom, humor, and self-awareness you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. It’s fantastic. I laughed, nodded in agreement, gasped, and maybe, quite possibly could have shed a tear or two.

Just listen to this:

“I wasn’t more than two pages into Crash Course when I pulled out a pen and started underlining like crazy. In these essays, Robin Black is simultaneously a wise teacher, an encouraging mentor, and that friend who gives you the real dirt on what the writing life is like. Crash Course is an invaluable resource and reassurance for any writer.”

—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

Exactly. My copy isn’t underlined or highlighted—yet—but it should be. It definitely has been dog-eared. And water-logged. CRASH COURSE was read poolside as a cluster of little girls splashed and created synchronized swimming routines in a hotel pool. It was one of those girls’ birthday. Mine. And I so, so wanted to write. But reading about writing was a close second. Watching the smiles on those girls faces fueled my love for them and made me understand that I’m a better mom because I write.

Today, I am honored to sit down with Robin Black and share this amazing collection of essays about the writing life. Trust me, you need this book. Now.

Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, Robin! At one point in CRASH COURSE, you mention something about the conception of stories. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was along the lines of, ‘it’s so unique, to every story and every writer, almost like asking, where was your child conceived?’  So, I want to know, how was CRASH COURSE conceived?

Robin Black: Very gradually. When my first book came out in 2010 I started blogging, supposedly just to promote the book, but while doing it I discovered a real desire to share my experiences coming to writing “late” and also to synthesize that with some of what I’ve learned about writing – craft lessons. I was surprised by how strong an urge I felt to share those things and by how responsive people were. It seemed like the more I took risks about sharing tough stuff, the greater the rewards. In 2011 I was invited to join an amazing group blog called Beyond The Margins. It’s gone now, but for several years I wrote a post every few weeks, taking turns with an incredible group of writers. And by the time my second book came out in 2014 I had a couple hundred pages of blog posts. It was a pretty easy decision then to try to make that into a book though it still took a lot of work to shape those essays into something cohesive. A LOT of work!!

L.L.: You speak so openly about things that might be challenging to speak of: your own struggle with AD/HD and your daughter’s special needs. I applaud this vulnerability. Hugely. In fact, both of those struggles resonate with me as well. My daughter has AD/HD and childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), both of which stumped me a bit, but from those struggles, a book emerged for parents raising a child with apraxia. And a sensitivity arose in parenting. Her struggles might have made me a stronger writer and a better parent. Can you speak to that, please?

Robin Black: It’s so wonderful that you were able to use your experience with your daughter to help other people. I truly admire that.

I think that parenting my daughter has made me a better mother for sure. Her issues have forced me to be more patient than comes to me naturally, and have taught me to think less in any given situation about me, me, me. Because truly her needs trump mine – most of the time. I’m not sure though that I think the whole ongoing process has made me a better writer. Some of that is simply practical. Parenting a child with so many needs is exhausting, and to some extent that weariness has slowed me down, I think. But she has certainly enhanced my life, brought me great joy and incredible pride, in her. But in the end, as I write in CRASH COURSE, her life is her story. Whatever she has brought me, amazing and also at times exhausting, she’s the person who matters the most. And I have endless admiration for how she handles her life.

L.L.: So I’m reading CRASH COURSE at a time I really, really needed it. Everyone, essays in this book included, keep saying, “Don’t stop. Keep going. Never give up on your dream…blah, blah, blah.” But guess what? I want to give up. I want to say, eff-it all. One of your essays is titled, “A Life of Profound Uncertainty.” I’m nodding because—yes—I get it. There are no absolutes in writing. Except, maybe, writing. What would be your advice to a fledgling writer?

Robin Black: My advice is to keep writing – by which I don’t mean anything as simple as “write every day” because writing every day is only good advice for some. I mean something more like, “don’t give up thinking of yourself as a writer.” And don’t be too focused on specific goals. Unless it helps you to be. And there’s the rub, with all writing advice: It’s all good except when it isn’t good. And it’s all bad, except when it helps. So the real trick for a fledgling writer is to plow through and sort through the tons and tons of advice out there and only take the advice that keeps you on course. And stay on course.

sm-bkL.L.: And let’s talk about that S-word. Subjectivity. For awhile, a critique partner and I were raking in, I mean RAKING IN the rejections. And nearly 90% of them said, “of course, this is just my opinion, some other agent may feel differently.” The next part of this question deals with the R-word. Rejection. Does any of it matter?

Robin Black: That’s such a tough question. It would be so nice if we came equipped with a way to weight these things appropriately, if rejections came with footnotes saying things like *Ignore this, this guy is a fool.” The problem is that some rejections contain wisdom, and it’s a shame to miss out on those by just ignoring all rejection as unimportant. I guess the closest thing to a rule that I can articulate is, if the person seems wholly outside your project, just brush it off. If they seem like they get what you’re doing, and appreciate it, but feel you haven’t fully realized your own intent, then it makes sense to pay attention.

But in general the main point about rejection is that we all experience it. So the fact of having a lot of rejections is kind of like knowing it will rain on some summer days. It may be a bummer but it’s not a portent of anything terrible.

L.L.: I think I connect so much with CRASH COURSE because you write about all of the things we writers obsess about: self-sabotage,  fear of failure (a big one for me), fear of success (“Oh my—I made it, now what?!” Also, a pre-emptive fear of mine), and just general unease about being able to produce anything—ever. Can you talk more about that, and how might we get over it?

Robin Black:  I think the goal is not exactly to get over it, because the temperament that writes is probably nearly always also one likely to be plagued by doubt. I think, as with rejection, the goal is to try to learn not to attach extra significance to those fears. Every single time I am in the thick of a project I go through at least one long period of being “certain” that I can’t finish it. And now, after years, I have a strange two level response to that. On one level, I sort of buy into the panic – that’s my heart or my spirit. But intellectually I know that the fact of doubting that I can finish something doesn’t really have much bearing on whether I will or not. It’s just part of the process. (I admit, my husband usually has to remind me of that. . .) It’s incredibly helpful to try to remember even as one is panicking that all of that stuff is just noise – and also never to let it let you give up.

images (6)L.L.: My mother was an interior decorator who worked from home. Nearly daily, I would be greeted with a bolt of fabric wrapped in a newsprint-like casing propped up on our front porch. A sparkly iridescent or a flowing Damask, or a floral Chintz. Sometimes, I would prop the bolt on my shoulder, haul it into the house, and slide it down the stairs to her studio. It always amazed me that she could churn out a dramatic jabot or a flirty balloon valance from those bolts of fabric. Yet I had no desire to do it myself. Instead, I became a keen observer. Of life. Of human behavior. The long and short of it is: you talk about material in CRASH COURSE. And material isn’t always tangible, like for you in on Fourth Street, or my mother’s clients. Can you talk more about that?

Robin Black: So interesting, because if I weren’t a writer, I probably would be some kind of designer. Or a therapist. And, as an aside, a writer is a bit like a combination of the two, making arrangements and also delving into motivations. (I admit that’s a bit fanciful!) Material for me, in fiction, is very close to never something that appears whole in real life. I never think: “Oh, that would make a great story!” And then go write it. Material for me is much more a matter of stumbling over some odd situation that then makes me think of a different situation, one I make up. I guess the fabric I use in my work – to stretch the metaphor – is just what you describe: a lifetime of observing human behavior. And having a pretty deep well of thoughts about why people do what they do. And also a desire to communicate all of that.

L.L.: And homes! Oh my how I love them. And how you talk about them in “House Lessons.” You say, “We have lived novel after novel in this home.” But there’s so much more to it than that? What is it about houses that tell our story?

Robin Black: Everything! A lived-in home is a form of narrative. Not just because of the history it carries, but because homes are formed by the habits and needs and failings and strengths and wants and excesses of their occupants. And because of that they are incredibly rich resources for writers. A room tells you so much about its occupant, from the things they have chosen, to the things that are out of their control. Like, I am incredibly homepage-book-covermessy and anyone walking into my house knows that. But they’ll also learn that I am into decorating, because my messy living room does look like someone took care to set it up. So right away, there’s a character contradiction: A person who cares a lot about her environment but also keeps it kind of messy. And of course there are an infinite number of such traits to be found in homes, real and fictional too.

L.L.: One of your essays in this collection talks about your to-do list. Novel, novel, novel! Is on mine today (yes, I borrowed your mantra). What’s on yours today?

Robin Black: Today, I need to work out, to make sure I eat 3 decent meals instead of garbage snacks, to read a book I may blurb, to catch up on some other reading, to walk my dog, to run some errands with my son, and to try to have time to paint in the afternoon. It’s summer, so a pretty fun day!

L.L.: Oh, I have one more—you just accepted a new position at Rutgers Camden MFA Program (Fall 2016). What excites and terrifies you about this? And can I come?!

Robin Black: I love teaching. So that’s the exciting part. I never tire of watching people figure out that it [writing] isn’t all hocus pocus, that there are craft techniques to learn, and approaches that will help. It’s just fun. And I also always learn a ton when I teach. So often it’s difficult to work through your own writing issues only by looking at your own work, or even by reading works that’s published and fully-realized. There’s a kind of lesson that can learned from other people’s work in progress that’s incredibly helpful. And it’s a real privilege to be trusted to read that work. What scares me always is that I won’t do justice to the students’ work. I really do see teaching as a kind of sacred trust and I very much don’t want to let anyone down.

L.L.: Robin, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you. Thank you, thank you for popping by!

Robin Black: Thank you so much for inviting, and for the great questions – and also for your generous words about CRASH COURSE

To connect with Robin on Twitter, please see: @robin_black,and more on her Website

REBHiRes-cropped (1).jpgRobin Black‘s story collection, IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and named a Best Book of 2010 by numerous publications. Her novel, Life Drawing, was longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Impac Dublin Literature Prize, and the Folio Prize.

Her works of fiction have been translated into six languages.Her new book, CRASH COURSE: Essays From Where Writing And Life Collidehas been
called “an oasis for writers at any stage,” by Karen RussellRobin’s essays and stories can be found in such publications as One Story, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Review, The Rumpus, O. Magazine, and Conde Nast Traveler. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, and will begin teaching in the Rutgers-Camden MFA Program, Fall 2016.
[Author image courtesy of R. Black. Cover images retrieved from author’s website, fabric image from

Wednesdays with Writers: Finding the deeper truth in fiction, his favorite place in the world, fear of the blank page and rediscovering lost love, Thomas Christopher Greene talks about his stunning new book, IF I FORGET YOU

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By Leslie Lindsay 

I closed this book for the last time with my heart in my throat and a deep visceral sigh. If I had been alone and not in a car traveling at eighty miles an hour filled with the giddy sounds of 5th grade girls, I might have shed a tear. And then I looked over at my husband, who was driving, and thought, “This life.” IF I FORGET YOU

IF I FORGET YOU (released yesterday, June 14 2016 from St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books)began for the author as many books do for many authors. It began as a question, “What if?” Simple as that. We all wonder from time to time about that first love, about that person who made such a mark on our lives, it’s stamped on our psyche forever. And then the muse takes over. A story told from a series of fragmented memories, wonderings, a compelling force drawing the ‘what if’ to fruition. .

Told from such raw, simple honesty, IF I FORGET YOU is wrapped in an delicately-spun tale of secrets, love, and finding one another again. 

Today, I am more than honored to sit down with Thomas Christopher Greene and chat about his story, the one encased in just glittery prose it might just make your eyes hurt to read it.

Leslie Lindsay: The story behind the story is almost as compelling as the story itself. This is often the case in many books. And they all vary widely. IF I FORGET YOU is based on a kernel of truth, as most every novel is. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration?

Thomas Christopher Greene: One of my best friends, who I have known since college, came over my house for dinner one night. After a few glasses of wine, he asked me if he could take a look at my Facebook page and when I asked why, he told me it was because I was Facebook friends with the girl he had loved in college. He’s a happily married guy with children but I remember the relationship he had with his college girlfriend from back in those days and how I thought they would be together forever.  I logged onto the computer for him and I saw something give in his face when he saw her all these years later, as if all that passion from youth came roaring back for him. I left him alone with her image. And later, I began to think, what if? What if they were to run into each other this many years later? That was the germ that started this novel.

L.L.: There are so many things in IF I FORGET YOU that are told from this well of raw, uncensored, personal anecdotes. But it’s not autobiographical; it’s fiction. Where does the truth in fiction lie for you? Can you explain?

Thomas Christopher Greene: All fiction, for me, is somewhat autobiographical. I mean, I draw on my own experiences and sometimes my characters are composites of me and of other people, but mostly I draw on places I know and things I feel. Fiction, at its core, is an artifice that allows us to find a deeper truth, an honesty we might not tap into fully without the device of the story. There are parts of Henry that are very true to me. I went to a real college in western New York that is strikingly similar to Bannister and there I became a writer. In some ways, Henry’s arc of discovering his desire to write mirrors my own. But finding that deeper truth is what it’s all about.  It’s the reason I write.

L.L.: In the novel, Henry goes to this lovely Vermont cabin for summer work. But I understand it’s a favorite hideaway for you and your family. The cabin exists, not just in the minds of readers and characters, but in a real, tangible place. Can you describe how the cabin came to be in IF I FORGET YOU and the way it speaks to you in the sense of a muse?

Thomas Christopher Greene: I own this small, seasonal cabin on a lake in northern Vermont, about thirty miles north of my year round house. It’s my favorite place in the world and I represented it in the book pretty much exactly how it is. It was there on a hot summer night watching the fireflies skim above the lake that I first started writing about Henry img-4292-vermont-rentaland Margot. It’s a terrific place to write for me, sitting outside on the deck above the water, just the glow of my laptop and the stars out. I wrote probably half the book there and then the season ended and we closed up for the year. But I decided to give my cabin to Henry in the novel, both as an act of solidarity between us, but also because it’s such a romantic place in many ways, and I just wanted to have him take Margot there. I knew she would love it.

L.L.: I’m enamored by your lyrical, fluid prose. And instead of asking where you learned to write like that, I think I’ll ask how you continue to sharpen the saw when it comes to writing?

Thomas Christopher Greene: Well, thank you. To be honest, I don’t really know how I do the thing I do, though I’ve been doing it a long time. I can tell when I am writing well, though, because it doesn’t feel forced, or like writing, but more like music that you hear in your head and have to get it out onto the page. But all language, words and sentences, exist for one reason, to serve story, in my mind. But I would say the way I stay sharp is to read. The most important thing a writer can do is read. And then write.

L.L.: In the novel, Henry is a poet. And oh, how I adore reading about writers! I can almost always tell when reading if that author fancies him or herself a poet. It’s that glittery use of words that give it away. Do you write poetry? How has it shaped you into the novelist you are today?

Thomas Christopher Greene: The only poem I have ever written in my life is in this book, and it is Henry’s poem. I confess that I am mildly hoping none of my poet friends read it. The other night I had a drink with Matthew Dickman, a brilliant poet who is on my faculty, and was telling him about this and my horror when folks like him read this novel. He said if he had known he would have written the poem for me, for a note in the acknowledgments. Kicking myself I hadn’t thought of that.

L.L.: Mostly, IF I FORGET YOU is a love story. But love is a prickly, thorny thing. And there are stories of rekindling love, lost love, first love, etc. In what ways do you see this one as being ‘different?’

Thomas Christopher Greene: I think I have mostly been telling some variation of the same story over and over, which I think a lot of writers do. Some people believe there are really only four or five different stories—stranger comes to town, two people meet, etc. The differences are in the particularity of perspective you give your characters: how do their own experiences influence the way they see the world? I admit it’s hard to say new things about love, so in some ways I am not trying to do that. Instead I am more focused on saying things about love that hopefully speak to something we all have felt and can relate to.

L.L.: I’ve heard that this story poured out of you very quickly, that is was almost like a damn bursting and all of these little stories that make up IF I FORGET YOU  just flowed. Can you talk about what kind of writer you are? A plotter? A pantser? And does it matter?

Thomas Christopher Greene: I don’t really plot. I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters and the story before I ever write. I try to understand who they are and how they would behave, and then I think about how to get them in trouble and see how they react. By the time I sit down to write, I generally have in my head the general architecture of the novel, the arc of the story. And then I write to plot points and I revise as I go.

L.L.: What ever trumps you in the writing life?

Thomas Christopher Greene: Time is always a challenge. I run a very busy college. But there is always a fear somewhere inside that you won’t be able to do this again, that the next time the blank page confronts you you’ll have nothing to give. But then you put that out of your mind and just work. Somehow it works out. download (6)

L.L.: What might be obsessing you now, and why?

Thomas Christopher Greene: The new book I’m working on. It’s a very suspenseful literary thriller about a young married couple who realize they don’t actually know each other as well as they thought they did.

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

Thomas Christopher Greene: As usual, I think you really covered it. So, no.

L.L.: Tom, it was a pleasure chatting with you. And I so loved IF I FORGET YOU. It’s certainly a story I won’t.

Thomas Christopher Greene: You’re very kind, Leslie. The pleasure was mine.

For more information, or to follow on social media, please visit: 

Thomas Christopher Greene by Beowulf Sheehan  www.beowulfsheehan.com

Thomas Christopher Greene by Beowulf Sheehan

Author Bio: Thomas Christopher Greene is the author of four previous novels: The Headmaster’s Wife, Envious Moon, I’ll Never Be Long Gone, and Mirror Lake. His fiction has been translated into 13 languages. In 2008, Greene founded Vermont College of Fine Arts, a top graduate fine arts college, making him the youngest college president in the country at the time. He lives and works in Vermont. Visit him at www.thomaschristophergreene.com. [Special thanks to K. Bassel and K.Kamm at St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books. Author and cover image courtesy of SMP. Vermont cabin image retrieved from and bears no resemblance to the author’s actual cabin.]

Wednesdays with Writers: Marion Pauw talks about her stunning thriller, THE GIRL IN THE DARK, how a trip to Panama changed her, creating circumstances in which you flourish, shitty first drafts, thearpy for writer’s block, how the body doesn’t lie, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

In the vein of blockbuster thrillers such as THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and THE GOOD GIRL and the GIRL IN THE RED COAT, among others, it’s no surprise that GIRL IN THE DARK jumped out at me recently. GirlintheDark.JPG

Internationally bestselling author Marion Pauw  makes a splash with her riveting mystery/psych thriller GIRL IN THE DARK (Feb 2016, HarperColloins/William Morrow).

This domestic thriller has taken the Netherlands by storm with its psychological twists, high concept plot, and unique characters…and now, the U.S. can get a glimpse.

Iris is a single mother struggling with raising her behaviorally-challenged young boy while working part-time as a lawyer. In a very deliberate, yet organic manner, Iris uncovers facts that lead her to believe she has an older brother her mother never spoke of (NOT a spoiler, this is mentioned on the jacket flap). What’s worse, is this brother is institutionalized for a horrific crime he did not commit. Or, so he says.

Ray, meanwhile tells his story, through the eyes of a loveable, but “off-kilter” grown man in an autistic unit at a hospital. He loves fish. He’s obsessed with his saltwater aquarium and knows everything about it. Through flashbacks, we become the fabric of Ray’s life before his crime, we meet the woman and her young daughter who live next-door, and the family secrets buried so deep they’re bound to resurface.

And they do.

GIRL IN THE DARK is an irresistible combination of suspense and murder, lies, unrequited love, and the complicated bonds of family that survive–perhaps, barely–in the face of insurmountable odds.

I’m honored to welcome Marion Pauw to the blog. Thank you for joining us, Marion!

Leslie Lindsay: I know what’s haunting me about GIRL IN THE DARK—there are several images holding on like barnacles, as well as moral conundrums I keep thinking about. I don’t want to give it away, but I do want to know what was haunting you when you penned this story?

Marion Pauw: I always have been fascinated by nurture vs nature. What does it take to push a person over the edge to commit a horrible crime? Is there a scientific formula of personality traits x upbringing x events? In that way I am not interested in psychopaths or organized crime. I like thinking and writing about normal people who trip over the edge. Because of course I wonder if it could ever happen to me.

download (1)The other thing is that it would be the most horrible thing in the world to be confined to a mental institution for the criminally insane if you were innocent. Being in a prison would be bad enough, but this would be an even bigger nightmare as you are not sure if and when you will ever get out. In the case of Ray, being the way he is, he would have a hard time defending himself as he cannot read between the lines and has a very linear way of thinking. Because of him being different, his conviction would always include spending time in an institution.

L.L.: I really liked Ray. I know he’s been accused of this horrific crime and comes across as a little weird, but he’s likeable. And I think, autistic. In all honesty, I think I’ve read maybe two other books with an autistic protagonist. Where did the idea for Ray come from? Can you share a bit about his development with us?

Marion Pauw: My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was small. I as a mother always felt we were trying to push the round shape through the square shape of the block box. It was at times very frustrating because our whole system is built around a certain range. If you are too far on either side, there is just no place for you.

I wanted to give a 360 degree view on what it would be like to have Asperger’s. Having said that, nowadays I have a different view on Asperger’s when while writing the book. A visit to an indigenous tribe in Panama with my children changed a lot for me. I remember arriving and my daughter, my ‘normal’ kid took one look at the bare chested women and men wearing loincloths and said : ‘OMG mom, I don’t know if I can get used to this.’ Not my son. He got out of the boat and from that moment on he was there. I mean, really there. He would be fishing, playing soccer with an old torn ball, roaming around the jungle with the other kids. And at times I would have lost him and would find him in someone’s hut laughing and teaching each other local words. It was amazing to see this. And at that moment I realized: my son is not an autist, he is just a nature person. images (1)

When you come to think of it, if you lived in the jungle, all your senses would have to be wide open. You would have to be able to smell your prey, hear the faintest ruffle of the wind, see the bird hidden in the tree. Then imagine having to live in the modern day world with senses that wide open. If you would hear, see, smell, feel everything, all these details, you would go absolute nuts. You would have to find ways to protect yourself. You would figure out rituals to soothe yourself, you would try not to make too much contact.  All these symptoms we like to place in the autistic spectrum. So in my point of view, autism is not a disorder, it is a matter of being wired differently. And you have to create circumstances where your wiring helps you flourish in stead of lock down.

One more thing: imagine placing a real city kid in the jungle. He would probably show some very disturbing behaviour and the indigenous people might think he had a disorder.

“Gut-wrenching and relatable. A must-read for fans of character-driven stories, such as Tana French’s Faithful Place.”

Booklist

L.L.: Speaking of protagonists…the way I see GIRL IN THE DARK, there were dual-narrators, Iris and Ray. Others will argue that there can only be one protagonist in a story, one single person we are fighting for, but still…I didn’t see it that way. Can you speak to that, please?

Marion Pauw: Haha, this actually is the first time someone has ever said that to me. I like having two narrators as you can see them coming closer to each other throughout the book.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? Do you let the pen do the leading, or do you carefully craft plot?

Marion Pauw: I really admire people that have the discipline to plot out the whole book and have a wall full of post-its. I have been doing screenwriting as well, and then I am forced to work that way and I am always so relieved when I can just start writing instead of plotting! I really love the process of being behind my desk and trying to let inspiration take over. I like being surprised! But on the other hand, I always do make a basic outline, because you have to have some point at the horizon.

L.L.: So revisions…I’ll be the first to say that I hate them. There are many writers who say things like, ‘write a junky first draft; just get it down.’ And then there are people like me who say, ‘make the first one pretty good so you don’t have to do much work later.’ Where do you stand on this?

Marion Pauw: I am a ‘real shitty first draft’-kind of writer. I believe I read this in Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. Whenever I try to write something really good, I get so stressed out, I completely lose my mojo as a writer. When I write my first draft I just make myself go from a to z on intuition. After that is done, the real crafting begins. I also like that phase, because then I am not so worried about if I will be able to complete the story. I know I have, all I have to do now is make it better! I think it is very normal for a writer to be totally insecure, as the pressure is so high. You just have to figure out ways to encourage and soothe yourself every day. I have also had writer’s block for a couple of months. I felt like I was a little kid trying to make a drawing while behind me there were people looking over my shoulder saying ‘Now draw, dammit’. I had to go into therapy to get over that. Seriously.

L.L.: As a writer with two young boys, what do you find the most challenging aspect of balancing your writing life?

Marion Pauw: My kids are almost mature now. My son is 17 and my daughter is 18. This makes all the difference. Now I can just give them money and say ‘It’s your turn to get groceries and cook.’ But that is just the practical part. Honestly I feel super guilty for being so preoccupied with my work so often. When I am writing, I am just not completely there. A part of me is always wondering off, thinking about the story. My kids can sometimes talk to me and I do not completely hear what they say. Or they go to school and I realize I have not one time really looked them in the eye. I really do not like that about myself, and I am trying to do better. What I really prefer is just going somewhere for a month by myself and just write, write, write. In that way I can get a lot of work done and by the time I come home again, I am more present.

L.L.: What is obsessing you now and why?

Marion Pauw: Right now I am actually studying! I had wanted to do something completely different for a while and I had done this body based therapy that really helped me, so now I am doing the course myself. The whole theory is that the body cannot lie. You can fool yourself thinking all kinds of thoughts, but your body will always tell the true story. Also lots of old emotions get stored in the body etcetera. It is super interesting. After I have finished this study of 4 years, I would like to write a book on this subject.

L.L.: What might have I asked, but forgot?

Marion Pauw: Ehmmm. ‘Is it true that all people in Amsterdam smoke pot?’ Haha, that is what most people ask me when they hear I live in Amsterdam. The answer is no, by the way.

L.L.: Marion, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Just loved GIRL IN THE DARK and wish you the best of luck!

Marion Pauw:  Thank you, Leslie!

 

5389aa5fddf0c0.83985404About the Author: Marion Pauw is an author and screenwriter. Her novel DAYLIGHT (aka GIRL IN THE DARK) won the Golden Noose Award in the Netherlands and has sold more than 200,000 copies in Europe. GIRL IN THE DARK is her US debut.  Pauw is one of the bestselling writers of The Netherlands whose books have also been published in Germany, Turkey, Italy, Hungary, and now the U.S.  She made her debut with Villa Serena in 2005.  Her big breakthrough to a wider readership and the critics came with Girl in the Dark (2008). The Dutch film rights for the book were sold to Eyeworks and successfully adapted to a movie. Next, she wrote the thrillers Sinner Child, Jet-Set and Kicking the Bucket.  As a screenwriter, Pauw has adapted several series for Dutch television, including In Treatment and Diary of a Callgirl. Pauw lives in Amsterdam with her two children.

[Cover and author image courtesy of William Morrow. Asperger’s image retrieved from on 5.4.16. Nature vs nurture retrieved from on 5.4.16]

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Lynda Cohen Loigman shares her debut, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE, getting the girl, getting off social media to read, girls in education, writing to the moments, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay

A spellbinding family saga set in Brooklyn in 1947-1970, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE (St. Martin’s House, March 2016) will knock you over the head with insightful honesty, rich, complex characters, and a story that could be just about anyone’s.Two Family House_COVER.jpg

Drawn from a smidgen of truth from the author’s own life, (her mother and two younger sisters grew up in a two-family house in Brooklyn), THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE feels raw, yet compassionate. It could easily have been a memoir, but it’s not.

In the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born, minutes apart. The mothers are sisters by marriage with an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic night. When the storm passes, everyone seems to have gotten what they wanted, but the truth is not that simple.

Join me as I sit down with Lynda Cohen Loigman and learn more about her brilliant debut, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE.

Leslie Lindsay: Lynda, it’s a pleasure to have you! Thanks for taking the time to visit. I read your author’s note on your gorgeous website [http://lyndacohenloigman.com/authors-note/], so I’m pretty familiar with your inspiration for THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE. But perhaps not everyone else is. Can you share at what moment you knew this was a book you had to write?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: Thanks so much for having me!

The Two-Family House is a story I carried in my head for over fifteen years before I ever wrote a word. The inspiration for the setting came from stories my mother and aunts used to tell me about their childhood, growing up in a two-family house in Brooklyn. They lived upstairs, and my grandmother’s brother lived downstairs with his wife and three daughters. The six girls were playmates and friends, and the families spent a lot of time together.

The idea for the plot of the book came to me separately, and much later. A few months after my first child was born, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine called “Getting The Girl,” by Lisa Belkin. The article was about new technology doctors were using to help couples preselect the gender of their babies, and it opened my eyes to how all-consuming a wish for a child of a certain gender could be. After I read it, I began to reimagine the house of my mother’s childhood – what if the upstairs family had all boys and the downstairs family had all girls? A two-family house seemed like a perfect place for tension and jealousy to percolate.

In terms of when I really knew I had to write the story – that’s tougher to answer. It was a combination of many factors: having my mom pass away, turning forty, and finally overcoming my fear of putting the words down on paper.

L.L.: As some of the reviews I read indicated, many felt this story was a memoir (the writing is so raw and honest, it feels like it comes from a deeper place). I understand you had to tell them, ‘no, this really didn’t happen to anyone I know.’  I can see the confusion readers may have. There are a lot of similarities between your life and the lives of your characters. Can you speak to that, please?  download (2)

Lynda Cohen Loigman: The setting is the biggest similarity, but I think once people found out my mom grew up in a two-family house with cousins living downstairs, it made some of them think the characters were modeled on my real family members. The truth is that I actually went out of my way to make Rose and Helen different from my grandmother and her sister-in-law. Of course, there are certainly autobiographical tidbits thrown in – just not necessarily where you might expect. For instance, the cinnamon cake Helen bakes is a cake my grandmother used to make. The scene in the Italian restaurant was inspired by an old photograph I have of my mother’s family at a restaurant in Little Italy. Also, my mom was a worrier, so the scene where Judith is in the library and feels like she has to be home at a certain time is something I experienced with my own mother. But unlike Rose, my mom was completely devoted to her children, and absolutely obsessed with our education.

L.L.: Oh and girls and education! Wow…I was just appalled at the adamant stance Mort took with Judith. My heart broke for her. How do you see the landscape of education changing?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: I think we forget that the attitude Mort and Rose have about girls attending college is something that isn’t so far back in our past. My mom didn’t go to college, and she was always ashamed of that. But at the time she graduated from high school, her parents didn’t see the need for it. In fact, if you were to look at my mom’s high school yearbook, you’d see that the majority of young women listed “secretary” as their chosen profession, including my mother. Her youngest sister did go to college, but she was fourteen years younger. By then, attitudes and expectations had shifted.

Because of her experience, my mother made it a point to learn everything there was to know about the college application process for every school. There was no such thing as a “college counselor” at that time (at least not where I grew up), but my mom easily could have been one. When I got my first college acceptance letter, she was unbelievably happy. She used to drive around the block looking for the mailman to make sure I’d get my letters.

Obviously there has been remarkable progress in terms of educational opportunities for girls and young women since my mom’s generation. But there is still a long way to go, especially when we look toward the rest of the world. Girls are still forbidden from Malala_Yousafzai_2015attending school in many countries, and remarkable young women like Malala Yousafzai are raising global awareness of that. Recently, there’s also been an important push to educate people about how often girls miss school because they don’t have the resources to buy tampons or pads when they get their period. Menstruation results in prolonged school absences in many places. So for many reasons, true equality is a long way off.

L.L.: I’m curious about the debut author’s journey. First, the spark and then the frustrations, followed by glowing reviews. It’s quite a rollercoaster, to say the least Can you talk about that, please? And [how] can aspiring authors prepare for the ups and downs?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: I’m not sure that it’s possible to prepare. I’m 47 years old, and I was a lawyer before becoming a writer. I had plenty of professional experience, but working in a creative field is very different.

When I started to write, I wasn’t sure I could finish an entire novel. I didn’t know if I had the stamina. When I was done, I was so proud I had completed it, but that feeling of satisfaction was replaced very quickly with the knowledge that what I had achieved was only the first step in a very long process. The next step was finding an agent. I was extremely lucky on that front, and the day Marly Rusoff called to tell me she wanted to represent me was a life-changing day – a dream come true moment. For about twenty-four hours I let myself just revel in that accomplishment. But it was only the second step.

I could go on for pages about all the highs and lows. Next came sending the book to editors, getting the comments, getting the offer from St. Martin’s Press. Every step was glorious and brought me closer to my dream, but I always knew there was another step ahead of me. And now that the book is out in the world, I want it to be a success, not just for me, but for Marly and Jennifer (my editor) as well. It’s a never-ending process, and I think that is what I didn’t know when I started.

To do well, you have to be ready for everything that comes with publishing your book – not just the solitary creative part, but the business side as well. I really like that post-publishing side, because it involves connecting with so many different people. But it’s a whole other education, and it’s very easy to become insecure. All of a sudden you find yourself paying attention to book marketing and publicity and which books get mentioned in magazines and newspapers. I have found that when I am looking outward too much, the best thing to do is to get off of social media and go back to reading. Reading reminds me of why I wanted to write in the first place.

Right now I’m promoting THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE and working on my second book at the same time. So I’m ready to start the rollercoaster ride all over again!

“An exquisitely written novel of love, alliances, the messiness of life and long buried secrets. Loigman’s debut is just shatteringly wonderful and I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

~Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You

L.L.: As I’m reading THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE, I got flavors of the hit PBS/BBC (and also memoirs) of CALL THE MIDWIFE. I think it’s the time period (the late 1940s-1960s) that did it for me. What kind of research did you do as you worked through drafts of the novel?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: The book covers a few decades, but the bulk of the story takes place in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s. I LOVED exploring that time period, and my research went in many different directions. First, I looked at calendars of major world events because I felt that is was important for me to know what was happening in the world during the time period I covered. That gave me a broader picture, and was necessary for setting the right tone.

In terms of specifics, I researched the popular music, movies and celebrities of the day. Damn Yankees was a big Broadway hit during that time, and when Natalie and Teddy were young, the Mickey Mouse Club show first aired on television. Those were fun details to add. I also looked at women’s magazines from the 40’s and 50’s and took notes about the cleaning supplies that were available in those years. Rose and Helen were traditional wives and homemakers, so it was important to know those details.

I really enjoyed exploring certain topics – the clothes and hairstyles were fun to learn about, and I loved reading old cookbooks. I also learned a lot about comic books of the 1950’s, and I spent a good amount of time researching the baseball players from the late 1940’s. All of that was information I needed to have in my head as I wrote.

Some of the most interesting research I did involved the cardboard box industry and the connection between dry cereals and cardboard packaging. Of course, I also tried to learn more about Brooklyn in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I spent a lot of time looking at old photographs so I could picture the setting.

L.L.: What kind of writer are you? A pantser or plotter, or this new hybrid style of writing I just read about: a plantser?! (isn’t that great?) What was your process like as you wrote THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE? And what might you do better/different for images (2)your next one?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: I am definitely a little of both. (I didn’t know about the “plantser” thing, but I like it!) I had a general storyline in mind, but I didn’t have an outline set in stone. What I did have was a list of moments I wanted to write about, and a very strong sense of who the characters were and how they would react during those moments.

For example, I knew I wanted to have a moment where Helen was faced with the task of filling out a hospital form for one of the children. I knew it was important to put her in that situation, and to make her choose what to write down as an answer to the question “What is your relationship to the patient.” Once I had that scene in my head, I had to get Helen to a hospital somehow, which involved writing about some sort of minor accident. I came up with the idea of the party at Sol’s house on Long Island and the kids playing baseball. I had to make Rose unavailable, so I wrote about her wandering off, away from the other party guests.

I guess this process means I’m a “WTM” writer – Writing Toward Moments. I like to keep a list of those big scenes with me as I work, and every time I finish one, I cross it off my list.

With the next book, I’m definitely feeling like I have to be more organized. The research is more intense, so I’m going to have to figure out a better system for keeping all of it in order.

L.L.: Speaking of which, what can we expect to read next from you?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: Oh this is a tough question! I actually just wrote an essay about how difficult it is for me to keep the details of my work-in-progress to myself. I’m not going to say too much, but I’m very excited about the next book.

It is another family story, centering on a grandmother and granddaughter and, of course, a long kept secret. Because of my research, I’ve decided to take the book in a slightly different direction than the original concept. The story will be set partly in Brooklyn and partly in Springfield, Massachusetts. I’m in that phase right now where I’m falling in love with all the characters and finding their individual voices.

L.L.: Many writers draw inspiration from good reading. What’s on your to-read pile?

Lynda Cohen Loigman: I love everything Alice Hoffman writes, and I just saw a picture of an advanced copy of her new book, FAITHFUL. I am so jealous of every person who gets to read it before the publication date! Other than that, I don’t even know where to start. My pile is enormous. I just finished AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING by Elizabeth Poliner, which I really enjoyed. Now I’m in the middle of Jillian Cantor’s

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THE HOURS COUNT – it’s amazing. I need to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE, Richard Fifield’s THE FLOOD GIRLS, Camille Di Maio’s THE MEMORY OF US, and THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke. Oh, and I’m waiting for Jesse Burton’s new book, THE MUSE, to come out in July. Honestly, I hate to list any books at all, because for every one I name, there are ten more I’ve forgotten to put on the list. I hate to leave anyone out. There is so much talent, and every book I read teaches me something about how to improve my own writing.

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

Lynda Cohen Loigman:

I think you’ve covered everything!

L.L: Thanks so much, Lynda! It was a pleasure

Lynda Cohen Loigman: Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for all of your thoughtful questions!

Linda Loigman_Credit Randy MatusowAuthor Bio: Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, MA. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. She is now a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and lives with her husband and two children in Chappaqua, NY. Learn more at http://www.lyndacohenloigman.

Find her on Twitter @LyndaCLoigman and Facebook .

[Cover image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. Author image credit Randy Matusow. Malala Yousafzai image retrieved from Wikipedia on 5.16.16, Brooklyn brownstone retrieved from  on 5.16.16, book slideshow images retrieved from Amazon on 5.16.16, Special thanks to J. Preeg.] Two Family House 003