Thursday, October 27, 2016

A bold, brave, gorgeous graphic novel, BECOMING UNBECOMING, about grappling with rape culture and survival

 For this post, there is no discussion of the author other than she has produced an unsettling and tremendously important graphic novel about coming to terms with and surviving rape culture. It's an astonishing read and I am honored to promote it.

 Reading this graphic novel was one of the most intense experience I've had. How did it feel writing and drawing it? Were there moments where you felt, “I can’t do this?” And if so, what kept you going.

The project started quite slowly so I had a lot of time to adjust. I started doodling fairly randomly and at first didn’t think of it as a book. As it turned into a project, I had a conversation with a feminist academic I knew to discuss why I might embark on a project like this and what the implications might be, and after this, somewhat reassured by her sage advice, I took the drawings to a comics forum in London, Laydeezedocomics, which incidentally also meets in the states, in Chicago and San Francisco. I got a great response from the Laydeezdocomics audience and began to work in earnest on the book. During the next few years I worked slowly, around my other commitments, so I was able to take lots of breaks when it felt too intense. I very much felt “I cant’ do this”from time to time, but mostly, it felt extremely liberating, and I grew in confidence as I worked.

I love the structure of the book and how you varied what we saw—and occasionally added a surprising splash of color. How did that come about?

The varying registers came about primarily because I was experimenting as I drew the book. I had never tried to make a novel length work before, so I learned to make a graphic novel by making one. That said, the way I work is always quite circular. An image might emerge as a result of sitting down to draw, or I might draw something I had already visualized or researched, or sometimes I begin with a line of text that somehow makes me think of  a picture, but however I start, the drawing comes from the writing, then the writing comes from the drawing, so it’s a process and the work evolves as it goes. This means it’s always changing. It’s always a response to or a development of what went before.

The color is something I wanted to have because it seemed to pierce the monochrome design in a way that reminded one that this was a story based in fact. There are only tiny moments of color, but they are all crucial to the story and the design. They are not merely decorative, always symbolic or based in memory. The Brownie uniform with the yellow tie, the green double decker bus, and the blue, speculative pencil for the last section of the book.

Your graphic novel isn’t just a pull-you-in-in-indictment of rape culture and how women are shamed. It’s also an exhilarating and powerful call to speak your truth, to refuse the shame, to act to change that culture. Can you speak about that please?

Thank you. I do think it’s important to speak your truth and also I’m interested specifically in the story telling form. Telling a personal story is a powerful thing, and cab be a way of making change. For women and girls who have survived sexual abuse, the phenomenon of being able to speak about this openly is relatively new. However, I think there are a lot of personal story novels around that need, a contest, but don’t have one. I wanted to make a kind of anti0misery novel, so that my story of personal trauma is set against a historical, cultural and political backdrop. The fact my own personal timeline fitted so neatly with the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, from 1975 to 1981 m is a starting point for this backdrop and of course this particular history plays a significant role in the story, but there are also references to other cases of violence against women and girls and explorations of statistical information. For the Canada US edition, I drew three additional pages that explore cases familiar to North American readers.

Which of the incredible drawings and pages was the most powerful for you?

It’s hard to say really. I love drawing and I get completely lost in the process. I can draw for hours. Some of the drawing was made extremely quickly and some of it took ages, at least partly because I didn’t know what I was doing when I started and had to keep redrawing things. Only one of the drawings was upsetting to make. I won’t say which one. Some details are changed. The mohair/dream sequence is based on an actual recurring nightmare and it was a powerful moment for me to make that into a sequence. More generally, it sometimes takes me a while to get used to a drawing—any drawing, not just the ones that are in the book, so some of the pages that other people find powerful and drawings I didn’t ta first like. In fact there are a few pages in the book that I was hiding in a folder for a while out of embarrassment. Not because of the subject matter but because I thought they were awful. It was only when I returned to them a year or so that I could see their potential.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with landscapes and simple forms of architecture because I’m researching for a new book. I’m constantly taking photographs and making sketches, or stopping suddenly in the middle of the street to examine cloud formations. I can’t tell you what the book is going to be about but I can tell you it will have more color in it.

What question didn't’ I ask that I should have.

That is such an interesting question, because I feel that no one ever asked me the right questions when I was young. If they had, I might have found the ability to speak about what was happening to me, and my life might have been very different. These days, though, I answer a lot of questions and I think yours have been rather good ones. I wouldn’t say anything is missing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jewelry! The amazing Kelle Cross shows off some of her designs and talks about the creative process--and how she likes her coffee


Oh yes, every once in a while, I want to branch out and talk to people who do other creative things. This time, it's jewelry, and the extraordinarily talented Kelle Cross, of Venus Envy Bijoux. These designs are completely gorgeous. Thank you so much for being here, Kelle. 

How did you get interested in jewelry and who did you make the dream of doing it a reality?

Apparently it’s a family thing. I have rocks and metal in my blood. A couple of family members are or were metal smiths. My father took me to rock shops when I was small. He made jewelry from old coins. Fast forward to the late nineties. I was working for a very fashion forward boutique in Houston, traveling to New York. I was seeing jewelry I loved but couldn’t afford. So I began to teach myself. That same boutique sold my work. At the time, very dainty rosary chain styles. Remember “Y” necklaces? Melrose Place? Like that. (Laughing). I’ve been very spoiled that my work has always been in a boutique or gallery because I was also working there. 

I am gobsmacked by your designs, especially the ones with fabric. How did you think of that? And how do most of your ideas come to you?

Thank you. The fabric pieces were a happy accident. I inherited a bag of fabric scraps that were too lovely to just throw away. Tassels were popular so I thought it was a natural thing to do. It was a very organic thing. Ideas come to me when I am doing something else. My brain tries to figure it out, over and over so that when I do actually make the design it’s like I already did a few times. This was especially true when I was sick. I had horrible insomnia. I tried to make it creative time. 

Which brings us to the creative process. How do work? Do you have rituals? A set time?

Ah, now here is where I am supposed to make you believe my process is full of Instagram worthy vignettes. It is not. (Laughing.) I get up, have some coffee, check my email, social media sites and storefront. Then I take care of the cats. Do the breakfast dishes. Then I get to work. And because this is a one woman show, that might be making jewelry. Or it might be taking photos, packing orders and making a post office run.

 Making tassels is an assembly line process. The scraps are four layers thick and quilted together. I have to pull the layers apart and pull out the loose threads. Next they are sorted by color. This is when they start “talking” to me. Colors or patterns will grab my eye. 
Wire wraps are more mathematical. And what people are calling my “Spirit Necklaces”, are all intuition. For those I need a little quiet and to just step out of the way so the design can just become. 

Because I have mostly made jewelry in and for a retail environment, I am very good at making on the fly. For the better part of twelve years I stood at a workbench and put together custom designs while the customer waited. 

What don't we know about you that we should know?

I am very grateful to be able to do something I love. Especially when I get to do it for people I love. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

Things that need to be packed and mailed. We live in an Amazon world and buyer’s expectations are high. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

How I take my coffee. (Creamy and sweet).

Author Kristin McCloy talks about her novels Some Girls, Velocity--and wait, there's more! Her mother Lillian McCloy talks about her memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind An Elephant" Undercover and Overwhelmed as a CIA wife and mother

Lillian now

Lillian McCloy as a big band singer

Kristin McCloy 

 A mother and daughter, both writers, and a sister who created Bordertown publishing! Since I love all things siblings, I couldn't wait to host them. 

Lillian McCloy is the author of the memoir Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother, which was just published. Kristin McCloy is a critically acclaimed novelist of Velocity, Some Girls and Hollywood Savage. She is currently working on her fourth novel. Kristin McCloy: First, I will give you my mother's answers (as ever, she is the soul of brevity) For easy reference:  Lillian McCloy is the author of the memoir Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother, which was just published. Kristin McCloy is a critically acclaimed novelist of Velocity, Some Girls and Hollywood Savage. She is currently working on her fourth novel. 

I am absolutely delighted to have Lillian and Kristin here. Thank you!  (And thank you, Johanna

Caroline: I always think there is a reason to write, something haunting you. What's your reason?

Lillian McCloy: I wanted to do it for Frank [her husband], who, because he was always in deep cover, never got any kind of recognition for the work that he did -- hating the company, who were thankless, and even impairing, but believing deeply in what he was doing. It was also the chance to remember a lot of exciting times in my life, and every day I woke up happy to write.

C: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline? Do you follow the Muse?

L: No, and no. I just wrote.

C: Was it difficult to write a memoir? Was there ever any point where you thought, if I write this, someone is going to think that?

L: No, I wasn't out to expose anyone.  It was my way of recognizing Frank. That was really my focus.

C: What's obsessing you now and why?

L: My teeth. I'm 90 years old and just had dental surgery. Otherwise, really nothing obsesses me except my bowels. (Huge laugh).

C: What question didn't I ask that I should have?

L: Ahhh...well, I really didn't want it to read as a self-pitying book. I wanted to focus more on the adventure of it all.

Kristin: Let me describe my mother. She’s a petite 5'2" formidable Viking force of nature -- in fact my Dad called her Thor -- her middle name, as she's Icelandic, is Thorbjorg -- and she often called him Paco, which is slang for Francisco, my father's name translated into Spanish.  My mother is very blond (now her hair is white). she kept it cut vey cute to her shoulders, wore extremely chic clothes, stilettoes .When she met my dad, she worked as Melvin Belli’s executive secretary, and the first thing she had to do every morning was give his parrot an ounce of bourbon. 'He was very cranky otherwise.'

This book has done a lot for my dispirited 90-yr-old very-wits(both)-about-her mother - it's kickstarted her capacity for joie de vivre, and it's a gorgeous thing to hear.

Caroline:  Kristin this is for you now. I always think there is a reason to write, something haunting you. What's your reason? 

K:  I absolutely agree. Something haunting me is the reason I write the book. If I could sum it up in one paragraph, I'd just write a brief essay. The struggle through the thickets of consciousness, sub-consciousness and the dreamland of unconsciousness is why I write; there is something, some answer, I am trying to achieve, or completely explore.  

In Velocity, it was the wild but perfectly, as I saw it, logical connection of grief to sexual obsession. It was a way this particular young woman dealt with the loss of her mother, and along with that, the loss of her capacity to communicate with her father. It's about authority, the need for it, the defiance of it, and all the old wounds of adolescence. It's about doing anything except feel the pain of death – or being orphaned. It's also about the realms of worlds that have always existed around you/one/her as a child . . .it's about going home and finding it utterly foreign; it's about risk over security, breaking rather than keeping the rules, about sexuality that in a flash seems to steal your soul, body first.  Of building a world of illusion and wanting to literally die when it crumbles. And for me as a first-time novelist, the challenge was to write with equal force about the terrifying nihilism of death, of losing one's mother, and the crazed pull to sex – to write about sex graphically without ever veering into the porno-.

For Some Girls, it was about trying to understand how it is that we learn to be women by studying the way other women become so – mothers, sisters, friends, and finally, lovers.  It was about the romance that only women can make when they're together, and the fluidity of gender (this was waaaay back in the Dark Ages of 1989, Manhattan), the terror of seeing oneself in a way one never would have imagined, the struggle to assimilate new aspects of one's being – and one's sexual identity is the cornerstone 
I also wanted to write about the way only women can appreciate certain other women's beauty, and most of all, how one becomes captivated by a singular intelligence, sensuality, and soul.  How deep that attraction goes.

It is also, crucially, my love letter to Manhattan; once I got it all down on paper, there was this sense: I can rest now.

And with Hollywood Savage I wanted to explore the theme of fidelity and in/ from the male point of view, for reasons that made complete autobiographical sense to me. I wanted to write about Hollywood and its delirious illogic, its addiction to cliché, creative run by bureaucrats, and the difficulty of converting novel to script.

It was a contrast between cities, and an absolute exploration (along the lines, if I can be so pretentious, of Proust's The Captive) of passion, jealousy, the need to hold, to have, to keep. It's about the humiliation of having someone else seduce your Other, and the weird need for revenge; and it was about two very different women who nevertheless have a whole world (and one man) in common.  

Always I seem to feel the need to look at/describe/outline New York. In the first book, it's about a girl who left to find herself, did, then came back home, very briefly, for a life-changing summer in North Carolina. In Some Girls it's about a young woman's flight to NYC to become someone more like her next door neighbor, and in Hollywood Savage it's about living on the other end of the country and looking back, with extreme homesickness, at the place you finally, with great effort, made your own.

I miss New York could be the name of all my books, I sometimes think (but – NAH).

C:  What kind of writer are you?

K:  I don't outline unless I get lost in the morass (see: work in progress). I crave the Muse, love Elizabeth Gilbert's take on it, pray to James Salter for help, and read his work along with Amy Hempel's and Don DeLillo's and Antoine St. Exupery's and Jayne Anne Phillips (though mostly only her short stories), Joy Williams' earlier work, Michael Ondaatje and Marguerite Duras for inspiration when I feel I'm just going through the motions.

C: What question didn't I ask that I should have?

K: Only this:  why is it that people will ascribe 'James Salter' –like qualities to male writers simply because they write about men and women, but never see his influence in any women??

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Jodi Picoult talks about racism, writing and SMALL GREAT THINGS

Racism. Time. Justice. Jodi Picoult really needs no bio (unless you've just arrived from the planet Jupiter). Her new novel SMALL GREAT THINGS is her most controversial--and perhaps, her greatest. I'm honored to have her here to talk about it. Thank you, Jodi!

Why write a book about racism? (I know why, but I want you to tell it.) And why was this one of the hardest books you have ever written?

It’s a topic that weighs heavily on the hearts of people in this country – and heavily on my heart.  But most white people have no idea how to talk about it.  It’s very easy to make a mistake when we talk about racism – or to unintentionally offend someone.  And so, as a result, white people often don’t talk about it at all.  For example, I had been trying to write a book about racism for 20 years, but couldn’t figure out how to do it.  I kept asking myself: why do I have the right to write it?  I grew up white and privileged.  True, I do research.  True, I’ve written about many kinds of people I’m not:  rape victims, cancer patients, school shooters, men – but racism is different.  The answer came in realizing who my audience was.  Yes, I hope people of color read the book and find it resonant.  But I really am reaching out to white people who - like me, like many of my friends - would never think of themselves as racists – but need to think a little harder. Part of my research involved attending social justice workshops and leaving in tears every night as I came to see that I was not nearly as blameless as I thought I was.  I was pretty blissfully ignorant about racism before I began this book, because I had the luxury of being ignorant.  Now I can’t NOT see race, and I can’t stop discussing it.

What surprised you in the writing of this novel? Sometimes I feel that I don’t know what I am writing about until I’ve finished a draft. Is it this way with you?

Two things.  First, racism is often incorrectly defined as individual prejudice.  Yet we could take every Skinhead and ship them off to Mars and there would still be racism. That’s because racism is power PLUS prejudice.  Although it’s easy to see the headwinds of racism – the ways that the color of one’s skin makes it hard for some people to achieve success – there are also tailwinds of racism.  Being white gives us advantages that we prefer to chalk up to hard work or luck.  In other words – if you were lucky enough to be born white, part of what you achieve is as a direct result of what someone else did not because he was born black.  And that, as a white person in America, is very hard for people to accept or wrap their heads around.  Second, that you CAN learn not to hate.  I interviewed two former Skinheads who have renounced the movement, and who acknowledge that even though they still feel anger, they have learned how to channel that anger so that it isn’t targeted at a scapegoat.  One is married to a Jewish woman now; the other helps the federal government find cells of white supremacists that are active on the internet or are stockpiling weapons in rural places for a “Holy Race War.”  So much of their anger came from it being easier to blame someone else for the status of their lives rather than to blame themselves – and now they have taken ownership of those feelings, have worked hard to correct them, and they actively try to foster harmony rather than hatred.  Given the state of today’s current politics, I can’t help but think there are a lot of people who might learn from this.

Can you talk about the title, Small Great Things? I absolutely love it.

It comes from quote often attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. :  “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” For many white people, MLK is the first stepping stone to understanding racial struggles, and I wanted to honor that.  But I also believe that although racism is institutional and systemic, it’s both perpetuated and dismantled through individual acts.  Small great things.  We can’t individually change the world but we can change ourselves and our behaviors.

You’re known for researching every last detail. Was there anything unexpected that you found? And did it change the trajectory of your novel?

Everything I learned was a revelation for me, and part of my own journey to understanding my relationship to racism and how, unwittingly, I might have contributed to it.  I remember one woman of color telling me how shocked she was when she saw a white woman in a grocery store open a bag of chips and give a few to her kid before paying for it.  Although I was sure the woman was planning to pay for it, the woman I was interviewing said that a Black woman wouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt.  The other AHA moment I had was when I admitted that sometimes, I felt slighted if I said hello to a Black man on an elevator or at a street crossing and he didn’t respond in kind.  It took talking to people of color to make me realize that I had unconsciously made this “all about me” when in fact it was about 200 years of systemic racism.  It wasn’t all that long ago when a Black man who spoke to a white woman could be beaten or hanged for doing so.

What do you want people to come away with from this novel?

I am so lucky to have a podium of sorts after 20 years.  I have amazing fans who will go with me, no matter where I choose to take them.  You cannot turn on the news today without knowing that a conversation about race is not just timely, but critical.  I hope that for those who don’t quite know how to start talking, this book can be a springboard for further discussion.  And I REALLY hope that they read it before the next presidential election.

I want to ask, if you could go back to young, young Jodi, before you had published anything at all, what advice would you give yourself and why?

Trust yourself.  I never really believed that I would be published, or that anyone would want to read the kind of stuff I wanted to write.  That is not to say my career has been easy, but it certainly has been more successful than I ever imagined it could be. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m working with my daughter and co-writer, Samantha van Leer, to turn our YA novel BETWEEN THE LINES into a musical, hopefully bound for Broadway.  It’s been two years of hard, wonderful work.  Our Tony award-winning producer brought Kinky Boots to Broadway; our director was nominated for a Tony for Newsies; our creative team is fresh and breathtaking and collaborative.  We just did a week of development at NY Stage and Film and received a standing ovation. Later, a woman came up to our book writer and said she had a subscription to this summer theater series for 20 years and had only seen one other standing ovation.  It was for Hamilton.  J

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

1.     What can I do, as a white person, to take steps toward being more conscious of social justice? 

I break these into Do’s and Don’ts.  DON’T say “I’m colorblind.”  It suggests that you don’t care or recognize race.  DON’T say, “I’m Jewish/gay/female/disabled and have faced oppression too.”  It again undercuts the struggle of people of color by bringing the focus back to you.  DON’T assume you have to be present at all conversations about racism.  There are times when it’s much more important to talk to “your own” – namely, white people. DON’T say “I have Black friends!”  Have you talked to these Black friends about racism?  Because if you haven’t they’re not really friends.  DON’T try to be a savior – it’s not up to you to “fix” Black communities; they have wonderful strong leaders and voices.  Instead of saying, “I can help you, “ say, “Do you need help?  What kind?”  DON’T say “All lives matter.”  Of course they do, but ALL lives can’t matter until the ones that are currently being undervalued or threatened are equal and important.  It’s like going to the doctor with a broken arm and having him say, “Well, all bones matter.”  True – but wouldn’t you rather have a cast on the broken one?  DO understand that there is a difference between Equal and Equitable.  Equal means the same, equitable means fair.  If you had a blind student in class would you give him the same test as everyone else, or a Braille one with the same information?   “Equitable” recognizes that there are obstacles and challenges faced by people of color that white people do not face, and thus a fair path to success for these two groups may look slightly different.  DO educate yourself.  Sure, you know who MLK Jr. was.  But do you know who Lewis Latimer was?  Bill Pickett?  Henry Ossian Flipper?  DO make yourself uneasy – put yourself into situations where you are not part of the majority.  Feeling comfortable is not a right, it’s a privilege.  DO recognize those tailwinds of privilege you have – if you think a person of color is being ignored in a meeting, ask the moderator if you might hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.  If your uncle cracks a racist joke at Christmas, take him to task.  DO talk to other people about racism – even when there’s no person of color present.  Part of white privilege is having access to places and conversations people of color don’t – and that’s exactly where we need to start talking about racism and the white person’s role in it.  DO read widely.  One very easy step you can take toward racial justice is to look at your bookshelf and see how frequently you read an author of color.  For every white writer whose book you pick up, try another by an author of color:  Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Ellen Oh, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jesmyn Ward, Khaled Hosseini, Lisa See, Christina Henriquez, Nnedi Okurafor, Jacqueline Woodson, Roxane Gay, Cynthia Bond, Helen Oyeyemi, Junot Diaz, Laura Esquivel, Julia Alvarez, Marie Lu, Celeste Ng, Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, Sabaa Tahir, Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Tracy K. Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Walter Mosley, Edwidge Danticat, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Jenny Han, Gabrielle Zavin, Kevin Kwan…shall I go on?


Nicola Yoon.  She writes YA fiction and takes my breath away with every other damn sentence. 

Love, mystery and ghosts: Stephanie Gangi talks about her extraordinary new novel THE NEXT


I'm always partial to debuts, and this one, THE NEXT by Stephanie Gangi is gorgeously written, haunting and it's also an INDIE NEXT PICK! I'm absolutely thrilled to host Stephanie on the blog and to see al the rave reviews rolling in!  Thank you, Stephanie!

 I absolutely love books like this--the drifting of the character between one world and the next. What jumpstarted this novel? What was haunting you that you felt you had to write about it?

I started The Next in my late fifties – I’m 60 now. I’d been through a few rough break-ups – including one that came late in life for me, a true love lost. I found myself compulsively telling and re-telling and reviewing and revising relationship details, trying to make connections to past relationships, searching the shadows of memory, trying to see where love had gone wrong. So I was absolutely haunted by love lost, the idea of all that power, gone. How light and hope could turn to despair in the dark.  

At the same time, I was suddenly single, in my fifties, and noticing a distinct drop in “visibility” on the streets of Manhattan, out with friends, at parties. I was still me, but I wasn’t attracting the same attention as years past. I started really thinking about that – and the idea of being an older woman and ghosting through the streets, refusing to relinquish attention, refusing to “go quietly” into invisibility really appealed to me. To co-opt the idea of the invisibility of older women – to turn it into a super power instead of a fade-out. I still love the ghost metaphor, although I admit, not everyone does!

And Adele’s 21 was everywhere, blasting from every shop, and the songs were about heartbreak, sure, but they were also tinged with vengeance. I was feeling vengeful myself and I started to muse about what it would be like to actually take revenge. I’m a chicken at heart, so it was easier to write. And Joanna the ghost was a stand-in, so I could really rage!

Look, I’m a woman of a certain age and I have had a few turns around the dance floor with breast cancer. I figured, I can let these two incredibly powerful forces harness me, or I can try to harness them: my age/experience, and my ongoing shoving match with cancer/morality and use them to achieve my long-neglected desire to write a novel.

This is your debut and you have the words every author wants "huge in house support"! What does this feel like for you and does it make it easier or harder to write your next novel?

The support from St. Martin’s – Jennifer Enderlin is my editor – really has been remarkable. The book is quirky, it’s not a snap to market it, it’s dark and funny and sad, it’s generating a lot of passionate responses, and Jen figured out a way to make sure those qualites were leveraged as strengths, not challenges.

Everything about my experience with St. Martin’s makes it easier for me to push ahead on novel #2! I have so much more confidence knowing I can truly write authentically, not worry too much about genres or marketing strategies – they have really “listened” to the work itself, and worked with me to assemble all the right elements for success. You’ve seen that cover!  Fingers crossed now that readers take – and love – the crazy ride.

So much of this book is about love--even as Joanna plots revenge.  Did you know the ending before you began?

When I was in the midst of the last break-up, I had a revelation about love. I was bemoaning my single status one September Sunday – at my age, with my health history who would ever love me again? And I was twisting around this thought, and I looked up and realized I was having this conversation over brunch with my daughters. That love was sitting right there with me. That I had the love of my friends, my dog. That I had books, and writing and traveling and cooking and New York City. Skies and oceans and craziness and sorrow and all of it is love, love, love around all the time. How brilliant is that! Is it intimacy? Is it sex? Hell, no, but it’s love. Big bright love. I decided – actively decided – to appreciate the love I had instead of worrying about getting another boyfriend. I’ve had wonderful relationships, I’ve been lucky in love, and I’d rather honor it all than find myself without the time to do so! Which is kind of the point of the book, now that I think of it!

And, yes, I did know the ending. I’ve had some intimations of mortality myself over the years, and done some hard thinking about living and dying, and I knew – know – that for me the best death will be to have lived the hell out of life until I’m in a sense, free to let go of life. Free of the body, free of the mind. I don’t want to say too much more – it’s the ending, after all!

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or just wait for the Muse?

Oh, I map. I read and take notes, and read and read and map and flag pages and transcribe my notes and make timelines and post-it myself silly. I write morning pages every day (dear diary stuff, other ideas, project plans, poem-y things, calendars, to-do lists) and I then turn to my novel notebook, where the day’s tasks await! I orient myself, plan my day and then go to the draft when my fingers get too itchy to resist any longer.

Of course, once I’m on the page, I go as free as I can so that the map falls away and I’m just going, going, going. That’s the goal. That’s the ideal. That’s the drug.

What is obsessing you now and why?

The Next launches on October 18, and I am determined to enjoy it all, no matter what, the highs and lows of it, because it’s taken me a long time to get here. So that’s one thing I am NOT obsessed with. I’m trying to find the flow of it, and just let it carry me.

I’m obsessed with staying in the moment.
I’m obsessed with recognizing opportunities to be kind.
I’m obsessed with a suede bag I bought a couple of weeks ago.
I’m obsessed with tomatoes (late August, after all).
I’m obsessed with my daughters, in a good way.
I’m obsessed with Louise Erdrich’s LaRose and William Finnigan’s Barbarian Days.
I’m obsessed with Spotify.
I’m obsessed with The Real Housewives of New York City (I KNOW, I KNOW, I’M SORRY)
I’m obsessed with the arc of photography over the twentieth century, with how to be a mother and an artist, with what it would be like to grow up in the sixties with a notorious photographer-mother. In case you can’t tell – my second novel is obsessing me.

I think the whys are obvious!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A marriage, a murder, yoga and more--the whipsmart and hilarious new novel SOULMATES from Jessica Grose

Where genius creates

Portrait of the writer lounging in the sun

Who says writers can't have gleaming, gorgeous wood floors?

Jessica Grose is an editor at Lenny, also the author of Love, Mom. Her latest, Soulmates is a smart, funny and intensely readable story about what unmakes--or remakes--a marriage,  the trials of yoga, and so much more. I'm thrilled to have Jessica here. Thank you, Jessica!

I love the structure of the book, the way we hear from Ethan and then from Dana, and because I am always curious about craft, I want to know why you decided to do the book that way? This is your second book, and I also want to know if it felt harder or easier to do than your first?

Thank you! I decided to do the book from alternating perspectives because I wanted to show how a relationship—particularly a relationship that’s falling apart—can be interpreted so differently by each participant. At first, you hear Dana’s side, and you think Jeez, Ethan’s a philandering prick. But then you hear Ethan’s side of the story, and you start to empathize with him, and see how their worldviews just became more and more incompatible as he becomes enmeshed in his yoga world.

In some ways this book was harder to write. Logistically it was harder, because I wrote the first book before I had kids, and I wrote the second one after my first daughter was born. But I had more fun writing this one. When I wrote Sad Desk Salad, I was pretty insecure about the whole thing. Like: am I even allowed to write a novel? I’m a journalist, not a novelist, etc. etc. Once I had written and published a first book, I was more confident. I started thinking: Even if I’m a bad novelist, I’m officially a novelist now.

As someone who once walked out of a yoga class after being told I “wasn’t challenging myself and what a shame” because I wouldn’t do a headstand in my very first class—I don’t have kind thoughts about yoga. Do you?

I have complicated thoughts about yoga! I have enjoyed it, particularly prenatal yoga, as there’s something really warm and communal about being in a room full of other cranky ladies in your particular physical condition. I really hate some of the sentiments yoga teachers express, which can be a mishmash of faux Buddhism and something I think of as tea bag wisdom (i.e., the saccharine, uplifting sentiments sometimes printed on the side of tea bags). I know some people really get succor from what their yoga teachers say, but I can’t help but roll my eyes so hard it hurts my sockets. There are certainly yoga teachers out there who have studied Buddhism or Hinduism deeply and have something wise to impart. But I’ve never experienced them.

The novel’s is hilariously funny—and in the smartest way possible.  Do you make yourself laugh while you are writing, or is it serious craft time for you, instead?

I definitely make myself laugh, although that is so cringeworthy to admit! Above all, I want my books to be entertaining. And if I’m not entertaining myself, I probably won’t be entertaining my readers.

I have to ask about the ending—without giving anything away—because it was so tragically hilariously perfect and it gave birth to what I always call “the never ending story” where you wonder what is going to happen to these people beyond the pages.  Did you always know this was how things were going to end up?

I knew that was what would happen to Dana, but what would happen to Ethan changed a lot. And the way Dana got to where she ends up changed dramatically along the way.

I’m fascinated by gurus or all kinds (there is a famous story where Dennis Wilson was telling two girls he had picked up that his guru was the Maharishi, and they said, “Oh, our guru is Charlie Manson.”) Why do you think we are all so desperate to find our answers from anyone other than our deepest selves?

Because getting answers from our deepest selves is difficult and painful, and it’s a lifelong process. It’s much easier, especially if you’re young, or you’re lost, to look to someone or something else to give the answers to you. In some ways, Ethan just traded Dana for a yoga guru. Like when they got married, she was always the Alpha and he just let her decide their lives. And then when they stopped really connecting, he felt adrift and for various reasons didn’t have the ego strength to chart a path for himself.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin, about the Patty Hearst kidnapping. I love pretty much any history of the early 70s (Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, about how planes used to get skyjacked All. The. Time. in the 70s, is also a favorite). These histories are particularly comforting to read in this moment, because with the rise of Trump everything seems so crazy, but then you read about the violence and social disorder of the early 70s and you think, nope, not so crazy after all.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?


Friday, September 23, 2016

And now for something completely different, Alexander Maksik, author of SHELTER IN PLACE, writes something short and brilliant for the blog

The author's book shelf and book, and the phenomenal LOVE ME BACK

Portrait of the writer's reading chair

The incredibly talented author

The novel you need to read RIGHT NOW

Sometimes books undo you as you read them. Alexander Maksik's Shelter in Place did that to me. About mental instability, prison celebrity, love, loss and desperation, it's shockingly original. I raved about it in the San Francisco Chronicle because it was so audacious and original. A few days ago, I met him at the New England Independent Bookstore Association Reception and he was gracious, funny, brilliant, so I asked him to write something for my blog. And he did.

He's the author of A Marker to Measure Drift, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for both the William Saroyan Prize and Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; You Deserve Nothing, and SHELTER IN PLACE, which I tell you is like nothing you have ever read. Truly, a favorite book of the year for me. He's also a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, his writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications. Maksik is the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He is the co-artistic director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. 

Alex--thank you, thank you, thank you.

At Night We Slept Beneath the Stars
by Alexander Maksik

“How are you?”

“I am fine,” Hélene answers, biting at her bottom lip.

I am fine. No contraction. Emphasis on the verb.

Hélene is sixty-four years old, soon to retire from her job as a mid-level bureaucrat in a government agency. Hair thinning, complexion of someone who’s spent much of her life beneath fluorescent lights. 

“Do you go out to lunch?”



“Yes, I do.”

“Yes you do?”

She lets out a frustrated sigh.

“Yes I do go out to lunch.”

She knows the drill but does her best to avoid it. 

I smile at her. She shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

“Do you have a favorite restaurant?”

She narrows her eyes. Purses her lips. Is she thinking or does she not understand the question? A silence passes.


I raise my eyebrows.

She sighs. “No, I don’t have a favorite restaurant.”

“Nowhere that you love? Or that you like very much?”

She shakes her head.

I let her slide.  She taps the tip of her pencil against a pad of yellow paper making small dark marks on the page.  She looks up at me. Eyes so flat.

“Where do you eat at lunchtime?”

“A bistro.”

I smile. 

“I eat at a bistro near the place where I am working.”

“Where you work? Near your office?”

“Yes, I eat at a bistro near my office where I work.”

“Do you eat there every day?”

Her cheeks take on new color. She scratches at her neck.

“Yes, I do.”

She pauses.

“Eat there every day.”

Does she think I’ve trapped her? Forced her to reveal something she finds shameful about her life?

“Is it a good bistro?”

“It is fine. The bistro is fine.”

We’re stuck. I’m stuck. I want to talk about what is good, what is better, what is best. That’s the lesson. 

“Why are you studying English, Hélene?”

“It is interesting to me.”

“Really?” I laugh. “Is it interesting now?”

“Yes it is.”

“It isn’t boring?”

She suppresses a laugh as fast as it comes. 

“No, it isn’t boring.”

Her eyes are brighter now. I try another tack.

“Do you like to travel?”

“Yes, I like to travel.” 

She surprises me. She’s sailed across the Indian Ocean, traveled through the Baltics, Patagonia, Easter Island, Senegal, Kenya, India, Tanzania, Botswana, Sri Lanka, Mali. 

She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, what did you expect? Some frightened old lady?

“What was your worst trip?”

“My worst trip was south of France.”

“To the south of France?”

“Yes, my worst trip was to the south of France.”


“I didn’t feel good with my sister.  It wasn’t nice with her.”

She glides her palm over the desk, looking past me.

“You didn’t get along with your sister?”

“Yes. I did not get along with my sister.”

“What was your best trip, Hélene? The very best trip you ever took?”

She watches her hand moving from side to side across the table.

“Tanzanie,” she says, but not to me.


“Yes, Tanzania.  It is the best trip I ever made.”

“Why? Why was Tanzania the best trip you ever took?”

“Why. Why. Why. You always say it.” She shakes her head.

We both watch her hands, her fingers spread out across the Formica, still now, as if to hold the table down.

“We climbed Kilimanjaro mountain.”

“You did? You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro?”

She nods, smiling again. 

“It was very enormous.”

I try to imagine this woman climbing nineteen thousand feet into the air.

“Is that why it was your favorite trip?”

She shakes her head.

“No, it is that we were sleeping outside. In night.”

“At night you slept outside?”

She nods. There’s depth now to her expression.

“At night we slept outside.”

“That’s why it was your favorite trip?”

“Yes. Because we could see the stars.”

I nod. 

“You slept outside under the stars?”

She’s nodding.

“Yes, we slept under the stars.” 

“It’s a beautiful sentence isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.  It is a beautiful sentence.”  Now she seems gleeful. 

I stand up and uncap a thick marker.  There’s a large tablet of blank pages fixed to an easel. 

I write in full, black letters across the center of the page:


Her eyes are bright. 

“At night we slept beneath the stars.  Will you say that?”

She writes the sentence into her notebook.  She frames it carefully with an elegant rectangle.

“At night. We slept beneath. The stars.”

“At night we slept beneath the stars,” I say, moving my hand as if I might know something about music.

“At night we slept beneath the stars,” Hélene says. 

“Yes,” I say.

“At night we slept beneath the stars.”


“It’s a small poem,” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “It’s a beautiful poem.”