Thursday, March 22, 2018

Susanne Davis talks about her extraordinary connected short story collection, The Appointed Hour, giving voice to the marginalized, stray dogs, and so much more.

Today, it's vitally important for us to understand changing rural America, and in Susanne Davis' gorgeous collection of stories, THE APPOINTED HOUR, she lets us in on their struggles and their lives.

Susanne grew up in Connecticut and comes from six generations of dairy farmers in that state. Her short stories have won awards and recognition and been published in American Short Fiction, Notre Dame Review, descant, St. Petersburg Review, Zone 3, Carve and numerous other journals, while Harvard Magazine, Harvard Law Bulletin, Mothers Always Write, and others have published her nonfiction.

I'm so thrilled to host her here. Thank you Susanne!

Why a short story collection instead of a novel? I’m always fascinated because to me, short stories are like dates, while a novel is a long marriage. 

It’s true we develop relationships with our characters and our writing. On one level, I agree with your analogy--when I commit to writing a novel, every aspect of my life is committed too.  I live and dream in terms of a novel’s story.  A short story may live with me for a month or a year, but then it goes out and hopefully finds a home in a journal.  However, in this story collection, while the stories did start coming individually, and found homes in journals, eventually the characters returned and started showing up in each other’s stories.  They weren’t done with me.  They wanted me to know that they had more to say collectively than they were able to say alone. As a result, I discovered how the challenges in my characters’ lives revealed a bigger world than I first realized.

On an artistic level, I hope I hit the right notes, allowing the stories to become a kind of Greek chorus, with the characters’ unique voices and emotion shining through.

The imagery in your stories is so breathtaking that I want to ask—how do you write? Do you plan these out, wait for the muse, does the story or the language come first? 

Well, first, thank you for those kind words, Caroline.  You are one of the most generous people I know! Having grown up on the dairy farm still operated by my father and brother, I received a tremendous gift of loving the land.  Spending all that time in nature gave me an appreciation for the way the landscape changes from morning to night, and over the seasons and years. I see the Quanduck River running through my dad’s farm, swollen with rain, spraying mist to catch prisms of light and the night sky filled with stars so bright every tree casts its shadow over the ground.  When I am writing about rural characters who are so often sustained by the beauty of nature, these details come rushing forward like movie scenes.  I honestly can’t take credit for that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

A novel that includes stray dogs and Russia and its brave Stray Dog Cabaret writers of witness who wake up a contemporary American woman and challenge her to change her life.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 
Perhaps one last question to consider:  What are your hopes for this book?  Well, I hope people read The Appointed Hour and feel moved by it.  I knew I wanted to give voice to people marginalized and not often heard from in our culture.  We are all Americans with universal human cravings for love, shelter, adequate food, education and medical care, among other things.  Yet, the gap in the way we identify each other politically keeps growing and I worry about how we will reach each other with any kind of compassion as the divide widens. Continuing with the idea I mentioned above of the characters’ voices as a Greek chorus, I think the larger story of what’s happening in rural America is like a Greek tragedy.  Rural communities are being ripped apart by heroin overdoses, job losses, decreasing social supports and a palpable hopelessness.  My characters showed me some incredible resilience as they faced pretty unfavorable circumstances. I didn’t write these stories with politics in mind, but rather people who showed me their situations.

I think writers are a bridge to help people understand each other and see that we have more in common than what divides us. The late Jim McPherson, who was my professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said it is the fiction writer’s job to show us what it feels like to be human.  I hope these stories in some small way do that.


Gayle Forman talks about I HAVE LOST MY WAY, POUR YOUR HEART OUT, the difference between YA and adult, and so much pour.

Come on, of course I adore Gayle Forman. We're both Algonquin authors. We've done events together and she has the coolest necklaces I've ever seen. I'm thrilled to have her here on the blog to talk about her new YA book, I Have Lost My Way, and the journal Pour Your Heart Out.

Gayle is also the author of Leave Me, I was Here, If I Stay, and lots of other great titles you should check out.

Hugs, Gayle! And thank you so much.

Pour Your Heart out is pure genius. I think that adults should and could benefit from this as well. (I admit I am using the book myself!) How did you get this inspired idea? And did you fill it out yourself?

Oh, I wish I could take credit for this one, but really it was the people at Penguin, particularly my wonderful paperback editor Kristin Gilson, who came to me with this idea. They did one for me and one for Jane Austen and I’m telling everyone that me and Jane are going on tour together.

I only just got my copies and have not even thought to fill them out. I have an allergy to anything coloring and crafting that dates back to when I was in kindergarten and my mom had me tested for a gifted program and the results were not only was I not remotely gifted, but because I did not color in the lines I would have problems patterning and reading (ironic, no). But the result of it is that I am resentful (still) to all things coloring and crafting, even though I do enjoy coloring and crafting with my kids. You have inspired me to do the activities with my daughters and get over my childhood trauma. Thank you!

How did you go about selecting the great inspiring quotes in Pour Your Heart Out?

Again, I can take no credit. Penguin selected most of the quotes. I added a few that I knew to be reader favorites or my own. But some of the quotes were so obscure I didn’t recognize them and had to google them to confirm that they were, in fact, from my books.

I love that you write both YA and adult books. I wonder if you can talk about why you have different publishers for each? And also about the different mind-set you must have for each?

My YA books are with Penguin. I love them and they are my home. But Penguin adult and Penguin kid are entirely different companies, in different buildings. So when I wrote Leave Me, it was a submissions process like a debut book.  In the end, I went with Algonquin because the company is so small—they publish about 20 books per year—and having been at the largest publisher (Penguin Random House) I wanted to try a different experience. And I love working with both. The companies feel different in some ways but at the end of the day, they are both populated by people who are passionate about books and who have become my good friends.

I’ve thought a lot about the difference between YA and adult. The process of writing is the same but what differentiates them is the immediacy of the emotional experience. I believe everyone feels things strongly but adults are encouraged to hide their big (immature) emotions. So in adult literature, there’s a lot of subterfuge, a lot of sublimation, a lot of the story revolves around what happens when feelings are not owned. In YA, you can leapfrog over that. Young people are allowed to feel emotions more urgently and immediately and the books show that. You must know that, too, because so much of Cruel Beautiful World is from that urgent, young person’s perspective.

I Have Lost my Way is about love, loss, and finding who you should be, but this is a terrifying thing for young adults, no? (As well as for adults, too.)  How does this book help make that process easier? (I think that it does.)

It makes it easier because it tells you that you are not alone. Which I think holds true for so many books. We live in a society that loves a winner. Everyone is encouraged to brag, post, broadcast, their shiny hash-tagged lives. But everyone has pain. Everyone feels lost. Those feelings are tough enough to handle without the associated shame at feeling lost, sad, etc. Maybe reading about Freya, Harun or Nathaniel, who are each lost in their own way, will bring comfort to readers who are lost in their own way.

I love the title of I Have Lost My Way, because it implies an ask—i.e. help me and also let me help you. Can you talk about this please?

For me, it was more of a confession, and a plea. Because I had lost my own way. I had started, and abandoned, several young adult novels over the last few years.  I hated everything I wrote. It all seemed wrong, inauthentic, inadequate. And this was terrifying. Writing was how I figured out my world, and also how I supported my family. And now, this thing I had always done, taken for granted, I couldn’t do. I have lost my way was the phrase that kept spinning around in my head and then one day, it wasn’t just me saying it but a young woman named Freya who had lost her voice. I wrote it down. And found my way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am obsessed with politics. Not the day-to-day crazy (well, not just that) but the what happens when the so-called powerless become empowered. I have been inspired by the way the Parkland kids have upended the gun debate and, generally, the way the younger generation, has upended our conventional wisdom on everything from gender to race. I think the worst feeling in the world is the sense that things suck and you can’t do anything about it. But then you see these young people, who are like, fuck that, yes we can do something about it. It’s a mental shift, and it’s leading to a paradigm shift. Which isn’t to say there aren’t huge structural systems aimed at keeping the status quo (white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.) but these stirrings, among young people, women and women of color (who are running for office in record numbers) fill me with hope.

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

You didn’t ask me when we are getting together again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Portland, queer culture, the families we make and unmake, and how we break free and find our true selves. Chelsey Johnson talks about her Indie Next debut STRAY CITY (brilliant title, right? Why can't I think of brilliant titles like that?)

What are more beautiful seven words than: You have to read this book? I was sent Chelsey Johnson's incredible Indie Next Pick, STRAY CITY and fell in love with it, so of course I had to host her on the blog. And I'm not the only one who loves her book about Portland, queer culture, rebels, and the families we make--and remake.  Look at this praise:

Stray City has it all. As funny as it is moving; as joyful, as radically communal, as it is lonesome, the novel covers the varied complications of place, home, sex, city—but mostly it's about the necessary and unexpected revolutions of the self, and about how queerly we make our way through this world. Honestly, one of the most absorbing, finely-tuned books I’ve had the pleasure of falling down into. Chelsey Johnson is a wonder.
Justin Torres, bestselling author of We the Animals

Written with wit and sensitivity and exquisite emotional intelligence, Stray City is an absolute pleasure to read. Chelsey Johnson is one of the most refreshing new voices in literature.
Jami Attenberg, New York Times bestselling author of The Middlesteins and All Grown Up

A winsome novel about love and belonging—and the possibility of discovering both in the most unlikely of places, and among the most unexpected people. Tender and smart, Stray City is a fantastic debut from a huge talent.
Cristina Henríquez, bestselling author of The Book of Unknown Americans

A love letter to Portland and to the youthful effort of world-making that created its important queer culture in the '90s, Stray City is a gorgeous, funny, sharply spot-on tale of growing up and making family again and again and again.
Michelle Tea, award-winning author of Valencia and Black Wave

Insightful and brilliant, Stray City explores the stickiness of doing what’s expected and the strange freedom born of contradiction. I tore through this novel like an orphaned reader seeking a home in the ragtag yet shimmering world that Chelsey Johnson so wondrously brings to life.
Carrie Brownstein, New York Times-bestselling author of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Here's the impressive bio: Chelsey received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Teaching Writing Fellow, and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. Her debut novel Stray City is forthcoming from Custom House/ HarperCollins in 2018, and her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and NPR's Selected Shorts, among others. She has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Signal Fire Arts. She is an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary, and is currently in Los Angeles working on a television project for Hulu.

Thank you Chelsey!

I always want to know what haunted a writer (or propelled them) to write a specific novel. What was it for you?

So many things. I was driven from the outset by homesickness, by thinking about home and where you end up and why. The book actually originated from Ryan’s story, so I was writing about Bemidji, the town in northern Minnesota where my mom’s family is from, an hour from where I grew up. I feel deeply tied to northern Minnesota and yet I don’t know if I could ever return there to live, so I wrote my way through that tortured love and curiosity. Then I left Portland, and I didn’t mean to—it was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig that then turned into another and another—so I turned to Andrea’s perspective and wrote frantically, furiously trying to render the world I missed so much, trying to capture what it was, both so I could reinhabit it and also because I started to suspect I might not be able to go back to it, and I didn’t want to forget what it had been like. I’d never known a community or a city-love like that. But I also didn’t want the writing to be sentimental or nostalgic—I wanted to capture the contradictions and frustrations of that life. Queer people love each other and we hurt each other and we drive each other crazy. Just like any other family.

What I especially loved about Stray City, besides the whip-smart writing and Andrea, herself, was the whole notion of just what is conventional, what isn’t, and how we make up our own worlds and families. What does this all mean in terms of motherhood, relationships,  and locale? (Whew, long question.)

This is where living in Portland, among my particular community, had such an enormous influence on my thinking. It really is a city of strays, and although I came from an intact nuclear family, that was quite rare among people I knew. Nearly all of my dear friends (queer and straight alike!) came from families that had been ruptured in significant ways. We all carried some form of family damage, either directly from our own families of origin, or from the culture’s dominant lie of what counts as family, and which families deserve protection and exaltation and which are legally worthless. And we formed these deep, equally honorable familial and communal bonds among friends. So I wanted to write about how we form our own ad hoc families, and how we try to recreate family through actually having kids.

Just as with gender norms, I think that great American lie of what The Family is  hurts everyone, not just queer and trans people. I think its ironclad expectations of marry-reproduce-repeat suit some people perfectly—queer and straight!—and serve many people, of all orientations, very poorly. There are so many options of how to make your way and make your family, and I wanted Stray City to explore that.

So much of Stray City feels like a love letter to Portland—and to our youth. Please, would you talk about this?

It really is a love letter to my friends and to Portland itself, a flawed beautiful place that I love helplessly on some like, cellular level. The city has changed so much—it’s gotten very upscale and Instagram-y and in my shabby little North Portland neighborhood many of the shacks have been wiped out and replaced with obstreperous posh houses totally out of scale—but the homey jankiness and diveyness I love stubbornly hangs on, and the verdant greenery and moody weather will always be there. Until recently it was the perfect city for broke youth because even though you’d make no money, you could live cheaply and have plenty of time to play music, make art, volunteer at the rock camp, whatever. You could have a life. One thing I loved about Portland is that people never asked about your education or your job. It didn’t matter where you’d gone to college or if you’d gone to college, and what you did for money wasn’t really what you did. Thinking back, with many of my friends, I could not even tell you for sure what their day job was. What mattered was what you were making, what you wanted to do.  We were old enough to have some life experience and keep ourselves afloat, but young enough to still have that energizing hubris and a low enough standard of living that we were fine with whatever dilapidated roof was over our heads. I loved that age where you could follow some wild urge and overturn your life, and pull it off by the skin of your teeth, responsible only for yourself and maybe a pet.

The sad coda is that Portland’s soaring popularity and new affluence has started to kill off that DIY culture that made it special. Many of my friends have left, and many of those who remain are under constant financial stress and anxiety. The precarity that felt manageable ten years ago feels soul-crushing now, and it’s not just about youth.

What kind of writer are you, and did anything change while you were writing this book? How does it feel to be a debut author getting such major praise? Does it make writing your next book harder or easier?
I started teaching creative writing while I was writing the book, and that more than anything changed my writing—for the better. Teaching fiction was a crash course in spotting predictable narrative patterns and cliched language, and when I turned that eagle eye on my own work I instantly saw all the ways I’d unconsciously tripped into the same grooves my students did. I became a more impatient reader, eager for something fresh, eager for story, and that motivated me to make things happen on the page. But also my students made me up my game because many of them are so talented. I’m in awe of what they’re doing, how inventive and funny and dark they can go, and when they hit their stride, really inhabit their voices, I get to work with renewed pleasure and urgency.

I’ve gone from being a very quick writer, dashing off shiny sentences that pleased me and never looking back, to being a much slower writer, layering and plotting, not just doing  but thinking about what I’m doing. I also care much more about humor. Humor amplifies sadness and anger like nothing else. I want to read it, so I want to write it.

Press praise is wonderful, and I’m so grateful for it, though I’m always terrified that a hatchet job is just around the corner so I try not to put too much stock in what any particular critic thinks. The warm feedback that’s meant the most to me isn’t what shows up in magazines or listicles or online reviews, but from friends, from writers whose work I love, and from my former students. Those have real impact. And they’re what motivate me to want to write the next book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with public lands: their troubled histories and the violence of Indian removal that created them, their complex and precarious ecologies, recent tussles over their use, and their endangerment under the current administration. I’m also obsessed with the queer history of Los Angeles. I keep returning to the ONE Archives, this incredible LBGTQ archive housed at USC. I can lose myself for hours in that stuff. The 1970s in particular have seized my imagination—so much art and activism and community-building was going on. If you want to know queer history, you have to seek it out, it’s probably not going to get taught to you or passed down through your family. And when you do, you’re richly rewarded. There’s this treasure trove of publications and images and stories and ephemera and elders—a whole universe of which you are in some small way a legacy. It’s thrilling and very moving. Not surprisingly, both of these obsessions are making their way into my current writing projects.

What question didn't I ask that I should have.
Hm, maybe you could ask what is one piece of writing advice I give my students. And my answer would be: Estimate how much time you think you need to write this story. Write it down. Now multiply that by three. That’s how long it will actually take.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chris Bohjalian talks about THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, flawed heroines, the bliss of writing, and so much more

 Filled with turbulence and sudden plunges in altitude, ‘The Flight Attendant’ is a very rare thriller whose penultimate chapter made me think to myself, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ The novel — Bohjalian’s 20th — is also enhanced by his deftness in sketching out vivid characters and locales and by his obvious research into the realities of airline work.”
— Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Chris Bohjalian's brand new novel, “The Flight Attendant,” just landed. I couldn't resist opening with that play on words. I first met Chris on a stage at Rainy Day Books. Pictures of You was just published, I was on tour, and I was NERVOUS. Chris was so funny, warm, supportive. AND he wore bright yellow sneakers in honor of my red boots. We had a blast that day, and I've loved him ever since.

His latest novel, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT is smart, surprising, and I guarantee you'll be up all night because what's sleep compared to tension and suspense?

Ready for the impressive bio?

His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.

His awards include the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; a Best Lifestyle Column for “Idyll Banter” from the Vermont Press Association; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel, Midwives,was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Thank you, thank you, for everything, Chris.

 I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel.

I didn’t necessarily know “this” was the time for this novel.  Sometimes I seem to get lucky and sense what’s out there in the zeitgeist.  But I wasn’t thinking when I began writing what would become The Flight Attendant in March 2016, “Russian espionage and election meddling will be a news story in March 2018.”  I wish I had that kind of foresight. 
But I have always been fascinated with the Russian soul and loved Russian literature.  And as you know from our wonderful events together in 2011 when you were touring for your magnificent novel, Pictures of You, and I was touring for The Night Strangers, I’ve always been fascinated by aviation and air travel.  I am in awe of flight attendants and pilots.
 And one evening, it all came together at – appropriately – a bar.  I had just flown into JFK from Armenia via Moscow, and I was meeting a friend for dinner at an Armenian restaurant we love in Manhattan.  I was an hour early and so I settled with a glass of arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored alcohol I love.  And my mind was thinking about air travel and Russia, and I suddenly I was scribbling frantically on every piece of scrap paper the bartender had handy.  The premise?  A flight attendant who drinks too much would wake up in a sumptuous hotel bed in Dubai next to a dead body.  All I knew when I started writing was that it would be a thriller with a deeply flawed heroine, and there would be Russian intrigue.

So much of The Flight Attendant is about what we remember and why, what we are addicted to and why, and how those forces shape us. Can you talk about that please?

As a species, we move away from pain and we move toward pleasure.  I assume all animals do. 
In the case of my flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, she has become addicted to the pleasure – alcohol – that took away her pain.  Her deep emotional pain.  All those margaritas and negronis she downs in the course of the novel?  All that arak and all that wine?  It’s drowning a lot of unhappiness and a lot of terrible scars from her childhood. 
 So, yes, she is a functional alcoholic.  And like a lot of alcoholics, she is also a profoundly wounded bird.  I think that’s why I cared about her so much and worried about her so much.

I remember years ago, you were talking about researching plane crashes, and how people shouldn’t rest their feet under their seats if they’re ever told to brace for impact in an imminent crash, because they might break their ankles and be unable to walk away from a crash! I imagine you learned some new things in researching this novel! Pray tell!

 Well, I learned the difference in cost if you want to kill a contracts manager in Donetsk versus Dubai.  That helped the novel immeasurably. 
But the things I learned that have really stayed with me are just how spectacular most flight attendants are and how hard the job really is.  The women and men who keep us safe and manage the passenger cabin of an airplane are well-trained, dedicated, and incredibly fast on their feet – and they deal with all sorts of horrific passenger misbehavior.  The stories they told me about drunk passengers, entitled passengers, ornery passengers, and just plain rude passengers were astonishing.  And, yes, I used a lot of those stories in the novel – including the tale I came across in my research about the grandmother who allowed her toddler grandson to try and urinate into an air sickness bag.  The lad missed.  The nearby passengers wound up soaked.  And the grandmother?  Not an ounce of contrition.

Holy cow, you have movie rights optioned!  Will you do a cameo? Any interest in writing the script?

Yes, Kaley Cuoco of The Big Bang Theory has optioned it for a limited series for Warner Brothers TV.  I couldn’t be happier.  There is no actor I can think of more perfect to bring my alcoholic hot mess of a flight attendant to life than Kaley. 
 I am not writing the script.  But I am co-writing the screenplay for the film of my 2017 novel, The Sleepwalker. 
I’m also writing a new stage adaptation of my 1997 novel, Midwives.

I also have to ask you this: The galley is phenomenal looking, with quotes from every major paper around. Yet, knowing you, I know that you are one of the kindest, most down-to-earth writers I know. How have you avoided what fame does to some writers?

 Well, I could ask the exact same question of you.  And I think most of our mutual friends who write are pretty down-to-earth and keep us humble.
Also, writing isn’t a zero sum game.  There’s room for all of us. I’ll bet you read between forty and fifty books a year. 
Finally – again, like you – I never lose sight of what a blessing it is to be a novelist.  It’s just so damn much fun.  The Flight Attendant is my twentieth book, and my goal has been to never write the same book twice.  And that’s meant I’ve never been bored.  Some novels have been much harder to write than others and some books have been much better than others, but so long as I’ve tried something new and tried my best, it’s always been pretty satisfying.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 I’m deep into my next novel.  Shhhhhhhh. . .

GIVEAWAY! Susan Henderson talks about THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, dusty dying towns, morticians, loss, and so much more.

This already ran, but now we have a giveaway of TWO BOOKS!  And all you have to do is add a comment. We'll put the comments in a hat, and pick a winner!

First, the huge praise:

The Flicker of Old Dreams is at once a vivid and wildly compelling study of small town American life and an intimate and incisive exploration of the human condition, from love to loss and beyond. If Shirley Jackson and Kent Haruf had a love child, she might write like Susan Henderson. —Jonathan Evison, New York Times bestselling author of West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving  

This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book. —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World

Like the wind scours paint from an old grain silo, Susan Henderson’s writing scours away all the pretend niceness of small town life in Montana to reveal the frayed and patched nature of humanity.  Nobility, ragged resilience and hope compete with small-minded ignorance in a story of unlikely friendship that is sharply detailed and so beautifully written. —Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War 

Susan Henderson offers us the wondrously sharp picture of small town Petroleum, Montana, where the past comes back on two feet and a blizzard rages. The Flicker of Old Dreams is a fine novel, heartfelt and bracing company. It is a gemRon Carlson, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry award-winning author of At the Jim Bridger and Ron Carlson Writes a Story

Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams is a clear-eyed, wise, and poignant tale of losses and gains, told with tremendous empathy and grace. —Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald 

This book. This author. This writing. I am struggling to find adequate praise—I did not want this to end. —Ron Block, host of  A Cook and a Book 

This next anecdote will tell you all you need to know about Susan Henderson. In the middle of writing my novel, weeping because I was sure it didn't work, that my career was over, I emailed Susan to tell her that was it, everything was done. She immediately said, "Send it to me. Right now. I'll read it." I knew how busy she was with her own work, but she took the time, and in 3 days (3 days!) sent me back my manuscript, yellow-highlighted where she loved it, gray where it needed work. 

I breathed and felt hopeful for the first time in months.
I adore Susan Henderson.

We don't just support each other. We laugh over lunch (or sometimes cry). We talk about everything. And when I read the first pages of THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, I was astounded. Oh, I knew Susan was a great writer--but this new novel went even beyond that. I'm deliriously happy to have her here and I can't wait for our next lunchfest. Thank you, thank you for everything Sue.

And now, the details:

 Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. She is the author of the novels Up from the Blue (HarperCollins, 2010) and The Flicker of Old Dreams (HarperCollins, 2018).  Shorter work has been published in The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), The Best American Non-Required Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure (HarperPerennial, 2008), Drinking Diaries (Seal Press, 2012), Create a Writer Platform (Writer’s Digest, 2012), as well as a number of magazines and newspapers.

I always want to know what was haunting an author before they write a book. What question did you think you were trying to figure out an answer before BEFORE you wrote THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, and what did you answer instead?

These past few years, I’ve become increasingly alarmed (and obsessed) with the growing gulf between one American and another, and in particular, the split between my current life in New York and my family roots in Montana. 

And so I began to think a lot about the town where my father grew up and where I used to visit as a child. I wanted to put my finger on what was happening—why we’d lost empathy for each other. 

When I went back to the town and saw it dwindling to 180 people, the story began to be one about death—facing the reality of it, feeling compassion for the dying. But the great surprise for me was discovering something about the pulse of life and seeing the mortician, who narrates this book, reconnecting to all she’d let go quiet in herself—her voice, her opinions, her passions—and stepping back into the world of the living.

Coming from your celebrated, critically acclaimed first novel UP FROM THE BLUE, I wonder if writing this new novel was more difficult. Did you feel you could build on things you had mastered in your first novel or was it completely new to you?

Knowing I had finished a novel that had seemed impossible to pin down helped so much because half the battle was believing I could do it.

But each novel is different. I don’t enter them from the same place (the first came from an urgent voice that piped into my head, and this one came from a setting that haunted me but wouldn’t let me penetrate it). So, in many ways, I feel like a beginner each time I write the new story because it always begins with a blank page and I don’t know the characters yet.

The fun of writing a novel is how you think you know what it’s going to be about, and then there’s always a surprise, a hidden trap you fall through and discover the bigger story that was beneath the surface.

The mortician details knocked me out! What was your research like?

The research was unbelievably fun. And fascinating. I studied everything about the dead body and how it changes, hour by hour. I learned how to remove it from a home, how to drain the organs, how to replace the blood with embalming fluid, how to wash the body, how to cut this and sew that, and most importantly, how to present the face of a loved one so her family members can feel more at peace when they say goodbye.

I read books and watched videos and spoke with morticians and hospice workers. I talked with people who’d recently experienced a death in the family. And then I handed all of my research over to Mary Crampton, my narrator, who made this strange business into a tender art.

So much of the past is present in the Flicker of Old Dreams. Do you think we can ever escape it?

I tried to dig down into the rage of the unemployed and underemployed in this town, and felt like it was rooted in the question, Who am I now? Because their identities were tied to jobs or
lifestyles that were being phased out. And they wanted to still feel important and relevant, but the world they saw on TV was something they didn’t recognize, something they couldn’t imagine becoming a part of.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I live in a town that once revolved around a huge insane asylum. Many of the people in town used to work there, but now it's shut down with most of the windows broken and vines growing over the bolted doors. It’s become the place teenagers break into—mine included—and they go inside with flashlights and respirator masks (if they’re smart) to explore the old cafeteria, padded rooms, and craft projects left behind, mid-stitch.

So I started thinking, "What if a group of teens did more than explore and spray paint their names on the wall? What if they were on a search for something specific that was important enough to go deep into the most dangerous parts of that building to find it?” And that's where I am right now, walking around this place , talking with former nurses and patients, and blending the history with what is happening with these daring teenagers and with the building itself.

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

I’d like to say something about writer friendships. For those of us writing novels, it’s a several year investment in what begins as a blank page and a sense of obsession about some topic or setting or conflict. And in the years it takes to discover the story and get it right, there will be doubt and anguish and the sense that you aren’t going to be able to figure this story out. What saves you—what saves me—is friendship with other writers, who know what it’s like to be lost, to write into a dead-end, to go to a dark place and wonder if you can get back out again.

I feel like we buoy each other. We share the struggle and the joy of this work. We give company on what is so often a solitary process. We find ways to applaud the many milestones along the way. Interviewers often ask about the process and the journey of writing and publishing the book, but I want to call attention to those who’ve been companions on that journey because I couldn’t do it alone.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Elizabeth Church talks about the golden era of Las Vegas, showgirls and her stunning new novel ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS

I first met Elizabeth Church at a book festival (This is why writers adore book festivals. We get to meet the authors we love.) In our case, we instantly bonded, and I love Elizabeth so much, I keep trying to convince her to move next door. 

She's the author of THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE was touted by the New York Times for its "elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood." Her new novel, ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, about Las Vegas in its heyday, show girls, and the connections we make--and break--is even more glorious. Plus, it has feathers and sequins.

Big hugs and love to you, Elizabeth, for being here.

Your novel The Atomic Weight of Love won so many awards and was a mega-seller. Was it at all nerve-wracking to set forth on a new novel? Or easier because of your huge success?

I actually began writing All the Beautiful Girls even before I had an agent or sold The Atomic Weight of Love to a publisher.  What was nerve-wracking with this second novel was showing the manuscript of All the Beautiful Girls to my first reader, my agent.  I was fearful that she’d have to figure out some diplomatic way of telling me that I was a one-hit wonder, and that I should find some other way to pay my living expenses.  Since I’ve often sworn that I’d rather clean toilets for a living than return to practicing law, failure was not a happy prospect.

What instantly drew me into your fabulous novel was the story world, so alive with the glitter of Vegas, and the glittering personalities like Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Jones. That must have been really fun to research!  So tell us about the research—what surprised you? What derailed your plot and sent it in another direction?

Research was a blast!  I loved learning about the costumes, sixties fashion (including eye makeup especially), the stage sets, and of course those celebrity personalities.  I read a number of books, but I also discovered some treasure-troves of images (showgirl photos, costumes, actual menus from Vegas venues), online.  I will say that I ended up with a lot of bizarre pop-up ads, based on my internet searches.  Predictably, there were ads for Vegas airfares and hotels, but I also received ads for G-strings, club wear, and yes – feather outlets. 

I didn’t plan to write about what was going on outside of Vegas (Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement), but as time wore on, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between that city of make-believe and the rest of the world, how strenuously many must have worked to keep hippies and protestors away from the Strip.  I think that was the part of writing this novel that surprised me most – the insight I gained about growing tumult in American culture versus commercialism and peoples’ need to escape to places like Vegas.

I’m curious about why you set it in the Golden Age, rather than now. How have things changed?

I wrote about the time when I would have wanted to be in Vegas, versus now.  I actually was in Vegas in 1966, but I was a child – and so all I could do was walk the sidewalks, look up at the vast neon displays, and wonder what lay behind the doors and curtains.  I see classic Vegas as the best time for that city in the desert.  To me, it was a time of dignity and true class, and of acts that relied solely upon talent – not plastic showmanship – to entertain.  Today’s Vegas, with its fake tidbits from Paris or Italy, its push to be a “family” vacation destination – it all rings untrue to me, and it seems a pallid, watered-down version of what once was.  But, this is all from a woman who loves a good bar – dark ambience, cigarette smoke, highballs and Manhattans, cocktail dresses, men with ties, and even clip-on earrings.  Maybe my age is showing….

I don't want to give anything away, but what I thought was going to happen with her and the Aviator never did—and I actually found that tremendously satisfying. What were you thinking about when you created the Aviator?

I originally intended that the Aviator be present only for a few pages, as the man who killed Lily’s family.  But the Aviator refused to go.  He became – quickly and initially without my permission – an overarching figure.  And so, I let him stay – and as I wrote, his role became clear.  Truthfully, I’m more than a little in love with the Aviator, with what he comes to represent, the genuine, abiding, unshakable love he has for Lily.  In the end, he became a way for me to achieve many goals, among which was to pay homage to a man I dearly loved in “real” life.

So much of All the Beautiful Girls is about power and having control over our lives, despite former trauma. Even the word “Girls” in the title indicates that, and there is that haunting half photo of Ruby on the cover. I know how often covers and titles change, so can you talk about the process for us?

I had two original titles for the book.  My working title was “The Tender Places,” which was then replaced by “Map of Venus.”  I think “All the Beautiful Girls” says more than my original titles, though, because it speaks to the beauty in ALL of us, and in particular to the beauty we all have despite our wounds.  In terms of the cover, I absolutely adore this cover – it shows not only the limelight, the diamonds, and the glamor of what I try to depict in the novel, but also is enormously feminine.  I also quite relish the vivid blue color.  There is another version of the cover created by my publisher in the United Kingdom.  I love that cover, too – which shows a crowd of showgirls gathered backstage and features the perfect sixties font (I call it the “Jacqueline Susann font”).  Both cover images capture not only the beauty of female dancers, but also the accentuation of that beauty through stage makeup and all those elegant feathers.

I loved the line about having a future, except it doesn’t look like what you thought it might. Can you talk about this please?

I have to say that this is one of my favorite aspects of life:  the unpredictability, the humbling that occurs when I’m proven wholly wrong in my predictions and expectations about what my life will be. 

In my writing, I like to strip away all of my characters’ expectations, their best-made plans.  I set out to strip them of comfort and happy endings, because that is how I think life works.  What is interesting, to me, is how a person reacts to pain, to heartache – how she chooses to be in the wake of loss and disappointment.  I respect resiliency, and I think we’re all capable of it, if we require more of ourselves.  Besides, isn’t life our greatest creative project?  What matters is what we create for ourselves, each and every day, despite every hurdle that we might encounter. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Grief, family dynamics.  The often vastly different experiences of siblings within the same family, with the same parents.  Whether siblings can ever come to terms with their different upbringings, their competitions and jealousies, and whether ultimately there can be acceptance of each individual for who she is.  These are some of the themes I’m working on in my third novel.

I was fascinated by the palmistry. How did you learn so much about it? Do you read palms? Did you have yours read?
In college, I became fascinated by palm reading and tarot cards.  Rather ghoulishly, the scientist in me wanted to see the palms of recently deceased persons so that I could check their lifelines, learn whether those lines were accurate in their prediction of life expectancy.  I studied books on palmistry (and had to refresh my memory for purposes of writing Lily/Ruby’s story), and I had a few friends who knew some palmistry (one friend had an aunt who claimed to be psychic).  I’ve found that if word gets out at a party, I will have a line of people asking that I read their palms.  Do I believe in it?  Yes – but only in that it is yet another system by which we can try to understand our lives, the choices we’ve made. 
I once had my palm “professionally” read.  I was told that I had a very sparkly aura, that I was highly psychic, and that I would be reading palms within two years of that reading.  I think I prefer writing fiction – although some might argue that the two are not that far apart.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You’ve not asked me about something I know you understand, Caroline – and that is the mind-boggling thrill of learning that what I’ve created in the solitude of my home, what’s arisen in my mind when I walk or swim, has somehow resonated with a reader.  How breathtaking it is to discover that what I’ve written has touched another life, that my characters’ struggles have found a place in the thoughts of another.  I cannot imagine a greater miracle – or any more striking evidence of the power of the written word.

Monday, February 19, 2018

What would happen if all birth control were made illegal and parents had to be licensed? Kristen Tsetsi talks about that and her profound new novel THE AGE OF THE CHILD.

I first met novelist Kristen Tsetsi because of a hilarious video she and writer R. J. Keller made about writing from Inside the Writer Studio/Paper Rats. Of course I wanted to be in one, so I stalked them both, got to do one, and a friendship was born.

Kristin's newest novel, THE AGE OF THE CHILD, is a provocative look at reproductive rights in our culture. And it's already racking up raves:

"A masterstroke in the dystopian revival, The Age of the Child is visionary, relevant, and unnervingly plausible." Brian Felsen, founder of BookBaby

"When we are through [reading The Age of the Child], we are thinking hard about things we’ve heard many say and things we’ve thought or said ourselves about children or parenting. We’re tempted into a conversation that we’ve not had with spouses, friends, or acquaintances." Elizabeth Marro, author of Casualties

"Tsetsi tells a story that will keep you reading and wondering late into the night." James C. Moore, MSNBC political commentator and co-author of the NYT best-selling Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential

"An intriguing look at a future that feels frighteningly possible." Journal Inquirer

"Smart writing, interesting characters, and just a good story. Tsetsi gives the readers food for thought." Carol Hoenig, co-owner, Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine

Thank you so much for being here, Kristen!

What was haunting you when you wrote this book?

Oh, so many things... Pharmacists using religion as a reason to deny women hormonal birth control. Rick Santorum's concerns over "the dangers of contraception."  People who would argue that, say, a forcibly impregnated teenager (that's the most sanitary way I can say it) should be denied the option of abortion. The politician (I don't care to look up his name, because I don't care to know it) who suggested that women who don't want to get pregnant should put an aspirin between their knees.

But also, the lack of any conversation or any real, meaningful action that spoke to a genuine concern for the quality of life of these potential humans the pro-life movement professes to care so deeply about.

It's such a wild contradiction (and so bafflingly - is that a word? - hypocritical) that it was driving me mad. Any time I heard, "Think of the children," I thought, "Yes. Could we, possibly?"

The Age of the Child thinks of the children in two different reproductive rights restrictions scenarios, both carried out under a Citizen Amendment, which the administration had, by the novel's opening, recently ratified to protect every potential citizen's right to life. The first scenario: all birth control is banned and abortion is criminalized (even miscarriages are treated as suspect); the second: as a reaction to the consequences of the birth control ban, parent licensing has been enacted and anyone hoping to be a guardian (whether adoptive or biological) must first submit to an evaluation.

Parent licensing was the initial idea for the story, but I realized before finally sitting down to start that it would be impossible to write about licensing without also writing about how we got there.

What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way?

I was more anxious about this one. The subject matter is tricky, and I wanted to do it justice without getting Ayn Rand-preachy from any angle. It was also important to not write heavy when the subject matter was already pretty heavy.

What this means (this might sound terrible) is that I got to have a lot of fun with some otherwise brutal conversations and relationship situations. As you can imagine, a relationship will be tested in a no-birth control environment when a woman who doesn't want to have children avoids having traditional intercourse with her husband. (Amazingly, the real-life male politicians endorsing blocks to birth control and abortion fail to connect those actions with the likelihood that they may be threatening their own sex lives...)

When writing The Age of the Child, I went into it with a deep appreciation for Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, both of which incorporate humor and/or the absurd to make a devastatingly serious point. My other novels are a little more straightforward.

Did you always know your ending, or did it take you by surprise?

It came as a complete and thrilling surprise.

I'd written one ending and was positive that was it. "Good!" I thought. "Done!" But after going through the draft again and reaching the last page, I thought it was unsatisfying, somehow.

It's hard to remember when the right ending came to me - maybe while walking my dog, Lenny (who has a character named after her), or maybe it was while trying really hard to listen to something my husband, Ian, was saying (I don't mean to do it, I really don't, and I swear he isn't at all boring, but when you're working on a plot problem, there's really no point in trying to control concentration, is there? It doesn't work! Ian understands).

All I know for certain is that the original ending was making my center roil in an unsettling feeling of "meh" until I was hit by what should happen. It was the only thing that made sense. It was perfectly inevitable! It was one of those relief/excitement moments that make you want to shake somebody.

What was the why now moment of writing this novel?

First, it (reproductive rights vs a child's right to quality of life) was important to me as an issue. When something is important, I think it should be addressed as immediately as possible. I don't even think the subject matter I cover is timely as much as it's our history, our present, and likely our future (by "our" I mean globally). But it had all been bothering me so obsessively, and I'd been having so many real or imagined arguments about it, that it was time.

Second, how to address the issue(s) in a novel had finally been ruminated over long enough for the ideas and characters to have built into something I could finally start with enough confidence to believe I could move from one page to at least one more.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Trying to stay positive, because Trump.

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

The only thing I can think of, and this is only because I'm excited to share it, is that I'll be doing a book signing at the Manchester Public Library in Manchester, CT on Monday, March 12 at 7 p.m., and I'll be a guest on the Colin McEnroe Show (Connecticut Public Broadcasting/WNPR)  on Wednesday, March 21, 1-2 p.m.. Listen live or stream online!