Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Who was F. Scott Fitzgerald's last great love? Legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and here, Sally Koslow talks about ANOTHER SIDE OF PARADISE, hopeless romantics and so much more.

Who isn't fascinated by the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald? While most people associate him with the tortured, tragic Zelda, he had an enduring romance with Hollywood gossip legend Sheilah Graham--and the sublime Sally Koslow is here to talk about it.  But first, the praise:

“Isn’t a beautifully written page-turner the ideal read? Well, here it is. I am full of admiration and gratitude for this wonderful novel.”

—Elinor Lipman

“A stunning, utterly captivating read. . . . an unforgettable portrait of a remarkable couple steeped in all the glamour, romance, and intrigue of old Hollywood.”

—Kathleen Grissom

Sally Koslow is the international bestseller The Late, Lamented Molly Marx; The Widow Waltz; With Friends Like These; and Little Pink Slips. She is also the author of one work of nonfiction, Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Can Grow Up. Her books have been published in a dozen countries.
Thank you, Sally!

I always want to know what was the why now moment for you in writing this book?

After reading Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank and later, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain—impressive authors--I immediately thought I wanted to try and write a biopic novel, even though my previous book were squarely rooted in today’s world. I admire the genre because when done well, it combines a history lesson with the intimacy of revealing a subject’s interior life: how they feel, what they think, what they said. Isn’t that transparency what we love about contemporary fiction? It took me years, however, to stumble on the right subject for a biopic. Only when I read Stewart O Nan’s insightful West of Sunset, imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last few years from FSF’s point of view, did I know Sheilah Graham and Fitzgerald’s romance was the one. Though Sheilah was a secondary character in O’Nan’s book, the author shared enough about her for me to want to get to know Sheilah better. When I did—kapow. I realized that writing her story, which has facets to it far beyond Fitzgerald, felt beshert: Yiddish for “destined.”

What was the research like? What surprised you and what did you veer away from for the sake of fiction?

F. Scott Fitzgerald is, of course, the subject of numerous meticulous biographies, the author of countless revealing letters and essays and the subject of myriad B+ sophomore term papers, perhaps even one of my own. And beyond the paper trail of Sheilah Graham’s columns, she wrote quite a few memoirs in which, I was surprised to learn, she was the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Never, for example, did she admit in print that she was born not only poor, but also Jewish. Nor did she always tell her story the same way. Sorting through inconsistencies was a blessing because I could pick the version of truth that served the narrative best.  Also, no matter how interesting the paths of some famous people may be, no one lives life in a plot. I had to decide what to leave out in order to tell Sheilah and Scott’s story in the most rewarding way I could imagine.

I love that you called Fitzgerald the “world’s best boyfriend. When he was sober.” Was he this good to Zelda in the beginning? And if Zelda had not gone mad, do you think they would have survived?

Scott adored Zelda, and was loyal to her, even during his relationship with Sheilah. Until the end of his life, he continued to visit his wife in the psychiatric institution where she’d been living for years before he met Sheilah. As his relationship with Sheilah deepened, he read Zelda’s letters to her, perhaps to explain the complexity of his life.

If Zelda hadn’t become ill and frustrated in the pursuit of her own accomplishments, and if Scott wasn’t an alcoholic plagued by debt and writer’s block, I could imagine their lives turning out very differently. But this was a union of two troubled, gifted people, who-- it’s fair to say--contributed to their own bad luck through extravagance and self-indulgence. As the years passed there was heartbreaking sadness to their marriage, and when mental illness swallowed Zelda, her husband became deeply lonely. I’m happy he found happiness with Sheilah, a more self-sufficient woman who supported him--sometimes, literally--and never wanted much from Scott except love, respect and knowing he was back at his game, writing again.

Why do you think people focus more on Zelda when this particular love story is really so much more incredible?

Sheilah was Scott’s inspiration for The Last Tycoon, his unfinished last novel that she sparked him to write. She was also both a footnote in history as well as the “other woman,” with all the unsavory implications that implies, especially in 1930s Hollywood, where the priggish Hays Code was enforced both on and off screen.

Zelda was notorious, far more well-known than Sheilah. For most of Scott’s work, she was her husband’s muse as well as a celebrated figure in the Jazz Age. She and Scott were the glamour couple of their generation, both in the United States and during their stay in Paris and the south of France, where Sara and Gerald Murphy were the den mother and father to many of the era’s most prominent writers and artists—Hemingway, Picasso, more. Zelda’s fragility and mental illness also contributed to her renown and engenders sympathy, while Sheilah was a scrappy survivor, even though she lived through a profoundly difficult childhood. This is one of the things I love about Sheilah and made me want to share her story.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

That anyone would connect “effortless” to my work makes me laugh because I’m a writer who buffs and polishes until she’s all but committed a manuscript to memory. I have to force myself to stop tinkering. Composing a first draft is like sticking a corkscrew in my brain, but once I have a draft down, I pretend I’m editing another writer’s work and become ruthless in getting rid of muck. That may be because for many years I was a magazine editor. Remember McCall’s? I was its editor-in-chief until it was turned into a magazine for Rosie O’Donnell. (This was the inspiration for my debut novel, Little Pink Slips.)

As it gets close to publication date, I invariably catch the common cold of authors, who ruminate about their book becoming the wallflower at the orgy, unnoticed among all the other great titles competing for readers’ attention. It’s like having to endure 7th grade all over again. Pure misery for which there is no cure except ice cream.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Except the above? Trying to lock down the subject of my next book. In the last year I’ve started and abandoned close to ten projects. Write another biopic? Return to the sort of contemporary fiction I’ve written that got called “witty?” Today I’m fairly sure I will do another biopic.

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

“Who do you think will like Another Side of Paradise?”
Hopeless romantics, fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald—the man as well as the author, readers intrigued by Old Hollywood, people who like stories about feisty women bent on self-improvement and who defy all odds, historical fiction lovers, Anglophiles, anyone curious about pre-World War II anti-Semitism, readers curious about Jewish women or how America’s gossip industry took root, and definitely, book club members. There’s a lot to chew on in Another Side of Paradise.

Hey Moms! Want to listen in and talk about the best--and worst-sides of mothering? Writers Edan Lepucki and Amelia Morris have started a rad pod cast, called MOM RAGE! And they talk about it here.


Amelia Morris is the mother of two boys born almost exactly two years apart: Teddy, age four, and Isaac, age two. She is the author of the blog, Bon Appétempt, named one of the twenty-five best blogs of the year by TIME magazine, as well as the book by the same name: Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story With Recipes!. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, McSweeney’s, The Millions, and USA Today. She used to host a cooking show called In the Kitchen with Amelia & Teddy, where cooking on camera with her kids looked fun. Mom Rage is here to clear the record.  

Edan Lepucki has two kids: her son, Dixon Bean, age six, and her daughter, Ginger, age two. She is the bestselling author of the novels California and Woman No. 17, as well as the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire Magazine, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among others, and she is a contributing editor to The Millions.  Edan created the Instagram @mothersbefore and is the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

I absolutely love the idea of a podcast that is this funny, this brave, this honest about pain and dark feelings and “mom rage." It's a genius idea that everyone should support—and it’s important to remember that being a mom doesn’t end when your kids leave home and their own families. And also the rage we sometimes feel against our OWN moms. Do you think that part of this is because so much in our culture is changing and it is not longer such a crime to want time for yourself and that you also have to take time for your adult life, your relationship life, your sex life, your sitting around and doing nothing life. You are sort of inventing yourself all over again for a new person.

Thank you, Edan and Amelia!

 You can listen and support the podcast here

Thank you so much!  It does seem like, lately, we’re talking a lot more about how unsustainable this go-go-go, eat-an-energy-bar-and-call-it-lunch American life is. And, I think, in the post-Trump world, many women are like: “Fuck this. I’m calling my congress members, and I’m doing this clay mask, and I’m going to have an orgasm because this is my country, too!”  Ha. But, seriously, we’re seeing that we need to take care of ourselves in order to survive the everyday—and maybe, especially, because no one else has our best interests in mind.

Couple that with there being so much great work by mothers out there right now, telling it like it is, representing the experience. For instance, Ali Wong’s new comedy special on Netflix, “Hard Knock Wife” lays it all out there, and in the midst of a hilarious set about the post-birth body, emphasizes just how criminal it is that our country doesn’t have federally mandated maternity leave.  I’m excited by how many books, television shows, movies, and so on are out there, and I only hope that we see more and more stories from all kinds of mothers.

I want to talk a bit more about mom rage. A lot of it seems to be about how much help you have, and what kind of husband and baby you have—and what kind of friends, too, right? If your partner isn’t doing 50%, it’s easy to be so resentful that steam comes out of your eyes.  If you have a baby with problems or colic. If you had a baby too young, before you had done all these wild things. Also, I remember actually raging against other mothers, rather than at my baby, because they’d tell  how I HAD to breast feed this way, I HAD to have no meds, I HAD to, etc. etc.  and I was really resentful. Can you each talk about this please?
Edan: I think we all have different “rage” capabilities, based on our upbringing, our personal temperaments, and the various factors you mention. A crying baby, for instance, who will not stop, NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, can make you truly lose it, as can those judgmental comments from other parents. Ugh!

Amelia and I have a lot in common: we are both heterosexual white women with husbands who do a lot of the household duties. And yet, we’ve still got a lot of rage! A lot of it is toward the culture and all that’s expected of mothers, and the lack of institutional support for women and families.  Our long-term goal for the show is to talk to a lot of mothers, to hear their stories.  We quote Adrienne Rich from Of Woman Born on our website: "I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours."  We agree.

I was so interested in the way both of you talked about your births and what you expected and what actually happened. I planned a birth with my husband in the room, which was beautiful and perfect and wonderful, and two days later, I became critically ill, comatose, with a mysterious blood disease that I was dying from. Three months later, I was allowed to see my baby.  So when I finally was well enough to come home.  Because I was so ridiculously happy to have this healthy baby, to be alive and to have help (my husband works at home), I didn’t feel rage to my son—so do you think your experiences before the baby is even conceived shape the way you handle what goes on?

Caroline, that sounds like a traumatic birth! I’m glad, ultimately, it didn’t shape your early experiences with your son.  It can be difficult, if you end up having a birth that’s different than the one you planned for or imagined for yourself—some women never really recover from that, and for others, it’s not a big deal. In episode 3 we talk to a midwife, Kathleen Potthoff, about these very issues, and it’s so complicated, because every mother is different. She talks about getting to know her clients and learning about what they’re bringing to the pregnancy.  I don’t think I really have an answer here except: maybe? Or: Sometimes?   We bring all our history—the good and the bad—into our lives as mothers. And there are even those studies that say we carry ancestral pain and suffering in our DNA!  At the same time, it doesn’t always feel that DEEP, you know?

Do you think you each have the same parenting styles? Where do you find inspiration for raising your kids? I find that motherhooding, like kids, grow and change. No one would think of raising kids like they did 100 years ago with all that not sparing the rod stuff, but when I had my son, I was determined to do exactly the opposite of how I was raised—and I’m still not sure I did the right thing because he is now 21 and when I ask him if I was a good mom, he rolls his eyes!  Is it possible to ever know? Or is the answer to find advice/respect/a shoulder from other moms?
I’d say that neither Amelia nor I adhere to a specific parenting “style” and in that way, we’re similar. I guess other, little, stuff aligns: We both breastfed our kids, we both potty trained at two, and we moved our kids out of cribs around that time as well. While all that is important, it also can feel superficial. Believe it or not, we don’t spend that much time talking about naps and feeding and all that jazz—we’ve spent more time talking about motherhood as a concept, and our writing…and our feelings!

I depend on my mom for almost all my parenting advice. She has 5 kids, 6 grandkids, and knows everything about children and what to do with them. Amelia has a more conflicted relationship with her mom so she asks her friends for advice; in the podcast she refers to her “Earth Mother Friend” Kara a lot!  Finding a mom friend can be so helpful—it’s a special relationship.

We have an episode with author Meaghan O’Connell coming up, and, with her, we talk about how some mothers reject their own mother’s advice. I get that—and I agree, the “rules” and “wisdom” of parenting is not a historical, it’s always shifting. However, it makes me sad to think people would rather Google something than ask their own human mother—or any human mother that they know personally. Why do people have more faith in technology, and in crowdsourcing, than in receiving knowledge from a woman with lived experience? Crowdsourcing parenting questions is my pet peeve since parenting is so about your individual family and circumstances! But I digress…

I love that one of you aspires to be the villain in terms of getting discussion going—especially because moms are not supposed to be bitches. Please talk about this!
This is just our little joke, but, yes, I am the self-appointed villain of the show because I tell it like it is, and I imagine Amelia as having a far softer, sweeter personality. But we do dig into this somewhat…like, why do I have this idea that I’m some kind of monster? I don’t think I’m unique in this feeling; when we don’t act in the ways we think a “good” mother should act, it’s easy to believe certain accepted behavior is natural and that your reaction is abnormal and something to be ashamed of.

I also really love the music that opens each podcast! How did you decide that? Will you change the music?
Thanks! Amelia’s husband Matt Bookman wrote our theme song with their two sons, Teddy and Isaac. I love it and we will use it for every episode!

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Amelia’s always obsessed with her self-help books, like Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller. And competitive gymnastics; when UCLA won not long ago, she was so excited!

I’m into the aforementioned comedy special, Hard Knock Wife, by Ali Wong. I am just finishing The Changeling by Victor LaValle—what a weird beautiful marvel of a novel! Oh, and learning Italian--that’s my jam right now.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Florence Gonsalves talks about her gorgeous debut LOVE & OTHER CARNIVOROUS PLANTS, love, grief, being young, being self-destructive and getting it as together as you can.

When someone,e specially Martha Rhodes, the head of Four Way Books and a brilliant poet,  tells me, "You gotta read this," I always do (unless it's about vampires. Then I never do.) And I'm always happy that I did. I absolutely loved Florence Gonsalves LOVE & Other Carnivorous Plants (great title, right?) and I'm honored to host her here.

I loved, loved, loved this book. (I’m a sucker for anything about identity.) What was the “why now” moment that got you writing this?

I’d had ideas for Love tucked in a brain drawer for awhile, but when I graduated from college with no “real job” prospects, I started writing in the backroom of my parents’ house. I couldn’t envision having a “normal” career, so writing stemmed out of a deep, deep insecurity to do something with my life. Looking back, I was having a huge crisis of identity: who am I now that I’m not a college student and how will I make a living so I can move out of this backroom of my parents’ house?

Tell me about the wonderful title: Love & Other Carnivorous Plants.

I wish I remember how the title came about exactly, but the writing process is so mysterious! It was previously called Where There Are Flowers, plus other things I can’t remember that were not very captivating. I’ve loved Venus Fly Traps since I got one in fourth grade – they’re delightful little anomalies – and at one point I put a literal plant in the story, then saw other ways that themes of consumption wove into Danny’s struggle.  

So much of this book is about grief and love and finding our way.  And I loved that you dropped out of pre-med to find your way in writing! Can you tell us about that?

Oof, pre-med! I was just terrible at it – labs, problem sets, I simply could not do the work, which was terrible for my ego and also forced me to change the path of my life. If I’m not going to be a doctor, what am I going to do? What happens now that there isn’t a set plan? Obviously that struggle is reflected in Danny’s character. Sometimes writing feels indulgent and I think about doctors saving lives while I’m typing away in Starbucks but a friend once said that there are different ways to heal people— sometimes a book can do just that and I write with the hopes of having an impact.

I’m always interested in how a writer approaches a novel, especially a debut. Do you feel like you learned anything or did anything not turn out the way you had expected it might?

I learned that I have to write a lot and then throw away a lot. I didn’t know much of anything until I put it down on paper (even though I tried to make outlines). The result was like building a huge rock with all my words, then cutting and carving and shaping that rock into something that resembled a book. It took a lot of trust to believe that the story was there even when I couldn’t see it, but I’m getting more courageous about going forth blindly, then going on a deleting spree.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Ada Limon. Her poetry is wow and I love things that make me feel something even if I can’t put my finger on how or why they’re so evocative.

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

Hmm, how about a book that influenced Love? In high school I read Catcher in the Rye (like most everyone else) and the tone of the book was hugely inspiring to me. Up until Catcher, I didn’t know a book could be written in the way a teenager thinks. I thought books had to be “literary” and that stopped me from writing one. With the permission to write like my friends and I think and talk, I felt capable of attempting to tell Danny’s story.

Raising kids, carpooling, neighbors and husbands: Abbi Waxman talks about her smart new novel OTHER PEOPLE'S HOUSES, writing and more.

Abbi Waxman is the acclaimed author of THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS, and now, her latest, OTHER PEOPLE'S HOUSES is already racking up the raves. Named a Highly Anticipated Book for 2018 by InStyle, Elite Daily and Hello Giggles,it also won praise from #1 New York Times bestselling author Emily Giffin, who called it "both irreverent and thoughtful."

I agree and I am thrilled to have Abbi here!

Every book teaches writers something new, I think. Did The Garden of New Beginnings teach you some writing craft that helped you in writing Other People’s Houses?

I actually don't think it taught me anything new, it just underlined the fact that you simply have to keep going. That helped with Other People's Houses (and with the current one) because it's really the only way to do it: Write every day, even if you're not sure what you're saying, because eventually you'll get enough clay on the wheel to realize you're making a pot. For months and weeks and days you'll think you've got nothing but a pile of mud, and then all of a sudden you'll see a handle. At least that's been my experience. I start out with an idea, or a character, but often they change beyond all recognition by the time I'm done.

I absolutely am in love with the title, Other People's Houses. Can you talk about that –and its deeper meanings—please?

The title took a long time to come up with, but as soon as we had it we knew it was right. It was a group effort; myself, my editor Kate Seaver, my agent Alexandra Machinist, and one or two others at the publishers. I'm not very good at titles, and they're not what's important to me. I remember characters far more easily than titles. As for meaning, well, the book is about both our literal houses, which are often displays for other people, as well as being hidey holes for us, and also about the metaphorical houses we build around ourselves. Plus, I love poking around other people's houses and seeing if I can learn about them from the way they've furnished and arranged things, and I was hoping I wasn't alone in that. If I am alone in that then I guess I should expect far fewer invitations from now on.

Raising kids, carpools, relationships with husbands—and with neighbors— spin the novel deliciously. But so does the idea of living in a suburban community where people seemingly know one another, right up until the moment that they don’t. Living in a city, I know that people tend to keep to themselves, maybe because we are all on top of one another! Can you talk about this difference please?

I live in Larchmont, which is the neighborhood where Other People's Houses and The Garden of Small Beginnings are set. It's fascinating to me because it behaves like a small village in the middle of a large city. There's a main shopping street surrounded by quaint and lovely residential streets, and you can literally see the same people every single day, and get to know them, without ever learning their names or what they do once they leave the neighborhood and go to work. I think all of us who live here are aware of how anomalous it is; my kids literally grew up playing with all the kids on our block over the summers, and we all sit out front in the evenings while they run around and shriek, and it's like a weird Norman Rockwell thing. But at the same time, just like everywhere, people only show you what they want to show you. I always wondered, when I waved at a neighbor as they were coming into or leaving their house, what was going on as soon as the door closed. You get only a tiny glimpse of their entryway, a smile of greeting, a wave, and then as far as you know they shut the door and start throwing tennis balls at the dog while singing the soundtrack to South Pacific. You really have no idea.

Critics have commented on your miraculous ability to creative characters that live, breathe and beckon us to enter their world. How do you go about creating your characters? And what kind of writer are you?

The nosy kind. I've enjoyed becoming middle aged and overweight because no one ever notices me anymore, and I can eavesdrop and stare in complete peace. I've always looked for details, and enjoyed the little things about someone that makes them different -- wearing their watch on the inside of their wrist, or stirring their tea with the handle of whatever cutlery is nearest, or whatever it is. I collect these little things.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My current book is kicking my butt, so I'm kind of obsessed with that. It's taking twice as long as it should, and nothing about it has been easy. I also really enjoyed the 4th season of Bosch, just saying.

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

You should have asked if I have a really good recipe for hot fudge sauce, because I do.

Ya hoo! The fantastic Julie Clark talks about her fascinating debut THE ONES WE CHOOSE, science, DNA and how the traumas of our ancestors live within our very cells.

Oh yes, I loved this debut by Julie Clark so much, I blurbed it:

How could I not love a debut about science, secrets, DNA, and how the traumas of our ancestors still live within our very cells? With gorgeous prose, and a deep emotional resonance, The Ones We Choose is about a mother’s fierce battle to protect her son, the science of love, how our DNA shapes us, and a mother’s fierce battle to protect her son while confronting what really makes our identity ours, what and who we choose to let in, and what and who we don’t.  An absolutely dazzling, profound ruby of a novel.

And look who else is raving:
"A novel with a wonderfully smart and strong protagonist, Julie Clark's debut The Ones We Choose is an impressive and surprising combination of hard science and raw emotion. In this absorbing story of friendship, parenting, and the intensity of the sibling bond, Clark reveals how messy family life can be and how the mess itself might be of great value. An engaging read!"

Amy Poeppel

"An engaging, heart-felt alchemy of genetics and emotion, THE ONES WE CHOOSE is a unique story that will having you thinking about the true meaning of family and how our heritage silently weaves its way into every choice we make."

Amy Hatvany
"This chimera of heart and science skillfully produces an extraordinary breakthrough novel. I love smart fiction with a sharp heroine at the core. Julie Clark has perceptively given us that in The Ones We Choose. A story of mother and son and the ties that bind, right down to the marrow. Trust me, you're going to want to read this."

Sarah McCoy

What was haunting you when you wrote this book?
What a provocative question! In 2014, when the idea first occurred to me, I wanted to write about a single mother, but I felt that had been overdone. We had books about widows who raise their kids while overcoming their own grief. We have books about divorcees who battle ex-husbands and critical family members. But what about the single mothers who are emerging from our advancements in science? The women who choose motherhood out of joy and love, rather than grief or conflict?  

But then an interesting thing happened to me in the middle of revising this book. In 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and everything stopped. I had no family history or risk factors, and so of course, I wondered how I got it. Why did my cells mutate? All of a sudden, those genetic subchapters became very personal for me as I explored this idea of genetic memory.

I’ve found that life always gives me what I need when I need it…and that was definitely true for my diagnosis. I was reaching a critical part of shifting this book from one lane into another, and pushing it more toward the science subplot. I had to stop teaching so I could focus on my treatment, and I did a lot of self-reflection (and writing) during that time. I’ve written about this period (here and here), and consider it to be one of the most transformative experiences of my life. Everybody should be so lucky as to have the opportunity to step out of their lives and take stock. All of those experiences -- the pain, the stress, the fear, and the joy -- went into the pages of the book.

What surprised you the most about your research?
I can say that the interstitial chapter on mtdna was really personal for me. I had lost my best friend, Sharon, to cancer in 2012, and she left behind two kids ages 8 and 9 when she passed away. It made me wonder, what parts of her might remain? I loved the idea that our mothers, all the way back through time, are imprinted on our cells, and get passed forward through our maternal line. Who are these women? What hardships did they endure? What has carried forward to me? I thought a lot about Sharon, and how her mtdna lives inside both of her children. Her daughter will even pass it forward to her children, and it will be essentially unchanged from Sharon’s. She’ll be there. In the very cells in their bodies. That concept also helped me in the early days of my own cancer diagnosis, before I knew exactly what I was dealing know that my mtdna would be in my kids too. No matter what happened, they would have a part of me that would be there for the entirety of their lives. That was a big a-ha, not just as a writer of the book I was working on, but as a person. As a mother. It changed the way I think about the impermanence of life. That surprised and delighted me.

I absolutely loved when you mentioned that the trauma of our ancestors gets into our own cells. It explains so much. Can you explain what we can do about that, how to live with it, or even change it—if possible?
I don’t know if it’s possible to change it. We live in a world where we’re so determined to fix things, and at some point we have to understand that certain things are broken and they might have to stay broken.

There are things we can do to protect ourselves from future problems. Avoiding stress has become a priority for me. I have a full time job, plus my writing obligations, parenting my two children – even with the huge amount of help I get from my family, I have to be very scheduled and mindful of boundaries. I think it’s important, no matter how busy you are, to give yourself time to handle your stress when it happens and not carry it all up inside, where it can manifest as something not-so-great.

But I think the most important thing, and the thing Paige would want you to know is that you can’t control everything. Life is messy and you can’t shy away from the mess, or keep the mess from happening. That’s just part of living. How you choose to respond to that mess is within your control, but to try and resist it, that’s the space where the stress is born. Paige was trying to hang on so tightly to her idea of what was good for her son – and what was good for her – that she was on the verge of losing everything. So I think the big takeaway is that yes, our experiences transform our cells and our DNA and everything is imprinted and carried forward and recorded, but that’s okay. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re going to be okay. My experiences are more important to the shaping of who I am than the fear of how they might be changing me. Smile and embrace it all. Even a cancer diagnosis.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals, do you outline, or do you simply let the story tell itself (ha ha ha.)
I get up at 3:45 in the morning to write. I like to think I’m on NY time, living on the west coast. (And yes, I go to bed very early too. My 9 y/o goes to bed at 7:30 and I go shortly after him.) My rituals are simple. I write in bed and I must have coffee. Those hours are consistent and quiet, which is why it’s worth it to me to wake up so early. I try to tackle my really difficult work during this time, and it’s reserved for new work only.

In the afternoons, try to handle promotion for The Ones We Choose, write or revise blog interviews or draft my weekly blog posts for The Debutante Ball. I also look over what I wrote that morning, and figure out what I need to work on the next morning, so that when I wake up I know exactly what I need to do and I don’t have to spend any time thinking about it, I can just get started.

As far as my process, unfortunately, I’m not much of an outliner, though I am always trying! I didn’t do any outlining for The Ones We Choose, but I did map out all of the subplots chapter-by-chapter. It’s a great visual in how to make sure I don’t drop any one of them for too long. But that’s more of a revision tool, not a drafting tool.  With the book I’m working on now, I am doing a lot more outlining and plotting, since I’m juggling dual POVs and timelines, and the book has more suspense elements than The Ones We Choose. But generally, my early drafts focus more on plot and forward motion. My later drafts are about layering in the emotion. The backstory. The subplots. The tension. Heightening the stakes for everyone. Taking away the scaffolds I always seem to put in no matter how hard I try not to.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Right now I’m obsessing about how someone might be able to obtain a fake ID. In my next book my character needs to disappear, so she needs a new identity. One of my childhood friends used to be an FBI agent as well as a police officer, so he’s my go-to for all of these types of questions. Apparently fake ID’s are now the purview of organized crime. You can’t hire some high school kid to make one for you anymore because of all the technology linked with them. So that presents a problem, because now I need to figure out how my main character (who is the wife of an influential senator) might get one. But then I had a big epiphany…because it’s so challenging, that just makes the stakes for my character so much bigger. And that’s always a good thing.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
By day I’m a fifth grade teacher. It might be tied with novelist for “Greatest Job in the World”. My students will tell you I’m obsessed with BBQ potato chips, but I never let myself eat them. They think that’s really sad.

Lisa Romeo talks about grief, healing, and STARTING WITH GOODBYE

Lisa Romeo is a writer and a writing coach and I am so honored to have her here to talk about her memoir, STARTING WITH GOODBYE. Thank you, Lisa!

Grief is never-ending, but there must have been a moment when you felt, okay, now I am ready to write this. Can you talk about that moment please?

There were many different moments. I actually began the writing almost immediately, in the two weeks after my father died, and then on and off for about six years. I went to the page each time I felt that I had something else, something new or what struck me as unusual to record about the grief experience. The writing and the curiosity about the unfolding experience seemed to occur in partnership. Of that early writing, some became essays of different lengths and forms and appeared in literary journals. The rest stayed in my notebook until the structure for the book solidified.

There was a point—maybe that moment you’re asking about—when it felt like the right time to transform all the essays and the bits and pieces in notebooks, into a memoir, though I honestly can’t say precisely when that happened or just what the exact impetus might have been. It certainly wasn’t an aha moment where I thought, “okay, time to move on from grief.” It was subtler than that and was imperceptibly tied to the act of writing.

I’d resisted moving from the essay from to a long continuous narrative for a couple of years, despite good advice, because grief to me, even then, still seemed mostly fragmented and episodic, not linear. In late 2015 though, I realized that this book had to happen before anything else, before I could write any other book. I was getting too comfortable writing short pieces about grief, and grief is not supposed to be so comfortable that you don’t want to move on. It was time. I went away for a week to a quiet bed-and-breakfast in remote Maine in January 2016 to get started.

One of the things that people may not realize is that when a person dies, the relationship does not. You still can work on that relationship. Can you talk about how you came to see your father differently?

When my father was still alive, even in his final two years when he was dealing with Alzheimer’s, severe arthritis, heart disease and other ailments, to a certain extent we were still playing out roles I believe got decided in my childhood and teen years.  We were locked in those roles: he was the self-made, successful businessman without much education, who always had to be right, and I was the modern daughter with the privilege of higher education, who felt I needed to align with my mother, and who had to prove that I was his equal and that we were nothing alike.

The joke was on me. After he died, there was nothing left to struggle against anymore, and I got curious about why we had so often been at odds, why it was that we had a lot in common but didn’t want to admit it. The reality was that the friction came from being so very much alike. Once he was gone, I felt free to ask myself questions about his life, his behavior and decisions, that I hadn’t bothered to investigate before, because I’d been, frankly, a rather dismissive snob.

I found that I was able to come to know my father differently, that I had more of an open mind, and he thus became an even bigger part of my life than in the years before his death. In that way, the relationship seemed to continue and even, in a sense, flourish.

The phrase “Love after Loss” really resonated with me. Can you talk about what this feels like for you?

When Dad and I had “conversations” after he was gone, so many things came clear for me; I had patience and curiosity then which had been lacking when he was alive. At first there was a certain amount of shame involved for how I’d treated him at times in my adult life, but that faded because I felt so much love and acceptance in return—which I now interpret as my finally grasping the depth of his love for me, something which he wasn’t really ever able to express in life (and I wasn’t open to hearing either).

When our parents age and decline, there are so many mixed emotions—even though we act from love and compassion, for many adult children I think there may also be guilt, impatience, confusion, exasperation, inadequacy, judgment, bewilderment, all churning and distracting us. There certainly was for me. But once he was gone, and I was able to think about, acknowledge and process all of that, there was a certain calm. And the only thing left, was love.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out? What was it like to write this particular book?

For short pieces, I usually know where I want to begin and where I will end. The middle is a mystery and I mean that in the best way; I enjoy figuring out how to get from A to Z, even if that means a number of rewrites and/or if it takes me in some unexpected direction in form.

For a few years, I saw this as a book of linked essays. Publishers and some trusted beta readers didn’t agree, and I was stuck for a while. Then I decided to take their advice and rework it as a more traditional memoir. For someone like me who feels like an essayist at heart, that was a rather frightening step, but eventually the right one.

Because I had the challenge of breaking down a number of pre-exiting essays and weaving that material into the longer narrative I was writing, I felt I needed a firm chronological frame—beginning two months before Dad died and ending two-and-a-half years after. But inside of those bookends, the narrator needed to be able to move around in time—back, way back, a little ahead, and then always returning to the unfolding moment.

I made probably five different chapter outlines, and then when I had a crappy first draft, I printed it all out, got a pair of scissors and a roll of tape, cut things up according to events and theme, and put it all together again. Several times. Then as I poured it all back into the computer, I revised heavily and rewrote. Rinse, repeat. After five months, I had a fairly polished manuscript and began submitting.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

A few things. First, what the next book will be. I have three different ideas, and when I tell them to the few people I want advice from, I get wildly different feedback. One involves horses—I rode and competed for many years, and horses were the first thing I ever wrote about, first as a kid for fun, and then later professionally. The second is another family-centered memoir. The third is a combination reported and personal narrative.

Besides the sophomore book question, I’m constantly upset by the state of the country, the divisive society that my (college-age) sons will be inheriting. Finally, I’m always obsessed with watching British crime dramas, and dark chocolate.

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

By now I figured someone would have asked, “What do you think your father would say about the book?”, so I’ll go with that. The answer is, I don’t think he’d say much at all to me directly, as was his way. But at some point, I’d probably overhear him telling other people, “My daughter wrote a bestseller!” That will of course have no foundation in reality! When I was a low-level staffer in a midsized public relations agency, he’d boast, “My daughter is a top executive at one of the best PR firms in New York City.” When I’d hear that, I’d get so frustrated and wonder why he had to brag so. I sure wouldn’t mind hearing him bragging like that now though.

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May is Short Story Month and that means incredible collections from Jane Ciabattari, Abby Frucht, Dawn Raffel, and more, all from Dzanc

Grab a bundle of short stories, on sale all month



Dzanc is proud to offer more than 100 short story
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Check theses great story collections out HERE!

I am featuring Jane Ciabattari here because A. she's amazing and B. Her whole collection is amazing. Set in the San Francisco Bay Area, El Salvador, New York City, Montreal, and Montauk, the haunting stories in Stealing the Fire throb with the joys and pains of life-changing events.  And check out my interview with Jane Here!

The brilliantly funny Stephen McCauley talks about MY EX-LIFE. college personal essays, Airbnbs, why he hates mac and cheese, and so much more.

Come on, who doesn't adore Stephen McCauley? I know I do. I first met him at a book salon, and we bonded over really bad movies. (Cabin on the Lake, anyone?) Subsequently, we stay in touch, I see him at readings and I stalk him on social media. He's a genius writer, hilariously funny, and despite his aversion to it, he DOES make a mean mac and cheese.

He's the acclaimed author of The Object of My Affection (which was made into a great movie starring Jennifer Anniston), The Easy Way Out, The Man of the House, True Enough, Insignificant Others and Alternatives to Sex. 

I absolutely adored his newest novel MY EX-LIFE, about lives coming apart and together, old relationships and new ones, and college personal essays (Oh my God, I LIVED that one.) And I'm not the only one. It's an Indie Next Pick, a Publisher's Lunch Buzz Book, and an Amazon Top 20 books for Spring. Check out these other raves:

“An irresistible doozy of a plot. With My Ex-Life, a heartwarming comedy of manners about second chances and starting afresh, he has pretty much outdone himself...McCauley fires off witticisms like a tennis ace practicing serves... Warm but snappy, light but smart—and just plain enjoyable.” Heller Mcalpin,
“As always, McCauley’s effervescent prose is full of wit and wisdom on every topic—college application essays, Airbnb operation, weed addiction, live porn websites, and, most of all, people. ‘When everything looks perfectly right about a person, there’s usually something significantly wrong.’ ‘All couples start off as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Laurel and Hardy.’ A gin and tonic for the soul.” Kirkus Reviews
“McCauley delights with intimately, often hilariously observed characters and a winking wit that lets plenty of honest tenderness shine through. Readers will love spending time in these pages.” Booklist, starred review

You have this astonishing talent for creating characters we just adore. I truly want Julie to be my best friend, and I want her to bring David along, too.  How do you go about creating character?

I’m delighted to hear you like them. I wrote most of the novel during the spring, summer, and fall of 2016—a traumatic time for someone with my political view of the world. I loved opening my notebooks and stepping out of my universe and into theirs. I give my students lots of craft tips for character development, but the only key I know to creating truly three-dimensional people on the page is to start with an idea of characters in a situation rather than starting with a plot. Once you make characters secondary or subservient to a story, they tend to get a little flat. You can see the marionette wires and the author’s hand pulling them. If I have a good sense of the people I’m dealing with, I take a see-what-happens approach. The main story that drives My Ex-Life emerged directly from David’s career as college counselor, not from a planned and outlined plot. It’s not the most efficient way to write, I know, but I think it has value. Stephen King has a great chapter about this in his terrific book On Writing.

Having survived the college essay period four years ago, I loved reading about it again because it all sounded so familiar to me. (We, two writers, could not really help our son and we hired someone because she showed us this wonderful essay a kid had written about how he wanted to be among wild horses in Montana and “run, run, run.” And his father, of course, despite her please, made him change it to something boring about making a difference in the world of finance. Do you do this work? How do you know so much about it?

I’ve worked on college essays for the children of several friends and also two of my nephews. Doing it, I gained a ton of insight into their families and the kids’ real feelings about their parents. That’s why I chose that profession for my character—indirect participation in the lives of others. I think that explains why you two writers couldn’t really help your son—your participation is too direct! I’ve been teaching at the college level for thirty years, and I’m astonished at how much drama has emerged around what was once a fairly straightforward process. My parents had only a vague awareness of where I was applying. My awareness was probably more vague than theirs, come to think of it. For research, I interviewed an admissions officer at Harvard about the importance of essays (less than most people assume, it turns out!) and novelist Elizabeth Benedict who has created a successful business coaching essays. She gave me some great insights. It’s easier to make things up when you’re standing on a somewhat solid foundation of fact.

Same question re selling and restoring houses, please.

I had the good fortune of having three of my books made into movies. One here and two in France. I used the money to buy two pieces of real estate, both intended as writing retreats. Unfortunately, I found I was too worried about renovations and upkeep when I was in them to get writing done. So I made both short-term rentals. (“Airbnb’s” is the accepted generic term. Like “Kleenex” for facial tissues.) Now I use the money I earn from renting them to rent other people’s apartments in places around the country. I go, burrow in for a couple of weeks and couldn’t care less if the ceiling falls in around me. Julie’s Airbnb operation in My Ex-Life is based on those experiences. Especially her experiences with throw pillows. Airbnb rentals always have way, way too many throw pillows. I usually photograph them as soon as I check in and send the pictures to a few friends to prove I’m not making it up. I turned pillows into a running gag in this novel. I liked exploring the Airbnb world in My Ex-Life because millions of people are sharing their most intimate spaces—kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms—with complete strangers. It opens up all kinds of story possibilities.

I also absolutely loved the relationship between David and Julie, their deep affection for one another. Do you think part of what stops us from moving on is just plain old terror of the new, and if so, what do we do about it?

I think there’s too much emphasis on the importance of “moving on” as a value in and of itself. Sometimes a more nuanced adaptation to what is is the better solution. I love when people have crazy, complicated living situations with exes or make accommodations for lovers or destitute relatives. When people truly open up about their relationships, their marriages, you discover no one’s life is as simple as it seems from the outside.

Ah, let’s talk about mid-life. What I loved so much about your novel is that it DOES spark second chances. (My mom fell in love for the first time at 93!) which is sort of thumbing your nose at all this societal dictates of who should be doing what at what age. So…as you see it, there are too second acts in American life. Can you talk about this, please?

To be embarrassingly frank, I’m surprised at how desire and even opportunities linger into (and past!) midlife. On the other hand, you absolutely cannot talk about your sex life past age fifty. No one wants to hear. If you don’t want to be celibate, you have to pretend you are. Like wearing a wedding ring, it signals that you’re available. As for second chances, an astonishing number of folks are using social media to look up, investigate, and/or cyber-stalk old paramours, high-school sweethearts, or ex-spouses. They claim it’s totally innocent, but let’s face it, it never is. Exes knew us when we were younger, less wrinkled, less jaded, more firm and fit. They still see the aura of that surrounding us when they look at us. The second chances in My Ex-Life aren’t like the wonderful one your mother had with a new person, but a reconfigured relationship with an old love and best friend. I find there’s tremendous sweetness and tenderness in that.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

I used to be a “freak, panic, fall-asleep-for-two-days” kind of writer. Now that I am the age that I am, I’ve calmed down a lot. I care as much about doing good work, but I don’t see my entire life hinging on the success of every sentence. Oddly enough, this has made me work harder and dig deeper. I don’t have the energy for freak-outs and all-nighters. I take my notebooks to the library and remind myself that I’m not Dostoyevsky. Espresso also helps.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

In a literary sense, I’ve been obsessed with Anita Brookner for a couple of years now. Not individual novels but her whole body of eccentric work. As of last summer, 20th-Century Japanese novels. Mishima and Tanizaki especially. In music, I’ve been listening to the droning, unmelodic, electronic music of Loscil. It drowns out the political news, which is what’s really obsessing me, to the detriment of my mental and physical health. 

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

I don’t know, but you didn’t ask the question you shouldn’t have asked---“What are you working on now?”—and for that, I’m thankful.

And (inside joke) made any mac and cheese lately? There is excellent vegan cheese for that, now. Just saying.

You graciously included me in an article you wrote about mac and cheese for the Boston Globe. I remember something about aged Gouda. I was very grateful, and a bunch of people told me they made the recipe. I guess I can now confess that I don’t really love mac and cheese! Don’t hate me, okay? Even as a kid I didn’t love it. My mother—who was Italian and a fantastic cook—made it out of spite on nights when my father didn’t come home for dinner. She was thumbing her nose at him by feeding it to us. I don’t understand the logic. But I love knowing that this is part of our history. We’ll never have Paris, but we’ll always have mac and cheese!