Sunday, December 30, 2007

Welcome to Redroom

I'm happy to announce a brand new website for writers and readers, which just went live! And I'm thrilled to say that I was one of the founding authors, especially since the site calls itself "the online home of some of the world's greatest writers." (blush)

On, you can view my author bio, published works, blog, book reviews, videos, and podcasts, as well as find out more about good causes I support. In fact, once the site has paid advertising, just viewing my page will send a portion of the proceeds to these causes.

Want to be a member of such a cool site? Then go to, and become a member (it's free). Click "Join Now" on the homepage or "Join" in the upper right corner of the page. Then select your unique Red Room username. They encourage you to use your real first and last name; I've done so. Or, if you don't have time to join now, sign up for the Red Room email list at

Once you've joined, please feel free to comment on my blog and media content (I'm a fantatic for comments), helping build a community around my work or the work of any of the other writers on the site. If you have time, you can even write reader reviews of books, adding to the literary conversation. Questions? Contact the member services manager at

Are you a published writer? They're happy to help you as they helped me build my author page. You can be in on the ground floor of building this community. Feel free to forward this invitation to your friends, family, and colleagues, too. And if you are an author, once you've joined (again, it's free), you can apply to create an author page like mine. So come on in, the community's fine!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Happy New Year, well almost

Back from Boston, which is a gorgeous city (I grew up there) even though it isn't as spiffy as my beloved NYC. Lots of fun and now I'm back and here is the nine million dollar question. Does anyone out there know of any decent and reasonably priced health insurance? (Not an HMO please.) Ours just went up a whopping 25% and we are sticker shocked. I belong to a million organizations, but either they don't offer insurance for NJ (we live in Hoboken but our docs are all in NYC) or the policies are just plain scary (a $7000 cap, anyone, which is about the cost of half a day in a hospital or one test)?

Sigh, now I have to go answer 243 emails.

see you later health-insured alligators

Saturday, December 22, 2007

In Which the author gets a ROAR!

Harriet Brown is wonderful. She was the editor of two truly great anthologies, Mr. Wrong (about all those loves you wish you hadn't had) and the upcoming Feed Me: Real-Life Tales of Our Pleasure, Shame, Anxiety, and Ambivalence About Food. I'm really excited about the Feed Me book, and not just because I get to work with Harriet again and because I'm in the company of some truly stellar talents, but because I got to write about an ex who wouldn't let me eat. Writing the piece made me feel as if I were performing a kind of literary exorcism of a fearful time for me (I was 93 pounds and so skinny my friends were about to do an intervention). Why couldn't I leave this guy? Because then I would have had to grieve for another man who had died--which was the reason I got involved with this guy in the first place.) In the essay I also get to put in a little Valentine to my husband--I fell in love with him on our second date because at dinner he insisted that I have no one dessert, but two!

But what really made me so happy was that in her blog, Harriet called me a fearless writer! Who doesn't want to be fearless? I always the writers I work with at UCLA to get that blood on the page, to risk everything--and this comment just made me so joyful.
Here's to a fearless 2008!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Happy Holidaze

We're off to Boston to see my amazing mother (she's 90, lives in her own house, drives and can hear every syllable from ten rooms away!We packing, getting a housesitter and we have an industrial strength alarm system! ) I'll be blogging again when I get back around the 26th--the day after Xmas, so here's what I'm hoping to be blessed with from Santa and the Channukah Bunny,
1. Decent health insurance that will pay all claims, 100 percent
2. literary success--for me and my friends and students and clients!
3. The Writers Strike to be over, so I can add, movie success!
4. Of course, the most important--love, health, happiness, friendship, warmth.

See you later, alligators.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Synopsis gives me headaches

First, the Nurse Molly Pin I have on (thank you, Houston Street Flea Market and forgive the blurry cell phone shot. My hand looks the size of Jupiter!) is indicative of my writing state of mind. I need Valium!
I know, I know. I make my students write synopsis because I feel that when you have 300 pages of mess and you don't know where you are, writing out a synopsis of your novel can help you identify story holes and pacing problems. Having one when you are starting out (and knowing you will probably throw out everything but the main idea which urges you to write) is helpful, too. But I agonize over my synopsis. I start surfing the net to see if it's too late for me to go to dental school (yup. It is.) I stare at it and think why did I ever imagine that I could write a grocery list, let alone a novel? The characters sound moronic, the plot forced, and the theme like something that should be in a fortune cookie. I pull out my Truby Story Structure notes and stare at them and then go alphabetize my books. I make notes and print them out and them hurl them on the floor. (My office is not exactly neat. When I had a job job, my review always said, "Excellent work, but you need to keep a tidier office."

I have one main reader who reads my stuff and I showed it to her and got the OK. (Bless her, bless her.) But here's a question: why can't I give myself the okay? Why can't I be sure of my own work? I can look at my students' writing and tell what needs to be done. I can look at my private client's manuscripts and know what they should do. But with myself? Clueless. Absolutely clueless. Sometimes I believe that every other writer knows exactly what he or she is doing at every moment. This other writer sits down gleefully, writes twenty pages a day in a heartbeat (and they are GOOD pages) and never agonizes over a single syllable.

Of course I also believe that huge quantities of chocolate are good for you.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Let's hear it for the boy!

Everyone who knows me knows how crazy I am about my son, Max. Chess champ, piano wiz, Johns Hopkins scholar (ask me about double replacement equations--he taught me!), novelist (he wrote MOVIES OF DOOM last year, which came complete with his own author page, reading group guide, author photo and cover design), voracious reader, and theater star. He auditioned and got into the company of the Hoboken Children's Theater (run by Chase Leyner who is amazing, and who is also the sister of hilarious author Mark Leyner) and here he is in Annie (tuck your shirt in, Max!)

He's just a superlative boy, and no, no, Mom, he is not cutting his hair. (Jeff and I aren't cutting ours either!)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A mouse in OUR house and a pox on health insurance

Eek! A mouse! Vermin. He races from behind my bookshelf. He's in the kitchen and he tore through a whole plastic wrap to get at some spicy potato chips. There are bite marks on the chocolate.

We tried humane traps. He laughed at our pitiful attempts and ate the chocolate we used as bait, gobbled the peanut butter and then used the trap as his personal lavatory before whisking away unharmed. I won't use glue traps (I used one once in my old NYC apartment and woke to agonizing squeaks and a tiny writing body.) The snap traps seem too brutal. So we hired an exterminator who told us about the brownstone down the street that had so many mice he had to open the walls where he found hundreds (HUNDREDS) of them nesting in the walls. So now we have green pellets that they seem to love to chew on so much they want their friends to join in the fun.

I found a dead mouse in my office. Jeff found a dead mouse tucked under the stove.

Added to this are health insurance woes. When you are freelance you have to buy your own policies which are about the same you might pay to buy a small country all your own. And they don't pay for anything. Ten years ago, when I was critically ill, I spent a whole year after I got well fighting the insurance companies because they refused to pay. Conversations would go like this:

Insurance: We need you to pay that 800,000 bill (this is for real) right away because you didn't sign a consent form for the operation. Your husband did.
Me: I was in a coma! I couldn't sign anything!
Insurance: It doesn't matter. Can you write us a check today?

It took us two years of fighting to get things settled (and I can never thank my doctors enough, who often told us, "You don't have to pay me." My beloved obgyn wouldn't except payment from me for years.

We are now battling the insurance again because a procedure they assured us was covered and in network, they are now claiming was not in network, and they say they have no records of our ever calling. Clearly, something has to be done about health insurance. So many of our friends don't even have it because they can't afford it. And even when you do have it, they don't pay. I know we are going to have to find a new policy but what? And how will we ever afford it? If anyone knows of any great insurance in NJ (we use all NYC doctors) that is at least semi-affordable (the price of a small city, rather than a small country), please let me know.

Sigh. I hear the mouse.
POSTSCRIPT: Our incredible GP called the place on our behalf (he's a mensch, a writer, and a stellar human being) and got them to drop the bill. All of it!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Let us now praise

When I'm writing, I have to have music. A steady stream of it. It relaxes me (and it drives my writer husband crazy because he writes about music for a living and the thought of listening to the same thing over and over again is sacrilege to him--it may even be punishable in six states.) So I've discovered It's this very cool website and it plays a steady stream of music for you--most of it new music. You rate the songs when you remember (I sometimes forget) so it somehow knows to play music that is like (or unlike) what you've just rated.

Plus, the people at Pandora are really, really wonderful.

And other big news, I'm going to be reading at the AWP (The Associated Writing Programs) in NYC the last week of January. I'm reading from my prize-winning story, BREATHE, which was published in the Bellevue Literary Review, and which became part of my just finished novel TRAVELING ANGELS. If you come, please grab me and say hello.

Monday, December 10, 2007

NBCC Reviews the Review Process..sort of

I belong to the National Book Critics Circle, a great organization if there ever was one. Recently they took a survey of all of us members about the whole process of book reviewing. The finds are the kind that made me dying to know who in the NBCC thought what! Shoot, it's anonymous!

Anyway, here are just the facts, ma'am, and see if you agree with them. For me, this all applies to the reviewing I do for newspapers and magazines, not for my blog, where I give full disclosure if I know someone in any way before I rave about his or her book.

68.5 percent of book reviewers think anyone mentioned in a book's acknowledgements should be barred from reviewing it. (I agree)

64.9 percent think anyone who has written an unpaid blurb for a book should also be banned from writing a fuller review. (I agree)

76.5 percent think it's never ethical to review a book without reading the whole thing. (Oh, gosh, I agree. You have to read the whole book! What if a dull book catches fire on page 450?)

And 52 percent think it's not okay for a book-review editor, in assigning books for review, to favor books by writers who also review regularly for that editor's book section. (Oh gosh, it's the word favor that gets me....)

40.1 percent think a reviewer shouldn't read other reviews of a book before writing his or her own, but 17.9 per cent think that's perfectly okay, and 33.5 per cent feel it's complicated enough to require commentary rather than a firm answer. (I don't think it's okay, but sometimes it's hard not to see the other reviews!)

60.5 percent think it's okay for a newspaper book section or magazine to ignore self-published books that authors submit to them, e.g., iUniverse type books. (Well, it depends. Nowadays there are some writers who started out that way and ended up with deals with the bigger publishing houses. It's worth a three minute read of a first page, no?)

See the whole survey here:

Sunday, December 9, 2007

And the winner is.....This Young House

Novel writing (and screenwriting, but after the writer's strike!) is as hard as it is glorious, and sometimes while I am taking a work break from my new novel in progress, I like to wander the net and look at blogs. Of course I look at writing and bookish blogs, but I also love film ones, knitting ones, vegan cooking ones, and anything out of the ordinary. The keyword is fun.

Jeff and I spent almost a year renovating our 1865 rowhouse, so I fully understand what the whole process is like and how things can look much worse before they start to look better, and how important a sense of humor is--which explains why I adore Sherry and John Petersik's uber-cool blog, This Young House. The truly cool news is that she and John just won (beating out 46 other blogs in the running) the Remodel, Blog & Win contest by a few months ago--a $5000 win which will presto chango into any number of things like tiles, sinks or built-in bookcases.

The blog is quirky and hilarious. They watch paint dry, they yearn for neighbors, they post gorgeous pictures (I wrote Sherry because she seemed to have discovered the perfect blue and I wanted to know the exact name so I could grab it up for our bedroom.) They have entries like "Our kitchen cabinets are like Brangalina" and "Our kitchen cabinets are like slugs". The photos are fab, the writing is stellar, and the house in progress is to die for.

So go check out the blog and send congrats to Sherry and John--and then please, tell me if I should paint my office white or a color..(Is a color to distracting? Is white too clinical?)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Praise-worthy Jewelry

Kar 5 Home is home to the coolest jewelry I have ever seen. Note these way cool vertebrae earrings that shimmer and sway. I've been wearing them every day since I bought them at the Hoboken Gift Fair. She's also got amazing bracelets and necklaces, like the one on the left that is made out of a washer.
Hint, hint, these would make great giftts!

What makes a good reading?

I don't know about you, but doing readings makes me anxious. I worry, who will show up? What if they don't like what I'm reading, or what if they hate what I have on? Going to readings can be dicey, too. I've gone to readings where authors have droned on and I've had to entertain myself by doing math equations in my head until it's over. Some authors are incredible writers but they speak in tones so soft or emotionless that you want to just open up their book and read.

So, let us now praise Clea Simon's reading. It was freezing cold last night--17 degrees with the wind chill, dark and windy but of course I went to see her. She's a great reader, her books are wonderful, and she's my friend. A handful of people showed up, but we ended up having an amazing time. What was so interesting about last night was how the event really was an event, and here's why.

1. First, the bookstore, Partner's & Crime on Greenwich, is wonderful and cozy. There's a fireplace and there are tons of shelf-talkers (you know, those labels that call out why you need to buy a certain book). The owner is wonderful and you just have a sense that this is a bookstore where they really know and love books.

2. Second, Clea. Clea got into a conversation with the audience. We talked about her book, we talked about the animal groups that want to do away with domesticated animals, we talked about reptiles and different kinds of cats and writing, and every single person was engaged and laughing and talking and not wanting to stop. It was electric!

Next reading, I'm cutting down on the actual reading and talking more to my audience. By listening to her audience and really wanting to know what they had to say and feel and think, Clea really made the night, well just plain special.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Guest Blogger Clea Simon

I'm thrilled to have author Clea Simon guest blogging here. Clea is the author of Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings (Penguin), Fatherless Women: How We Change After We Lose Our Dads (Wiley), The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin's), and the Theda Krakow mysteries, Mew is for Murder, Cattery Row, and the upcoming Cries and Whiskers (Poisoned Pen Press).

She's also a writing instructor at my beloved UCLA online and a journalist for my other beloved, The Boston Globe. Clea is also one of my favorite people on the planet and one of the most giving to other writers. And so with no further introduction, I give over my blog to Clea:

How’d she get that?

Doesn’t matter what “that” was: placement in a bookstore window, a review in the New York Times. A bookseller recommendation on a little shelf-talker card. When I was first starting out as a writer, I was envious of everyone. I wanted it all!

Amazing what a few years will do. Six books in, and my appetite hasn’t decreased. I still fall in love with every one of my creations, and I can’t understand it when reviewers/bookstore staff/the nice couple across the hall don’t respond as I do. But I’ve gotten a bit mellower in my response to other writers.

How could I not? This group of potential rivals – often better established, more practiced in the craft, more gifted in the art – has proven to be the most generous community I have yet to meet. Other writers have read my drafts and made kind, but useful comments. They have hosted me at their neighborhood bookstores (and on their blogs!) and shown up to cheer me on. They have given me the use of their guest rooms while traveling, and their shoulders, when everything gets to be too much and I need a good cry.

These wonderful colleagues have also crept into my books. I have long been a believer in the wonderful nurturing qualities of “families of choice,” the warm group of people we choose to be around us. But now that I’m writing fiction – mysteries – I find that same type of family coming to life in my pages. And as much as I work on burying clues, killing people in ingenious ways, and making sure all the cats in the book come out okay (my number one rule with my mysteries!), often it’s the characters readers email me about. It’s the characters I come back for, too, and now, with my third mystery, “Cries and Whiskers,” coming out, I look forward to revisiting my heroine, Theda, and her own family of friends. There’s Violet, the punk rocker/shelter worker, and Tess, her high-strung buddy, and Patti, a prim realtor, and the antithesis of Theda’s free-wheeling rock fan.

What do they have in common? Very little. But I like to think that, as in my life, they’ve found some bond in being women, being friends, making it in what can be a tough world. They’re my homage to my real friends, the writers who have helped me become a better writer.

Do I still get jealous? Sure. But only of the writers I haven’t yet met. --Clea Simon

Friday, November 30, 2007

Read This Book!

For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older and Acceptance is a great anthology about the way women view their bodies and all the things that happen as we age (sigh and alas.) Edited by Victoria Zackheim (she also edited the superlativeThe Other Women), it boasts great essays from Abby Frucht, Liza Nelson, Rochelle Shapiro, Clea Simon, Susan Ito, Masha Hamilton, Victoria Zackheim, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Christine Kehl O'Hagan, Ellie McGrath, Susanne Dunlap, Kate Maloy, Deborah Grabien, Louise Ermelino, Sara Nelson, Aimee Liu, Elizabeth Rosner, many more--and me, me, me!

There's a reading, too! It's on December 9th at Bluestocking Bookstore on the Lower East Side of NYC at 172 Allen Street at 7. If you come, please say hello to me and I promise to look right at you as I do my part of the reading and I will also draw a really festive looking coffee cup, spoon and fork in your copy of your book.

Please come and cybertalk to me on Backspace

Let us now praise famous websites--and parentheses because this entry has about a million of them.

Backspace is this great, great place for writers. In fact, it was named one of the 101 best websites for writers from Writer's Digest. Their mission is "writers helping writers." What could be better or more karmic than that? Karen Dionne who helps run it (and who has an article on the International Thriller Writers website, "I am Not a Scientist"about what it is like to write about science without being a scientist,) is completely wonderful. She's the author of FREEZING POINT, a science thriller ala Michael Crichton about an environmental disaster in Antarctica, set in the present day (coming Oct. 2008 from Berkley.)

Backspace features blogs, book reviews, tips, tricks, contests, agents news--everything except how you can tell the difference between a molecule and a compound. They have a great newsletter (which featured my friend Clea Simon's fabulous new book Cries and Whiskers--and Clea will be guest blogging here, probably next week), lots of member news (and the roster is star-studded!)

But my big news is that from December 10-12, I'll be there as an online guest speaker. I'm going to be talking about what it's like for a writer to also be a book critic, and how each one impacts the other--and I welcome zillions of questions, comments and complaints. So please, log on, come join Backspace, and come talk to me, and ask me anything except what is the difference between a double replacement reaction and a combustion reaction or where the semi-metals are on the periodic table. (My 11 year old is taking Johns Hopkins gifted program in physical science--he's brilliant at this but my brain fumbles.)

In other news, the Writers Strike continues, and I just got my alumnae copy of Brandeis University magazine--which comes out about twice a year, and yep, they had the old pre-Writers' Strike news that I gave them six months ago--that I was writing a film. Nope, nope, nope. All on hold. Not until the strike is over, which I support absolutely and positively.

And you should, too.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Writers' Strike

I'm a huge supporter of the writers' strike. I had a few deals brewing before the strike and immediately put everything on hold. This morning, a friend emailed me to congratulate me on my film deal--something she saw on my beloved UCLA webpage. By mistake, UCLA posted news that I had sent them months ago--well before the strike--but because of the strike, I called them panicked and told them they had to take it down because it was no longer true at this time, and I am not doing any screenwriting work of any kind, nor will I, and could they also post a disclaimer saying that it was taken down because of this?

And yes, they will and they are going to, in a few seconds!

I feel so less anxious.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another Best Book You Haven't Read--YET!

I don’t really know beans about YA fiction, though as my son Max approaches the magic of twelve, I bet I will soon be learning. One of my friends, the novelist Rochelle Jewell Shapiro (Miriam the Medium) recently gave me a just finished draft of a fantasy adventure she’s written called Altivar, the Quest. I wasn’t sure how to read it or what to say—but within sentences, I was enthralled. How could you not fall in love with a story about a moody Prince who befriends a fool, a marauder, and (my favorite) a highly intelligent rabbit named Rowena? It’s really a book about the ties that bind families and the bonds of shared experience that create new ones.

The Best Book You Haven't Read-YET

Ok. Full disclosure. Leora Skolkin-Smith is my friend but that doesn't mean I can't have a deeply critical mind toward her work. I do. We routinely swap pages and push each other to go further in our work, to dig deeper, to find the facets.We don't suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. I met her during a reading of my own a few years ago, a tiny “meet and greet the writer” in a little bookshop where I sat for hours waiting to meet and greet anyone other than the girl working the cash register.

No one showed up. No one.

My husband Jeff was there to hold my hand and offer solace, and then this whippet of a woman with long hair showed up with a box of cookies and a megawatt smile. Leora.

We’ve been friends ever since, but more than that, we’re also colleagues. Right up until the Writer’s Strike, I was about to do the screenplay for her novel Edges, which has been optioned for film. I carried Edges around with me on a beach vacation and reread it, marking it up for a script, trying to figure out how it was put together and what was the best way it might work. The more I read, the more excited I became because the book has so many different levels, and such brilliance. The pages still smell of chlorine and still have sand in the creases because I couldn't let the book alone. I had to keep reading and rereading to be lost in that world. In the end, I bought two copies just so I could mark one up and scribble obsessively in the margins.

The Fragile Mistress
strikes me the same way--and right now it's out making the rounds of publishers, agented by Tim Seldes and Jesseca Salky at
Russell & Volkening, Inc. It’s a breathtaker, a deeply intelligent and darkly hypnotic novel. Adrienne’s a young woman admitted into a mental hospital in New York City circa 1970s. Patty Hearst era. As Adrienne struggles to cope with this new world, she drifts back to her old ones: her troubled relationship with her boyfriend, her fractious bonds with her mother and father, until she finds solace in a world of her own making—alchemy notebooks. Forget Girl Interrupted—this is something very, very special, very literate, gorgeously written, and provocative.

Let us now praise

Every writer should learn to knit. It's very Zen and it helps to figure out story problems ALMOST as well as Truby story structure, but not quite, because really, that is the gold standard, and the diamond.

Behold my shimmering black silk with tiny little sequins scarf made out of Tilli Tomas yarn. (Great name for a character, right? Didn't I tell you knitting helps novelists?) This is one of the extraordinary yummy yarns carried on, a site specializing in exotic yarns. I admit it. I am in love with this site. The yarns are so delicious you want to eat them or ask them to marry you. And the staff is amazing! When I emailed in a panic about a problem I had, not only did I get a response in five minutes, but they instantly solved my problem, and they were warm, friendly and soothing. I'm devoted to the site, and a friend has already bought me yarn for Xmas! (Hint, hint, hint, yarn makes a GREAT gift for a writer. Really! What better way to wait out the Writers' Strike or think about your novel?)

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Best Book You Haven't Read---Yet

Part of the fun of being a critic (I have a column at The Boston Globe and at Dame Magazine, and I review for People) is that you get to dip your literary nose into a whole wide variety of books that you might never have experienced on your own. And part of the fun of being a novelist-slash-screenwriter (but not until after the strike)-slash-writing instructor-slash-editor, is that a lot of time I get to see books before they go out to agents or before they find their rightful homes with publishers. I know the writing and publishing process is so hard—and I always want to champion the books I have loved, so I’ve decided to now occasionally do that here. And while I would never and could never ethically review a book by someone I know or am friends with for the above places (and that includes that person's agent and editor) here in this blog is a little different. And yes, there will be full disclosure in my blog. If I am friends with the person or the editor or the agent, I will reveal it.

The Women’s Verses by Linda Lafferty, which is just now making the rounds of publishing and is agented by Kimberly Witherspoon and David Forrer at InkWell Management, came to me first for a blurb. I didn't know Linda. I wasn’t sure I was going to read it because I don’t really read historical dramas. I don’t expect to like or even love them.

But I did.

I got twenty pages into this novel before I was intoxicated. It’s part Scherezade story and part dazzling historical drama, and truly like nothing I’ve read before. This book just tugged me into this strange, vivid and intoxicating world of the Ottoman Empire and a real life heroine, Esma Sultan, who could be the first feminist of the Islamic world. This was a woman who had her own harem –and a drowning guard to dispatch the lovers she grew tired of. A story of role reversals in the early 19th century, set against one of the most repressive eras of all, including the struggle between the Christian and the Islamic world, The Women’s Verses was so richly intelligent, and so original, that it really did what I want all the books I read to do—it kept me entranced in its world, and it made me keep thinking about Esma long after I shut the page. These characters are so intelligent, so multilayered and so alive, that reading was a kind of hypnotic enchantment. (By way of a fun fact, Linda Lafferty was tutor to the Royal Family of Spain!)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

United Hollywood!

United Hollywood is a fabulous site. Go there and watch the WHY WE FIGHT video which really explains the Writers Strike. (And support the strike, too.)

Monday, November 12, 2007


Let us now praise famous men. John Truby, story structure guru. The Anatomy of Story. Way back when I began to think I might want to write screenplays I picked up a book by the current guru Syd Field. It pushed a three act structure with plot points (reversals) which had to come at certain points in the story. It was sort of a nightmare to try to figure out a script this way, and in the end, I flung the book across the hall. Next up was Robert McKee. He was better on story structure, but I took his class and he was so caustic and bitter that it was hard to realize that I wasn't really learning very much until I left the class, and by then it was too late to ask for a refund. A few years ago I started teaching novel writing at UCLA (a dream job if there ever was one.) I adore the classes I teach, adore the writers in my class, and one day one of the writers mentioned Truby Story Structure. I never heard of it, but I went to the website, and then called the studio to ask if this was something that novelists could benefit from. "Absolutely," a voice told me, and so I took the course, and my life (sorry for the cliche) changed.

I mean it.

Truby, first of all, is a bonafide genius. He also has a wonderful dry wit and the most soothing voice I have ever heard, which is just what any writer contemplating hurling her computer out the third story window and herself after it, needs to hear in order to calm right down. He ignores three act structure and instead focuses on the moral needs of the characters, and seven basic story elements (there are really 22, but the seven matter most for a novelist, I think) and slowly, patiently, and brilliantly, he shows you how to shape your story around your characters, how to find the deeper meanings that transform a good book into a great one. I had 400 pges of mess. I reoutlined it with my Truby notes and I was not just able to finish, I saw my theme shimmering up at me, I felt my characters were breathing on the pages, too. He saved my writing life.

I know one novelist who tells everyone that she just "follows her pen" and never structures or outlines or thinks beyond her first line. All power to her if that is her way, but for me, and most of the novelists I know, that can be the road to ruin and we wonder if she is insane (Not really, I just threw that in to be witty. She writes fine novels.) You need some moral line, you need some direction so you aren't drowning in a sea of pages. The beauty of this kind of structure is that it offers you a lifeline to hold onto and it isn't one size fits all or restrictive, which is what a novelist wants. You still have room for surprises. You still have to struggle through those dark roads where all you have is the faintest light in the distance. And I swear, it helps me the most after I've done my first and second draft, when I finally am beginning to discover what it is I want to write about.

The book is fabulous. And I've invited him to my UCLA class to speak to my students, who are "speaking" a little Truby themselves these days.

Go get the book. It's the perfect thing to read during the Writers Strike.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Writers Strike

I'm not (yet, yet, yet) a member of WGA but I absolutely and totally support the Writers Strike--and everyone else should too-- even though when I called the WGA to ask some questions about the strike, the woman who answered the phone yelled at me to stop asking questions and read the rules. Still despite this clearly under-pressure woman who was obviously having a bad day, the WGA is a great organization and writers don't get the respect or the earning that they deserve. It's hard because right before the strike I had a few irons in the fire and I needed to immediately cool them until the strike is over.

Which means I am immersed in reading Truby story structure and thinking about my new novel and writing parts of it, which oh God, is the best kind of joy. For the first time, the ending of my latest novel came to me right after the first chapter. I had no idea how to get to it, and of course, it changed during the writing, but I wrote it in a fever and it changed the whole way I wrote the novel. This was so exciting that I forced--um, I mean, required--my UCLA students to show me their last chapters of their novel first (their whole novels or 7/8 had to be written to get into the class.) Some grumbling. Probably some people questioning my abilities. But then I got a lot of emails from people who also felt their novelistic world had opened up.

I'm a little unnerved because I can't think of a last chapter for this new novel or even a name for the novel. Traveling Angels, the name of the novel I just finished, came from this old story about two traveling angels, one of whom keeps saying, "Don't think you know the whole story, because you don't. Things are not what they seem." It also comes from Truby story structure where he talks about traveling angel stories--the stranger who comes into the midst and changes things in unexpected way, but is this stranger good or not? I was tempted to start a name Leavitt's novel contest, but I can't. It has to come from me, me, me. Sigh and alas.

I was going to post Halloween photos of us (Jeff was Allen Ginsberg wearing a Howl t-shirt, carrying ON THE ROAD, a black beret over his long curls and a fake mustache I inked on, Max was a Yankee fan, and I was a sock farm in a pink wig (I spent hours sewing on socks to my jeans and hoody.) But everytime I see myself in the pink wig, I have serious doubts about showing this face to the world again.

Tomorrow is the chocolate show in NYC! Speaking of which BLACK BOOK (chocolate plays an important part) is a fabulous video. Some inconsistencies and I wasn't wild about the framing device, but it's a movie that really explores the moral choices of its characters. The heroine is a Jewish woman during WWII who is in the resistence but falls in love with the leader of the SS--a man she is supposed to seduce to get his secrets and free a lot of people. He's not brutal--the film makes him very human, and everyone is really not whom you think they are.

See you later, alligators.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Down the Shore with Jen--and Caroline

I am thrilled to report that I am going to be interviewed on this very cool blog about the Jersey Shore called (Jen Miller also has another very cool blog--

She's absolutely wonderful and so are her blogs, so I hope everyone will obsessively go there again and again and again.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Max's new sweater

My cellphone camera is possessed so none of these colors came out right. Every year, my son comes with me to the yarn shop and picks out colors for a sweater. The top color is actually this deep, lustrous navyblue, the mid stripe is sort of robin-eggy blue, and the bottom is this bold true blue. I find that knits really look great against a wood floor!

I just found out that the ABC Primetime show on lost kids will be airing in December. I have no idea if my segment will be on, but the nasty letters on have gotten me down. (I've been accused of being gullible and stupid for stopping for a crying child. This written by people who didn't stop because they obviously knew it was a TV set up. Oh. I see. Excuse me?)

Meanwhile, it is a waiting game. When will I hear about my new novel? Will my scripts sell? (Oh please, please, please--if there are any producers or directors out there, I will bake you a peach pie, I will knit you mittens, I will grovel!) I work a little on my new novel, I try to concentrate.

Sigh, the life of a writer...but it still is a great one, and after a stint in the corporate world writing about videos (a nightmare of a job! I got bad critiques because my desk was too messy and because they said they "knew I was thinking about my novel and not about videos and therefore all mistakes would be blamed on me!") I vowed never again.

Truly, to wake up every morning without that clutch of panic is just bliss. Pure bliss.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kids in distress

I live in Hoboken, which is NYC's unofficial 6th borough, and urban, but pretty safe. I was coming out of the market today--a bright, gorgeous day--with lots of goodies for brownies and sugar shock, when I saw this five year old little boy sitting in the middle of the sidewalk crying. I didn't see his mom, so I crouched down and asked him if he was okay. He shook his head. "Where's your Mommy?" I asked and he cried harder and said, "We got separated! I don't know where she is!" I swear my bones turned to water. I asked him if his Daddy was around and he said, "I don't have one!" Then I noticed his dirty jacket, so I told him as soothingly as I could that I was going to call someone to help. "Who are you calling?" he said, alarmed, and I told him I was calling the police and I would stay right with him and they would come and help him.

I fumbled with my phone, while trying to keep the little boy calm. As soon as I got the cops and hung up, I was surrounded by lights, cameras and these very polished, well-dressed and broadly smiling people. I was baffled but one guy said, "You did such a great thing! We're NYC ABC news! This boy is an actor! The cops are in on this!"

I was really pissed because I had been so upset, and I said, "What, this is your idea of some sort of sick candid camera? You think it's funny to do things about lost kids? To trick people like this?" I was really mad and I said, "Right now, stop filming me," and I started to walk off and they FOLLOWED me and I stopped again and this woman said, "Look, we're working with this organization to find lost children and I have to tell you that you were the ONLY person who stopped for this little boy and he's been sitting out here for over half an hour."

That got me.

That made me stop and listen.

The woman told me that they wanted to make people aware that there are lots of lost and kidnapped kids right under everyone's noses and it's important to stop and notice who is around you. She also wanted people to know that no one stopped for this boy and how horrific that is and b. that I had stopped instantly and I was an example of what a good person should do. We talked for about half an hour and I got less angry and I finally began to think that maybe this was something important for people to know about. I told her she could use the footage but I didn't want to be filmed anymore and I've spent the rest of the day feeling sort of sick that no one else stopped for this little boy! So I'm going to be on Abc news, but I'm really upset that no one else stopped on a gorgeous sunny day for a little crying five year old but me. That scares me.

Then Max came home with a 101 fever and that scared me, too.
What's wrong with people that no one else stopped?

Friday, October 26, 2007


Let us now praise famous writer friends' work!

Edges by Leora Skolkin-Smith is doing so fabulously well that it is now in its third printing. This is simply a tremendously moving novel, which I've posted about before. Leora wasn't just edited by the great Grace Paley, she was also a friend, and in this editon, she provides a special foreword. Tovah Feldshuh did the audio book and Leora's got a film deal in development.

Miriam the Medium by Rochelle Jewell Shapiro is now in paperback--which means tons of you can buy it and tuck it in your backpack and take it on the subway and everywhere you go, too.

And late breaking news, (oh yes, this is really important.) I figured out my Halloween costume. Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year. The whole town here gets dressed up and parades around, including adults, and we never miss a chance to act like fools. I'm going as a sock farm--you know that place where all the mates for socks that you never can find wind up? I spent all last night painstakingly sewing socks of all shapes and sizes onto my black jeans, black hoodie and I'll tape some on my black leather jacket. And of course, I have a long purple day glow wig with bangs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Channeling Andy Warhol

I was trying to upload this photograph and it somehow got corrupted in this very Andy Warholish manner. (I lived in Pittsburgh for a while, which is prime Warhol territory, but when I first moved to NYC, I used to see Andy walking around in a haze. And I never spoke to him because I thought that would be uncool.) In any case, this photo montage is a strange case of immortalizing my son's dogs, Bell and 101.

I also have found myself on Facebook and MySpace, and I have no idea why. Call it an experiment...

And yes I still feel horrible and my throat hurts from coughing. And I have two more pages of my new novel done.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

new noveling

I am dripping in Kleenex, feverish and vaguely hallucinatory from lack of sleep. I hate being sick and if anyone has a quick natural cure for a respiratory infection, please, please, please let me know. I'maready taking oil of oregeno, which makes me smell like felafel.

Starting a new novel is such a strange process. I always feel as though I am trailing parts of the last novel I've written with me into the new, like the train of a skirt. I always worry because I certainly don't want to be writing the same novel twice, but maybe this is just part of my process because the books never do turn out the same. At least, I hope they don't.

Right now I'm in the bliss stage, writing out scenes that explore the characters, which maqy or may not be used. I'm not so sure about anything yet...except that I need more hot tea and more tissues.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Rachel in the World by Jane Bernstein is a truly astonishing account of what it is like to love, raise and send out into the world a child with special needs. Jane's incredibly honest--this is no treacle and spice account, but rather a gritty, fearless and heart-wrenching story about the love she feels for her daughter, as well as the irritation, and her anger at a system that doesn't make things easy. Filled with photographs that are prose poems in themselves, this is a really wonderful, wonderful book.

Jane's a friend of mine (full disclosure) and I've met Rachel when I was in Pittsburgh. Rachel was bouncy with energy, gorgeous, feisty and her own person. But the real story is that I first met Jane through her novel Departures, one of my favorite novels of all times. I read it while I lived in Pittsburgh and was wading through an increasingly unhappy first marriage, and when I got to New York, I pressed her novel on my friends in one of those "You've got to read this" moments. And I finally got bold enough to email her out of the blue and tell her how much I admired her work, and we hit it off. And I've come to know her more both in person and through her incredible brave books like Bereft, about the murder of her sister, and Loving Rachel, about the very young Rachel. Jane's daughter Charlotte's a talented filmmaker and she's making a film about Rachel, so check out Jane's website for details.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Most writers I know always show their novels to other writers before they dare to show it to the beloved agents. You don't want to make a fool of yourself, after all or have your agent wondering whatever he or she saw in you in the first place! Mostly there is a bartering system going on (I will show you mine if you show me yours) or sometimes money changes hands, but truly all writers understand the agony of letting a manuscript go and the need for said ms. to be as perfect as possible. I have a few beloved readers, and I bartered with one who helped on my synopsis and my pages with the offer of a handknit sweater. We trekked uptown to Knitty City where I wanted to buy everything in the store and she chose the most delectable yarn--part silk, part cotton, part mysterious fiber--in this rich green. I couldn't wait to knit it! So knit I did, six inches all the way around when I got terrible asthma from the yarn! This is mysterious! This is appalling! But what made it even more strange was that for the whole four years I have been writing my last novel I haven't had any asthma and one of the characters is a child with severe asthma. As soon as I finished final revisions: BOOM. Lungs crunch up. Breathing is at a premium.

After dashing to the pulmonologist (meds are a wonderful thing), I decided the yarn was toxic to me, but I couldn't let it go. So thank you, thank you to a friend who offered to knit the rest, and thank you to my fabulous friend Sarah who was also considering doing me the favor and was just as warm and wonderful about taking on the task as she could be. Sarah has this very cool blog called two pointy sticks and she's also one of my favorite people on the planet.

So my sweater project is now in good hands and my asthma is gone! And I have ten pages of a new novel!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Website slight

I just reviewed Crazy Aunt Purl's book in the Globe and the website needs a correction: it is Mea Culpa.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Come on and help yourself

My very first new column (I used to write some of the "A Reading Life") about books that deal with self-help issues appeared in The Boston Globe today! I'm really thrilled and my goal is to give a smart, provocative spin to a genre of books that many people wrongfully dismiss. (Please stop making any sort of face. Would you make a face at Peggy Orenstein's smart and sparkly tomes? At Anne Lamott's books on faith? At Eat, Pray, Love? All can rightfully be called self-help.) My column will be every other month. Frankly, I love the genre. There's a part of me that yearns to believe in anything that will make things easier, better, faster, more fun or any number of wonderful adjectives. I've always been the one to jump at the chance to earn more money, see a medium, try fengshui or dogwhisper. And these books do tackle very serious issues. Keeping an open mind is the only way to be surprised. And I'm just so delighted I get to do it in The Globe!

Speaking of sparkling, one of my UCLA students, Gina Sorell just told me about her very exquisite line of jewelry. Since I consider jewelry (especially earrings) to be an essential of life, this is news, too.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Writing fever

I'm still hallucinating over Traveling Angels, my last novel, but now that I've started a new novel, these new characters are starting to whisper in my ears and follow me down the streets. I find I have to know everything about my characters--how they comb (or don't comb) their hair, what toothpaste they like. Right now I'm trying to get a picture of them in my mind, so I'm collecting photographs and images. You can't clip pictures from magazines usually because those people never look quite real, but the image file of google has a lot of interesting characters.

I might as well admit it. I don't want to say goodbye to my characters. I worry about them. Will they be okay in the world?

I also want to mention that I discovered a new bookblog that I love a lot. Reading is my Superpower. And this one, too, called Upper Fort Stewart. Mosey on over and take a gander.

Read This Book

Book critics have ethics. I review for The Boston Globe, People and Dame Magazine, and I never review anyone I know, or anyone who is a relative of a friend, or even anyone who shares my editor or my agent. You've got to be pure here! To be critical, you can't let your feelings about how someone really is a great cook or a good friend who loaned you money when you most needed it or held your hand during a horrific crisis get in the way of how you look at a book.

However, this is my blog, and with full disclosure, I really want to talk about the books of people I know. This one, Broken Colors, is by Michele Zackheim, who just happens to be the sister of my friend Victoria Zackheim, who edited the Today Show favorite anthology THE OTHER WOMAN and the upcoming FOR KEEPS (I have an essay in that one, too, though it's a reprint from a Salon piece I did.)

Library Journal calls Broken Colors "comic and wise," and Booklist says it's absolutely haunting. Vanessa Redgrave (!!!!) loved it. I say it's a strong, mesmerizing portrait of what it means to be an artist (and that includes being the artist of your own life), what it costs to confront the past and what it takes to recast your future. Truly, it's a great read--and it has the most amazingly beautiful, light-dappled cover I have ever seen.

Friday, September 28, 2007

UCLA Writers Program Website

It's no secret that I adore teaching at UCLA. Teaching online is electric for me. I love it (and I won UCLA Extension's very first Best Instructor Award for it!) and I love my students, love the community and everyone associated with UCLA. Teaching writing, being able to pick out what works and what doesn't work in someone else's work, really helps me to do the same in my own work.

Now, UCLA has a fabulous new Writers Program Website. There will be all sorts of news about UCLA, the writing programs, the teachers, and more. Mosey on over!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Elizabeth Rosner

Elizabeth Rosner (Blue Nude--which is incredible) is one of my favorite writers on the planet. This is a quote from her that I just love: Books are portals to the soul, whisperers of secrets and stories, openings and closings. Metaphorical windows, they invite us to see beyond the obvious, ask us to bear witness to our own lives and to the nearly invisible lives of others. Sometimes there is a burning core at the heart of things; sometimes words can shatter us into truth. We are inside and outside, almost allowed to touch. What if we really can touch one another, fragile and fierce, illuminated from within?

Cries and Whiskers

My friend, the fantastic writer, rock and roller and cat afficiando Clea Simon's newest book, Cries and Whiskers (pre-order it now!) just got a rave prepub review from Booklist! This is spectacular because a. Every library on the planet reads it and b. Every person in publishing reads it and c. A great review from Booklist looks fabulous on your book cover! According to Booklist, Clea's book is "anything but cozy...and is a fast-moving story, full of lively characters, both two and four-legged." How could anyone resist that? I'm thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!

Monday, September 24, 2007


I was on the Today Show twice! I do have a nice picture of the green room (which isn't green, by the way) to post but I can't find my cell phone, which I bet is in the bedroom under my Today Show good clothes, unlike my usual funky attire of jeans, tee shirts and sneakers.

The Today Show called me again to ask if I would like to talk about the essay I wrote for the anthology THE OTHER WOMAN, which was reprinted in NEW YORK MAGAZINE and which has some film interest. Um, yes I would, and yes I did. Even better, Victoria Zackheim, the editor of the anthology and my friend was there with me!

It's very strange to walk past all the people hovering by the studio waiting for celebrities and the green room was crammed with crunchy veggies, two kids who wrote a cookbook who were being urged by a parent to "have better hair", and my fave--a woman in jeans who was funny and down to earth and who told me she lost 150 pounds just by walking.

I was very nervous about the makeup and hair, but the makeup person actually had a really light hand and made me look as if I weren't spackled. I'm used to people looking at my mop of curls and not knowing what to do with it, or even worse, suggesting straightening, but the hair person took one look at me and said, "We love curly hair here," and then told me that it had to be more TV curls, though. I was game and curious and she used a curling iron and gave me lotsa squiggles. I lost a few inches of length with the TV curl, but I really liked it.

The studio is freezing. Matt Lauer is very nice and so is Ann Curry and I got to see the producer who came to my house last time and she gave me a big hug. But they introduced me not as Caroline Leavitt, novelist, or screenwriter or even author, but as "Caroline Leavitt whose husband cheated on her!!! " I quickly spoke up and said that I had very happily remarried. I didn't have a lot of chance to say much else, and every time I glanced at the TV monitor and saw myself I noticed that either my pants were hanging funny, or my blouse was gaping.

But boy, was it all fun, fun, fun.

See you later, alligators

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Wait, there's more!

I admit I thrive on chaos. First, everyone has to admire the sweater I knit! It's actually this deep, dark hazy blue and if you think the cable down the front was enough to make you run screaming, you would be right. I like this photo because it shows off our wide plank 1860 floors, which were buried under layers of linoleum when we bought our house.

In between writing my new novel, working on two (count 'em) scripts, teaching novel writing for UCLA, reviewing books for Dame and People, reviewing films for More, professional naming (a fabulous job), private writing mentoring, family life with fabulous husband and fabulous kid, I now have a great new gig. I used to write some of A Reading Life for The Boston Globe for years. Then they had cutbacks and I lost the column. Now they've offered me a new column and I am so thrilled because a. I get to talk about books and swirl them around a theme that interests me, and b. I get to work for the Boston Globe which is one of the all-time best places to work. Utopian.

Anyway, I am going about transforming the world of self-help books. Think Peggy Orenstein--smart, quirky, provocative topics, rather than 101 Ways to Organize Your Wallet. My first column should be appearing October 1, and I will be in the newspaper every other month.
Back to work. My novel calls. I've just named three characters and two of the names feel right, but one isn't there yet. Names are really important when you start a novel. I almost never use names I like, but the names have to feel true for the character, they have to belong to the person in some deep way. I go through baby name books, I look at the phone book online. I try to find something that will lead me deeper into the novel.

Monday, September 17, 2007

How do you write a novel?

I officially started a new novel today. As soon as I did I realized I didn't really have a clue how to do it. You'd think I would, after all these novels, but every book is so different. So I did a lot of the same things I make my UCLA students do--figure out desire lines, map out the characters, think about what a character wants vs. what a character needs. For me to be attached to a novel, I have to have a killer first chapter, so that when I am slogging through the mire after that chapter, I can't quit because, after all, there's that chapter! There were times with my novels where I hated every word except for the words in the first chapter, and that was the only reason I couldn't hurl pages out the window and myself after them. I have glimmers of life in my characters, and I think I have the heartbeat of the novel--the what if, the thematic twang that gets my own heart beating. But it feels so babybird brand new that it's a little nervewracking.

I also started a new sweater for my son--a knit in the round deal which is so easy and so zen that it's the perfect project while watching videos. You know, I once had a boyfriend who accused me of being boring because he said all I liked to do was read, write, watch way too many films, knit and run around the city. What's wrong with that? Those all seem perfectly wonderful things to me to do. And anyway, he forgot bikeride and cause trouble. Lucky for me, my husband likes to do the same things--except he doesn't knit.

Back to writing. See you later, alligators.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

When is a book done?

Clea Simon (she has a great blog, cats, crime and rock and roll) asked a great question about when you know a book is done. For me, it usually has to do with feeling. I can't think of anyplace else to go with it. I've read it so many times, and shown it to enough people that I can't find any openings to even add in an adjective. This is when I use my outlines and synopsis and character mapping--that lets me see if I have any holes in the story. Of course, a novel is never really done. You can always think of more things that you wished you had changed, can't you?

For me, though, a lot has to do with my next project. It starts taking on more life and crowds out the old project, bit by bit.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

I've been tagged!

What's this? I've been tagged! This is from my friend Cindy, who has two wonderful blogs, Conversations with Famous Writers and Hello, Dollface.

Makeup Junkie in Canada (which is a wonderful and fun blog by the way!) tagged Cindy so she was obligated to share things about herself. Things that she wouldn't ordinarily share.
Here is how the tagging game works and I took this right off of Miss Makeup Junkie's blog,
What does tagging mean? Here are the rules: Each player starts with 7 random facts/habits about him or herself. People who are tagged need to then report this fact on their blog along with their 7 things, as well as these rules. They then tag 7 others and list their names on their blog. They're also asked to leave a comment for each of the tagged, letting them know they have been tagged and to read the blog.

1. Before I saw the light, I hated my curly hair as a child and used to iron it when I was a kid. I also put scotch tape around my whole head to straighten it, and slept with a nylon stocking on my head.

2. I believe in ghosts, reincarnation and the spirit world. I think it has to do with quantum physics, actually.

3. My sister and I not only held a funeral for one of her dolls but buried the doll in the backyard. Much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

4. I always read the last page of a book first.

5. I sucked my thumb until I turned THIRTEEN. The only reason I stopped is a friend of mine caught me, told everyone, and luckily no one believed her.

6. My sister and I used to make phony phone calls and once sold a piano to a woman down the street.

7. I hitchhiked in a car with Hell's Angels.

I'm going to tag Rochelle Shapiro, Clea Simon, Gayle Brandeis, Jennifer Gooch Hummer, and more! Go over and look at their wonderful blogs!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Novel revisions Three AM

Sigh. I think the photo says it all. Beloved agent is thrilled with the novel. Friends are thrilled. Husband is thrilled. But there is still work to be done. My time line was a little off, so I have chapters paperclipped and dotted with post-its. Things need a touch of tightening. I love it and I am tightly wound and excited and worried and happy and sad and did I say worried and in that hallucinatory state where my characters are constantly talking, talking, talking.
Chocolate is needed. Lots of chocolate.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Miranda Magazine

One of the most wonderful things about teaching at UCLA is that every once in a while I become friends with one of my students. The whole teacher/student relationship shifts and we get to hang out and I don't have to be on my smartypants best all the time (if I have a smarty pants best, that is.) Anyway, my former student Jennifer Gooch Hummer is now one of my closest friends. We switch pages, we gossip, we email just about every day, and she's got two fabulous novels out there with editors right now. But for a taste of just how good she is, I want to tout her latest story that's now in Miranda Magazine, called How To Stay Lost, which is a part of her novel, Apron.

Go and look!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Grace Paley

Grace Paley's friend and protoge, Leora Skolkin-Smith has an absolutely gorgeous tribute to her in today's Washington Post. You have to register (it's free!) to read it, but it's well worth it.


Friday, August 24, 2007


It’s her 9th novel, and M. J. Rose’s The Reincarnationist is being showered with accolades. Starred Library Journal, Starred Publisher’s Weekly, Booksense, praising reviews in Entertainment Weekly and People (three and a half stars and the most they ever give is four!), and film interest. Plus, even better, it’s a truly hypnotic book. I carried the arc around with me for days because I was unable to stop reading, and because I loved the book so much, I wanted M.J. to answer some questions.

1. What drew you to reincarnation?
When I was three years old, I told my great grandfather things about his childhood in Russia that there was simply no way I could have known.He became convinced I was a reincarnation of someone in his past. And over time, after more incidents, my mother – a very sane and logical woman -- also came to believe it.So reincarnation was an idea I grew up with. That my mom and I talked about and researched together. At some point, the idea to write a novel about the subject, was just there. The way ideas seem to suddenly appear. And then for years I flirted with the idea of writing a novel about someone like my mother – who was sane and logical – who started out skeptical but came to believe in reincarnation. But I kept putting it off, afraid if I did people would think I was a “woo woo weirdo”Until a few years ago on the exact anniversary of my mom’s death my niece said some very provocative things to me about my mother – things she really couldn’t have known – and the pestering idea to write this novel became an obsession.

2. What astonished me was that there wasn't one wrong note in the whole novel. How did you achieve that?
I worked on it non stop for years in this life and I'm guessing I wrote it at least three times before in previous lives.

3. How is this novel different from your other books? Was the writing process different?
Not really other than the historical research I did for the book. I've never had to do that much research before for any of my other novels.* What are two of the most amazing, interesting things you learned about reincarnation through your research?1. The story of Dr. Ian Stevenson, s doctor who spent his life working with children… over 3000 of them… documenting their past lives.2. The correlation between birthmarks in this life and scars from past lives. There are many people who have marks on their bodies now that when researched prove to be the site of the bullet or knife wound that killed that person in a past life.

4. And finally, just for fun, if you could go back to another lifetime, what meal would you have and where?
Great question. I'd go back to Paris in the late 1880's and have hot chocolate at Angelique's on Rue de Rivoli when it was first created... or I'd go Paris in the 1920s and go to Cafe Deux Maggots when Hemmingway and Fitzgerald hung out there and have red wine with them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

There is nothing like a DAME Magazine!

It's here! The brand new Dame magazine, and I'm writing for them about books. Please come and take a look. Meant to smart, snappy, edgy and very urban (think a mesh of Salon and John Stewart), Dame is just starting out and I hope you'll all read it (and my column) obsessively.

Monday, August 13, 2007


It's fever dream time.

I'm waiting to hear from my incredibly wonderful literary agent about my just-born novel, Traveling Angels.

I'm working on a new novel (okay, all I have is the first line, but still--)

I also delivered a script of my "High Infidelity" New York Magazine piece to my incredibly wonderful film agent.

AND I'm busy writing a script, an adaptation of an extraordinary novel, EDGES by Leora Skolkin-Smith.

I've written scripts before, but always based on my own novels (though once, I did an original script for the now defunct Nick show DOUG--"Doug Follows a Fad" in which Doug wants to buy a striped shirt to follow the fad, but of course, they're all gone by the time he gets there. But that's a whole other story.) But adapting someone else's work is so much fun, I can't believe I didn't think of doing it before. There's none of the angst at taking apart your own "baby" because you didn't birth this child, someone else did and you get to approach it as something brand new. It's your job now to raise the baby into something full grown and wonderful. Oh Lord, forgive my adoption metaphor. I think having spent years researching and writing my last novel GIRLS IN TROUBLE about open adoption has made me very susceptible to adoption symbolism.

Anyway, in working on this project with Leora and with the director, I am feeling my Jewish roots. My grandfather, a writer, was an orthodox rabbi, but my sister and I were raised as lackadaisical sorts of Jews. We knew the holidays, but not much history. EDGES is all about being Jewish, and suddenly I am immersed in the Israeli War of Independence, the Haganeh, the Arab-Israel conflicts and a very powerful human drama. I didn't create these characters but I hear them talking to me. I hear their voices. I know their stories. I'm working in a fever dream.

See you later, alligators. I'm happily going back to work.

P.S. The clothing swap gave me a brand new uber-cool black leather jacket (a girl's got to look cool, though now that I am increasingly vegan, the leather does give me pause), and a realization that I don't look or dress like most other people. And I have half a glove knit up. My very first pair. I'm afraid of the fingers, but I have made peace with the thumb.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Delivering a novel!

Yes my office is chaos. (I have to admit this is an old photo. The exercise machines are gone, and the computer screen is now flat screen, which is more wonderful than chocolate.)
But there is a reason for the office mayhem.
Oh. My. God.

I delivered my novel to my agent. You have no idea what that feels like. As soon as I emailed the whole file to her, I was filled with panic. I suddenly remembered all these places that I needed to fix--Couldn't I make the dialogue better, richer? What about adding a scene at the end? Did I have too much backstory or not enough? And of course, how humiliating was it going to be for me if I talk about it here and my agent hates it and says it isn't ready? How can I teach my class at UCLA and pretend to be an authority when I am filled with my Jell-o heart? How can I take on private clients when I am in such angst?

Welcome to the world of being a writer. As I've said before, the only cure for this is to hurl yourself into a new project, so, in between obsessing, I am getting back to work. I'm back in 1950s suburbia and there's a murder. It's germinating from a short story I published (sometimes stories can stretch their legs) and so far, so good. And I'm writing a script, which is so much fun, I feel dazzled with happiness.

And I'm treating myself to this fabulous thing that goes on in Hoboken--a clothing swap! It's held in this huge airy loft by my friend Gerri Fallo, who organizes the Arts and Music festival here). Everyone jokes that somehow my girlie genes were short circuited because not only do I not like to shop, but I have never worn high heels in my life, I never have more than three pairs of shoes at a time, and my shoe of choice is stretchy black and flat. I've always dressed well...eclectic might be a good word, and there was a period when I was writing about high fashion for Macy's and I would walk into meetings wearing plastic pig earings, much to the disapproval of the fashionistas there. But, but, but, this is a blast. People bring in the clothing mistakes they have worn once or twice and you can pretty much pick whatever you want and walk out of there with bags of wonderful stuff! Last year I got some high end designer dresses and leather jackets--all in black (You can't take the NewYork City out of the girl, and anyway, the city is just 7 minutes away by PATH subway.) More than that, it's fun to hang out with other women, sip wine, and look at clothes that all have these amazing stories whispering up their sleeves.

Please stay tuned to the debut of this wonderful new magazine DAME. I'll be writing about all sorts of wonderful books for them.
In the meantime, is there such a thing as a post-novel-turning-in novel to read? I'm reading Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore again, and it is flat-out wonderful.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Novel notes

Finishing a novel is both exhilarating and unsettling. You've spent three or so years with these characters you've come to know right down to how they like to eat their pasta, and suddenly you aren't spending time with them every day. Right now, another writer is reading my manuscript, and once I get her feedback, I'm delivering the baby to my beloved agent. I know the only solution is to start something new, and lucky for me, I have a new idea and I'm also working on a script.

I really think that all writers, at least if you're like me, need to keep all their novel notes, just to remind themselves that wrong turns can lead to right ones, that characters sometimes take months to breathe on the page, and that writing has something of a miracle in it.

I know this is a short entry, but I have ten loads of sandy laundry from the beach to take care of. And I admit I'm really proud of the fact that I spent four days at the shore and am still pale as parchment.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Novel Finished! Beach Blanket Bingo and Dame

First the big news for me.

I finished my novel, which is called Traveling Angels.

This is incredible because it has taken me almost four years and much angst to do it. I thought I was done two years ago and then I showed the synopsis to a writer friend who made me realize that I had a whole huge subplot that was pulling apart the main thrust of the novel. (I make all my writing students at UCLA do synopsis and this is why. It really does show up holes and wrong turns in your work. In the course of writing one novel, I may redo the synopsis a thousand times. OK, I'm lying. But it feels like a thousand times.)

A few weeks ago, the novel made its way to my screenwriting partner, and to two other writers, and suddenly, with their help (thank you, thank you, thank you) it unlocked. It's an extraordinary feeling, giving birth to a novel. But before I can send it to my incomparably fabulous agent, Jeff is reading it and so is another writer. Then more revisions, and then to my agent. September, my favorite month, is my deadline!

I really think the secret to finishing is to have something else in the back of your mind that you want to do, and for weeks a novel has been brewing and I'm finally ready to let go.

I also want to tell everyone to please watch out for the launch of DAME magazine. It's an online magazine that is part Salon, part Jon Stewart, and I'll be writing about books for them.

And I’m off for a week’s vacation. All of my friends always think it’s a hoot that I go to the beach, because they know me.

Okay, I’m no Annette Funicello. All my life, I’ve avoided the beach because A. I don’t tan. I grew up being called Caspar the friendly ghost (at least I got the friendly moniker), and it’s only recently, with the "anti-tan/pale is healthy" contingent, that I now get a seal of approval. (Last week, a woman stared at me on the subway and just as I was about to get really paranoid, she blurted, “You have really nice, pale skin.” And B. I’m afraid of sharks and jellyfish and all manner of things lurking in the ocean.. And C. I don’t really like hot weather. Give me winter any day.

Before you roll your eyes, you should know that my partner in crime, my husband Jeff is a lot like me. He doesn’t swim, and like me, his idea of a perfect summer day is four movies in an air conditioned place with cushy seats and no one kicking our chairs or coughing or talking too loudly during the film. But then we had our son. You can’t keep a kid from the beach! I actually think it’s a criminal offense in several parts of the country, so we started to go. But because Jeff is a smarty pants as well as a sweetheart (this is a guy who took me to a Japanese supermarket for our second date), he found the perfect place for us.

Every year we go to Ocean City, NJ. It’s got boardwalks you can bike on every morning, surreys you can rent, and enough honkytonk stores to make your eyeballs buzz. (My favorite is one that sells figurines of clowns in all sorts of professions, like a clown doctor, a clown artist, and a clown rabbi.) There are great arcades and those fab photo booths, plus a movie theater, and we stay close enough to the water so we can take our son swimming for a half hour, and then head for a no-holds-barred game of mini golf. The last time we were there, MaryAnne from Gilligan’s Island fame showed up—now, really, how can you beat that for kitsch?

So, I’m packing tons of books to read (Alice Sebold’s new book, and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves), my knitting (for those of you who knit, it’s a Rowan pattern, so you know that it is, indeed, a mother, and I have already ripped out the front three times and am ready to scream), my black swimsuit (of course, black, I live in the NYC area), and of course the sunblock with an SPF of 9,000 so I won’t tan even if I’m on the sun.

Be back in a week. See you later, alligators.

Read This Book!

I admit, I love reading about seekers. I love it when people chuck their workaday lives and go live in Nepal, or when they leave NYC to live in a tiny town in Montana for a few days. As soon as I picked up Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found them All by Perry Garfinkel—a national bestseller now in paperback about how he traipsed the globe to find the heart of Buddhism—I was hooked.

Garfinkel’s a smart, funny writer, nicknamed “Mr. Turtle" because he could fit all his possessions into his car. His career seems busted, his back hurts, his latest romance has fizzled, and when National Geographic gives him the opportunity to span the globe investigating Buddhism , he grabs it like it’s the solid brass ring. Already I love it because how can you help but root for him?

Garfinkle travels from Sri Lanka to Thailand, China, Tibet, Japan, Europe and San Francisco., exploring how Buddhism has adapted to each culture, morphing from a religion into a household world. And what a journey it is! In Poland, there is a Bearing Witness retreat set around Auschwitz. Ecology monks in Thailand wrap saffron robes around trees to keep them from being illegally cut down. Each incident is truly revelatory, and the panoramic cast of characters Garfinkle includes adds to the depth. (I liked the Buddhist stand-up comic, myself.) Most moving, however was Garfinkle’s talk with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where Garfinkle’s preconceived notions about God fall away and give rise to something deeper and more meaningful.

Teaming with life, bristling with wry humor, and undeniably smart (I know, I said that already, but smart always matters in a book) Buddha or Bust is both deeply thoughtfully and friskily rambunctious.

And as for me, I may not follow Buddhism, but I’d happily trail after Garfinkle on any journey he wants to take.