Monday, September 28, 2009

Remembrances of things past

I admit I tend to hoard. I have every single letter my friend Jo wrote to me while we were both in college, complete with her drawings all over them. I saved sympathy cards and letters when my fiance died, cards and letters when I got married to Jeff (and I even have the list of all the songs we wanted played at our wedding and all the songs we did not want played, including the odious Celebration and Wind Beneath my Wings), more cards and notes when I had Max, and even more when I got so critically ill (and then well again).

Before I put everything on my Mac, I used to hoard my datebooks, and even my old checkbooks so I could leaf through and think: Oh, in April of 1988, I bought a leather bag in the Village. I had dinner at Intermezzo in Chelsea. Ah, that's the date I called that guy I had a crush on and we went to the movies and he went right home afterwards. Alone.

There is something about holding those little pieces of history in your hand that bring it all back. No one really saves emails or texts, and if you do, it usually is for business, but it just isn't the same as having that paper or that card--that visual that's so much richer than an email catapulting you back to a specific time and place in your personal history. I used to laugh at my mother for saving everything I ever wrote, including my letters home from college. Now, I'm glad.

Details, in life and in novels, make all the difference.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Read This Book: Life Without Summer

PW, in a starred review called Lynne Griffin's Life Without Summer "a spellbinding tale of loss and hard-won redemption." As someone who is always grappling with writing about the darker side of life, I was instantly intrigued. Lynne's been kind enough to answer my questions here about her novel.

You take the unimaginable idea—a mother struggling with the loss of her four-year-old daughter in a hit and run accident—and turn it into fiction. As someone who routinely goes down those dark roads in my writing—and often suffers during the writing--I’d like to ask you if writing about this was difficult or healing—and why?

It was both, really. I was working on another novel when the story came to me. I imagined two women struggling with different grief stories, each personal loss echoing the other’s. From the beginning, I knew the first and last lines, and how the two families would come to be forever connected. Writing this novel was deeply cathartic, because of losses I’ve suffered in my own life. Though I’ve never lost a child, I’ve had my share of grief experiences. To me the book is more of a hopeful, redemptive story. Certainly it was emotional to write, but I think authentic storytelling should touch writer and reader alike.

Can you talk about the structure of your novel and how that came to be? What particularly interested me is that you’ve said that early readers advised you against your structure and your theme. How hard is it to stay true to your own vision in the light of other’s concerns and comments?

I’m a determined person, so not hard at all really. I chose first person accounts, by both Tessa and Celia, since this is the most intimate point of view for storytelling. I didn’t want to leave any distance between the characters and my readers. I also chose epistolary, or journal format, because I felt it would be quite personal to glimpse inside these women’s diaries. My point of view choice and the novel’s structure mean that at times the story is raw, yet it’s very important to me to show an honest look at the process of moving into and out of the grief experience. I want to give readers a true sense of what it feels like to embrace or reject healing.

Writing this close to grief and having the story involve a child was challenging. Other writers, and some in the publishing industry, were wary of the subject matter, but I never wavered in my commitment to tell this story. With something as deeply personal as losing a child, I felt compelled to write my way to the heart of the experience.

Another question about process: Because the novel really enters the lives of these two women, I was wondering how mapped out the novel was before you began writing . Did anything surprise you as you progressed?

When I’m beginning a novel, I do a lot of “writing in my head”. I contemplate structure, formulate the plot, listen to my characters. Once I’m ready to tackle the first draft, I write scene-to-scene, rarely if ever out of sequence. I’m a methodical writer, in that my process is exactly the same every day. I do my best writing in the morning, starting my day by re-reading and editing the pages from the previous day. Once in a groove, I write anywhere from 3 to 6 pages a day. When I’m actively working on a manuscript, I write six days a week.

For Life Without Summer, I had the benefit of an internal structure. Written in journal format, there was the need to adhere to the calendar. The story plays out over one year, so at certain times I would have to write entries that corresponded with the time of year, which did a lot to propel the story forward. Tessa writes about her first Halloween without Abby. Celia describes the first Christmas trying to juggle her new husband with her ex, her son’s father.

With my second novel, I wrote without an outline until I came to the middle of the novel, and then I plotted my way to the end. So I guess I’d say I do a bit of both. Regardless, I’m often surprised along the way with what my characters reveal to me, and with the choices they make; how those choices move the plot forward. Those moments of clarity—when I’m in flow, writing—are the very reason I love to write fiction.

Both Tessa, the mother, and Celia, the grief counselor cope with grief differently. As a social worker, do you feel there is a right way to grieve, or are all paths different?

I’ve been a family life expert for over twenty years, and always been struck by the healthy and not so healthy ways grief work gets done. There are many right ways to grieve a loss. Some parents take comfort in talking out their feelings, while others prefer solitude. Many lean on pre-established communities, faith-based and civic, while some choose to stick with close knit groups of family and friends for support. There are many healthy things parents can do to celebrate their child’s life, like honor their child with a memorial or some type of commemorative activity. So yes, there are right ways to handle loss. Yet there are some wrong ways too. Any time someone turns to substances like alcohol or drugs to cope, as one character does in Life Without Summer, it’s a recipe for disaster. The pain may be numbed in the short run, but substance abuse creates so many more issues in the long run. Personal relationships suffer and depression is more likely to occur with the frequent and excessive use of alcohol and drugs.

You talk about the importance of liability, rather than likability , in creating characters, which I thought was wonderful. Characters don’t have to be nice, and can, in fact be downright evil, if we understand why they did what they did. Can you talk a little more about this?

I have over twenty years professional experience with specific expertise in the impact of individual differences—or temperament—on human behavior. In writing fiction, I work to craft characters from the inside out. Ones who are more than the sum of their physical traits. I am driven to get to the heart of character motivation. As I write, I try to answer questions like, “What would this character really do?” & “How would my character react to that situation or this person?” I’m committed to crafting three-dimensional, compelling major as well as minor characters. And I revise until I’m satisfied.

I connected quite easily with Tessa. I really get her fierce edgy way of coping. I’m a bit intense myself, so I understand why at times she goes for shock value. As for Celia, I have a lot of compassion for her. I can see how easily a woman torn apart by loss might make a few missteps, suddenly finding herself on a road she wouldn’t be on if grief hadn’t toyed with her sensibilities. I have great empathy for her inability to take her own advice. It’s one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s another entirely to do the right thing, especially in a situation like hers. In terms of who gave me the most trouble, it was Celia. She was buttoned up, as characters go, and that made it hard to get to the bottom of her situation. I spent a lot of time writing to find her story. It was in the revision process that her real grief experience revealed itself.

Can you talk about your next novel?

My second novel, Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster, summer 2010) is also about family life. In it I explore the impact secrets have on the closeness family members can share.

Friday, September 25, 2009

How much must an author do?

Recently, I read this piece about this author who received no tour, no publicity, no real support, so she took her act to the road, made a video, and ended up selling 80,000 copies of her book. While I was thrilled for her, it made me anxious.

Writers (and maybe I am speaking just for myself) like to be alone writing. Dreamy, introspective types, we are usually not comfortable turning into PR machines and hitting the glare of the spotlights, and after the bliss and turmoil of writing a novel, going out on the road seems well...not as much fun as staying home writing.

I will say I am grateful for the internet, which allows easy connection in my pajamas. I love conferences, love doing phoners for bookclubs (I love book groups), love readings once I am there and I see the seats are full (everyone has a reading story where only two people show up and they both thought it was going to be a Bible lecture), love visiting other blogs and I am an intrepid Googler for opportunities. But what also worried me about the article was a quote from someone in publishing who admitted that people don't know what works. That what works for one writer may not work for another. That there is so much information out there (in any given night in NYC, there are at least 20 readings and the web is crowded with book videos), so how do you assure you are not invisible?

I'm about a year away from tackling this, and I know I will hurl myself out there and do whatever I can for my novel, but I'm wondering how other writers handle this.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Two spots opened up for my class

Two spots opened up in my advanced 20-week Novel Writing class at UCLA's Writers Program online. The class is really a blast, with lots of special guests, and if you'd like to be considered, shoot me an email or go to the UCLA web site.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Read this book: Rosie and Skate

I don’t remember how or when I met Beth Ann Bauman—one of my favorite writers and friends—, but I do remember seeing the New York Times profile of her after her acclaimed short story collection Beautiful Girls (MacAdam/Cage) came out. The way she talked about her work and about the published life and the difficulties of having to earn a living while being a writer resonated with me so much that I went out that afternoon and bought the collection, which was wonderful. She now has a young-adult novel Rosie and Skate (Random House), which is racking up raves from Kirkus (a starred review) which said she “expertly captures the ever-hopeful ache of adolescents longing for love stability, and certainty,” and a starred review from Booklist who called the book “as brisk and refreshing as an ocean breeze.” Beth’s been nominated for a Pushcart prize and is a recipient of fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the New York Foundation of the Arts. She teaches fiction writing at NYU and the Writer's Voice of the West Side Y in New York City and online at UCLA Extension.

I’m fascinated how the author of a critically acclaimed collection of short stories for adults wrote a YA novel. What made you decide to do this and how was the writing process different?

Three of my stories in Beautiful Girls are told from a teenage point of view. Adolescence is a time of firsts, of possibilities. I really like the territory. Soon after the publication of my collection, I met Wendy Lamb at Random House and she encouraged me to write a YA. The prospect of a novel was daunting, but I felt I could probably do it. The process is different too, at least for me; because this is a YA the tone is younger, not to suggest that all YAs are young-sounding, but mine is, I think. The book has been called “sweet,” which is something you wouldn’t say about my stories. Maybe there’s an intrinsic hopefulness to adolescence, which is part of the mix.

What I loved was the way (and you did this in Beautiful Girls, as well), you tunneled into the minds of these two girls. What's your experience with teens or is this from your own past?

I really don’t know any teens! My nephew just turned 13 and is starting to get a little sarcastic, but mostly he’s still a sweet boy hovering on the brink. So the book is based on my memory of those years. And in some ways I still feel like a teenager so that probably helps.

You switched communities, from the gray suburbs of Beautiful Girls to this warm, beach community—which, nevertheless is in the winter. So, where did these two cultures come from?

Growing up I spent summers on the Jersey shore, a place I love. I’ve written lots of stories that take place in this setting but weirdly none of the stories wound up in my collection. I like writing about New Jersey (and the suburbs). I’ve lived in New York City for the past 16 years, but I am still a Jersey girl to the core.

Alcoholism, teen sexuality and the messiness of growing up focus the novel, but despite the dark subject matter, the book is also really funny. How did you manage that?

Alcoholism. An incarcerated Dad. It sounds bleak, right? But I have no desire to write a bleak book. I wanted it to be lively and funny and to capture the quirky idiosyncratic messiness of life. I’m glad you think it’s funny.

You’re also a writing teacher. How do you grapple with the demands of writing a novel and the demands of making a living? What’s your daily working day like?

This is the never-ending question that every writer grapples with. You and I have swapped countless emails about the struggle. AND it’s not figureout-able, at least from what I see. Here’s my process. I carve out time to write, rewrite, toss, worry, bite my fingernails, steal more time, complain about not having enough time... Somehow the works gets done, but it always takes longer than I think.

I’m always fascinated by process, so can you tell us something about the process of writing Rosie and Skate? Are you an outliner? Did you create the voice and move on from there?

The sheer length of a novel has always terrified me because I am a natural sprinter, not a long-distance runner. A novel is a large container and how to keep it moving is the question. As a writing teacher, I see a lot of static work that just piles on more and more information. So when I first started teaching I learned three-act structure. I love it because it gives the writer immediate destinations to move toward. A novel is a journey; it moves characters through a narrative that will change them. It sounds easy, but it’s incredibly hard. Three-act structure gives a workable format for movement. When I started writing Rosie and Skate I spent a long time just exploring their characters to find out what their conflicts might be. Once I got a handle on that I started using three-act structure.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing another YA based loosely on the title story of Beautiful Girls. I’ve tweaked the characters and relocated them to the Jersey shore. The working title is Horny.

What books about teenagers do you love?

There are many tween/teen characterizations I adore. Here’s my short list: Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding (gorgeous!), Elizabeth Berg’s Durable Goods and Joy School, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, Francesca Block’s Weetzie Bat, Patrice Kindl’s Owl in Love, M.E. Kerr’s Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, and Cathi Hanauer’s My Sister’s Bones.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Writers' Uniform

While on Facebook I was bemoaning how hard it is to find a pair of jeans and Tish Cohen told me that for a long while she wore just pajama bottoms and a t-shirt when she worked, until people who came to the door began saying things like, "Well, obviously you don't work." The conversation took a clear turn from jeans to writer's clothing and she then told me that the writer Patry Francis went out and bought a nurse's uniform, so that when she went outside it would send a clear signal: nurse. worker. She wouldn't have to explain that she was a writer, that yes, that was a job, and yes, she worked hard, and no, just because she worked at home, she didn't break to watch daytime TV for hours on end.

That nurse's uniform tickles me! While I have been known to work in my pajamas, my writer's uniform is pretty simple: jeans, black t-shirt or shirt, sneakers and complicated earrings. Jeff's is pretty much the same uniform except for the earrings and he wears colors. We both have offices on the top floor, which we did deliberately. We have to go to work, we have to get there--and even though the commute is just one flight of stairs, well, it still really feels different on that floor. We shower, dress, get to work. The Fed Ex and UPS guys all know I'm a writer because of the book packages they keep bringing, plus I like to chat when I see them. When I lived in Pittsburgh, and was young, unhappily first-married and foolish, I actually had t-shirts made up with the word WRITER festooned across them, but people still didn't really know what I did--and if they did, no one seemed to think it was really as hard or as important as their work, because hey, I worked at home. I got to wear jeans.

Living in the NYC area is a bit different than Pittsburgh for a whole host of reasons, but mostly because there are so many writers here. So many of us in jeans, pajamas, or who knows, a feathered boa or six.

Writing what scares us

I had nightmares again last night. This morning, I woke up with a lump lodged in my throat so I couldn't swallow.

I'm terrified of what I am writing.

I'm superstitious so I can't really talk about a novel in progress, but the central thorny, dark issue of this novel-in-the-works seems so real to me that I feel unnerved. I know it is magic thinking on my part and that writing about it won't make it happen, but I cannot shake the terror. A writer friend said that she recognizes this process, that is also happened to her (and what a knockout novel she produced because of it) and that "maybe we need to write about the things that scare us" and I'm thinking she's right.

I've intentionally written about things that have unnerved or scared me before--the crippling asthma of my youth, the sudden death of a loved one, long and mysterious illness--but those were all things that had already happened to me (but again, maybe that is magic thinking to imagine they could not happen again.) This though, feels new and raw and overwhelming. And the only thing I can think to do about it is to continue to write. And write. And write.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rainy days reign

What is more perfect that the pouring rain outside, a cozy writing office inside, and a cup of tea? I have actually been up for most of the night and haven't slept all day, but this vague, hallucinatory state of being awake is sort of nice.

Do you need a Media Coach?

Back when I was doing promotion for my novel about open adoption, Girls in Trouble, it surprised me that suddenly I was controversial. On my first radio show, some callers attacked me for what they saw as my views on adoption (I kept repeating, "It's one fictional story!") and I was never quite sure how to respond. I stumbled. I said the wrong things and I felt like a fool. Desperate, I called a friend, a media coach, who told me to come on over and she would show me what to do for the next time. In less than a few hours, she showed me how to respond to anger ("I understand what you are saying, but..."), how to deflect the ire back to my talking points, ("I absolutely hear you, and what I think is...") and how to calm things down. A week later, I was on NPR's Diane Rehm, and when the calls began, I was prepared. To my astonishment, as soon as I said, "I understand what you are saying, but..." in a calm voice, the caller also calmed down. I was happy, the callers were happy, the show was a success.

Media coaching can be invaluable. With that in mind, I thought to get one on here and ask her some questions: Vickie Jenkins runs Performance Power Media Coaching. Thank you so much for being here, Vickie.

You're a writer and a media coach. Does one skill help the other?

Absolutely. Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, poetry or screenplays, my writing puts me in the shoes of my clients. We get quite connected to our creative product, but we need to release it to the world, and be comfortable talking about it, inviting people to read it, and BUY it.

What exactly does a media coach do and why do writers need one before they hit The Today Show?

Whether you’re appearing on your local radio or TV show, or speaking to a handful at the bookstore or to a thousand at a conference, you’ve got to be on top of your game to communicate well. There’s no need for a panic attack, once you learn the skills. Professional media training gives you insight into the media’s needs PLUS the tools and discipline you can use daily to do well in all types of communication environments.

What do you think the three top mistakes are that writers make before they go on radio or TV?

1. Not getting media coaching.

2. Not getting media coaching.

3. Not getting media coaching.

Seriously. It’s painful for me to watch a TV interview show where the author has this incredible opportunity and wonderful information to share, but they’re sweating, eyes darting around, obviously not prepared. People think if they just join Toastmasters or have their friends help them practice they’ll “do OK.” When you’ve been media trained by an expert, you’re ready to EXCEL in all types of communications venues, because you learn how to present your information in an entertaining and concise way that is AUDIENCE-FOCUSED. You will touch people’s lives, and get callbacks for more appearances and sell more books. It doesn’t take long to learn this discipline, and it’s something you will use an entire lifetime.

But specifically to your question, three common mistakes are: Not staying concise to the interview time frame; forgetting to mention their book title; not prepping the entire ‘package’ – clothing, hair, body language.

You originally were a reporter and news anchor so how did you get involved in media coaching?

When I was the morning news anchor/news director at the top-5 San Francisco radio station KOIT AM/FM, I hosted a weekly public affairs show and often interviewed authors who were out on their book tours. Before we went on I would get the author relaxed and focused, knowing that the better THEY performed, the more my audience would stay tuned in. After the interview ended authors would invariably turn to me, smile and say, “Wow, that was fun! Thanks for the tips ahead of time. I wished I’d met you BEFORE my book tour started, because it’s been trial by fire.”

The light bulb went off over my head and I said, “Aha! That is my next career!” The radio news business was incredibly exciting, yet exhausting, getting up at 3:30 AM every day for 20 years, and I was looking for a new challenge.

So I said goodbye to my media buddies & audience and set up Performance Power Media, designing coaching programs specifically addressing an author’s needs—staying healthy and focused on the tour, excelling at radio, TV, and print interviews, and acing readings & book signings to sell more books. I also media train executives for their interviews on CNN, CNBC, etc. and work with sales teams and business owners on their media interviews, speeches and presentations. I’m based in Los Angeles, but travel all over the world and also teach online. It’s great fun.

What kind of fiction do you write, and do you follow your own media advice when it comes to presenting yourself for PR opportunities?

Last year I self-published a poetry book just for fun, to test out what I’d been teaching. It was great to be in the trenches at book fairs, doing readings, selling books, etc. As for my fiction…I’m in the process of shopping around a couple of film scripts, and am writing a trilogy of murder mystery novellas about a 1950s L.A.P.D. detective.

Are there any clients you won't take--and why not?

I will only take people who are ready—and willing—to do the work. I use this analogy: If you want to learn to run a marathon, you don’t read a book about it and run out the door, you EXERCISE, get a good coach, and PRACTICE. Then when you cross the finish line you’re tired, happy, and know you’ve really accomplished something.

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

What does media training cost? The bigger question is, what will it cost you to NOT get the help you need to make anything you dream actually happen? That’s what focused communications skills give you. Those skills are the keys that open many, many doors. The investment you make will serve you every day of your life. I always congratulate clients on taking that first step. They never regret it.

Vickie is offering a ten percent discount on her class: Book Tours: Media Signings & More, Feb 18th, Friday, limited to ten people. She'll also be available for hands-on training in San Francisco Oct 6-9. For more info contact

Vickie Jenkins

Performance Power Media Coaching


Monday, September 7, 2009

Read This Book: Shades of Grey by Clea Simon

Clea Simon is a lifeline friend of mine. There isn't a writing day that goes by that we don't email to check in on each other, talk about writing, solve each other's problems, and just cement our friendship. I originally posted about her latest mystery Shades of Grey before it was sold - as a "best book you've never read." Now I am thrilled to report that Booklist agrees with me, raving, "Well paced and tightly plotted, debuts a promising series from the author of the Theda Krakow mysteries." Clea is the author of Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings, Fatherless Women: How We Change After we Lose Our Dads, and The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats. She's also penned four Theda Krakow mystery titles and launched her Dulcie Schwartz series with Shades of Grey (and will follow it with Grey Matters.). Clea was kind enough to let me pepper her with questions. (Thank you, Clea.)

What's your writing process like? Outline or just "follow your pen?"

I do a sort of mix of the two. I'm not really an outliner. I've tried to do that, because I write in a genre (mysteries) that has pretty set conventions. You're supposed to have a crime, clues, and some kind of resolution, after all. And I write traditional mysteries, of the Agatha Christie style, so I want the crime to have a logical explanation that the reader could figure out from what is shown in the book and I want both my criminal and my sleuth to be normal, human characters. But even knowing these stipulations, I can't outline. I've tried, but when I write an outline it just kind of sucks the juice of the book. If I write an outline, I don't want to write a book. That said, I don't just go blindly forward. I do have some ideas when I start. I usually know who did the crime - though that has been known to change! - and I have some ideas about how the heroine will uncover it.

These days, I work with a white board and a bunch of post-it notes. I jot down little things that occur to me. Lines I want a character to say, or clues that I hope to use at some point, and stick them up on the white board. I don't always use them, but on those days when I don't feel inspired, I can look at the board and choose something to elaborate on.

What is up next for you?
I'm not sure. I actually just finished the sequel to "Shades of Grey." It's called "Grey Matters" and will pub in the UK in December (so soon!!) and in the US in March. I wrote that one on deadline, awfully fast, and so now I'm just kind of wiped out. I do a lot of editing and work for hire, so I'm trying to catch up with that and see what project calls out to me. I don't know if Severn House (my current publisher) will want more Dulcie Schwartz books yet, though I hope they'll let me know soon. I also have another manuscript out making the rounds. So, I could be writing another mystery to follow up "Grey Matters" or another Theda Krakow book (Poisoned Pen published my "Probable Claws" in April, the publisher hasn't asked me for another - but I think I could pitch one), or a sequel to the book that's making the rounds. Or something entirely different. I'm waiting for a sign - either a call from my agent or inspiration. Right now, the muses are just telling me to clean my house and catch up on laundry.

Where do you think the future of mysteries is going?
Great question, but I don't know. For a while - and this may still be true - mysteries were getting very codified. I've had publishers tell me that my mysteries needed more feline content to be cat mysteries, or that I had to change the language to fit into very specific subgenres. But then I see writers like Tana French and Denise Mina, incredible talents who do not fit into specific categories, and they're doing well. So then I grow more optimistic. I sort of feel like I can't think about the future of the genre too much or it will make me crazy. I just have to write the books I want to write and hope that they find publishers and readers who love them.

What I love about your books is you have such strong, complex heroines (and complex animals, too!). How much of them is you?
Well, thank you! I think that each of my characters is a little bit of some aspect of me. Villains, too. I mean, we research our characters and we pick up on people we see around us. But aren't all our improvisations basically extensions of ourselves? Even when I create my feline characters, they're saying and doing what I imagine they should say or act for the reasons I attribute to them. My main concern is making them believable - letting them all follow their own logic, even if one or another is really an outgrowth of my worst temper tantrum, or something like that.

Cambridge figures as a character in your books--which I also love--Are you going to continue to set your books there and if not, why not?
Depends on the book! My Dulcie and Theda series are set here, and Cambridge is part of those books. But my as-yet-unsold book, "Dogs Don't Lie," is set in Western Mass., because I wanted a city girl who had fled back to her small town hometown. For future projects, I'll just have to wait until my characters tell me where they belong, I guess!

Thanks so much for having me here today, Caroline! I'd love to answer any other questions you or your readers may have. I'll be stopping by in case anyone wants to post any - or you can always reach me through my website at

Shine a Light Prize for Small Bookstores.

This link was sent to me from a friend about a little local book shop, Village Books. It looks like this organization,, will nominate a small business for a $100,000 prize. Nominate bookstores!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

PS, Visit me on another blog!

I talk about being a writer and a book critic! Please come visit
Author's Den!

Read this Book: 31 Hours

One of the pleasures of having writer friends is that we are always in and out of one another's working lives. We get to see the process. Masha Hamilton is a great writer and a great friend, and I read (and was knocked out by) an early draft of her novel, 31 Hours. The published version is even better (and racking up the raves) and I'm thrilled Masha agreed to answer questions on my blog. Thank you, Masha!

I had read an earlier version of this novel and what impressed me so much was the difference between the final version—which was leaner, more focused, and more powerful—and the first version, which I had also loved. Characters were streamlined, events changed shape and position. Can you talk about the process, how you got from A to B?

I was lucky enough to be able to write the first draft of this novel during a single month ensconced at Blue Mountain Center, an artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks. I worked nearly around the clock and lived and breathed the novel, and I think some of the pacing is really due to that. I think because I felt the circumstance of this novel so deeply, I needed to be away from my real life in order to write it. It was an intense period for me, a period of tears and occasional nightmares. But of course, after that initial rush of writing comes the concentrated process of revision. During the writing, I don’t self-censor at all; I let everything come out, even parts I don’t understand. But during the revision process, everything is reconsidered, and deepened or tossed. For me, the first draft is like kneading the bread dough, and the revision process is like letting it rise. Perhaps publication is when it’s baked, if we want to carry the metaphor that far…

Although 31 Hours concerns itself with a homegrown American terrorist, to me, the book is also really about the relationships we have with other, the ways we miscommunicate, or are seen and not see, and about the moments "that change us forever." Jonas says goodbye to the man he had been, Carol says of her son, "We change, but they change more," and a homeless man, Sonny (the kind of person most people choose not to see at all), has premonitions of what is about to happen. What I found most interesting is none of these lives intersected. Jonas and Vic, his girlfriend, are very much on each other's minds, but while they share scenes in the past, there are no scenes of them in the present together. Jonas and his mom never have a conversation or meeting in the present, either, and Sonny never gets to tell anyone who could stop it what he fears is going to happen—and that makes it all the more terrifying. I'm curious what you think might have happened if Vic or Carol had been able to reach Jonas. Would it have changed anything?

You are absolutely right, Caroline; for me, this was partly about missed connections. At one point Jonas thinks he sees his mother Carol, but actually doesn’t, and at another point, Vic sees Jonas’s mother but can’t quite believe it is her, and it is. Sonny, too, briefly passes Carol and Vic at various points in the 31 hours of the story, and had in the weeks previous once seen Jonas. Without revealing what does happen, I’ll say that I think definitely circumstances would have changed if Jonas’s mother or girlfriend had been able to connect with him. How, though, I’m not sure. I don’t plot my novels. I just try to listen hard to the characters. So I never know what is going to happen until it does!

Sonny, the homeless man, says that a diet of longing can drive people to the gun—and all of the characters here have different intensities of longing going on, but only Jonas was pushed toward destruction. Why?

Jonas is young, so young. He is in that parenthesis of time – he is not a child, but nor is he fully an adult. He is idealistic. He is troubled by corruption and cruelty. He wants the best for the world, in some large way. He is isolated, tired, confused. He is who he has always been, in some essential way, but in other ways, he is just a young man struggling to learn how he fits into a chaotic, imperfect world. Who he is now is not who he will be in a decade, if given the chance.

As the mother of a son, I was moved so deeply by Carol's fears and her love for her son Jonas. I think you got that fear and love and needing to let go and yet needing to stay connected exactly, heartbreakingly right. Part of the tragedy is that I think Carol did everything right—I can't think of anything else she could have done—and that, to me, makes the book all the more chilling. Is there any other way she could have played this?

I think Carol, like most parents, is being the absolute best parent she can be. I think Jonas’s father, Jake, is also being the best dad he can be, by the way, even though he’s been more absent than Carol in Jonas’s life.

I'm always fascinated by process, so can you tell us what your writing life is like and what you are working on now?

During the pre-publication for 31 Hours, I was working on a non-fiction project that has been held up, so a lot of my writing time went there. In May, I founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, an online series of workshops taught by rotating teachers (including Caroline as our very first teacher) and aimed at giving Afghan women writers a voice in the world and fostering creative and intellectual exchanges between our established writers and their up-and-coming writers. We have expanded our mandate a bit to try to raise funds for Afghanistan’s first women’s-only Internet cafĂ©, since women mostly cannot go to the Internet cafes comfortably. The start-up of that project has taken a big chunk of time, but little by little it is getting organized. And I’ve begun a new novel—so new that, you’ll understand Caroline, I can’t talk too much about it!

I'd like to ask about your bed and breakfast—which seems like the perfect other job for a writer. Is it?

It really is. Over breakfast, I often hear wonderful stories from our guests. I’m constantly exposed to characters and plots! And usually, in the middle of the day, I can shut myself off and work. It’s not something I ever planned to do, but for the moment, it’s working out brilliantly.