Saturday, July 31, 2010

Karen Degroot Carter Talks about Entering the Writing Zone

I'm deep in Writerland, braving the wilds, hoping my shots work and watching out for wild prose-destroying beasts-- we won't even talk about the ego-mashing ones. I'm very grateful to the fantastic writers who offered to write guest posts for me, starting with Karen DeGroot Carter (Thank you, Karen!)

The Writing Process: Entering the Zone and Staying There…

This means in Spite of It All. Even if it means telling it all to go to hell. The laundry that should be done before a loved one is forced to fish a dingy must-wear shirt from the hamper, the bills that should be paid before the electricity and water are turned off, the weeds that should be pulled before the garden chokes on its own excesses. While you’re at it, exorcise the word “should” from your vocabulary. Either do it or don’t, but feel free to brainstorm about writing projects at the same time. When you write, however, do nothing else.

Sounds simple, I know. This and the charge to write before you open e-mail or check Facebook each day. Write at a certain time each day. Write while wearing your favorite fishmonger sweater, burning your favorite soy-based cucumber-melon candle, and drinking a cup of your favorite blueberry-pomegranate-with-a-dash-of-cinnamon herbal tea. Unless all this is more distracting than it’s worth. Then, just write. The task of putting pen to paper or tapping on keyboard keys can send you into a productive writing zone faster than any plans or preparations.

I find entering the zone when I’m not writing easy, too. Showering, yard-working, and about-to-fall-asleeping always allow my subconscious room to open wide and reveal itself. If I allow it to. When I don’t shut it down because I really “should” be thinking about the next thing on the to-do list, the next day’s urgencies, and because if I let it truly reveal what it has in store for me and my writing, it will distract me from all the other critical tasks at hand. I’m a responsible person, I insist. Daydreaming is not productive.

Or is it? An October 2009 Psychology Today article, How Daydreaming Helps Children Process Information and Explore Ideas, states what many creative adults happily acknowledge (and often use in defense when accused of slacking off): that daydreaming can be “more inventive and ultimately more useful than the task at hand.” And according to a 2008 Boston Globe article, Daydream Achiever: “Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections.”

If you’re a writer like me with so many other important things to do, however, no scientific statement regarding the benefits of daydreaming can turn moments of silent, seemingly unproductive introspection into works of art. Unless the subconscious is allowed to do its thing and the ideas it/you generate are acknowledged, memorized, and actually written down at the first available moment…even if that means waking up the next day to review—and note, as in on paper—what was considered possible (and possibly even inspired) prior to sleep hours before.

While traveling through the flatlands of Nebraska on the way back into Colorado a few weeks ago, the dullness of the drive lent itself perfectly to a few instances of writerly daydreaming and resultant note-jotting (while keeping one eye on the road, of course). When I posted this creative discovery on Facebook, friends agreed tedious travel can lead to inspired moments of clarity. One friend referred to the legend of the especially productive train ride Abraham Lincoln took into Pennsylvania, where he was scheduled to speak at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg. During that brief time of train-boundness, the (now-debunked) legend had it, President Lincoln composed The Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, an address he actually wrote in Washington and finished the morning of the dedication—and doubted many would long remember. It’s always possible “the world will little note, nor long remember” the potential masterpiece you or I write, but it is possible they will. As long as, despite the seemingly steady stream of distractions hell-bent on deterring our best creative efforts, we write it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book envy

Sigh. I wish I didn't do this, but every once in a while I read a book and it makes me wish that I had written it. I recently finished Emma Donoghue's Room, which is truly extraordinary, but there's this ridiculous part of me that is shouting in my head, "You idiot. Why didn't you write this remarkable book?"

I know this isn't really about subject matter. To write something that's true and meaningful, you really have to write about what obsesses you, what matters to you, what you're trying to figure out, to make it all work. And since I happen to feel that every writer's success helps other writers,(I do, I really do) it's not about jealousy, either. I'm thrilled for the success of Room and I want to do my part to make sure everyone I know is reading it--it's that brilliant, haunting and unsettling a novel. So what is it? Why this yearning?

I think it has to do with the promise every novel you write has--that hope, that desire to reach people, to write something so alive it breathes on every page. When I discover that in another novel, there's this unsettled, wormily insecure feeling tunneling inside of me (that explains the "you idiot", now doesn't it?) Can I do this alchemy for my own work? Will it be as good? Will it matter? The yearning is so huge it's a little cumbersome, but it does settle me down at my desk, more determined than ever to find that place that speaks not only to me and to what I want to read and write about, but I hope will speak to others, as well.

So maybe it's not such a bad thing, this yearning. Maybe it's even part of the creative process. So with that, I go back to my desk, and I continue to urge everyone: read Room.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Top Ten Book List on J. Peder Zane's terrific blog

I'm thrilled and honored to have my top ten book list up all this week at J. Peder Zane's terrific blog, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

Leah Stewart talks about literary sexism

Leah Stewart, author of Husband and Wife, previously posted on my blog about literary sexism, and she got so many replies, and so much interest, that I asked her if she'd write more about the topic. Like Leah, I get really annoyed at the way women writing about family or home are somehow diminished for it when men writing about the same thing are acclaimed. Thanks, so much, Leah.

Recently a male writer I very much admire asked me what I thought of a question posed him by a female reporter. Why, she asked him, do male writers tackle the great subjects, while women write only about relationships? I told him what I thought, which was, among other things, that her question arose from a false premise, as Francine Prose proved so effectively in her “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” way back in 1998. In that article, which ran in Harper’s, Prose quoted from male and female writers and defied readers to tell the difference. You would think that by now we’d all take for granted that women, as a group, write about more than relationships and that men, as a group, write about relationships. Clearly that’s not the case.

But really what I want to take issue with here is another implication of her question: that relationships are not one of “the great subjects.” It’s my contention that no one really, truly thinks that. It’s my contention that what that reporter meant, whether she knew it or not, was that relationships are not great subjects when women write about them. (After all, the male writer she was interviewing writes about relationships, a point with which he agreed.)

I sat in a movie theater recently, waiting to see a movie about men, and watched trailer after trailer aimed at a male demographic. One was for a comedy and one a thriller, but they clearly had the same basic story: a hero’s journey inspired first by the need to win the love of an idealized woman and then by the desire to protect her. These are stories about relationships. But because they’re told via a masculine archetype—the heroic journey from boy to man—they’re not automatically dismissed. One of the other trailers was for a brothers-in-arms war movie. (Hello? Relationships.) In the movie itself, by the way, were male-bonding scenes as emotional as in any chick flick.

The issue isn’t that there are no relationships in male stories, and nothing but in female ones. The issue is that it’s easier for the culture at large to believe that things matter if they happened to men, or are related by men. Certainly many people, male and female, believe that men are only interested in the things that happen to men (unless the woman in question is scantily clad and sporting a machine gun). I’m asked all the time if men “would like” or “can read” my books, and often when men do tell me they liked one of my last two books they’ll say they “actually” liked it. Despite what? Well, despite the female protagonists, and the women’s-fiction covers, and the preoccupation with relationships. Many men resist, or feel expected to resist, inhabiting the female point of view because they’ve internalized the belief that to do so is shameful. (Of course, when men who show physical weakness or emotional vulnerability are constantly accused of being “little girls.”) Thus the student who responded to a short story I’d assigned, one of my favorites, by saying, “I might like this story if I were a girl.”

But men are not alone in this sense of shame. The other day, thinking about my daughter and children’s movies, at least American ones, it occurred to me that what she has to choose between are Disney princesses or boys. If you grow up a girl who doesn’t want to choose princesses, you have to prove you reject that entirely to be good enough to hang with the boys, and the other girls who hang with the boys. Otherwise you’re silly, you’re vacuous, you’re too girly, you’re not smart. Thus the female critic who wrote in a negative review of my second novel that it was essentially what you’d expect from a book about friendship between women. Meaning, basically, that it was dumb. Now she can think my book is dumb all she wants. What really bothered me, beyond the inevitable sting of any bad review, was her assertion that because of the subject matter it was automatically dumb. What about a book about friendship between men? Would that be automatically dumb? Surely not, given that A Separate Peace and Of Mice and Men have been in the canon of high school literature for years.

It’s not that no one ever sees intelligence in representations of certain aspects of the female experience. It’s just that they’re most likely to see it if the person doing the representing is a man. As one of my writer friends said recently, “When is it brave to write about marriage? When a man does it.” Intelligence and ambition—the markers that a writer is striving to make art and not just entertainment—are taken for granted in men. If a woman writer tackles relationships, goes for big emotions, too many assume that must be all she’s capable of, that she’s not deliberately creating effects but making a natural outpouring of her own experiences and feelings. A woman writer has to prove intelligence and ambition. She can do so by use of postmodern devices, by historical sweep, by writing short fiction before she tackles a novel, by writing from the point of view of a man.

I realize there are exceptions to what I’m saying, well-reviewed novels by women writers that are explicitly about relationships. In fact I’m reading one right now. But in most cases these are women who have already proven their intelligence in the aforementioned ways, so they can be assumed, like male writers, to have chosen the subject of relationships, rather than just depicting the only thing on their hopelessly female minds. (If you’re thinking that I have a chip on my shoulder, you are right.)

Being in academia, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the teaching of Jane Austen is often characterized by an insistence on her intelligence, in large part to counteract the idea that her books are tales of romance of no interest to the male reader or the smart female one. I understand this impulse. But that insistence seems largely to consist of the claim that Austen cleverly slips trenchant observations about class and slavery into her romances, as though she’s making her stories palatable to the mass of readers while winking at the rest of us so we’ll understand she’s smart. For all I know that’s exactly what she was doing. I have no idea what her process was. Either way, it’s worth noting our need to justify her place in the canon by insisting her mind moved outside the stereotypically female. Maybe, just maybe, she was a brilliant writer with an intelligent mind and an intense awareness of the nuances of the world around her who wrote (get this) about relationships.

Friday, July 23, 2010

How to Be a Professional Writer by Deb Amlen

Deb Amlen author of the humor book, It's Not PMS, It's You, is a humor writer and crossword puzzle constructor whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and more. Because I'm obsessed with process, I asked Deb if she'd do a guest post on writing. Thank you, thank you, Deb!

How to Be a Professional Writer

Many people have written recently to congratulate me on the publication of my first book, “It’s Not PMS, It’s You”. Those who know me also ask a series of questions that can best be summed up as, “Deb, how is it that someone trusted you to write an entire book? When we were in college you couldn’t put two coherent sentences together and when you did, they usually came out as a random quote from some obscure British comedy sketch.”

I don’t take this personally. I just spend a lot of time secretly thanking whoever is making the Universe run.

But the question of how someone becomes a writer still intrigues me, mainly because I still don’t know myself. I’m a crossword puzzle constructor, not a novelist. So when I got the call from Sterling Publishing, I reacted the way any sane person would react. I assumed they had the wrong person.

“Deb Amlen?” I repeated more than a few times. “Are you sure?”

Oh yes, they said. They had been following me on Facebook and thought I was funny. So I met with them, we all shook hands and agreed that this was a Good Idea. I, in a prophetic sign of things to come, went home and Googled “how to write a book”. And then I proceeded to panic.

Anyway, Caroline and I thought it might be beneficial for emerging writers to see exactly what goes into producing a professional, laugh-a-minute tome. Let me know if this sounds like the career for you.

7:30-8:30 AM: Wake up with a panicky start, realizing that there are only (insert random number) of months left until my manuscript FORANENTIREBOOKOHMYGOD is due. This will be my main emotional state for the entire time the book is being written. Wake child up for school and make breakfast. Remind toast-munching child that we have to get to school on time because Mom has a full day of writing ahead of her. Child nods mechanically without looking up from his book. He has heard this before.

8:30-9:00 AM: Drop child off at school and head home to begin productive day of writing. Must make coffee first. This will be a full day of work, so a major injection of caffeine is non-negotiable.

9:00-10:00 AM: OK, down to work now. For real. Boot up the laptop for what will surely be a fruitful day of award-winning humor. Stare at blank computer page. For a really long time. Make more coffee to distract myself from the growing sense of panic that is dominating my life.

10:00-11:00 AM: Dig out Professional Writer’s Notebook and thumb through pages of illegible scrawl. Find a potentially good idea in a phrase that looks like it says “On top of furnace. But this time with marshmallows.” Spend time mulling over this nugget of brilliance. No longer have any idea at all what I meant by that. Rip page out of notebook, crumble, and shoot for the wastebasket.

11:00 AM-12:00 PM: Clinical depression.

12:00-12:30 PM: Lunch and brief internal debate about faking my own death to get out of contract. Decide against this plan mostly because of the inconvenience of having to explain the term “undisclosed location” to my children.

12:30-1:00 PM: Clearly distractions make it impossible to get anything done at home. Ignore internal voice reminding me that I am the only one in the house and therefore a total loser. Head for local Panera restaurant.

1:00-1:30 PM: This is more like it. Bottomless iced tea and no one distracts me here. Boot up laptop and write three words when Panera Cookie Lady comes around with sample tray. It would be rude to say no. Cookie break and brief discussion about the merits of chocolate chip versus shortbread.

1:30-2:00 PM: Log onto Facebook. This is just good business. These days, you can’t sell books without a solid social network. Spend half hour looking for the skank who stole my boyfriend in high school.

2:00-3:00 PM: Last ditch effort to write something before I need to retrieve my child from school. Re-write yesterday’s chapter draft, as it currently makes as much sense as an H. Ross Perot campaign speech. Vow to do better tomorrow. Ignore internal voice that is actively betting against me.

Somehow the book got written, though, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. You’ve got to be in it to win it, right?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Read This Book: Fragile by Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger is an award-winning New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling author. Her novels have been published in over 26 countries and Fragile, her addictive newest, has just been chosen by Good Morning America as one of the "Top Book Picks for Great Summer Reading." I'm thrilled Lisa agreed to answer my questions.

You’re known for tense literary thrillers, but Fragile is something different. Was this a conscious decision (and if so, why?) and if not, when did you realize you were writing something so different?

It really wasn’t a conscious decision. Not much about my process is. Most of my novels start with a voice, and in this case it was Maggie. We first meet her in a moment when she is feeling the loss of her son—not in any tragic way. It’s in that normal way that we say goodbye to our children every day, as they grow and change into someone new. In a moment of conflict with her teenager, she’s missing the loving little boy he was -- even as much as she loves the person he has become. So it was her voice, her story, that brought me into The Hollows. Once I was there, I was meeting different types of people than I had met before. And their experiences, there way of telling was unlike other character I have known.

As much as Fragile is a departure from the novels that came before it, it felt like a very natural evolution of my writing. I think I was halfway into it before I knew I had moved in another direction, and when I realized what the book was really about.

You’ve said in your author’s notes, that “a lifetime ago, a girl that I knew went missing” and you’ve been trying to write this novel for 20 years. Why do you think this one was so hard to write? Was it finding the voice? Or the story? Or was it not having the right understanding of what had happened?

It wasn’t that the story was hard to write, necessarily. (Though the subject matter is hard to take.) It’s more that I wasn’t writer enough to do it. I learned with Fragile that you can have ambitions to tell a story and not have the talent or the skill to tell it well. It took me eight novels to learn what I needed to learn—about myself, about the craft—to write this book.

This story has turned up in partials over the years, with voices very different from those that eventually allowed me to access it. So, I suppose it was about voice, too. And it was interesting that it took older, more mature people with distance from the tragedy to make sense of it. I don’t think I realized until I wrote this novel how greatly I was impacted by the real life event upon which the book is (very loosely) based. In other words, I think I had to grow up a little to meet the people who would eventually be able to tell this story.

Fragile is about the fragile bonds of community, but I also think it’s about the fragility of memory—what we choose to remember and what we are desperate to forget, perhaps. Would you agree with this?

I would very much agree with that. In fact, I’d say it’s more about the latter than the former. My own memories of what happened are scattered and dream-like. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, what happened when. I purposely did nothing to alter that, because I didn’t want to resurrect ugly memories for anyone, or cause any more pain. What I do remember clearly is how I felt—lost, terrified, disbelieving that someone I knew could be abducted and murdered.

But I think that’s true of most childhood memories. They take on this mythic quality. They’re misty and vague, but they play a gigantic role in how we define ourselves. Some we hold on to, replay over and over. Others we tamp down, try to forget. In both cases, they have a hold on how we think about the past, the present, and the future. And Fragile is definitely about the impact of memory. Most of the characters are struggling with lost selves, hidden selves, former selves they can’t escape and events they don’t want to remember but can’t move past.

What I also loved about this novel was the complexity of all the relationships, from husband and wife to boyfriend and girlfriends. Do you think we can ever really know the ones we love?

It’s an interesting question. This is a theme I explore over and over in my work.

People are complex, different from moment to moment, depending on circumstances. Jones is probably the best example of this. In The Hollows, he’s beloved, the trusted and respected town cop. He’s a different man as a father. He’s a good, but sometimes distant husband. He was another person again as a son. And he has an ugliness in his past that he has allowed to consume him—a secret he has kept from everyone. Does his wife Maggie really know him? Does his son? Not all of him. But that doesn’t make what they do know of him any less true.

Jones may have been angry and resentful with his mother, but loving and compassionate with his wife. Maybe he’s harsh with his son, but gentle with a boy he’s rescuing from a well. All of these facets of him are authentic…but we have to look at the complete picture to know the real man. And in real life, we may never have the opportunity. We do know the people we love, the people with whom we share our lives. But we only really know the people they are with us. Under other circumstances, with other people, they may be someone totally unrecognizable.

I’m fascinated by process, so can you tell me something about how you wrote this novel? Do you outline things out?

I don’t outline. When a book begins, usually with a character voice, I have no idea what’s going to happen, who’s going to show up, what they’re going to do day to day. And I certainly have no idea how things will end. It’s kind of a crazy way to write a book, but I’ve never done it any other way. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen.

Plot flows from character. And until you get to know your characters, you don’t have any idea what’s going on with them, what they’ll do in any given circumstance. And you can’t get to know them unless you write. You can write a whole novel, just as you can life a whole life, just getting to know the people who populate it. One of my favorite quotes about process is from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

What is obsessing you now in your writing?

I have some on-going obsessions. The themes of memory, identity, and family secrets continue to loom large. My latest obsession is faith—which is also not-so-coincidentally the working title of my next novel. How does faith or a lack thereof affect our decisions, our ability to face death. In Fragile, I touch a little bit on the idea of psychic phenomenon and its role in crime solving. In Faith, I explore that a bit more.

And I’m still in The Hollows. I’m a little obsessed with that place, too. The whole idea of the small town, quiet, idyllic on its surface, and the depths beneath full of secrets and dark memories. Come to think of it, that’s another on-going obsession of mine … it’s just playing out in The Hollows at the moment.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Read This Book: Suzanne Beecher's Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (If Disorderly) Life

Honestly, to know Suzanne Beecher is to adore her. Really. I mean it. Not only is she the founder of, where you can sample 2-3 chapters of books in your email each week, but she writes a column and designs book clubs for publishers, booksellers and libraries across the country. After having lunch in the city with her, I felt that I had known her forever. She's that kind of person.

Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (If Disorderly) Life is a wonderful book filled with recipes and insights about what it takes to live a happy life--the Suzanne Beecher way. I'm thrilled that Suzanne is here to answer questions.

I love the structure of this book. It’s part memoir, part cookbook, and absolutely enchanting. How did you figure out the structure? So tell us, how IS life like a recipe? And what made you decide to write this book?

Thank you. I wish I could take credit for the structure, but I can’t. In the midst of writing the book, when I got to feeling I was in way-y-y over my head--’Oh, boy, I’ve done it again, pretending I know how to do something when I don’t have a clue’--I relinquished control and the book took over. I was merely a hired temp to do the typing. Okay, so that may sound a bit bizarre. But it really did feel as if when I decided to get out of the way, the words flowed onto the page. Author friends suggested I should take my columns and put them into a book. But the reason I wanted to write a book was to learn how to do something different. If I simply put my columns into a book, I wouldn’t be learning anything new and it wouldn’t be a challenge. And now I’m in the midst of working on that challenge again—I’ve begun writing a second book.

Cooking, especially baking, is one of the things I do to keep me grounded in life. Food is a way to connect with almost anyone. Baking chocolate chip cookies and giving them away to friends and even strangers, is one of my trademarks. Every time I hand someone a bag of my chocolate chip cookies, they tell me a story. “I remember when my grandma used to bake cookies. I’d sit on a stool in her kitchen waiting to lick the bowl. I miss Grandma.”

You’re known for the incredible, an incredible online bookclub. Can you tell us how you started DearReader?

It was the summer of 1999. My husband and I were working together in his software company. Most of the people who worked for him were stay-at-home moms, working part time from their homes, so they could be with their children. Frequently one of the moms would comment, that when her children were old enough she wanted to go back to college.

So one afternoon, when I heard the frustration in Cathy’s voice about wishing she could go back to school, I asked, “Why wait? Your kids might not be going to school for three or four years, but you could start reading about whatever subject you’re interested in right now.”

Cathy was not amused. “Look Suzanne, I cook, clean, do school activities, take care of my children, and work part time for you. I don’t even have time to shave my legs and you expect me to sit down and read a book!”

Good point. I guess I’d forgotten how little free time my husband and I had when our kids were young. In-between managing our businesses, trying to get kids off to school in the morning and then transport them to music lessons and sports afterwards, it was a real juggling act. So that evening when I was preparing our daily company email, on a whim I started typing in the first few pages of Tuesdays with Morrie, a book I’d just finished reading. The next evening I typed in a little more, continuing to send short installments with each company email.

Four days later, No Time to Shave My Legs Woman called. “I’m embarrassed to admit it, Suzanne, but I’ve been sneaking over to my computer late at night to see if company email showed up yet, because I’m hooked on the book.”

So if sending part of a book, to a busy stay-at-home mom, could inspire her to add reading to her “to-do” list, what would happen if I sent daily book club emails to millions of people? And that’s how my online book clubs at were born. (By the way, before I continue, I need to tell you that taking copyrighted material out of a book is illegal, which my loving husband pointed out to me at the time. I assured him it was for a small group of women and that’s how creative ideas are born. But that still doesn’t make it legal. Not to worry, I have permission for all of the books I use at my online book clubs today.)

I knew how to build a website and I could envision what the book clubs would look like, but how was I going to get permission to use material from published books? Silly, naïve me, I thought if I called a publisher they would call me back. When they didn’t, I tried sending a fax and then an overnight letter. Finally it was my persistent dialing that reached a Random House executive. She decided to take a chance on my online book club idea. But a week later, when we were supposed to finalize things, my contact was gone—literally. The recording on her phone said she didn’t work at Random House any longer, “Press one if you need further assistance.”

So I had no choice but to begin again. Eventually I connected with someone else at Random House and I started getting permissions. I figured I could name-drop and easily get other publishers on board, too. When that didn’t work, I baked chocolate chip cookies and sent them overnight with a one-page letter. I realize a business letter and chocolate chip cookies might seem like strange bedfellows. But I loved to bake, and I needed to stand out, and who doesn’t love a homemade chocolate chip cookie—like the kind Grandma used to make?

What a difference when I’d call a publisher the day after my package arrived, “Oh, you’re the cookie woman! I’m sorry we didn’t get back to you yet.” Today, eleven years later, over 375,000 people read at my
Dear Reader online book clubs every day. I’m still baking cookies for publishers—because it’s fun—and I bake for readers, too. Every month there’s a Chocolate Chip Cookie Giveaway at the book clubs. Stop by, if you’re name is drawn I’ll bake and overnight two-dozen homemade cookies to your front door.

Sound a little crazy? Yes, but a little crazy means we have a lot of fun. When you sign up at one of my free online book clubs, in addition to test-driving great books (every Monday through Friday you receive an email with a 5-minute read) I write a daily column, and I give away other “crazy” items: bubble machines, heating pads for kitties that live in cold climates, vintage aprons, garage sale goodies, measuring cups, journals, and I’ve even shopped for socks for book club readers.

I invite you to join the fun at and if you like my style, you’ll love my new book, Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if disorderly) Life. Read a sample at get a signed book plate, and discover my “goodies” for book clubs that meet in person.

I’m always fascinated by the writing process, so can you tell me what it was like to write Muffins & Mayhem?

It was the most intense high a person could imagine, and the most extreme terror I’ve ever experienced. What a ride. I’m not the sort of person who makes outlines and business plans before I begin something new, so my recipe for the book was—jump in. Even though I didn’t want to reprint columns in a book, one of the first things I did was take my columns (from the past eight years) and sort them into topics. Recipes and stories seem to be an interchangeable part of my life and I wanted to see what topics came up the most frequently. What were the issues I seemed to spend the most time writing about in my column every day?

Periodically, when I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d call my agent. From the Acknowledgements Page in my book:

Small-town girl meets big-city agent. She learns about the business of writing and selling a book, and also makes a kind and patient friend in the process. Thank you, Dan Conaway.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.”

And he would ask, “Are you still writing?”

“Yes, Dan, I’m still writing.”

“Then everything is fine, Suzanne.”

You’ve had an extraordinary life. You’ve owned a restaurant, founded a business, and written this book. What’s next? Do you have a vision of what your life might be like when you are ninety?

When I’m 90 I think I’ll like myself better than I do today. The older I get the easier it is for me to let go of things. Having said that, I realize I’ll always be a work in progress. The boogey-man still hangs out underneath my bed, but I’m better prepared to fight him off, because I’ve had years of experience. Maybe by the time I’m 90, the boogey-man will be bored with me and will bother younger folks—a girl can only hope.

My grandchildren are very important to me. I’m doing my best to create memories for them that they’ll be able to think about when they need to get grounded. My grandparents were my soft place to fall when I was growing up.

I’m baking once a week with my 3-year-old grandson, Paul. He loves baking cupcakes with Grandma—and I love the afternoons we spend together in the kitchen. A reporter recently asked, “Last meal on earth?”

“Macaroni and cheese with my grandchildren. I hope I’m giving them the kind of memories my Grandma and Grandpa Hale gave to me.”

Writing is all about how we see and experience and perceive the world. You have an eye disorder benign essential blepharospasm which you write that you have learned to love. I’m curious how you were able to do that, but I’m also curious about how the disorder changed your perception of the world, and your writing.

I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. I dislike the phrase, “I make lemonade out of lemons.” That’s way too Pollyanna for me. Bad stuff happens in life. We get crummy breaks, things seem unfair and sometimes all a person can do is cry and scream and be depressed—for a while. My first reaction to my eye disorder, (when I was walking around with a red-and-white cane) was, “It’s okay, I’ve made it through other tough situations and I’ll make it through this.” Then after a couple of weeks, I rationalized, “Things could be worse, some people don’t have arms or legs.” But eventually one morning I woke up furious, “I don’t care if some people don’t have arms and legs—this eye disorder sucks, it’s not fair, I don’t want to live like this!!!” And I stayed upset for quite a while. In fact, I stayed angry for so long I started to scare myself. But when I confided to a friend that I feared I’d crossed over some anger line, and wouldn’t ever be able to return, she assured me I wasn’t even close to that yet. And she was right. Finally I decided to give up. Giving up, is always a last resort for me. I don’t know why, because giving up—letting go of the problem (because really I have no control over it anyway) seems to work for me.

The day I finally gave up, I had a conversation with my disorder. Told it we could learn to live together, to even be friends, and I literally wrapped my arms around it. Today I drive, no red-and-white cane, most people wouldn’t even know anything was wrong with me. I do have to get 13 eye injections every four weeks. People cringe when I tell them about the shots. But the shots are a blessing because they allow me to open my eyes.

I loved the section of the book where you suddenly felt you could acknowledge and own the fact that you were a writer despite the self-doubt. (I’m someone who knows that feeling of self-doubt all too well.) What do you think is the best way to do what you love without worrying what others think or denigrating yourself?

I don’t think my lack of self-confidence will ever totally disappear. But I’ve wrestled with those feelings and found middle ground. So when the feeling comes over me, instead of freaking out, I tell myself, “Oh, look. Here it is again.” Kind of lay out the welcome mat and suddenly it’s not such a big deal. The feelings move on.

What’s obsessing you now?

I’m frustrated because I can’t get as much done in a day as I’d like to get done. I know the truth about such an absurd way of thinking, yet I keep thinking if I were only more organized, more motivated, less lazy. . . “blah, blah, blah. . .” (I’m smiling because it’s so silly, and I know it.)

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

I’ve spent way too much of my life trying to “do it right,” looking at other people who seemed successful and happy, trying my best to be like them. To get them to like me. Finally I realized that I’m okay, just the way I am, whatever that might be. And that the most important person who really needs to like me—is me. I hope that when people read my book, they can walk away with those same feelings and realize they can be their own soft place to fall.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Visit me on Wordswimmer

The fabulous blog Wordswimmer run by the amazing Bruce Black, asked me to talk about the writing process. Come and visit!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Gmail Hacked!!Apologies to all

My gmail was hacked and I believe everyone on my list got an annoying spam about Viagra this morning. I apologize profusely! I changed my password and now I just have to walk the spam-walk-of-shame for a while until I am forgiven. Sigh. What is the point? Do the spammers really think they are going to get business this way or are they just evil?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Welcome to the cowboy boots and beaded sweater tour!

I'm so excited to be going on tour (seven cities! I'll post details on my website as I have them!) that I decided I really need a new good luck charm, and what's better than red cowboy boots to go along with my collection of vintage beaded sweaters? I'm even happier that I found these boots at Heavenly Metal, a store owned and run by Vicki Honeyman, a person I used to know when I went to school in Ann Arbor. She used to run the Film Festival there and now she runs this unique store. I'm going to be touring to Ann Arbor, which means I get to see her store--and her-- for real!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

READ THIS BOOK: Maile Meloy's Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

I've loved Maile Meloy's work since I read her first collection, Half in Love, followed by Liars and Saints (shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize) and A Family Daughter. Published by The New Yorker, she's received the Paris Review's Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her latest collection of stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it is astonishing, moving, and just brilliantly written. I'm so thrilled to have Maile here.

The interesting thing about this collection is that all of these fabulous stories were ones you had originally discarded, that you picked up again and polished. What changed in your initial writing of the story and your polishing? Was it craft or simply looking at the stories from a different point of view?

I think time is the great editor, and I had set the stories aside for long enough that I could see ways to fix them. I really despaired of most of them, but I also think now that the fact that I found them difficult meant that there was something promising in them (though I’ve thrown away plenty of unsalvageable stories). Here are more specific answers:

In the case of “The Children,” I made the story a lot longer, and let it grow outside its original confines. When I first started writing stories they were always 10-12 pages long, and I think one of the things I’ve learned in the last ten years is how to be more expansive, and allow in what might feel like excess. In the case of “Liliana,” I decided not to be afraid of the complications of the title character, and to let her be both awful and charming, and ready to foil anyone who wants anything from her. In the first draft of “Agustín,” the main character’s daughter, waiting for her inheritance, was so dreadful that you could understand him courting his ex-lover just to spite her, which took away from the power of his love. So in that case I tried to give the story and the desire back to Agustín.

There’s an incredible sense of longing in these stories. One character yearns for an unattainable woman “who could find him if she wanted”; a girl in “Red from Green” can’t process a disturbing event until she turns it into a story. All of the characters indeed seem to “want it both ways” even at their own peril. Why do you think we all want this, even though we know the outcomes may be bleak?

Because it’s intolerable, that we should have things only one way—isn’t it? When I was a kid I would never answer the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up, even as a game, because to choose one thing seemed to rule out all the other possibilities. I believe that choosing a path and embracing it can be fulfilling, but I also find it maddening that whatever you choose inevitably closes other doors—even if I’m just ordering off a restaurant menu. Why did I get the fries? Why didn’t I get the fries? Like that. I hope it’s human nature and it isn’t just me.

Many of your stories shift direction and offer surprises, like small shocks. I was wondering if in the writing, you yourself were surprised, or if you had everything mapped out in advance.

I’m always surprised. Occasionally I know vaguely where a story is going, and the writing goes more quickly then, but mostly I find out what happens as I go along. There’s that story about F. Scott Fitzgerald, I think, losing his only copy of a new story on a train. Someone asked if he was going to rewrite it and he said, “Why? I know how it ends.” I feel a little like that. I think it would be more efficient to have things plotted in my head before I began, but I don’t really know how to do that. I’m usually writing to find out what happens. And when it’s surprising, I’m happy.

What’s obsessing you now in your writing?

How to switch gears. I just wrote a young adult novel called The Apothecary (it will be published by G.P. Putnam in 2011), and as I was finishing it, I was asked for a short story. I’d already raided all the almost-there stories for Both Ways, so I tried to write a story set in the world of the grown-up novel I want to write next. What I ended up with wasn’t a short story; it sounded exactly like the beginning of a young adult novel. That’s what I’ve been writing, so those are the muscles I’ve been exercising. I couldn’t come up with a short story in a hurry. I know from going back and forth between stories and novels in the past that it just takes a little time to make the switch, but I have to figure out how to get the muscles for writing grown-up novels back.

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?

Nothing, these are all terrific! But feel free to ask follow-ups, if you have them.

Friday, July 2, 2010

London Fogged

I admit I am jet lagged. London was insanely expensive ($40 for a croissant, juice and fruit for breakfast!) and completely wonderful. Imagine a city where people read on the tube rather than plug into their i-pods! The photo on the left, smaller than I would like, is of we three fools pretending to be the Beatles on Abbey Road.

But what was most wondrous about going away was not having email or phones or work or not even time or room for anything in my head except everything we were seeing, smelling, tasting or touching.

We're home now, and my novel is stretching, yawning and waking up again, and so am I.