Monday, January 30, 2012

Sarah McCoy talks about the color red, research, motherhood and The Baker's Daughter

I love Sarah McCoy. Her novels and the person. We met on twitter and discovered that we share so many things--packing phobias, curly hair products, and a love and obsession with our writing. I loved The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico, and I love The Baker's Daughter even more.  I'm not just honored to have Sarah here on the blog--I'm deliriously happy because she's also my friend. Thanks for everything, Sarah!

Where did the idea for this novel spark?
On my first visit to El Paso to look for a place to live, my husband and I were on the plane with a group of Germans. I didn’t think it too out of the ordinary at the time. I figured it was a tour group – vacationing Europeans off to see the American Wild West. My dad was an Army officer, and we were stationed in Germany during my childhood. My husband also grew up in Germany, speaks fluent German, and worked at a German resort during college. So we were familiar with the German fascination with America’s cowboys and Indians as much as our own with their lederhosen and beer steins.

Months later, when we officially moved to El Paso, the city magazine asked me to write a feature article on the German community. I had no idea there was an established community. I learned: the Luftwaffe has trained fliers in the United States since 1958. In 1992, they consolidated their troops at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, just up the road from El Paso. Yes, there is a sizeable German air force base on the Tex-Mex border. Bet you didn’t know that! I sure didn’t but was instantly riveted.

My research for the magazine led me to a bakery in town called Marina’s German Bakery. The staff graciously allowed me to poke around their kitchen and ask a bazillion questions, which ultimately led to the creation of Reba and the present-day storyline of The Baker’s Daughter.

Then one day, my husband and I went to a farmer’s market and met an octogenarian German woman selling bread. I was completely enamored of her, and all that I imagined her life might’ve contained. While picking out my brötchen rolls, I asked how she came to be in El Paso. “I married an American solider after the war,” she said, and I had a vision of a young woman named Elsie in 1945 Germany. My childhood in Germany, and my many visits back as an adult, stoked my imagination as I dug into the history books and firsthand accounts of that horrifying final year of World War II.  

What about your present-day research for Reba’s story?
For that, all I needed to do was open my eyes and look around; unplug my ears and listen to my neighbors; allow myself to challenge the prevalent immigration opinions and imagine it from a Mexican national’s perspective or from an American who loved and cared about that person.  I read Border Protection and police raid transcripts, cut out articles from the newspaper, listened to radio and TV reports, and read the essays my students wrote. I was teaching writing courses at the University of Texas at El Paso. Then I went out to where El Paso’s Interstate-10 curves around the heart of Ciudad Juarez. On one side of the highway, a giant Mexican flag flies over desert shacks burning tires for warmth. On the other side, UTEP’s giant Sun Bowl with digital screens and football fans eating heaps of nachos each weekend. It’s a stark contrast. All-American versus… not.

Your second novel is vastly different from your first— a coming-of-age story. Is that something you consciously aimed for or does your imagination take the helm?
In my writing and reading, I love stories in which I learn something new—be it historical, emotional, philosophical, scientific, artistic, etc. I like to close a book and know that I’ve acquired some body of knowledge that I didn’t have prior to opening the cover. I can’t write the same thing twice just as I couldn’t learn to ride a bike twice. Once you learn, it sticks. So you move on to how to waterski or do the Cha Cha, paint a landscape or make a lemon battery—something new.

The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico is about an 11-year-old Puerto Rican girl coming of age in the 1960s. The Baker’s Daughter is about war and exclusion, love and forgiveness. The appeal for me, as the author, is in the discovery of unexplored themes and learning from the characters as they share their stories.

The hat on your book cover is red and you use the color throughout the story. Was that intentional?
(I’m in good red-loving company, Caroline. I blatantly covet your red boots and am on a quest to find a pair by the time we meet in person.) 

The use of the color red was not intentional. It simply started appearing in the story: a poppy, a sunset, a dress, a ribbon, geraniums, a hat. It organically bloomed from the characters. About three quarters of the way into writing, I stopped and took notice.

In regards to the cover, I had no clue what the designer would come up with, but when I saw the woman’s back and the red hat, it all seemed to fit. There’s something about red. It grabs your attention and holds it. It’s beautiful, vibrant, and slightly alarming. In a color, it captures how I felt while writing this novel—how the characters felt in each of their settings.  

What's obsessing you now?
Motherhood. I’m at that age when every friend I know seems to be nursing a newborn or pregnant. I’ve sat besides friends waiting for stripes on the pregnancy wand and friends undergoing months of fertility treatment to both joyful and disappointing outcomes. The concept of nurturing—the definition of being a nurturer– keeps me up at night. What lengths will we go through to fulfill our desire to parent? And what happens when the traditional path fails or is not chosen? Can you still be one? Of course, all of this has funneled into my current work-in-progress, novel #3.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
I guess you could’ve asked me who is the baker’s daughter? But I’m glad you didn’t because I can’t say for absolute certain. There are so many layers of daughters in this book. What I can say is that I am not the baker’s daughter!  My mom can fry a fierce egg and steam up seafood like you’ve died and gone to Old Bay heaven, but growing up, she wasn’t much of a flour-&-yeast devotee. For a few years, she tried her hand at homemade sourdough in a bread machine. My brothers and I thought the vertical loaves extremely odd and the frothy “culture” worthy of a horror movie. We went to the supermarket bakery for baguettes instead. She gave up and stuck to baking peanut butter cookies after that.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

I talk about bullies, reviews, second chances, dogs and more on Brad Listi's wonderful Other People

Brad Listi is one of the funniest, kindest smartest people on the planet. Besides The Nervous Breakdown, he runs this incredible podcast called Other People, where he conducts hilariously funny, inappropriate interviews with writers. I'm thrilled and honored that he interviewed me!  Please take a listen, and leave an inappropriate comment or six.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sheri Holman talks about fear, writing, motherhood and illness

Sheri  Holman’s one of the coolest people on the planet. A brilliant writer, her first novel, A Stolen Tongue was translated into 13 languages and The Dress Lodger was both a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The Mammoth Cheese was short-listed for the UK’s Orange Prize, and she’s also written for children. A founding member of The Moth storytelling venue, she lives in Brooklyn with her family. I'm honored to have Sheri here, and her essay, about the ways we cope with fear is a stunner. Thank you, Sheri. For everything.

We noticed something was wrong while I was on tour for my last novel.  My beloved publisher Grove/Atlantic had managed it so that my mother and aunt could travel along, helping to care for my six-week old twin boys.  It was an exhausting, exciting time and trouble was far from my mind.  But while Felix was nursing and gazing at me as babies do, his twin brother, Linus, was looking down and away, not making eye contact.  My mother worried he was blind, and while I didn't think it was that extreme, I did have a irrational  gut feeling something was terribly wrong.  Home from tour, I took him to the doctor,  but the pediatrician told me twins sometimes lagged behind developmentally.  Unable to shake the feeling, I took Linus to an ophthalmologist to have his eyes checked.  Looking into my three month old son's dilated pupils, the doctor grew quiet and left the room.  When he returned, he had the number for an oncologist.  He had found a massive tumor on Linus's retina, pressed against the optic nerve. 

I had thought I knew what it was to be afraid, but I had no idea the depths of terror and helplessness into which a parent could be plunged with the serious illness of a child.  During the next few years of Linus's intensive treatment – chemo, radiation, laser, and cryotherapy (not to mention the normal sleep deprivation of raising twins and their barely older sister) – our family struggled to stay positive and strong.  But fear ate away at everything, and as much as I fought it, superstition and magical thinking crept in.  I had failed at a mother's first job – I could not protect my child.  I lost confidence, saw danger everywhere.  I popped into random churches to light candles, I made bargains.   I tried to write – the medical bills were piling up – but I had nothing to say.  One  especially frigid winter morning, waiting for the car to warm up so that I might drive Linus in for his predawn appointment, I sat reading Lorrie Moore's brilliant “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”   It was the first time I cried, and  I sobbed until snot ran down my chin.  It was too good and too true.  Even as I wiped my face, I wondered if I would ever again have room in my life for fictional characters.  I wondered if I even cared.

Up in the middle of the night, nursing fretful babies, I would watch the news.  The casual fear- mongering, which before had caused me to roll my eyes, now felt cynically manipulative.  For us, the world did seem to be coming to an end, we felt perpetually under attack by unseen forces. And the news was mirroring and heightening my own fears.   I watched as supposedly respectable journalists like The New York Times's Judith Miller conjured horror stories about weapons of mass destruction.  I watched America plunge itself into a blind war and destroy the lives of millions, leaving families here at home and in the Middle East gutted, children orphaned.  I thought about how easy it was to mobilize an already weakened society, how terror becomes its own weapon of mass destruction, effecting not one generation, but the descendants of all it touches.  I began to ask myself what sort of societal suicidal impulse spawned a news media invested in keeping us paranoid and afraid? Who profited by this?

Under the care of a dedicated, gifted group of doctors, my son got better, and is now a happy, healthy, wickedly funny eight year old. Ultimately,  I took those years of anxiety and anger and poured them into the book that would become Witches on the Road Tonight, a novel that explores America's fascination with fear through three generations of the Alley family – Cora, a mountain witch who rides men at night; her son Eddie, a campy TV horror host, and granddaughter, Wallis, an anchorwoman for CNN.

 I've been away from publishing long enough that I've lost my illusions a trajectory exists for any writer's career.  It's a scary thought and sometimes gives me the 5 am panic attack.  Sometimes, I still wonder how much I have to give fictional characters; and, yes, sometimes, even if I care.  But writing about my own primal terrors has taught me that fear is ours to control.  And having my son tickle me awake every morning, demanding his breakfast, gives me the courage I need to keep finding out.  

Sam Winston talks about his extraordinary debut What Came After, crossover writing, bad advances and the future of us and of publishing

I hear about books in all sorts of ways. Sometimes publicists and editors contact me. Sometimes authors do. And sometimes I just keep hearing about a book on social media and I get so curious, I seek out the book myself. Case in point: Sam Winston’s extraordinary What Came After, an e-book about the end of the world. I started reading after dinner and didn’t stop until I finished. This is no ordinary book.  Character-driven, haunting, and gorgeously written, I think it’s a classic.  So, of course, I tracked Sam down and talked him into coming on my blog. Thanks, Sam!  Now hurry up and write something else! And visit Sam at his website

So what's it like to be a celebrated new novelist? Can you tell us about your road to publication? And what's next on your agenda?

There’s celebrated, and then there’s celebrated. But people are finding the book and responding enthusiastically to it—that’s the main thing. And apparently they’re telling their friends, too, which makes all the difference. It’s gratifying.

My path was and remains like that of so many other writers. I’d written a number of novels, and I’d had some first-rate literary representation over the years, but for whatever reason that magical sale to a big New York house never quite materialized. And when I finally began working on What Came After, there was an urgency about the whole project that made me decide to forego the usual commercial process—which, as you well know, has a built-in delay of at least a year between sale and publication even if things go perfectly—and publish it myself. My agency never even saw it, although they’ve definitely seen it now…

As for what’s next: I’m working like mad on a couple of related projects. One is a full-length sequel, and the other is a group of short stories set in the days just prior to What Came After. Little bits of backstory, having to do with the collapse that set everything in motion. I’ll be releasing them one by one, with the aim of keeping readers happy until the sequel’s ready.

I always ask--what sparked this novel? It certainly seems really timely.

You’ve put your finger on it. The classics of science fiction have always been imaginative responses to the culture around them, and in that sense What Came After is a real-live hunk of old-fashioned sci-fi. The world that it describes comes straight from the list of things I worry about every single day: the cruel imbalance of rich and poor, the perilous state of our health care system, the outsourcing of government (especially the military), the genetic modification of foods, and so on.

Just as filmmakers in the fifties and sixties conjured up alien robots and little green men to substitute for the Russians, today we substitute hordes of vampires and zombies for the things we’re really afraid of. I thought it would be good to write a post-apocalyptic adventure that didn’t rely on that kind of transference, but faced up directly to the mess we’re making of things.

I really loved that the Apocalypse was caused by our need for greed. Do you think that our future is ever going to change or are we doomed?

We need to start working together if anything is going to change.

Funny thing is, you see very similar sentiments on both sides of the political spectrum. The Tea Party hates big government and the Occupiers hate big business, but in the end it’s the collusion of government and business that’s gotten us into this fix. In What Came After that collusion is best represented by Black Rose, a private army that the federal government spun off in the years before the novel begins. They’re brutal mercenaries through and through, selling their services to the highest bidder. Poor Henry Weller, one man just trying to get some health care for his daughter, has his hands pretty full.

At the heart of the novel is Henry's love for his daughter, which was so moving and which, for me, grounded the novel, and put it squarely in the literary arena. Do you think that love can save us?

I sure hope so. I’m a dad, you know, so that’s the kind of thinking that drives both me and my work. As a parent you can’t help but look into the future and try to imagine how things will work out for your children—and right now, we’re in a state that Americans haven’t been in for a long time: life threatens to be worse for our children than it has been for us. Henry Weller saves Penny. With any luck, by giving readers a lens through which they can look at these things, I can help save my own kids.

I’m glad you mentioned the word “literary,” because everything else I’ve written would fall squarely into that camp. What Came After uses very compressed and telegraphic language that’s not quite conventional for sci-fi, and it’s built around a steamroller of a plot that’s not quite conventional for literary fiction, and so in those ways it’s a bit of a crossover. So far, though, folks on both sides of the aisle seem to dig it pretty well. The main thing is that it’s about credible people in a credible—and extremely perilous—situation.

What's your writing life like? (I love to hear about structure, rituals, outlines, the works.)

I’m very methodical. Most people don’t realize that if you write for an hour a day, and get 250 words down, inside of a year you’ll have a whole novel on our hands. That’s a very powerful routine. And the duration of it gives you the time you need to get the thinking right.

I usually start out working by the seat of my pants and end up shifting into a kind of desperation outline by the halfway point just to keep things straight. This novel was different, though. Instead of jumping right in, I sat down and wrote out the whole narrative just the way I’d tell it to you over the supper table. Maybe four or five pages’ worth. So I knew exactly what was going to happen when, and how it all tied together.

I’ve never heard of anyone using that system before, but then again I don’t get out much. It worked really well, though.

What's obsessing you now?

The whole crossover phenomenon in publishing. I came to this book organically, as a more or less literary writer who’d grown up reading the masters of elegantly-written science fiction: Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. So it was only natural that What Came After worked out the way it did. (My brother sent me a note while he was halfway through, saying that as he read it he could see me propped up in my bunk bed, reading The Martian Chronicles.)

Today, though, we have this phenomenon of literary writers jumping into the more speculative and sensational genres—Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Justin Cronin writing about vampires, Glen Duncan writing about werewolves—but the criticisms in the air suggest that there’s nothing deeply integrated about some of these projects. They don’t seem to appeal all that strongly to either side of the literary/genre divide, and that’s too bad.

Then again, maybe it’s a matter of expectations. As an unknown, I have the good fortune of coming to the table with absolutely zero in that department.

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

How about, “Do you have any regrets about self-publishing instead of taking another stab at the traditional route?”

Why, I’m glad you asked.

Sure, I have some regrets. A big advance would have been nice. Review coverage in the press would have been nice. The support of a publisher who’d send me out on tour would have been nice, too. On the other hand, those things have never been exactly common, and they’re less common today than they ever were.

So I look at the upsides. Doing it yourself gives you total control over the product. There’s very little delay in getting to market, which was important for this book. You get to keep one hundred percent of what you make, and if you price your work properly you can do just fine in that department too.

In the end, it all comes to the same thing: your work and the reader. If someone likes your book and tells a friend and that friend likes it too, then you’ve succeeded.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Laura Harrington talks about Alice Bliss, doing what you're afraid of doing, and creativity

I'm giving over my blog to the great Laura Harrington, author of the wonderful novel Alice Bliss. Thank you, Laura!

“If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.”
Mario Andretti

At every Q & A for a book event there’s always the “how” question. Various forms of: How do you do it? How do you create/ write/ find the discipline/ stay motivated? Given that we are all creative beings, what is it that separates those who write from those who wish they were writing? I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years. What follows is my own very personal list.

Doing what you’re afraid of.
The new age version of this is: Embrace your fears. Sounds a little too cozy for real terrors, doesn’t it? And actors would say: Use your fear.
We all have our fears; fear of failure, fear of bungee jumping, fear of not being loved, not measuring up, etc. In college I was so afraid that my dream of becoming a writer might not come true I stopped writing altogether. This became so uncomfortable over the course of several years that I finally decided to confront my fear of failing and figure out whether I was going to write or not. The need to know one way or another trumped my fear. I enrolled in a graduate creative writing program and took the course that sounded the most terrifying: playwriting, about a subject I knew absolutely nothing about: plays. Taught by a type of writer I did not really know existed in modern times: a playwright. It changed my life.

Tolerating uncertainty.
In order to create anything you have to learn to tolerate uncertainty for long stretches of time. Most of us hate uncertainty and avoid it as much as we can.
In the beginning: There’s the “contemplating the void” period, when you’re starting a new project but it’s not actually a project yet, it’s hardly an idea, it’s something inchoate and is only beginning to take form and swim in your unconscious. You have to sit with the emptiness day after day, week after week, taking notes, showing up, not knowing. Robert Anderson, author of Tea and Sympathy, calls this period ”fishing.”
In the middle: When I’m in the middle of a book or a play everyday is uncertain. Will I have ideas? Will my characters talk to me? Am I moving in the right direction? Is there a story here? Does anyone care? Do I care?
In the end: Will my book be published? Will my play be produced? Will I survive the critics? Will I make any money? Can I quit my day job?
Here’s the secret: Hidden within all of this uncertainty, this not knowing, being off-balance are the questions that lead deeper into the work, the obsessions, the writing.

Creating a practice.
I find it more useful to model my working life on musicians rather than the romantic idea of the writer waiting for the muse. Waiting for the muse has never worked for me. While waiting for the muse I get overwhelmed by uncertainty and doubt and fear and by the crushing need for chocolate or coffee or companionship or anything at all that will take me away from the uncertainty and doubt brought on by waiting for the muse.
Showing up everyday with a pen is the only way I can circumvent the uncertainty. I’m just sitting here, I’m just writing, I’m just going to see where this idea takes me. Like practicing scales on the piano. It’s not a big deal. It’s not art. It’s not important. I’m just warming up. It’s just practice.
This is why you see brilliant writers like playwright August Wilson writing on napkins. It’s just a napkin.  There’s no pressure for this poor napkin to win another Pulitzer.

When Caroline invited me to write this essay about creativity the first word that popped into my head was faith. In the middle of a book or a play I’m living on blind faith. I might have a map, I might know that there’s a bridge I’d better be sure to cross, but finding my way? Faith. Stumbling around in the dark.  My writing practice often feels like simply showing up and trusting. Doubt, faith’s twin, is with me every step of the way, biting at my heels. Blind faith can be exhilarating: days when a new character appears, fully formed. Doubt can be overwhelming: days when it’s just too damned difficult to trust, to be patient, to follow the path rather than control the itinerary.
But I always come back to this: I have faith that writing is important, that I will finish this book or this play, faith that what I am obsessed with will matter to a few other people, faith in the written word, faith in the process, faith in my practice to see me through one more time.

Getting physical.
For me, none of this would be possible without getting physical and getting playful. Getting out of my head and onto the beach or into the quarry or the ocean or the pool. I have ridden horses, taken boxing lessons, learned how to salsa, practiced yoga, walked, hiked, biked, skated, played volleyball, just about anything to engage my body and give my mind a vacation or a new challenge. I’ll never be a boxer, a yogi, or a professional athlete; but each of these things refreshes my spirit and both allows me to experience the joy/fear combo of being a beginner again and reminds me that progress, like writing, comes in very small steps.

Letting go.
In a recent interview, painter Frank Stella quoted race car driver Mario Andretti:
“If you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.”
There are things in our life that we can control, or that we like to think we can. Controlling your writing is not such a great idea. Arthur Kopit, my first playwriting teacher would say, “Consider the word “play” in all its meanings. If you are not playing and having fun when you’re writing your audience won’t be having much fun either.”
Great writing has the promise of a wild ride or a bacchanalia within it; the best party you’ve ever been to, where unexpected, sometimes terrifying life-changing events occur.

So I try to be fearless, I try to enjoy the fact that I don’t know where I’m going or if I’ll ever get there, I remind myself to play, to be a beginner, I try to have enough faith to let go. And I remember playwright Suzan Lori Parks saying: “Every morning when I wake up I get to say: I’m a writer. Today I get to write.”

Hilma Wolitzer talks about An Available Man

I loved this novel so much, I blurbed it! In the wake of her fantastic New York Times review, I am honored to have Hilma on here today writing about writing. Thank you, Hilma!

Looking for an Available Man

When I began to write An Available Man, I was thinking more about available women, those friends and relatives who’d suddenly found themselves single again through divorce or a spouse’s death.  Some of them were content to be on their own, but others were longing to be part of a couple again.  I heard a lot of horror stories about online dating: men who lied about their age (by up to 25 years!), photo-shopped themselves into Brad Pitt, tried to cop a feel right after (or during) a coffee date, or had the creepy look and demeanor of serial killers.  Occasionally, I’d be asked, wistfully, if I happened to know of anyone nicer, more suitable.

Like Jane Austen’s Emma and Sholem Aleichem’s Yente, I’ve always had an impulse for matchmaking, usually with a stunning lack of success.  My heart was in the right place, I suppose—why should anyone be lonely?—but I just didn’t seem to have a talent for pairing people up.  The general consensus was: what was she thinking?!  Sometimes, I was told, it was even hate at first sight. 

I started to think I’d have more luck writing a novel about looking for love the second time around.  What if my protagonist was someone recently widowed whose (well-meaning) friends try to fix her up?  And what if she goes online?  I had a lot of material to build on: all those reported dates from hell—the raunchy and/or impotent men, the cheapskates, the scary ones. 

But weren’t there any decent guys out there?  And how did they meet women?  How did they feel about blind dates, about loneliness, and horniness?  The more I thought about it, the more I began to envision a newly available man named Edward Schuyler.  Soon I was hooked on the idea of writing from the male perspective, not my usual POV.  I worried a little (in a twist on Freud) if I knew enough about what a man wants.  And I’d once heard that Renoir claimed he painted with his penis.  Unfortunately, I’m not similarly equipped, but men have been writing about women’s inner lives for centuries, and I believe it’s possible for women to also imagine the ultimate other, and the other side of the story. 

I came to like and care about Edward, the way I do for most of my heroines, and I wanted him to find happiness.  He seemed like the perfect match for so many of my witty, sensitive, attractive friends.   It’s just too bad he’s not real. 

Kathy L. Patrick talks about Beauty and the Book, The Pulpwood Queens, literacy and more

If you've been reading this blog, you know how much fun I had at Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. No one does more for literacy, readers or writers than Kathy L. Patrick, so of course I had to corner her and interview her.  That's gorgeous Kathy  below, decked out for The Pretty in Pink Prom at the Pulpwood Queens Weekend! Thank you, Kathy, for doing this interview, and for everything I can think of.

How did the idea for Beauty and the Book, the first and only beauty shop and bookstore, come about? 

The idea happened in the worst way.  I was downsized in my job as a book publisher's rep. I lost my job.  I was devastated as I thought that was my dream job.  But what I learned was that sometimes when a door is slammed a window of opportunity does indeed open.  My sister suggested that I open a hair salon again.  I had put myself through college doing hair, the story is all in my book, "The Pulpwood queen's Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life".  I told her I would be bored just doing hair and she suggested I do the book thing.  Zing! Wham! Bang!  Lightbulbs were going on in my head.  I thought what a terrific idea, I could do hair and talk books and instead of loaning them, I could sell them.  So the beginning chapter is all about me getting a real lemon but instead of making lemonade, I made margaritas!!!

The Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend weekend was unlike anything I've ever experienced--a heady brew of friendship, reading, and costumes!!! I know every year you come up with a theme. Can you talk a bit about how you do decide the theme?  

The theme comes mostly from my interests and the books that we read.  This past year I had read 'Water for Elephants", "The Night Circus", and one of my favorite past reads was Carolyn Turgeon's "Rain Village" and they all had a circus connection.  I always wanted to run away with the circus so this is was a dream of a theme for me.  My life has always been a three ring circus with running a home, a business, and the largest "meeting and discussing" book club in the world, The Pulpwood Queens so "The Greatest Book Show on Earth" was created for this past Girlfriend Weekend's theme.

I was deeply moved by some of the wonderful things that the Pulpwood Queens do to promote literacy. How did this come about?  

One book, one Pulpwood Queen chapter at a time.  I ask all the Pulpwood Queens to take on a literacy endeavor. I have book clubs embracing that endeavor and leading us all in their literacy efforts. My charity of choice is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, I ask the authors to donate a personal item signed for Silent Auction and these funds keep our literacy programs going.  Then this year I decided to award my book club chapters that were doing incredible, mind-blowing literacy endeavors, this the Diamond in the Tiara Award.  By showcasing these chapters it truly is inspiring for all of us to perhaps go one step or more further in promoting literacy.

I hear you yourself are writing a novel!  Tell us about it!  

I have been working on and off on this for years but it's to be called "EUREKA" which means I found it.  All I have to say as a born and raised Kansan, I felt we need a story from Kansas that was beyond "The Wizard of Oz".  It's my love letter to the place that I truly call home.

What's obsessing you now?  

The fact that I am dying to buy an airstream trailer so I can fix it up like a gypsy caravan and hit the road to travel and have literary adventures.  I have always loved to camp and big on decorating to make a place my own.  My Beauty and the Book, I have been told, looks like Moulin Rouge meets a gypsy caravan wagon but I have now reached the point where I really want to see the world.  Vintage is always more intriguing to me than new as the item or in this case trailer has a story.  And my favorite quote by Muriel Rukheyser has always been, "The world is made up of stories, not atoms."

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

I just think that if I have one more thing to share is to tell everybody to go after your life's passions.  I was forced into it losing my job but this has ended up one of the best things that happened in my life. For me, my life finally came into full bloom when I decided to go after my true passions, beauty and the book. I never dreamed that when I lost my job that my life would turn out to be so beautiful, so purposeful, and so rewarding.

Kathy L. Patrick
Author of "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life", Grand Central Publishing
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Clubs
Beauty and the Book
608 North Polk Street
Jefferson, Texas 75657

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sere Prince Halverson talks about The Underside of Joy

About marriage, family, and a custody battle, The Underside of Joy is just a knockout of a book. I couldn't wait to invite Sere Prince Halverson to my blog, and I'm absolutely honored she's here. Thank you so much, Sere! 

Your luminous novel is set against the redwoods and the vineyards, which I loved. is this something you already knew, or did you research, and if so, what was the research like for you?

I am fortunate to live in Northern California, surrounded by redwoods and vineyards. I spent a lot of my childhood here, but then left to go to college and ended up living for seventeen years in San Diego, which is lovely, but never felt like home. Whenever we’d drive through Sonoma County, I’d tell my kids, “Look at the trees! Look at the trees!” Even now that we’ve lived here quite a few years, when I step outside, I still want to twirl around like Maria in the opening scene of The Sound of Music. This is a place that continues to awe but also feels deeply familiar. In part, the novel is my love song to this beautiful area.

I loved the complexity of the relationships, especially between the two mothers. You ask the question in the book, what makes someone a mother, and a good one? Can you talk about the answer?

I don’t think there’s one answer to that question. It takes a lot to be a good mom and motherhood does not come naturally to every woman. Even good mothers fail their children at times. But a mother who leaves her children? Society tends to automatically label her as a “bad mother.” There are times when the decision to leave, given a mother’s circumstances or limitations, can be a painful sacrifice that’s the best choice for the children, although there will still be scars. This decision was something that as a mom, I couldn’t fathom. I knew I needed to write about it.

And because I’m a mom and a stepmom (as so many of us are) and have a mom and a stepmom (as so many of us do), I wanted to explore the relationship between two women who love the same children, to turn the fairytale version of the evil stepmother on its head.

I'm always fascinated by process so can you please talk a bit about how you wrote the book? Are you an outliner or a writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pen type of person?

Oh, I do both! It begins with a character. I start writing without a map, sort of like jumping in the car for a road trip, not knowing where I’m headed. But by the first rest stop, I start making notes, asking questions, coming up with a loose plan. I tend to write the first draft fairly quickly then spend a lot of time on revision. I pin it all up on a bulletin board to try to get the shape of the thing. I also lay it all out on the floor and walk through chapters, moving things around. Old-fashioned, I know.

But I revise constantly on the computer, too. I love revising. You know how the wonderful Annie Lamott insists on the shitty first draft? My second draft, third draft, even fourth draft—all shitty. But eventually I get into the land of not-so-shitty, then into not-too-shabby, and that’s when I glimpse the twinkly lights of it-may-actually-be-working, and I keep going. I should also add that I took a month-long writing retreat at a cabin in the redwoods by the Russian River. This was a writer’s absolute heaven—total immersion—and made a huge difference in The Underside of Joy.

What's obsessing you now?

I’m going to reveal myself as the newbie debut novelist that I am and admit that I’m completely obsessing about the publication of my first novel. It took me forever to get here--with a lot of close calls and major disappointments along the way. I stare at the gorgeous finished books my publisher sent me and think, Hey, it’s really happening. And they even spelled my name right!

I want my story to inspire others. For twenty years, I worked as a freelance copywriter and creative director, helped raise our four kids and wrote fiction. This is actually my third novel, although it’s the first to be published. And it’s being published in 15 countries! Keep going. You just never know what’s ahead.

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

How about this one: How do you feel about being interviewed for this blog?
Extremely grateful. And touched once again by your big-hearted generosity to other writers. Thank you, Caroline!

The Underside of Joy will be published January 12th by Dutton. Read more at Seré’s website: and on her blog at

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What makes authors dress up like clowns? Kathy L. Patrick's Pulpwood Queens Author Extravaganza

You know me, the one who always dresses in black, preferably jeans and sneakers, with only a splash of red cowboy boot for color? Well, next week, I am happily hightailing it down to Texas for Kathy L. Patrick's famous Pulpwood Queens 12th Anniversary Girlfriend Weekend Extravaganza!

Kathy's the genius behind the mega-membered Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Bookclubs and she's the owner of the only hair salon/bookstore in the world.

The theme this year is Circus. This Greatest Show on Earth is having an 80" Pretty in Pink Prom Party (I bought a pink wig, black tiara and black lace gloves. Hey, you thought, I'd do without the black, didn't you?) , A Great Big Ball of Hair Ball, a Come as your Favorite Circus Character (I'm going as a fortune teller), a Silent Auction (I donated a 1950s red plastic purse that I drew all over) and an event where all the authors clown it up by dressing like clowns and serving the attendees with a smile. Plus, there are tons of author events, including mine on Saturday the 14th at 2:30  (Books to Share Like Popcorn with Your Bookclub)!

Kathy, (she's the gorgeous redhead in the photo)  is one of the warmest, funniest, most enlightened book lovers around, and I cannot wait to go. I've already got my red cowboy boots packed. Come and have fun! The author roster is amazing, the events are a hoot, and I'm going to be posting live from the book circus. The photo of the women in green regalia is from a previous event and I bet this one is going to be even more outrageous!

The Greatest BOOK Show on EARTH!
January 12 – 15, 2012
Jefferson Tourism and Transportation Convention Center
305 E. Austin
Jefferson, Texas 75657

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Gayle Brandeis talks about The Book of Live Wires, writing, bellydancing and more

Poet. Novelist. Activist. Wife. Mother. Friend. Bellydancer. How many people can claim all those things? Gayle Brandeis can and does. I first met Gayle Brandeis at BEA at a Readerville reading. We had emailed back and forth before and I just instantly felt a connection. Gayle's the kind of person you could call at three in the morning if you had to and she'd sit and listen and console you. She's had an amazing life, which she's navigated with grace and heart. She's also a brilliant writer, which brings us to The Book of Live Wires, available for e-readers, the sequel to her beloved Bellwether Prize- winning novel The Book of Dead Birds. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Gayle! (And be sure to visit Gayle's wonderful blogs, Mama, Redux, and Fruitful. And read her other wonderful books, Self Storage, The Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns.)

What sparked the writing of The Book of Live Wires? And how is it connected to your prize-winning novel, The Book of Dead Birds? What was it like to revisit the characters? Did anything surprise you?

I wrote The Book of Live Wires back in 2002, during National Novel Writing Month. I had just had the most exciting year of my life as a writer; I honestly doubt I’ll ever top it, thrill-wise. My first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write had just been published that spring, and while I was on my book tour, I got a call from Barbara Kingsolver saying that my novel-in-manuscript, The Book of Dead Birds, had won the Bellwether Prize, judged by herself, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, three writers I revere. Of course this was all so mind blowing and affirming, but it ended up having a strange effect on me as a writer: I got writer’s block for the first time in my life. I started to worry that every word that came out of me needed to be worthy of Toni Morrison’s praise, and this made me freeze. I felt like a total fraud because I was still touring around with Fruitflesh, talking to people about the writing process, and I wasn’t writing at all, myself; I was avoiding it, in fact, and had actually become quite afraid of it. When I heard about NaNoWriMo, I realized it might be just what I needed to get out of my own way--and it was.

I had always had the sense that my characters were out living their lives after the first book ended, but I wasn’t able to access them until I started to write The Book of Live Wires. It was wonderful catching up with them--like a month long family reunion. The thing that surprised me most, I think, is that Darryl wanted to be the narrator. He was the love interest in Dead Birds (which had been narrated by Ava Sing Lo), and a few readers had told me that he seemed a bit too good to be true, and they couldn’t quite get a real sense of him. I suppose this book was Darryl’s way of making himself known, and making himself much more complex. He made some decisions that definitely shocked me. 

There is a great deal about the secrets we hide from others, and the truths we refuse to believe. Can you talk a bit about that?

Oh golly--it’s hard to know where to begin. It can be hard to be truthful, to face truth, as a person and my characters certainly wrestle with this. Darryl and Ava are both good human beings, but they are also in a bit over their heads--they are dealing with their baby’s illness while they are still getting to know one another, plus they are each working out some of their own internal issues, and this (along with sleep-deprivation, I imagine) leads to some questionable, not very honest, actions.

I suppose I still struggle with this a bit, myself--growing up, my loving and wonderful family had a tendency to always say that everything was okay even when it wasn’t, and this made it difficult for me to face and voice my own darkness. It led to a lot of secret keeping, a lot of denial. I have gotten much better at acknowledging when things are troubling me, but it is still a challenge. I am slowly learning to be more and more brave in my life (writing helps--somehow it is easier for me to be brave in my writing.)

What was the whole writing process like? Were there any surprises? (Ah, surprise again..)

I wrote the book so long ago, it’s a bit hard to remembert he actual process of it (other than the fact that NaNoWriMo got me writing every day.) There were definitely surprises as I revised the book last year, however I should mention that I never thought I would share this book--I thought I had written it just for myself, to slip back into my writing process, but I’ve mentioned its existence over the years at various book events, and readers have always expressed curiosity. I finally decided to take a look at the manuscript last year (I hadn’t even glanced at it all this time) and was surprised to see how much life was inside it--there were even some passages that may be among the strongest I’ve ever written. What was especially surprising to me, though, was how much in the novel resonated with my current life. Darryl was in a new second marriage with a new baby--so was I (and both of us got married during the pregnancy.) Darryl was dealing with tremendous grief--so was I (although of a different kind; he lost his first wife to cancer. I had recently lost my mom to suicide and then my mother in law to a sudden heart attack four months later.) Darryl is Jewish, yet baptized his baby for non-religious family reasons; so did I (you can read about that here: It was really kind of eerie how many coincidences popped up. When I wrote the book, I never could have anticipated that these storylines would be part of my own life in a few years.

Revision was a fun process--I had enough distance from the manuscript that I had no compunction about striking out whole scenes, etc. (although I found myself making less changes than I thought I would need to. The manuscript felt surprisingly whole for being written in one white hot month.)

You are also a prize-winning poet and a belly dancer! Can you tell us how those two things infuse your work and change it—and you?

Poetry and dance have been a central part of my life since I was a little girl; I wrote my first poem at four, and have been dancing as long as I can remember. My BA is in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing”, a concentration I created through the Johnston Center for Individualized Learning (now named the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies) at the University of Redlands. I remember telling myself in college that I wanted to figure out how to write with the muscularity of dance and dance with the articulation of language. This is still a desire of mine. I have to say I am more of a passionate dancer than a precise one--technique has never been my strong point. It makes me happy that I wrote about a couple of my dance influences--Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker--in The Book of Live Wires (they both go unnamed but are hopefully recognizable); their example gave me permission to be wild and free in my dancing as a young woman, and it feels good to honor them this way. Poetry definitely continues to feed my writing, too, makes me acutely aware of word choice, how words sound and feel when they rub up against one another; I think it helps keep my prose fairly economical, as well.

I am super grateful for belly dancing--when I separated from my first husband, a friend invited me to be part of her troupe; I hadn’t belly danced for 15 years at that point, and it was a way back into my body, back into joy. Writers have a tendency to live in our heads, I think, and belly dancing helps keep me grounded inside my skin.

The world of publishing is changing dramatically, which brings us to our next question. Why go to Smashwords to publish your novel? How is and was the process different than with your traditional publisher?

I did this as an experiment. I had been feeling freaked out by all the changes in the publishing world, and had been really resistant to the idea of ebooks. I eventually realized that it is quite amazing to be part of a shifting culture, and I decided to embrace those shifts rather than fear them or run away and stick my head in the sand. I felt comfortable doing the experiment with this particular book because I felt I had nothing to lose--the novel’s just been sitting in my computer for all these years...might as well give it some air.

I do hope to continue to publish traditionally--I still am in love with physical books, plus I love the storied tradition of the publishing world, and it’s great to have a whole team of people working to get your book into readers’ hands--but there is something satisfying about making all the choices yourself, from cover image to platform. I chose Smashwords because it makes the book available to the widest variety of e-readers--you can download it in just about any form (and once you’re approved for their Premium Catalog, they list the book at B&N, the Apple Store, Sony, Diesel, etc. They don’t have an Amazon connection, though, so I uploaded it through Kindle Direct Publishing, as well). Once I deciphered the Smashwords style guide, it was really quite easy to format the text. I also uploaded the novel to Google Books because I learned that several independent bookstores are selling Google e-Books to their customers now, and I want to do whatever I can to support beloved indies (my one major hesitancy about this experiment was worrying about how ebooks will affect brick and mortar stores, and I don’t want to contribute to their decline.) It’s exciting to me that there are so many tools now to help writers take publishing into our own hands if we choose to go that route.

What’s obsessing you now?

Right now, my two year old’s temperature, I’m afraid--it spiked to 105 a couple of days last week, and has been fluctuating since then. The doctor thinks it’s just a virus, and he is really doing fine now (his temp is down to 99.5) but I can’t help but obsessively take his temperature. This sweet little guy reminds me to be joyful about my obsessions (other than this thermometer-related one)--I love seeing how he takes such pleasure in trains and clocks and rocket ships and pretending to be a cat. He gives himself over to them so fully and openly--a great reminder to throw myself into my own enthusiasms with abandon.

One of the things that obsesses me right now is the collective voice--I have been so inspired by the power of people rising up throughout the world, and am eager to see where the Occupy movement will go next. This has also translated into a fascination with non-linear, multiply voiced narratives.

I recently saw the stunning documentary Bombay Beach--I thought it would be good research for the piece I’m working on about the Salton Sea for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but it ended up being much more than that for me. It’s an intensely lyrical, beautiful, painful film chronicling the lives of three people in the Salton Sea area (one of the poorest regions in the country--it’s where The Book of Dead Birds is set, and The Book of Live Wires spends a bit of time there, as well). It does something no documentary I’ve seen ever do before--the filmmaker was able to get her subjects to do these dreamlike, surreal, moving choreographed dance numbers, and I found the mix of honesty and artifice incredibly energizing. It made me wonder how I can do something similar in my writing, find that balance between improvisation and directed vision, truth and art.

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

I suppose you could have asked about my kids.  In addition to my cutie-pie toddler, I have two full-fledged adult kids now, which blows me away--my firstborn son is 21 and will graduate from college in June, and my daughter just turned 18 and is poised to start college soon, herself. They are super cool people; I feel lucky to know them, and even luckier to be their mom

Pictures of You makes USA Today BestSeller List for ebooks!

To my astonishment, a year after publication, my novel, Pictures of You, is suddenly on the USA Today Bestseller list for ebooks! To say I am amazed, grateful, stunned, is to put it mildly. And yup, I am posting it everywhere because I am so filled with joy.

There are always a lot of conversations going on on twitter or Facebook about how, or even if, a writer should self-promote. Many have others do it for them. Some don't do it at all. Some posters say that if you self-promote, you are sending out a message, "I achieved this AND YOU DIDN'T (with maybe a ha-ha thrown in for good measure.) Others actually gripe. "So what, you have this today, but don't get so smug because maybe you won't tomorrow." Others talk about how it's not deserved, or there are better books out there, or if you post too often, readers and writers both will hate you and hope you move to Siberia.

I find all of this sad and shocking.

Hey. We're all swimming in this big huge sea of writers, and what helps one, helps the many. I've posted a lot about how hard my struggle has been to get here, how many years I suffered, and how some months, I had trouble paying the bills. I've written a lot about  how ecstatic I am that now I am finally, finally, having some success.

When I post about something wonderful happening to me, I have a few different messages than the snarky ones in the first paragraph. And here they are.

1. If I can do it, so can you. I had no virtually no career, and no sales. No one was taking my calls or emails. And this is after NINE books. I'm the patron saint of second chances and proof that it's never too late. You want someone to cheer you on? Consider me. Be brave, be bold and never give up.

2. I've been helped so much by other incredibly generous writers, (and hurt by some, but those we won't talk about), and I've made it my business to do the same, to help every writer I could, in any way that I can, be it blurbs, blog space, advice, reading, support, and yes, thrilled congratulations when they post about something wonderful happening to them. If I have success, hey, it just means I can help other writers even more.

3. Always be grateful. Always be in a state of wonder. And share everything with other writers.

So yes, I'm giddy with celebration, but I'm celebrating with everyone who ever wrote a line, or picked up a camera or a paintbrush. Joy can be contagious and so can success.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Craig Lancaster talks about unraveling, writing, and Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure

I've known Craig Lancaster for about a year now. Introduced by way of Jonathan Evison, I've come to really appreciate Craig's take on writing (as well as his writing, itself!) I'm so happy to have him here on my blog, again. He's really brave, and that makes for a great writer. Thanks, Craig!

By Craig Lancaster

In late October 2010, I was in Missoula for the Montana Festival of the Book, and it should have been one of the great moments of my life. My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, had just won the High Plains Book Award for best first book—this on the heels of being named a Montana Honor Book earlier in the year. All in all, it was a remarkable showing for a little book that I’d written in twenty-four feverish days two years earlier, one put out by a little publishing house in Montana. I was in the company of writers I deeply admire, I had a chance to read from my novel, and I was looking ahead to the January 2011 release of my follow-up, The Summer Son.
But I also knew what was going on back home in Billings.
My wife and her mother and father were packing up her things and moving them to a small house about a mile away, a house she had rented in the throes of her despair at no longer being able to tolerate my moods, my silence, my disregard for her and our marriage. When I came home, it was to an empty condominium, with only a couch for me to sleep upon. I’d grown used to it; it had been months since we had shared a bed.
At a joint session the following week, I told Joe, our counselor, that coming home to an empty house drove home for me just how much damage I’d done. He looked at me, incredulous. “So you were just oblivious for all these months?” He knew I was full of shit. I knew I needed help.
I scheduled a talk with the pastor who’d married us. We didn’t say a word about God. Jim, a clinical psychologist in a previous professional incarnation, asked me questions—deep questions about where my moods go, when they show up, my seeming inability to derail them. I described the experience as something akin to throwing rocks at a freight train. He seemed uncannily clued in to the nuances of my mental state, and finally he said, “I’ve known you a long time, and I’ve seen it. I think you’re bipolar II, and I think you need to get a diagnosis so you’re sure.” I’d never heard of it. When I got home, I started reading up, and the illness described—hypomania marked by an almost rhythmic series of depressions—sounded like a perfect fit with what had dogged me for most of my life. I scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist.
At this point, I’m going to cut through a lot of the medical mumbo-jumbo, except to say this: Jim’s suspicions were largely correct. My relief at having a diagnosis was offset by the knowledge that, while my moods obviously could be destructive, the alternating periods of hypomania were large factors in my ability to create the work that is so central to my life. I absolutely wanted and needed a way to “lift the floor and lower the ceiling,” so to speak. But, like a true crazy person, I gave my illness a lot of the credit for my ability to do the things I do well. I didn’t want to lose that. And by clinging to something that was corroding me from the inside, it was a few more months before I got serious about getting better.
Something wondrous happened when I finally did. I began writing short stories, tales that hewed closely to the things I was thinking about: personal relationships, the loss of control, separation, the struggle to find our way back to the people we love. By day, I was trying to make amends: to my wife, to her family who had taken me in and loved me, to mutual friends who had seen the destruction I had wrought. By night, in the darkness of a house where I now live alone, I tried to find peace with my torment by writing stories. I want to be clear about this: I was (and am) mentally ill, but in no way do I blame that for what I did. I made the choices, I hurt my wife and others, and to whatever degree my bipolarity was a contributing factor, I own that, too. I waited until I was forty years old to do anything about it. That’s on me and no one else.
Now, as I write this, those stories are out in book called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, a perplexing title on the surface but one that makes perfect sense when the book is read. All of my work is personal on some level, but nothing I’ve written is quite so in my deepest brain as this book. For the first time in three years, I’m not actively working on a new book, and I’m OK with that. In the past year, my wife and I have tried to find our way back to each other in fits and starts. We’ve discovered that there’s still a lot of love between us and that what made us best friends in the first place carries on despite everything. The anguish of what happened a year ago isn’t far from the surface, though, and we try to deal with those things quickly when they flare up. We have committed to working as hard as we can to rebuild our life together, and we’re both optimistic and terribly scared. I’m the one who allowed the fear to come in. I’m the one who’ll have to do the heavy lifting of making it go away.
It’s the most important work I’ll ever do. No book could possibly compare.