Monday, May 27, 2013

Suzanne Palmieri (Suzanne Hayes) talks about fame, I'll Be Seeing You, The Witch of Little Italy, awe at meeting other writers, writing under two names, and so much more

Every once in a while you meet someone and there is that instant spark of connection. It feels like you've known each other since you were kids, that you went to the same grade school, the same high school, that you shopped together and talked about boys, and even had your babies at the same time. It happened with me when I first met novelist Suzanne Palmieri at Monte Cristo Books. I now call her my sister-by-choice, and I'm thrilled to have her here to talk about her wonderful, magical novel, THE WITCH OF LITTLE ITALY and about her new novel, I'LL BE SEEING YOU. Both are internationally published and both are racking up the raves. A million thank-yous, Suzanne! 

What sparked this particular book?

THE WITCH OF LITTLE ITALY was the third book I wrote. I had two others I'd tried to get published, but are now safely under my bed! The spark for this book was longing. I'd been so lost. I wanted to go home. So I began to remember the best and worst times of my life up until that moment, and I gave my character a chance to do what I wanted to do. Be safe, be loved, go back home. 

At the same time that THE WITCH was out on submission, my blogging friend, Loretta Nyhan and I wanted to write for OURSELVES. Something to take our mind off of waiting. So, I asked if she'd like to do a fun little exercise. Write letters (emails) back and forth as WWII wives. We began, it grew, and now we have I'LL BE SEEING YOU that hits shelves on May 28th! Joy is always contagious. At least, that's what I believe. 

Can you talk about how it feels to go from your first book which was self-published, to selling four books at once to all the pre-pub BIG BUZZ about this new book?

 Actually, I didn't self publish anything. Just essays on my blog. I'm not opposed to self publishing, I simply knew that I couldn't get the exposure I needed. And I didn't have enough money to buy that exposure. So I had to go the traditional route. I remember when my agent called about the book deals. I was working. I can recall this little voice inside my head saying "You did it..." and then a bit of terror. I've often read and re-read Langston Hughes's poem "A dream Deferred" and think someone needs to write one about "A dream Come true". It's a mixture of ache, triumph, pride, and loss. Happiness is complicated. Joy is layered. Mostly I hope that the success lends a bit of enthusiasm to other writers who need to break through. You know? 

What's your writing life like? Do you outline or do you follow your pen? 

For now, I write out of pure need. So it doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing. I have to get the words out. I'm sure that if I'm lucky enough to have a long career, I'll have to outline. Now? Then ending always comes first, so I write that and then work my way back. 

Please will you retelll that lovely story about Alice Hoffman here?

Oh, Alice. When I was a young single mother on welfare I began my love affair with Alice Hoffman and her novels. They all sang to me. Like lullabies. She had a way of bringing joy to the lost souls. I needed the hope she fostered there. I read everything I could get my hands on. Her mothers became my mothers. Her daughters, my daughters. In a way, she became my mother. My safe place. I had no money, so I borrowed the books from the library. When I finally graduated with my MA and began to teach, I took my very first paycheck to a local Barnes and Noble and bought every single book of hers. Not for any other reason than that I needed them to be mine. I needed to touch them, look at them. To remember. I will be forever in her debt. (Dear Alice, I love you, that is all.) 

What's obsessing you now and why? 

The book I'm writing for an option is my newest obsession. Using all the things I've learned about writing. Tight prose, plot focused without leaving good character development behind. I'm trying to create the best gothic ghost story I've ever read. I'm trying to write the book I've always wanted to read. It's so much fun! My characters are yelling at me every single day. "Stop with all this promotion! Write us already!" This new world of publishing, where most of the marketing is done by the writers... it's fun. But it's also time consuming. I'm obsessed with closing down the internet and simply... writing. I'm always happiest then. 

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

Maybe something about reading and supporting other authors you admire? 
My awe at meeting other writers. Going to other events. Reading. READ. Oh, I've met so many writers who don't read. I simply can't understand it. I couldn't live without reading and learning and asking questions. I'd say, make sure to be on your local independent bookstore newsletter. Try to make every single author event. Buy books there. Books you want to read. Meet other readers. So important. Share joy. It always comes back to joy, doesn't' it? I suppose when you live so long in the dark, Joy may shine brighter. 

So tell us the story of writing I'LL BE SEEING YOU (Nice huge ad in the New York Times!) under another name--

It seems that I am in a unique and sort of odd predicament! I was asked to write under two names: My legal name for Saint Martin's Press (Suzanne Palmieri) and my pen name for MIRA BOOKS (Suzanne Hayes). The odd thing is that is wasn't my choice, and both novels fall under the same genre. So here I am, in a place where I have readers who loved THE WITCH OF LITTLE ITALY, and want another book. But unless they do research online, don't know that there's another book coming out this very week! Amazon and other online booksellers have no way to merge both author names. So I have to be vocal about it here. On the web, and at my author events. I'm proud of both books, and I feel that readers who enjoy one, will surely enjoy the other. (I'm Glory, btw. And Toby's poems....) Co-Authoring is amazing, though. And I'm lucky enough to  get to do this again next year... and maybe even into 2015! Back to back book releases is scary, but validating. And writing alone is one thing, but writing with another person? Instant gratification. I've been writing this way for so long, that I don't know how to NOT do it!

One lovely note about my pen name Suzanne Hayes: I took my grandmother's maiden name on my fathers side. I'm named Suzanne after her. She died when she was 39 or 40, many years before I was born. BUT, when I asked my dad (a deep southern man with manly ways) if it would be okay? He got all teary and told me that his mom... (Suzanne Hayes) had always wanted to be a writer! Really, you can't make this stuff up. That she'd send things to Readers Digest and when she'd get rejection letters she'd run into the house and cry. The boys knew they'd be getting their own supper that night. I truly believe she's with me. I always knew that if I'd known her... she'd be so supportive. 

Author Suzanne Palmieri (aka) Suzanne Hayes
The Witch of Little Italy (Saint Martin's Press/Griffin in stores now)
I'll Be Seeing You (Mira Books, May 28th 2013)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Disabilities activist and novelist sublime, Susan Nussbaum talks about Good Kings Bad Kings, disability culture, getting the word out, writing, and so much more

Okay, I admit I have a prejudice for Algonquin authors--and for debuts, and Susan Nussbaum's Good Kings Bad Kings is both. But this isn't just a stellar piece of work , it also won Barbara Kingsolver PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction in 201. About the funny, heart-wrenching and inspiring lives of institutionalized juveniles with disabilities,  Good Kings Bad Kings is also about claiming your power and fighting back. 

Susan is a disability rights activist who became the first publicist for Access Living in 1980. The creator of Empowered Fe Fes (slang for female), a support, sexuality, and disability identity group for girls, she's also a playwright, performer and director, whose work has been showcased at Second City, Live Bait, Steppenwolf, and more. Her play No One as Nasty appears in Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights.

Susan, thank you so much for letting me pester you with questions! So happy to have you here!

I’m always interested in the origins of books. What sparked you to write Good Kings Bad Kings?

I don’t remember a spark.  It was more like a very slow logical progression.  I worked in a disability rights organization for many years and frequently received emails about abuse and neglect in various kinds of institutions for disabled kids.  Lots of emails, from all over the U.S. Sickening stuff. At some point I started printing the articles up and saving them.

Then a colleague gave me a legal journal with testimonies from parents and kids, as well as the so-called caregivers, etc.  Reading it was like opening Pandora’s Box, you know?  The words on those pages were that toxic.  There were government reports, statistics from various studies – and the studies consistently showed that even in the public school system, 90% of the most egregious violations against children in general were aimed at disabled children. Disabled kids are like magnets for frustrated sadists nationwide. I went to protests against nursing homes with bizarrely high death rates.

But I still had no notion of what I would do with all this material.  At that point I hadn’t written anything for many years.  The idea of writing another play held no appeal. I knew I should probably write a book for quite a while. Then one day, I just started. 

It had to be a novel.  The disability culture movement is relatively young, maybe 25 or 30 years. I knew if I succeeded I’d be one of the first actual disabled people to write a novel. A novel where the disability experience is central to the story, that is. Obviously there’ve been some great writers with disabilities for centuries, but did they deal with disability in their work? They did not. But I would. Not only that, I wanted to write multiple disabled characters. And not the old victim or villain crap.  I wanted to write real disabled characters. That was my plan.     

And can you tell us about the title?

The title comes from an article I read while doing research.  A young boy, about 8 or 10 years old, lived in an institution for developmentally disabled kids somewhere in Illinois, I think.  I don’t remember the name of the place. The boy was in the institution’s van, accompanied by two aides, one was driving.  The other aide sat in back with the boy.  The boy kept trying to stand up out of his seat.  So the aide put him face down on the back seat and sat on him. This kind of “take-down,” as they are called, is quite common, although they’re illegal in many states. And they’re supposed to be done with two people, so someone can hold the child’s ankles while the other one straddles the kid. 

Anyway, the aide who was driving later testified that he saw the boy was struggling, and he heard the other aide say to the boy, “I can be a good king or I can be a bad king.” Taunting this little kid. At some point, the weight of the aide bearing down on the child made it impossible to breathe, and he died. 

It became the title because it reminded me how when it comes to kids, the adults have all the power.  And when the adult in question has no emotional connection to the child, and the child’s welfare is turned over to that adult – as is the case in many institutions – terrible things can happen.  The events in my book are significantly watered down from what really happens at some places. I doubt anyone would believe me if I used anything too close to reality.

What was the writing of this particular book like? What were the major challenges? The greatest joys?

Some of the process was heavy labor and some was great.  Having never written a book I was really lost for the first year at least.  And I had a job then, so it was impossible to get into a writing rhythm, and I was tired. About a quarter of the time I’d drag myself into my office at home and fall asleep in front of my computer. Dead asleep in some horrible position. After three years, I hadn’t even finished the first draft. I finally was able to quit my job and I stayed home and sailed through the rest. About a year or more writing everyday, but I was in the zone half the time.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My main obsession is trying to find ways to get the word out about the book, because I love the whole image in my head of someone reading it.  It’s not about money at all – although that’s not a bad image either – but really, it’s that idea of someone else’s eyes reading line by line, you know, when they get a chance. In a restaurant or on the couch or taking public transit. 

Here’s a little story:  My playwriting agent gave a galley copy to a friend. The friend’s daughter, at the time, was having a hard time at school, dealing with some bullying.  She was 14. So, the mother decided to take turns with her daughter reading the book aloud to each other. That killed me. That was bliss.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Henriette Lazaridis Power talks about The Clover House, being caught between cultures, why she loves Dickens, and so much more

I first met Henriette Lazaridis Power at a reading and got to know her when a bunch of us all headed out into Boston for food and wine, and I was lucky enough to sit next to her. Spectacularly talented, her amazing debut, The Clover House, is about identity, longing and the cultural bonds we choose to keep. I'm thrilled to have her here. thank you, Henriette! 

Calliope is a woman caught between cultures. How much of that informs your own life as a Greek-American woman with family in Greece?
I share Calliope’s preoccupations with cultural identity, and have spent more brain time than is probably healthy trying to figure out what label best suits me. Especially because my ethnic background isn’t obvious (I don’t look particularly Greek, and unless I include my maiden name, all you see is a French first name and an Irish last name), I feel as though I might lose my Greekness if I don’t make a point of claiming it publicly. What I have only recently realized is that my way of thinking and various aspects of my behavior are very much shaped by my Greekness, no matter what language I’m speaking or what country I’m in.
In many ways, writing Callie was a way for me to try on for size certain choices I haven’t made to resolve the dilemma of cultural identity. For instance, Callie completely cuts herself off from her Greek heritage at one point, in a misguided attempt to simplify her life. I have often fantasized about doing just that: it seems such a clean and straightforward approach, creating a sort of aerodynamic self that moves swiftly and smoothly through life. But it’s not possible. The ties are there and they keep pulling me back. And the truth is that I am happy to be pulled.

It took you eight years to write this novel. What was that process like? Was there anything you'd do differently in writing your next novel? 
It actually took me both much less and much more time than eight years to write this novel. Let me explain that. When I first contemplated quitting teaching to take up my pre-academia dream of being a writer, I went to the stories I knew best: stories of my parents’ childhood and youth during the Second World War in Greece. I wrote a mediocre novel that had something to do with that (and that will remain in its desk drawer), but when I finally did quit teaching, I began working on another project that had no connection to that earlier narrative. Whenever I took a break from that manuscript, I would tinker with some story or other from World War II, one of which was published in the New England Review. At one point, I set the other book aside, thinking it was done, and I returned to the World War II story. I came up with the character of Calliope Notaris Brown, a 35-year-old Greek-American woman who is wrestling with the legacy of her mother’s life during the war--a legacy she can feel in her mother’s coldness and sorrow, but that she can’t quite understand. Once I had that, I wrote a good draft of the novel in a matter of months. I wrote much of it during the winter, with the curtains to my study closed so that I couldn’t see the passage of time. It was exhilarating, and I treasure my memory of that experience. I hope I’ll be able to capture that feeling again.

At the moment, I’ve returned to that older manuscript once more for a final revision. But for the book after that, which I’ve begun notes for, I want to be better prepared. With The Clover House, I had at least a chronological structure to the narrative, provided by the timeline of Carnival celebrations in Patras, Greece. In the past, I’ve embarked on writing projects without much of a structural overview. I vow to do things differently next time. It’s easier to dig into the work, I think, and to get that sense of exhilaration when you have at least a framework to guide you. It’s sort of the way masons will set up their plumb lines and horizontal string guides so they can build their wall within them.

When Calllie flies to Greece to claim her inheritance, she's actually inheriting a lot more than physical goods. Can you talk about that please?
For better or for worse, Callie has inherited certain behaviors from her mother. Just as her mother pushes people away, so does Callie. Clio’s actions emerge from a deep sense of shame, while Callie’s have more to do with a fear of commitment and a belief in the frailty of human connection, but Callie has certainly learned that behavior of shutting people out from her mother. Callie has also been fed with the conviction that the world of her mother’s stories is perfect. She inherits from her mother this dream of an idyll--and the attendant inability to find happiness in the present.

Of course, it’s not all bad. Callie also inherits beautiful memories of her own--memories of family closeness and warmth and protection. She inherits a store of scents and tastes and sensations that, though abstract, is no less powerful than the accumulated objects in her uncle’s home. This is the legacy that sustains her and that actually has the power to help her quell her more destructive impulses.

So much of The Clover House is about the stories we choose to tell, or choose to keep secret. Can you talk about that--and about the power of stories?
We place such emphasis in our culture on communication and on “sharing”--a usage that makes my skin crawl. That word--sharing--implies that there’s some equivalence gained when one person tells something to another. In fact, most of the time, the information creates or sustains an imbalance. One person is usually in a more powerful position than the other, thanks to having conveyed that information. Communication certainly resolves conflicts and mends hurt feelings, and I would never dispute its value. But we forget that often it’s what we choose not to say that can do the most to repair or sustain a relationship and that can keep people on equal and cooperative footing.
In The Clover House, I wanted to explore how a secret can be both source of conflict and source of forgiveness at once. The central secret in the novel comes from shameful events and generates further shame. But forgiveness and closure don’t come from the revelation of that secret. They come from the partial withholding of that information. In deciding what to tell and what to keep--that’s where we all create stories, whether we’re writers or not.

As an engine of narrative, I don’t think there’s much better than a secret. Immediately, a secret creates a gap, and the energy of the novel requires that that gap be filled. The novelist’s challenge is to fill the gap at the right pace. I always say that the writer needs to dole out information like an intravenous drip. Too fast or too slow and you lose the reader to the unconsciousness of sleep or the hyperactivity of inattention.

What's your writing/daily life like? Do you have rituals?
I am a serial monogamist when it comes to writing rituals. I believe in them and am probably too much a creature of them. But I don’t keep them the same for very long. If I weren’t doing so much book-promotion activity right now, my writing routine would go something like this. Go for an early-morning row in my racing shell on the Charles River, shower at the boathouse so that I’m ready to go straight to my desk when I get home. Quickly read the New York Times (in print), and then work with a cup of coffee by my side and a baked good of some sort. Later, I eat when I get hungry and have been known to forget lunch. I keep a pad of A4-size paper beside my laptop and maintain a running conversation in its pages. Sometimes it’s a to-do list for the upcoming section; sometimes it’s a scolding I need to give myself; sometimes it’s notes as I work out a narrative problem.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Without question, I am obsessed with point of view. In returning to that older manuscript I was working on before The Clover House, I thought I wanted to redo it in omniscient point of view. But I’m finding this maddeningly difficult to conceive of, never mind to achieve. I am poring over novels that experiment with this and other kinds of voice--like Joanna Smith Rakoff’s wonderful A Fortunate Age, Chris Castellani’s All This Talk of Love, Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz whose first-person narrative makes you want to live in the world of narrative voice, What Maisie Knew, that does such a crafty job of indirect discourse. I know I’m not alone in my conviction that the selection of the right narrative stance makes or breaks a novel.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 
Who are your favorite authors?

Among the classics, Dickens without doubt or hesitation. The man was ahead of his time, a post-modernist before modernism. Still, you can keep Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities. Give me the doorstop Dickens: Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House with its two (two!) narrative voices. And The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the most tragically uncompleted novel of all time.
Among the contemporary novelists, Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, Anne Enright, Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one), Kate Atkinson, and Tana French. These are all British writers, yes, and for some reason I have imprinted on the Brits, perhaps because I lived there for four years. Among Americans, there are many but one stands out: Tom Drury.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Beth Hoffman talks about Looking For Me, being a "card-carrying nut" about antique furniture, writing, and so much more

Want advice, cheer, support, championing and staunch friendship?  Beth Hoffman willingly dispenses all that and more, with ultimate grace and warmth, plus she's a stupendously talented writer. T
welve days after her first novel was published in January 2010, she became aNew York Times bestselling author with foreign rights selling to Italy, Germany, France, Poland, Norway, Hungary, Indonesia, Korea, Israel, and the United Kingdom. She's also an award-winning designer and a painter, whose work is in private and corporate collections in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Her newest novel, Looking For Me, is about family secrets and finding your place in the world, and I am so thrilled and honored to have Beth here to talk about it. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Beth!

So much of this lovely novel is about restoration—of the antique furniture Teddi finds and of the past she must come to grips with. Do you ever think of the past as a messenger to the kind of future we should be living?

I believe the past holds many gifts for us in its hands. The experiences we have and the people we meet (be they positive or negative) have come into our lives for a reason. It’s up to us to figure out why and see what hidden treasures are waiting to be discovered. While positive experiences can be life changing, I find it’s frequently those that are painful that hold the most valuable lessons and offer the greatest opportunity for growth. So often we have to look back and sift through memories with eyes that have been opened by the passage of time before we can truly learn, heal, and move forward. In my case, as well as Teddi’s, this has certainly been true.

You hit the NYT bestseller list with Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. What changed for you after that? Did you feel differently or did you think you should feel differently and you didn't?

As odd as it might seem, besides being thrilled and a bit overwhelmed when I learned the news, I don’t feel that becoming a New York Times bestselling author has changed me. It’s rather like the old Zen saying: “Before Enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water; After Enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water.” Perhaps if I hadn’t nearly died of septicemia before leaving my interior design career I’d feel differently. But coming so close to death’s door is the thing that changed me. I was just so happy to have finally gathered the courage to switch careers and go after my lifelong dream of writing a novel that little else was on my radar.

Sense of place is so important to your characters—is it also crucial to you? Could you imagine living anywhere else, say, as my neighbor in NYC?  

Sense of place is extremely important. Loving what surrounds me is vital to my happiness and directly impacts my creativity. To thrive, I must feel a connection to a home that has a rich sense of history and possesses architectural character, and, I need to have gardens and trees and daily visits from wildlife. I’m a quiet person and a wee bit reclusive, and though I thoroughly enjoy people (in limited doses), I’m at my best physically, emotionally and spiritually when I’m at home. I need my furbabies close by while I write, and I need the solitude of working in the garden when I take a break from the written word. I have no doubt that you’d be a terrific (and fun) neighbor, Caroline! And while I do enjoy visiting NYC for business, I don’t think I could live there.

How much of Teddi's love for furniture is also yours? (I know you owned an interior design store!)

When it comes to finely crafted furniture and antiques, I’m a card-carrying nut. I get weak-kneed at the sight of burled walnut chests, and giant armoires with hand-carved details take my breath away. I have a real thing for certain chairs, and I once squealed out loud when I saw a rare, 1780s Prince of Wales chair offered at auction. Like old homes, antique furnishings and accessories have fascinating histories and a patina that can’t be replicated. There’s nothing quite like smoothing my fingertips over an eighteenth-century chest where the drawers have been dovetailed to perfection and the marquetry inlay is sheer artistic genius. I’ve always been awed by the pride and care that old world craftsmen strived for, and achieved.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with trying to figure out how I can add a few more peonies in my garden. They’re my favorites and I can’t get enough of them, yet there simply isn’t an inch left.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You (blessedly) didn’t ask me what I’m planning to write about next, and I am so grateful! I’m the kind of writer who needs my ideas to marinate for a while. So for now, I’m quite happy to listen to the chatter of possible characters in my head, but I don’t feel compelled to write about them—at least not yet.

Beth Hoffman’s website:

Jessica Anya Blau talks about the Wonder Bread Summer, face creams, writing, and so much more.

Jessica Anya Blau isn't just the author of Drinking Closer to Home, The summer of Naked Swim Parties, and her extraordinary new novel, The Wonder Bread Summer. She's also one of the smartest, funniest, most generous writers on the planet. I'm so thrilled and jazzed to have her here. Thank you, Jessica! My blog is always your blog!

What sparked the writing of this book?

When I was in college I got a summer job at a tiny little dress shop on a shady intersection in Oakland with a liquor store across the street, a rib joint down the street, and a few boarded up old houses across the street. No one ever came in the shop and the owner paid me with cash from the register. I didn’t figure it out right away, but eventually I realized that the store was a front for cocaine dealing. And, when the owner locked the shop door and tried to talk me into taking off my clothes, I realized he didn’t even care if I made any sales. When I look back on that time in my life I see myself as someone who always wanted to please people and be friendly and good. And someone who didn’t know how to say no. I tried hard to never “disappoint” people and that, at times, led me into horrible, messed-up, murky situations that were hard to get out of. I took this idea of myself as vulnerable like that (at the dress shop) made it a little bit worse (or maybe a lot worse!) and wrote the novel from there.

The Wonder Bread Summer not only has a great title, but it has this wild and wooly humor to it that I just love. So does this fit in with your basic world view?

Well, yeah, I guess. I do think that pretty much everything is funny. It runs in my family. When my mother was in Intensive Care in the hospital and the doctors were telling us she wasn’t going to make it through the night, my brother, sister, father, and even mother (when she was conscious) had a whole lot of good laughs about . . . well about everything except the fact that she was in the hospital. Meanness, torture, poverty, and abuses of power are not funny at all. But a life survived can be pretty funny. People are odd. We’re all dorks. We’re all ridiculous. Just being alive is hilarious to me.

Did you research the 80s for this book and what was your research like? Anything surprise you?

No, no research. Other than going to Google and asking what the top TV shows were in 1983, or Googling the top 40 music, etc. The rest is pretty much from memory.

Can you talk about your writing life? Are you a creature of habit? do you have rituals? How DO you write? Do you plan things out like John Irving or do things unfold for you organically?

I usually have a nugget of an idea to start with and then I just write forward and figure it out as I go along. There is often some vague notion about where I’ll end but by the time I get to the end, everything has changed and I’m writing something totally different. What I do next is rewrite from the beginning and revise it as the story I ended up writing and not the one I had intended to write.

I drink a lot of tea while I write. And if there are snack foods around, Cheese Nips, or something horrible like that, I’ll eat them continuously!

What authors influence you and why?

Oh, everyone influences me, everything I read. I read everything but fantasy, and all of it feeds into me. I don’t try to deliberately copy anyone but sometimes when I’m writing, I feel a sort of déjà vu and I realize that what I’m doing is somehow related to having read so and so. I’m reading Justin Cronin’s book now and read Dave Eggers latest just before that. I read and loved Pictures of You!

What's obsessing you now and why?

HMmmm, right now I’m obsessed with finding time. I have three major projects that I’m in the middle of and I worry I won’t be able to finish any of them. And then I have all this stuff I want to start. I have kids, a dog, a husband, a house, great friends and I need time to be with all of them and take care of the ones I need to take care of. I hope I live to 169 or something so I can love all the people I love and write everything I want to write. Oh, I teach every semester, too, and that takes time.

I’m also obsessed with anti-ageing, sun-damage-repair face creams (see live to 169 above). I read about them online, read reviews and spend ridiculous amounts of money on them. Although I should point out the Olay Regenerist line is pretty darn great and not so expensive. And the L’Oreal BB cream is FAB!

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

You ask great questions! Oh, movies, you didn’t ask about movies. I love movies almost as much as I love books. And I love great TV, too. Mad Men, GIRLS . . . I adored that Julia Louis Dreyfus show VEEP and am looking forward to it coming back.

My new hero: Bob Harris, the author of The International Bank of Bob, who gave up wealth to fund impoverished people worldwide

There are some people who literally don't just change the way we see the world, or the way we act in that world, but they change the world itself. It's my honor to host Bob Harris, author of The International Bank of Bob--and yes, he is my new hero.  And wait until you hear his story. 

He was hired to write about luxury hotels for Forbes Traveler magazine (we are talking $3300 a night rooms) but something didn't sit well with him about all this excess. Instead, he used the money to fund micro-loans to desperately poor people all over the world, establishing what he called The International Bank of Bob and using the non-profit to help. 

You adore him now, right? 

He's been a TV writer, a Jeopardy game show champ, and even a comic, and in his book he tells how he traveled the world to visit the recipients of these loans. The book is amazing, funny, and important--and so, really is he. 

Bob, I'm so honored to know you. Below is something he wrote from
Thank you, Bob. For everything you do, for being on this blog, for being the change instead of just talking about it.

Not long ago, I was in Kigali, Rwanda (an introductory phrase that I never dreamed I might write so casually), watching a small boy in an Annie T-shirt playing with a marble.

The child was surrounded by fruit, vegetables, sugar, cooking oil, gum, candy, and dozens of the same sundries you might find in any small convenience store.  This was his mother Yvonne’s place of business, the front half of the family’s two-room home.*

Yvonne is a client of a local Rwandan microlender whose loans are partly financed through, a charity website where people like you and me can invest as little as $25 in mom-and-pop businesses in more than 60 countries.  Through Kiva, I’d sent $25 chunks of my own cash toward hundreds of clients like Yvonne all over the world.  Now I was traveling five continents to hear the stories of as many clients as I could.  (The ensuing book, The International Bank of Bob, was just published by Bloomsbury.)

A year and a half earlier, Yvonne and her three kids didn’t have a giant stack of produce to sell and a home with a solid roof.  They were sleeping on a mat in an unpowered shack that Yvonne rented for the equivalent of five U.S. dollars per month.  Their prospects weren’t exactly promising, either: Yvonne was a single mom in a country still recovering from genocide and war, with no advanced skills beyond sheer persistence.

But persistent she was.  She learned from friends how to buy sweet potatoes, sorghum, and other staples in bulk, transport them home, and sell portions at a mark-up, providing the same profitable convenience as any Western 7-Eleven. Yvonne’s first loan to buy bulk goods was for 70,000 Rwandan francs—the equivalent of about $140.

Prior to the arrival of microfinance, Rwandan banks required five times as much just to open an account.  Yvonne’s loan would have been inconceivable, and her kids would probably still be sleeping in the unpowered shack, instead of curling up in a real bed under a good roof.

With stability in the family’s life, the kids can attend school.  The boy in the Annie shirt will soon learn to read the word Annie.  Since literacy breeds opportunity, these children may well have a wholly better life simply because their mom had access to these tiny loans.

When I was a luxury travel writer, I used to stay in some of the world’s fanciest hotels.  I barely recall most of them.  But I’ll remember Yvonne’s home, her kids, and her story, plus the stories of the other clients I met all over the world—from Peru to Bosnia to Kenya to Lebanon to Nepal to Cambodia and beyond—for as long as I live.

It is pure joy to be able to share it all.