Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jennie Nash, author of PERFECT RED writes hilariously and knowingly about the three worst moments in the writing life

I love Jennie Nash. And I loved and blurbed Perfect Red. She's warm, funny, and whipsmart, and she's also the author of The Threadbare Heart, The only True Genius in the Family and The Last Beach Bungalow, as well as three memoirs, including Other Lessons I learned From Breast Cancer. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writing Program (Yay! So do I!) and is also a private writing coach, and so far, in 2013, six of her clients have signed with top New York agents. She lives in Los Angeles. Thank you so much, Jennie, for writing something for the blog!

The Three Worst Moments in the Writing Life 
By Jennie Nash

Writing is a horrible, rotten no-good business. Sure, there are moments of transcendent joy and quiet contemplative peace, but for the most part it’s just really hard. I mean, you sit alone in a room hoping against hope that someone out there will care about the words you are stringing together, and feeling every doubt ring through your head like a clarion bell — Is your opening line catchy? Does the comma go inside the quotation mark? Should you have gone to beauty school and learned a marketable skill?

Some days are harder than others and some years are like an earthquake that turns everything to rubble. This year was one of those for me. After six well-published books, I wrote a novel I loved and I couldn’t sell it. Poor me, right? When some people would be happy to have one book published? When some people would kill to have my resume? YES POOR ME! It was heartbreaking. I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was in fourth grade and we published our poems in a mimeographed book bound with blue cardboard. I have invested decades into this career. But you can’t be a writer without readers. So it was all over. I was done.

I brooded so hard. I pouted, I ate a lot of Ben & Jerry’s. And then I started to write about the horrible writing year I’d had. I wrote about the worst moments of the last twelve months, and then I kept going. I added in the worst moments from my entire 35-year career, and the worst moments from every writer friend I’ve ever known, and before I knew it I had 43 of the worst moments in the writing life.

The irony, of course, is that in the midst of feeling awful about writing, I kept writing. We all do. If you’re a writer, you write. And so for each of the worst moments, I added in a way to get over it. Maybe it’s not the only way or even the best way, but it’s a way.

I’ve picked out three of the worst moments to share with you today. Caroline Leavitt invited me to post ‘em because she knows a thing or two about the agonies of writing. Yeah, she’s killing it right now, but trust me: she feels the pain just the same way I do and just the same way you do. She is, after all, human.

Don’t agree that these three moments are that bad? Check out all 43 of the worst moments in The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat: 43 of the Worst Moments in the Writing Life and How to Get Over Them. It’s available as of this moment as a PDF download for a special reduced price. It will be an e-book and a book you can hold in your hand some day later this fall, but for now it’s just a PDF, just a howl against the cruel nature of what we do. I’ll also be posting the 43 moments one at a time on a blog at starting September 1.

So here we go:

#1: You deem yourself unworthy.

You have a burning desire to write a book – an idea that haunts you like a ghost in the attic — but you don’t think you have the talent or the skill or the expertise to write it. “Who am I to write a book?” you ask. “I’m just a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker.” You cast around for someone to give you permission to write — a teacher, a friend who writes, a famous writer you met that one time at a signing, your mom — but no one ever gives you permission, because it’s not their job. It’s your job and you’re not doing it. Your thoughts of unworthiness grow even deeper and stronger, until you believe it with your whole heart: you are not someone who can write a book. What were you even thinking? You take up tennis, knitting, become a voracious reader of other people’s books — but the burning desire to write doesn’t go away. It smolders there, often for a lifetime, turning into a jagged, hard-edged regret. “I always wanted to write a book,” you say, and people smile their close-lipped smiles and quickly look away.

The way forward:

Stop looking outside for answers. Give yourself permission to create. You’re the only one who can grant it, and the only one who can take it away.

If there are certain aspects about writing that you need to learn — certain skills you need to develop, certain elements you need to master — start practicing. They say it takes 10,000 hours to gain mastery in any given area, and they’re not just talking about speaking French or performing brain surgery. They’re talking about writing something strangers will want to read. You may have mastered some of these skills over the years through your day job, or by journaling, or by writing on the sly. For everything else, the clock starts now.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  ― Maya Angelou

#14. Another writer writes your book before you finish writing your book

You’re toiling away at your novel about Abraham Lincoln, thinking you’re really on a roll now, when you open the Wall Street Journal and there on the “Off Duty” page is a round-up of great books about Abraham Lincoln, collected by the author of a forthcoming novel about Abraham Lincoln. You Google the author and learn that he is one of the world’s foremost experts on Abraham Lincoln, and holds a special endowed chair on Abraham Lincoln at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. He just happens to write fiction in his spare time on Tuesdays, and that effort has resulted in this great new novel. You click around and notice that the expert’s book has recently been reviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air and optioned for a movie by Steven Spielberg. Then you shut your computer down, go eat a big slice of chocolate cake, get in bed and pull the covers over your head. When your loved ones ask you what’s wrong you yell, “Why the fuck do you think anything’s wrong?”

The next time you log onto your computer, you take the draft of your novel about Lincoln and slip it into the archives. You will try to forget about it, but you will now see the other person’s Lincoln book everywhere. It will be stacked a mile high at Costco, displayed in the window of your local independent bookstore, lovingly set on the coffee table of your best friend’s ski lodge. The blurbs on the cover will taunt you and that stupid portrait of Lincoln peering out at you as if he knows what you have failed to do. When your book club decides to read the Lincoln book, you bow out. When people start talking about it at cocktail parties, you grit your teeth. You have to go to the dentist and get one of those mouth guards to protect your teeth from sure destruction. And of course the dentist will have the Lincoln book on the side table for his patient’s reading pleasure.

The way forward:

Take a deep breath and keep writing.

And note that there have been 15,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln. There is room for one more. There is always room for one more.

"So this is always the key: you have to write the book you love, the book that's alive in your heart.  That's the one you have to write."  ― Lurleen McDaniel

# 39. You hold a book signing and no one comes.

Your publicist arranged a book signing at Sweet Neighborhood Bookstore, in a town about an hour from where you live. You don’t know anyone in this town, so you drive down early and grab dinner at the Whole Foods deli. You find the bookstore, and then drive around the block a few times looking for parking. When you find a spot, you walk back to the store and stand on the sidewalk out front gazing at the stacks of your book in the window and at the giant poster of your book cover. Someone has made a sign that says, “Author reading tonight!” You take a picture, making sure to include in the frame the stacks of John Irving’s latest novel, the stacks of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest treatise on the way we behave, and the stacks of the Barefoot Contessa’s new cookbook. You have never felt more awesome in your entire life. You feel that you know, now, the true meaning of success and contentment. You have done it! You have written a book!

A slightly disheveled woman walks by with a dog on a leash. The dog stops to sniff by the window, and it sniffs your shoe and so you smile at the woman, nod at the window, and say, “I’m the author.”

The woman smiles. “Congratulations,” she says.

You smile back. “Thank you so much.”

The woman yanks her dog away and continues on her path, so you go into the store.
The young man at the counter looks up and says your name. He recognizes you from your author photo. He directs you to the stack of books set out on the table and hands you a Sharpie. “We’d like you to sign a dozen for the store,” he says. You see that he is making out a shelf talker that says, “Signed copies available!” You sit and sign the books and chat with the counter guy about traffic and the weather and the new John Irving novel. There are half a dozen customers in the store, browsing and reading and making their way quietly through the stacks. There’s another bookstore employee who wanders in and out, asking if you’d like water or tea. She’s the first one to look at her watch. She’s the first one to speak about what is happening, or rather what is not happening. 

“People often come late on Thursdays,” she says, “It can be a busy night.” You smile and chat with her about the Barefoot Contessa’s roasted tomato soup recipe, which you recently had at a potluck.

Counter Guy makes an announcement. “Our author reading will begin in five minutes,” he calls out, hoping to summon the customers to fill at least a few of the black folding chairs set up before you. There are 27 chairs. You know because you counted them. None of the customers emerge.

The bell on the door tinkles and you look up with huge hope, only to see a mother dragging two small girls, and talking loudly about not touching any of the stuffed animals. They have come to pick up a birthday present for a party. You surmise this because one of the little girls has on sparkly red shoes and the other has on sparkly pink. Watch Girl steps in to help them, and you watch the small drama unfold – the choosing of the gift, the wrapping of it, the paying.
When the party-goers are gone, Watch Girl looks at her watch again and then turns to you. “Let’s give it five more minutes.”

You nod and get up and go look at the shelf of poetry behind the rows of empty chairs. After five minutes, Counter Guy comes out from behind the counter and folds himself into one of the folding chairs. “You can read to us,” he says, “It will be good practice, anyway.”

“Sure!” you say, as if you were just offered an all-expenses trip to the moon. As Watch Girl perches next to Counter Guy, you launch into the program you prepared — a few comments about your background and how you came to write the book, and then you pick up your book, turn to the page you carefully marked with a Post-It, and read the words you slaved over. As you read, you want to die. You are amazed that you can have such a strong, clear intention separate from the actions of your mind and your mouth. You are reading your book out loud in a bookstore, and yet you want nothing more than to die.

When you are finished reading, you close the book and Counter Guy and Watch Girl clap enthusiastically. Counter Guy leaps up to help a customer who has made his way to the counter. “Bravo,” Watch Girl says, and then she gets up and starts to put away the chairs.

You help her, because what else are you going to do?

The way forward:

Grin and bear it, then go back and read all those posts about platform building that you ignored the first time.

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” ― Gertrude Stein

Valerie Trueblood talks about her amazing new short story collection SEARCH PARTY, the idea of rescue, writing, and so much more

Valerie Trueblood is one of the masters of short story writing. Her new collection Search Party is unsettling, full of desperation, and yet brimming with a kind of hope as well. A young babysitter takes care of a child who falls dangerously ill, a cop tackles a violent student, and a homeless family reexamines the meaning of home, and all of the people struggle to find meaning and a mastery of their situation. It's just a gorgeous collection.  She's a contributing editor to The American Poetry Review, and her essays, articles, and poetry have appeared in One Story, The Northwest Review, The Iowa Review, The Seattle Times, and Seattle Weekly, among others. She lives in Seattle and I am totally thrilled to host her here. Thank you so much, Valerie!

Why does the very idea of a search lead to so much story?

We need so many things!  A lot of life is spent in finding them.  While we may not go out with a lantern like Diogenes, we do spend a lot of time searching, from babyhood on:  for food, safety, a friend, work, knowledge, a place to live, a mate--and finally searching our own memories for what remains of these things when we're old.  I admit this came to me just now in thinking about your question.  I didn't think in these sweeping terms when I was writing the stories.  A story can't be summoned that way.  Mine seem to have to be found under a rock.

I also want to ask you about the title, which I think is perfect--Search Party, seems so ominous, but then there is the subhead, stories of rescue, which almost makes us breathe a sigh of relief.

You're a writer, and you're the reader we all want:  someone who feels the ominousness, someone who sighs with relief--and just at the title, at that.  I wish everyone read in this spirit, with this openness to what might be coming.  

I do believe in rescue.  The situation gets pretty desperate and now and then--perhaps rarely, but often enough that we remember the times it happened or the stories we heard of it--someone says or does something that helps, even saves.  How or why this happens at times, and at others does not, is one of the mysteries, and the short story seems to me the perfect vessel for it.  Because the story isn't obliged to say why.  It just holds the mystery.

How do you go about crafting a story? Your language is so exquisite that I’d love it if you could talk about the relationship between story and language.

It takes me a long time to get a sort of tent up and then I see it's empty, and that must be when I try to somehow create rooms in it.  But that's an easy metaphor, isn't it.  For me the story really has less to do with construction than with sound.  I hear a story faintly and in fragments and have to listen for it and try to lure it, so I can get some of the pieces down on paper.  Then for a long time it's just adding in the tones of someone's experience, and then heavy subtracting. 

Each story seems to have its own language, depending on the person having the experience or living through the state of mind.  So the words for what happens to a poet have to be filtered through the poet's senses and thought, and they'll have a tone, a pattern different from that of the words for what happens to a policeman.  Before anybody assaults me, let me say that I know at least two poet-policemen!  I'm just using these broad categories because a couple of characters in this book fit them and their stories have their own sound (while I hope still having something an Artificial Intelligence, if it read them, would know came from the same "voice").

I don't think writers can investigate our own style very deeply--or even think about it at great length--without getting into trouble, though.

Your endings are so deeply satisfying and unexpected. Do they take you by surprise or do you know them before you begin?

I rarely if ever have even a glimpse of an ending when I'm starting out.  I have to hope and trust every time that the thing will end!

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I'm deep in the next book of stories, Garden of Children, and didn't realize until this question of yours that yes, the word is "obsessed."  But like the others it started to come together as a book more or less accidentally, because I must have been thinking and writing about children for years before I saw that a group had formed and there were children staring out of it.  These aren't coming of age stories.  As my husband says, "By the time people get around to coming of age, they're pretty much done for."
Another book is taking shape, stories of love.  People grin if they hear that.  But however jaded we get about what has been "done" in fiction, however eager for new categories, love is never done with.  Though I like to have war in there too--war being a form of hate--weighing on people who live in a rather heartless time while trying to fulfill the human duties.  Thus the title of the second group, Let Live.

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

You ask wonderful questions, that tempt us to go on and on about ourselves.  Thank you.

Jillian Cantor talks about her provocative new novel Margot, Anne Frank, the emotional journey of writing and so much more

I hung out with the sublime Jillian Cantor at the Tucson Book Festival, which included book talk, lunch and even some shopping thrown in.  I'm so thrilled to host her here. She's the genius writer of The September Sisters, The Life of Glass and the Transformation of Things, and her new novel, Margot, imagines what might have happened to Anne Frank's sister in post-war America. It's a dazzling achievement. Thanks so much for being here, Jillian.

Can you tell me how the idea for this novel sparked? I always believe that writers write the book that they themselves need to read. Would you say this is true for you, too? 

Yes, I absolutely think that’s true. Writing is always such an emotional journey for me that I feel my stories come from the emotional point I’m at at a particular time. Margot’s story first came to me a few months after the shooting in Tucson in 2011. I live in Tucson and happened to be having coffee in the shopping center at the time of the shooting. I was very fortunate that I didn’t get shot or even see what happened, but for months afterwards I felt paralyzed by sadness, and I had trouble writing anything. I reread Anne Frank’s diary during that time, and I realized that in real life Margot Frank had also kept a diary during the war, but that hers was never recovered after. I wondered how Margot would’ve felt had she survived and saw what had happened with her sister’s diary after the war. Margot’s story in my novel is very much one of finding her way through grief and fear, of learning how to live and love again after horrendous tragedy. That’s what I needed to read – and write – at that particular time.

I’ve read and enjoyed your other novels, and this one seems a departure for you--it has a new, kind of thornier feel to it, a more moral depth, almost, which I absolutely loved. Did you feel the writing of this book was different than your others? Can you talk a bit about that please? What was the research like? Did anything surprise or startle you? 

Thank you, Caroline! The writing was definitely different, first because this was the first historical novel I’ve written so it required a lot of research on my part. I definitely labored over the first draft more, not only to get the writing right but also to get the historical details right. But I think I also wrote Margot purely for myself, at first, and never thought about what people would think or if anyone would ever even read it. I’d written another novel between this novel and my last published novel (which was published in 2010), which over the period of a year failed to sell and which I struggled to revise repeatedly and it just never came together right or sold. So I came into writing Margot with the thought in my head that no one might ever read it but me, but that it was a book I needed to write all the same. It felt very personal to me, and I got so emotionally attached, more so than with my other books. I was a mess when the book did actually go out on submission to editors and when it started getting rejections, which, as writers, we know always happens. But it felt more personal to me, this time.

My research involved reading about the Holocaust and reading and re-reading and re-reading again Anne Frank’s diary (for details of the annex), as well as researching Philadelphia in 1959 (a time I knew very little about before I started writing). I was surprised by how much blatant anti-Semitism existed in Philadelphia still in 1959. I had expected to find this in my research of the Franks’ life in Europe in the 1940s, but I was surprised to find so much anti-Semitism still existed in America in the late 1950s. But this also ended up playing a big role in the book.

Let’s talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline everything out? Did you know the ending, or do you set up characters and let them dictate the action? 

I don’t outline. I wish I could, but I just can’t. If I know exactly everything that will happen that takes some of the authenticity out of the voice for me, and essentially I get bored if I know all the answers up front. So yes, I set up the characters and let them dictate the action, which generally ends up in a very messy first draft. I had a big pacing problem initially in this novel as a result, but for me, it’s easier to go back in and fix the plot and the pacing later if I can get the characters and voice right first. I do usually have an idea of around where I want my characters to end up, and I knew when I started writing about Margot what she would do and where she would be in the last scene (which I won’t say here, as I don’t want to give any spoilers!). I kept to this vision all along, and it’s in the final version of the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I don’t want to say too much about what I’m researching and writing now (which is, of course, what’s obsessing me) because I don’t know what’s going to happen with it yet., but I’ll just say generally, my head in is New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s during The Second Red Scare and post-atomic bomb. With more details to come J

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

How about, what’s up next for you? I have a new book for young adults coming out next summer called Searching for Sky, about a girl who spent most of her life on a deserted island, and who is “rescued” and brought back to California just after her sixteenth birthday. But she soon learns both the real world and her idyllic island life were not at all what she believed. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Read an excerpt from the amazing Ilie Ruby's astonishing novel THE SALT GOD'S DAUGHTER

“This enjoyable read stays true to this objective throughout, bringing unforgettable characters to readers through circumstances that are believable, yet nestled in the cultural traditions and superstitions we sometimes need to guide us through difficult times.”
The LA Review
“When a blue moon rises, mistakes can be undone, lost children can find their homes, and sea lions can shed their skin… This is a bewitching tale of lives entangled in lushly layered fables of the moon and sea.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Lushly woven with elements of folklore, Ruby’s novel is a captivating inquiry into the generational, wayward bonds of mothers and daughters.”
Ilie Ruby's The Salt God's Daughter came to me through the mail, and because the cover was so gorgeous, and the story seemed so intriguing to me, I put it on my to-be-read-and-reviewed shelf. I began to read a week later. And I couldn't stop. The writing is so evocative, the story so enrapturing,  that I devoured the novel in two days and spent the next week obsessed with it. Finally, I contacted Ilie because I had to meet the person who wrote such a book.

I consider Ilie Ruby  a  wonderful friend. I'm thrilled to have done  a panel with her at the Tucson Book festival, and even more fun, to have interviewed her at one of her many packed appearances in New York City.  She's also the author of the critically-acclaimed The Language of Trees, which was a target Emerging Author's Pick and a First Magazine for Women Reader's Choice.  The Salt God's Daughter is about what it means to be different, how we find our way in the world and manage to survive. It tells the story of Ruthie and her older sister Dolly who grow up under their mother's exotic stories, and the pull of the ocean. Full of folklore and Jewish mysticism, this novel is as original as Ilie herself. Truly, one of my favorite novels of this year, and any year. It's now just out in paperback and trust me, you want it immediately. 

Excerpt from The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby

Ruthie, 1972
We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a
blood-red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have
known. We craved it, that someplace. We were two little girls,
sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom
we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left. We tore across
dirt campgrounds where we slept, naked but for our mud boots,
letting the wind shiver up across our bare chests. We stole bags
of chips from the canteen on the pier. Our feet pounded the
crushed oyster shells in seaside motel parking lots when we’d
search for drinking water, and we let calluses thicken up our
soles to withstand the hot desert sand, or dash over a highway
of broken glass, wherever we’d been dropped. We scampered
across the foggy cliffs that separated Pacific Coast Highway
from the ocean in old ballet slippers, as nimble as two fairies,
our long red hair whipping into tangles in the wind. We
bumped up against the night, without stopping. We stole wrinkled
leather sneakers that were two sizes too big, and wore
them until they fit. We raced in the sand, fought in the dusk.
We knew we were not invisible. We tightened belts around our
stomachs at night and bicycled unlit sidewalks and sometimes
tucked up our knees and steered with no hands through the
darkness. No one hit us. We believed we were unstoppable. We
slept under sleeping bags, beneath trees, and pushed our backs
against cliffs, our noses cold.
We waited for our mother to come back.
“Ruthie, do you miss her?” Dolly asked.
“No,” I lied.
We talked of Cool Whip and ice cream, of warm apple crisp
and salty Fritos. We dreamed of flying.
Then my mother came back. We’d crawl into our station
wagon at night, trapped by her need for freedom, and then
by her soap opera, General Hospital, which we watched on her
portable television. Afterward, we listened to folk songs and
Hebrew prayers as she’d strum a fat-bellied classical, knowing
this meant that she was feeling fine, that she had acknowledged
she had two little girls, whether she wanted us or not.
We used our fingernails to cut away ticks from our legs, and
we cleaned up her empty bottles before she’d wake up. We bit
at the skin around our nails, leaving it swollen and red.
If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I’d be lying.
I ached for my own, every minute. As motherless daughters do.
She was our child. We didn’t know anything different.
Everyone knew a mother was a daughter’s first love.
When she asked if we thought she was still beautiful, we
said yes, because she was. We told the truth about the steely
lightness of her eyes, how quickly they changed color with her
emotions, from gray to blue, in parts. We lied when she asked
if we thought she’d fall in love one day. We said yes.
It was as possible to miss someone who was right in front
of you as it was to miss someone who had left. It was also
possible to miss someone who had not yet been born. This
I had learned. My mother had told us as much. We walked
around craving everyone, even before they’d leave. We never
thought it would end, our ache. Often, from the windows of
my mother’s speeding green Ford Country Squire, we shouted
out the words to James Taylor ballads and motioned for truckers
to honk on demand by pumping our fists up and down. We
grew cocky, forgetting we were people who had been left.
We were already nomadic, and from the most primal of
places, we had become hunters, always searching for someone
or something we could lay claim to, hook ourselves onto, to
quiet our trembling clamorous souls.
As long as she came back for us.

Leora Skolkin-Smith talks about Hystera, Palestine, Grace Paley, and more. Plus read an excerpt of her novel HYSTERA

“Poetic, strange and evocative… A poignant prose-poem…” — Publisher’s Weekly

I' first met Leora Skolkin-Smith through, a now defunct and once vibrant online readers and writers community. We quickly began friends and began swapping pages. I'm thrilled to have Leora here talking about HYSTERA , the WINNER of the 2012 USA Book Award and the 2012 Global E-Books Award. HYSTERA is also a Finalist in Literary Fiction and a winner in The International Book Awards, 2012, and The National Indie Excellence Award, 2012, as well as being chosen  for The Princeton University Series.  Leora is also the author of EDGES, which is in production as a feature film. Scroll down because after the interview is an excerpt from the book!  Thank you, Leora, for being here!

 This is a very intimate and raw portrait of mental illness; what brought you to write so honestly about the subject?

        I wanted to write about mental illness because I was deeply bothered the popular medical and cultural presentations of it in commercial mediums.   I strongly felt that the continual oversimplifications in the media and elsewhere threw more confusion and darkness  into this disturbing and beguiling state of human behavior and, in the end, muffled the cries from those in the throes of it. In recent years, drugs such Prozac have been used in memoirs and accounts of depression which I felt was only a partial, inadequate answer. I desperately wanted and needed a deeper exploration and journey and one that was not based on easy resolutions, "kitchen therapies" or being "fixed"  which our current society has relied on, but, instead on an exploration of engaging philosophical and sexual questions of existence itself, questions about identity and intimacy that transcend our purely medical and limited understanding of mental illness and see it as part of a continuum of human experience throughout history.

Why did you use Patty Hearst in the novel?     
       Patty Hearst was a symbol in so many ways for me of my troubled and splintered era. First, she symbolized  the sexual identity struggle confusion of the times as norms and roles were in flux, then the turbulent economic and class upheaval our society was undergoing in the early 1970s. She had transformed from a rather pleasant looking college student in straight skirts, the well-behaved daughter of a multimillionaire Into a wild haired radical dressed as a male guerrilla soldier, holding up banks with a machine gun flung across her shoulders and shouting slogans about social equality for the unseen, unheard masses, the poor and cast away. The labile nature of identity itself was shown through her transformations. But yes,she was also a prisoner to her own sickness in a sense, her masochistic sexuality, she had fallen in love with her kidnapper.

Lilly believes she is growing a “bulb” from between her legs; what was that all about?
     The bulb was about so much! I wanted the "bulb" to express the ineffability and mysteriousness of her illness and mental illness in general, and of our vulnerable nature itself, I guess. Again in response to the overly simplified and concrete medical models constantly used as one dimensional diagnostics, it simply felt so right to express her states, as a poetic metaphor might, with all the resonance and power possible through language and imagery, and I went with it. I wanted to create the sense of enigma, of bafflement that felt truer to me then the rational truism we apply to illness. It still somehow belonged to the poets to express and had no ready made answers. Though the pharmaceutical revolution has changed everything in many good ways, towards cure end stabilizing I still like to believe there are states, and questions about the nature of identity and existence that remain ineffable. I never thought of the bulb in purely Freudian terms. it came from old prints from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages of personal, unexplainable "spiritual journeys of the soul" so to speak.

What role did you mean Dr. Burkert to play in the  novel and in Lilly's life? 

       I think Lilly, is very much a daughter of her era. She sees men as entitled, especially in receiving unconditional nurturing  and sustenance from the women around them, as women remain hungry and deprived of such riches of support. When Lilly enters the monastery She asks why Jesus is on the lap  of  Mother Mary while she feels so abandoned and left out, as if her needs for the same for the same  nurturance were in fact invisible and illicit. She sees her mother as suffering from that unfed hunger, an unstable self. Her relationship to the mother who abused her is altered by her realization that her father's demands were insatiable, and drained the possibility of independent existence away from him. Her mother must remain his caretaker, and Lilly was partly responsible for the prison her mother finds herself in after her father becomes brain-damaged, dependent and helpless as a child. This I think is the abuse Lilly feels from men, being rendered invisible in terms of her own neediness, her own helplessness, having to serve only their often unreasonable hungers while starving herself, dwindling away. She is sucked dry by obligation to the men she must take care of, their unquestioned demands on her life and energies. Dr. Burkert is of course, very different just by virtue of his role as physician. He challenges her despairing view that all men are, like her father, unable to offer her caring back. Also her sexual attraction to him further helps her reintegrate a damaged and very undifferentiated sexual identity that had thrown her into psychotic fears and paralysis. He is a catalyst for a change in Lilly if she can accept his help.

You write a lot about British-occupied Palestine in all your novels; can you elaborate on what this means for you?

      I had the privilege of seeing the pre Israel world through the eyes of my Jerusalem born mother and as a baby taken there before the state of Israel was really strong. I think all my work as a novelist carries a sadness and a pining tenderness for the lost world of an earlier Palestine/Israel. I loved the world I saw there as a young children. My mother was born in the old city of Jerusalem as was my grandmother and my great grandmother, Some of my maternal family members go back as far as the 1600's in Jerusalem. My grandfather was in business with his Arab colleagues in Jordan and my uncles attended the University of Beirut. As a baby, then as a child, then as a young girl and woman I spent much time in my  mother's country, cloaked in intoxicatingly beautiful, often mystical stories of lives spent amidst these earlier limestone streets and pine trees, and as Jews, of lives spent and shared with a multicultural neighborhood of Muslims, Christians, and Armenians. The hate and bitterness of war between the Arabs and Jews had not yet poisoned the air because in British Palestine, the streets were not yet divided, and there was a mystical sense of things all around the Biblical places which made the whole earth feel magical to me as a child. Jerusalem was also a very sensual place, full of exotic scents and tastes, stories and ancients spirits I never knew in my Westchester home. As I said, I loved it there as a child, before 1967 when the war seemed to change everything.

Lilly finds comfort and direction in the Hebrew texts her mother, a bookbinder, repairs and restores.  Can you say more about the meaning these books have for her?

       I think the symbols Lilly finds in her mothers book-binding books bring Lilly back to a sweeter, and more important relationship with her mother, one that isn't damaged and one she can rely on to bring her meaning and identity. She, like her mother, can lose herself in an imaginative rendering of her world. Her mother taught her the power of finding such quiet self -fulfillment and self-definition through solitude, pursuing an art, a craft.  It was a chance to reintegrate the chaos of selfhood, make confusion cohere. 

But also essential, those ancient enduring Hebraic symbols bring Lilly back to that  Jerusalem of her childhood, to a universal belonging to worlds larger than herself. And finding those symbols puts Lilly back on a trail home.

What are you writing about now?  What kind of themes are obsessing you?

     I am writing a nom de plume about my relationship with Grace Paley, whom I knew for over thirty years, experiencing her as mentor and mother. The distortions and claims after her death shook me up quite after her death shook me up quite a bit, she was being erased and her crucial, glorious past as an important writer of our times, as an important literary figure of our time was being drowned out by voices who hardly knew her or her work but professed to. I felt a soul rape, and I mean this in the deepest way. I thought, how dare they? Grace wasn't like this, Grace didn't say this. Grace barely knew them and they say she did, and intimately at that. Larger more important questions arose, what do we we owe history? The truth?An allegiance to something larger than our personal egos like uh..a literary canon? Have we come to worship narcissism and will the next generation be deprived of literature as it was authentically created by true innovators like Grace Paley. I couldn't sleep at night if I let the imposters win, it became my own private war against what I felt was a destructive literary age of celebrities.

What question didn't I ask?

    Can't think of one!

Excerpt from Hystera

Inside the locked ward on Payne Whitney’s fifth floor, Lilly stepped onto a steel platform.  The examination room was harshly lit, the bulbs behind plastic squares on the ceiling— fluorescent and burning. The metal examining table sparked from too many electric darts and moonbeams.
It was an April evening, in 1974. The city’s night lights streaming in from the window would have been enough to illuminate the room, Lilly thought.   The arrows of moon pierced her blue-jeaned legs.
"You’re a dark girl."  The nurse said. "You look a little like Patty Hearst. Lillian, is that your name?" 
Lilly nodded, staring up at the large woman who confused her.   The nurse fisted her hands, big as a serviceman’s, glossy nailpolish shining on her nails, reddish-brown like her long hair.  The nurse was sturdy and strong, her copious breasts bulging under a tight blue tank top.
Lilly was a mess of unbrushed hair and pale features, the odor of imported Italian sardines in olive oil on her stained Tee-shirt.  I want to rest now, she wished.  She turned to stare out into the darkened evening. A spring rain was slanting on the pane behind the metal bars.
"We're going to keep you here in the hospital with us a little while," The nurse said. "I'm going to examine you, Lillian. My name is Beverly."
"Examine me?"
"It's just routine. Nothing elaborate."
"That's not possible."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I can't be examined."
"Dear, all of us can be examined."
A sheet of thin white paper was pulled all the way down to the metal stirrups, attached to the base of the examining table.
"Lie down on your back now, Lilly."
 Out the window, a soft indigo veiled the sky; the wind swirling, incessant.  Lilly eased herself down, flat on her back. The cool air was a wet cloth slapped on Lilly's forehead.  But, her breathing was short, panicked.
"I need you to squish yourself down further on the table here, Lillian." Beverly said. 
"Did I frighten him?" Lilly asked her.
"Who do you mean, Lilly?"
"The doctor who spoke with me in the interviewing room."
"Oh, heavens.  It would take a lot to frighten Dr. Burkert."
"But is that why I'm here?"
"Howard Burkert's one of our best third-year residents. No, no. You didn't scare him. Dr. Burkert thinks you're really feeling some discomfort in your pelvic area. We need to know whether you have a physical problem, or if it's something else."
 Stretched out on the examination table, Lilly wondered again if there were an abnormality in her sex, a cyst there, a tumor—. Maybe she was pregnant.
Her boyfriend, Mitchell, was gone.
 Lilly read about body delusions. She learned, too, after her father had come home from the hospital three years ago from his long coma, the extent in which a mind could reinvent its former world, house a whole alternate universe of worlds.
Maybe Beverly and Dr. Burkert didn’t know yet about her father’s two cerebral strokes, his coma, his altered mind.

(c) Leora Skolkin-Smith. Reprinted from Hystera, Fiction Studio