Friday, February 26, 2016

Michele Filgate talks about Red Ink, being daunted, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and so much more!

Everyone in the literary world knows and adores Michele Filgate--and for a huge variety of reasons. First, she's a tireless champion of writers. Second, she's smart, funny and a great writer herself. Third, her Facebook page is so much fun to follow, you might want to just pitch a tent there and stay there. She ran events at indie bookstores for seven years. First at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; then at McNally Jackson in Manhattan, and last (but not least!) Community Bookstore in Brooklyn.She also is curating the Red Ink panels at the fabulous BookCourt bookstore, a quarterly series co-sponsored by the great Literary Hub. And don't miss the second Red Ink Panel featuring Eileen Myles (Must be Living Twice), Ruth Ozeki (The Face: A Time Code), Porochista Khakpour (A forthcoming memoir called Sick), Anna March (Salon, The Rumpus, the New York Times) and Alexandra Kleeman (You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.) 9/22 at 7.

I'm so jazzed to have Michele here!  Thank you, thank you, Michele!

 I don’t think I’ve met anyone as amazing as you. You gave up steady work at a bookstore as the events person to make it as a writer—and you did. But not only that, you give so much back to the literary community, including this spectacular new venture Red Ink, a reading series for women writers. What made you come up with this idea? And how do you see it growing?

I ran events at indie bookstores for seven years. First at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; then at McNally Jackson in Manhattan, and last (but not least!) Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. I really enjoy curating literary conversations, and even though I gave it up as something I do on a regular basis, it’s part of my DNA. There are lots of great reading series in NYC (including Franklin Park Reading Series, run by the amazing Penina Roth) so I wanted to do something a little bit different. What if I could bring together a diverse group of women to talk about issues that a lot of people care about? What if I could partner with a great indie bookstore in order to do this? I approached BookCourt’s rock star events coordinator, Andrew Unger, and he loved the idea. I asked Lit Hub, where I’m a contributing editor, to co-sponsor the series. It all came together so easily, and I’m really pleased. There will be four panels a year. The next one is on September 22nd, so save the date!  It’s too early to say how I see this growing, but who knows? Maybe there could be a Red Ink imprint down the line.

I love the idea of the first event, Finding Solitude in a Noisy World, which is a big issue for most of the writers I know.  How do we block out the world at large to carve out work, while still staying connected? Will every reading tackle an important question?

I’m sure Katherine, Valeria, Molly, Angela, and Leslie will have great answers to that very question! Or more questions, perhaps! I picked this topic for two reasons. One is that I wanted to do an event for my friend Katherine Towler, whose new memoir, THE PENNY POET OF PORTSMOUTH, is one of the most exquisitely beautiful books about the writing life that I’ve ever read. She focuses on her friendship with Robert Dunn, an eccentric poet who was well-known in Portsmouth, NH, but content to be a minor poet in the world. He had a town he thrived in, but he also had a private world that he guarded; a space where he reflected and came up with his poems. That’s something we can all learn from Robert: the idea of embracing our communities while also retreating from it when we need to. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question. I think it’s perhaps the biggest challenge for writers, honestly. Short of going to writing retreats (which many writers can’t afford to do) and canceling plans with friends and family, how do we make sure we have the time we need to create? How do we nurture it? How do we not feel guilty during the time that we AREN’T writing?

I do hope that all of the panels will tackle some sort of question, or at least some sort of big idea.

You’ve mentioned that this series will also have transcripts of each event for people who can’t make it—which is a genius idea. I always feel terrible when I can’t get to events! Any plans to put these transcripts into a book later? Or a podcast series?

Good idea! We’ll see.

How do you manage to do all that you do? You teach creative nonfiction, you are a contributing editor at LitHub, you are running this series, you produce literary segments and you write—and I am probably missing at least a dozen other things. And despite all of this you remain one of the kindest, warmest, most confidant people I’ve met. Does anything ever daunt you?

I am constantly daunted, and unafraid of showing that side of myself on social media. I believe in sharing the good and the bad, and there’s a lot of bad. I deal with depression and anxiety on a daily basis. Perhaps I keep myself so busy as a way of distracting myself. I’m sure that has something to do with it. 2016 is my year of learning to say no: to assignments I don’t want, coffee dates, etc. (I’m very bad at saying no. I try to do all of the things. No one can do all of the things. I also really believe in mentoring and helping out other writers.) I am making more of an effort to allow myself time to reflect. That’s just as important, if not more so, than actual writing time. I really, really want to write a book. That is my number one priority right now. So I’m in the process of working on something and trying to figure out if it will amount to anything. I hope it will.

What’s obsessing you now (beside Red Ink) and why?

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”! I was hesitant to watch the show because the name really offended me. But it’s subversive and smart and really, really funny. Rachel Bloom is so talented! My favorite song is “The SexyGetting Ready Song.”

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

How many times have you deleted these answers and rewritten them?

Don’t ask. J

Monday, February 22, 2016

Lee Hope talks about her gripping novel Horsefever, the powerful relationship between horses and their riders, bringing literature to people on parole, writing, and so much more

First, the raves:

 This atmospheric first novel thrusts readers into the intense, often seedy world of competitive horsemanship. Though the concept will certainly appeal to those interested in equine sports, the shifting character dynamics and tense plot will hook fans of suspense as well as horse lovers.–Maggie Reagan, Booklist

Hope has melded a perfect concoction in Horsefever – horses, a murder mystery, a little passion, some suspense, all wrapped around our four-legged friends. Add this one to your 2016 reading list.
–Horse Country Chic

 Lee Hope is editor-in-chief of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices. Her fiction has received grants from both the Maine and the Pennsylvania Arts Commissions. Her short stories have been published in numerous literary journals, such as: Witness, The North American Review, Epiphany, and Sou’wester. She is currently president of the nonprofit Solstice Institute for Creative Writing and teaches for Changing Lives Through Literature, which brings reading to people on probation.

I'm honored to host Lee. Thank you, Lee!

I always want to know what sparks a book? What did it for you? 
I am fascinated with literary suspense.  With Horsefever, I was drawn to a particular murder case about two imperiled marriages that ends tragically with a killing.  I was also fascinated with horses, and owned a small horse farm. So I changed the protagonists in the original case to be horse people, and the novel took off.   Nikki, one of the four protagonists, wishes to compete in the dangerous sport of cross country horse jumping, but her fears hold her back.  Her landowner, husband, Cliff, hires Gabe, half paralyzed in a jumping accident, as a horse trainer, and an attraction grows between Gabe and Nikki, as do the jealous suspicions of Cliff and Gabe's wife Carla, which eventually lead to violence.  The fates of these marriages are intertwined with the relationships with horses, and with ambition and fear.  

What I so love about your novel is the storyworld--the way you bring  us into a world that is as exotic as it is compelling, and even dangerous. Why do you think this particular world gives rise to both the spiritual and the sensual?
In a high risk sport, or any high risk physical activity, really, you risk your life. Cross country riding, or jumping horses, is that dangerous.  At any moment you could be thrown, your horse could trip, you could break bones, your neck, get a concussion, be brain dead.  And risking death can be spiritual, you must confront your fears, and persist.  It takes a certain irrationality, yes.  One eventer said that cross country riders, eventers, are a little crazy.  But I would say such riding also takes an inner strength.  You use your body, as in any sport, but in riding you also connect with the body of the horse…you sense your body so vividly in its vulnerability and strength each time your horse jumps, or competes…it's a union that brings together, if you're tapped into it, the sensual and the spiritual.  And this union is what Nikki knows, and Gabe, her trainer, knows it, and her husband Cliff, senses it, the power of the body/spirit connection.  So Cliff quickly comes to wish he had never hired a trainer in the first place, but it is too late.  The passion of the sport, of winning, has taken hold and propels all four main characters into spiritual territory, both dark and light.   

Can you talk a bit about the connection between the riders and the horses, how it works, when it doesn’t--and why? 

I love this question because it leads us into the spiritual connections between species, the sensual, emotional communication between humans and nonhumans. 
Horses are creatures of prey that have survived since prehistoric times through fear.  They know fear in its depths, so they sense ours as we touch or ride them.  If we are afraid, then their fears ignite, and
 they can become dangerous.  So to ride well, we must master our own fears, sense fear in our bodies, in ourselves, find a calm center, and then in centering, we can communicate quietly through each touch, each gesture with reins, with our thighs, our heels, our heads, our sight, our tones of voice, our breath.  We can learn to feel into the horse,  to come to where we do not dominate, but to where we relate beyond ourselves,…to where we transcend.  Yet if we cannot center ourselves, as Nikki sometimes cannot, and as Gabe once failed to do, then we can become as Gabe, half paralyzed.  Infirm.  Or, in some cases, dead.  So pay attention to the horse, to the nonhumans outside of us.

What kind of writer are you? Did you carry this story around in your head for years, or dash it out on paper and then revise? Do you have rituals? And can you talk about what you’re working on now?

I find in order to circumvent my logical mind, I must write fast, not a free write, exactly, but to let it flow, to think of it as a draft, which it is, and then, yes, I must revise again and again. 
My ritual is to do what riders must do, to center somehow, in the midst of it all.  To find a meditative space.  To maybe even meditate before I write, which is often easier for me in the mornings.  Now after a few years break, I finally have started a new novel.  No horses in it.  But a crime.  That old fascination of mine returning, or it never went, of those people who live close to the edge and sometimes go over it.   As any of us really can. 

I was so happy to see that you teach for Changing Lives Through Literature--I’ve worked with this program, too, and found it extraordinary. Can you talk about this, please?

You can see how I would be drawn to this program with its use of literature to touch the lives of people on probation, people who were on the edge, and for some reason, could not stop the momentum…and made a wrong choice perhaps, which leads them to the classes in this
terrific national program, which was founded in Massachusetts, where I teach with a judge and a probation officer.  We have seen the effects of this program on some of our students.  Some come to realize how smart they are, come to identify with characters in the stories, characters who also can make wrong choices causing suffering. So some students make other life choices than they once might have.

I have published a few stories by these students in Solstice:  A Magazine of Diverse Voices, of which I am the editor-in-chief.  We publish established writers, including  writers of color and various social classes, as well as writers on the margins.  We promote diversity in literature, as in a different way, Changing Lives Through Literature also does. 
What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed with beginning a new novel in the midst of the publicity for Horsefever.
How to handle that balance?  I'm obsessed with trying to promote my own writing after so many years of publishing other writers, and teaching them in conferences, and founding an MFA program in Creative Writing, and how I take such joy and feel satisfaction in promoting other writers, while I find myself feeling awkward and shy asking others for favors about my own work.   And more than all that, I'm obsessed with trying to get back to meditation, and to prayer perhaps, to center myself, because it's in centering oneself, as I said above, that we can take life-affirming risks. 

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

 Your questions are so fine and made me think.  I would say that I'd love for readers to check out our terrific magazine, Solstice:  A Magazine of Diverse Voices,  It's an independent nonprofit that publishes our hybrid mag online, yet we are also publishing print anthologies of our writers as well.  We're so proud to have two Notable Essays cited in The Best American Essays 2015.  And we just received a small grant through the Massachusetts (Needham) Cultural Council, and we are a Best of the Net winner!  We have a mission to promote diversity in literature and photography.

But there I go promoting something other than my book.  You can link to my authorsite, at, or go to my FaceBook author's page to read more and to order Horsefever.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Charlie Smith talks about his heart-scorching new novel GINNY GALL, writing about a black man and being white, research, basketball and so much more

Prepare to be amazed. Charlie Smith has written one of the most extraordinary, gripping, harrowing novels of the year. (Check out the praise on the back of the book above.) His eight poetry collections include Red Roads, selected for the National Poetry Series and Great Lakes New Poets Award; Word Comix , and Headlong . Smith has also published seven novels, among them Cheap Ticket to Heaven, Chimney Rock, and Three Delays , as well as a collection of novellas, Crystal River.

I am so honored to have Charlie here. Thank you, Charlie. Thank you.

What sparked this particular novel?

My novels generally start with an image that sticks in my mind, a mental snapshot that fascinates me so strongly that I want to find out what is going on—in this case a picture of a young man, a black man, riding on top of a boxcar on a long freight train passing a country zoo.  I wondered who he was and where he was going and what generally he was up to, where the zoo was.  It was late summer or fall in the South.  The light was a dusty gold.  The young man had a look on his face of loneliness and anticipation—of eagerness and curiosity.  The novel grew from that picture.

Did you find it daunting at all, as a white man, to write about a black man?

I didn’t so much worry about being white and writing about a black man as I did about how to get as deeply as possible into Delvin’s heart and the hearts of the other characters.  The things we crave are pretty simple: we want to love and be loved, to express who we are and be treated with dignity and humaneness, we all get scared and want to laugh and hook up with others—these are the same whether we’re black or white.  Novels are acts of empathy (unless they are simply forms of personal memoir) and that’s the hard part.  Letting go and descending into the heart. 

How did you go about crafting a character as rich as Delvin?

From the start I sensed in Delvin a buoyancy and a voyaging and a yearning.  I was interested in writing about someone like that.  My other novels are all long prose tragedies, but from the first I knew this book would be different.  Also, the book ends with a beginning, so no telling what’s coming.

Was writing a novel different than writing poetry? Did one form inform the other?

I’ve published eight novels and a collection of three novellas.  I’ve published eight poetry books, including a selected poems.  I’ve always done both.  Both captivated me from the start.  I switch from one to the other as the occasion demands.  I like the compression and passionate speech of a poem, the long haul and characterizations of a novel.

Tell me about the research you did. Did anything surprise you?

I didn’t do much research.  In writing a novel I set myself the task of imagining characters and a world—that’s the fun of it.  As a southerner—one who left the South when he was young—some of my background was useful to me.  I was aware of the Scottsboro Boys, but beyond the facts that could be set out in a single sentence I knew nothing about them.  I wanted to imagine this child and young man’s story.                         
What's obsessing you now and why?

My next novel is the story of a professional (NBA level) basketball player and his wife, a mathematician, nuclear scientist and near Olympic level swimmer, told in points of view alternating between them.  Takes place around the country and around the world. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Joyce Maynard talks about UNDER THE INFLUENCE, using giant white boards to write, children, music, alcohol, wanting to be good and so much more

Usually my interviews for this blog are done via email, but Joyce Maynard wanted us to see each other as we talked, for it to be more personal. How could I resist that? So with her in Guatemala and me in Hoboken, we made contact via Skype, had great laughs and talked for an hour.

Joyce is the critically acclaimed author The Usual Rules, Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Old in the Sixties, Where Love Goes, Baby love, To Die for (made into a movie with Nicole Kidman), Labor Day (made into a movie with Kate Winslet) and the memoir, At Home in the World.  She also runs fiction and memoir workshops in California and internationally, and founded The Lake Atitlan Writers’ Workshop in Guatemala.  In 2013, she got married, after 25 years as a single person.

Her latest novel Under the Influence will be out February 23, and it is completely wonderful. I’m delighted to host Joyce here. Thank you so much, Joyce!

For me, a novel always begins with something is haunting me, some issue I have to get at. Was it that way for you, and if so, can you talk about what that was, and how it became the origins of your novel?
Every novel I’ve written has come out of my obsessions.  I don’t always know it at the time, but then I look at the pages, and there I am--of course! There are certain things that never go away. The yearning for family. The loneliness of a single mother.  Actually, most of my novels have single mothers in them.

But this time around, I was thinking a lot about the loss of friendship. I’ve experienced that in a very painful way, more painful that the loss of a love affair. Of course, my story was not the story of Helen, but I like to attach the engine of my own strongest emotion to the stories I tell.

Did you feel healed by writing Under the Influence at all?

No one should have to pay $20 for my healing! But I understand my own issues more. I look to understand relationships when I write, but I want to make it clear that I was very careful in writing Under the Influence not to make this the story of any of my own friendships. I deliberately put Ava in a wheelchair because I never had a close friend in a wheelchair.

I also was thinking about drinking. I had to give up wine. I had a pattern of drinking that would be very familiar to a lot of women. You know, it’s the end of the day and you open up that bottle of wine. I’ve never been drunk, never had Helen’s experience with getting a DUI, but I was using wine in a way that alarmed me. I come from an alcoholic family. Four years ago, I was pulled over, handcuffed and taken to the police station to get a Breathalyzer test. I saw my life flash before my eyes as I waited for the. I passed, but it changed me. I began to speak about it, to name the demon and write about what was happening. I know that as long as I see drinking as a way of dulling pain, I’d better not drink.

Kirkus, in a rave review, called attention to your expert plotting and use of suspense.  Do you map things out? What’s your writing process like

It’s emotional and organic. I do a giant white board and pretend that I’m a painter. I track my characters. I’ve always said that past a point, if you’ve created characters who have emotional authenticity, they will determine their destiny. I didn’t know what was going to happen with Swift and Ava. They did the kind of things that people like that would do. I never know how a book is going to end. I want to find out.

You also tell stories at The Moth. Does that feel different to you than writing a novel?

You can see your audience! It’s so lonely for a writer, alone at her desk compared to performing in front of an audience where you can hear people laugh or cry  You can also feel when it isn’t working, I think my years of oral storytelling made me a better story teller on the page. And it made me a better teacher.  I love to  help writers at all levels tell a story well. I like to create an arc on my white board, and I keep asking them questions, what do the characters want?  Where is the big change? How do they come out of the novel differently than when they started?

Do your novels change as you are writing them?

Absolutely. This one was almost finished and sitting on  my desk about to be sent  to my editor when when my husband  Jim was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t go back to writing for eight months. My life as a writer was gone –and when my husband got a lot better and I finally did get back to work,  I was a different person. I was changed, so the novel was changed. I had a different feeling about love. It was no longer the super romantic, flashy love affair that keeps you in bed for weeks that I was interested in. I was thinking about a deeper feeling, about what really matters in a relationship, and that’s how I created Eliot, who is quiet and good, and whom Helen rejects at first as boring.

Do you think about your audience while you write?

I don’t think about what are people going to think. I write the book that I want to read. There have been a number of times when I put away a two hundred page manuscript. Not that it wasn’t good. It just wasn’t good enough. You want to grow. You don’t want to stay in the same place. My new novel is a more ambitious one than the novel before it, and I hope that will always be so. 

So much of this extraordinary novel is about how you don’t really know what a person is about, what they are choosing to hide or show--and why. The “Have-it-All Havilands seem to sparkle and anyone would be drawn to them, including troubled Helen’s son Ollie, but their friendship soon turns out to be something very different than it appears. Can you talk about this please?

I used to really be really vulnerable about looking at other people’s lives and believing that they had it figured out and what was the matter with me that I didn’t? I thought I was the only person whose father got drunk. Years passed and I found out that a lot of other people I knew had fathers who got drunk. I never want to create the impression that I have it all figured out. I don’t! Helen is somebody who is a fan, an admirer, a worshipper. She feels so honored when Swift uses her name to address her. It’s thrilling to her, and it’s only when she comes to know them better, that she can see how very deep the flaws and failures go.

How did writing this novel change you?

Every book I write is hugely influenced by where I am and what I’m living through as I write it.  Under the Influence was written (or revised, at least, and basically rewritten) during a time when my husband was fighting a serious cancer battle.  And I wrote out of that place.  I’m very conscious of the value of the present, and very aware of death, the certainty for us all. And our culture keeps denying it. Being with my husband Jim while he battled cancer (he’s now cancer-free and gaining weight) made me keenly aware of the preciousness of days.  I think I always aspired to this, but now more than ever I want to do books that have meaning. I want to do good work.

I also want to think that people are going to be good. It’s cost me, but I still want to be that way. Long ago, I had the experience of writing to a man in prison, and gradually his funny, kind, interesting letters grew uglier and uglier. But I wrote Labor Day to show the flip side. What if a so-called bad man was really good?

You’ve had two of your novels made into films, To Die for, with Nicole Kidman, and Labor Day, with Kate Winslet. What does that feel like for you

Well, it’s a different entity than your book. You have to let go of ownership, similar to what you need to do with your kids. Relinquish control.  There were things in the movies that would not have been my choice, but I’m not making the movie. The funny thing is I want to give the feeling of a movie in a book. When you read a book of mine, I want to create a movie in your head.  Everything but the popcorn.

What’s obsessing you now and wh

Children have been an obsession all my life, and parenthood. I think every one of my novels has a child. Each one unique.  

Music is an obsession. I always want to know what music my characters listen to. I even did a sound track for Where Love Goes, and produced it.  If I had my choice of what I’d be good at, I’d make music. I’d be Emmylou Harris, with a voice that has so much feeling it bring tears to a person’s eyes. When I write, I pretend that I am making music on the page. My book is like a song, maybe a heartbreak song, a song that makes you feel the beating of your heart in your chest.  Every book is another song of mine.  As in life, there is generally sadness and sometimes great pain in my songs.  But ultimately, I like to think they are hopeful too.  I’m an optimistic person .  And I believe in the power of love.  That’s an obsession.  It’s in every story I tell.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Rachel Cantor talks about her acclaimed new novel, Good on Paper, getting shiny new ideas for new novels, second chances, her devotion to her characters, and so much more

I so loved this novel, Good on Paper, and so did NPR, calling it "a wonderfully exuberant mixing of registers: scholarly to colloquial to campishly zany and back." Rachel Cantor is the author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario and her newest, Good on Paper, is racking up the raves everywhere. She's been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, short-listed for the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories, and she's absolutely fascinating. She also freelances as a writer for nonprofits that work in developing countries like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Laos. She's worked at food festivals and taught Afghan women refugees in Pakistan. Plus, she loves the Boston Red Sox. I'm so delighted to have her here. Thank you, thank you, Rachel!

So much of your wonderful novel is about second chances—and how we read or misinterpret them. Can you talk about this, please?

Thank you for calling my novel wonderful and thanks for the thoughtful question! Yes, the book is to a large extent about second chances. My protagonist, Shira Greene, is stuck. She had big dreams when she was a girl, as a young woman she was a rising academic star, but now she’s a bored file clerk who bristles when her bosses tell her to smile. This isn’t what she’d intended for her life but she can’t imagine anything better. Like many characters in fiction, she needs a deus ex machina to bust in and change everything. And he does, in the form of an eccentric Italian poet—and thank heavens, or Shira would still be temping in New Jersey, unsure why she’s so unhappy. In the end, though, it’s not enough that someone pushes Shira to change—it’s the necessary but not sufficient condition for change, as the philosophers say. She’ll also need to make some choices herself, she’ll need to act. It’s not enough that she be given a second chance: she also needs to take chances. This is her “test,” in the language of the book. Her true second chance is the one she takes after she runs out of the chances she’s been given, if that makes sense.

What kind of writer are you? Do you know where you are headed when you embark on a novel or are you surprised on every page?

I knew where Good on Paper had to end, but I didn’t at all know how I’d get there; this is typical of how I work. I never outline, though I did in this case have a sense of the book’s seven-part structure from a rather early stage, which helped me understand (in general terms) as I wrote and revised how the plot would unfold (what is Shira’s call to action, what is her test, etc.). Beyond that, I couldn’t predict much!

To give a simple example: I introduced a cat in an early chapter, with no idea that she would become important. I just thought, we’re in a bookstore, bookstores should have cats! But once she was there, and had a name (Marla), and began sitting regally in her Simon and Schuster box with her kittens, which she loses, once it became clear that she was dear to the bookstore proprietor, she became “material” I later needed to use (like a gun which once introduced has to eventually go off). She became part of an organic process over which I had some but not complete control; this means that what happens next you can’t always predict.

So there were for me surprises galore, and not just on the page level. I remember writing a quite emotional scene where Shira has to talk to her daughter Andi, who’s in some distress. I knew I needed to intensify the scene, but I didn’t know how: Shira needed to say something important to her daughter, but what? I didn’t even know what her daughter needed to hear! I started walking blindly down a sentence, with no idea where it would lead. I felt very much like I was on a branch that might not carry me (am I mixing metaphors? sorry!). This was actually a bit terrifying. What happened at the end of that sentence truly surprised me—it made me cry, in fact—though now it seems inevitable. That’s the ideal, to me, to be that open every moment as I write. Sometimes I feel I can sense when a book I’m reading has been “outlined,” when a scene is written so it can be ticked off a list of “necessary scenes”; more often than not, I put that book down.

Did you do research on translation? What surprised you about the process—and did you try some yourself?

I did a lot of research on translation! I read books of essays on both translation theory and practice, as well as a number of articles, especially when they had to do with translation from the Italian. I had tried some poetry translation here and there earlier in my life, mostly as a quite young person, for my eyes only, and had no illusions about how difficult it is. I also translated various lines from the Italian, German, and Hebrew for Good on Paper, though often my translations owed much to the prior efforts of my betters (for example, in a scene in which two characters collaborate on a translation of a famous verse from the Song of Songs, which process I describe here).

At a recent residency, however, I was recently asked to help an American poet who doesn’t speak Italian and a Bulgarian translator who translates from the Italian but doesn’t speak English quite as well translate a poem written by a Swiss poet from Italian into English (if that all makes sense). None of us had sufficient skills to do the job alone; collectively, the hope was that we could. I, however, only embarrassed myself by my poor contributions, consistently misunderstanding individual words and overall sense. Hilarity ensued (chronicled here) So yes, even while I understood intellectually how difficult translation is, I had to have this recent experience to understand it in my bones!

More than one critic has commented on how much you seem to love your characters, however deeply flawed. Don’t you think this has a lot to do with the whole idea of translating—finding the real meaning of a text—and of a person?

That’s high praise to me because it suggests that I’ve done my job—creating complex characters we can love (if I love and respect them, the reader can, too). I hadn’t thought of that process as being similar to translation, but of course it has to be: in both cases, we listen, right? We listen attentively and with an open mind. When we really listen—to what a character says, to what a text says, also reading between the lines of what they say, thinking about what they don’t say, what they’re trying to hide and why, aware then of their flaws and fragility, which are our flaws and fragility—we experience compassion, and then understanding and love—for a character, for a text. At least I think so!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My work-in-progress should be the answer but it’s not. I’m revising that book—a novel-in-stories that takes an imaginative look at the lives of the Brontë siblings. But it’s at an awkward adolescent phase—all limbs, confusion, and difficult emotion—close to maturity but not there yet. So naturally, I’ve had a great idea for a next book! Every day I have more exciting thoughts about how that book might progress, and how fun it’ll be to write! Not the first time this has happened—my difficult work-in-progress was once the shiny idea I enjoyed thinking about when Good on Paper gave me trouble!

The fabulous Meredith Maran talks about Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, yearning for a wife, and why you need to preserve truth-telling with preserving your relationships

 What can I tell you about Meredith Maran? That I once called her up sobbing because I thought I had screwed up something with the New York Times (and she calmly talked me down.) That whenever I need advice or support, she's one of the first people I go to? Not only does she have a heart the size of Jupiter, she's funny, smart, and has the best head of curls on the planet. 

This bio she wrote for herself is so full of delights, I'm including it here: She published her first poem in Highlights for Kids at age six, her first national magazine article at age 15, and her first book at age 18. In the years that followed she built a house and raised goats outside Taos, installed brakes on the Ford assembly line in San Jose, and wrote an exposé of right-wing fundamentalism in Silicon Valley while working as a technical writer at National Semiconductor. After serving as Editor of the Banana Republic Catalogue (when Banana Republic was still cool), she created award-winning marketing campaigns for socially responsible businesses including Ben & Jerry's, Working Assets, Stonyfield Farm, Smith & Hawken, and Odwalla.

The author of a dozen nonfiction books and an acclaimed novel, Meredith is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the MacDowell Fellows West. She writes features, essays, and book reviews for People, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Simple, Mother Jones, Good Housekeeping, and other publications.

Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirsts on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature is both thrilling, profound, and insightful. The only thing better than having Meredith here would be to share coffee and pie with her. Thank you, Meredith!

I absolutely was enthralled by this book about how memoirists write. How did you go about choosing the writers?

With this book and its predecessor, Why We Write, I started the way a mall starts, by recruiting a desirable “anchor store” and then going after others using that first recruit as bait. In the case of Why We Write About Ourselves, my “anchors” were my generous and steadfast friends Dani Shapiro, Ayelet Waldman, and Annie Lamott. Once they’d agreed to be interviewed, I made a wish list and then went after the others the way a hog goes after truffles.

Given our country’s ongoing struggle with racism, it was very important to me that the book include a representative and diverse group of voices. In fact, I told my editor that if we couldn’t do that, I didn’t want to do the book. Inclusivity in the culture has to start somewhere, and for me it started with refusing to perpetrate the marginalization of those whose voices are normally silenced or ignored.

In the course of recruiting the writers, I was struck by how easy it was to find “qualified” women, people of color, gay people, and writers of all ages. The argument that recruiting for diversity means sacrificing quality really is bullshit! Having a chance to interview Edwidge Danticatt and James McBride and Jesmyn Ward and Edmund White and A.M. Homes was an honor, not a sacrifice! I’m proud of the final mix not just because it’s “politically correct,” but because each writer brings a different life experience and literary perspective. You can’t get that in a book that’s limited to famous white men!

What surprised you about these essays? What didn’t you expect? And as a memorist yourself, what did you learn?

I learned so much! I was beginning work on my own memoir as I was doing the interviews and putting Why We Write About Ourselves together, and I poured every insight and trick right into my own book. I felt like I was taking a class with twenty of the country’s best writers as my teachers and I got to ask them anything I needed to know to move my own work forward. I figured readers would be as fascinated as I was by the answers and pointers that emerged.

The big takeaways for me were these: 1) be harder on yourself than you are on any other character in your memoir; 2) memoir isn’t a diary; it’s a shaped and crafted work of art; 3) there’s no confidentiality recipe. Each memoirist has to balance her own truth-telling with preserving her relationships with the people in her life.

There is always the question, how much truth should you tell—but a deeper question is what is the truth? Five people might see one event very differently. Would you say that the impact of the truth you believe is what matters?

In a word, yes. In the memoir I’m writing now I’m changing all the names and identifying details because my previous memoirs hurt my family members and I don’t want to do that any more. This forces me to examine the really important truths, which are the emotional truths.

I loved the tips each memoirist gives at the end of the chapter.  I especially loved the wonderful Kate Christensen saying to not be afraid of writing into the heart of what you’re most afraid of. That’s great advice for novelists, too, don’t you think?

In the events we’ve been doing for the book—starting with NYC, where I was joined by Dani Shapiro, A.M. Homes, Darin Strauss, and Meghan Daum—the need for craft has emerged as one of the hottest items on a memoirist’s to-do list. Most of the writers in the book are novelists as well as memoirists, and they agree that the need for character development, narrative arc, and craft are at least as important in memoir as they are in fiction.

Do you think that when a writer writes with blood on the page, with nothing held back, as if they are writing only for themselves, that that is when it becomes universal? (I do, I do.)

Yes. And—in memoir you have to be careful about whose blood you’re spilling.

Annie Lamott says, “if you didn’t want me to write about you, you should have been nicer to me.” But Pearl Clegg says if people have strong objections, you should honor that.  Again, for me, this comes down to “the truth as you personally know it.”  Can you talk about this?

There are two types of memoirists: the Annie type, who say that everyone gets to tell his or her own story; and the Pearl type, who put relationships ahead of telling the literal truth. I’ve done it both ways and I remain stranded in the middle: determined not to hurt anyone by writing a memoir, and knowing that I inevitably will. 

I also wanted to mention your wonderful, brave, amazing essay, Where is my Wife, that recently appeared in Salon. Can you talk about the reception you’ve received?

Oy! Admitting that I’m lonely, that I want to be married, that I’m a devoted practitioner of the domestic arts, was the most embarrassing thing I’ve put into print, and that’s saying something. I’ve received some really moving responses, nearly all of them from women in a similar situation. I also heard from the usual cacophony of haters in the Salon comments section. It was harder than usual to read those letters, since they were attacking me personally with comments like “No wonder you got divorced.” Ouch. I’m not one of those people who turns her back on feedback. I aspire to be!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Launching a book! It’s like having the flu, but with room service!

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You did it, babycakes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sex. Death. Music. Depression. Addiction. Who we are and who we struggle to be. Rob Roberge talks about his extraordinary memoir, LIAR

I first met Rob Roberge at a reading at KGB's. Not only is he one of the fiercest, most extraordinary writers I know, he's also a hoot to hang out with. He's the author of The Cost of Living, Working Backwards From The Worst Moment of My Life, More Than They Could Chew, and Drive. He teaches and also plays guitar with the L.A. band, The Urinals. And his new book, a memoir, Liar, is intense, brilliantly written, and deeply moving. Don't want to take my word for it? Read below:

“I’ve never read a book more intimately devoted to articulating how tenuous our hold on identity is. Identity is made, unmade, remade by chasing memory, and memory is a series of emotional intensities we barely survive. We make up stories of ourselves to bear the weight of our actual lives. We live between those stories and events coming at us like catastrophic meteors.  And yet, mercifully and sporadically, love comes. Read Rob Roberge’s memoir,  LIAR.  Because life is what happens between truth and the fictions we make to withstand it.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of THE SMALL BACKS OF CHILDREN and THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER

“Uncompromising and deeply affecting, LIAR is a brilliantly fragmented, darkly humorous account of a lifelong struggle with addiction and mental illness that stands with Fred Exley’s A FAN’S NOTES. Strip-mining his memories for veins of truth, Rob Roberge unearths a fractured, unholy, and undeniable work of brilliance.” —J. Ryan Stradal, New York Times bestselling author of KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST

“Rob Roberge’s LIAR is an unforgettable story, but what sets this stunning memoir apart is the unforgettable voice. Roberge interrogates memory with an ardent desire to be good and to do right. A deeply moral and complicated book, it comes from the heart of a man who writes about love, loss, and addiction like no other writer. You’ll fall in love.” —Emily Rapp, author of THE STILL POINT OF THE TURNING WORLD

 I always want to know what’s haunting an author that gets him to write a certain book. So why did you feel that now was the time to write a memoir?

I’m not sure I did feel it was time to write a memoir—at least initially. I had some little sketches that I had published on-line, and a few friends told me I should turn them/it into a book. I thought it was kind of a ridiculous idea. Who would want to read about me for 200+ pages? But, slowly, I came around to the idea of writing the memoir as my various medical conditions got worse—my bipolar and, particularly, my post-concussive syndrome, which threatens memory and ups the possibility of early dementia. So, I guess, I wanted to get it down. There became a sense of urgency in some ways. I’ve always been interested in the (sometimes) wide gap between fact and memory. Memory, as Nabokov said, is a revision. And I wanted to explore that…and the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we tell others.

Also, on a personal and craft level, I had already done three novels that were becoming increasingly autobiographical. And I figured it was maybe time to lose the veil of fiction and write a book overtly about myself. It felt like the culmination of a phase of my career. For now, I’m done writing about me. I’ve done it in both forms and it’s time to try something new. To write about people not at all based on me.

Your book is raw, blazingly honest, (which is funny for a book called Liar!) moving, shocking--all the best adjectives. Were you anxious about revealing so much or was it a relief to be so honest? What was it like to relive you past on paper?

Honestly, I don’t think a single scene in it was a relief to write. The whole thing was more or less very scary and difficult. Maybe a few of the funny scenes were fun to write. But maybe the one relief about writing the book as a whole was that I felt like I had gotten a lot out. James Baldwin said, after essentially coming out in the writing of Giovanni’s Room, (even though it was a novel) that there was the relief of people not having secrets on him. That no one could tell on him because he had told them himself. So, there’s that. Though, of course, I still have secrets—it’s a memoir, not a diary.
But I would say it was a mostly frightening book. Not so much to write, but to have released in the world. To know that I’m exposing so much of myself to readers is a very frightening thought. As, I suppose, it should be with a memoir, or why do it in the first place?

Did anything in the writing of this memoir surprise you?

One major thing. The biggest surprise was how different it was/is from writing fiction (at least for me). I thought both were narrative prose forms, and that they would prove to be very similar. But that proved to be extremely incorrect. First of all, there was the thought/fear of exposing myself on very page. No matter how autobiographical a novel is, you can always hide behind the guise of fiction. The other major difference was the ethics of the project. I wasn’t just telling my story, but I was telling other real people’s stories (or at least my version/memory of them). And that was a very difficult thing for me to reconcile. That I was responsible for how people in my life would be represented, along with the accompanying fear that they might be angry or hurt by my portrayals of them. This is an enormous fear I still have. And that was probably the biggest difference in writing a memoir versus a novel.

You’ve been through a tremendous amount of pain, drugs, alcohol, sexual encounters, thoughts of suicide, etc.  And you seem to now be in a place where you are successful, wildly talented, loved and beloved. Do you think that writing about all of this and examining it helped you or were you already pretty sure what road you wanted to be on before you started writing this?

]First, thanks for the incredibly kind words. I don’t know how exactly how to answer this question. While I recognize that I am enormously lucky in life…that I escaped some pretty hard situations…I probably don’t ever feel totally out of the woods. I still have thoughts of suicide. I don’t drink or use anymore. But I could relapse tomorrow. I don’t think I will, but I could. That said, I have incredible friends. I know how lucky I am. But, I still go to some pretty bad places mentally. Not as often as in the past, but it’s still there. The highs and lows of having bipolar can be exhausting, and they get worse with age, from what the doctors tell me. Though writing the book probably did help me put a lot of my past and present into a different perspective. I view my old self as a much more lost and confused and fearful person than I am today. Though I still fight the same problems, I’m probably better equipped to deal with them now. And writing the book reminded me of that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why your book is so compulsively readable, why I couldn’t wait to get back to reading. I think it’s because even in your depths of self-harm and self-deceit, you are so vulnerable that the reader can’t help but want you to  be okay. How do you feel now about your past self?

 That I was a very immature, damaged young person. That I made a ton of mistakes I wish I could take back. And with a lot of regret, probably. One of the things I learned from the work of Richard Yates was that so much of a writer’s material can be about the gap between who we are and who we wish we could be. And I have felt that gap very strongly at times. I try, too, though, to have a measure of forgiveness for who I was (and who I am). I’m not very good at it. I’m tougher on myself than I am on anyone else. I’m not very good at allowing myself to be human, and I get very frustrated when I don’t measure up to who I know I’m capable of being. Though, I tend to feel that more about my past than my present, so I suppose that’s progress.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Probably my fear about how the book will be received. I’m also working on a new novel that’s giving me a lot of trouble, so I’m not writing enough. I’m trying to be more obsessed with it than I probably am at the moment. But promoting a book while trying to write another one is very difficult for me. So, I’m trying to cut myself some slack there. But mostly I’m obsessed with fear with how Liar will be viewed and received. I’ve never had that feeling with a book, so it’s something new and mildly terrifying, to say the least.

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

I can’t think of any. Thank you so much for the questions you did ask, and thank you for the kind words about the book. It means a lot and I’m extremely grateful.

Do our memories survive us? Sharon Guskin lights up literary fireworks in her already-buzzing debut, The Forgetting Time

First the reviews;
An Indie Next Pick
An Amazon Best Book of February
A Barnes & Noble February Top Pick in Fiction

“Bold, captivating…Guskin amps up the suspense while raising provocative questions about the maternal bond and its limits…you’ll be mesmerized.”—People Magazine (Book of the Week)

“Readers will be galvanized by Guskin’s sharply realized and sympathetic characters with all their complications, contradictions, failures, sorrows, and hope. Deftly braiding together suspense, family drama, and keen insights into the workings of the brain, Guskin poses key and unsettling questions about love and memory, life and death, belief and fact….The Forgetting Time offers a vast spectrum of significant and nuanced topics that will catalyze probing discussions.”—Booklist (Starred Review)

Got you already, right? Sharon Guskin’s debut The Forgetting Time is both beautifully written and extraordinarily provocative. As someone whose father gave her Edgar Cayce books to teeth on, I was fascinated by the story of interlocking lives: a single mother desperate to help her child who keeps remembering another life; a researcher at the end of his own life who wants to make a difference; and a grieving mother who never knew what happened to her own little boy. Guskin's alchemy is to make you deeply know and care about these people, and to wonder about the world. And what is better than that?

In addition to writing fiction, Sharon has worked as a writer and producer of award-winning documentary films, including STOLEN and ON MEDITATION. She began exploring the ideas examined in THE FORGETTING TIME when she worked at a refugee camp in Thailand as a young woman and, later, served as a hospice volunteer soon after the birth of her first child. She’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts. I’m so jazzed to have her here. Thank you so much, Sharon!

The premise of your novel absolutely haunts me.  I’ve been reading about transferred memories for a while now (some quantum physicists think these are cellular memories, handed down like genes) and I actually even convinced a hypnotist friend to regress me to a past life (that’s a whole other story.) What was it that haunted you so that you absolutely had to write this novel? And do you believe in past lives?

 I've always been drawn to the question of what comes next. I was a hospice volunteer for a while; death didn't seem to freak me out, so it seemed like something useful to do. And being around people who were facing imminent death woke me up. It wasn't that I suddenly felt more appreciative of life, though that's part of it. It was more a sense of: wait, there's more. Isn't there? More to life than what we're perceiving, and how we're going about our days. Why aren't we talking more about that? I started to read, as you did...And one of the things I read was a book called Old Souls about Dr. Ian Stevenson and his research with very young children who seemed to remember previous lifetimes. I was struck by these amazing cases -- there are almost 3,000 of them; quite frankly they are mind-blowing. Children who give numerous concrete details about other people they seem to remember being -- actual verifiable people who lived and who died (often) just a year or two before they were born.  I started to think, what if this is true? What if this happens when we die? What does that mean for us, for how we live our lives? The novel came out of that question.

That question has taken me down my own spiritual path, but I think my job as a novelist isn't to tell people what I believe happens when we die, but to suggest that we might want to ask ourselves: What if it's true? What does that mean for me, personally? But you don't have to believe in any of this, I hope, to enjoy the book! It's just a story, in the end.

This is your debut, but it’s already a Buzz Book and getting fantastic reviews. Does this make it easier or harder for you to write your second book?

 I'm still absorbing. And everything is changing so quickly these days that I'm not sure actually what IS happening with the book. But I've been writing for about twenty five years -- I've written two other novels that didn't get published before this one -- so if I can keep plugging away despite (apparent) failure, I can probably keep plugging away despite (apparent) success. At least I hope so. But I'm only at the very beginning of the next book. I'm looking forward to diving in...

What impressed me so much about your debut were the deep questions about relationships, about love and how we handle loss and guilt, and how we struggle to know things for sure. Because of an extraordinary event in the novel, your characters are deeply and irrevocably changed in ways we don’t expect, and it’s deeply moving. It doesn’t rally matter if the reader believes or disbelieves in reincarnation—the novel still resonates on many levels, particularly in its portrayal of all the linked characters. How did you craft your characters, and did any of them give you pause?

Ah, thanks so much for saying that!  It's funny about characters -- some just seem to appear, don't they? Like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. Denise was like that; she showed up and felt real to me, and I was grateful for that (though empathizing with her situation was very emotional for me). Anderson grew out of a kind of composite -- what I knew about Dr. Stevenson, mixed with the spiritual bearing of a former writing teacher of mine, and the situation of a relative who suffers the same form of aphasia. But somehow the ingredients came together into something new and he felt real to me, too.

Janie was the most difficult character to create, by far, perhaps because she bears the most similarity to me, at least on paper. Brooklyn mom, creative professional, etc. At first she was in her head all the time (as this writer can often be) and a bit difficult to relate to, so I worked hard to make her a very different sort of person. It took a few drafts to get that right.

 I have sort of a provocative question for you. “There’s more to life than memory,” Janie says. Memory can be a curse if you know that your loved ones still lived, but you couldn’t have them in the way you did before.  What then, do you think the purpose of knowing this information really is? And from your research, why do only some people announce themselves to people from their past lives? Or does everyone but we just don't see it?

Your question about purpose is interesting: is there any good that can come of these memories?
I think perhaps the people who can benefit the most are not the children themselves, but all of us. There's so much nihilism in the world right now, so much darkness, and I think these cases crack open the door a little bit and make us wonder. And so perhaps these memories are beneficial in that way.

I'm not sure why only some children seem to remember; seventy-five percent of the kids in these cases had some kind of extreme trauma that they are apparently recalling, so Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Tucker have speculated that perhaps the trauma has imprinted itself on their consciousness in some way and moves with them into their next lives. But there are also cases of others who seem to remember past lives without trauma, particularly in the Buddhist world.  I've heard some amazing stories, including someone who apparently spontaneously remembered the Tibetan language.

I've been overwhelmed, in general, by how many stories are out there. Since I started writing and talking about this novel, about a fourth of those I've met have told me extraordinary things their young children have said. Things like: "Remember when I was your grandpa?" Or " Remember when we lived in China and we took care of the babies?" Or repeated descriptions of dying in a fire. So I think this phenomenon is far more common than we realize; in our culture, we discount it when children say these sorts of things, but in cultures in which a belief in reincarnation is the norm, it is taken more seriously.

Drs. Stevenson and Tucker have worked very hard to track down "previous personalities" -- the people these children have remembered being; it's not an easy thing to do.  So perhaps that's why children don't show up more often on the doorsteps of their previous families. It's probably a good thing that they don't. Can you imagine?

Many quantum physicists believe that we carry the memories and emotions of our ancestors inside of us, much like genes, which might account for psychics being able to tell us about our dead—they’re just tapping into what is available and are able to read it. But this is different than what your novel is talking about—the ability of a person to reincarnate into another. Can you comment?

There's something Anderson says in the novel: "How a consciousness migrates is not a question I’ve been able to answer. I’ve been stuck on establishing its existence." I'm fascinated by these ideas, but I really can't comment on how it all fits together. I'm just a novelist, after all!

I don't think Stevenson and Tucker's research is in any way inconsistent with what some quantum physicists have said about consciousness, though; as Max Planke wrote, "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness."

If that's true, if we really believe that, then it seems to me that life is very different from the way we usually perceive it, and anything is possible.

|What kind of writer are you?  Do you map things out or follow your muse (the muse is never around when you want Her, is she?), so you have rituals?

I plug away and plug away and despair a little bit and read good books and drink lots of coffee and then every now and then the muse shows up and the whole world changes. Philip Roth wrote something in The Human Stain that seems true to me (and also wonderfully strange): "This is what happens when you write books. There's not just something that drives you to find out everything -- something begins putting everything in your path. There is suddenly no such thing as a back road that doesn't lead headlong into your obsession."

There's always a magnet when I write -- something pulling me through. But I often don't know where I'm going or if I'm going to make it there.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm a little obsessed with the Buddhist notion of enlightenment: what it might feel like and how one might write about exalted spiritual states -- which I haven't experienced yet, but hope to!  Peter Matthiessen was my first writing teacher, and I'm reading his Zen journals, Nine Headed Dragon River, to see how he did it.  As for why: is there anything better to be obsessed by?

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

I think your questions were wonderful and deep. I'm not sure I have any answers left!

Kelly Simmons talks about ONE MORE DAY, writing three novels at once, her pie obsession, and so much more

Kelly Simmons is a former journalist. In addition to her critically acclaimed novels {STANDING STILL, THE BIRD HOUSE and ONE MORE DAY} she is developing a TV series and has been writing a memoir for what seems like her entire life. I'm so thrilled to host her! Thank you, Kelly.

I always want to know what was obsessing or haunting you that compelled you to write this novel, so please talk about that.

After my mother died, I started to think a lot about death and reincarnation and ghosts, mostly because my sister kept saying things like, "Oh a cardinal came to my window and I know it was Mom."  And friends said things too --  like that their grandmother always "sent" them dimes to find in odd locations.  And I was pissed, you know,  because I would have LOVED to have had more chances to feel my mother's presence.  It seemed that a lot of people not only believed, but had access to another realm that I did not.  Plot ideas rattled around my head for awhile, until I came up with the idea of a young woman with a kidnapped son who is returned to her for ONE MORE DAY.

I always think that each new book changes a writer in some way.  How do you feel changed?

What a great question.  The book has a plot thread dealing with religion, and the more research I did, the more I realized how underrepresented conservative religious characters are in fiction. There is quote-unquote Christian fiction, but in the mainstream (Marilynne Robinson aside, not that she's mainstream, she's a goddess who could write anything) you don't see it that often. I had never noticed this before, nor fully understood how, depending on where you live and how old you are -- how being Christian could be expected --or mocked.

I admire the way the book is plotted and how you ease out the tension and suspense. Was there ever a moment when you felt, oh no, I can't go there, or I can't write this?

Um . . . every day? Seriously, the concept of this book repeatedly stretched me.  I'd never written anything centered around a crime.  I'd never written anything remotely supernatural, or that moved like a thriller.  It's still quite solidly a book about marriage and motherhood and community -- which is comfortable territory.  But I had to write softly about very difficult, even gruesome things.

This is your third novel, and I always feel that writing a new novel is like starting from scratch, that the lessons from the last novel don't apply anymore. Is this true for you? What kind of writer are you? Did you outline or just follow your muse?

Some books flow easily and some don't. Usually the first draft goes smoothly and the revisions bring me to my knees! I definitely have gotten better at exploiting my strengths and patching up my weaknesses, but yes, each novel is its own weird little animal that needs different care.  I am a person who outlines a little, not a lot, but makes lots of notes and lists, so I have a sense of the path.  But I have to allow myself freedom to go ski through the trees now and then.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I have three half-novels that I've written in the last two years -- and I really need to figure out which one to finish. It's like dating three guys simultaneously, something's got to GIVE!

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

People who know me online often ask why I am obsessed with pie in my social media posts.  And all I can say is who doesn't love pie? Pies are the new kitten videos.