Friday, May 19, 2017

An eerie isolated commune. The society of cults. Polish food, and so much more. The brilliant British writer Eleanor Wasserberg talks about her astonishing novel Foxlowe







 "Foxlowe is an unrelentingly eerie meditation on groupthink, societal taboos, parentage, and how the comparative morality of modern life can be taken to savage extremes." NPR Books

Oh, British writer Eleanor Wasserberg's review above had me at "unrelenting." I absolutely loved her novel for its darkness, its smarts, and the exquisite writing. I'm thrilled to have her here.


I love the whole idea of isolated communes, especially as seen through the eyes of a girl, rather than through the eyes of an adult. What led to your making this decision?

The decision to make Foxlowe that kind of setting came partly out of the landscape, which lends itself to spooky goings on with the pagan sites and moorland, and trying to find a place for Freya’s character to work. I’d been writing her for a while but she doesn’t have any power in a “real” society setting; she loses her teeth. Telling the story from Green’s point of view meant that it wasn’t (I hope) unremittingly bleak: she loves her home and finds a lot of joy in it. It also gave me the opportunity to play with unreliable narration, which is fun.

I mean this as a huge compliment—my skin crawled a bit reading this—and I couldn’t stop reading. What was it like for you writing Foxlowe?

Thank you, that’s oddly wonderful to hear! I really enjoy dark stories and I loved my characters so I was happy to hang out with them at Foxlowe and watch them be horrible to each other. I did veer away from writing one particular scene—I won’t spoil anything by giving details—which did break my heart a little bit, but it had to be done so I steeled myself to write that one. I also found the ending quite hard to write, but I think it was the right way to leave the story.  Both of those were saddening rather than chilling experiences though.

At one point, a character says, “Stories are everything.” I always write “stories save us” when I sign books, so you and I are on the same page here. Why do you personally think, in the context of this fine novel, that making a story of our experiences is so important? And does that story have to be true for it to be valuable?

That’s a lovely thing to write at signings! The storytelling element of Green’s experience is crucial to the novel for me. Stories are used by Freya as a form of control and almost world-building; Freya constructs a reality around them and clings to them as a way of making sense of what for her is a deeply frightening world. There are glimmers of truths in these stories—the Bad, for example, is of course “real” in many ways. When Green is striving to tell her own story, she is still hearing Freya’s voice and sometimes others from her past. I loved writing the moment when she starts to tell her own version: it’s a coming of age for her, even as Freya’s influence is still felt in the way Green attempts to take back some control through this method. I think claiming our own narrative for our experiences and telling our own stories—while recognizing that they are still only one version—is a huge part of growing up. Green is also quite self- aware about using fiction to tell truths at certain points in her story: that comes naturally to her after living in a storytelling culture like Foxlowe. 

There have been a few novels and shows about cults, The Path, The OA,  The Leftovers—and it never seems to work out very well for anyone. Why do you think that is?

I think writers and storytellers are drawn to that set up because there is so much interesting psychology involved. Group think, the tension between the indoctrinated self and that older self that is questioning and rebelling, how people operate without our version of society...that’s all rich fodder! As for why it doesn’t work out, apart from making a good yarn? I think that while the attractions of that kind of life can be very strong: living simply, rejecting what is frightening or exhausting about society, the bonds offered to people who are usually isolated and looking for a family or tribe...ultimately in order to work at all these kinds of places have to establish their own mini society with rules and punishments and hierarchies, which ironically seem to be even more restrictive and punitive than the social limits people were trying to escape. Someone’s version of this utopia will always have to be imposed on other people; someone has to lead and control, and people eventually start to rebel against that.

What kind of writer are you? Do you scribble on legal pads, or only use your trusty computer?
Both. People very generously give me beautiful notebooks as gifts and I fill them with scribbles and doodles. I have lots of old notebooks full of Foxlowe ideas, sketches of the house and so on. Once I come to the real draft writing though I am on my trusty battered laptop, with an Internet blocker on!

What’s obsessing you now and why?
Polish food: I’m writing about a flight from Krakow to Lviv in September 1939, and my character is hungry—I need to decide what for! I’m also researching stuttering which is fascinating: I have a character who doesn’t stutter when she lies, which has led me to some brilliant psychological research and cases.  


What question didn't I ask that I should have?
These are great questions! I do love being given the chance to witter on about Staffordshire—the fact that the double sunset is a real phenomenon, for example, or that the Standing Stones are based on a real stone circle, or that The Cloud is a real hill in the area with a wonderful view over the moor. There is no cult up there, that I know of, but when you are walking alone in the misty moorland and you come across a pagan stone you really can imagine why there might be.

A Sydney family grapples with a mysterious virus in Amanda Hickie's tense and brilliant BEFORE THIS IS OVER





I always believe that writers are haunted into writing the novels they write. What was haunting you?

I'm always haunted by the small decisions we make every day that have unknowable consequences, the ones where you think 'I'm being silly, this is part of normal life, it's perfectly fine' but you know deep down that very occasionally it's not fine. Before This Is Over starts with a big crisis outside my character's control and those come along in our lives with predicable regularity irrespective of what we do - diseases, hurricanes, earthquakes etc.  Somehow, we never find ourselves saying "if only I hadn't been around when the Spanish flu hit", instead it's "if only I hadn't gone out that night," "If I'd only asked him to stay," "If only we'd taken more care."

I think that's doubly true once we become parents and our kids' well being is up to us. Hannah asks herself early on why it is only possible in hindsight to know which times she should have dug her heels in. That haunts every decision I make.  

What I most loved about this novel was the incredible tension that could be found in an ordinary life. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the page. Was there ever a time while you were writing the book that you felt simply too unnerved to write it?

It has surprised me how many people have found it unnerving - it is, as you say, ordinary life. I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to scary things so I certainly didn't set out to write that kind of a book. Maybe because I had the author's omniscience, nothing could sneak up on me.

But there were moments that I baulked at or flubbed the first time. For instance, the scenes of Gwen at the front door and the food truck involved Hannah either aware of behaving badly or being swept up in events beyond her control. I had to steel myself to put her through those. I lived with these characters for quite a long time and they are people to me, so I felt bad if they suffered. I wanted to make everything work out well for them or take them aside and give them a heads up. But then I wouldn't have found out how they reacted to the hard choices.

I especially loved the last paragraph, where Hannah watches her son running and knows that when he comes back, he’s going to be someone different. As the mother of a 20-year-old son, I know that feeling. You captured it perfectly. Can you talk about that please in the context of your novel?

I have two - eighteen and twenty four - so I've been around a lot of teenagers. Watching my kids and their friends, I was always acutely aware that in many ways they were more thoughtful and compassionate, more interested in the world, less self-obsessed than my friends and I were at their age.

I think the obvious interpretation of the novel is that of all the characters, Zac undergoes the biggest metamorphosis, but I'm not sure he does. Certainly Hannah's view of her son undergoes a profound change but I suspect that as parents we are slow to recognize the capabilities that our children acquire for themselves. Zac does what his parents tells him to for a lot of the book, and then he starts to surprise them, but only, I suspect, because they haven't stepped back and seen the person he is.

The line about the baby health nurse was a conversation I had - I complained that my eight month old always crawled away when I put him down. It felt like he didn't need me. The nurse said that he was confident I would be there when he got back and that allowed him to go explore. It was a profound insight - that our job as parents is to make them sure enough of themselves and us that they can leave.

It's very easy to mourn the toddler or the preteen they were. Our culture is not very tolerant of teenagers - they are lazy and self-obsessed and spend too much time on social media. Since when can you treat a whole generation like an undifferentiated mass? The ones I know are as individual as adults - and that shouldn't be a surprise. They only difference is that they are still in the process of making themselves, and so we get to meet a new version of them at each stage. Our task is to discover and help launch each of those versions. In my experience, getting to know each one of them is amazing.


What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things before you begin, or start with a moral question, or simply follow your characters where they might take you?

I have a bunch of questions floating around, sometimes for decades - what happened to Romeo and Juliet when they woke up dead? How would I survive a catastrophic epidemic? - and as I come across events or ideas that are relevant, they add to that idea. Then at some stage I start thinking about the specific traits needed to tell this story - a doctor, an aging parent, a distant friend, a son. A few of those will start to fit together to make a specific character.

I probably have a starting and ending point (in Before This Is Over, those naturally fall around the epidemic) and four or five significant scenes that form a rough story arc, as well as a bunch of 'this needs to happen somewhere' ideas. By the time I've finished the starting scene, the next few scenes will have suggested themselves.

And I'm not the first to say, but for me most of the writing is in the rewriting and editing. The structure and plot of the novel barely changed after the first draft, but it became much more of a unity and I doubt there is a line that hasn't been modified in some way.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I had to ask my husband this, and his answer made me realize why. I don't think I have a setting between disinterest and obsession.

At the moment I'm diving into a particular song writer. When the novel was released in Australia I was asked by an interviewer to suggest music to go with the interview. After casting around for suitable disaster themed music, I stumbled on a song by The Postal Service called 'We Will Become Silhouettes' that I already had in my collection and loved, but had never really listened to the words. The first three lines are almost the plot of my novel! So now I can't stop listening to Ben Gibbard's music. The last week or so I've been walking around the house singing a single line from one of his songs - but the song (and hence the line) changes every day. Maybe one of them will attach itself to another book or character. No way to know until it happens.

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

I don't want you to ask this, but since some of my friends made this assumption I'd like to knock it on the head - Is this your family?

It most definitely isn't. I can picture the house Hannah lives in, what Sean and the boys look like, and it's not by looking at my own life.

That having been said, the things we write about come from somewhere and I'd be lying if I said that I never lifted a line they or one of their friends said or stood in the school ground at 7 am waiting for a bus to camp and thought 'I could use this...'

The other day I got into a quite spirited disagreement with my husband about what Mr Moon (Hannah's cat) looks like. We could both describe him in detail, but our descriptions were nothing alike and nothing like either of our cats. The same is true of the human characters.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Unwed mothers, social pressures, the equal terror of telling the truth or keeping a secret. Janet Benton talks about her astonishing new novel LILLI DE JONG





I first met Janet at a reading of debut authors. Of course, I loved her wild mop of curly hair, but more than that, I loved her wild intelligence, her wit, her humor--and of course, I loved her novel. So does Library Journal, which gave it a starred review, and the notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews called it a "monumental achievement." Janet has written essays, scripts and stories and I cannot wait for her next novel. Thank you so much, Janet for being here!





 It struck me that although Lilli de Jong is set in the 1800s, it’s very timely, since there still seems to be a virtual war on women, and there is still hostility towards unwed mothers and adoption. Can you talk about that, please?

To answer this, I’m relying on a lifetime’s reading, experience, and travel. But to answer briefly means simplifying my opinions; I apologize to any whose experiences I’m not speaking to. 

Increasingly, I think the oppression of women rests on this: Women are a society’s most precious resource. We can create and raise humans, who are of enormous value, and our attention is in high demand—since nearly everyone, having been an infant, craves our care. If women are unequal and isolated, we are easier to control. The conditions of inequality and isolation make it easier for us to be underpaid and undervalued. This makes us dependent on those who earn more and have more societal power. It’s what we call a vicious circle.

Since the attentions of mothers, whether birth or adoptive, are often turned inward—toward those who are unable to survive otherwise—it’s easier for others to fashion an outer world that diminishes us. We are paid less, when we work for pay, even than women who aren’t mothers. We do our unpaid work of raising the next generation at high cost in a society that makes our sacrifice a private problem, not a public good. Too many—women and men—endure too much hardship in raising children.

Societal attitudes reveal that a woman must be married to have sex and children without facing prejudice. These attitudes are based in structural inequalities with long histories. Married women and children were and in some places still are the legal property of husbands. Women didn’t have the right to vote in America until almost 150 years after the nation was founded, and a married woman didn’t have the right to her own wages; her children and home didn’t belong to her, so if her husband died, she could lose them. She depended on a brother, son, or son-in-law for rescue, if rescue was to be had. This forced dependency still exists legally in some countries (in Saudi Arabia, for instance, girls and women lack the rights to make extremely basic decisions), and it still casts its long shadow on the United States.  

The unwed mother has long been an easy target. But why? By looking at the biases against unwed mothers and their children, we learn that, when a female has sex, by choice or force, and has a child without being married—i.e., without being under the legal umbrella of a man—she is a threat to that power structure. Judging from what occurs, we see that the resources of the unwed mother and her children must be kept minimal to discourage their independence.

Children around the world are given up to adoption or to orphanages because of the wage inequality and prejudice that dog unwed mothers. It breaks my heart to see children not being well cared for; it breaks my heart to see parents who don’t seem to know how to love. If any mother truly wants to raise her own infant or someone else’s, whether she is married or not, a humane and intelligent society will support her in doing so.

 At one point, Lilli asks, do secrets matter? And I think your novel is saying that sometimes they do, and sometimes it’s best to keep them. Care to comment?

In situations of inequality and prejudice, telling the truth can ruin your life. A work of literature that explores this in a heartbreaking way is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Young, innocent Tess is sent by her drunken lout of a father to live with a wealthy man in exchange for money. The wealthy man rapes her; she runs away, turns out to be pregnant, and tries to keep her infant alive while working as a farm laborer. Her tiny infant dies. At another farm, she meets the love of her life, a man named Angel. They agree to marry. On the eve of their marriage, she writes a letter confessing the tragedy of her past and slips it beneath the door of his room. Unbeknownst to her, the letter slides beneath a rug. They marry the next day; then she finds the letter, unopened. She gives it to him in the place they’ve gone to honeymoon. He can’t accept her past misfortune and leaves. The rapist comes for her again, hearing of her desperate status, and she becomes his chattel. Then Angel, having changed his mind long before and written letters that the rapist has hidden, comes to her door at last, asking why she never responded. She goes into a mad rage, kills the rapist, and then is hung. Having witnessed Tess’s hanging with her younger sister at his side, Angel walks off into the future with the virginal sister.

Secrets are terrible. Telling the truth is terrible.

Still today, women who are raped may be whipped or stoned to death for “tempting” their rapists, as was 14-year-old Hena Akhter in 2011 in Bangladesh. Even girls forced into prostitution at an early age, or stolen and enslaved by rebel soldiers (such as schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria), are considered unmarriageable and scorned if they escape. Their children may be denied rights. This prejudice reveals one consequence of seeing women and our reproductive capacities as the rightful property of men. This prejudice is a cancer in the hearts of societies around the world.

Lilli uses her journal to share her secrets and to express her thoughts, which she does eloquently. Do you also keep a journal?

I wrote in a journal at least several times a week from age nine till perhaps eight years ago, when I began to put every scrap of time apart from work and family into writing Lilli de Jong. So for decades, for hours every week, I poured my thoughts and feelings into notebooks. I have two old trunks from used-furniture stores that are crammed full of journals. I’ve carried them with me—accumulating weight—since I left home over three decades ago. So I am quite familiar with the intimacy between a journal and a writer that Lilli feels, as well as with the way that writing in a journal can make one’s troubles more bearable—a fact that keeps Lilli alive.


The novel is absolutely fascinating. What was your research like? What startled you?

The research was fascinating, indeed. I adored getting to know publications of the period, archive materials, recent works by historians, artifacts, whatever bits I could glean about the nature of life in 1883 Philadelphia. What startled me was learning the depth, persistence, and legal basis for the crippling of women’s lives and opportunities, as well as reading old works by many who were quite aware of these problems. Having read about inequalities of all sorts in history, I no longer believe what so many claim—that people in the past simply didn’t have awareness of oppression. The historical record shows that many oppressed people and their oppressors knew precisely what exploitation and inequality they faced or propagated. Truly, how could they not have? Such things are rather obvious to the naked eye. Though of course some were committed to blindness, just as they are today—and to some degree, it’s always difficult to see what’s accepted as normal.

I was startled, too, to read of the corruption of public officials at Blockley Almshouse—Philadelphia’s public almshouse, run by a Board of Guardians. Food and other resources were literally stolen by at least one of the so-called guardians and put in storehouses in his home. Inedible foodstuffs and other substandard supplies were purchased cheaply, with those involved pocketing the price difference.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or follow the pesky muse?

Both. I write out what comes to me, create a mess, then try to map it, sometimes section by section. I always put down a lot more words than I keep. Even to answer these questions, I did a much longer draft, then pared much of it away.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

How to help Lilli de Jong make the world a better place for mothers and children—which is everyone.

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

“Would you like this stipend to live on while you write your next novel?” Ha ha. If only.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

An epic love story that begins on 9/11, the meaning of love and how it changes, writing and more. Jill Santopolo talks about THE LIGHT WE LOST







Lucy and Gabe meet on the morning of 9/11, and through the years, come together and apart in a moving, insightful epic love story, which is also a debut, The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo.

Jill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s the author of three children’s and young-adult series and works as the editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers group. An adjunct professor in The New School’s MFA program, Jill travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She lives in New York City.
I'm ridiculously thrilled to have you here, Jill. Thank you so much1

What was the backstory for The Light We Lost? I always think authors are somehow haunted into writing their books. And what is it like for you to be a debut author?
I love the idea of writers being haunted into putting their stories on paper. I don’t know if I was quite haunted into writing The Light We Lost as much as I cried my way into it. This book exists because of a horrible break-up, which is a bit of a sad backstory for a novel. I’d been writing books for children up until that point, but what I was experiencing couldn’t really be explored in children’s literature, so I started writing vignettes for an adult audience, about a woman who has her heart broken and what happens afterward. Those vignettes eventually became a novel. (And I eventually stopped crying.)

But while that was the spark that ignited The Light We Lost, it took me four years to write this story, and it morphed and changed along the way. While I’m not Lucy and my story’s not hers, the things she thinks about: love, loss, ambition, regret, desire—those are all things I was wondering about in the years during which I wrote this book.

And as far as being a debut author—it’s been incredible! The Light We Lost is actually my fifteenth book (I’ve written fourteen books for young readers), but this is my debut for an adult audience, and I feel like I’ve entered a different world. The Light We Lost is being translated into more than thirty languages, it’s gotten incredible advanced praise (thank you for your blurb!), and one review has come in so far, and it was starred. This all has been making me think that perhaps I should’ve been writing for adults all along.

So much of The Light We Lost is about first love--the power of it, how we never forget who we were when we had that love. But do we stay the same in that love?


That’s such an interesting question. I have cousins who first met and fell in love in junior high school and then married and stayed together for decades. In observing them, my guess is that the love grows and matures as people do, and hopefully as people who are in a relationship change, they grow together and not apart.

In The Light We Lost I think that there are things about Lucy and Gabe and the way they interact with each other that do stay the same in the thirteen years that they know each other. But at the same time, they change as people, they both grow up a bit, and that maturity informs how they act toward each other and the choices they make.

9/11 also figures in the book, changing your characters. How were you yourself changed by the force of that event?
 Just like Lucy and Gabe, I was in my last year of college in New York City when the towers fell. And I think it made me realize in a deep, powerful way how a life can change—or end—in the blink of an eye. That none of us know how long we have on Earth, and that we should strive to live the lives we want and be the people we want to be, because there may not be a later.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out? Have rituals?

I do map things out. A friend had told me about the computer program Scrivener just as I decided to try to turn those vignettes into a novel, and I think that program is part of what made the writing of The Light We Lost possible. I could use the outlining function to synopsize every vignette that I knew I wanted to write, and then could move them around if they ended up feeling like they were in the wrong place.

I don’t have rituals, but I do give myself deadlines—word count deadlines—that I have to hit each week. Because writing isn’t my only job, I try to be very disciplined about my writing time and my productivity.

What's obsessing you now and why?

The concept of “alternative facts” and the way that the truth no longer seems unassailable. I keep trying to puzzle through how we can find a common ground as a country, but if we can’t even agree that facts are facts, I’m just not sure how we do it.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hm. I think you asked all the best ones. The only other one I can think of that people have asked and I’ve found interesting to answer is what I’ve learned from the writing and publication of this book, and I think the answer to that is how universal love is. When we fall in love or have our hearts broken, those experiences feel so personal, but now that people have read early copies of The Light We Lost, so many readers have been telling me that they dated someone just like Gabe, or married someone just like Darren, or felt the same way about their children that Lucy feels about hers. Maybe that’s actually the answer to what I’m obsessing about right now—to somehow use the universal feelings we all have about the people we love to connect in a larger way. Perhaps love does make the world go ‘round?

Abbi Waxman talks about grief being like ugly furniture you can't get rid of, hope, gardening, and her great new novel THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS











It’s been more than three years since my husband died, yet in many ways he’s more useful than ever. True, he’s not around to take out the trash, but he’s great to bitch at while I’m doing it myself, and he’s generally excellent company, invisibility notwithstanding. And as someone to blame he’s unparalleled, because he isn’t there to contradict me, on account of being cremated.
 
So begins Abbi Waxman's exhilarating new novel, The Garden Of Small Beginnings. And here's a fun gact, Abbi ghostwrote Nicole Ritchie's novel!

Thank you so much for being here, Abbi!


I always want to know what is haunting an author enough for them to spend year(s) writing a novel. What was it for you?
A desperate need to get out of the house. Otherwise I might have had to clean it, and I really hate cleaning.

I love the title, The Garden of Small Beginnings, because I think so much that is difficult about life can be managed if you start small--and that word (and world) of the garden, was just so fantastic. Can you talk about this please?

I am an utter failure as a gardener. I once – and I stress once – successfully grew a small patch of vegetables. Tomatoes, green beans, English peas… I was a goddess of the summer for one season. Never again, despite repeated attempts. I wanted to create a character who was better at most things than I was, thus the gardening. It was aspirational. And I wanted to kill off my husband at the time, so I made her a widow. All writing is wish fulfillment, let’s face it.

I also was enamored of Lillian, a now single mom of two kids--which makes this the perfect Mother’s Day Gift, by the way. What do you want readers to come away having learned about mothering? (And self-mothering.)
That children are hilarious and irritating and wonderful and dreadful and short. And that you should put your own oxygen mask on first, and then attend to those around you.

I loved your explorations of grief, which felt so true to me (wish I didn’t know that, but I do),  What is the major thing people get wrong about grief?

That it goes away. It doesn’t. It just solidifies like an ugly piece of furniture you inherited and therefore can’t throw away.


What’s obsessing you now and why?
Teenagers. Because I have two and am about to have a third, and because everything I thought I knew about parenting just became utterly useless. Fantastic.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
If I knew who was going to win the Superbowl next year. I don’t, but just think if I did and you’d asked, we could have made a fortune! Never mind.

J. Courtney Sullivan talks about sisters, faith, secrets and her phenomenal new novel SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS, and gives us all a great poem









 I first met Courtney, along with the great Jenna Blum, at a book fest. The three of us whooped it up, laughed, traded insecurities and mostly talked about working in our pajamas. Come on, how could you not adore someone like that?

Her latest novel Saints for All Occasions is devastating, astonishing, and full of power, about faith, sisters and the secrets and it's a knockout, and everyone in the media thinks so, too. (Just in case you think I am prejudiced about Courtney, which I am.)

She is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine
was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon and distributed by Fox 2000, and it will be translated into 17 languages.

Courtney, thank you, thank you, hugs and love.

So much of this exquisite book is about faith—the faith we have that we are doing the right thing, the faith we have in a higher power, the faith we might have in ourselves.  Do you think there is a moment when we can ever really know?

I wanted to write about two sisters who follow two very different paths—one takes the more traditional route of marriage and motherhood, the other chooses to live as a cloistered nun—precisely to examine the matter of faith. I think to most of us, the thought of taking vows and committing one’s life fully to God is hard to fathom. But motherhood requires the same degree of commitment up front to something you can’t experience until you’re in the thick of it.

One cloistered nun I spoke to mentioned having to renew her faith in God and her calling each and every day, and make the decision to commit all over again. Who among us doesn’t do that in some way or another—whether it’s faith in a partner, faith in our art, faith in our choices, or faith in ourselves?

I loved the descriptions of life among the cloistered nuns and I read that you did first hand research. What surprised you the most?

A close family friend, Mother Lucia, went into the cloister before I was born. I only started hearing about her a few years ago, when my aunt told me that we ought to meet. She thought Mother Lucia and I would really hit it off. I couldn’t imagine how, but eventually we did meet and it turned out my aunt was right—I adored Mother Lucia from the start. She’s a lover of literature, a great thinker, and a wonderful conversationalist. And the abbey where she lives—Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT—absolutely ignited my curiosity and creativity. As a fiction writer who loves to do research, I always want to strike a balance between getting the details of a time and place as accurate as possible, while also diving into the unknown inner worlds of the people therein. Cloistered nuns raised so many questions for me—how did they end up in such a place? How did they know they should stay?

The Abbey is incredible. The nuns there all had full lives before joining and they believe that the gifts obtained in those former lives enrich the present. One of them, Dolores Hart, was a Hollywood actress in the fifties, who starred in movies with Elvis and gave up a film contract to become a nun. They have former politicians, businesswomen, artists of all kinds. I think what surprised me most was how freely and happily they spoke of those former lives, while also embracing their current reality. They weren’t running away from the past, but toward something deeper. (The other thing that surprised me was how funny some of them are. They have such wonderful senses of humor.)

Did you grow up in a religious household in Boston? I’m a Bostonian and you captured it so perfectly.

I was raised Irish Catholic in a suburb of Boston called Milton. Everyone in my neighborhood growing up was Irish Catholic as well, so those rituals of christenings and communions and weddings and wakes were fixtures of our lives. As was attendance at CCD and church every Sunday (and, when my friends and I got a bit older, finding ways to get out of going to CCD and church.) I was quite skeptical of Catholicism from a young age, and I continue to be. But so much about it never leaves you—I don’t even believe in God, but every time an ambulance passes by with its siren blaring, I still say a silent Hail Mary for the person inside. 

The characters within one family in Saints For All Occasions reflect what I’ve seen in my own community—that there’s been a shift in the church’s power from one generation to the next. Nora and Theresa are devoted to their faith. It’s a ruling force in their lives. Nora’s adult children are far less devout. Two of them shun the church completely, and two go to mass mostly out of habit, or to please their mother. Still, it plays a role in all their lives. It continues to have a hold on them, even when they’re not sure why.

The relationship between the two sisters, Theresa and Nora was so alive, rich and tragic that I was sobbing as I was finishing the story because it seems to me that you truly got at what grace really is, what being human—and humane—really is, as well, as I found myself devastated in the best possible way. Can you talk about this please?


First off, thank you so much! You made my day. (Isn’t it strange that in our profession, it’s a high compliment to be told you’ve devastated someone you really like?)

Second, there are people—often family members—who shape our lives, even if we’re estranged from them. Maybe especially if we are. In this book, there are many different ways in which family members are lost to one another. Immigration separates Nora and Theresa from their relatives in Ireland, whom they never see again after making the journey to Boston. Death separates them from their mother, and from Nora’s son Patrick. 

Nora and Theresa are central to each other, even though they don’t speak for decades. They have such a rich history. Even their separation grows out of misguided attempts on each of their parts to do what is right for the other. The epigraph to the book comes from a beautiful poem by Margaret Atwood: “I exist in two places/here and where you are.” I felt that was so fitting for many of the relationships in the story. But of course, I also wanted to see what would happen when the sisters finally do come back together after living such different lives.


Secrets and how and why we keep them infuses your novel.  Without giving anything away, do you think Patrick would have turned out differently had he known one of the secrets?

Oh yes. My friend Helen Ellis, after reading an early draft of the book, pointed out that it’s never the secret that does a person in. It’s the keeping of the secret, the shame that takes hold as a result. I think we are in a fascinating historical moment when it comes to secrecy—as a culture, I see us moving toward a more honest reality. I think the Internet, for all its flaws, has a lot to do with this. It’s easier now to find your people, to build community, and these things make it easier to be honest about who you are. In the book, Theresa gives birth in a home for unwed mothers in the early sixties. This was a real place in Boston. Files were sealed and later lost in a fire, so, until recently, it was basically impossible to know what happened there. I spent hours on online message boards, reading the stories of the people who passed through—birth mothers forced to give up their children and the children themselves, now grown, comparing notes on birth dates and names. In many cases, they find one another this way.

Even this past week, the silver lining of the healthcare nightmare was the fact that so many people refused to be silenced and took to social media to say, “I have a preexisting condition, here’s what it is, we are all human and imperfect, let’s stop pretending otherwise.”

I see this novel as being about many things, but chief among them is the idea of openness vs. closedness. There are secrets that these characters hold onto so tightly that they’re willing to give up almost anything to preserve them. The consequences are sometimes quite devastating. There’s also the question of how one lives in an ever more open and accepting world if one’s family of origin is still deeply repressed. Nora’s daughter Bridget is gay and in a relationship and in her forties, and Nora still refers to Bridget’s partner as her roommate.

What’s obsessing you now and why?


Like everyone I know, I’m obsessed with and terrified by our current political climate. I’m expecting my first child in June, and I’m also quite obsessed with him already—wondering what to name him, what he’ll look like, which books to buy him. But also, how to tell him about the state of things. To that end, I’ve become obsessed with this poem called Good Bones by a poet named Maggie Smith. I recite it often to myself, like a little prayer:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.


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

I can’t think of one. I so love your blog. You’ve really been on fire lately. (Your interviews with Elizabeth Strout and Lidia Yuknavitch were two of my recent favorites.) Thank you so much for having me!

A sinister noir about friends, mothers, art, danger. Come on, you know you need to get Edan Lepucki's Woman No. 17 RIGHT NOW.





 For me, the most wonderful thing of all about Edan Lepucki is not just her exquisite writing. It's that another writer gave her a shout-out on Stephen Colbert and she was on the show! How cool is that?  Edan and Stephen Colbert are now besties.

 She's the author of the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me and the novel California, which debuted at #3 on the New York Times Bestsellers List and has been the #1 bestseller on the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers lists.  It’s also been on the IndieBound and Publishers Weekly Bestsellers Lists. California was a fall 2014 selection of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.

I'm so jazzed to have her here. Thanks for coming on, Edan!

I always want to know what is haunting a writer so he or she is absolutely compelled to write the next novel. What was it for you?

Looking at my two novels, I can say that, as a writer, I’m haunted by how familial relationships shape and influence us. How are you changed by your parents? How has becoming a mother changed you—and what effects have you had on your child? I am obsessed with these questions. I’m also interested in intimacy: what it is, how it feels, and the various beautiful, silly, damaging and profound ways we reveal ourselves to others (or don’t). I’m interested in how a connection between two people grows stronger…or frays. I am also haunted by my hometown of Los Angeles, which is such a mysterious, strange, ugly-and-beautiful place. In Woman No. 17, I was particularly interested in writing about the impersonal yet stunning Hollywood Hills, with its affluent residents, its constant home construction, its eerie coyotes, and all that might be going on behind closed doors. I wanted to write primarily about women, and I wanted them to make bad decisions. I think I will always be compelled to write about complicated women—that is: women, period.

You had such an almost surreal success with California, being on Stephen Colbert—did that impact your writing of your second novel at all? Did it make you feel more confident or more terrified?

I started working on Woman No. 17 a year before California was published, which meant I had about 100 pages before the whole Colbert adventure began.  I am so happy that was the case because it meant the book could be whatever it wanted to be; it had its own story, character, voice, and style…and it was all unrelated to the exciting and, yes, surreal success of California. And because I was already underway with Woman No. 17, my writing process didn’t really change: I wasn’t daunted…and I wasn’t super confident, either. (Or, I was in equal parts, as with any writing project.) The only real difference is that I’m writing to you now from my splendid writing throne, made of solid gold and encrusted with diamonds, which they issue to every writer upon being named a New York Times bestseller. You use yours too, right, Caroline?

For me, every novel feels like I’m learning all over again how to write. How did writing Woman No. 17 (and thank you so much for not putting “Girl” in the title!) differ in the nuts and bolts writing process for you?

First, thanks for thanking me for the title! I didn’t intend for the book to be a commentary on all the books with “girl” in the title, but once it was about to be in the world, I realized it was meaningful to tell a story about adult women—and name them as such. And Lady in particular is no girl. She is 41 and the mother of two children, one of whom she raised by herself, and she's wrestling with all that's happened to her. In some ways she's too much a veteran of life to be called a girl. Too much has happened to her.
But I digress…

Woman No. 17 was different from my previous projects because I had two first-person narrators to juggle. I wanted their voices to be distinct, but I also wanted, as the book progresses, for their narratives to echo and mirror one another, and for them to even occasionally blur together in the reader’s mind. The doubling began early on, in that magical-accidental fiction writing way: I wrote a passage about how Lady’s real name was Pearl…and then, when I switched to Esther for the first time,  she was renaming herself S. So, right away, I had two narrators using different names. Much of the writing process was following those little leads, turning up that twinning energy.

Another new and challenging element was the character Seth, Lady’s teenage who gets involved with S. He doesn’t speak and his disability is central to Lady’s relationship with him. I didn’t want to deny the reality of his mutism, as I think such a disability would have a strong impact on one’s life and relationships, but I also wanted to make sure he was a multi-dimensional character with humanity and desires. I was interested in showing how Lady and S dealt with his disability, and I also hoped the reader would see around these narrators to consider how Seth would want to be represented and treated, on his own terms. Is he as they see him? On a nuts-and-bolts level, it was often very difficult writing dialogue scenes when one character doesn’t say anything! 


There’s so much about life and art in this novel, that I want to ask where does any artist draw the line, and should they? Is everything available to be made into art or should we respect boundaries? Does art imitate life or is it the other way around?

These big questions can sustain many contradictory answers, from, “Art is art and must be made, no matter who it offends or what relationships it destroys,” to, “Art is not as important as the people you love.”  For me there is certainly a middle ground; I am lucky to have a family and a partner who are supportive of whatever stories I need to tell, but I also try to respectful of privacy and feelings. I think everyone’s glad I don’t write memoir!  I loved writing S because her youth gives her a certain recklessness as far as her art-making. She is beholden to no one…or so she foolishly thinks.

As for the other question, sometimes I believe art—narrative art, at least—is simply a clumsy stumble to capture those ineffable moments of life; other times, it feels like we consume so much narrative that we understand ourselves as narrators, as characters in stories. Put in some earbuds and there’s a soundtrack, too. What does that do to us, this delightful, illusory, dangerous sense of control, of symmetry, of cause-and-effect?


I’m so curious about how your being a mother influenced your writing about mothers and children? What surprised you? I know I always worried I’d be less creative with children—and instead, I feel like I am more, more, more.

The fact that I’m a mother means that parenting and children are a central theme and subject matter for me—at least, right now, as I’m in the thick of it, with two kids ages 5 and 1. As I said in your first question, I’m haunted by familial relationships, and I’m just fascinated by parenting: the difficulty of it, the sacrifices it requires, how it provides intense moments of joy and beauty—but also, wow, how boring it can be, too. I’m interested in how it can simultaneously return you to your body, and also alienate you from that body. I’m interested in how the relationship adjusts as the child ages—how you see them anew as they mature, and how you come into focus for them, again and again. All of it has surprised me. Man, it’s just such a complicated and beautiful relationship, perfect for fiction!

I haven’t slept through the night in over a year, so I often can’t think of very simple words. I’ll say “pergola” when I mean “pillow” for instance. But aside from this (temporary!) mental slowness, I’d say that, yes, yes, motherhood has made me more creative. I’ve written more as a mother than I did before I was one. It’s also taught me the value of uninterrupted writing time. I try my best not to squander it.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The same-old, same-old: families, mothering, Los Angeles. But also: alternative therapies and the quest to be happy and well; a commune; a weird, hidden estate; a possibly magical baby. It’s too early to say anything more.

I’m also obsessed with Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy (I’m currently on book two), my dry eyelids that won’t stop being all red and flakey no matter how many fancy creams I slather on, and buying a new living room rug.

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

There’s a lot of drinking in Woman No. 17, so you should ask me for a cocktail recipe. I’ll leave you with a link to Esquire’s recipe for a Sidecar, which is one of my favorite weekend-night drinks. I like to make one and watch “Insterstellar” and then weep over my growing children in this too-short life.



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The body as story. The story as a force of change. The incredible Lidia Yuknavitch talks about THE BOOK OF JOAN, stardust, swimming, writing and so much more





How can you not love Lidia Yuknavitch? First, there is her TED Talk, The Misfit's Manifesto. Then, of course, there are her phenomenal books. She's the author of the national bestseller The Small Backs of Children, which won Oregon's Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and the Reader's Choice Award; Dora: A Headcase; a memoir, The Chronology of Water, which was a finalist for a PEN center USA Award. She's the kind of person who says things like this about not drowning: "When pulled under, kick."


I'm totally honored to have Lidia here. A million thank-yous, Lidia!

You write about a time in the future when people etch stories on their bodies. Would you also say that our bodies themselves tell a story about us, and sometimes those are stories we fight against?

ABSOLUTELY. For one thing, we are “made” from everything around us—as Dr. Michelle Thaller (and Neil De Grassi Tyson and Michio Kaku) reminds us, we are composed of dead stars looking back up at the night sky. So in that sense our bodies carry the trace of all human history; we are the walking body stories of existence itself. And of course if you include our psyches and emotions, yup, the more difficulty stories we are carrying around from our life experiences are also written by and through our bodies. It’s almost as if our bodies “hold” the experiences for us. So many of us have pasts that are fraught with hard experiences (maybe all of us. I’m not sure I know anyone who isn’t in some kind of struggle with the story of their past). But I try to remember every day that anything that can be storied can be de-storied and re-storied. We can loosen narratives and remake them. We can listen to our bodies as fiercely as possible.

What amazed me about the book is how much it made me think this world you created has already happened, with Trump et al. in power.  For you, the political seems to be very personal, and I’d love to hear what you think the best and most powerful things people can do to fight this.

Weird, isn’t it. These ideas and some of the writing were coming out of me 2-3 years ago. And then BOOM. Scary. But I think the tensions of our present tense are also opportunities – like cracks and fissures in the earth – we have to recognize that the same cracks splitting systems and seemingly creating new horrible oppressions also contain the possibility for radical change. But we have to act. My friend Rebecca Solnit reminds us that the word “emergence” has the word “emergency” embedded within it – something to remember. We must of course resist but also remember that resilience and reinvention are what is called for. This is our present tense calling.

Your writing seems to get more and more amazing and ambitious. Does anything scare you?


HA! EVERYTHING scares me. I’m a fairly hard core introvert and misfit, and so getting out of bed and walking out of my house scares me every single day. However, I am not scared to commit myself to artistic practice and creative expression. On the page or canvas I can be radical. I can fight. It’s regular every day life that is most difficult for misfits. What scares me the most isn’t creative expression or telling the truth on the page—risking what…humiliation or embarrassment? Or that people won’t like me or that they’ll be mean to me? That is nowhere near as frightening to me as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hate and war are. I’d do pretty much anything in my power to stand up against oppressions and repressions. With my whole body. The fact that I’m scared would never stop me. Fear is a portal.

You’ve got such a generous heart, and so many people would follow you anywhere. Where would you want to lead them?

I’m no leader. We are all pieces of each other. I think if we could remember that and radicalize that idea – that we are all made from a little piece of everyone we’ve ever known – if we could change the idea of “self” as center and move toward being as a collaborative, extraordinary set of energies connected to the planet and space and animals and each other, we’d begin to have a shot at really understanding our existence. But we’d have to let go of some old stories to do it. I’m for that. For inventing new stories together.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Astrophysics as it finally catches up with indigenous knowledge and storytelling. Because I feel a new narrative coming. Because to me, that’s hope.



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

!!!!! Well, here’s one for all of us: how do we keep from giving up in the face of atrocity and hate and fear? Maybe it’s time for us to redefine what we mean when we say love. To break open the word and the myths and the stories and re story them. To love into the otherness, into the unknown, from the inside out, from the body toward star stuff, which we are, in fact, made from.

xoxoxoxxox

What's more fascinating than exploring a person's life story through the books they've chosen to read? New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul talks about MY LIFE WITH BOB and the fierce relationship between books and readers

  



2013 was the year when we all began talking about Pamela Paul. To have a smart, funny, talented woman take on the editorship of the venerable New York Times Book Review, overseeing all book coverage at a time when women were not getting the review real estate that their male colleagues were, seemed like the best kind of change. And it absolutely has been. Ms. Paul (It doesn’t feel right to call her Pamela), started one of my favorite sections in the NYTBR, By The Book, where authors get to answer quirky, fascinating questions (By the Book is also..well, a book itself, edited by Paul). And more change is coming. But more than that, she’s the host of the weekly podcast, Inside the New York Times Book Review, and  she’s a terrific author as well. The Washington Post named her debut, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony as one of the Best Books of 2002. The San Francisco Chronicle did the same for her second, Pornified. She’s published Parenting, Inc, , contributes to Time and is a columnist for Worth, as well as publishing in  The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Education Life, The Economist, Vogue, Slate and more.

She’s also been a guest on Oprah, Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Early Show, and Politically Incorrect, and has made regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. And I’m so honored that I can also say she’s appearing on my blog, carolineleavittville.com. Oh, and she’s very, very funny on Facebook.

Her latest book, My Life with Bob is a memoir about the book lists that Paul kept, from girlhood on, always noting how each book she read defined her, enlightened her, and inspired her into traveling roads she might never have taken otherwise. It’s the kind of book that makes you get out that moleskin diary you bought five years ago and never touched, and now start writing down your thoughts about your own books and your own life. Like all great art, it makes you see your world--and your books-- differently. And how exciting is that?
   
Thank you so, so much, Ms. Paul. for letting me pepper you with questions. I’m so jazzed and honored to host you here. My Life with Bob is an ingenious idea. I wish I had done that growing up—though I certainly could start now.


I always want to know the “why now?” question—what was it that made you want to write this particular book at this particular time?

I had written about Bob in 2011 as a back page essay in the Book Review in the same issue I launched the By the Book column, which began with David Sedaris. And I wrote that essay in part to explain the idea behind By the Book – that a person’s life story could be told, in a way, through the books she’s read. That essay, “My Life with Bob,” ended up being one of the most popular essays we’d ever run. I got tons of emails and letters, many of which boiled down to one of two messages: Either “I keep a book of books too!” or “I wish I’d done that.”

I hadn’t thought about expanding it until my editor at Henry Holt suggested doing so at a lunch, as a follow up to the book we did together of collected By the Book columns. Usually, when someone else suggests a book idea, it doesn’t feel right – it’s like wearing a costume rather than your own clothes. I remember after “The Starter Marriage” came out, a number of editors approached me wanting me to write “The Starter Marriage II” or something to that effect, which didn’t interest me at all. It’s like, as a freelance writer, the difference between pitching a story idea of your own versus getting one assigned to you by an editor with his or her own idea. Only rarely does that other person’s idea resonate enough that you feel motivated to  make it your own.

When my editor suggested a book around “My Life with Bob,” I hesitated at first because it felt so personal, and I prefer to write reported stories about other people – maybe with a first-person anecdotal lede, but in large part, I like to stay out of the story.

But I couldn’t reject the idea outright because it also felt like something I’d want to write and something I ought to write and maybe even something I needed to write. And for me, having that intrinsic motivation is so important to writing. If my heart isn’t in it, it’s very hard to gin up the energy to write. But when my heart is in something, I have the opposite problem – it’s hard for me to stop. I write sentences in my head while walking. I have trouble falling asleep because new paragraphs start swirling in my head. I wake up in the middle of the night to write bits down on a notepad by my bedside. That’s what immediately began to happen when I thought about turning Bob into this new book.

Did writing about books of your past—and who you were when you were reading them, make you want to reread them now to see the difference?

Mostly, I wanted to reread them to better remember what I’d read in the first place! I really do have a terrible memory. I can watch movies over and over again, even thrillers with twisty plots, with the same level of enjoyment when I viewed them the first time because I don’t remember any of it. I still jump when killers pop out of corners and fall into pits of despair over the sad parts.

I did find myself re-reading a couple of books and stories in their entirety – it was impossible to resist them. I could never Marie Kondo-ize my book collection. She says never to open a book when deciding whether or not to keep it. I can’t help opening books. It’s impossible to resist. But by and large, I’m not a huge re-reader. I still feel like I have so much left that I haven’t read – both in terms of books that I’ve had around for years and years, and books that get published every month. I want to read so many of them, and there is, as Sara Nelson once put it in a book title, so little time.

In high school and college, I developed the habit of writing in books—which I disavowed once I was out of school. But sometime, seeing those notes that I wrote—my early responses to books, is illuminating. What’s your feeling about writing in books?

I love finding my old notes in books! I used to do it more often. There are lots of notes in my copy of Anna Karenina, and also, notes my ex-husband wrote in there, so looking at it now is like finding this weird time capsule of a former life. That said, I rarely do write in books unless I’m reviewing them. When I’m reviewing them, which I don’t really do anymore as the editor of the Book Review, I scribble in them endlessly and fill the inside jackets with notes. I love those annotated galleys.

I loved that you spoke about how it isn’t just reading that shapes us—we and our lives shape what we read, which might be a reason why a friend might love a book that you yourself hate.  And as an author, I also appreciated that this applies to reviews, as well. Can you talk a bit about this please?


I could talk about this endlessly, but will try to keep it brief. Where you are coming from, what’s going on in your life at the moment, what kind of person you are and what kind of person you consider yourself to be – all of this affects how you experience a book. It’s why a book can never really exist in isolation, only in relationship to a reader. Each of us brings expectations and hopes and baggage, and it affects how we view a character (“He reminds me of my awful Uncle Steve” or “I wish my wife were more like her” or “I used to be this way, but somehow I lost this character’s sense of wonder and engagement with the world.”) It affects how we view story (“I can’t understand how anyone could abandon a child.” “Why doesn’t he see her for who she really is?” “I wish I knew what it was like to explore the jungle.”) We bring our memories of college, of Prague, of first love, of jettisoned dreams to stories.

And that’s why readers often see stories not only differently from the way other readers see them, but from how the authors themselves conceived of them. Every author knows those moments when a reader tells the author about her own book, and the author shakes her head in disbelief: But that’s not what I thought I wrote! That’s not what I intended. That’s not the kind of man this character is. And yet, of course, the reader’s experience of the book is just as true as the author’s experience. It’s all subjective. Which is also why reviews of the same book can vary so widely.

I always feel that certain books have a sense memory—I remember reading a Ray Bradbury story, The Long Rain, when I was twelve. At the end of the story, all the men have drowned in the rain on Venus, but one survives and finds a Sun Dome and eats a “rich chicken meat sandwich with tomatoes.” I had never eaten a sandwich like that, but I immediately went and made myself one, and it was more delicious because I imagined I had escaped rainy Venus, too. Do you think books have the power to change our brains, in that they can be so real, we think we have lived in them, and they become part of our memory?

Absolutely! One of the books I read recently that demonstrated exactly this so well was Rachel Cusk’s “Outline.” I’m going to mangle the details, because this is all from (poor) memory, but the essence is the following. The novel consists almost entirely of conversations the near-nameless protagonist has with other people – some passing acquaintances, others old friends. One person recalls being at a dinner party where the table was directly underneath a large rectangular skylight. The person at that dinner party is told a story by a fellow diner about how she heard that at another dinner party, with a similar skylight over the dining table, it rained or snowed so hard that the glass window broke and shattered all over the table.

Hearing this story, the diner at the table with the intact skylight is nonetheless profoundly affected by it. And so is the near nameless protagonist to whom he or she is telling the story. And so, of course, is the reader, in this case me, who can palpably feel what it must have been like to be sitting at the dining room table with the shattered glass all over the meal and the diners and the room. Even though that event is effectively four steps removed from my own experience. I feel like I have lived through that experience, even though it has been handed down to me via these characters from one to the other.

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

You didn’t ask but I will tell you that the strangest thing about this book is that it was written entirely on the train, mostly because that was the only time I had to write it. I have a full-time job and three young children, so there was pretty much no choice. It was my one free window. And for me, at least, it was a fantastic experience. I had no idea writing on the train could be so fun and so efficient. You truly have no choice to procrastinate. There’s no getting up and going into the other room to make sure the garbage disposal is empty or that the mail hasn’t arrived.

Bonus question—When I was 11, my mom pulled out a series of books from the library and told me I was mature enough to read them. She had loved them as a girl, so they became even more important. All I remember about them was that it took place in France and it had a guy named Pierre pulling off the jacket of Elizabeth, whom he loved, so hard that the buttons popped.  There was also Elizabeth’s sister Sally, who ended up a drug addict in NYC. I was shocked, but I never stopped thinking about that book, and I’ve never been able to find it and I think I have asked every librarian and book person on the planet. You know it?

That would drive me completely nuts. I have no idea, but I hope you continue asking everyone you know. You never know when you’ll figure it out. My husband dug up for me a clip of a TV show that I knew existed and that I described to everyone I met who grew up in the tri-state area, but that no one else could recall. All I knew was that there was a white guy with an Afro who was in front of a giant computer and there was this ridiculous low-techno musical tune and the world “Marlo” repeated over and over. My husband found it for me after I spent decades in fruitless pursuit. So I hope you or someone you encounter can answer this one.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Now, for young readers, a version of the #1 NYT Bestselling novel ORPHAN TRAIN for younger readers. Christina Baker Kline talks about ORPHAN TRAIN GIRL






I love Christina Baker Kline. (Come on, who doesn't?) She's warm, funny and one of the most supportive friends I have. Plus, she gives great advice about writing and she loves Lazy Rivers! But Christina is not only the #1 NYT Bestselling author of Orphan Train and A Piece of the World, she's also the author of Sweet Water, The Way Life Should Be and Bird In Hand. I'm delighted to host her here--and Christina, I'm still finishing up those knitted mitts for you!

Why make a younger version of your #1 New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train?

Wherever I go, I meet mothers and fathers who are reading Orphan Train alongside their teenagers. Often they tell me they wish their younger children could read it too. School administrators who’ve assigned Orphan Train for school- and district-wide reads have struggled to find a companion text for their upper-elementary and middle schools. So I began to contemplate writing a younger version of the book that parents and caregivers could read with their children, teachers and librarians could share with their students, and school districts and communities could present as part of their “One Book” reads of Orphan Train.

I’m so glad that a younger audience will have the experience of reading Vivian’s and Molly’s stories  – and that they’ll learn about this important but little-known piece of American history.

How different did it feel to write Orphan Train Girl? Was there ever a moment that totally surprised you? Did you regret anything you had to leave out? (Or add in?)

I had never written a book for young readers, so I was lucky to have some expert help. Adapting the book presented some challenges. A number of aspects of the adult book are too disturbing for young readers. Molly, the 17-year-old protagonist in Orphan Train, is rebellious; some things that happen to Niamh, the nine-year-old train rider, are inappropriate. However, though some of the language and occurrences were toned down for Orphan Train Girl, most of the major incidents in the adult book are represented.

What do you hope younger readers will learn from the book? How do you want them changed?

I hope young readers will gain perspective on what it feels like to be a poor and unwanted child in America, a hundred years ago and today. I knew that if I could get the story right, kids would relate to Molly’s spunk and Niamh’s stamina. They would also find plenty to think and talk about in the story, which – like Orphan Train – contrasts Molly’s present-day experience as a foster kid with Vivian’s experience as an Irish immigrant in 1929.

How strange did it feel to change the points of view – and how did you change them?

Once I began developing the middle-grade story, the younger version of Molly took on a life of her own. I shifted the emphasis to Molly’s perspective and changed her age from 17 to 12, but the central plot arc – the friendship between Vivian and Molly – is still the backbone of the story. Vivian’s arc ends once she settles with the Nielsens at age 10. It was important to me to retain the tone and feel of Orphan Train. The books are designed to be read alone or side-by-side.

Any feedback from young readers yet?

Librarians, teachers, and young readers seem enthusiastic! There’s so much in the book for young readers to discuss.