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Full disclosure: I read FATHERMUCKER (HarperCollins 2011) the first time around in installments. As Greg wrote, I would receive these amazing sections in my inbox — smart, compelling, raucous, heartbreaking and wholly original. I would tear through those pages, enthralled by Josh Lansky’s stream of consciousness, his riffs on parenting, popular culture, love, sex, his wife and children, all set to a playlist ranging in taste from Zeppelin to the Magnetic Fields. As soon as I finished I would send Greg e-mails that contained only one word: MORE. The voice felt entirely fresh and new, unlike anything I had experienced before in contemporary fiction, and definitely not from this perspective. Josh Lansky, while a devout husband and father, was still a guy, and he held nothing back in what would surely turn out to be one of the longest days in his life. Experiencing FATHERMUCKER will leave you breathless and wanting more of what goes on inside Greg Olear’s head; thankfully, he agreed to answer a few questions.
Cara Hoffman’s SO MUCH PRETTY has everything I long for in a good book. For starters, the writing was so good I read the first two chapters out loud just for the pure pleasure of the rhythm and the prose. The story itself is about a chilling crime that happens in a small, rural town. But it’s the issues the book wrestled with that haunted me for weeks after I’d read it: the closed nature of small-town communities, the economic and environmental realities of industrialized farms, and the battle between truth and denial when a crime hits close to home.
I hope you’ll welcome Cara to The Nervous Breakdown, and I dare you to read the first chapter of her book and not keep going.
Talk to me about outsiders in this town. What is so threatening to the locals about them, and why don’t they let the new person feel a part of their community? And the flipside… what do you think the outsiders’ arrogance is about? What is about small towns that seems to create this dynamic?
Small town provincialism is truly repugnant stuff and Haeden is emblematic of this kind of provincialism. I think places that have been heavily impacted by the brain drain and economic shifts have it hard, have a lot of compensating to do. The old families in towns like these are actually the ones that exhibit the most arrogance. Outsiders often come in, like Gene and Claire Piper do in the novel, with high hopes thinking that they’ll be able to integrate or change things. But for all their sophistication they’re missing a bigger picture that is not lost on the locals, especially the poor locals. Each side sees the other as naïve and ignorant. This kind of antagonism has deep roots.
Denial seems to be a way of bringing stability back to the town following Wendy’s disappearance. But denial also creates a seething distrust and rage beneath the surface. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this culture of denial.
I don’t think denial brings stability back to Haeden after Wendy’s disappearance. I don’t really believe denial can in any way create stability. American political culture is steeped in this kind of denial, particularly in regard to environmental issues, gender, class and race. In many ways Haeden is a typical American small town and the things that happened there happen every day in America.
Two young women in the novel put a ripple in this culture when they take the courageous and dangerous step to confront it. Do you think speaking up and confronting denial changes anything?
I do! I think it’s really valuable, as I say in the novel, to pay attention to the obvious. Self-delusion is a dangerous and insidious thing. While I’m generally pessimistic about the possibility of broad political changes, I do think there’s been incredible progress when it comes to gender issues. And that a huge part of that progress is because of people confronting the pervasive culture of misogyny and the denial of violence and brutality that keeps that culture going.
As much as this book is about a mystery unfolding, it’s also about friendship and the creativity that can be born of boredom. I’m thinking of the Bigger/Better game, children braiding their hair together so they’re connected, and the wonderful, Wind in the Willows-inspired afternoons. That aspect of the book seems to get lost in the reviews, but to me it’s at the core of the book, and brings a measure of hope to this story.
I am so glad you mention this because it’s close to my heart and I do think it’s one of the foundations of the novel that can get overshadowed. So Much Pretty is about the life of the mind and a lot of it is brutal. But it’s also about how that life, that inner world, feeds us, how play that is rich and strange can make us smart and brave.
I’d like to end by saying how much I appreciate the poetry and the cadence of your writing. Which authors helped to train your ear?
Thank you. I’ve been influenced by a number of writers. Paul Bowles, David Wojnarowicz, Oscar Wilde. But as far as writing lyrically I think the thing that most trained my ear was my mother reading to me when I was a kid. She read me the entire Norton Anthology, James Joyce, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald. All kinds of crazy stuff you’d never read to a 10 year old. And I’m glad she did it.
Ellen Meister is one of the most generous, energized writers I know; and even as she lovingly attends to her friends, she still manages to write a new book every year. Her newest, THE OTHER LIFE, has a high concept plot that’s so good, HBO has optioned it for a TV series. Here’s that plot in a nutshell: A woman who is pregnant with an extremely deformed child has the option to escape this life for one consisting of the other choices she could have made, including time with someone she longs to see again. The New York Journal of Books calls THE OTHER LIFE “mesmerizing,” and I’m so glad to bring Ellen here today to talk about her novel.
Let’s talk about high concept plots because you’re awfully good at coming up with them. First, let’s hear your definition of high-concept. And second, how do you find them? I want to get right inside your creative process.
Thank you, Sue! That’s an especially gratifying compliment since I really struggle with my storylines. For some writers it comes easily, but I find it the most vexing part of the process.
But okay, my definition of a high concept novel is one with a hook that’s so strong it can be conveyed in one dynamic sentence. Often, people know what a high concept novel is about even if they haven’t read it. Lovely Bones is a perfect example.
If I may move from the sublime to the ridiculous, consider all those wacky TV shows from the 1960s. My Mother the Car wasn’t exactly high art, but it was so high concept the whole premise was encapsulated in the title.
As far as how I get my ideas, I think it’s really just a matter of paying attention to the stray thoughts that ramble through my consciousness. For instance, one day while I was thinking about the way I escape into my fiction, I was wondering what would happen if a suburban woman like me had the ultimate escape … the ability to cross over into the life she would have had if she never got married and had children.
If I hadn’t been on the lookout, the thought would have vaporized. But I stopped and examined it and wondered if there might be a book in that idea. Then I had to ask some questions. What would be traumatic enough to make the woman want to cross from her happy life to her alternate reality? And what could she find on the other side that would create enough of an emotional pull to threaten her family?
It took a long time, but when I finally realized that my character’s mother was alive in one life and not in the other, I knew I had a book.
What I love so much about THE OTHER LIFE is it engages the reader’s own moral code. While you attach to these particular characters, you’re also forced to question how you’d handle a similar situation. What I learned from reading your book is that the idea of having an escape hatch in your life may sound wonderful—imagine not having to live with the consequences of your choices—but it’s really a terrible burden.
I actually learned the same thing from writing it! When I first got the idea, it sounded like an exhilarating opportunity. She gets to leave! When her husband and son aren’t home, she gets to slip through to her other life! Yippee!
But once I got inside the character, I understood how emotionally fraught the decision really was. And suddenly, I found myself faced with all kinds of moral issues I had never intended to explore. At another point in my life, this might have caused me to abandon the book. But real life had just thrown such frightening problems my way (a very sick kid, a massive financial crisis), that I was determined to dig in and find my courage.
Along the way I discovered that when we’re deeply connected by love, the mixed emotions of sorrow, joy, longing, regret and hope are so intertwined they simply can’t be separated. So when you leave one behind, you leave it all behind.
As far as engaging the reader’s own moral code, it wasn’t something I was conscious of while writing THE OTHER LIFE. But I’m starting to hear from early readers of book, and they’re sharing so much of their own struggles that I’m seeing how personally people relate to these issues.
One of my favorite parts of the book are the Quinn Deconstructed scenes—the series of paintings in which Quinn’s mother is trying to work through a puzzle in their relationship. Tell me how you came up with this idea.
I was probably about halfway through the book when I realized that Nan, Quinn’s mother, was simply too distant from the reader. I needed to bring her—and her relationship with Quinn—right out front. Since the last conversation between mother and daughter involved a composition Nan had painted to communicate a complex aspect of their relationship, I thought it was natural to show her trying to understand her daughter by capturing her on canvas in a series of portraits.
I liked the idea of Nan taking a systematic approach to the project by starting with Quinn as an adult and going back in time to paint her at various stages of her life. This also served to point the reader back in time toward Quinn’s birth, the pivotal point in which her life split in two.
I want to talk about the humor in this book. The thread that runs through all of your novels, regardless of how serious the topic might be is this fiercely witty dialogue. You really have an ear for comedic timing, and I know your cousin, Lisa Kudrow, has this gift as well. Tell me where this funny gene comes from. Is there a person or an event in the family tree that would explain this outlook on life?
Fiercely witty—I like that. Thanks! I also like being compared to my cousin Lisa, whom I consider brilliant.
My family would probably agree that I got my skinny legs from my mom and my sense of humor from my dad. Lisa is related on that side, so maybe there really is a genetic funny bone.
And I grew up in a funny house—Dad’s stories often had us laughing till we cried—so there’s both nature and nurture at play. But as far as my writing, there’s a third factor—intent. I believe a novelist has a responsibility to entertain the reader, and to me, including humor goes a long way toward achieving that.
So, to write this book, you had to stand in the middle of unresolved conflict, and frequently you had to walk directly toward fear. What did you learn about yourself through this process? Did any part of you become stronger or more tender because of it?
Frankly, if I was any more tender I’d need to be on Thorazine. So, thankfully, I emerged just as much of a mush as I was going in.
What I learned from THE OTHER LIFE relates to the sacrifices a mother is willing to make for her children. I’ve understood that on a visceral level since the day I gave birth to my first baby. But by examining it from all sides, I got to appreciate the wonder and miracle of it. So now, I’m not only grateful for my children, but for the power of my love for them … a gift that fills me every day.
I was going to write a long introduction about the author Summer Wood so you would know something of her heart and her poetic touch with language, but her answers in this interview do just that. You’ll see! So let me tell you, instead, about her novel, WRECKER, set in California, where a young boy with a short fuse and a reckless nature needs a home after his mother is sent to prison. It’s a story about the aftershocks of abandonment, the hunger for connection, and the surprise in store for the untraditional family who dares to take him in.
Please welcome Summer, and if you like, you can make her book launch special by leaving her a note at the end.
Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley
I’m interested in your background as a foster parent. How did you come to taking children into your home? How are you different for it, and how did you let them go again?
Well, we were living in a small village in northern New Mexico, and we knew a lot of kids who, for one reason or another, were in and out of the foster care system. Our own three sons were not quite in their teens, and we had a little extra space. We figured that, if a kid in our area needed a home for a night or a weekend—a temporary refuge from a family crisis, or a night away from their foster family—we could offer that.
It didn’t really turn out the way we’d planned, though! Our first call came from a social worker who asked if we’d consider taking four small brothers. Indefinitely. The oldest was four. If we couldn’t take them, she said, they’d be split up and sent to different homes.
We hemmed and hawed and then we said yes, and embarked on one of the most harrowing and rewarding experiences of my life. I fell in love with them. We all did. And it wrecked our home life. Seven boys in the house, the oldest almost 13, the youngest 8 months— we weren’t prepared at all. But I guess, more than that, we weren’t prepared for the feelings, the deep bond that developed between us all. And the terrible sense that, in spite of doing everything that you can, sometimes it still is not enough.
When they left—well. We rooted for the parents. God knows we wanted them to succeed. We became friends with them and a kind of kin to the kids, and we helped out whenever they asked. But in spite of their best intentions the parents couldn’t hold it together, and the boys were adopted out to separate families.
Let go? I haven’t let go. I wrote WRECKER because I guess I can’t let go. You never really let go of the people you love, do you? You send them off, you wish them well, you let them be, but you go on carrying some part of them with you until the day you die.
One of the emotions you really explore in WRECKER is hesitance. The hesitance to trust. The hesitance to commit. What did your characters learn, and what did you learn through them, as they risked being vulnerable and being in roles they didn’t expect to play?
I don’t like getting hurt. Right? Who does? You lose people you love, it’s a terrible feeling. Why do we go in for this love thing at all, when it could backfire so badly?
For me, the touchstone character in the book—the single one I could rely on when things went south—was Ruthie. She knows everything there is to know about love and loss, and she doesn’t blink an eye before diving in to love Wrecker. She knows where the relationship is likely headed. The boy is there temporarily, and she has no claim on him. But she dives in anyway.
The rest of the characters wear their injuries front and center. They know a dangerous situation when they see one. They know it’s safer not to trust, not to get involved. But—and this is what I love about human beings—slowly, with varying degrees of hesitance, they let themselves love, anyway. They can’t help it. Even Willow, the most self-protective of the bunch, can’t help herself. And, loving, it’s one step, one action, after another toward committing.
Did I learn from this? I’m not sure. I do know this: never go to the pound unless you intend to come home with a puppy. The heart leads, the feet follow, and the head is left way back in the hinterlands trying to make sense of what just happened.
Raising someone who’s been dealt a blow but whose background is largely a mystery is a real task for his new family. What qualities do you think they had that allowed Wrecker to begin to settle in?
Well, first of all, they had the advantage of living in a magical place, out there amid the tall trees, the gorgeous wild backcountry of Humboldt County. And although Bow Farm isn’t exactly utopian—they’re too lazy for that—socially, they sure didn’t buy into the status quo. Each of them allows the others considerable privacy and latitude regarding their former lives. I think it was natural that Wrecker would be accorded that, too—that they would, more or less, take him as he was.
But, even more than that—and I’d never thought of it this way before, so thank you!—I think each of the characters has a kind of natural curiosity about Wrecker, that develops into a unique personal affinity. They aren’t sorry for him so much as they’re interested in him. They see him as one of their own: odd and damaged and unpredictable, but their boy.
So much of what makes parenting of any variety so difficult is the mighty internal-external choir of disapproval. At Bow Farm, there wasn’t anyone there to tell them they were doing it wrong. They had to make it up, by trial and error.
Well. Hardly anybody.
Wrecker’s mother has a small but crucial role in this book. I think you’ve given her the weight that a real birth mother might have in a child’s life—she’s decidedly absent, and yet very emotionally present—almost a ghost, a phantom limb in the family. What were your feelings about this mother as you were creating her?
Mixed is not the word. I loved her fiercely, and I was furious with her for failing to protect her son, and I feared for her every step of the way, and, for some reason, I could not let her catch one single break. Her life is the story of bad choices and worse luck, and she is one of the most beautiful women I think I’ve ever known. Is it fair to say that about a fictional character? It’s true, though; that’s how I feel.
I’ve been amazed to find how many readers write her off as a bad mother. I felt she was a really good mother, who, through her own actions and some terrible luck, had her son taken from her. The pain of that—just imagining it blinds me. And I stand in awe of the courage it takes to survive that.
But the great thing about fiction is how amply it accommodates different readings. I kind of love it that other people feel differently about the characters and the situations and the outcomes than I do. It reminds me that a story is a live thing, and that the author’s responsibility is to write it, not to interpret it.
I think my favorite part of your book was that none of the adults that ended up taking in Wrecker had sought out being a parent, so we’re watching them learn how to do it. We’re seeing them almost reluctantly falling in love. I want to go back to your own experience with parenting again and ask you to tell a story where you stepped outside of your comfort zone or known strengths—and how that turned out.
Oh, wow! Well, that’s still happening, all the time. Parenting is the best way I know to make a fool of yourself. Our boys have grown into men, now—gorgeous, amazing human beings—and I still say dumb things, worry too much, bug them unnecessarily, embarrass them—but they’re very generous about it all.
I can actually remember when I learned that it was okay—no, it was necessary—to apologize to them when I messed up. Just a straightforward, Look, I overreacted. Or—I shouldn’t have done that. Or—I was wrong. No big deal attached to it. And how astonished I was that they said, oh. Okay.
Just like that. No big deal.
But what a weight off my shoulders! Because, if you have to pretend you’re perfect or infallible or whatever, or you pretend that your bad behavior never happened, then you miss the chance to relate to them as you are. You prevent them from knowing you, and knowing what matters to you. They may not forgive you entirely, then or ever—and maybe they shouldn’t. But they know that you’re saying, That’s not the way the world should be. It’s not the way I intend it to be.
But you’re still their mom. And you’re still there. Flawed and funky and listening to the same bad music in the car, over and over.
Caroline Leavitt is the author of nine novels and a book reviewer for People magazine and the Boston Globe. In her latest book, PICTURES OF YOU, she has created a wise and intimate story of what happens to the survivors of a car crash that leaves one woman dead. She explores grief, guilt, secrets, and disappointments in a cast of sympathetic characters who become so entangled, it’s not clear to anyone what decisions are the right ones to make. I highly recommend this book, which feels like an easy read and yet works profoundly on the soul.
In our interview today, Caroline talks about forgiveness, closure, and a childhood hurt that snuck into this novel against her will. She also talks about her experience of publishing nine novels, and what a difference an attentive publisher makes. I hope you’ll welcome Caroline and leave her a comment.
I think both of our books deal with the question of how you forgive what seems to be unforgivable. What did you learn as you explored this on the page, and did the answer you arrived at change you at all?
What a great question! When I started the novel with this question, I was pretty sure that the answer was that yes, although it might be difficult, you could forgive. I personally wanted to be that person who could always forgive, who had a heart that open. But when I finished the novel, I realized that forgiveness isn’t that easy. Without giving plot away, I’ll say that I understood April and felt compassion for her. I wished her well, but I couldn’t quite forgive her. For me, she stepped over a line. I could have had a relationship with her, but it would always have to be a wary one. I’d never completely open up to her because of that. And that surprised me.
I could feel this in your writing, actually—that you were open to the complexity of emotions and to being surprised by where the characters took you.
Nine-year-old Sam was such a compelling character to me as he struggled with his grief and his sense of guilt and the widening disconnect from his classmates at school. But it was how all of this was displayed through his asthma that really helped to explain the physical nature of fear and helplessness. I would love to hear about the writing process behind the creation of this little boy.
Originally, Sam was just a little boy, but suddenly his asthma came on the page. I had had severe asthma as a child, something that made me deeply ashamed and traumatized, and I hid it from the world. I told people I had pleurisy or even TB rather than asthma because it sounded less embarrassing. I hid my inhalers or deliberately lost them and I never let anyone see me use them. I would rather get a root canal without anesthesia than write about my asthma! Asthmatic Sam kept cropping up in my writing, and I kept deleting the asthma. I knew, though, that sometimes what you want to write about isn’t necessarily what you need to write about, and I finally gave in and wrote about Sam’s life with asthma.
Asthma also became a great way to show how separate he felt from everyone, which made his yearning for connection all the more palpable for me.
What’s astonishing is that the whole four years I was writing the novel, my own asthma, which is very, very mild, seemed to vanish—right up until the day I turned the novel in! Of course, I didn’t cure myself, but by giving Sam so much compassion and love (and I do adore him), I was able to heal myself of my shame and grief about my own sickly childhood.
I love how that piece of your childhood demanded to be heard. In some ways, that’s the best part of writing—how you can heal old wounds and come to new understandings.
So I noticed that each of your main characters struggles with a fear of getting close, a fear of not being loved. Would you talk about this theme a little bit?
Being loved is being seen—really seen—and that’s terrifying for my characters, especially since their sense of self is more than a little wobbly because of what they all go through. The pictures they present to the world of themselves are not the complete ones. Sam hides his asthma. Charlie works to be the “perfect” husband and father. April struggles to be a great mother to Sam. They all harbor secrets. It’s threatening to love because what happens if you show your deepest weakness and you are rejected? Or what happens if you allow yourself to get close to someone and then things ruin for you? Charlie’s mother accuses him of seeing only what he wants to see, and it isn’t until he’s forced to come to grips with that that he’s really able to open himself up, but by then, it’s a little late. Both Isabelle and Sam also struggle with enormous pressures of guilt surrounding the car crash. Can someone culpable be loved? Should they be? And for April, being fully known is simply too dangerous.
I want to talk about your ending without giving it away. I found it both unexpected and deeply satisfying, and I think part of what was so satisfying was that it felt real. Your characters seem to reach (or at least reach for) a sense of closure, but while some wounds close, others remain tender. Can you talk to me, in general, about how you bring your stories to a close?
I love the whole idea of what I call the never-ending story. For me, this means that when the last page is turned, you still have a feeling that the story is going on. You’re still imagining what this person is going to do next. There’s still suspense pulling you forward. That keeps the characters alive. It makes me crazy when novels end with all the loose ends tied up neatly. I always say that I like to really damage my characters’ lives, but I don’t want to ruin them. In a Rolling Stones’ sort of way, I like them to not get what they want, but sometimes (and only sometimes) do they get what they need.
You’ve written several novels and seen them go out into the world. Tell me something of the process of watching reviews and sales and marketing for each book, of having hopes and expectations meet reality. What have you learned about the word success and your own identity as a writer, having lived through this process so many times?
Another great question. Two things are very different for me with this book. The first is that I now think that so much about how a book does has to do with the publisher—at least for me. I’ve had 9 books published and for the first 8, I’ve had publishers that went out of business a month before my novel was due out. I’ve had editors fired and then been assigned to overextended editors. And truthfully, I’ve had publishers who ignored or humiliated me, and they rarely did any sort of promotion, which meant I had to scramble around and try to do it all for myself, which is exhausting and demoralizing. Pictures of You was actually turned down by my former publisher. I was completely devastated, but my agent sold it to Algonquin in weeks. It’s been a completely different process for me! I feel like Santa Claus is real!
Everyone at Algonquin works on every book and you get to know them all. I’ve got a brilliant editor and the uber-creative promotion department works outside the box. Six months before Pictures of You came out, they were sending me to BEA, to Miami Book Fair, to booksellers conventions, and putting out ads, and they’re sending me on a 16 city tour! There is constant contact and the support and devotion to their authors is just incredible. I’m always sending them Godiva because I am so overwhelmingly grateful! I’ve seen firsthand what their efforts do. I’m not sure this is a better book than any of my other books, but it’s doing a hundred times better than any of my others, and I’m convinced it’s because of Algonquin. This one went into three printings before it even was published. They made the decision to put it into a paperback original, which worried me because I was unsure whether it would get reviews, but it’s already received reviews from O, Vanity Fair and Elle—things I never was able to get before. And I know that’s because of Algonquin.
The second change is that with this book, I’m now a book critic for The Boston Globe and People, so I have a different take on reviews now. I know that sometimes things don’t get reviewed because of space, not because of merit. I know, too, that sometimes a review is simply a personal opinion and you can’t want to slash your wrists over a bad review (or think too highly or yourself because of a good one!).
Of course, I am still a nervous wreck about publication. You never know how a book is going to do. You really have no control over success, but I think what matters is word of mouth. You want people reading and loving a book and telling their friends, and their friends telling their friends. Ultimately, our job as writers is simply to write, to send our babies out into the world, and hope they thrive, and then to get back to our desks, tune the world out, and write some more. Because really, even if you couldn’t publish your novels, wouldn’t you still feel compelled to keep writing them?
Caroline, it’s such a thrill for me to see that you and this beautiful book are being treated so well. You’ve deserved it all along.
I had the great pleasure of attending the Squaw Valley workshop with Renée Thompson, where I fell in love with her writing. Today we talk about the relationship between character and plot, small press, and making sure your writing is bold enough that it offends someone.
Renée’s first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE (Tres Picos Press), is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in 1890’s Idaho. The book tells the story of July Caldwell, the daughter of a sheepman, and Rory Morrow, the son of a cattleman, and their fathers’ desire to control the rangeland and their children. Renée expertly crafts a protagonist willing to oppose her Mormon father by falling in love with a Gentile, exposing a world where trouble comes not from the head, but the heart. Ultimately, July learns that women trapped by fate or circumstance have a choice, but with choice comes consequence.
I love that you’ve created a story in which the choices the characters face are so often fraught with peril—their struggles to make the right decisions create this marvelous tension, and that tension deftly moves the plot forward. How challenging was it to balance character with plot?
It wasn’t as difficult in BRIDGE as it was in my second novel, probably because I had the structure of Romeo and Juliet to guide me. Maybe this is the case with all writers, but the plot often informed the characters, and vice versa. I wrote the last scene first, because I knew I wanted July to emerge as more mature, more determined, and once I had the ending, I knew I could then comfortably start at the beginning, trusting the plot would build character, both literally and figuratively.
Although you used Romeo and Juliet as a template, the story quickly becomes your own. Did you know when you started writing that you’d divert fairly radically from Shakespeare’s path to follow your own?
I knew I wanted, at minimum, the Juliet, Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris characters (July, Rory, Tom, Mads, and Preston, respectively), but I didn’t want them to embody Shakespeare’s creations so much as suggest them – I wanted them to be my people, and I think that determination served me well. I also created characters based on my grandmother’s siblings, because I had so many fabulous details to draw from—some of their more mischievous deeds made their way into the novel.
Did you talk to your grandmother about her history—take notes, maybe, on what it was like to live in Idaho at the turn of the 19th century?
No, she died long before I started writing BRIDGE. But she was a terrific storyteller and a Mormon, which means she recorded her family’s history in a Book of Remembrance—a Mormon journal of sorts. So I had access to names, photographs, and lots of rich details about the family farm. Too, she included her father’s recollections of hostilities on the range; there was one incident where a cattleman named Alex Durty shot and killed a sheepman named Tom Nook. The shooting made it into my book, but I reversed it, so that the cattleman died instead. I was a little worried my cattlemen friends might come after me for that, but they’ve been really good sports about it (laughing).
Are you Mormon, too?
I was baptized when I was eight, as are all children in the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church, and was devout for many years. But I fell in love with and married a non-member—my high-school sweetheart—at age 20, and gradually fell away from the Church.
So how are Mormons reacting to your book?
So far, three for, one against (more laughing). I actually haven’t heard from too many Mormons, but I will say that some of July’s history is naturally my own, because I wrote from my own perspective—which a history professor at BYU encouraged me to do. On a side note, I’ll mention that I was living in Atlanta when Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY. I went to his reading at the Jewish Community Center, and afterward a young man asked how writers should handle their fear they’ll offend someone with their writing. Michael said, “If you haven’t offended someone, somewhere, you’re probably not doing your job.” So while I never set out to offend Mormons, I didn’t worry too much about it, either. Michael’s remark was always at the back of my mind, and I’m sure it gave me the courage I needed to tell my own truth. Having said that, it would be nice if Mormons didn’t hate the book.
In the end, you sold BRIDGE to Tres Picos, a small press in California. I’m really fascinated by the whole blurb process, and am wondering how a small publisher landed that great blurb from Larry McMurtry, who called your book “very original and very appealing.” Do they have a relationship?
I actually got the blurb on my own. I’ve been a fan for years, and I wrote him a letter telling him how much I loved LONESOME DOVE, and how I hoped to one day write characters that moved my readers as much as his characters moved me. I sent the first chapter, asking if he’d provide a blurb, and offered to send the rest of the book, if he liked it. He did like it, and wrote back about 10 days later to say “send it!” I did, and then my husband and I went camping. I thought I’d die of anxiety while we hiked the Warner Mountains, wondering if a letter had come, and if so, what he’d said about my book. The letter was there when I got home, typewritten, his signature in blue ink. I’ve since framed it, and it’s hanging not in my office but in my bedroom. I know it’s weird, but my husband Steve understands.
So. How does it feel to be a published novelist?
Pretty darned good. And very surreal. The day of my launch, I told Steve that when I sat down to sign books, I had something of an out-of-body experience; it very much felt as though I were standing at a distance, watching myself do this thing that until that day I had only dreamed about. After so many setbacks and so many struggles, I just couldn’t believe my novel had finally come into the world. It was a day I’ll remember for a long time. I’m very happy.
Renée Thompson’s short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine and Chiron Review, and have placed in competitions sponsored by Glimmer Train and Writer’s Digest magazine. Her writing has received praise from Pulitzer-Prize winning authors Larry McMurtry and Robert Olen Butler. She has attended the Sirenland, Squaw Valley, and Tomales Bay workshops, working with award-winning writers such as Ron Carlson, Carol Edgarian, Lynn Freed, Michael Jaime-Beccera, and Howard Norman. THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE is her first novel.
You can hear Renée on the radio by clicking here: Enjoy!
As many of you know, I had a long, uphill battle to get my book published, and whenever I started to sink into despair, my guest today helped me turn my thoughts around. Shawn Anderson is an unbelievably positive and generous person, and I wanted to share him with you, particularly those of you who are struggling to stay in this game.
Here’s a little bit about Shawn’s latest book via his press release:
Extra Mile America is the empowering story of one man’s quest to remind us all that great things happen in life when we go the extra mile. In 2009 in order to symbolize the power of the go the extra mile message, Shawn Anderson pedaled a bicycle ocean-to-ocean… solo. Along the 4,000 mile journey, he interviewed over 200 inspirational Americans who had demonstrated a remarkable ability to go the extra mile, overcome personal setback and accomplish something extraordinary.
“Times are tough for many people… no doubt. But I wanted to give people an alternative to just throwing their arms in the air and say ‘I give up,’” Anderson says. “They can dig deep… go the extra mile… and effect practically every area of their life in a positive way. I wanted to show people that each of us still have the ability to control our own destiny. We just have to remember that simple law of success ‘that if you want more in life’…you have to go the extra mile.” Anderson continues, “Life will just happen to us if we let it… but if we take greater action… more action… positive momentum builds and change takes place. That’s what my new book is about.”
“I wanted to interview people who had experienced walking life’s hot coals… and who had come across to the other side determined to make a real life difference,” Anderson says. “Some of the 200+ people I interviewed had been fired. Others had experienced serious health challenges or relationship heartbreaks. Still others had lost a person very close to them. But they all came out stronger… and each with a more determined approach to making a difference with their individual life. I spent time with people who overcame tragedy…and created something great. I spent time with others who built extraordinary organizations based on their passion alone.”
Please welcome Shawn, leave him a comment, if you like, and let his positive energy make your day a little brighter.
Talk to me about your bike marathon and some of the stories you’ve heard along the way.
A few of the people highlighted in the book include a blind woman who climbed one of the world’s tallest mountains… a tri-athlete who was born a congenital amputee… a 95-year-old who has been volunteering at the same hospital for 49 years… a wife who started an organization to help violent teens after her husband was killed by a 14-year-old… a race-car driving, business executive who has fought through breast cancer twice… a corporate executive who gives away 82% of his company’s profits… and a woman whose high school son died suddenly and is now a leading spokesperson for organ donation.
What’s it like for you to hear so many stories of others suffering? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by it?
On the Extra Mile America I Tour (2009), we focused solely on stories of people who had overcome personal defeat, loss and tragedy… or people who had the amazing discipline and fortitude to chase amazing dreams. On the Extra Mile America II Tour (2010), I have traveled around the country speaking over 100 times regarding the go the extra mile. The people whom I met after hearing me speak this year certainly shared dramatic stories… but I was inspired by the resilience of the human spirit.
I am never overwhelmed by all the stories of frustration or loss I hear because I know that is just life. We will all experience the feelings of frustration, loss, and even despair numerous times before we reach life’s finish line. What I do feel each time, though, is an individual’s pain. I am moved by their emotions and what they are experiencing. I use that moment, however, to do my very best in simply listening… and then adding hope. As long as hope continues to live in the human spirit, there will always be power to get up the next day. All of my conversations end with the feeling of hope, and that sort of positive ending invigorates me to continue to talk… and listen
Is there anything you’ve learned from people who are able to triumph over adversity? What are their secrets?
Those that are able to overcome adversity seem to hang in there a bit longer than those who don’t. They persevere. And they take action.
Instead of waving the white flag and feeling sorry for themselves, they keep believing in themselves and the fact that events can get better. They actively do the things that would cause the status quo to change. They go the extra mile… even when they don’t feel like it. Often, their actions affect their thoughts, which in turn affect their feelings. They reverse the negative momentum snowball that had been created.
So many writers I know find the process of trying to get published frustrating, and even dispiriting. Any words of encouragement for them? And what do you say to people who are not completely in control of the success they want—because extra effort and a positive attitude is not always enough to break into the publishing business, not to mention overcoming something like cancer?
Rejection is simply a part of the process for every worthy goal we may have. Even the greatest of writers have felt the despair of another’s rejecting pen in critiquing his or her work. When Walt Whitman tried to get his most famous book, Leaves of Grass, published, critics clobbered him with their words. One detractor called his work “nonsense.” Another said: “We can conceive of no better reward than the lash.” At that point, Whitman even questioned his own talent.
Then, a note arrived. A seemingly insignificant piece of paper carried a message that changed Walt Whitman’s attitude… and inevitably his world. Ralph Waldo Emerson dropped Whitman a simple forty-three word note: Dear Sir: I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift, Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that an American has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
Explore every option, contact every person possible, believe in your material… and never, never give up. My first book? 83 rejection letters. If I had quit, I would never have had the faith to write the four that have followed… and this feeling of having generated over 65,000 in total sales.
A while ago, I offered you help in finding an agent and publisher for this project, and you chose to publish it yourself. Tell me about that choice.
My 2nd book, SOAR to the Top, sold 45,000 copies through a traditional publisher. Additionally, the editing changes in my book were not necessarily ones I liked, and the publishing process took 1 1/2 years to complete. I was paid 11% royalty.
I believed I could do better on all levels.
I believed in my message, and wanted to make sure it was MY message and not that of a publisher. I also desired to generate more revenue than what a normal royalty fee would pay. So, I started my own publishing company. I had the business background to make it happen, and believed I could sell books. I hired the best editors, layout artists and cover designers possible. And today, Goldmind Press has now published three books.
Would you share something personal from your own life that made you so interested in human resiliency and the idea of turning your life around?
Being a guy with big goals, I have felt the sting of loss in falling short of a goal. I know what the fleeting thought of I want to quit feels like. BUT I also know what it feels like to keep believing… and eventually win.
Few of us have the support of others who encourage us to keep going, and when we are forced to rely on ourselves, it’s a challenge. I want to be the encourager for other people in a world that often lacks encouragers.
Life is short… and we only get only one. My juice in life is to plant or water seeds that encourage others to simply go for it and create the life in which they desire. (Note: My life mission is to “empower 1,000,000 people to lead a more positive and purposeful existence.”)
How are you different for having taken this journey and written about it?
Hmmm… I don’t know if this journey has really changed me as a person, but it has reinforced in me the Walt Disney adage “If I can dream it… I can do it!” Having the sort of confidence that makes me unafraid to listen to that small voice inside and the knowledge that I have the strength to keep going despite setbacks, provides me with great personal power to live the life I choose.
A pleasure to have you here, Shawn!
October 18, 2010
Roy Harris is a high-ranking Air Force officer and rising star, whose ascendant career path takes him, in the pivotal year 1975, from a New Mexico military base to Washington. He’s smart, he’s respected, and he’s very good at solving problems, a talent that will, by 1991, find him intimately involved in tactical decision-making in the Gulf War.
His prodigious skill set, however, does not translate to his own family. He has no idea how to handle his wife, a free spirit who does not fit the “military wife” mold. He fails to recognize the fact that his son idolizes him and craves his attention. And his willful and eccentric eight-year-old daughter, who acts out at school, disobeys commands, and brazenly prefers her mother, confounds him.
The tragedy of Roy Harris is not that he can’t handle his own family, but rather that he wants to give them what they need — badly — but does not know how.
You could write a novel all about Roy Harris, but Susan Henderson hasn’t done that. He might reign supreme in the Air Force, but in Up from the Blue, Henderson’s superb debut novel, Roy Harris ranks third or fourth in importance. At the center of the book is the eight-year-old girl, Tillie, whose life is changed forever in 1975, the year her mother, with whom she has a close (perhaps too close) bond, vanishes.
I mention Roy Harris because, for all that this remarkable debut has going for it — gorgeous prose, rich detail, assured voice, and a gripping story that continues to haunt me, weeks after I finished reading — its genius lies in creating so many fascinating, well-drawn characters, any of whom could have convincingly told the story. In Tillie, Henderson picks the most compelling — and, from a writing standpoint, most difficult — narrator, and she pulls off the Harper Lee adult-themes-seen-through-child’s-eyes trick brilliantly.
Here is my interview with the LitPark blogger, TNB contributor, and author of this breathtakingly good debut, in which I ask Susan questions she didn’t see fit to ask herself:
G.O.: You’ve been writing about the writing life for awhile now, which makes you probably the most prepared debut novelist in recent memory.
S.H.: I’ve been on the other side of this business for so long that I didn’t go into my book launch wearing rose-colored glasses. I know from interviewing numerous writers and featuring their stories on my blog that many authors feel a sense of deflation and abandonment when their books come out. They’ve worked so hard, and then they see how difficult it is to get their books noticed. I know a lot of writers hoped a feature on my blog or another person’s blog would give a big boost to book sales, but it doesn’t really work that way unless the person featuring you is a VIP. You’re simply raising the profile of the author and the book, but what makes a person buy a book is so subjective—you have to factor in their temperament, their life experiences, their current mood, the books they’ve already committed to reading, and what kind of free time they have. So even if others are happy for you when you launch your book, it doesn’t mean they’ll buy it.
I often hear from writers shortly after their launch date, panicked, and often angry when they discover their publisher has already done all they plan to do. We’ve all heard about the dreaded pulping machines in the basements of the big book stores, and how, if a book hasn’t been selling well in those first weeks, they go down there and are destroyed. Pulping the books on site is cheaper than sending them back to the publisher.
I’ve never heard of that. Shit. That’s not being remaindered; that’s being drawn and quartered.
I understood all of that when I went in to this. I also understood that marketing a book is hard work. If HarperCollins asks me to do a phone interview and I’m naturally phone phobic, I have to get over it. And a lot of the opportunities that open up are things like magazines saying they’d like to run a 750-word essay by you if you can get it to them in 24 hours. You have to say yes to these opportunities even when you’re tired or don’t feel like the ideas are flowing. I don’t ever want to look back at this time and regret that I didn’t do more.
Like I said, you’re prepared…but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything. Your novel’s been out for a few weeks. What’s been your biggest surprise?
The biggest surprise for me is that I’m enjoying this. It’s been an extraordinary and positive experience. One by one, at readings or via reviews, I’ve met people who’ve been moved by my book. And surprisingly, my author photo on the back cover has drummed up a lot of support from other greyhound rescuers. I mean, how fantastic is that to meet all of these folks and feel that sense of an expanding community? And mostly, there’s just a deep satisfaction in being able to hold something physical that represents all the years of finding the story, the 15 pounds I lost when I struggled with the edits, the seemingly endless string of rejections and close calls. Whatever the financial or critical success might be, I won’t lose sight of the fact that I created a book from that first blank page. And for all the reasons I had to quit along the way, I kept at it.
Huxley has a great quote along those lines: “A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.” Key word: labour. It’s really hard to write a book, even a bad one…and you’ve not written a bad one.
Pretty much everything about this business, from writing the book, to trying to sell it, to the vulnerability of seeing your book land in a competitive field of hundreds of thousands of other books has humbled me. I feel extraordinarily tender towards other writers for what they have to endure.
One of the many fascinating elements of Up from the Blue is that the Harrises are a military family. I promise not to try and parse which parts of your novel are based on your own life, but I am curious: were you an Army brat?
I was an Air Force brat. I never thought much of it until after I had kids and we decided to do a cross-country drive, stopping at the base I used to live on. My kids were terrified of the checkpoints and just coming across soldiers with guns everywhere. We offered to let them take a break at my old playground, but they wanted to get back in the car and leave.
That visit—seeing it from a different lens—stuck with me. And like all of the images and themes in this book, it began as something that just sort of percolated on some back burner until I realized there was more to explore there.
Were you ever pressured, or tempted, to join the military?
Not in the slightest. I’m not neat or tidy, I don’t like to take orders, I’m a total wimp about weather and pain and hard physical work, and I don’t particularly like being around other people for long stretches of time. But I always arrive at appointments ten or fifteen minutes early, and I think that comes from being inside military circles for so many years.
That also explains why the LitPark segments on TNB are posted months in advance, all set to publish at certain dates and times. “Military precision” are words that come to mind when I click that PENDING link on the dashboard.
Oh, dear. I was hoping no one noticed!
Over at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, Adrienne Crezo reports that she’s heard you described as “the patron saint of writers.” Do you have a feast day?
I think it’s really sweet, but mostly comical, to hear things like that. I think what people respond to, maybe, is that I’m conscientious in that I answer every comment on my blog and Facebook page, and I generally care about each person who leaves a comment. I know what it feels like to be that person who’s overlooked, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. That’s really different than being the patron saint of anything… though I’m all in favor of feasts.
But seriously…through your own site and here at TNB, you’ve been exceedingly generous with your time and your support. If I were to ask a bunch of your friends what Sue Henderson is like, the responses would probably contain some formation of She’s really nice. (For example, I would say, “Sue? She’s sweet as punch.”) You rescue greyhounds, for Pete sake! Let’s be contrarian. Tell us a way in which you are not nice.
My closest friends tend to use words like “fiesty” to describe me, and they all know how much I love a really violent hit on the football field.
You like football? Giants? Jets? ‘Skins? Do tell.
Steelers! If I could live life again, I’d love to be a defensive coordinator in charge of a 3-4 defense a la Dick LeBeau. Football is the greatest high for me—the strategy, the not-quite-contained rage, the unknown factor, and play, all at one time.
Eh, everyone’s doing the 3-4 these days. It’s the new black. Unfortunately, not everyone has the All-Pro nosetackle needed to make the defense sizzle.
Casey Hampton is killer, isn’t he?
Totally killer. So how do you feel about Ben Roethlisberger?
The reason I love watching Roethlisberger (and Brett Favre has this, too) is that he has kind of a sandlot style—he just wants to win. He’ll risk a sloppy play or an interception or a sack to score some points. He’s not worried about his stats, and I find that refreshing.
He doesn’t seem to be worried about much of anything these days.
I have to say, I was pissed when he got in that motorcycle accident because I don’t like selfishness. That concussion changed him. He’s just not as sturdy on the field, and I even wonder, with his latest charge, if that head injury changed his personality a little. But I’m excited to see him start against the Browns this weekend, and I want to go to the Super Bowl again.
This is probably not the time to mention that Neil “Four Picks” O’Donnell went to my high school.
I was not a fan of his even before his sorry performance against Dallas, but after that I was out-of-my-mind-cranky if I even saw his face. We had a long string of mediocre quarterbacks for a while, so I’d rather have a good one with criminal charges against him any day!
So did you live in Pittsburgh, or are you one of those bandwagon jumpers who only like them because they’re good?
I went to undergrad in Pittsburgh, and both my kids were born there. We used to watch training camp in Latrobe, and now I listen to the games over the Internet so I can still hear the local radio show. Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove.
The Steelers are my Super Bowl pick this year. I assume they’re also yours?
The Steelers are always my pick, even during the years it’s all magical thinking.
Your love of football makes sense, actually. There’s a certain toughness about your novel that belies its “pregnant woman reflects on a pivotal year of her childhood” summary. Up from the Blue is dark, much darker than I was expecting. And I mean that as the highest compliment.
All my favorite books are dark because if you want to see what people are made of (which is the main reason I like to read), watch them during a plague or in an abusive orphanage or having to make an impossible choice. What satisfies me in a story is when the emotions are complicated—when someone feels a sense of pleasure in the midst of fear, a sense of rage in the midst of tenderness, a sense of obsession with something that’s damaging them. And I wanted to tunnel through depression and betrayal through a child’s eyes because that allowed me to stay with the most basic of human needs and emotions, minus the safety of adult reflection.
What are some of your favorite books?
My two favorite books are Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows. What I like about O’Brien’s work is that he takes you to the most complicated of human emotions and to the notion that sometimes you have to tell a lie in order to express the truth. That book just unpacks the human heart in a way I haven’t seen anyone else do in that format. I’ve seen it in poetry, but not so much in longer works. And what I love about William Maxwell, besides every single sentence he writes, is that he stays on the emotional note I crave more than any other, which is somewhere where heartbreak becomes tenderness. You know the story of the Titanic sinking and the musicians play that last song, knowing they’re all doomed but trying to reach one last note of pleasure and generosity? That’s the place I like to go as both a writer and a reader.
The Things They Carried and They Came Like Swallows: those two titles seem of a piece with Up from the Blue. Tell us about your title. Was the book always called that? Did you have a working title beforehand?
Oh, God, the title. What a long process that was. I don’t even remember the original title, but we went through at least fifty and probably closer to two hundred that were rejected. I tried all kinds of Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton lines, I tried bits from military songs, I tried The Ruby Cup and Mad Girl’s Love Song and The Blue Door and The Sweetest Decline and on and on. Most got only a shrug, if that.
Finally, I asked my friend, the drummer and writer Keith Cronin, for help. He’d come up with the name Water for Elephants for Sara Gruen when she was stuck, and I was very grateful when he said he’d help. He gave me a short list of titles, and when I saw Up from the Blue, it ran in a different direction than everything else I’d tried. It made you ask questions, it was had a tinge of hope to it, and for anyone who’s read the book through to the end, it taps some of the biggest notes of the story without giving it away.
Because everything else had been rejected, I was afraid to turn in the latest idea only to meet the same fate, so I sat on it for a day. That night, I went to see the movie Invictus, about Nelson Mandela and the South African soccer team. Throughout the movie, I kept saying the title in my mind, and each time, I got chills. I knew it was the one I wanted, but I had no idea what they’d think of it.
No one ever said a thing. But a couple of weeks later, I got an email with a photo attachment. It was a picture of the book cover, using Up from the Blue as the title. First time I’d seen the cover, and I just loved it. It felt right.
How thrilling, to find out that way! And it’s such a great cover, too. I love when they put faces on book covers.
To me, Up from the Blue echoes the Air Force song, which I sang while in a men’s vocal group in high school:
Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Keep the wings level and true;
If you’d live to be a grey-haired wonder
Keep the nose out of the blue!
We tried lots of variations of “Wild Blue Yonder” and you wouldn’t believe how many books and CDs have already cornered every bit of that song.
What did you have to wear for your men’s vocal group? I hope you’re going to show a picture!
We wore the standard white shirt, tie, and jacket. The embarrassing part was not the costume—I’d been down that road already—but the fact that I was in a singing group with a bunch of old dudes. It did not help me in the dating department.
Ha! I’m not sure being in a singing club works any better for women, as far as dating goes.
I don’t know; those choir girls get around. I’ve seen your husband rock out. Are you musical, too?
I can play “Humpty Dumpty” and “Heart & Soul” on the piano, but both sound a little choppy. When it comes to singing, I’m so shy I even lip sync in the shower. But I was once a finalist for being an MTV dancer!
An MTV dancer? I smell a future TNB post.
Not as cool as a Soul Train dancer.
I beg to differ. The powers that be have spoken, Susan Henderson. You rock.
I was barred from school for the day because I’d been biting again. Whenever I pressed my teeth into one of my classmates, my teacher stopped the lesson and called, “Tillie, Tillie.” There was always a struggle as she tried to wrestle the hand or arm from my mouth, but I held on—fighting until the last string of spit released—because I liked to leave a mark.
It’s finally happened! My book is on sale today! Thank you if you can help spread the word!
Here’s the pretty cover, including the very cool, purple spine:
Here’s a fuzzy shot of the back cover:
And here’s how you can help give this book wings: If you like it, post a review on Amazon or GoodReads. Talk about it on Twitter, FaceBook, or on your blog. Talk it up at your local library, bookstore or book club. And if you don’t like my book, please do these things for one you do like. Word of mouth is what keeps books alive.
If you’re in New York tonight (September 24), we’re celebrating at the Word bookstore in Brooklyn. Hope to see you there!
And thank you, very sincerely, for all of you who’ve been with me through this whole rollercoaster ride. Your support and friendship has meant the world to me. xo
September 19, 2010
I wanted to give others a sense of company through what can be a terribly frustrating process. I’ve heard so many stories of writers with drawers full of rejection letters, who feel like Sisyphus forever pushing that boulder up the hill.
It helps, I think, when people shine some light on whatever path they took so others don’t have to feel like they’re walking blind. And I wanted to provide some sense of hope—that what looks like a long journey of failure and rejection and doors slamming in your face can lead you to that publisher who says yes.
Today I want to talk about mistakes. I’ll share one of mine. There are many to choose from – and this story certainly isn’t the worst of them – but it’s the earliest mistake I can remember, and one that led me, for decades afterward, to view myself as the villain in my story.
When I was a kid, our cat Rosebud had a litter every spring. This, I believed, made our family very popular in the neighborhood because we were the givers of free kittens. But Rosie’s last litter (the one that convinced us to have her fixed) was born in a cardboard box that was tipped on its side, sitting on the porch. It rained for days, and the litter was washed into the woodpile.
I remembered there had been five kittens, but we only found four. My dad pulled them from the wood, saying things like, “Oh, little fella.” There was only one I could reach. It was so bony, I thought it would break if I pulled hard enough to dislodge it. Dad moved the log above it, and I took its fragile body in my hands, watching the tiny pulse of its heart and the fleas milling over its thin fur.
Dad set the kittens beside Rosie to see if they would nurse, but Rosie only growled and walked away. Sadly, this is not the worst part of the story. The worst part is always when I enter the scene and make some sort of decision. And here, the trouble came when I believed I could feed the kitten condensed milk if only I could pry open its mouth.
I won’t go into the gore or the reason I decided I needed to use a screwdriver. The short of it is that I had desperately wanted to save the kitten, who was likely not savable. But my way of saving the kitten created such a disastrous scene, what could I do in the end but bring the limp kitten back to its mother? Rosie carried it off and left it under a bush.
This was the beginning of a long lesson on the difference between what I wanted to believe about myself and what I actually was. Later that day, my dad packed the other three in the cardboard box. I found my kitten under the bush and held it because it was still warm and almost lovely. I tried to think of a name for it before Dad took it from me. I was still trying when he drove off with the whole box of them.
Sometimes friends heal your old wounds without realizing it. My friend Brian, who knows this awful story, did just that when he drew this picture for me.
How about you? What’s your story? And you don’t have to share it here. I just think this is at the heart of what writers do. You often turn to the most uncomfortable emotions, and you let yourself stay there a while. Think on that, and then go write.
One way to jumpstart your writing is to participate in a writer’s retreat. There are a bunch out there—Yaddo, Bennington, MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf. I chose the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
Let me briefly describe what happens at Squaw, for those who aren’t familiar with it. For one week, you live in the Olympic Village, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. (That was the view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.)
Everyone’s divided into a workshop group of about 12 people; and for three hours every morning—always with an established writer, editor, or agent as the leader—you workshop each other’s stories and chapters. The rest of the day is filled with panels, staff readings, and one-on-one manuscript evaluations. The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well. I remember a writer, who had just placed an order for one of the cheap bagged lunches, telling me, “I signed up for the roast beef sandwich, and so did Ron Carlson!”
Ron Carlson and Andy Dugas:
Some writer advice (not necessarily direct quotes) from the only day I took notes:
Ask yourself what, specifically, does your character want right now? Then, have the story conspire to keep her from getting it. (Carol Edgarian)
Don’t give your characters time for the problem at hand. Each of them had to stop what they were doing to deal with it. (Ron Carlson)
A novel is like a symphony or opera. If you have a day scene, you’ll want a night scene. If there’s a solo, it’s time for a trio. Fast song, slow song. Inside, outside. Internal scene, crowd scene. But also remember the importance of repeating earlier musical pieces, taking a thread and picking it up again. (Janet Fitch)
Take the story out of the head and into the body. (Ron Carlson)
Dialogue should read like a sword fight: One thrusts, the other reacts. (Carol Edgarian)
End with a sense that you know what the character’s trajectory is. (Carol Edgarian)
Don’t end with the narrator in a confused or philosophical state. (Ron Carlson)
Only focus on one day’s work, not on something so daunting as “a book.” (Amy Tan)
Leave the editor at the door. Don’t worry if it’s good enough. Just write the next substandard sentence. Let your spelling and tense go to hell, and keep going. (Ron Carlson)
What’s it like to get all of this advice from your heroes and peers? To have 12 pairs of eyes on your work? To hear hours upon hours of do’s and don’ts from every corner of the business? It’s inspiring. Humbling. Overwhelming. It helps very much if you’ve made some good friends who will laugh and cry with you.
My Squaw Valley roommate, Wayetu Moore, and my gossip buddy, Frank DiPalermo—I adore them both:
If you ask me what was the most valuable thing I learned at Squaw, the answer is easy, and it’s not about craft but about the heart of the writer.
Every day, I write for hours in my little camouflaged office, writing and crumpling up papers and writing some more. I dream of communicating something important and then hate myself for falling short. There are always reasons to give up: It takes so much work to get it right; what looks right one day often looks horrible the next; there’s rarely any pay; it’s hard to keep the momentum; I don’t have the toughness for rejection. And yet, I can’t stop myself.
So guess what the superstars at Squaw Valley spent most of their time talking about? This very thing: The struggle with the blank page, with chaotic first drafts, with self-doubt, with deadlines they fear they won’t meet.
Some more talented writers—Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora:
Learning that my writing heroes struggle in this same way renewed my energy and courage for editing my novel. Once I was back in New York, writing in my little camouflaged office, I didn’t feel so alone. I didn’t feel like a failure. Because writers with bestsellers and movie deals were doing what I was doing: thinking, typing, crumpling, and just committing to finding the story and the best way to tell it.
Before I go, let me get back to Ron Carlson of the roast beef sandwich bagged lunch. He talked to us a lot (and me, specifically) about how it is the writer’s responsibility not to spread herself too thin. This is a matter I have to think on—how much of my time I spend on blogging, and the cost of that to my writing. I happen to value dialogue and a connection to a writing community quite a lot, so there’s no easy answer here, but I (and probably you, too) ought to periodically revisit this question.
Finally, some shout-outs to some really lovely, talented people at Squaw Valley, who either led my workshops or lent me things when my suitcase got lost (Remember the LaGuardia bomb threat evacuation?) or flew back to NY with me, or gave some crucial piece of help on my book, or wowed me in some way or another: Sands Hall, Louis B. Jones, Lisa Alvarez, Andrew Tonkovich, Janet Fitch, Mark Childress, Michael Pietsch, Susan Golomb, Peter Steinberg, Rick Kleffel, and Glen David Gold.
Have a good one, and see you in the comments section!
In her memoir, BLOWS TO THE HEAD: HOW BOXING CHANGED MY MIND, Binnie Klein describes her journey, at age 55, from sedentary psychotherapist to boxer. It’s a story of body image, suppressed rage, growing confidence, and coming to terms with aging. It’s funny, thoughtful, and takes a look at the fascinating history of Jewish boxers.
As many of you who are my friends on FaceBook know, tonight I learned I lost every single bit of data on my computer–my memoir, my next two novels, years of photos, my address book, and so on. The only thing I worked on recovering in my shell-shocked state was this interview. Something about losing six years of writing reminded me how very important it is to trumpet a book you love, especially within that small window of time when books must gain the attention of potential readers if they’re to survive. I really do love this book and the immediate impact it’s had on my life, and I hope it wins a large readership.
So enjoy and please feel free to say hello to Binnie and to join the conversation
You mention the surprise people have when you tell them you box. Talk to me about people’s misperceptions about you and boxing—why they can’t put the two of you together.
People see a middle-aged, well-educated professional woman and don’t immediately think, “Hey, she must like to put on boxing gloves and hit as hard as she can! I’ll bet she’s even held a spit bucket for a young fighter!” They are more apt to imagine me curled up with a good book or giving a lecture. I think my profession as a psychotherapist also evokes images of calm and quiet conversation conducted in a pleasant room (not a noisy ring) by two people who never even touch, let alone spar with each other. It’s all words, it’s all brainy, and one likes to think of their shrink as a gentle and compassionate healer, not a tough boxer. I’m both. It’s funny; patients sometimes can’t imagine you at all outside of the therapy room. It’s as if you live in the chair.
I’m hardly a jock. Before boxing, I was at most a stroll-through-the-woods-with-my dogs-type and novice kayaker. Still, I’m always struck by just how surprised people are, since my secret self is a superhero in a cool black leather jacket, always sporting the hippest haircut, not ethnically identifiable in anyway, taller, and perpetually sixteen years old. Somewhere there is a portrait of me aging in a closet, but I’ve never seen it. I think one always has a few blind spots. I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanism of denial. Sometimes it is a sad business, the refusal to admit or see the truth about things, and the crustiest defenses, which have outlived their usefulness, have to be confronted so that we can grow. Other times, denial is the lubricant that smoothes the way for us to face this curious life and death enterprise, this “mortal coil.” Where would we be without it? Figuring out which denials to confront and which to leave alone – that’s the trick.
I just try to breathe out the energy and vitality of myself as a much younger person. I recommend it!
We’ve all seen movies of poor kids from tough neighborhoods who take up boxing to release a sense of rage or helplessness. You took up boxing to rehab an injury, and this quote describes you kind of waking up to the physical you: “It’s a surprise to feel so exhilarated by my own body and its abilities. My body. What a drag it’s been—what a disappointment! Sometimes it just seemed like a necessary oversized backpack for my brain” (p. 8). Tell me more about your connection to your body before and after boxing.
You don’t want to bore people with your physical ailments, and there is always someone who has been dealt a worse hand, but for one reason or another, and none particularly life-threatening, I have lived with life-long chronic pain starting in my twenties. I had to take a long break before graduating college. I had to quit my first full-time job. I was somewhat de-railed. I was emotionally unprepared to be an adult, like a lot of us floundering around in the 1960s, but I remember thinking, “This pain will help me when I get older; it’s preparing me for dealing with limitations.” To some extent that has been true. When the bar is set lower, you don’t expect perfection. I watch people experience bodily limitations and feel shattered by the change in their self-image. Coping with “less-than-optimal” conditions is what life is all about, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for tons of joy and happiness.
For a video project in college, I taped myself taking off my clothes and discussing my naked body. That’s the kind of stuff we did in those days. (It was fun to watch the professor’s reaction – I think I got an “A.”) I admired certain personal attributes, but I was obsessed with the fantasy that my entire life would have been different if I’d had long slender legs. I imagined strutting around in heels, and then creating a pretzel-like sculpture when I sat, legs crossed and hooked around petite ankles. I associated my heavy legs with my Slavic peasant ancestry, and it wasn’t a positive connection until I wrote this book. As a feminist, I struggled mightily to help myself and other women to re-frame such negative beliefs, but we all have occasional skirmishes with these battles. I know that I am not alone in this.
When I boxed I felt strong. Really strong. I could make my body move. I could avoid a punch. I could throw a punch. I could feel everything working together, the excitement and exhilaration of being completely in the moment. Now I’ll catch a glimpse of a bicep in the mirror and like what I see. It’s easier to see my body as powerful now, but mostly it’s the sound….the hard, resounding thwack!!! of my punches against the leather mitts that is most gratifying. It’s not about anything superficial or visual; it’s about inhabiting the inside, the moment, the speed, the focus. It’s bigger than my individual body. When I’m boxing, who cares what I look like?
I might have felt some of this as a child if I’d participated in sports, and I’m thrilled to see my 11 year old niece Cassie sampling horseback riding, basketball, baseball, swimming, and gymnastics, like many kids today. She’s proud of what she can do, and I hope she will always have that feeling. My boxing adventures have taught me the value of sports, being part of a team, pushing the boundaries, realizing goals – I’d underplayed the meaning of these activities. Now was that a denial that served me or not? See what I mean?
I love how you speak so honestly about aging and about envying the youth in your college town. Women have so much pressure on them to relate their self-worth to physical attractiveness, which, in the media, is always equated with youth. What about boxing has helped you settle some of that envy?
The other day someone asked me if I “still” boxed. It was like, “Hey, you know with every year you’re getting older – are you still doing this crazy thing?” I hope always to be boxing, at the very least working with punch mitts and sparring with my coach. When I wrote Blows I was closer to that bad patch of envy you mention than I have been in a long time. It seemed for a while like the willowy girls with their whole lives ahead of them were everywhere, leaning into breezes, light and free. I don’t see them that way anymore. I have re-trained my brain not to focus on that. It’s just not productive, and it makes one feel bad. Instead I’m aware of my own special talents, my knowledge, my experience – now there’s always a nice percussive beat in the background, a sequence and rhythm that is distinctly mine. I’m not so interested in watching what others do and have; I just want the opportunity to keep writing. I’ve got more projects in me.
It’s not just boxing that has settled some of the envy. It’s writing this book, publishing this book, promoting this book, experiencing peoples’ reactions to this book, hearing that it has affected them in a positive way. The life of the mind, which I had to balance with the life of the body, reliably transcends youth. We will always be somewhat fascinated with the young; it’s probably biological – they are the future, they are the procreators. Then there are those that keep us eternally young. When Blows came out, I heard from an old friend of my sisters in Newark, who was older than me. “How can you possibly write a memoir?” he asked. “Aren’t you just twelve years old?” I loved him for that! We house the archives of each other.
You continue this theme about the body in your discussion of your Jewish roots and how Jews have been perceived throughout history as victims. Can you say more?
Jews have often been seen as the pale scholars, heads buried in books and not outdoorsy. The value placed on learning and study has a very real and serious beginning, in the shtetls and villages where Jews attempted to protect their knowledge and practices against an unrelenting saga of bias and oppression. The victimization of Jews is not just a perception, it’s a reality. As with other oppressed groups, the problem is blaming victims for some inherent weakness, and the weakness is the perception. In the relative safety of the post-World War II era, Woody Allen and other leading Jewish comedians of the era began to evoke an old archetype, one of physical vulnerability, hysteria, and meekness. Philip Roth’s characters often yearned after the gentile athletes with longing and curiosity. Like all stereotypes, it’s complicated, and one can cite many exceptions. While many in my generation and neighborhood shared this non-athletic Jew perception, I’ve talked with Jews in their twenties and thirties who grew up very active and athletic. This is an immensely nuanced issue, too complex to do justice to here. Fortunately, there are some amazing scholars, like Jack Kugelmass, Sander Gilman, Paul Breines, and others, who delve deeply into this subject.
And you discovered a whole history of Jewish boxers. Talk about a couple of them, if you would. And what it was about discovering this history that had such an impact on you?
My discovery of the amazing history of Jewish boxers played havoc with my own long-held beliefs about physical limitations for Jews, and their non-participation in sports. Between 1910 and 1940 there were 26 Jewish champions in boxing, so many that boxing was once thought of as a Jewish sport. Despite the consternation of the mothers who worried for their sons’ safety and reputations, Jewish boxers excelled and made more money boxing than in the sweatshops. Because I had been so alienated from my own roots, the stories of the Jewish boxers filled me an undeniable ethnic pride, the kind the boxers wore like a flag when they stepped into the ring, Jewish stars embroidered on their shorts, and I began to research their lives. In Blows, I imagine conversations with three of the most influential Jewish boxers, Daniel Mendoza, Benny Leonard, and Barney Ross. I wanted to see what we might have in common and what we might say to each other.
Barney Ross lived in a tenement flat on top of a fish market in Chicago, and his father had hopes that Barney would become a Hebrew teacher. Ross was fourteen when he saw his father, who ran a grocery store, shot down by hoods, and shortly afterwards his mother broke down. Barney was determined to get his some of his family out of the orphanage where they landed after the tragedy. It made him a more determined fighter. He liked betting on the ponies, like my father. He was a jaunty guy who dressed well, and was a champion from 1933 to 1938. Ross witnessed anti-Semitism in the streets of Chicago, and eleven days before a big fight at Madison Square Garden, twenty-thousand people wearing swastikas goose-stepped outside in big black boots, shouting “Sieg Heil!” “I felt like I was fighting for all my people,” Ross said.
Okay, so you’ve been training on the punching bag and learning some moves when, finally, you’re invited to spar. Your coach puts on the head gear, buckles it under your chin. “It’s not attractive,” you write. “I look like a chubby devotee of S&M” (p. 139). And you take this body you’ve never considered to be strong, a body others have had to defend on your behalf, and now you giving and taking punches. What’s that like?
What’s that like? It’s thrilling. From the moment my coach deemed me “ready” to spar, and strapped on the intimidating black leather headgear, I felt, “Okay, let’s do it, I can do this. I’m going to go for it.” There’s no time to hesitate when you spar. The pressure is on, to move, to throw punches, and most of them don’t land, especially if you are working with an experienced coach who isn’t about to be hit. I couldn’t believe how much I truly wanted to hit John, my coach. It sounds odd, but it felt pure and right, especially since he was essentially asking me to hit him. It was as if he was giving me permission, especially as a woman, to let it all go, to send that inner force out into the universe, to not worry about how I looked. I felt transformed by the experience. I cried. We both celebrated my courage. Maybe it wasn’t much to the outside world, but it meant a lot to me.
Being hit was surprisingly….clarifying (and I hope I don’t sound too much like Tyler Durden of Fight Club) – it was direct, crisp, awakening me to the sharp reality of a physical feeling everyone dreads. Just to be slapped around a bit on my arms and body. It wasn’t so bad. It woke me up. I wanted even more to fight back, and that’s the most important part.
There’s a really lovely thread throughout the book about pools—how important it was to go to motels with pools, though you didn’t know how to swim. And later in the book, there’s a dead-on description of a panic attack that happens in the water. I don’t want to spoil the story by telling too much, but it leads to a really profound moment near the end of the book where you talk about how boxing teaches you to get your head out of the way. Would you say more about that?
I didn’t swim as a child. My parents didn’t swim. But I loved being in the water, and just walking into the waves at Atlantic City, holding into the ropes and shrieking with delight. When my father, a traveling candy salesman, took us on the road with him, I begged for a motel with a pool, even though no one swam! It was absurd on the face of it, but as necessary to me as breathing. “Please daddy, go to the next one!” I begged. It represented a chance, a bright light, an opportunity to shed the old fears, maybe the fears of generations. I’d splash around in an inner tube, giddy and laughing. I so longed to be able to propel myself through water, to crash through nature confidently. Phobia and anxiety come from a surfeit of consciousness. Things that usually exist in a natural, rather thoughtless state, become highlighted in the frisson of panic – in sharp relief….time slows down, simple movements are obsessively examined in split-seconds, and pleasure disappears. Then one dreads a repeat of that awful feeling. I’ve overcome so much in my life, and knowing how a panic attack can bring a strong man to his knees brings me even greater empathy for people who suffer this way.
I’m often been too much in my head, introspective and dreamy. When John teaches me to slip, weave, block and move, I am literally getting my head out of the way! I enter another state, free of ambiguity, all things immediate and with consequences. I can recommend it heartily to anyone who is feeling trapped in their head, inhibited, afraid, ineffective, or uncertain about their own personal power.
Let’s end with your father. You described him as “a tragically unfulfilled man” (p. 45)—a Willy Loman type—who probably would have benefited from boxing. I’d like to know how you think it might have helped him. I also got the feeling that your own journey in boxing helped you come to terms with the man he was.
My father, like a lot of men of his generation, hemmed in by the Depression and World War II, strove to provide for his family and “do the right thing.” His own dreams of being a journalist were sacrificed, and he began to exhibit signs of a malignant depression that haunted him most of his adult life. He was an extremely bright and intuitive man, and although not college-educated, could recite long passages of poetry by heart. He loved books and wanted his daughters to be writers. The long, arduous hours on the road as a salesman, family difficulties within the candy company, and the loss (albeit often self-imposed) of a support network, took its toll. His frustrations often exploded as rages within the family, and we were often frightened of him. Boxing is an excellent way to express rage in a contained environment. It would have helped him. I wish he’d had the benefits of Prozac, too!
You’re right, Susan. Before my journey into boxing and writing this book, my summation about my father would have been much more bitter. I changed through the process of Blows. I could identify with my father’s anger and frustrations, and by learning more about the immigrant struggles, the eras in which the Jewish boxers flourished, and the tragic loss of community which we all suffered, I did begin to feel differently towards him. I was no longer just the child/victim of his unhappiness; I was stronger, happier, and ultimately more forgiving. I think that’s how it all works, doesn’t it?
I think it does. Thank you for this fascinating talk and for writing this book.
If you need more convincing, take a look at this book trailer. Want to hear Binnie in person? On August 4th from 7-9pm, she’ll be at the McNally Jackson Bookstore, NYC, reading in the fine company of Susan Shapiro, David Goodwillie and Jennifer Belle. Cupcakes are promised!