Archive for the ‘Sundays With Writers’ Category

Sundays With Writers: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

Do you love quirky books like Eleanor & Park? I am such a fan of quirky literature and Kitchens of the Great Midwest combines good old-fashioned Midwest humor with loads of charm in this adorable fictional debut by J. Ryan Stradal. After I finished it, I immediately emailed J. Ryan to see if he might like to join me in our Sundays With Writers series and was so thrilled when he said he would. Today I am sharing a little behind his unique story and, since this story follows the culinary career of Eva, a peek at his own love affair with food.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity.

This book is perfectly quirky in every way. The reader gets to go on a journey chapter by chapter with different narrators who are all somehow connected to an incredible little girl named Eva, that grows into a woman of major culinary talent. As with any book with changing narrators, some chapters you are more drawn into than others, but it does not take away from the quirky hilarity written in each chapter.

Being a Midwest girl, there were many references that made me feel nostalgic about my own Midwest roots as Eva’s coming-of-age story unfolds. I had a hard time putting this one down!

FYI- There are some graphic scenes and language in this one.

I included this book in our September Must-Reads list this month and am excited to have J. Ryan join me this morning. Grab your coffee and settle in with another incredible writer!


The structure of your book is so unique because Eva and her life story are told through other characters and that is how we get to know her. Why did you think it was important to structure your book in this way?

When I decided to set a book in the Midwest at large, I knew I would never please everyone; it’s too large and varied for one book. Still, there are a range of Midwestern types I attempted that I don’t always see represented in fiction; I wanted as many points of view on the Midwesterner’s relationship to region and food as possible. I also wanted Eva’s adult career to be cloaked in mystery and hearsay, and I felt that telling the story from multiple points of view would both allow me to introduce a variety of Midwestern characters – while keeping Eva at a bit of a distance. It’s intentional that the reader will find Eva increasingly remote.

Eva even from infancy is passionate about food, but is raised by her aunt and uncle who don’t really understand her passions for the culinary world. Have you ever felt misunderstood by your parents or community for a passion you had and did you channel this in the character of Eva?

Absolutely. When I was Eva’s age, I sometimes felt alienated from the hockey and football-obsessed town I grew up in, and I didn’t share my family’s interest in hunting or motorcycles. I affirmed that there was a place for me in this world largely through books and music. While I had supportive teachers and good friends, I also attached myself to interests that were pretty far outside the realm of what was available in my corner of southern Minnesota, and that’s reflected in Eva’s passion for extremely hot peppers – which, obviously, aren’t commonly identified with Iowa.

As a foodie, I appreciated the humor and lightness you add to our obsessions with food. There is one line that I highlighted because it really gave me a moment’s pause. When your character Pat is made fun of by other foodies for a simple cookie bar instead of a vegan and locally sourced dish, the line says, “She suddenly felt sorry for these people for perverting the food of their childhood, the food of their mothers and grandmothers, and rejecting its unconditional love in favor of what?” Do you think there is some truth in Pat’s feelings when it comes to our obsessions with healthier living and misunderstanding the food of our parents & grandparents?

I think Pat would feel that way. She doesn’t see a place in the ecology of that setting for what defines her as a cook, so she views their values as not merely an abnegation of her bars or her ingredients, but of her as a person. She’s been devoted to doing one thing one way for a long time, and in her emotional reaction to these foodies, I also perceive a bit of a generation gap – a little bit of that LP enthusiast who decries CDs and MP3s as inferior. She’s not wrong, but given what she knows and what she doesn’t know, you can see why she takes rejection of her food personally.

The way you write about food and, in particular, describing dishes that Eva creates is so beautifully descriptive that it made my mouth water. “The venison, firm enough to meet your teeth, and soft enough to yield agreeably in your mouth, revealed subtle, steely new flavors with each bite, while the tomatoes were so full of richness and warm blood, it was like eating a sleeping animal.” I mean, REALLY! How do you develop this richness to your words and were there any people or books that aided in your inspiration for developing such incredible descriptiveness in these dishes?

Wow, thank you. I don’t really know if I can point to one book. I’m always reading something, and I’m also always looking for books that challenge my expectations and comfort level as a reader; seeing marvelous sentences makes me want to write them. Like most writers, I try my best to explain things in a way that I haven’t seen them explained before, but also in a way that’s visceral and descriptive, to the best of my ability, and relevant to the voice of the character. The sentence you just quoted came from a character who is a sommelier with restaurant experience. Had the character been a nurse or a President, it would’ve come out somewhat differently. This is probably a boring answer, and I feel bad because the question was so generous.

Have you ever eaten or been a part of any dining experience like Eva offers and were there any restaurants that served as inspiration for creating this pop-up dining experience you develop?

Sure, a few times. Some years ago I attended a pop-up in downtown Los Angeles that gave me some ideas in terms of how the principals behind the operation used the ephemeral location to their advantage. I’ve also read about a few (that I have yet to attend) that seem to demonstrate the chef’s passion for both fresh ingredients and a bespoke experience. Collectively, they made Eva’s operation seem somewhat plausible, though I admit at the time I wrote the book I thought Eva’s dinner seemed slightly far-fetched. I no longer think that’s the case.

Since I am a Midwesterner, I truly could appreciate so many of the references you made in this book. I understand that you live out in California now. Can you share what you miss the most about the Midwest?

The people, first and foremost. The environment – the air, the water, the trees, and their evolutions during the fiercely stark seasons. I think about Minnesota a lot; I still consider it home even though I’ve lived in California for seventeen years.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

This is monstrously tough. How can I choose just one? Debbie Graber’s short story collection David Kramer Starts On Monday isn’t out yet – it comes out next spring – but it’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a very long time. Debbie is just brilliant; her humor, which often sends up the contemporary American workplace, is infused with plenty of heart, pathos, and intelligence. I read it in manuscript form and I can’t wait for it to exist in the world. Please pre-order it the moment it becomes available. (Editor’s Note- Not available just yet, but we will add this to our list as soon as it is live!!)

You can connect with J. Ryan Stradal  on Facebook or through his website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

It never ceases to surprise me when I reach out to an author to share about their book with my audience and they respond. Today’s author is no exception and he was so fantastic in this interview that I am anxious to now check out his memoirs and read more about him in a more personal way.

For now, I will just have to be content informing you that Did You Ever Have a Family is Bill Clegg’s first fictional book and it is absolutely incredible and worthy of the Amazon Best Book of September 2015 nod as well as being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Can you imagine what a thrill that is for your first piece of fiction?

Oh, and did I mention he is a literary agent representing really incredible talent like Lauren Groff?

Yeah. Kind of a big deal.

And so is this book.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg


On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life is completely devastated when a shocking disaster takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke—her entire family, all gone in a moment. And June is the only survivor.

Alone and directionless, June drives across the country, away from her small Connecticut town. In her wake, a community emerges, weaving a beautiful and surprising web of connections through shared heartbreak.

Clegg ambitiously illuminates how interwoven we are as people in this beautiful and haunting story of a town tragedy and the people left behind. Although the sheer amount of characters that share in each of the chapters (some once, other main characters more often) is confusing to piece together as a reader, you become a detective as each person is woven into another. The grief-stricken mothers left behind leave you with an ache in your own heart and are written so beautifully they feel real. You are also reminded that even in chance meetings with others you can play a powerful part in someone else’s story. This is one of the best books I have read this year!

I gave this book 5 stars in our September Must-Reads list!

Now grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Bill Clegg to learn how he managed to orchestrate a town filled with so many characters to build his story!

Bill Clegg

Congratulations on your book being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize! How did you find out the news of this and have you done anything to celebrate yet?

My British editor emailed me and I didn’t tell anyone until the next day.  It seemed too unreal to be true.  I needed to let a night pass to make sure I hadn’t made it up.

Your book has a very “old soul,” feel to it and builds upon the heartache and despair of a senseless tragedy. After I finished the book, I looked you up and expected a man twice your age to have been the author! I know that you have documented your difficulties with addiction in your first two books (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man Ninety Days). Do you feel you were able to channel some of your own struggles through this story because of what has happened in your own life? Which of the characters did you relate most to?  

In the seven years I was writing the book no one close to me had died so the grief of that loss was only something I could imagine into.  Weeks before the book came out my father died and he’d not been well for a few years so much of the last year of writing was informed by my fear of losing him.  The loss of friends, career, esteem, and love from drug and alcohol addiction, and the slow progression after – from grief and regret to acceptance and forgiveness – this I know as it’s marked the last eleven years of my life and is ongoing and always.  The characters in Did You Ever HaveFamily are all in their own way – first alone and then less so  – somewhere in this process, making their way.  I relate to all of them.  And the more time I spent with them, the more fully I understood them, the closer I felt to their experience.  This tends to be my experience of people in real life, too.  The more I know someone, no matter how seemingly different they seem (race, age, economics, politics) it never fails to amaze me how much more in common there is between us than not.

 Your story begins with a tragedy and then works its way out, giving your reader a chance to play detective as more of the mystery of those lost is uncovered. In that way, it reminded me of Everything I Never Told You, starting with the loss and developing it out from there.  Why did you structure your story this way for the reader?  

Further to this idea of getting to know people and over time unraveling who and how and why they are I liked the idea of arriving at a set of characters all stepping out and away from moment in time – in this case a tragic accident – and while tracing how they navigate that terrain excavating the years that preceded it.  In a way the accident could have been anything – a Christmas morning, a high school graduation, a lunar eclipse.  But once my brother, who was in heating and plumbing school at the time, began telling me stories about propane leaks and house explosions, I was spellbound and the occasion for the novel fixed.

The amount of characters you juggled in this story was quite astounding, with many characters only lingering for a single chapter. I picture you in your office writing this with a town map and a family tree to try and keep everyone straight! Did you map out the characters first and then build your story from there or did they just come to you as you wrote? Which voice was your favorite to write?

There was no map or family tree or chart as I was writing it.  I think if I had to reckon with how many characters I’d created I would have panicked.  So I plowed ahead and the book swelled to gargantuan proportions and once I had a draft I began to winnow it down to just the core characters of June, Lydia and Silas and then the voice from the communities they live in, leave and enter.  It was painful to let go of some of them but it was clear which voices mattered to the novel.  There was one point late in that process when I printed up the manuscript and laid out each chapter in order on a long window seat in my living room. Seeing it as an object – each character labeled in big black ink on the first page – helped guide me through a final ordering.

I understand that it took you seven years to write this book!  Did you ever reach a point where you just wanted to give up on the story? What motivates you to continue when a book takes so much time to develop?

Many times.  Many corners I painted myself into.  Sleep, another day, a long walk in the woods, music, months of not writing – these were what I turned to in order to find a way forward.  One thing that kept me going was knowing (what I thought for a long while was) the final scene and the last words of the book.  I just had no idea how to get there!  But having a destination helped even if for a long time there was no road or map.

As a literary agent, what has this process been like being the writer? Has this process changed you in any way now as you deal with the writers you work with now that you have been on the other end?

The vulnerability that comes with fiction came as a surprise.  The memoirs were frank and exposing and it was hard to imagine being more vulnerable than that, but there is something about creating a story from scratch and sending it into the world to be judged that makes for a naked feeling I didn’t count on.
Ferris Wheel

 One of my favorite passages in your story is the beautiful analogy of life and the Ferris Wheel. In it you say, “June hears them laughing just outside the house and thinks, with a loose knot of nostalgia and envy, that this moment in their relationship, in their lives, is as good as it will ever get. The before. The top of the Ferris wheel…This is the pivot between youth and age, the thrilling place where everything seems visible, feels possible, where plans are made. On the one side you have childhood and adolescence, which are the murky ascent, and on the other, you have the decline that is adulthood, old age, the inch-by-inch reckoning of that grand brief vision with earthbound reality.”  I don’t have any questions about this, I just wanted you to know that this passage really spoke to me. This idea of our life being like a Ferris wheel is so achingly beautiful.

Oh to be back at the top!  I think the truth of the top is that we only ever see it clearly until we inch down from its peak, seeing we had been there and didn’t know where we’d been and what we had, briefly. 

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

SWIMMING by Nicola Keegan.  By my lights one of the most brilliant, moving and devastatingly funny stories about growing up alongside, coping with and surviving the people who raise us.  The voice is so strong, so piercing and so authentic.  I’ve never read anything that conveyed more powerfully how families can be both curse and windfall.  I think about that book all the time.

I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!


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Sundays With Writers: The Status of All Things by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

This will be my first Sundays With Writers featuring a writing duo today in our weekly interview feature. Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke have been best friends for over 25 years and write books together about friendships that are fun and a perfect addition to a beach bag or a much-needed escape. I actually selected The Status of All Things for my local book club selection as we kicked off our next year of reading now that our kids are back to school.

Although the premise of the book is light, it still speaks a lot of truth about how we use social media and the image that we put out there for the world to see. So many times what is really happy and what we are sharing are so different and this lead to a good discussion on how we use social media in our own lives and how we filter those images and updates for the public.

The Status of All Things by Liz Fenton & LIsa Steinke

Kate is a thirty-five-year-old woman who is obsessed with social media. So when her fiancé, Max, breaks things off at their rehearsal dinner—to be with Kate’s close friend and coworker, no less—she goes straight to Facebook to share it with the world. But something’s changed. Suddenly, Kate’s real life starts to mirror whatever she writes in her Facebook status. With all the power at her fingertips, and heartbroken and confused over why Max left her, Kate goes back in time to rewrite their history.

Kate’s two best friends, Jules and Liam, are the only ones who know the truth. In order to convince them she’s really time traveled, Kate offers to use her Facebook status to help improve their lives. But her attempts to help them don’t go exactly as planned, and every effort to get Max back seems to only backfire, causing Kate to wonder if it’s really possible to change her fate.

I love books with a magical realism theme and the idea that you can rewrite your own history through your Facebook status was such a good one. It also makes you think about how we present ourselves online and how our reality are often so different!

Grab your coffee & let’s settle in with our FIRST writing duo on Sundays With Writers!

Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke

 You have been best friends for over 25 years and now co-author books together. Did you ever dream that your friendship would merge with your work life like this?

When we were in high school and college, we would talk about writing a book together “someday,” but I’m not sure either of us actually thought it was going to happen!

This is my first time asking questions to a dynamic duo instead of just one author. In my head one of you starts the story and then goes … and the next one picks up. Clearly, I know nothing about writing in tandem. What does your writing process look like when writing together?

Writing in tandem is the only way we know. Often authors will say to us, “I don’t know how you write with another person!” and we will respond, “We don’t know how you write alone!” Our system is pretty simple. One of us writes a chapter, the other edits, then we go back and forth until we are settled on that chapter. Then the other person writes the next chapter and so on.

 Your book really centers on our many demons that we all deal with when it comes to social media, particularly the life that we put out there and the real lives we are leading. Are your struggles with social media similar to Kate’s?

Absolutely! Our own struggles are what gave us the idea for the book. We each have what we call a Facebook nemesis—that person we love to hate online. That person we are jealous of, even though we are fully aware their pictures are filtered and their status updates are edited. Sometimes it’s hard not to compare yourself and your kids to what others are doing—even if you know that you are only seeing a very small snapshot of someone else’s life. It’s important to understand it’s all just a game, and to not judge your own life by that yardstick.

The concept for you to change your future by changing the status of your Facebook update to match what you want to happen was such a fun one. If that could happen, tell me one status update you would post right now!

Lisa: I drank a bottle of wine and didn’t have a hangover. In fact, I still woke up at 6am and worked out! (She types as she takes a sip of her Meomi Pinot Noir.)

Liz: I developed a pill that lets you eat all the carbs you want without gaining weight! It’s a miracle!

Your book has made it on almost every beach read list created this summer! If any of us can escape the drudgery of our busy lives to head to the beach, what books would you recommend we pack for our vacation?

Come Away With Me by Karma Brown. The completely unexpected twist at the end will make you want to re-read the entire book!

He’s Gone by Deb Caletti.  The story of a husband who goes missing and the wife who pieces the mystery together. We’ve never read anything like it.

I understand that you are already working on your next book project! Can you give us a little info on what you are planning to publish next?


We are really excited about The Year We Turned Forty, which comes out April 26th, 2016. It’s about three best friends who get the chance to travel back ten years to the year they turned forty, a year in which they all made choices that changed the course of their lives.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

Lisa: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. She’s a phenomenal writer and this is a memoir you will think about for years after reading it.

Liz: After I Do By Taylor Jenkins Reid. It’s an incredibly insightful and refreshing narrative on the challenges of marriage.

You can connect with Lisa & Liz  on Facebook or through their website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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Sundays With Writers: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Sunday, August 30th, 2015


I am so excited to be interviewing Elisabeth Egan today about her debut novel, A Window Opens, today! This book is just so relatable and so honest about the struggles of a working mom that I found myself laughing and crying (even simultaneously) at the adventures Elisabeth has created for Alice in the working world. This book is making my top ten reads list and after I finished it, I just wanted to read it again. Since I have to move on to share more great books with you, I’m begging you to read this one so we can talk about it!

Elisabeth makes for an interesting topic on her own, as explored in this beautiful piece from The New York Times  (spoiler alert, don’t read that until you are done with the book!)

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan


I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for my honest thoughts & opinions.

In A Window Opens, beloved books editor at Glamour magazine, Elisabeth Egan, brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age.

Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). She is a mostly-happily married mother of three, an attentive daughter, an ambivalent dog-owner, a part-time editor, a loyal neighbor and a Zen commuter. She is not: a cook, a craftswoman, a decorator, an active PTA member, a natural caretaker or the breadwinner. But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in—and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers―an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life―seems suddenly within reach.

Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up and her work takes an unexpected turn. Readers will cheer as Alice realizes the question is not whether it’s possible to have it all, but what does she―Alice Pearse―really want?

This was such a deeply satisfying read that tackles the struggles of every working mother who is trying to balance it all. Egan creates the perfect balance of humor and heartbreak as Alice tries to navigate the tricky terrain of being an employee, wife, mother, and daughter to her ill father.

This book got me in the all the feels. I highlighted many a passage in this sweet story of Alice and found her to be one of the most relatable characters I have read this year. I also teared up at many of the moments in this story because the struggles of being in the trenches as a working parent were ones that I have experienced myself. Alice tries hard, but it’s an impossible juggle and you feel like you are spiraling a bit with her as the story unfolds.

Fans of Where’d You Go Bernadette & Wife 22 (thanks to the hilarious correspondence between colleagues & family) will really love this one!

Elisabeth Egan


You are the books editor for Glamour writing about a books editor transitioning into a job in the e-book industry. What inspired you to throw your character, Alice, into this environment and do you think you would struggle as much as she did in this new way of reading books that her client offered?

I threw Alice into this environment because I’d experienced a version of it myself, and the challenge of trying to figure it all out really stuck with me. In real life, I’ve never struggled with reading e-books—depending on the type of book, I don’t mind reading on a screen and you certainly can’t beat the efficiency and certainty of a fully-loaded e-reader if you happen to find yourself stranded on a desert island. What I struggled with really fell under the umbrella of “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”

Your book has been compared to I Don’t Know How She Does It, although I must say that I found Alice’s story so much more relatable to my own. I just want to share with our readers one passage, in particular, that I really loved.

As Alice writes a letter to her nanny she says, “Please don’t waste time wondering whether it is possible to “have it all.” Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends to do to.” I just love reading that as a mom.

When have you personally struggled with “having it all” and were any of Alice’s moments channeled from your own struggles with the balancing act of your own job & motherhood?

Many of those moments were drawn from my life or from stories I borrowed from friends. (Thankfully, I hang with a crowd of women who are very open and funny about trying to be everything to everyone and still find time to have coffee together. My personal low moment, as seen in the book: the time I went to read to my daughter’s pre-school class and found myself standing under a clothesline strung with depictions of “How My Family Stays Healthy During The Winter”—or some such. My daughter’s contribution: a charming drawing accompanied by the teacher’s handwriting: “My mom uses everybody’s toothbrush.” I guess we were one toothbrush short, so I was sharing. And maybe I passed this off as a health initiative—in any case, how embarrassing!

You read books for a living which has to be the coolest job ever for a reader…or it was, until you came up with the idea for the Book Lady. I am trying to figure out how I can be the Mary Kay equivalent of a book distributor in my town. How did you come up with this concept and how can I sign under you?

I came up with this idea on my own! My husband is always threatening to host a Tupperware party, so I thought, why not books? I have no idea why I haven’t made this happen. Maybe we can be partners?

You create the idea of a No Guilt Book Club in your story, but I understand that this is really something that exists! Can you explain more and for those of us living in small towns, how can we create our own No Guilt Book Club?

I live in a small(ish) town, and that’s where I created the NGBC. Here’s what you need: one bookstore, several cases of wine. For a small fee, your friends can come to the store, hang out with their friends, get a discount on books—and, of course, drink the wine. I also pass out a list of my favorite books from that season, but this isn’t a requirement. The idea is to have a party in the most fun venue around, and also to talk about books without the pressure and guilt that comes from having to read a set title by a set date. That can be stressful!

One of the perks of being an employee at Scroll is that Alice gets her very own first edition copy of a classic. If you were hired at Scroll, what book would you request from management?

I’d request Mrs. Dalloway and give it to my husband for his birthday. Still, there’s no way the first edition could stack up to the beloved, dog-eared Penguin edition he gave me for our first-ever Valentine’s Day back in college.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in your story. My favorite (I am still laughing!), is this one- “I yelled so loudly, the tendons in my neck ached for days. (Name a parent who hasn’t’ suffered from this affliction and I will show you someone who is not my friend.)”

Oh, have I felt this pain in my neck!

What is your favorite funny Alice moment in this story?

I love when Alice tries to flush her colleague’s homemade brownie down the toilet. It might not be her most sophisticated moment, but it really captures the way she paints herself into a corner. Or multiple corners, really.

Although this book is very funny, there were many moments that pulled at my heartstrings, particularly the relationship between Alice & her father as he is ill. What scene was the hardest for you to write and did you have to do any research on this particular type of illness when writing your book?

My dad died of throat cancer twelve years ago so no—very little research required. Actually, I was surprised by the little details of his illness that stuck with me. Words like “subglottal” were right on the tip of my tongue, even though (thankfully) I never have to use them anymore. The scenes with Alice’s dad were the easiest ones to write, actually. Ed Pearse isn’t an exact replica of my dad—nobody could be—but spending time with him was the next best thing to having one more day with my dad. I’d forgotten how good it felt to be with someone who knows everything!

 If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

You can connect with Elisabeth Egan on GoodReadson Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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Sundays With Writers: Where All Light Tends to go by David Joy

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015


Where All Light Tends to Go kept popping up in my list of recommendations on Amazon, like those Suggested Friends on Facebook. After seeing it there so many times, I knew I needed to give in and read it. Within just a couple of short days, I had shut the pages and knew that I had to talk to David Joy about this book. Not only is this guy a gifted storyteller, but his passion for other writers and their stories is contagious.

I particularly love how he admits to immersing himself into his storytelling. I think that showcases how much this book means to him and how much it should mean to us!

Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy

Where All Light Tends to Go is Southern Grit at its finest in this dark debut novel! Joy creates a compelling coming-of-age story about a teen boy growing up in the Appalachian Mountains whose father deals meth in their small town.

The area surrounding Cashiers, North Carolina, is home to people of all kinds, but the world that Jacob McNeely lives in is crueler than most. His father runs a methodically organized meth ring, with local authorities on the dime to turn a blind eye to his dealings. Having dropped out of high school and cut himself off from his peers, Jacob has been working for this father for years, all on the promise that his payday will come eventually. The only joy he finds comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, and a girl clearly bound for bigger and better things than their hardscrabble town.

Jacob has always been resigned to play the cards that were dealt him, but when he botches a murder and sets off a trail of escalating violence, he’s faced with a choice: stay and appease his kingpin father, or leave the mountains with the girl he loves. In a place where blood is thicker than water and hope takes a back seat to fate, Jacob wonders if he can muster the strength to rise above the only life he’s ever known.

If only life were that simple. This story is beautifully told and the ending was a strong one, despite the feeling of hopelessness for these people.

Grab your morning cup of coffee and let’s settle in with David Joy, a truly incredible storyteller!


Congratulations on your incredible debut novel! I was so excited to see that it was selected as one of the best books of 2015 by Indigo.  How long did it take you to write this beautiful book and what has it been like to have it so well received by so many once it has been released into the world?

The novel started with an image. I was at a friend’s hog lot and I had this image of a young boy standing over a pig he’d killed suddenly realizing how much power he had over life and death. I wrote that scene and I knew that the boy had a story to tell. I kept trying to write that story and I kept getting it wrong, at one point burning about half a novel and starting over. After about a year or so of living with that image I woke up in the middle of the night and I could hear Jacob speaking to me clear as day. At that point it was just a matter of trying to keep up, and I wound up writing the first draft of Where All Light Tends To Go over the course of a few months. That’s kind of a roundabout way of answering your question, but I think I tend to live with images and stories for a long time before I ever actually get it right on the page. Once I’m writing, though, things tend to happen quickly.

The response to the novel has been wonderful. I think the highlight for me has been meeting writers I’ve admired for so long—writers like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin and Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill—and actually becoming a part of the conversation.

You refer to your genre of storytelling as Appalachian Noir. What can a reader expect from this genre and if they love this style do you have any other recommendations on books to check out that will fill the void while we await your next novel?

I started using that term, “Appalachian noir,” as a sort of adaptation of something Daniel Woodrell originally used as a subtitle for his novel Give Us A Kiss, his term being “country noir.” He’s sort of the godfather of what I’m trying to do in a lot of ways, along with writers like Larry Brown and William Gay and Ron Rash and Barry Hannah and Harry Crews. As far as what I think folks can expect, these are typically stories about hardscrabble lives, working class people making the best of circumstance. There’s often a criminal element to the story, but I don’t know that that’s a necessity. I think more than that these stories are a balancing act between hope and fate, a sort of tightrope walk above brutality on the one hand and the sentimental on the other. Other writers I admire who write within a similar vein are folks like Mark Powell (The Dark Corner) and Charles Dodd White (A Shelter of Others) and Jamie Kornegay (Soil) and Brian Panowich (Bull Mountain) and Rusty Barnes (Reckoning), or even a novel like Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. Then there are some incredible female writers like Steph Post, who wrote a novel called A Tree Born Crooked, or writers like Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage) and Tawni O’Dell (Back Roads). Some of these writers might not consider what they’re doing noir, but it’s that same type of emotional weight being created and for me that’s the key to what I’m trying to do on the page.

I am going to quote one of my favorite passages from your book. “On the pew where I sat though, there wasn’t a damn bit of light to be had. Light never shined on a man like me and that was certain. In a lot of ways, that made men like Daddy the lucky ones to have only ever known the darkness. Knowing only darkness, a man doesn’t have to get his heart broken in search of the light. I envied him for that.”

The light plays such a big part in this book and we see references to it throughout the story and the title. Why do you think the light (or lack of it) is such an important element in your story and how did you come to create this concept for your readers?

With this novel I knew the title before I wrote the first word. That’s not to say that I knew what it meant, and I certainly didn’t try to write toward that meaning, but rather it just sort of matured with the story. I think that idea of light and dark works really well as a metaphor for what Jacob’s facing. We’ve got an eighteen-year-old kid born into very harsh circumstances that he’s not really equipped to handle. There’s a similar line to the one you’ve quoted where Jacob is talking about the idea of light at the end of the tunnel, that sort of hope that one has when they’re coming out of the darkness. But for Jacob, he can’t understand an idea like that because he’s not coming out, he’s walking into the darkness, and, “for those who move further into darkness the light becomes a thing onto which we can only look back. Looking back slows you down. Looking back destroys focus. Looking back can get you killed.” So Jacob can’t look back. This conflict between light and dark is ultimately about hope. When you’re facing the types of things that Jacob is facing, it’s much easier to just accept the way things are than to hope for anything better. Hope leads to heartbreak and that’s why Jacob’s so conflicted. That’s really the key issue in the book, and so I think that metaphor, the idea of light and dark, helps to stitch that seam.

You have a bit of a Breaking Bad opener with a botched murder situation which was rather gruesome to read and kept me on the edge of my seat. Do you think Jacob’s life would have worked out differently if they had successfully killed the guy?

This is probably the toughest question I’ve ever been asked because what happens to Robbie Douglas is the catalyst for things falling apart. Without that trigger, the pin doesn’t hit the shell. In other words, none of what takes place in the novel would have happened. At the same time, the fatalism that we witness is something that I think was inevitable. If Robbie Douglas had died, Jacob might’ve prolonged that unraveling, but things would have still fallen apart. Lives like Jacob’s typically end one way.

Crime, poverty, and meth addiction create a rather hopeless environment for these characters. Do you think your novel has hope in it? Was it difficult to write in such a sad space or do you feel like you are the type of writer where this dynamic really thrives?

I think there are elements of hope, and I think it’s that balance between hope and fate that, with any luck, keeps the reader invested. As for writing within that space, I can remember after finishing the novel I was talking to my sister and I told her, “It’s going to take a long time to find my way out of the darkness I’ve created.” I’d spent months inside of that space, immersing myself to the point that I was walking into walls, to the point that when I had to go somewhere like the grocery store it felt as if I was moving within a dream. The world I’d created was more real to me at that moment than anything else around me. I think for an artist to create anything meaningful it takes that type of immersion. There’s a sort of sacrifice that has to be made, and, for me, the end justifies the means. I tend to tell stories of heartbreak and circumstance and desperation as I think those types of elements allow you to immediately get to the heart of a character. When things fall apart a person can’t be anything aside from exactly what they are. That’s what interests me most.

Jacob says in one scene, “I’d always hoped she’d become a real mother. But with time, I realized that someone can’t give what they don’t have. She was what she was, an addict, and there was nothing that could be said or done to change her. Death was her only savior.”

I don’t know what to say about that except that it was difficult to watch this dynamic between Jacob and his mother and it made me feel sorry for him to have two parents like this. Is addiction something that you have experienced with anyone close that you channeled in this character?

I really like that you pulled that quote as I think that line, that idea that, “someone can’t give what they don’t have,” is the heart of why she can’t be a mother to Jacob. There are some readers who seem incapable of empathizing with Jacob’s mother and father, but, for me, there are tiny pieces, tiny statements that elude to why these people are the way that they are. That’s really important to me: humanization. Without that I’d just be creating caricatures. There are moments where I think we see what she could have been had she not been addicted to drugs. That’s the reality of addiction. That’s a reality that I’ve seen time and time again where I live and where I grew up. I think the easy thing to do is to dismiss those people, to say, “I’m nothing like that.” The harder thing to do is to look at it with empathy. And empathy doesn’t mean coming to justify those actions as acceptable, but what it does mean is coming to recognize and hopefully understand why.

If there was a sequel, how do you see life working out for Maggie?

I have a really great friend, a mentor and an incredible novelist, Pamela Duncan who ran up to me after finishing the novel and said, “Is Maggie pregnant? She’s pregnant, isn’t she?” I just laughed, but I love this idea of wanting to know what happens to her as I think that’s a good sign that I’ve created a character that resonates. As for what I envision, I think Maggie goes to Wilmington. I think a lot of what Jacob holds as truth as an eighteen-year-old is naïve, but I think what he sees in Maggie, that strength and that certainty that she’ll leave, is real. So, for me, I always saw her getting out.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we list it with all the recommendations over the year HERE)?

I’m going to stay true to my neck of the woods and give you three recommendations—a novel, a memoir, and a book of poetry—from Appalachia because I think a lot of what comes out of this region is tragically overlooked. As far as a novel, everyone needs to read Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. It’s bar none the best debut released this year and it’s arguably the best debut we’ve seen from this region in decades. With memoir, I was really impressed with Leigh Ann Henion’s book, Phenomenal. I think her storytelling is brave and her insight into our relationship with the natural world is matured and beautiful. Last but certainly not least, everyone needs to be reading Rebecca Gayle Howell, especially the poems in Render: An Apocalypse, which are just gritty and raw and lovely. She’s writing scripture. So there’re three for you to get your hands on!

 You can connect with David Joy on GoodReadson Facebook, or through his website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

It’s such an honor to share my Sundays With Writers space with Vanessa Diffenbaugh this week. Way back in 2011, I wrote a review on her first book, The Language of Flowers and when I saw that her second book, We Never Asked for Wings was out, I could not dive into it fast enough after enjoying her debut novel so very much.

What you might not know about Vanessa though is about the incredible organization she started for foster children and the impact she is having on raising another generation of gifted writers. What a gift to share more about this incredible writer AND incredible giver…two things I have a soft spot in my heart for!

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Today Vanessa is here to share about her book, We Never Asked for WingsIn this story we learn that for fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, now fifteen, and Luna, six. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.

Navigating this new terrain is challenging for Letty, especially as Luna desperately misses her grandparents and Alex, who is falling in love with a classmate, is unwilling to give his mother a chance. Letty comes up with a plan to help the family escape the dangerous neighborhood and heartbreaking injustice that have marked their lives, but one wrong move could jeopardize everything she’s worked for and her family’s fragile hopes for the future.

This book is beautiful and it reminded me a lot of, The Same Sky (you can read our interview on that one here!) as it tackles the issue of illegal immigration and two sweet kids neglected by their alcoholic mother, struggling with poverty and placement in society. I would recommend this one for fans of The Book of Unknown Americans  (you can read that interview as well, here). To read my full review, check out this must-read list!

Now grab your coffee and settle in with this  incredible writer today!

Vanessa Diffenbaugh


Illegal immigration seems to be a theme in so many of the books that I have read this year (The Same Sky, Americanah, & The Book of Unknown Americans- to name a few). Why do you think so many authors are exploring the topic of illegal immigration and what was the most surprising thing you learned about this issue when writing your book, We Never Asked for Wings?

This is a great question.  For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration because I had no intention of doing so!  I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family.  But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a community of characters in which immigration status would be an issue.  It would be disingenuous to write about a low-income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book would be documented.  That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live in these communities.  So, to answer your question, I think so many writers are writing about immigration because so many people are living it, and for those of us who are trying to capture this moment in time, undocumented immigration is an issue we can’t ignore.

In your first book you had to learn so much about horticulture, but in this book it was all about the feathers (from the science of them to utilizing them in an interesting art medium). How did you come up with this idea for your story and how did you gather your research to learn more about birds and feathers to shape this theme? Were there any books or documentaries that helped you as you put together this research?

Five days after we were married, my husband and I moved to Guanajuato, Mexico, to learn Spanish and volunteer, work, and travel.  We lived there for a year, and one of our favorite things to do on weekends was to open up a big book we had purchased on Mexican Folk Art, find a work of art we especially liked, and travel by bus to the small village where the artist lived in an attempt to meet him or her.  This is how we got acquainted with the Olay Olay family in Michoacan—we arrived by bus and were directed to their house, where a dead bird greeted us on the stoop.  Senor Olay Olay, a fourth generation feather worker, told us that if a bird died anywhere in Michoacan it always found its way to their door—a line that made its way directly into my book. To this day, that visit remains one of my best memories of our time in Mexico.

When I came up with the idea of the abandoned housing project I kept asking myself—but why would the Espinosa family stay?  Why would they stay, even when everyone they knew had already left?  It was this question that led me to create the character of Enrique, a Mexican feather worker.  He stayed for the birds.  I imagined him at the window, sitting underneath the Pacific Flyway; I imagined his vast and intricately organized feather collection.  It was great fun to research the birds of the bay, and when I needed an idea for Alex’s science project based on his grandfather’s feather collection, I called my brother-in-law, Noah Diffenbaugh, who is a climate scientist at Stanford.  We spent hours talking about all the things Alex could learn from the feathers, and with his guidance I was able to come up with a project idea and describe the science behind it. 

The Language of Flowers was such an enormous hit and has been one of my favorite debut novels in the past few years. When your first book gets such wild praise and accolades, how hard is it as a writer to follow that up with a second novel? Do you feel it created additional pressure for you?

It was very, very hard!  So hard that when I open my new book, my favorite page is the one at the very beginning that says: The Language of Flowers, and under that, We Never Asked for Wings.  I have two titles to my name!  There are so many phenomenal writers that haven’t produced a second book after a first success, and I can completely understand why.  You have all the reviewers in your head, reminding you of all the things you did wrong, and you have all your readers in your head, reminding you of all the things you did right, and sometimes they are the very same things!  It is easy to lose your own voice.  About three years into the book, when I’d completed (another) terrible draft and was losing hope, a smart writer friend of mine gave me fantastic advice.  She told me to imagine what it feels like to open up the latest book of my favorite writer (I imagined Toni Morrison) and she told me to think about that sense of the familiar you get when you are reading the words of an author you love.  Then she said “What is the next Vanessa Diffenbaugh book like?”  When she asked me that, I knew exactly what she meant, and I also knew that I hadn’t written it.  So I started over, again, but this time I remembered my voice.

In the opening of the book, Letty abandons her children to take her parents across the border. We also read of many instances where Letty really struggles as an alcoholic, even risking her son’s life at one point in the story. Do you think Letty deserved to work through all of this with her kids or do you think Letty is a good example of a mom that would have benefitted from having a foster mom come in to help with her children until she got back on her feet?

Letty is a good example of someone who needs support.  Far too often, parents lose their children to the foster care system when what they really need is help to become the parent they want to be to their children.  There are extreme cases in which the child must be removed for their own safety, but we know that more often children and parents do better when they are kept together and given the support they need to thrive.  Youth Villages, a national non-profit, is a leader in the effort to reform foster care and increase positive outcomes for kids.  They are perhaps best known for their Intercept® intensive in-home program, a program that revolutionizes foster care by helping children avoid it altogether. Youth Villages is respected not only for their programs but also for their research and policy–they have a decades-long dedication to outcomes measurement that has resulted in national recognition.  I am thrilled that the small non-profit I co-founded, Camellia Network, has recently been acquired by Youth Villages, and we will be working together to grow a national movement around supporting youth aging out of foster care.  You can become part of the new network at

As a former teacher to youth in low-income communities and the founder of the former Camellia Network, were you able to use these experiences working with struggling youth to channel them into the children in your story?

It’s funny, with The Language of Flowers, interviewers often asked, or even just assumed, that Victoria was based on the children I fostered.  She wasn’t!  In fact, her personality was as different from my sons’ as possible.  But in We Never Asked for Wings, I drew a lot of inspiration for Alex from my sons.  Both Tre’von and Donovan are incredibly smart, responsible and resilient, and Tre’von, like Alex, liked to read the encyclopedia and recite random facts to his friends and teachers.  I interviewed him a few different times about what it felt like to be a smart kid who loved to learn in a school that didn’t expect anything from him.

You have been working on a really special project leading a Young Authors Club, assisting 40 young authors to help them write their own books. What has your experience been like leading such a large group of young authors and what advice would you give to other authors to do the same in their own communities?

I didn’t mean for the group to be so big—who would have thought that so many kids, after six hours of sitting still and working hard, would want to stay after school to WRITE?  Well, it turns out that many do.  I had a great time teaching these eager young people everything I know—we started by doing close readings of some of my favorite children’s books, and then we spent a week writing spectacular first sentences, and then we moved on to first chapters.  The kids wrote some amazing books, including titles like “Surviving Middle School with Violet Woods” and “The Teddy Bear Detective Agency.”  In terms of advice, I would look at Dave Egger’s nonprofit, 826 Valencia (or 826 National).  He and his wonderful staff have been teaching writing for almost 15 years and run great programs.

As busy moms, I often hear that moms feel like they don’t have the time to take on volunteer opportunities. You are a perfect example of a mom that really does an excellent job doing both. What advice would you give to moms who want to do more to help their community, but feel limited with their time?

I have to be honest here and say that I have a phenomenal full-time assistant, and I couldn’t do half of what I do without her.  I say this because I think we often expect ourselves as women and mothers to be superhuman—to care for kids around the clock, to support our husbands and have immaculately clean homes and still somehow have successful careers and volunteer endless hours in our communities.  It just isn’t possible, and too many of us spend too much of our time feeling guilty about not doing one (or more) of these things well enough.  When I sold my first book, I decided to hire an assistant so that I could spend all my time with my kids or writing my books or volunteering in the community—not booking travel or managing my schedule or picking up dry cleaning or all the other billions of little things that are involved in managing a household and career.  I will say, though, that even before I was in the financial position to hire an assistant, I was always good at prioritizing.  When I wrote The Language of Flowers I was a stay-at-home mother of four, and I would often call my mother and announce that I had just gotten both babies down for their nap and I was kicking the piles of dirty laundry out of the way so that I could open my office door and start writing.  You just can’t do it all! 

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we will add it to our list of recommended reads for our readers!)?

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  It is an incredibly intense book about racial inequality in our criminal justice system, but it is beautifully written and powerful, with just enough hopefulness to help you sit with the discomfort of the truth and think hard about how you can help contribute to a solution.  I recommend it to everyone I know.

 You can connect with Vanessa Diffenbaugh on GoodReadson Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Sunday, August 9th, 2015

Sundays With Writers

There are some authors that I have waited for months to feature here and Jennifer Niven is one of those poor hounded authors that I worked so hard to get here for you today.  A girlfriend recommended that I read her book All the Bright Places and as soon as I finished it (you can read our review here), I emailed Jennifer to see if I could secure her for an interview. She happened to just be leaving on book tour though and said she would answer my questions when she returned. This one was worth the wait.

I am so glad she followed through on this interview with me especially amid her enormous undertaking of adapting this movie into a film starring Elle Fanning!! Yup, Jennifer is writing the script and I have been waiting to share that with you today. I’m so proud of this writer and this book she has created.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places is a beautiful story of two sweet kids who find each other just when they need one another the most. Niven sheds light on a topic rarely discussed in YA literature sharing the true struggles of mental illness as Finch, the main character, struggles with bipolar disorder.

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

The stigma attached to mental illness and the reaction of his peers to this, make this a compelling read for any teen in understanding what it would be like to live with mental illness. This was heartbreaking, beautiful, and provided a thoughtful ending with a great resources & info list for kids struggling with (or who have family/friends struggling with) mental illness at the end of the book. I highly recommend this one for a well-captured idea of what living with bipolar disorder would feel like.

Grab your coffee and let’s settle in to learn more about Jennifer’s incredible book and the real-life Finch that inspired this beautiful story!

Jennifer Niven


In All the Bright Places, you send your two characters (Finch & Violet) on an epic road trip to discover Indiana. I actually live in Indiana so I really loved how you created this for them. Were these destinations real and, if so, did you visit them?

All of the destinations Finch and Violet wander are real except one—the bookmobile park. (But oh, how I wish it existed!) I grew up in Indiana, but I hadn’t visited all of the places until after I wrote the book. In April, I traveled from California (where I live now) to the sites with the producers and director of the upcoming All the Bright Places We saw the World’s Biggest Ball of Paint, the Blue Hole, Gravity Hill, the Ultraviolet Apocalypse, the Taylor Prayer Chapel, Hoosier Hill, the Purina Tower in my hometown (Richmond), and we even went up into the bell tower of my high school, which was where I envisioned Finch and Violet meeting.

Blue Flash Roller Coaster

But my favorite place of all was John and Sharon Ivers’ backyard roller coasters.We rode the Blue Flash and the Blue Too over and over again. And it was AMAZING.

You tackle the issue of mental illness in this book, specifically bipolar disorder. As someone who has personally known someone with this illness, you truly capture the manic highs and lows of Finch in a very real way. What inspired you to share about this mental illness and what has been your response from kids who have read this book?

Years ago, I loved a real-life Finch and he was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. I also saw how funny he could be and how vibrantly alive. In knowing him, I experienced firsthand the stigma associated with mental disorders—both from the perspective of this boy I loved and from mine—and I realized that we need to make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem.  I need help.”  If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most?

The response to All the Bright Places has been emotional and overwhelming, and while I anticipated some of that, I had no idea just how emotional and overwhelming it would be. The thing I hear most from readers is that this book saved their lives in some way, big or small. They’ve thanked me for making them feel like someone gets them, and for reminding them they aren’t alone. But they’ve also written to tell me they see themselves in Violet and/or Finch and reading about these characters who they identify with so closely has helped them realize that the world really can be a bright place, no matter how dark it may seem. I’m hearing daily from many, many teens who are either struggling with their own mental health issues or know someone who is, and the first thing I tell them is to talk to someone they trust, whether that’s a parent, teacher, counselor, sibling, or friend. Being isolated only makes things worse, and you really, truly aren’t alone. (Here are some helpful links to organizations that get it, that care: check here and here for a resource list to assist.

All the Bright Places is going to be hitting theaters starring Elle Fanning as Violet. How involved are you in the adaptation of your book into film and what scene are you most excited to see come to life on the big screen?

I’m so excited! I’ve been asked to write the script, which I’m working on now, and I’m thrilled and honored to have that opportunity. The scene I’m most excited to see on the big screen is when Finch leaves his car by the side of the road because it won’t go fast enough, and as he’s running he passes a nursery where he collects flowers for Violet.

I don’t want to give away the ending of this book for those that have not read it, but I would love to know if you feel that ending the book the way you did ended with the right message about the topic of mental illness and if you entertained another way of ending this story?

I never questioned how All the Bright Places would end. I knew in my bones that the only ending could be the one I wrote, not just because too many stories about teen mental health are tied up in neat little packages with bows on top, but because it’s the ending I lived with the real-life Finch. It was the ending I knew to tell. In terms of the message it sends, from what I can tell via readers, especially readers who see themselves in Finch, they are walking away from the book with the right message: they are not alone. It is important to speak up, to ask for help. And even in the darkest times, it’s possible to find bright places.

I have read that it took you a mere six weeks to crank out All the Bright Places. This is such an incredible feat! Why do you think this story came together so quickly this time?

Because it was a story I had carried with me for a long time, and because it came from the heart.

You have tackled so many different genres as a writer, but this is your first young adult book. Is there a particular genre that you love the most and what did you love the most about writing a YA fiction versus the other genres you have tackled?

I love YA the most. As one reader put it, “Jennifer Niven thinks 18,” which I take as a huge compliment. I feel at home in the voice, and I absolutely love what’s being done in the genre—some of the bravest, boldest topics are being explored, and I think that’s fantastic. YA is fearless, and YA readers are the most passionate and voracious of all.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (read ALL the recommendations over the year HERE)?

Wonder by RJ Pallacio.


You can connect with Jennifer Niven on GoodReads,on Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!


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Sundays With Writers: Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye (GIVEAWAY)

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015


Debut novelists hold a special place in my heart. I love the thrill of discovering new talent and also have experienced the struggles of writing your first book. The process of idea to publishing was so much harder than I had anticipated and I love bringing these new talents in front of you for those very reasons.  I received a copy of Under a Dark Summer Sky from NetGalley and it was one of my favorite reads this summer (you can read my review here). I just know that this will be a favorite for you too especially if you love historical fiction.

Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye

If you have been waiting for the next The Help, friends, this is it. I really want to get this book on your radar because the story is so beautifully told and it is about something that happened in history that I was never aware of. Under a Dark Summer Sky is a perfect balance of fact and fiction.  I have no doubt, you will get swept away in the storm that hits Heron Key in 1935.

It is hard to believe that this was a debut novel- it was so perfectly executed. I love when I am transported into time in a historical fiction novel and learn something I have never known before and that was the case in this one. This well-researched book perfectly combines fact and fiction into an incredible story about a hurricane that ripped through the Florida Keys. The racial tensions of the people combined with a camp of misplaced disturbed war veterans creates an incredible conflict within the town when all of their safety is at risk as a hurricane approaches. I just know you will fall in love with this perfectly woven story (and learn a lot about the 1930’s in the process!

Grab your cup of coffee and let’s learn more about the real-life hurricane that inspired this incredible book today!

Vanessa Lafaye

I would consider your book to be the next The Help, tackling a time of racial tension and segregation between blacks and whites, but creating this perfect storm of emotion and disaster within the pages to play on these issues. It feels like you can cut the tension with a knife from the first chapter until you close the last page. What was it about this era that appealed to you and why did you decide to set the book up in Florida around a natural disaster?

I’m delighted with comparisons to The Help, as it’s one of my favorites.  I didn’t choose the era or the setting, the story chose me! I often say that this is the book that almost wasn’t.   I stumbled on it at a low point in my life, after I had cancer the first time and had failed to get 2 novels of women’s fiction published. By pure accident, I discovered the story of the veterans and the hurricane, and it captured my imagination.  I felt compelled to dramatize it although I had not written historical fiction before.  I was appalled that the events have been forgotten, even by people living in Florida.  The veterans changed the course of US history, and I was consumed by the challenge of bringing that story to life. I never expected to write a book set in Florida.  It turned into a big nostalgia trip, almost like a love letter to my home state.

As a reader, you really capture the hurricane so well that I felt like I was there witnessing it all. What type of research did you do to set up this pivotal moment in this community? Have you experienced any major hurricanes yourself?

Growing up in FL, hurricanes were a regular summer feature, but I never experienced a bad one.  When I discovered the story, I read some excellent factual accounts, which are referenced in the book.  I watched videos of survivor stories, also referenced in the book.  But when it came to write the storm scenes, I set myself the task of making the reader feel like they had been through a washing machine.  It was a huge challenge, using only words on a page, and harrowing to write those scenes, sometimes overwhelming.  So it’s good hear that you think it comes across.


(Source: Wikipedia)

The most surprising thing for me, as a reader, were how these World War I veterans were placed into these communities on projects after the war, and the havoc that it creates in these towns (both for the soldiers themselves and for the community members). Misplaced, homeless, and without work, these men were thrown into these racially divided communities nursing a lot of issues from being in the war. How did you learn about this occurring and why do you think it makes your story more compelling?

The story of the veterans in the hurricane led me to explore their experiences during and after the war, which is where I learned about the Bonus Marchers and their treatment by the government.  I found it incredible that these dispossessed, desperate men helped to bring down one President and damage his successor, yet they have disappeared from history.  Writing about a southern state in 1935, I could not ignore the issue of segregation at that time, which led me to study the treatment of African-American soldiers in particular.  Most of the veterans in the camps in the Keys were white.  I chose to focus on a black minority because of the links to the other characters that I wanted to portray.

I always have a favorite character in each story I read and there was just something about Henry that had me rooting for him from the beginning until the end. I loved how you developed him, particularly his experience from serving as a black soldier to his struggles to fit into a segregated community of unacceptance. Was there one character in particular that you had a fondness for and were there any in the story that you related to the most personally?

Henry is also my favorite. I admire him so much.  His experiences should have made him bad or crazy, but basic his goodness has survived.  I have a fondness for people who refuse to let life beat them down.  Henry is certainly damaged, but he’s not beaten, despite everything.  I relate most personally to Hilda – although I hasten to add that I was never a beauty queen!  I wrote her first scene when I had gained a lot of weight after cancer treatment and felt very bad about myself.  I couldn’t fit into my clothes. I poured all of that into Hilda’s character, which was quite therapeutic.

This book was published in the UK first under the title of Summertime. I am always curious about title switches when books come to the US. Why did you change the title?

Debut authors don’t have much say in these decisions!  The publishers know what will work in their market.  We get consulted, but ultimately it’s a decision for the professionals.  The book has a different title in each country where it is being published:  Norway, France, Italy, Germany, and Holland.  Norway is ‘Sommerstorm’, France is ‘In the Heat of Summer’, Italy is the equivalent of ‘Summertime’, and I’m looking forward to seeing the others soon!

I have a special fondness for debut novelist and this book does not read like a debut novel to me, but a seasoned veteran in the field of writing. How long did it take you to research and write this story? What has been the most surprising thing to you about the process from story to publishing?

It’s great to hear that you’re fond of us debutantes, because it’s a big old hill to climb, for sure. It took me 2 years to research and write – but I was working 2 jobs at the time as well!  I don’t have kids, which is what made it possible, I guess.  And I was very highly motivated to get the story out.  I really wanted it to be published during the centenary of WWI (2014-18)! The most surprising thing about the process has been working with bloggers like you.  Before I had this experience, I had no knowledge of book bloggers, or their importance to the whole publishing industry.  I worked for 30 years in academic publishing, which is very different, and has nothing to compare.  So I was astounded to learn of how many bloggers are out there, how much time and energy they devote, and just how much influence they have over readers.  It’s been a revelation.  You guys have transformed fiction publishing.

If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (read ALL the recommendations over the year HERE)?

It’s actually 3 books: The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker.  Is that allowed?  These books were among the first, along with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which opened my eyes to the history of WWI.  Before that, like most Americans, I was ignorant of this period, but it’s a huge deal here in England.  I finally understood what the veterans had sacrificed in that awful, stupid war.

Vanessa has graciously shared 3 signed copies of her book to give away on the site this morning (all the way from England)! Enter by following the directions in the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

You can connect with Vanessa Lafaye on GoodReadson Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

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Sundays With Writers: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Sunday, July 26th, 2015


My husband laughs about how much research I do to prepare for these Sundays With Writers interviews, but I love researching about the people behind the books just as much as I love the books themselves. Today’s guest, Erika Swyler, is an author that I have found completely fascinating as I have read more about her.  She wrote a beautiful book called The Book of Speculation and instead of going about the whole writing process the traditional way at a computer, she did it longhand. Instead of sending files to land an editor, she decided to try binding books herself to catch an editor’s eye.

It’s because of her unique methods that I wanted to feature her today in our interview series. I can’t wait for you to read this book and this interview with Erika!

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

I knew I was going to love The Book of Speculation because it had so many ingredients in it for success with me- librarians, old books, a bit of magic, and a glimpse at the old carnival life. The book has been compared to Water For Elephants and Night Circus, but definitely stands on its own and is an ambitious debut novel from this first-time author.

When Simon, a young librarian, receives the gift of a book that is a travel log for a carnival in the 1700’s, he discovers a drowning death of a circus mermaid that is coincidental to his own mother’s drowning death (a former circus mermaid herself) that happened even on the same day. If their family is cursed, his sister could be the next victim and he will do anything to save her. The chapters alternate between the travel log (complete with unique sketch drawings) and present day as Simon tries to stop the curse on his family. The author manages to bring these stories together in a beautiful way with a satisfying conclusion to these mysterious drownings.

You can read my full review of this book here as well as a few other great must-reads for the month of April!

Grab your cup of coffee and let’s settle in with Erika Swyler today and learn more about her debut novel! 


I can admit, I am a bit of a nut about books and movies that have to do with the circus. I understand that you lived at the library for months researching the history of circuses in America to write The Book of Speculation. What is it about the circus life that fascinates you and what is the most surprising discovery you made while doing your research?

Circus life fascinates me because it’s so much about people finding and building family. Shows are living, breathing things with all these fascinating interpersonal dynamics. The life seems so rootless, yet these intense bonds form between people in shows. When you look at circuses and carnivals closely they make you question your ideas about what a home and family are.


It was surprising to discover how far back some families can trace their history with the circus. The Wallendas were already established and touring in the 1780s. That’s insane. They’ve been practicing circus arts for essentially half of circus’s history. That’s a bigger footprint than P.T. Barnum.

Your book has a lot of unique elements in it, but one of them that really stood out to me was the use of illustration in your story. Did this add more pressure to you to create these and how do you think it makes your book more interactive for your reader?

Illustrating added pressure, but it also offered me far more control than most novelists have their first time out, and it kept me mercifully busy. When most people are sweating and waiting for edits, I was up to my ears in charcoal and graphite. That was a very good thing. I had total freedom as to what the illustrations were, and that let me build on aspect of a characters I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. My circus master, Peabody, sketches in his journal. Actually showing the reader the illustrations says so much about him, his journal, and the plot. Illustration lets readers look at the exact images the characters in the book are seeing. That’s smashing a wall. You’re looking at the drawings, you’re in the book.


I think the most surprising thing I discovered about you while researching for this interview is that I read that when you prepared your manuscripts of this book to send out to various publishers that you hand bound and tea-stained each of the copies to give them the feel of an old book, similar to the one that Simon receives in the beginning of this novel. Do you think that the work you did to create a unique reader experience for them ultimately helped you land your book deal?

Binding the manuscript put the story on the outside. It’s rare to see a book look exactly like what’s in it. I had an inkling that whoever connected with the manuscript as art would connect with the story, because it is about old books, bibliophiles, and beautiful objects. I also suspected that I was selling myself based on my ability to work hard. Making books like that is a huge time investment. I wanted people to know that I was willing to break my back to make this book happen. Ultimately, that came across. Once the manuscripts were out, things moved quickly. And I found my dream editor.

I understand you are now an expert in Japanese Stab Binding. For those of us reading our pathetic e-books, what is this binding process and why did you chose it for your manuscripts?

I’m more a jack-of-all-trades than an expert, but I’ve gotten pretty good with this type of binding. Japanese Stab Binding is a method where you sew through an entire block of paper rather than stitching together folded signatures. Each stitch goes through both covers and the pages. The stitches are visible, and the thread can be used to make decorative patterns. It’s used a lot in photo albums, for binding loose pages, and for quick and dirty paperback repair.

Stab binding made sense for the manuscripts because it’s relatively cheap, fast when compared to other techniques, and it’s visually striking. Being able to sew loose pages meant I was able to work with standard copy paper and splurge on covers rather than losing money on typesetting and printing. It’s also a very human stitch. When you see a book with a stab binding, you get a sense of how it’s done and that you understand it. It’s a binding that feels like history.

I often feel like I was born in the wrong era and it seems that might be something you and I have in common! I read you do your first drafts in longhand and on your collection of vintage typewriters. Do you have a favorite typewriter in your collection and why do you love these retro methods of book writing so much?

I write a lot longhand and on typewriters because it keeps me from editing. Computers have given us this terrible habit of writing a word then deleting it over and over again. You don’t do that longhand. I also find that characters and scenes demand different voices. Writing by hand feels very different than using a typewriter, which is a universe away from writing a laptop. Some characters want the typewriter. Sometimes if I’m really flying I switch around between hand, typewriter, and computer.

I do hoard typewriters. The oldest I have is an Underwood Champion from the late ’30s, but my favorite is a 1958 Hermes 3000. It’s mint green and fabulous. The keys feel right, it has great control over margins and spacing, and I can really move on it. It’s a beautiful machine. My husband got it for me. He supports what I do in a very deep way. He can’t write the words, but he makes sure I have the tools to write them.

There have been comparisons to The Night Circus and Water for Elephants with this book. In what ways do you think your book is different from these and why do you think there is such a fascination with the circus life in literature?

So those comparisons are huge and humbling. But there are some major differences. First, the fantastic element. Water for Elephants has both feet in a lush reality. The Night Circus floats in the fantastic. The Book of Speculation dances in between. I love the idea of everyday lives being infused with elements of wonder. I’m essentially mythologizing the ordinary—that’s the oldest trick in storytelling, but one that’s often overlooked. Then there’s scope. The Night Circus and Water for Elephants both span a lifetime (albeit magically enhanced in some instances). I went big and set my scope as 250 years of a family’s history. It asks readers to look for overlaps and intertwining stories. Essentially, I got to write historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, mystery, a family saga, and literary fiction all at once.

Circus demands that you gawk, while also maintaining an intense wall of privacy. It’s impossible to watch a circus performance without wondering about artists and what their lives are like. Acts are billed as “the best” or “the only.” It’s the nature of writers to need to know what “the best” is like without makeup and lights. Combine that with a secretive culture and you might as well just wave a red flag at us.

Circus (PBS series)

Do you have any books on the circus or documentaries that you could recommend for people who want to learn more about the circus life?

There’s a wealth of information out there. The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top by Janet M. Davis is pretty fantastic. For that specific carnival cadence, Howard Bone’s Side Show: My Life with Geeks, Freaks and Vagabonds in the Carny Trade is about as atmospheric as it gets while revealing surprisingly little. That perfectly captures the “insiders only” feel of carnivals and circus. PBS also made a six-episode series, Circus, which is incredible. As far as access to modern circus life, it’s unbeatable.

 If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (we will add it to our list of recommended reads for our readers!)?

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I suggest people read it because it may freak them out. It’s also what fearless narration looks like. It’s bold and bizarre in all the right ways and full of incredible visual writing. It’s a book that stays with you long after you’ve finished. It’s the book I dream about writing.

 You can connect with Erika Swyler on GoodReads or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!


Sundays With Writers: The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

Sunday, July 19th, 2015


I love a good author interview and I am so excited to share an interview today with Greer Macallister about her book,  The Magician’s Lie!  I shared about this book in our June 2015 Must-Reads list and after finishing it, I emailed Greer to see if she would share a little bit more about the inspiration she had for tackling the topic of a female illusionist in this beautiful book.

It was such an unusual premise for a book and, if you know anything about me, you know that I am fascinated with both magic and the circus. They are my jam.  That is why it is such a treat to talk with Greer today about the inspiration behind her book and about one of the most evil characters I have enjoyed reading. If you love a good evil villain, you have it in this one!

The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister

In The Magician’s Lie, Macallister writes a beautiful story of a female illusionist, something that was rare and provocative during the turn of the century, in this historical fiction debut. The story shows the reader things are not always as they seem even when it comes to the illusions we create in our own lives.

When a man is killed during her jaw-dropping act of sawing a man in half, The Amazing Arden is arrested and accused of the murder. The thing is, Arden has a story to tell about who that man really is and this murder just might be an illusion too. The story unfolds as she makes her confession to the officer who has arrested her as she confesses to the real crimes that have been committed in her life. There are some great plot twists in this one that kept me flipping the pages until the end and I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


How did you happen upon the story of Adelaide Herrmann and why did you decide to explore female magicians and illusionists in your debut novel?

It all started with an absence. Books, movies, TV commercials and other media often refer to the classic image of a magician cutting a woman in half. I began to wonder why it’s always the woman cut in half by a man, and never the other way around. Why don’t we see a female magician cutting her male assistant in half? So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician. Early in my research I came across Adelaide, who was undoubtedly the most famous female magician of her time. She didn’t fit the profile of someone who would cut a man in half, but she was too good to ignore. So I wove her in, and dozens if not hundreds of readers have told me she’s their favorite character.


(image source: Wikipedia)

You definitely illustrate some of Adelaide’s wildest tricks especially in the bullet catch trick that you have The Amazing Arden witness in one scene of your book. Were there any other illusions that you thought were really crazy that did not make the cut?

I tried to use the wildest things I could find! So much fun. There were a lot of parts of Adelaide’s act I didn’t use, though. She did a lot of dancing and pantomime. Which is a little less interesting to describe than, say, a woman turning into a tiger. So you understand my choice!

 If you could master any magic trick (in your book or otherwise) what would it be?

I once saw Ricky Jay throw a playing card across the room, where it stuck in the rind of a watermelon. I don’t know how he does it. Mind-blowing.

Do you have any recommendations of other historical fiction books, nonfiction books, or documentaries that you found useful when doing your research or setting the mood for your story about the world of illusion for your readers that would like to dive more into this topic?

There is shockingly little writing on the history of women in stage magic, but then again, the ratio of women to men in magic in general is pretty darn small, so it follows. If you’re interested in Adelaide Herrmann, she did write a memoir, which was published a couple of years back. As far as setting the mood, you can do a lot worse than spend an evening watching The Prestige. One of my favorite movies. I often had the music playing in the background while I wrote.

You truly immerse yourself in your storytelling from the way people would have spoken back then, to the dishes they are eating, to the dress, and the feel of the city. I really felt like I was seeing much of your details firsthand. How much research did you need to do to really create these moments in your story and has this era always been a fascination for you?

Oh, the research ate me alive. I tell people I’m an accidental historical fiction writer. If it had made more sense to write about a contemporary female magician cutting men in half, I would’ve done it that way; it’s just that the story I wanted to tell fit so perfectly back in the 1890s to 1900s, when stage magic was something most people would have seen on a Vaudeville stage. So it had to be historical. But once I picked my era I really dove in, and I really wanted to have exactly that effect you’re describing – I want the reader to see and smell and taste the world. The New York Public Library has a great collection of old menus, so I literally had the image of an early 1900s menu from Keens Steakhouse in front of me, picking out what the characters could order from that.

Do you think titling your book this way helps the reader to expect that our narrator is going to be an unreliable one? Was this to create a necessary tension while reading that we were about to discover something?

Oh yes! That was very, very intentional. What is she lying about? (Assuming the magician narrating the story is the same magician referenced in the title…) And is there really only one lie? I definitely wanted the reader to be suspicious of Arden, and the title was a great way to raise some doubt from the get-go.

You really develop the character of Ray in a way that had me on the edge of my seat and rapidly flipping the pages. Was there a scene in particular that you really struggled writing for him because he was so vile or did you really get swept away into creating such an evil character?

One of the best things about being a fiction writer is the opportunity to get into the heads of the characters you’re writing. The flip side of that is that sometimes you have to go into heads you don’t like. That was Ray. The struggle with him was to make him more than a cardboard nemesis – he has his own reasons why he does the things that he does, and it all makes perfect sense to him, so some of that has to come across to the reader, even if we’re appalled by the results.

If you could tell anyone to read one book right now (other than your own) what would that book be? (see our list of ALL our recommendations HERE!)

My favorite book is almost always the book I’ve read most recently, since it’s fresh in my mind. In this case, that’s The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. It’s about an Arctic expedition in the 1850s, during a time where men died regularly exploring that area. The story weaves together what happens on a particular ship with the lives of those waiting back at home for the ship to return. Barrett writes so beautifully and precisely about both the emotional and physical dimensions of her characters’ lives. It’s gorgeous and brutal. I loved it.

You can connect with Greer Macallister on GoodReads, on Facebook, or through her website! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads,through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!

*This post contains affiliate links!
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