Archive for the ‘Sundays With Writers’ Category

Sundays With Writers: The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

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Are you a big Joshilyn Jackson fan too? I am so excited to be interviewing Joshilyn today about her new book, The Opposite of Everyone.

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson delivers another solid read with her latest novel, The Opposite of Everyone. Joshilyn tells her story in a very unusual way.  Rather than alternating past and present in chapter format, Jackson weaves the two stories of past and present into one chapter smoothly without transition. At first, this can be confusing, but it is worth the confusion as she weaves her reader through plot twist after plot twist of a girl growing up in a group home due to her mother’s incarceration to her powerful role as a lawyer finding out that her mother has kept a big life-changing secret from her.

Follow the story of a broken little girl who feels she made the one mistake that cost her a relationship with her mother into a grown woman seeking desperately to connect with family members she never knew, with many surprises along the way.

Now grab your coffee and let’s chat with Joshilyn about her incredible book!

Q&A With Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson

You and I have something very similar in common. My site tackles a variety of topics so it is difficult to categorize me as a writer or where I fit best within my own blogging community. You have said that you struggle with placement in bookstores because your writing envelopes so many different genres. What do you think is the hardest part about not fitting into one clearly defined genre and what do you think is the most rewarding thing about being that type of writer?

Oh, yeah. I hear you. We are untidy, you and I. We are pegs that do not go neatly into this hole or that. I think the hardest part is part is finding our initial readership. People who would like our stuff—maybe even love it—dismiss it because they think we are this peg or that peg. The upside is, when people do find us and realize what we are about, they tend to stick.

I finally wrote my own genre, to help folks decide if they want to read me or not. I officially write “Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places”

The best part? I am writing exactly the kinds of books I love to read, as I imagine you are running the kind of website you always hope to find while surfing.

This book is a little all over the map which makes it so fun! For example, Paula is tri-racial, you have her growing up in a foster system, she’s a lawyer, and you weave in Hindu images and storytelling in this book. How much research did you have to do to prepare for this story and did you discover anything that surprised you while gathering your research?

A lot of research in a lot of different directions. I went to dinner and for drinks with a lot of different lawyers. I went down to the courthouse and even sat in some trials. I read a lot Hindu god stories and epic poetry. I interviewed multi-racial people about the experience of living between cultural identities.

Any time I write outside my own experience, I feel I have to respectful, you know? I want to reflect a version of the truth that lies well within the spectrum of actual experience.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how virulent divorce cases can be—especially when there is a lot of money involved. I know people who divorce with dignity and grace—but on the other end of the spectrum, wow it goes way out there.

I took as many high end swanky ATL divorce attorneys as would let me out to lunch. I plied them with wine and shrimp cocktails, and I asked them for their war stories.  What I got back was a litany of offences ranging from stalking, to dog-napping, to kidnapping, to arson, to filling a very, very expensive car up with boxes of valuable baseball cards and rolling whole shebang right into a lake. In the course of four dates like this I heard about two planned murders and one actual attempted murder.

When I realized anything was go in this ugly, escalating divorce case Paula works on over the course of the book, I invented Murder Kittens. Don’t worry—no kittens, real or imagined, are harmed in the scene—and in fact I have yet to visit a book club who doesn’t want to talk about murder kittens.

joshilyn-jackson-writer-coffee-mug

(you must follow Joshilyn on Facebook!!)

Paula, as a lawyer, represents a lot of BANK cases (Both Assholes No Kids) in this book. Did you come up with that acronym on your own or is this out in the law world and I just didn’t know it? It made me laugh!

I came up with it. Since the book’s publication, I have gotten e-mails from real life divorce attorneys, and they assure me it is getting daily use in at least a few real law offices now.

In this story we can truly see how broken our system is when parents are put away in jail and children are forced into the foster system, often for minor infractions. I understand that you had your own struggles with the system from working within the judicial system to teaching at a correctional facility for women. What do you think is wrong with this system and what could we do, as a country, to repair it?

I work with a group called REFORMING ARTS to bring arts education to the incarcerated women at Lee Arrendale State Prison here in Georgia. The hope is that learning to express and process their feelings, to find their own voices, to speak truths will help them connect with their families. We want to empower them to make different choices and cut down on recidivism.

We are out of control here in this country. We are the world’s biggest jailer. The USA—land of the brave, home of the free—puts more people in jail than Russia does. We imprison a higher percentage of our population than South Africa. Think about that. I’m not saying we don’t need prisons. We do. I am saying they need to be a last resort. We need to stop using prisons as a way to not deal with our social and economic issues, our hideous racial issues, and our petty fears about people-not-like-us.

This is America. We are a melting pot. Most people in the country are going to be people-not-like-whatever-us-you-are.

We have to stop putting people in prison for non-violent offenses. We have to find ways of reclaiming people from the arms of meth instead of just warehousing them—or using them for the equivalent of slave labor in privatized prisons. There are prisons in this country that are being run by FOR PROFIT corporations. That means there is a financial incentive for keeping a steady supply of human beings – often human beings with children— in jail as workers.

People may not know that you were an actor and you now utilize those acting skills by narrating your own audiobooks and the books of others.  You were even nominated for an Audie Award for your performance! What was your favorite book to narrate and have you found this to be a great outlet to still feel like part of that acting world?

I am a theatre person from the way, way back. I met my husband when I was nineteen, and we both got hired by a little regional repertoire theatre.  The first time I ever saw him, he was learning to sword-fight for a dueling scene. Of course I had to marry him.

I stayed very involved in theatre while in grad school in Chicago; one of my plays was produced there, and I acted quite a bit. Then I got pregnant and I wanted to be closer to my family! When we moved back rural Georgia, my life really changed. I was isolated from my theatrical community, and I think that’s why I turned to novels. I loved my kid, but he was not a great conversationalist in the first couple of years, especially. I wrote my first novel practically one handed, holding my nursing baby with the other.

I think that as an actor, I was more challenged reading Lydia Netzer’s novels than my own. I loved reading SHINE, SHINE, SHINE and HOW TO TELL TOLEDO FROM THE NIGHT SKY!

Lydia Netzer

I read in an interview with you write for Lydia Netzer as your ideal target audience. Do you think all writers should find one person as their target audience and why did you select her as the person you want to write for?

Well, it’s more about permission. I think my largest problem as a writer is cowardice…I am scared if I let my characters do the things they want to do and say what they want to say and go down into the dark places where they are always trying to march me into, people will think I am not a nice lady. I am Southern, and female, so I was raised to be a  super passive-aggressive people pleaser. I pull back in my writing when I picture herds of imaginary disapproving Sunday School teachers reading my work. And they are always lurking there, trying to get me to notice their crippling disapproval.

If I think of Lydia reading it, it gives me permission to write what I truly want to write.

 Support groups can mean so much and I understand you have a lot of support from fellow writers in a writing group you are a part of with Lydia Netzer, Karen Abbott, & Sara Gruen. Do you think having this support has made your writing better and how can writers find their tribe like you did?

I think they to those friendships is that they formed early in our careers. Sara and Abbott, me and Lydia, and then Sara and I connected she shared Abbott with me. We weren’t publishing yet. I think we all pushed each other forward in a lot of ways. I know that watching these brilliant women sail over bars made me want to do better, be better, revise more, not be lazy, push myself harder.

I write to a standard that I am not ashamed to show them. I want them to love my books as much as I love theirs.

That’s the other thing—a lot of those friendships started because we liked each other’s writing first, then found out we also liked the people attached to it. I read Lydia’s nascent scribblings in grad school, and fell in love with her prose. Abbott and I both met Sara on an online message board, and I was so attracted to her emails—I started writing her off list to court her friendship, and then she let me read her fiction and I was hooked.

As someone who swore she would never do a sequel, I understand you aren’t finished with Paula yet. I know that she started as a bit character in, Someone Else’s Love Story, and that you had to whittle down your scenes with her. What is it about Paula that makes her so special to you and can we expect to follow her as she takes on more cases in her career?

I don’t know if I will write Paula again. I know that I would like to.

I never want to write sequels because I try to end my books in what I call the breath. Maybe not a tidy, sunshine ending, but in that pause between sorrows and storms. In a place of actual hope.

My books have some sharp corners and they can go down to some bad places; I like to leave the characters who survive in a place of peace, and I like remember them there. I don’t want to tear their lives up again. If I wrote a sequel, I would have to. No one wants to read about people having a nice dinner and walking the dog. That’s an excellent way to spend a life—but an awful book.

Paula? On the other hand. Never have I written a more contentious narrator. She eats trouble for breakfast, and then says, “Please, sir, may I have some more.” She steps toward conflict with a kindling black joy, and I love her for it. I would not feel at all about putting Paula into more trouble because she was born for it. She thrives there.

She is so thorny and contentious and so addicted to winning that I think she would be wholly unlikable if she didn’t have such a soft heart for underdogs. Say what you will about Paula, she uses her dark powers for good!

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books?  (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY. I return to it again and again, because it’s just so lovely and so fearless and so whole. Also? One of the best first lines in literature. If you have read any of my books, you know I really think first lines matter; I believe that the ending of a book must be contained in its beginning. Only in this way can you find that inevitable but surprising conclusion that Flannery O’Connor talks about. Irving does this perfectly—here it is:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

Joshilyn Jackson

You can connect with Joshilyn Jackson on her website or through Facebook! 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 Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I love discovering debut novelists and today’s guest, Jeff Zentner, is joining me today to talk about his first book, The Serpent King. I wanted to post this interview right away because it is on sale this month for just $1.99. Make the purchase. I promise you, it will be one of your favorite reads this year! It’s a gripping YA read that had me laughing and crying (sometimes simultaneously) and I was so sad when this book ended.  It’s as epic as, The Fault in Our Stars.

It’s that good.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

The Serpent King is about three unlikely friends growing up in the rural South that are all fighting demons of their own. Dill’s father is a Pentecostal preacher, known for his snake charming church, that becomes part of a town scandal that has left his family open to scrutiny and struggling financially. Travis is obsessed with a book series called Bloodfall that helps him escape into another reality away from his abusive father. And Lydia is a blogger ready to start a new life in New York while struggling to leave behind what is familiar and those she loves. These three unlikely people bond together and end up facing a struggle none of them could have ever predicted.  This friendship is beautifully woven with humor and heart.

I could not put this book down and read it in a single day. I had to know what would happy with these three and I couldn’t wait to chat with Jeff about his incredible writing. 

Grab your coffee and let’s chat today with Jeff Zentner about the story behind his story!

Jeff-Zentner-Headshot

I know that many of us feel like we have a book in us, but we also feel like we don’t have the time. I understand that you managed to write your book on your commute on your phone. Can you tell us a little about that process and how big that screen was on that phone because I’m trying to picture this? I’m so impressed!

It was a process born of simple necessity! I had almost two hours of bus commute each day, round trip, a day job, and a family. I had to squeeze the writing in whenever I could. So I’d try to write 500 words on my iPhone 5S on the way into the office, 500 words at lunch, and 500 words on the way home. Yes, my right thumb would get very tired. After I’d put my son to bed at night, I would try to write another thousand words or two (on my laptop) if I could.

Before writing, my primary creative outlet was music, and what makes writing wonderful is that I can whip out my phone at all sorts of random times and get a little work done on something. I couldn’t do that with music, because even in Nashville, bringing your guitar on the bus and trying to work out a new song is frowned upon.

I grew up in a very conservative religious home, not exactly like Dill’s, but I could relate to that need to not disappoint God or your parents. Even though Dill has so much thrown at him, he seems pretty steadfast in his faith through it all. Did you want your readers to take away that message and why do you think it was important for Dill not to turn away from God?

I also grew up in a conservative religious home, although my parents were much more supportive and loving than Dill’s. Still, I was able to glean insights about what growing up with less supportive and loving religious parents would look like. Through my life, I’ve had my struggles with faith and I’ve had to come to my own view of God because I don’t always believe everything I’m told about him. Faith is a thing not easily abandoned, and I think it would have been dishonest of me to depict it as something one can simply walk away from. It felt more honest to me to have Dill wrestle with it until he could come to know a God who was more concerned with his joy than putting him to constant tests that could harm him.

Tavi Gevinson

Lydia was my favorite character because I could relate to her humor and to her job as a blogger. I understand she was loosely on Tavi Gevinson and her fashion blog Style Rookie. I know, as a blogger, I am concerned a lot about my brand and I related to Lydia’s struggle with not sharing photos of her friends to stay consistent to her brand’s message. Do you think it was wrong of her to do that and how did you come up with this all-too-true blogger struggle?

I actually don’t believe that it was wrong of her to do that. It’s her blog and her persona and her brand and I think she’s entitled to craft those things as she sees fit. But even though I think she wasn’t wrong to exclude Travis and Dill, I think she was right to include them once she felt brave enough to do so. I think at that point she was correct that no one would think less of her for associating closely with the fashion-challenged.

But ultimately what I think about the rightness or wrongness of Lydia’s actions is in no way authoritative. I lost all power to dictate how people felt about her behavior once I published the book with her in all of her flaws. So if anyone else thinks she was wrong to exclude Dill and Travis, who am I to say otherwise?

I came up with this struggle sort of by intuition. I’d read Tavi’s blog and it looked like she associated exclusively with people with equally amazing style. I thought it unlikely that she only knew and loved people with exceptional fashion sense. So I figured there was some image control going on there. Also, I’ve maintained Internet presences for years for various musical projects, so I knew that part of crafting an image and persona was selectivity in what you reveal about yourself.
Snakehandling

Dill grows up in a Pentecostal church that believes in snakehandling. What type of research did you do to create your church scenes?

I’ve long been fascinated with the practice of snakehandling, so I’ve done a fair amount of reading on it. The definitive work is a beautiful book called Salvation on Sand Mountain, which I highly recommend. I also interviewed friends who have attended worship services at snakehandling churches.

The nice thing, though, is that there’s no central authority for snakehandling sects. There’s no pope of snakehandling. So I invented the church in the book and therefore no one can say I got it wrong!

One line in your book is, “And if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” I really loved it because it is so true. I would imagine that it took a lot of bravery to put your book out into the world. Do you feel like this is one of the bravest things you’ve done? Have you always dreamed of writing or was this something you discovered you enjoyed later in life?

I do think it’s one of the bravest things I’ve personally done, but that doesn’t mean it’s one of the bravest things that can be done. I think it takes more courage to do what Dill does in the book, which is to survive bleak circumstances, including bullying. unloving parents and poverty, and not allow them to define him.

I haven’t always dreamed of writing because for most of my life, it wasn’t something that I allowed myself to dream. It just seemed too impossible; too daunting. I thought books were things that floated down from ivory towers, clutched in baskets held by doves. It’s only been in the last few years, and becoming personally acquainted with several published authors, that it’s come to feel like something I was capable of doing. It helped too that I had a day job that required rigorous, intensive writing on a daily basis. That was the final element that gave me the courage to try my hand.

Jeff Zentner at Penguin Random House

(follow Jeff on Facebook!)

You signed a two book deal with Crown/Random House & Tundra/Random House Canada which is awesome and (for me as a writer) a little terrifying too. Did you have to immediately get to work on the second book after this book was published? Has your writing process changed with this book or are you still writing on a bus?

It was terrifying for me too! I had no idea what my second book would be, and yet I needed to deliver my editors something she loved as much as The Serpent King, a story I’d thought about for years. I ran several ideas past them until finally, on idea ten or eleven, something clicked. So I got to work on book two and now it’s finished and on track for a spring 2017 release. It’s not a companion or a sequel to The Serpent King, but it does feature a cameo from one of The Serpent King’s gang.

My process for this book was a little different. While I was writing The Serpent King, I did nothing but write it. No outside reading, no TV, no movies, nothing. And I decided I wasn’t going to try to write again so devoid of my creative inputs of information. So with book two, I made sure to leave plenty of time to consume the books and shows that I loved while I was writing. I did write almost all of it on the bus. I wrote even more of it on the bus than The Serpent King, in fact, because I reserved my evenings for reading and shows.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I felt like it left it wide open for a sequel. Do you see this story continuing or do you feel like you have closed the chapters on these friends?

I can’t envision writing a sequel. I’m happy with where things end and I think I gave my readers enough for them to write their own lovely sequels in their heads. I even used to have an epilogue that I cut because I was unsatisfied with how neatly it tied everything up with a bow. I didn’t leave enough room for imagination.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to interview a few musicians turned novelists over the years and I understand you are a musician (as well as an attorney & youth camp volunteer!) as well. Are you still writing music too? Do you find these processes to be similar?

Sadly, I find that the music-writing muse has left me. But hopefully only for a time. I’m starting to make friends with my guitar again. I went a long time without even playing it. I’m just trying to renegotiate my relationship with music now. It feels like we broke up and we’re just learning how to be friends again.

There is, truly, the best prom date ever written in your book. Please tell me your high school prom was that cool?

I wish I could tell you that! I barely even remember prom. I remember we got rained on and my date’s hair was still wet for our pictures. That was pretty funny. And pathetic. So I guess we had kind of a pathetic prom.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

I’m going to cheat and do two.

On the adult side, my all-time favorite book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s so brutal and unsparing yet beautiful and filled with ferocious love. I feel like I can survive anything with that story in my mind.

On the young adult side, my favorite book is The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. It’s so incredibly lyrical and gorgeous and filled with wisdom. It inspires me asa writer to work harder.

Jeff Zentner

You can connect with Jeff Zentner  on his website or through Facebook! 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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It’s the Three Little Things: Colors of the Rainbow, A Blast Into the Past, and Protein Bars

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

It's the 3 Little Things

Oh, I love it when we have a guest post for our 3 Little Things list. You guys always have the best stuff to share and it is so great to get a little variation to our happy list. Today Lori joins us from Wool Gathering Designs to share a few of the things that make her so happy! Thank you, Lori!!

Paper Mate Flair Pens

Colors of the Rainbow

When my third grader came home begging me to buy him a set of colored pens, I fell in love with him all over again! I am a die hard lover of all things office supply and am excited he is starting to get as giddy about them as I do!  The writing utensils the third graders were raving over are Paper Mate’s Flair Pens.  They come in a million colors and are a great, no bleed felt tip pen.  I found the best selection and price at our local Sam’s Club, and he was able to purchase them with a gift card from his birthday.
(Admission: I bought a set for me too!)

A Blast Into the Past

I have been a hard core Stephen King fan since high school, when I picked up my first book in emulation of my dad.  It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read SK, but I have not been disappointed at all so far with 11/22/63! It’s a true to form mix of SK writing and themes, tied into one of the biggest “watershed moments” in US history.

I have always been intrigued by the conspiracies surrounding JFK’s assassination, and it is fun to indulge in this historical fiction.  I’ve stayed up way too late, many a night turning pages.  I’m a bit behind on the 11/22/63 hoopla, and just realized that there is an eight part 11/22/63 mini series on Hulu! I know what’s in the queue when I close that back cover!

Zbar-Protein-Bars

Protein Bars

In January, I hired a personal trainer and began weight lifting and eating better, to try to lose the few pounds that I couldn’t shake on my own.  One of the things she advocates is a good balance of daily “macros”, which include protein, fat and carbohydrates.  As I began better balancing my own diet, I realized that my kids’ diet wasn’t as balanced either.  We were all low on protein.
Then I ran across the Clif Kid ZBAR Protein.  They come in three yummy flavors and have 5 grams of protein in each bar.  What really gets me about these protein bars is that they don’t have a lot of sugar in them (9g). A lot of time bars like this are loaded up with sugar; the “non-kid” Clif Builder’s Protein Bar has 22g of sugar!  My kids inhale them, and I have no problem getting them to take these bars as a school or after sports snack! Plus, I know it is doing them good.

This week I’m…

Reading: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum.  I was such a big fan of her first two books, After You The Opposite of Loveand then I haven’t read anything of her’s for years. I am so excited she just released her debut YA novel. I am already loving it and happy to be reading her words again.

Eating: Roasted Turkey Sandwiches- these are still such a big favorite over at our house! ALDI still is selling my favorite turkey breasts in the frozen section of their store!

Watching: Enjoy these 73 questions with Taylor Swift. #bigfan

Excited:  About this book coming to life- doesn’t this trailer look SO GOOD?

Happy Friday, friends!

 *this post may contain affiliate links- I only recommend what I love though. Check out past editions of  It’s the 3 Little Things

Sundays With Writers: Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I love how book clubs can stretch me into books or genres of books that I might not have ever explored on my own. This month our local book club read Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan. It was such an incredible read that I knew I had to share it with you. When preparing for this interview, as with most of these interviews, I discovered the author was just as intriguing as the book. I’m so excited to share an interview with Shawna today and how she prepared for her incredible new book.

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

I just love when a book educates you on a time in history that you have been completely unaware of. Ryan pulls off a magnificent literary feat by tackling six decades set in Taiwan over the course of the twentieth century. It is horrific what so many endured during this time and begins with the story of the unnamed narrator’s father being captured because he is suspected of Communist activities. He is kept for over a decade in brutal and inhumane conditions. It then follows his return home, the unkindness of others, the stress of feeling watched, and the other generations that continue to struggle through the decades with their own issues. It’s far too much to go into in a quick review, but you will learn a lot along the way!

There are a couple of things I would note when you dig into this great read.  First, I wish I would have educated myself a bit before diving into it. I knew nothing about the Chinese nationalists or the history of Taiwan and there is no real introduction into the history of that.  After a browse through Wikipedia, I was able to understand better, but it was a confusing time in politics and reading that first would have helped me through the book. I also found this one moves at a slower pace at times, but I felt it was worth the journey to really build out these characters.

Now grab your coffee and let’s chat with Shawna Yang Ryan this morning!

Shawna Yang Ryan

I understand that Green Island took fourteen years to write. What an incredible moment to finally see your book out in the world after all that time! What was your biggest challenge you faced when writing this book and how did the challenges compare to writing your debut novel, Water Ghosts?

I still have to pinch myself—I still can’t quite believe it’s out! The biggest challenge was managing all the information and figuring out how to tell the story in a way that was responsible to the people who had lived through the events. I felt much more free to be inventive and less beholden to the facts of history with Water Ghosts, which is set much further in the past and depends more on magical realism than history.

Chiang Kai-shek(蔣中正)

As an American, I was blindly unaware of this time in history for Taiwan and I am sure I echo many other Americans who were unaware as well. What do you think are some common misconceptions that are held about this time in history? What do you hope people will come away with after reading your book?

Thank you for saying that. I too was largely unaware of this history before I did this project. The biggest misconception is that Taiwan somehow “broke away” from China, rather than seeing the story as Chiang Kai Shek fleeing to Taiwan and then using it for his own purposes. The supposed “China/Taiwan split” is really about an old conflict between two Chinese political parties and not about Taiwan. Taiwan is separate from the Chinese Nationalists (or Kuomintang/KMT) but the two get conflated. I hope that after reading the book, people will understand Taiwan’s distinct history, and why the island rightly should be considered and recognized as an independent country, and not a “renegade Chinese province.”

Green Island Taiwan Prison

(green island prison, source: Taiwan Adventures)

In 1987, martial law was finally lifted in Taiwan. Did you find that people were still hesitant to talk to you when you were conducting interviews for your book or did you get the impression that they were finally unafraid? What was your favorite interview that you did while gathering your research?

I started interviewing in late 2002 and a few people were still afraid, though many more were relieved to speak out. One woman told me that her colleagues did not believe the story of the massacre and had called it a lie, so she was glad that more and more people were starting to talk about their experiences. The more time went on, the more comfortable, eager even, people were to talk. Every interview was so intense, so interesting and so moving that I really don’t have a favorite. I do have a fondness for one interview that I hadn’t planned for—I was interviewing someone else and she said, let’s go find So-and-So and we walked over to his shop and talked him right then. I liked that it was spontaneous, and I liked sitting in his little shop on an old street in a small mountain town outside of Taipei and hearing him talk. The setting and the conversation together were a beautiful experience.

I have read that your own mother is Taiwanese and the daughter of Chinese immigrants who had fled the mainland in 1949. Did any of your own relatives share or aid in crafting your story for Green Island?

I based some of the story of Ah Zhay’s husband on my grandfather, who, as you note, fled to Taiwan in 49. My aunt’s husband’s father was also a 49er, who married a local woman, and I borrowed a little from their unique story too. And I thought about my parents’ romance in Taichung in the 70s for the narrator’s experiences in that period. I also had a conversation with my dad about motorcycles and who rode what—it was fun to think of all the nuances embedded in something as simple as that.

fulbright

You had the unique opportunity to come to Taiwan through the Fulbright program and then ended up staying in Taiwan for three years. What was just as impressive as your book to me was that while you were there you took Mandarin daily and tried to do many household tasks only speaking Mandarin.

Not only does the language have 20,000 Chinese characters, tones in your voice can mean completely different things. How difficult was it to learn for you and how do you think knowing this shaped and improved the quality of your writing?

It was extremely difficult and it’s still difficult! I get tongue-tied so often! Though I have learned so many characters by now that when I read something, I think, My god, how did I do it?  How do I know that character, I don’t recall studying it—since every single one took countless repetitions to memorize. After all that, it was only last summer when I was visiting my family that I had what I guess must be the experience of fluency. I found myself listening to their conversations and not translating in my head. I even forgot they were speaking Mandarin. I was just in it. It was amazing! I guess twenty years of study gets you somewhere eventually!

Language study has made me more aware of grammar, so I think my sentences have a lot more formal transitions—more subordinators and conjunctive adverbs than before. I’m also more aware of the roots and connotations of words. I think about how metaphors might make sense in Mandarin.

What do you miss the most about living in Taiwan now that you are teaching in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai’i?

I definitely miss my family. I also miss the feeling of being slightly not-at-ease with myself—feeling foreign and working through the day in another language. Lastly, Taiwan may be the most convenient place on earth to live. You can even do your dry cleaning at 7-11!

I loved reading that you had a really unique experience landing your literary agent. Can you tell us a little bit about your road to landing an agent with your first book?

I had been sending my first novel out for years and receiving rejections. One rejection stated that it sounded like a story, not a novel!  I found that my former professor had started a small press, so I queried them, and his editor liked the manuscript and they ended up publishing it. Somehow, a copy found its way into the hand of Marilyn Dahl of “Shelf Awareness,” and she wrote a rave review. An agent saw the review and emailed me. It was out of the blue, and I had given up on going the traditional publishing route, so I was very surprised. My path was circuitous, but it worked out in the most ideal way.

If we want to learn more about Taiwan and their history, can you share books or documentaries that might help us understand more about what the Taiwanese people faced?

Julie Wu has a lovely novel called The Third Son that came out a few years ago. A few books by Taiwanese feminist author Li Ang have been published into English. Hou Hsiao Hsien, considered by some to be one of the best filmmakers in the world, has two films that are particularly historical: A City of Sadness, about the 228 Massacre, and The Puppetmaster, which is part narrative and part documentary about the life of puppeteer Li Tian-lu. Lastly, for nonfiction lovers, George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed is a classic.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a perfect novel. The perfect novel? The language is dense and poetic, and it strikes the ideal balance between personal level intimacy with the characters and broad, historical importance, as it tackles the trauma of American slavery. And it has magical realism! This book is everything.

Watch this interview to learn more about why Shawna decided to write about Taiwan!

You can connect with Shawna Yang Ryan  on her website or through Facebook!  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: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I am so excited to share about another incredible book that I enjoyed this month. Be Frank With Me was included in my March Must-Read recommendations and once you read it, you will know exactly why. It is a charming, funny, and heartwarming story that I enjoyed from start to finish.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy-Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.

As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank’s father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Frank is one one of the sweetest characters that is so perfectly formed that you just want to give this sweet little boy a hug when you get done with this book. I found myself giggling through some of Frank’s antics and well up when he just couldn’t fit in with his peers. I can’t imagine the research that went into forming all of Frank’s numerous thoughts about actors, movies, and all the fun facts that he had gathered over the years that seemed to consume him. The supporting characters were just as fascinating especially Frank’s eccentric mother.

The only criticism with this one is the ending felt unresolved and wasn’t wrapped up very tidy- it just left me dangling. I am wondering if that is because the author plans a sequel. If so, I can’t wait to read it because I already miss Frank.

Now grab that cup of coffee and settle in for my interview with Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson

I understand that your debut novel took you five years to write and then one year to edit. What was the writing process like for you over those five years and what helped you persevere for that long to fulfill your dream of writing a book?

Once I got the idea for this book, I felt compelled to write it because its central question seemed so fascinating to me. What’s it like to be the mother of somebody who’s so different from most children that it makes life difficult for everybody? How did Albert Einstein’s mother manage, for example? I wanted to read the Walter Isaacson doorstopper bio of her. Since I couldn’t find a version of that book, I decided to write one. In the beginning, in fact, my novel was called Einstein’s Mom. Until Frank took over. As Frank is prone to do.

Please note: My book is only half-doorstopper in length. Although I wrote thousands of pages before winnowing it down to the 300 or so I ended up with, I wanted my novel to be quicker and lighter than a 750-pager would be. And by “light” I hope I’m not suggesting it’s shallow. I think it’s funny, but during that last year of copy-editing I had to read the final version over and over, sometimes twice in a week, and it still broke my heart every time.

As for the sticking with it until the book was finished, well, if I’d given up anywhere along the way, all the weeks and months and years of work I’d done already would have been for nothing. So I stuck with it.

Hancock Park

(source: wikipedia)

Frank is absolutely obsessed with old Hollywood and facts just spilled and spilled and spilled onto the pages of your book. How much research did you do to prepare for a character like Frank and what is one of the most surprising facts (or favorite Frank fact) that you discovered while researching for this character?

Well, I’ve lived in “Old Hollywood” for the past twenty years. You can walk to Paramount Studios where Fred and Ginger used to dance from my house in Hancock Park, a neighborhood built up in the 1920s and so about the same age as Old Hollywood itself. I’m a ten-minute drive away from what used to be Mann’s Chinese theater, where stars’ handprints are immortalized in cement. The first neighborhood I lived in when we moved out here, Whitley Heights, was walking distance from the handprints. Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and Jean Harlow all lived in Whitley Heights. I loved all that Old Hollywood stuff before we came out here, and once we got here I was swimming in it day and night.  So everything I soaked up over the years ended up on the page.

You know what my favorite Frank fact was? That George Gershwin died in what was the old Cedars Sinai Hospital, a building now owned by the Scientologists. It’s a huge, and painted bright blue these days. I already knew that fact before I wrote the book, and was so delighted to have the chance to use it. My own children were born in the new Cedars Sinai.  When I was being rolled into the delivery room to give birth my son, the nurse who was in charge of me leaned over me and whispered “Kim Basinger had her baby in this room.” So you see what I mean. “Hollywood” is everywhere out here, whether you like it or not. Luckily for me, I liked it.

Casablanca

What is your favorite old Hollywood film?

I really love Casablanca, which shouldn’t shock you if you read my book since it pops up in it more than once. It was so smart and witty, and I always watched it when it came on television when I was in high school. Years later, I had a teacher who was my all-time favorite named Leslie Epstein. He was arid and hilarious to me in exactly that same way the characters in Casablanca were. Turns out his father and uncle were the identical twin screenwriters who wrote Casablanca. Which thrilled me to pieces, as you can imagine.  I love the idea that a wonderful thing like a particular sense of humor can be passed down from generation to generation, the same way a nose or hair color is.

Despite our abilities as a reader to come to our own conclusion that Frank likely has Asperger’s syndrome, you deliberately chose not to give a label on why Frank was the way he was. Why was it important to you to not include that and do you think it would have changed the plot in some way if Mimi & Frank had uncovered this through their time with the psychologist?

Well, Alice isn’t in on those sessions. That very topic was probably discussed there. But listen, Frank’s diagnosis wasn’t what mattered to me. Frank mattered. I was writing a novel about a unique character, not a psychology textbook. I was very firm in my decision not to label him with anything. I felt saying “Frank is on the autism spectrum” diminished the reader’s experience of his gradual unfolding as a complex individual. I didn’t want anybody going in with preconceived assumptions about him.

Beyond  the “is he or isn’t he on the spectrum,” I was also aiming to write a book about how hard it is to be unusual for any kid, and how helpless it makes parents feel to see their children suffer. Tall, short, fat, skinny, slow on the uptake, too smart for your own good—being different hurts when you’re young. School works best for the kids in the middle. For the outliers, it can be so painful.

Your husband is a comedy writer and there are so many great one-liners in this book that I found myself laughing out loud. Did your husband contribute in any way to some of the humor you added to this story?

Would my novel be less funny if I weren’t married to a comedy writer? I hope that’s not the case. I guess it would be fair to say that living in a house where wit is valued ups my game in a general way. But I was born funny. My husband was born funny. We fell in love with each other because like prefers like—the way the prom queen falls for the prom king because they’re both young and hot and beautiful. So no, aside from being delightful company, my husband didn’t help me in any concrete way. He doesn’t read much fiction anyway. He’s non-fiction all the way. In fact, he only read my manuscript twice—the very first draft, and then, years later, the last draft. His biggest contribution was saying to me, “I don’t know. It seems good.”

Harper Lee

I read that you created Mimi, the reclusive author known as M.M. Banning, as a mash-up of Harper Lee & Salinger. Did you find it quite ironic when Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, ended up being published much like Mimi’s work would be?

How crazy is that? I never would have guessed that would happen, though of course I’d tried to imagine what it would be like if something like it did. And then it happened! My agent sent me a clip about all that after my novel had sold already and was being edited.  And here’s the kicker—Harper Lee and I have the same publisher—HarperCollins. Go figure. That’s some kind of crazy kismet.

I have to imagine that Frank was your favorite character to write, but did you have any other favorites that you really loved crafting for this book?

You know who I loved most of all? Mr. Vargas. In my mind he was two of my favorite wise, kind and patient men shaken up together into one: My husband and my old teacher, Mr. Epstein.

Some of the hardest scenes for me, as a reader, were reading about Frank’s struggles with his peers and his inability to fit in at his school. One of my favorite lines, in fact, comes from Isaac when he said, “Frank will be okay, Alice,’ Mr. Vargas said. ‘He’s an odd duck, but brilliant children often are. It may take him a while, but someday he’ll figure out how to live in the world of ordinary mortals.” Was there any scene that you really had a hard time writing for Frank?

I don’t want to reveal plot points, but the scene where Alice goes to the school to hear Frank’s student of the week presentation made me cry as I was writing it. Which is embarrassing to admit. But it kills me. I didn’t realize what was about to happen when I started putting that scene together. Of course, neither did my narrator Alice. I guess she’s a lot tougher than I am because it didn’t bring her to tears. Not on the outside, anyway.

E.F. Hutton Suit

Frank’s fashion stands out so much that it is almost a character in itself. I understand that you have worked in the fashion world so did you have a blast creating Frank’s wardrobe? Did you have a favorite outfit for Frank that you wrote?

I did work as a writer at fashion magazines when I was young. I was boggled by the people in the fashion department—I’d never really encountered visual genius before, but I sure knew it when I saw it. So what if they couldn’t put a coherent sentence together any better than I could put together an outfit? I could write about their clothes forever even if I couldn’t translate what they told me unto anything I put together on for myself. I wanted Frank to be as fabulous as those fashion people were. I wanted everyone to know as soon as they saw him that this Frank kid was something else. Which, of course, can as much a good thing as a bad thing when you’re a kid.

As for my favorite of them all, I was kind of a sucker for the E.F. Hutton suit.  There’s just something so hilarious to me about a little boy in a pinstripe number a middle-aged, all-business guy would wear. And that pinstripe suit had real fashion possibilities. Like the Audrey Hepburn little black dress, it was a canvas a fashion savant could build on. Frank could switch it up with pockets squares and cravats, just like an investment banker would. Although I guess an investment banker would probably steer clear of cravats.

It is unusual for an audiobook to come out before the book, but that is what happened with your book. Why did the publishing house decide to do this with your debut novel and did it help with sales? I also understand you declined being the voice of your audiobook. Why didn’t you want to do that as the author?

I think it was an experiment, to see what would happen if the book came out on audio first. I was up for it experimenting. It sold really well that first weekend, too, I think. Plus I was thrilled to pieces that there was an audio version available, since someone in the very first book group I did has eye issues and couldn’t have experienced the book otherwise. Also, I myself have “read” many books while ironing, weeding, driving or exercising. It’s nice to be able to experience books with your ears and brain when you need to use your hands for something else.

I didn’t want to read for my audiobook myself because I am no actress. Also, I have kind of a hilarious Southern accent, which I don’t notice until I hear a recording of myself. Then I think, Sheesh, you have got an accent on you, girl. I don’t think for the life of me I could have made it go away while I was reading Alice, who is from Nebraska, and the main voice you hear throughout the book. So for those reasons it seemed like a terrible idea for me to read it. Tavia did a great job, didn’t she? I picked her because she was so amazing at doing Frank.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

That’s the easiest question you’ve asked me! My favorite book in the world is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. It’s beautifully-written, wonderfully imagined, and completely heart-breaking. In it, terrorists seize the mansion of the vice-president of an unnamed South American country during a party that’s being thrown for a Japanese industrialist lured there with the promise of a performance by his favorite opera singer. The industrialist comes, the opera singer performs, guests from all over the world are in attendance; but the terrorist’s real target, the country’s president, skips the party to stay home and watch his favorite telenovela. As the standoff stretches from days into weeks, the hostages and captors for a community that you know can’t last. I’ve read this book so many times that I still have to keep a box of tissues at my elbow for the end game.

And here’s the thrilling footnote to all this: I don’t know what would have happened to Frank without Ann Patchett. When I finished the first draft of my novel late one night, I looked up the name of her agent and sent that agent an email about it. A week later, Ann Patchett’s agent was my agent, too. 

 You can connect with Julia Claiborne Johnson on Twitter or through Facebook!  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 Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

sundays-with-writers-1

Parenting a child with an invisible disability is something that today’s featured writer is no stranger to. Barbara Claypole White’s book, The Perfect Son, has been on my list of books to read since this year’s GoodReads Choice Awards nominations came out. I knew that it would be such a treat for us all to hear about Barbara’s incredible book and also a little about her parenting journey as the parent of a child with an invisible disability.

The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White

The Perfect Son is a beautiful story of a struggling father and son relationship and the mother that holds them together. When Ella has an unexpected heart attack, the result of a heart condition, and must be hospitalized the men in the family must come together to help her and themselves. As a strained relationship between a father and son becomes further strained Felix finds himself suddenly in charge of his son who has Tourette’s and needs more assistance than most teenage boys. Forced to reconcile their differences, they find comfort in unlikely friends and in each other.

Now grab that coffee and settle in with this incredibly open, honest, and funny Barbara Claypole White today!

Barbara Claypole White

The fictional Ella & Felix are raising a son with Tourette syndrome which puts a lot of strain on their marriage, particularly when Ella becomes sick and is unable to help. You have shared that you are a parent of a child who has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder and even have a genetic heart issue yourself that inspired Ella’s journey. Were you able to channel a lot of your own struggles as a mother and wife into this story? How do you keep your marriage healthy when your children’s mental health comes with so many challenges?

Great questions, because the original story seed came after a mom in our local support group for parents of OCD kids asked why my marriage had survived when most of the marriages in the group had failed. I think it was a combination of factors: our marriage was well-established, we only have one child, I was a full-time parent, and we’re good at tag teaming in a crisis. Plus the three of us communicate well with each other. Of course all this lovely knowledge comes with hindsight. The early days of undiagnosed OCD were hell. My husband and I had very different parenting styles, which made the situation a thousand times worse, and our first child psychologist was not an OCD expert. When our son was around nine, we hit crisis point. I researched the heck out of OCD, found a local psychologist who specialized in exposure therapy, and told my husband that I would take on the treatment one hundred percent if he would agree to never countermand me. This is exactly what Ella did: she compartmentalized the family.

Dividing up our roles—I was the caregiver; my husband was the breadwinner—worked, and we managed to force the OCD into submission (until the stress of junior year of high school retriggered it). But I always knew that my husband was my safety net. I remember one evening when I’d run out of coping skills and he had a dinner meeting. I called him and said, “I’m losing it. I need to walk away.” And he drove straight home. Ella never had that luxury. Or rather she never trusted Felix enough to ask for help.

I also encouraged our son to be open about his struggles—as Ella did with Harry.  There is no shame, and sharing information with other kids and teachers helped our son. Too many people with invisible disabilities suffer in secrecy and isolation. I was determined that would not be his path.

Ella’s journey, learning to let go, was definitely my journey. Our son was awarded a full-ride to an in-state college, which I secretly hoped he would accept. But his heart was set on Oberlin—three states away and a ten-hour drive. He’s thriving there, although the first few weeks were rough. He was homesick, and my husband and I were terrified (OCD can morph quickly). At some point, however, you need to trust that you’ve done enough good work to enable your child to monitor and take responsibility for his illness.  Once our son had settled in, my husband and I discovered we quite liked being empty nesters.

I love that when you wrote about Harry’s struggles with Tourette syndrome you did not go the typical route associated with the disorder, which is involuntary swearing or the utterance of obscenities (coprolalia). I read, in fact, that only ten percent of people with Tourette syndrome actually exhibit this symptom and that Harry’s tics are more common to this syndrome. Was this a conscious decision to not include this? Did you want people to think differently about Tourette syndrome or do you think that a dialogue like that would have been a distraction to the story you had crafted?

It was a conscious decision. One of my early readers was the mother of a teen with Tourette’s, and she thanked me for not giving Harry coprolalia. That’s when I knew I was heading in the right direction.

My goal is always to create complex characters, not stereotypes that scream, “I am my disorder.” When I started doing book clubs for The Unfinished Garden—a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt—I was shocked to discover how many people interpret OCD as a fear of germs. (Thank you, television detective Adrian Monk.) Symptoms of OCD and Tourette’s are highly individualized; there are no textbook cases of either. The same is true for the bipolar disorders.

My first introduction to Tourette’s, however, was the stereotype. Remember that episode of LA LAW when the firm had a client with coprolalia? I wrongly assumed this was the standard version of Tourette syndrome, and after my son was diagnosed with OCD, I kept telling myself OCD wasn’t as bad as Tourette’s. These days I can’t decide which scenario is worse: that you can hide OCD or that you can’t hide Tourette’s.

Felix, Harry’s father, was a character that I found to be unlikable for a good portion of the book. We later learn that Felix has struggled with many demons, including abuse from his own father, which make it hard for him to love his own son. Since you are a parent of a child who needs extra help in the world, did you have a hard time writing these scenes with Felix and his irritation with Harry’s disabilities or did a part of you relate to his frustrations as a father?

I was rooting for Felix from day one, but the trick was hoping readers would stick with him long enough to see the amazing decisions he makes as the story unfolds. When the novel starts he’s an outsider in his own family and definitely an anti-hero. But then you witness him attempt—three times—to create the perfect sandwich for Harry’s lunch, and realize how hard he’s trying to cope. Even though other characters in the novel misjudged him constantly, I always understood Felix. I heard his voice from the beginning, and I knew exactly how he would react. More importantly, I knew why.

The flashback scene to Felix’s relationship with his own dad was framed within a recurring nightmare I’d had as child: I saw a black study at night, with a cold fireplace, a black wing chair, and an open window with black curtains blowing in the wind; and I sensed evil coming through the window. I took all that fear and gave it to poor little Felix. I could forgive him anything after that scene.

Do you think that Ella is a helicopter mom or do you think that her actions were necessary to insure that Harry was able to function well through his life? Do you think overprotectiveness is really necessary for kids like this and what has helped bring balance to your own life as a mother?

Ella raised an amazing young man. She gave him the confidence to be Harry and that’s his armor in a judgmental world.  I hope I’ve given my son the same gift. And yes, I think parents of children who process the world differently need to be overprotective. Our goal posts keep moving, and half the time we don’t even have a rule book.

When our son developed horrible sleep patterns, I gave up trying to keep him in his bed and created a permanent nest for him on our bedroom floor. Some of our friends were horrified and expressed their opinions quite loudly. I became good at nodding and ignoring, because I was doing what worked for my family. (I’m witchy when sleep deprived. A happy Barbara was best for all!)

Once I’d learned how to be my son’s OCD coach, I gained confidence in the knowledge that I could help him. When he was accepted to a small private school in Durham, North Carolina, not unlike Harry’s school in the novel, the admissions officer told me they’d never had a pupil with OCD before. My response was to type up an information sheet for the teachers and staff called OCD 101. And I always gave the OCD update at parent-teacher conferences. Some of those teachers are still family friends. Man, I loved that school…

I was our son’s advocate throughout grade school, although I did back off in high school. And I had nothing to do with the college search. My husband and son handled that without me. (An excellent exercise in father-son bonding.) Now that our son’s an adult, I’ve had to learn that I’m no longer his coach. Only he can do the work to manage his anxiety; I just cheer him on from the sidelines.

Being open, finding acceptance, knowing that bad days end…all these have helped me find balance as a mother. And I garden, which is the best therapy. Did I mention I also drink gin every Friday with my best friend? Girlfriends rock.

Barbara-Claypole-White-2

Ella struggles with Harry moving away and going to college on his own, and I understand that you have also gone through the same experience letting your son go off to college as he struggled with OCD. As a parent of a child with invisible disabilities, do you have any advice for moms about letting kids go when you have spent a lifetime monitoring them so carefully? Even thinking about this creates anxiety for me!

I think the first step is always to listen to your child. I was hoping our son would stay in-state, but I never imposed that opinion on him. And thank goodness, because he would have driven home every weekend to hang out with his BFF. Instead he learned to live outside his comfort zone and tackle many of his anxieties, including a terror of flying. We also followed his lead on mental healthcare. Although we researched options on campus, he chose to keep his mental health team here. It turned out to be a wise move. He does phone consults as needed, and I make appointments whenever he’s home on break.

Keeping the communication lines open is also essential. We text every day, and the three of us Skype once a week.  We also have an open policy that he can text or call us at any time of the day or night if he’s in crisis. And I told myself—from day one—that if things didn’t work out and he had to leave, I would be proud of the incredible achievement he had made by going there. So many teens with OCD can’t leave the house, and now he’s a junior in college. My crazy, off-beat son—what a guy.

You have created such an incredible supporting cast. As someone who is very particular about spelling and grammar, I REALLY loved Max and his need to always use punctuation in his text messages. Did you have a favorite supporting character that you loved writing?

Thank you. I love writing secondary characters.  Max was tons of fun because he has none of Harry’s anxiety. Every time I hear Green Day’s ‘Troublemaker’ I think of Max. He’s such a generous soul and so devoted to Harry. But if I had to pick my favorite, it would be Eudora. Writing her was a hoot. She came to me fully formed wearing the hat from the final scene, but I couldn’t see how she would fit into The Perfect Son. I put her aside for a future story…until I was spitting out my first draft, and she appeared in Ella’s garden with a pair of clippers. Then I knew she had to stay.

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 The Perfect Son has received absolutely glowing reviews on Amazon and was selected as a GoodReads Choice Award Semifinalist for Best Fiction in 2015 and as a Kindle First selection. What is that like for you as a writer and do you feel more pressure with your next book to deliver something as equally fantastic?

No pressure, right? Twitch, twitch. The success of The Perfect Son has changed everything, and the demands on my time have skyrocketed. Right now I could work 24 hours a day seven days a week and never be on top of everything, but I’m finally making a living as a novelist and can afford to hire a cleaner. Yay.

When I’m researching and writing, I think only about my characters, not my audience. I’ve also learned that each novel has its own rhythm and I can’t compare my stories. The new manuscript has a very different feel, so I’m intrigued to see how fans react. There’s more dark humor, it’s definitely busier, and I have four strong characters who each insisted on having a voice: Marianne, my record producer heroine—a complex woman who has manic-depression; her almost-daughter Jade, a former teen runaway; Darius, Marianne’s devoted husband, a music legend with anger management issues who got kicked out of AA because he wasn’t an addict; and Gabriel, the English vicar who was Marianne’s first love. Called Echoes of Family it’s due out in late September, and it’s the reverse of The Perfect Son, which is a story about how you can’t escape genetics. This time I’ve created a family without blood ties—a social group that came together out of need and supports each other in a gloriously dysfunctional way. I’m big on dysfunction.

You have said that The Perfect Son has been your most challenging to write. Why did you find this book more challenging than the previous two you wrote?

This was the first novel I wrote entirely to contract, with the deadline clock ticking. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong: I had endless problems with the research—it took me seven months to find a cardiologist who would talk with me; I lost more titles than anyone should have to lose; and I turned the manuscript in to my first publisher only to learn my contract had been cancelled. Fortunately I have the best agent in the world, and two weeks later I had a new contract with a great publisher and a terrific team. Then I came up with the right title and there was no looking back.

Vivienne_Westwood

source: wikipedia

Our readers might be unaware that you were part of the first British Designer Show and have worked for Vivienne Westwood. Are you still passionate about fashion now that you are a writer? Which celebrity was your favorite that you dressed?

I don’t follow trends anymore, but the fashion world has crept into my characters’ backstories. Ella, for example, was a jewelry designer. I’m still a wee bit of a clotheshorse, even though I work in leggings and sweatshirts most of the time. And I love my fuzzy slippers. But I do enjoy clothes retail therapy, and planning author outfits is way too much fun. As for celebrities…I measured an English singer in her bra and knickers once (not telling who!) and she was lovely. But my favorite story from that time was seeing Princess Diana at the first British Designer show. She was wearing pink suede by Maxfield Parrish, one of our clients, and the entire exhibition hall went silent when she walked in. Surrounded by men in black suits, she was taller than most of them and her blonde hair stood out like a beacon. It was an incredible moment; she had such presence.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It has everything: a spunky heroine, a messed-up sexy hero, a mystery, a dysfunctional family, plus love and madness in the English countryside.  And Jane makes Rochester cry. I aim to make all my heroes cry. Yes, even the vicar in Echoes of Family.

The Perfect Son by Barbara Claypole White

You can connect with Barbara Claypole White on her website or through Facebook!  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 Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I have been SO looking forward to this interview with Sharon Guskin this month so I could share more behind her debut novel, The Forgetting Time.  It has been a very long time since I have finished a book in a mere 24 hours, but I could not put this book down and it grabbed me from the first lines until I finished the final page. I think what grabbed me the most is that the premise was something I had not read about before or really had given much thought to. Don’t you love when a book really makes you think or when you begin to question a previous held viewpoint? This book did that for me and I think it might do the same for you!  I can guarantee you will find this book on my top ten list this year- it’s that good!

Honestly, it is difficult to do this interview without any spoilers so if you want to read this one and come back, please do! I really enjoyed piecing this together so I don’t want to take that from you if you haven’t had the chance to read it yet! 

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

What would you do if your four-year-old son claimed he had lived another life and that he wants to go back to it? That he wants his other mother?

Single mom Janie is trying to figure out what is going on with her beloved son Noah. Noah has never been ordinary. He loves to make up stories, and he is constantly surprising her with random trivia someone his age has no right knowing. She always chalked it up to the fact that Noah was precocious―mature beyond his years. But Noah’s eccentricities are starting to become worrisome. One afternoon, Noah’s preschool teacher calls Janie: Noah has been talking about shooting guns and being held under water until he can’t breathe. Suddenly, Janie can’t pretend anymore. The school orders him to get a psychiatric evaluation. And life as she knows it stops for herself and her darling boy.

For Jerome Anderson, life as he knows it has already stopped. Diagnosed with aphasia, his first thought as he approaches the end of his life is, I’m not finished yet. Once an academic star, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, a professor of psychology, he threw everything away to pursue an obsession: the stories of children who remembered past lives. Anderson became the laughing stock of his peers, but he never stopped believing that there was something beyond what anyone could see or comprehend. He spent his life searching for a case that would finally prove it. And with Noah, he thinks he may have found it.

Soon, Noah, Janie, and Anderson will find themselves knocking on the door of a mother whose son has been missing for eight years. When that door opens, all of their questions will be answered.

This book reads a bit like a mystery as you try to solve the puzzle of a child’s unusual first years of life. The story intertwines with a doctor nearing the end of his career due to a deadly diagnosis and could be the only one who could make Noah and his mother’s life better. What Noah is suffering from is beyond what any parent could comprehend. Gripping, thought provoking, and and an excellent pick for any book club! 

Now grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Sharon Guskin today to hear more behind this incredible novel!

sharon-guskin

Your debut novel is absolutely incredible and the way that you write has an assuredness that can be unusual for a first book. I read in a past interview that you have described The Forgetting Time as “my third first novel,” following two earlier novels “that almost sold but didn’t.” You also have been a writer for twenty years which may explain how beautifully you captured this story.  How did you have the perseverance to continue after those books were rejected and what do you think finally clicked with this book that the first two novels seemed to be lacking?

It wasn’t always easy to keep going. There were plenty of days when I thought, “Maybe I should quit.” But I had a lot of support from friends and family.  And as time went on, the process became easier, because my intentions became clearer; I wasn’t writing a book to impress anyone with my sentences, or because I wanted to claim the identity of a “successful writer” or validate my life in some way. That’s the upside of all that disappointment: I became able to extricate my sense of my life’s value from any external success or failure.  So I became free to write what I wanted to write.  I started to work on a story based on a subject that I thought might be interesting to other people, and even eye-opening for them to think about. I think that’s why this book works, and the others didn’t:  my intentions were sound, so I was able to focus simply on telling the story.  My debut novel finally came out this February, a month after my fiftieth birthday, and it has been an entirely wonderful experience.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Dr. Jim Tucker

Dr. Jim Tucker

Your book was inspired by the work of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim Tucker at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the research they did on children who remember previous lifetimes. How did you stumble upon their research and why did you think adding these real-life cases before the chapters adds so much to your story?

I’ve always wondered about what happens when we die (who doesn’t?), but the question became more urgent for me about eight years ago, when I was volunteering at a hospice. My children were still quite young then, and I’d go from diapers and playdates to spending time with people who faced imminent death. And the experience really woke me up, and I started thinking: this can’t be all there is…why aren’t we talking more about this? Around this time, a friend was cleaning out her garage and handed me this book, “Old Souls,” which was by a reporter from the Washington Post who followed Dr. Ian Stevenson as he went about investigating his cases — and these cases really blew me away. Children who made distinct statements (with names, locations, etc.) about being another person in a previous lifetime — statements which were later confirmed after locating the dead individual. Amazing cases, in which children seem to identify relatives from a different life.

And I started to think, why are my children the way they are, with their particular attractions and dislikes? It happens all the time: two siblings come out entirely different. But why? Could it be related to a past life? Then I read “Life Before Life” by Dr. Jim Tucker, and I knew I had to tell a story inspired by these cases. I was very happy we were able to include parts of that nonfiction book in the novel; I think it grounds the book in a way, so the reader can see that I may have made up my story, but I did not make up this phenomenon. It’s real, and I think people might want to know about the real cases…But you don’t have to believe in any of this to enjoy the book!

The fictional Dr. Anderson is diagnosed with aphasia which affects his ability to understand written and spoken language. I understand that you have a family member who has this and it helped you craft the struggles of Dr. Anderson?

Yes, it’s been hard to watch his language deteriorate, and I hope some of my compassion for him came through in the writing of the character. But my relative is also astoundingly positive and present, despite the fact that he can no longer be understood very much by anyone except his wife. So I tried to keep a bit of that aspect, as well.

Return to Life by Dr. Jim Tucker

Almost all of the cases (real and fictional) of children experiencing past lives have happened in other countries and not in the US. In fact, when Noah shares his experience with the officers they are able to believe he has ESP, but dismiss reincarnation. Why do you think Americans have such a hard time believing in children experiencing a past life?

It’s true that most of the cases have been in Asia or in cultures that believe in reincarnation (for instance, the Druze in Lebanon). I think in large part this is because Americans simply don’t take their children seriously when they make comments that seem to indicate a previous lifetime, and the culture itself wouldn’t really encourage children to make that kind of connection even if they have strong feelings and specific memories from a previous existence.

But I think things are changing; everywhere I go, people tell me stories about statements their children have made (“Remember when we lived in China and took care of the babies?” “Remember when I was old and lived in the black house?”) that suddenly seem to make sense to them. And Dr. Tucker’s last book, Return to Life,” is entirely based on extraordinary American cases.

After researching this book, did you find that your own viewpoint changed on reincarnation? What was the most surprising thing you discovered while preparing for this novel?

When I began the book, I was mostly curious and fascinated…but after steeping my mind in these cases for all those years, and becoming familiar with the meticulous, extremely thorough methods of Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Tucker — and getting to know Dr. Tucker, who is one of the most rational and conscientious people you’ll ever meet — I started to think, what do I believe? Do I believe this is true? Actually, I think…. I do.  And that has led me further, to my own spiritual path.  But I think my job as a novelist isn’t to tell anyone what I think happens after you die, but rather to ask the question: What if it’s true? What does that mean for you, and for how you live your life?

One surprising thing: I didn’t have any past-life memories of my own, or at least I didn’t think so. But as I went about writing the novel, images arose on the page that are identical to certain Buddhist images and meditations. Very specific things. I wasn’t familiar with Buddhism while I was writing most of the book — I starting learning more at the end of the process — but by the time I finished I became convinced that I probably had practiced in a previous lifetime. (I guess that’s not so surprising, given my attraction to the material!)

If we are interested in exploring the topic of children experiencing past lives more, what are some of your favorite books or films that we could dive into?

Soul Survivor by Bruce & Andrea Leininger

BOOKS:

Life Before Life” and “Return to Life,” by Dr. Jim Tucker, give a very clear and engaging presentation of this work and of his methodology. “Return to Life” consists of American cases.

Old Souls” by Tom Shroder (a former Washington Post reporter) provides a wonderful portrait of Dr. Stevenson and his work.

Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” and “Children Who Remember Previous Lives,” are slightly more academic books by Dr. Ian Stevenson about this phenomenon.

Children’s Past Lives” by Carol Bowman gives a different, more therapeutically- oriented approach to this topic; she does past-life regression therapy as well.

Soul Survivor” By Bruce and Andrea Leininger tells the gripping story of their young son, who remembered a life as a World War II fighter pilot.

unmistaken-child

Unmistaken Child

FILMS:

Not surprisingly, perhaps, most of the serious films on reincarnation concern spiritual subjects.

My Reincarnation,” is a documentary about Yeshi, the western-born son of a Tibetan Buddhist master. Yeshi is apparently the reincarnation of a Buddhist master himself, but struggles with integrating his father’s tradition into his modern Western world.

Unmistaken Child” is a moving documentary about a Buddhist monk’s search for the reincarnation of his beloved teacher.

Little Buddha” is a narrative, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, about a little boy in Seattle who may be the rebirth of a great Buddhist teacher, Lama Dorje.

I Origins, Birth, and Cloud Atlas are interesting, entertaining (if not really serious) takes on this topic. And on the completely silly front, I always enjoy watching the Albert Brooks movie, “Defending Your Life.”

Since the publication of the novel, you have begun gathering stories of readers who have reached out to you with their own extraordinary stories of children living past lives. What has the response been to this and, if we have a story like this, how can we share it with you?

I’ve been shocked at how many stories are out there. I’d say about a quarter of the people I’ve talked to about the book have shared something with me, usually a statement a child made or a strange or remarkable event that happened to them and changed the way they look at reality. I just started collecting them recently and will post on my website and my Facebook page. If you have a story you’d like to share, please email me at sharon@sharonguskin.com or submit your story here.

And let me know if you’d like to remain anonymous!

Stolen_poster

Our readers might be unaware that you are also a very successful writer and producer of award-winning documentaries! Do you have a favorite project that you worked on? As a documentary junkie, do you also have a few recommendations of your own personal favorites that you think we should binge on?

I worked on a documentary called STOLEN about the art heist at the Isabella Gardner museum that I think is a wonderful, rich, compelling account of Vermeer, Isabella Gardner, and the biggest art theft in America. And the film ON MEDITATION consists of lovely portraits of people who meditate, from my old writing teacher and Zen Buddhist Peter Matthiessen to Giancarlo Esposito and Congressman Tim Ryan.  I’m proud of both films.

Personal favorites? Any film by Albert Maysles (a humane, wonderful filmmaker). ARMOUR OF LIGHT, about an evangelical minister and the mother of a teenage shooting victim who join forces to oppose gun violence in the United States. THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT, an utterly charming and fascinating film about birders in Central Park. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOPTWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

One book that really inspired me recently was Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, a novel about Cambodia. It is both dark and radiant at the same time. She finds meaning and beauty within the horror, which makes the book truly transformative.

You can connect with Sharon Guskin on her website or through Facebook!  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 Immortals (Olympus Bound #1) by Jordanna Max Brodsky (GIVEAWAY!!)

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

sundays-with-writers-1

This post is brought to you in partnership with Orbit Books.

One of the best things I have found about being a bookworm is the ability to explore so many different genres. What I often find surprising is that genres like fantasy or science fiction, books that feel out of my comfort zone of reading, are often my favorite books of the year. Today I am sharing a book that takes a modern spin on Greek mythology in a fresh new way and Greek mythology certainly feels out of my comfort zone!  Growing up I had a very limited exploration of it in my literature classes so the idea of Greek mythology is a little intimidating to me. Is it to you?

I don’t want you to be intimidated by that though because today’s author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, not only builds a compelling story built on these themes, but she also provides a very thorough glossary for you to help assist those of us that aren’t as familiar with Greek mythology as she is.

She creates a thriller experience exploring a serial killer on the loose in Manhattan whose murders follow Greek themes and rituals as you try to uncover the killer involved in the killing spree.

The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky

The Immortals is an ambitious modern day retelling of Greek mythology set in the city of Manhattan. Selene, also known as Artemis, is a woman intent on making men pay for crimes against women. Amidst her vengeance on these men, she stumbles upon the body of a young woman washed ashore, who has been gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. She finds her ancient rage returning and forms an unlikely partnership with the woman’s former lover as they try to figure out who this serial killer is that is performing ritualistic killings in their city. Fans of Greek mythology will swim in this fresh retelling of these ancient stories.

Publishers Weekly states, “This intelligent, provocative fantasy breathes exciting new life into old, familiar tales.” Her book also has been selected as a Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Pick as well as Amazon’s Best Book of the Month.

I am so honored to have Jordanna join us today to share about the research and travel she did to create this fresh spin on Greek mythology.  Jordanna is also sharing a copy of her book to share with one lucky reader! Scroll down to enter! 

Now grab your coffee and let’s settle in for a chat with Jordanna about the debut of her new Olympus Bound book series!

JordannaBrodsky-creditBenArons

As a debut novelist, tell me about your excitement to have your novel selected not only as Barnes & Noble’s Bookseller’s Pick, but also as an Amazon Best Book of the Month? What has been the most surprising part about writing and publishing your first book?

It’s always thrilling to have your book recognized, and I certainly hope the extra publicity will help spread the word.

I always thought the most exciting single moment would be seeing my book on the shelf at a store—everything would finally seem real.  But surprisingly, the best thing by far is hearing from total strangers about how much they’re enjoying it.  As a passionate reader, I’ve always loved sinking into a book and having it come to life around me.  Knowing that I’ve provided that pleasure to others is absolutely awesome.

You explore Greek mythology and all the gods & goddesses that go along with it through a uniquely modern day twist set in the city of Manhattan. What compelled you to write a modern day retelling of Greek mythology and why did you choose this city, in particular, to set the scene for this story?

Like so many people, my love of Greek mythology began when I was a kid.  I tore through D’Aulaires Greek Myths, and I still remember getting to the end and wondering, And then what happened? The book implies that the gods’ statues fell, their temples crumbled, and they just disappeared.  Ever since, I’ve dreamed of changing that ending.

Approaching the story as an adult, I began to see that the Greek gods provide all sorts of opportunities for exploring themes far deeper than those I recognized as a child: the intersection of myth and history, the question of who creates identity, the evolution of perceptions of gender and virginity, and age-old arguments about the desirability of immortality.  The Immortals explores all those questions and more.

the-blockhouse-central park

the blockhouse in central park- image from wikipedia

As for the setting, putting the ancient Greek gods in quintessentially modern New York City may seem like a stretch, but for me it was a no-brainer. Manhattan is actually the oldest big city in America—it stretches all the way back to the early 1600s.  It’s old enough and big enough to hold secrets.  As a New Yorker myself, I’m always struck by how many historical sites are tucked between the skyscrapers, unbeknownst to tourists or even long-term residents.  My favorite: an 1814 defensive blockhouse perched on a hill in the north end of Central Park, surrounded by thick forest.  You can see the midtown skyline from there, but you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

My Artemis, the Goddess of the Wilderness, came to a tree-covered island inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Indians four hundred years ago, and she’s lived here ever since, watching the city grow up around her.  Now she prowls the last wild spaces in Central Park, still clinging to her memories of the past.

Your chapters have very unique titles that I understand all came from epithets, which you had a plethora of them to choose from since Artemis has over 300 epithets alone just to describe herself! Did you have a favorite and how did you decide to settle upon epithets for chapter titles?

My favorite epithet is “Relentless One” because it embodies both the best and the worst of Artemis’s personality.

The idea of using the epithets for chapter titles actually came from my friend and agent, Jennifer Joel.  I immediately latched on to it because Artemis’s abundance of epithets is one of her most appealing traits.

Each name embodies a different aspect of her personality, and many are completely contradictory.  She’s the Punisher and the Good Maiden.  I think each of us contains a multitude of titles as well—those we’ve chosen for ourselves and those society has thrust upon us—even if we don’t articulate them.  We can’t help but empathize with Artemis.

I understand that much research was involved in this book as well as traveling, even though you have a degree in both literature and history from Harvard. How much research did you have to do into Greek mythology to begin telling this ambitious story and what was one of the most surprising facts you discovered when researching for this book?

My desk is literally teetering with books on Greek myth, religion, and culture.  The good and bad news is that very limited written evidence exists for a lot of what I’m writing about.  Ancient Greek civilization reached its peak well over two thousand years ago, and they transmitted most of their stories orally. Most of what they did write down disappeared after the destruction of Greco-Roman society by barbarian hordes.  So we have fragments, scraps, and retellings by later authors who used their own imaginations to reconstruct the stories.  For the historian side of me, such gaps drove me crazy, but they also gave me the leeway I needed when it came to telling a fictional story about the gods.

Even knowing full well that much of the ancients’ knowledge has been lost to us, I was still shocked to discover the extent of our ignorance.  For instance, in The Immortals, Selene investigates a serial killer who is reenacting the rituals of an ancient Greek cult.  This cult was the most popular religious society in classical Athens. It lasted for thousands of years and involved thousands of participants, many of them literate.  Yet no one ever wrote down the details of the cult’s secret practices, because to do so was punishable by death. Can you imagine modern people keeping such a secret?  It would be a tell-all HBO documentary within a matter of months! For centuries now, scholars have tried in vain to figure out what the cult did behind closed doors and what spurred its incredible popularity. To me, that’s an irresistible mystery—one that plays a large role in The Immortals.

I love a powerful heroine and you definitely have carved out a beautiful one in Selene who acts as a protector to women who are being abused. Why did you settle upon this career path for Selene and can we expect her to continue in this same mission as the series progresses?

Despite the fading of her supernatural powers, I wanted Selene to hold on to her most important title: the Protector of the Innocent.  Because of her immortality—not to mention her anti-social proclivities—I figured she’d have a hard time as a cop in the modern world.  That left me with private investigator/bodyguard/vigilante.

As for her future path, you’ll have to read the upcoming Winter of the Gods to find out the details.

Are you finding it easier to write the second book now that you have such a strong understanding of Greek mythology or are you continuing to expand upon your research to develop the next book?

I’m definitely expanding.  First of all, a slew of other Olympians appear in Winter of the Gods, so I’ve had to do all sorts of research on them.  Secondly, I’m examining a whole new Roman cult religion that I knew nothing about before I started.  It’s taken me back to Italy for an exploration of the extant temples and led me to all sorts of other research topics including astronomy and early Christianity. The research is never done: I’ve already started delving into ancient philosophy and mathematics for Book Three!

D’Aulaires Greek Myths

If we are interested in exploring Greek mythology further, what are some of your recommendations for books or documentaries that we could check out to learn more about this time in history?

If you never read it as a kid, you should check out D’Aulaires Greek Myths. It’s full of magnificent illustrations, and although it’s written for young people, it presents the myths in a rich, detailed way that’s appealing to people of all ages.  If you’re looking for a great, readable treatment of Greek religion and civilization that’s full of fantastic photos of artifacts and sites, try Exploring the World of the Ancient Greeks by John Camp and Elizabeth Fisher.

And after you brush up on your basic mythology, I certainly recommend trolling through your local museum’s Greek and Roman collection.  I’m lucky enough to live ten minutes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has one of the best.  There’s nothing like coming face-to-face with Artemis as depicted by the ancients themselves.  If you want a quick refresher on the different gods, visit my website, where I’ve also posted my own photos of favorite statues and artifacts that I’ve encountered in museums around the world.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Glad to see another author already posted about The Song of Achilles, which is my favorite novelization of Greek myth.  I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys The Immortals!

As for non-myth books, I’d have to pick Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and ClayIt’s one of the few books I’ve read that I immediately told everyone in my life to pick up.  Set primarily in 1940s New York, it tells the story of two Jewish cousins (one of whom escapes from Nazi Europe) who create superheroes for the Golden Age of Comics. Add in a Harry Houdini subplot, love stories both gay and straight, a wealth of historical New York City detail, and the most sublime prose style I’ve ever encountered, and you get an irresistible work of brilliance.

Enter below to win a copy of The Immortals! Follow the instructions on the widget to enter to win!

You can connect with Jordanna Max Brodsky on her website, on the official Olympus Bound page,  or through Facebook!  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! This post was brought to you in partnership with Orbit Books.

 

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Sundays With Writers: No Ordinary Life by Suzanne Redfearn

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I am so excited to have my first author returning to our Sundays With Writers series. Suzanne Redfearn happened to be the first writer I ever reached out to for our interview series after I read her incredibly fast-paced thriller, Hush Little BabyToday she joins me again with a very different book from her first that made me think a lot about what it would like to be a child star and the challenges a parent would face in her new novel, No Ordinary Life.

No Ordinary LIfe by Suzanne Redfearn

I am a big fan of Suzanne Redfearn and this book does not disappoint!

In this quick page-turner, a single mother’s daughter is discovered after a YouTube video goes viral of her singing and dancing, at the tender age of four. She is immediately picked up for commercial work and then auditions & wins a lead role in a television show. Going from having nothing to having everything, you follow this mother as she juggles the demands of being a stage mom, the intrusive media, and protecting her children from Hollywood & her ex who just wants the biggest piece of the financial pie.

Redfearn effectively utilizes other famous stars and their stories to craft a compelling piece on the many pitfalls of growing up a child star and the rarity of survival in the industry.

Grab your coffee and let’s settle in with Suzanne as she shares more behind her latest book!

suzanne-redfearn

You are our first author that I have gotten to interview twice in our Sundays With Writers series and I am so honored to feature your latest book, No Ordinary Life It was actually your interview that kicked off the whole series, if you can believe it! I really enjoyed your fast-paced thriller, Hush Little Baby so I was expecting another thriller again, but you took a completely different route and share the story of a child who has been discovered and begins a Hollywood career. What was it about this topic that interested you that you would want to write an entire book about it?

Wow, that is so amazing. I love that I was your first author for the series. Thank you for inviting me back. I actually had no idea this topic would be as interesting as it was. I knew my publisher wanted me to write another story about a mother protecting her children, and I was standing in line at the grocery store when I saw a headline that read, “Zac Efron Enters Rehab Again.” My daughter was a huge High School Musical fan when she was young, so I felt like I had watched Zac Efron grow up, and to know he was suffering and that his suffering was made public made me feel horrible for him and his parents. The idea Child Star popped in my head. At that point I wasn’t certain what the story was going to be, but I liked the idea of exploring what goes on behind the glitz and glamour that causes so many young actors’ to suffer such tragic setbacks and downfalls.

Shirley Temple

You have said that you have drawn a lot of inspiration from the childhood careers of Jodie Foster and Shirley Temple. What was it about these two child stars in particular that interested you in helping shape Molly?

I believe certain stars are destined for greatness. They have the “it” factor. Both Jodie Foster and Shirley Temple had it in spades. They were extraordinarily precocious, and the moment the spotlight found them, they were certain to soar to superstardom. I needed Molly to be like that, her star a runaway train that would make it nearly impossible for her mom to control.

YouTube was the avenue of discovery for Molly although it was a video posted by someone else that actually got her discovered. Do you think that this violates our privacy rights if someone has not agreed to have it socially shared? Would you be upset if someone posted a video of your child without permission?

It is a complicated question. I do feel our children need to be protected and yet trying to control videos being posted on social media seems like an impossible task. Molly’s dance was an innocent street performance and did not show her doing anything unseemly. What happened was more a result of how Faye dealt with the sudden notoriety rather than the notoriety itself. I suppose if the posting of a video resulted in direct damage to someone, the person who posted it should be liable, but I don’t think that was the case with Molly. And yes, I would be upset if someone posted a video of my child without my permission. It does seem like a violation. So I don’t know. Good question, one that would be a good topic for debate.

There is a pretty dramatic airport scene in this book where Molly is tired and throwing a tantrum while the mother is being engulfed in paparazzi in this difficult parenting moment. Did you bring your own parenting struggles in to shape this difficult mom moment? Has this changed your viewpoint at all on celebrity magazines and their tactics of reporting or did you already have strong feelings about that?

That is my favorite scene in the book. Thank you for asking about it. I love the airport scene. As a mom, it was the scene that affected me the most. I was once in a Bed, Bath, and Beyond when my daughter had a meltdown because I wouldn’t buy her a toy she desperately wanted. For twenty minutes I stood there while she screamed and tantrumed with people walking by with either sympathetic expressions or judgmental frowns. It was the worst feeling, and to imagine something like that happening while dozens of photographers documented it, knowing it was going to be plastered in every tabloid and shown on every celebrity gossip show in the world made my heart split in two with sympathy for Faye. It was the pinnacle moment in the story that illustrated how out of control Faye’s life had become.

Do you think you would let your child pursue a career in Hollywood after doing this research for your book? Did reading more of their struggles and their parent’s struggles make you more sympathetic to the challenges of their work?

I would not, but after writing this story, I am also not one to cast stones. It is easy for me to say I would not put my child in that world when I live in a nice house with a secure future, my children well provided for. I understand why Faye did what she did. I am not certain it was the right decision, but I am sympathetic to it. This is one story, and though it is based in part on stories I read of former young actors, it is fiction. Many former young actors have gone on to live successful, trouble-free lives and look back on their years in the spotlight with gratitude and fondness.

If we are interested in reading more about child stars and their families, what were some of your favorite reads or documentaries so we can check them out too?

Diary of  Stage Mother's Daughter by Melissa Francis

My favorite autobiography was by Melissa Francis (youngest Ingall on Little House on the Prarie). Her book was called Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter and it was a heart wrenching about what fame did to her family. Also Justin Bieber’s mom wrote an autobiography titled, Nowhere but Up, and it is a frank look at her life and Justin Bieber’s rocket ride to superstardom and how a child can be swept up into the dangerous world of celebrity and a parent left struggling to hold on. There is also a movie about Shirley Temple’s life, Child Star that was fascinating.

The Coogan Law requires that fifteen percent of a minor’s earnings be set aside in a trust until they are eighteen so a child star can end up with little or no money. Do you think that the current set-up is fair and do you think the family is entitled to a portion of those earnings after researching this topic and what a juggle it is for the entire family?

Unfortunately the law has loopholes, and many young actors still find themselves with nothing or very little when they become adults. I think the laws in regard to child performers definitely need to be reexamined and parents need to be held accountable for making sure a child’s earnings are protected. A family should be compensated for the work they do in regards to helping a child actor be successful, but it needs to be a minor percentage not the majority.

Many readers may be unaware that you actually have a background as an architect. Are you still working in architecture and how has that career background helped you as a writer?

I still love architecture, but writing has become full-time work for me. I find the two processes remarkably similar, and I find my architecture training really influences my writing. In architecture when I begin a project, I start with an inkling of an idea then set to work researching the site, the clients, the surroundings, and the history around it, then I throw as many ideas as come to me down on paper and see what comes of it, waiting for the “terroir” (a wine making term that means the specific characteristics of a vineyard) to determine what the project wants to be—the sculpture hidden within the stone so to speak. Writing is the same. I start with the germ of an idea—celebrity and what it does to a person and the people around them—then I research everything I can about the subject, going wherever the idea takes me and not censoring myself at all, trusting that every path will lead me closer to the story. Then I write, write, write—pages and pages of notes, passages, dialog, chapters, plotlines—until the characters begin to emerge and the story begins to tell itself, the single right story that wants to be told.

Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

My favorite all-time book is The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.

You can connect with Suzanne Redfearn on her website or through Facebook!  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 Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Sundays With Writers

I had to take a little hiatus on our Sundays With Writers series simply because I had to really buckle down and read some new books so we could begin featuring more incredible writers on our site.  Today it thrills me to get to share an interview with Melanie Benjamin to discuss her latest novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue. I have read every single book written by her and have loved them all. If you haven’t dug into her other books check out The Aviator’s Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, & Alice I Have Been for some REALLY fantastic historical fiction escapes. She has a way of exploring moments in history with such fresh eyes that I have adored her work for many years.

Yup, I am a gushing fan girl!

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley- The Swans of Fifth Avenue  is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.

You can really tell that Benjamin is passionate about this era and the telling of the story of Truman Capote and his swans. I think the challenge with this story is that many of these characters are so unlikable and not easy to relate to. Benjamin beautifully adds depth though in her fictional retelling of Capote and the ladies that grew to love him, that shows that all he wanted in life was the love of his mother. 

As someone who was unfamiliar with his life story, I had a great time reading all of the stories and hunting for the pictures of all these elite ladies after I finished this one. There is lots of glamour and backstabbing that reads a bit like a good gossip magazine. 

Grab your coffee and let’s chat with Melanie Benjamin about her latest book today!

Melanie Benjamin

Before we dive into The Swans of Fifth Avenue, your incredible new novel, I wanted to ask you a question that I have been curious about for quite some time. Why did you decide to write under a pseudonym and how does that work for an author? Did you select a name, did your publishing house, or was it a combination of working together to create this?

I published 2 books, 10 years ago, under my real name but those books were not successful.  I found that in order to be published again, particularly once moving to historical fiction, I needed to submit under a pseudonym – something that happens more often than you might think.  I chose the name, combining my first name with my son’s first name.

Truman Capote

 Although a huge fan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the movie version, I was embarrassingly unfamiliar with Truman Capote and his career and social climb with the book. I understand that in your teens you were familiar with the Truman Capote towards the end of his career, but you were less familiar with the beginning of his story. What compelled you to want to research him and what do you think was the most surprising fact you uncovered about him when you first started researching his story?

I simply came across the only book I owned written by him, this book called Answered Prayers.”  (I have often found inspiration for my novels in my own bookshelves; this is how I wrote THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, by re-reading a biography of Charles Lindbergh that I’d read years before.)  While paging through this book I came across the short story “La Cote Basque 1965,” and had a vague recollection that the publication of this short story had resulted in a significant literary scandal, which I immediately realized might be a juicy topic for a novel.  And then I was off!

Babe Paley

All of Truman’s swans had such interesting lives, but the one swan that really stood out for me was Babe Paley, who worked so very hard to be the perfect trophy wife. Even Truman has been quoted as saying, “Babe Paley had only one fault. She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.”

You really pull back the curtain though and show what a strain that was on Babe and her inability to allow anyone to see her flaws. Do you think she suffered from OCD or do you think the traumatic car accident she was in and her upbringing made her unable to show her true self to people?

 I think she was a creative woman who was told to stifle that creative impulse in order to do what she was raised to do, what her mother expected of her:  Marry, and marry spectacularly.  This sublimation of her creativity meant that she had no outlet other than making sure her life, and that of her husband, was, at least on the surface, perfect.  And she did pour her entire self into making that so – at least, to the naked eye.  That kind of sublimation means that you can’t show your real, ugly, messy, vulnerable side to people; they simply don’t expect it of you and wouldn’t know what to do.  But with Truman, for some reason, she felt she could be herself, and show that imperfect side of her personality. 

Truly, one of my favorite scenes that you carved in this book was when Babe & Truman go to the movie theater and Truman is crying because he relates so much to Pinocchio and his desire to be a real boy because he has never felt like one. Did Truman share about rejection from his mother because of his sexuality or is this something that you wanted to fictionally explore?

It’s fairly well documented that Truman had a very uneasy relationship with his mother.  She basically abandoned him as a child, and when she did send for him, when he was around the age of ten, she had a very difficult time accepting him as he was – an unashamed homosexual, different, even as a young man.  He never tried to be anything other than who he was.  But his mother forced him to attend military school – an absolute disaster – and simply could not accept his homosexuality.  So I didn’t make those facts up; they are recorded.  But what I explore, as a novelist, is the way Truman reacted to this; the real toll he never felt comfortable sharing.   In front of most everyone in his life, Truman joked everything away, or chose not to tell the truth at all, significantly embellishing his memories and experiences.  While focusing on his relationship with Babe—and truly, only the two of them knew what drew them to each other, and what cemented this unusual, passionate relationship—I had to imagine, then, that to Babe, he did reveal the psychological scars.

You have curated a fantastic guide to following in the footsteps of the swans. Did you visit, stay, or eat at any of the places that were featured in your guide? Which of these experiences made you feel most like a swan yourself?

Yes, I did!  I think having tea at the St. Regis made me feel the most swan-like.  It was elegant, but not intimidating.  I felt the Plaza was more intimidating.  Bergdorf’s, too.  But I loved the St. Regis!

Due to Truman’s inability to create the next great book, he publishes the secrets of the swans in the short story that ends up kicking him out of the inner circle. Did you sympathize with Truman as a writer and that desperation to create the next big thing?

Yes, and no.  I’ve never feared running out of stories to tell.  But I’ve also not had the life-changing experience, the instant, world-wide celebrity that Truman enjoyed after IN COLD BLOOD was published.  Part of me understood his desire to relax and enjoy the fame that came his way; he’d worked for years on the book, and that takes a toll.  But I really did mourn how he wasted his talent, after that.  Early on, Truman was the most disciplined of writers.  After IN COLD BLOOD, he was not.

Donald J Pliner Booties

(follow Melanie Benjamin on Facebook so you can see her cute shoe collection!)

I understand that you love to treat yourself to new shoes for your book tours. As someone who is a bit shoe obsessed, I can appreciate this! What shoes did you treat yourself to for this tour and do you think they would be swan-approved?

I have a pair of fabulous Donald J. Pliner booties that have really turned out to be workhorses (editor’s note- I found a similar budget-friendly pair for you, dear readers!).  In that—they’re comfortable, they look great with everything!  I also bought some L.K. Bennet snakeskin (fake, I think!) pumps that, unfortunately, have not worked out so well.  The first time I wore them, they stretched out so that my foot was sliding, and then I tore some of the snakeskin print on the heels.  I’m going to take them to a shoe repair place and see if I can salvage them.  They’re so pretty!  And they cost so much!   But I do think both pairs would be swan-approved (although probably far too cheap, for the Swans.  I’m sure they went for Ferragamo and Prada.).

If we want to explore the story of Truman Capote or the swans more, what was your favorite book and/or documentary that you can recommend so we can dive more into the story after reading your book?

I recommend several books in my author’s note at the end of THE SWANS.  Any of these would be great, but I suppose the most comprehensive is Gerald Clarke’s biography.

 Lastly, what is one of your all-time favorite books? (This will be added to one of our most visited posts of must-reads from the authors featured in Sundays With Writers)

Moss Hart’s ACT ONE.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

You can connect with Melanie Benjamin on her website or through Facebook!  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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