Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Portland, queer culture, the families we make and unmake, and how we break free and find our true selves. Chelsey Johnson talks about her Indie Next debut STRAY CITY (brilliant title, right? Why can't I think of brilliant titles like that?)

What are more beautiful seven words than: You have to read this book? I was sent Chelsey Johnson's incredible Indie Next Pick, STRAY CITY and fell in love with it, so of course I had to host her on the blog. And I'm not the only one who loves her book about Portland, queer culture, rebels, and the families we make--and remake.  Look at this praise:

Stray City has it all. As funny as it is moving; as joyful, as radically communal, as it is lonesome, the novel covers the varied complications of place, home, sex, city—but mostly it's about the necessary and unexpected revolutions of the self, and about how queerly we make our way through this world. Honestly, one of the most absorbing, finely-tuned books I’ve had the pleasure of falling down into. Chelsey Johnson is a wonder.
Justin Torres, bestselling author of We the Animals

Written with wit and sensitivity and exquisite emotional intelligence, Stray City is an absolute pleasure to read. Chelsey Johnson is one of the most refreshing new voices in literature.
Jami Attenberg, New York Times bestselling author of The Middlesteins and All Grown Up

A winsome novel about love and belonging—and the possibility of discovering both in the most unlikely of places, and among the most unexpected people. Tender and smart, Stray City is a fantastic debut from a huge talent.
Cristina Henríquez, bestselling author of The Book of Unknown Americans

A love letter to Portland and to the youthful effort of world-making that created its important queer culture in the '90s, Stray City is a gorgeous, funny, sharply spot-on tale of growing up and making family again and again and again.
Michelle Tea, award-winning author of Valencia and Black Wave

Insightful and brilliant, Stray City explores the stickiness of doing what’s expected and the strange freedom born of contradiction. I tore through this novel like an orphaned reader seeking a home in the ragtag yet shimmering world that Chelsey Johnson so wondrously brings to life.
Carrie Brownstein, New York Times-bestselling author of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Here's the impressive bio: Chelsey received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a Teaching Writing Fellow, and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford. Her debut novel Stray City is forthcoming from Custom House/ HarperCollins in 2018, and her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and NPR's Selected Shorts, among others. She has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Signal Fire Arts. She is an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary, and is currently in Los Angeles working on a television project for Hulu.

Thank you Chelsey!

I always want to know what haunted a writer (or propelled them) to write a specific novel. What was it for you?

So many things. I was driven from the outset by homesickness, by thinking about home and where you end up and why. The book actually originated from Ryan’s story, so I was writing about Bemidji, the town in northern Minnesota where my mom’s family is from, an hour from where I grew up. I feel deeply tied to northern Minnesota and yet I don’t know if I could ever return there to live, so I wrote my way through that tortured love and curiosity. Then I left Portland, and I didn’t mean to—it was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig that then turned into another and another—so I turned to Andrea’s perspective and wrote frantically, furiously trying to render the world I missed so much, trying to capture what it was, both so I could reinhabit it and also because I started to suspect I might not be able to go back to it, and I didn’t want to forget what it had been like. I’d never known a community or a city-love like that. But I also didn’t want the writing to be sentimental or nostalgic—I wanted to capture the contradictions and frustrations of that life. Queer people love each other and we hurt each other and we drive each other crazy. Just like any other family.

What I especially loved about Stray City, besides the whip-smart writing and Andrea, herself, was the whole notion of just what is conventional, what isn’t, and how we make up our own worlds and families. What does this all mean in terms of motherhood, relationships,  and locale? (Whew, long question.)

This is where living in Portland, among my particular community, had such an enormous influence on my thinking. It really is a city of strays, and although I came from an intact nuclear family, that was quite rare among people I knew. Nearly all of my dear friends (queer and straight alike!) came from families that had been ruptured in significant ways. We all carried some form of family damage, either directly from our own families of origin, or from the culture’s dominant lie of what counts as family, and which families deserve protection and exaltation and which are legally worthless. And we formed these deep, equally honorable familial and communal bonds among friends. So I wanted to write about how we form our own ad hoc families, and how we try to recreate family through actually having kids.

Just as with gender norms, I think that great American lie of what The Family is  hurts everyone, not just queer and trans people. I think its ironclad expectations of marry-reproduce-repeat suit some people perfectly—queer and straight!—and serve many people, of all orientations, very poorly. There are so many options of how to make your way and make your family, and I wanted Stray City to explore that.

So much of Stray City feels like a love letter to Portland—and to our youth. Please, would you talk about this?

It really is a love letter to my friends and to Portland itself, a flawed beautiful place that I love helplessly on some like, cellular level. The city has changed so much—it’s gotten very upscale and Instagram-y and in my shabby little North Portland neighborhood many of the shacks have been wiped out and replaced with obstreperous posh houses totally out of scale—but the homey jankiness and diveyness I love stubbornly hangs on, and the verdant greenery and moody weather will always be there. Until recently it was the perfect city for broke youth because even though you’d make no money, you could live cheaply and have plenty of time to play music, make art, volunteer at the rock camp, whatever. You could have a life. One thing I loved about Portland is that people never asked about your education or your job. It didn’t matter where you’d gone to college or if you’d gone to college, and what you did for money wasn’t really what you did. Thinking back, with many of my friends, I could not even tell you for sure what their day job was. What mattered was what you were making, what you wanted to do.  We were old enough to have some life experience and keep ourselves afloat, but young enough to still have that energizing hubris and a low enough standard of living that we were fine with whatever dilapidated roof was over our heads. I loved that age where you could follow some wild urge and overturn your life, and pull it off by the skin of your teeth, responsible only for yourself and maybe a pet.

The sad coda is that Portland’s soaring popularity and new affluence has started to kill off that DIY culture that made it special. Many of my friends have left, and many of those who remain are under constant financial stress and anxiety. The precarity that felt manageable ten years ago feels soul-crushing now, and it’s not just about youth.

What kind of writer are you, and did anything change while you were writing this book? How does it feel to be a debut author getting such major praise? Does it make writing your next book harder or easier?
I started teaching creative writing while I was writing the book, and that more than anything changed my writing—for the better. Teaching fiction was a crash course in spotting predictable narrative patterns and cliched language, and when I turned that eagle eye on my own work I instantly saw all the ways I’d unconsciously tripped into the same grooves my students did. I became a more impatient reader, eager for something fresh, eager for story, and that motivated me to make things happen on the page. But also my students made me up my game because many of them are so talented. I’m in awe of what they’re doing, how inventive and funny and dark they can go, and when they hit their stride, really inhabit their voices, I get to work with renewed pleasure and urgency.

I’ve gone from being a very quick writer, dashing off shiny sentences that pleased me and never looking back, to being a much slower writer, layering and plotting, not just doing  but thinking about what I’m doing. I also care much more about humor. Humor amplifies sadness and anger like nothing else. I want to read it, so I want to write it.

Press praise is wonderful, and I’m so grateful for it, though I’m always terrified that a hatchet job is just around the corner so I try not to put too much stock in what any particular critic thinks. The warm feedback that’s meant the most to me isn’t what shows up in magazines or listicles or online reviews, but from friends, from writers whose work I love, and from my former students. Those have real impact. And they’re what motivate me to want to write the next book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m obsessed with public lands: their troubled histories and the violence of Indian removal that created them, their complex and precarious ecologies, recent tussles over their use, and their endangerment under the current administration. I’m also obsessed with the queer history of Los Angeles. I keep returning to the ONE Archives, this incredible LBGTQ archive housed at USC. I can lose myself for hours in that stuff. The 1970s in particular have seized my imagination—so much art and activism and community-building was going on. If you want to know queer history, you have to seek it out, it’s probably not going to get taught to you or passed down through your family. And when you do, you’re richly rewarded. There’s this treasure trove of publications and images and stories and ephemera and elders—a whole universe of which you are in some small way a legacy. It’s thrilling and very moving. Not surprisingly, both of these obsessions are making their way into my current writing projects.

What question didn't I ask that I should have.
Hm, maybe you could ask what is one piece of writing advice I give my students. And my answer would be: Estimate how much time you think you need to write this story. Write it down. Now multiply that by three. That’s how long it will actually take.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chris Bohjalian talks about THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, flawed heroines, the bliss of writing, and so much more

 Filled with turbulence and sudden plunges in altitude, ‘The Flight Attendant’ is a very rare thriller whose penultimate chapter made me think to myself, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ The novel — Bohjalian’s 20th — is also enhanced by his deftness in sketching out vivid characters and locales and by his obvious research into the realities of airline work.”
— Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Chris Bohjalian's brand new novel, “The Flight Attendant,” just landed. I couldn't resist opening with that play on words. I first met Chris on a stage at Rainy Day Books. Pictures of You was just published, I was on tour, and I was NERVOUS. Chris was so funny, warm, supportive. AND he wore bright yellow sneakers in honor of my red boots. We had a blast that day, and I've loved him ever since.

His latest novel, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT is smart, surprising, and I guarantee you'll be up all night because what's sleep compared to tension and suspense?

Ready for the impressive bio?

His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Hartford Courant, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.

His awards include the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; a Best Lifestyle Column for “Idyll Banter” from the Vermont Press Association; and the Anahid Literary Award. His novel, Midwives,was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Thank you, thank you, for everything, Chris.

 I always want to know what was haunting you that made you know that now was the time to write this novel.

I didn’t necessarily know “this” was the time for this novel.  Sometimes I seem to get lucky and sense what’s out there in the zeitgeist.  But I wasn’t thinking when I began writing what would become The Flight Attendant in March 2016, “Russian espionage and election meddling will be a news story in March 2018.”  I wish I had that kind of foresight. 
But I have always been fascinated with the Russian soul and loved Russian literature.  And as you know from our wonderful events together in 2011 when you were touring for your magnificent novel, Pictures of You, and I was touring for The Night Strangers, I’ve always been fascinated by aviation and air travel.  I am in awe of flight attendants and pilots.
 And one evening, it all came together at – appropriately – a bar.  I had just flown into JFK from Armenia via Moscow, and I was meeting a friend for dinner at an Armenian restaurant we love in Manhattan.  I was an hour early and so I settled with a glass of arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored alcohol I love.  And my mind was thinking about air travel and Russia, and I suddenly I was scribbling frantically on every piece of scrap paper the bartender had handy.  The premise?  A flight attendant who drinks too much would wake up in a sumptuous hotel bed in Dubai next to a dead body.  All I knew when I started writing was that it would be a thriller with a deeply flawed heroine, and there would be Russian intrigue.

So much of The Flight Attendant is about what we remember and why, what we are addicted to and why, and how those forces shape us. Can you talk about that please?

As a species, we move away from pain and we move toward pleasure.  I assume all animals do. 
In the case of my flight attendant, Cassie Bowden, she has become addicted to the pleasure – alcohol – that took away her pain.  Her deep emotional pain.  All those margaritas and negronis she downs in the course of the novel?  All that arak and all that wine?  It’s drowning a lot of unhappiness and a lot of terrible scars from her childhood. 
 So, yes, she is a functional alcoholic.  And like a lot of alcoholics, she is also a profoundly wounded bird.  I think that’s why I cared about her so much and worried about her so much.

I remember years ago, you were talking about researching plane crashes, and how people shouldn’t rest their feet under their seats if they’re ever told to brace for impact in an imminent crash, because they might break their ankles and be unable to walk away from a crash! I imagine you learned some new things in researching this novel! Pray tell!

 Well, I learned the difference in cost if you want to kill a contracts manager in Donetsk versus Dubai.  That helped the novel immeasurably. 
But the things I learned that have really stayed with me are just how spectacular most flight attendants are and how hard the job really is.  The women and men who keep us safe and manage the passenger cabin of an airplane are well-trained, dedicated, and incredibly fast on their feet – and they deal with all sorts of horrific passenger misbehavior.  The stories they told me about drunk passengers, entitled passengers, ornery passengers, and just plain rude passengers were astonishing.  And, yes, I used a lot of those stories in the novel – including the tale I came across in my research about the grandmother who allowed her toddler grandson to try and urinate into an air sickness bag.  The lad missed.  The nearby passengers wound up soaked.  And the grandmother?  Not an ounce of contrition.

Holy cow, you have movie rights optioned!  Will you do a cameo? Any interest in writing the script?

Yes, Kaley Cuoco of The Big Bang Theory has optioned it for a limited series for Warner Brothers TV.  I couldn’t be happier.  There is no actor I can think of more perfect to bring my alcoholic hot mess of a flight attendant to life than Kaley. 
 I am not writing the script.  But I am co-writing the screenplay for the film of my 2017 novel, The Sleepwalker. 
I’m also writing a new stage adaptation of my 1997 novel, Midwives.

I also have to ask you this: The galley is phenomenal looking, with quotes from every major paper around. Yet, knowing you, I know that you are one of the kindest, most down-to-earth writers I know. How have you avoided what fame does to some writers?

 Well, I could ask the exact same question of you.  And I think most of our mutual friends who write are pretty down-to-earth and keep us humble.
Also, writing isn’t a zero sum game.  There’s room for all of us. I’ll bet you read between forty and fifty books a year. 
Finally – again, like you – I never lose sight of what a blessing it is to be a novelist.  It’s just so damn much fun.  The Flight Attendant is my twentieth book, and my goal has been to never write the same book twice.  And that’s meant I’ve never been bored.  Some novels have been much harder to write than others and some books have been much better than others, but so long as I’ve tried something new and tried my best, it’s always been pretty satisfying.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

 I’m deep into my next novel.  Shhhhhhhh. . .

Susan Henderson talks about THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, dusty dying towns, morticians, loss, and so much more.

First, the huge praise:

The Flicker of Old Dreams is at once a vivid and wildly compelling study of small town American life and an intimate and incisive exploration of the human condition, from love to loss and beyond. If Shirley Jackson and Kent Haruf had a love child, she might write like Susan Henderson. —Jonathan Evison, New York Times bestselling author of West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving  

This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book. —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World

Like the wind scours paint from an old grain silo, Susan Henderson’s writing scours away all the pretend niceness of small town life in Montana to reveal the frayed and patched nature of humanity.  Nobility, ragged resilience and hope compete with small-minded ignorance in a story of unlikely friendship that is sharply detailed and so beautifully written. —Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War 

Susan Henderson offers us the wondrously sharp picture of small town Petroleum, Montana, where the past comes back on two feet and a blizzard rages. The Flicker of Old Dreams is a fine novel, heartfelt and bracing company. It is a gemRon Carlson, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry award-winning author of At the Jim Bridger and Ron Carlson Writes a Story

Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams is a clear-eyed, wise, and poignant tale of losses and gains, told with tremendous empathy and grace. —Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald 

This book. This author. This writing. I am struggling to find adequate praise—I did not want this to end. —Ron Block, host of  A Cook and a Book 

This next anecdote will tell you all you need to know about Susan Henderson. In the middle of writing my novel, weeping because I was sure it didn't work, that my career was over, I emailed Susan to tell her that was it, everything was done. She immediately said, "Send it to me. Right now. I'll read it." I knew how busy she was with her own work, but she took the time, and in 3 days (3 days!) sent me back my manuscript, yellow-highlighted where she loved it, gray where it needed work. 

I breathed and felt hopeful for the first time in months.
I adore Susan Henderson.

We don't just support each other. We laugh over lunch (or sometimes cry). We talk about everything. And when I read the first pages of THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, I was astounded. Oh, I knew Susan was a great writer--but this new novel went even beyond that. I'm deliriously happy to have her here and I can't wait for our next lunchfest. Thank you, thank you for everything Sue.

And now, the details:

 Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. She is the author of the novels Up from the Blue (HarperCollins, 2010) and The Flicker of Old Dreams (HarperCollins, 2018).  Shorter work has been published in The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), The Best American Non-Required Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure (HarperPerennial, 2008), Drinking Diaries (Seal Press, 2012), Create a Writer Platform (Writer’s Digest, 2012), as well as a number of magazines and newspapers.

I always want to know what was haunting an author before they write a book. What question did you think you were trying to figure out an answer before BEFORE you wrote THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, and what did you answer instead?

These past few years, I’ve become increasingly alarmed (and obsessed) with the growing gulf between one American and another, and in particular, the split between my current life in New York and my family roots in Montana. 

And so I began to think a lot about the town where my father grew up and where I used to visit as a child. I wanted to put my finger on what was happening—why we’d lost empathy for each other. 

When I went back to the town and saw it dwindling to 180 people, the story began to be one about death—facing the reality of it, feeling compassion for the dying. But the great surprise for me was discovering something about the pulse of life and seeing the mortician, who narrates this book, reconnecting to all she’d let go quiet in herself—her voice, her opinions, her passions—and stepping back into the world of the living.

Coming from your celebrated, critically acclaimed first novel UP FROM THE BLUE, I wonder if writing this new novel was more difficult. Did you feel you could build on things you had mastered in your first novel or was it completely new to you?

Knowing I had finished a novel that had seemed impossible to pin down helped so much because half the battle was believing I could do it.

But each novel is different. I don’t enter them from the same place (the first came from an urgent voice that piped into my head, and this one came from a setting that haunted me but wouldn’t let me penetrate it). So, in many ways, I feel like a beginner each time I write the new story because it always begins with a blank page and I don’t know the characters yet.

The fun of writing a novel is how you think you know what it’s going to be about, and then there’s always a surprise, a hidden trap you fall through and discover the bigger story that was beneath the surface.

The mortician details knocked me out! What was your research like?

The research was unbelievably fun. And fascinating. I studied everything about the dead body and how it changes, hour by hour. I learned how to remove it from a home, how to drain the organs, how to replace the blood with embalming fluid, how to wash the body, how to cut this and sew that, and most importantly, how to present the face of a loved one so her family members can feel more at peace when they say goodbye.

I read books and watched videos and spoke with morticians and hospice workers. I talked with people who’d recently experienced a death in the family. And then I handed all of my research over to Mary Crampton, my narrator, who made this strange business into a tender art.

So much of the past is present in the Flicker of Old Dreams. Do you think we can ever escape it?

I tried to dig down into the rage of the unemployed and underemployed in this town, and felt like it was rooted in the question, Who am I now? Because their identities were tied to jobs or
lifestyles that were being phased out. And they wanted to still feel important and relevant, but the world they saw on TV was something they didn’t recognize, something they couldn’t imagine becoming a part of.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I live in a town that once revolved around a huge insane asylum. Many of the people in town used to work there, but now it's shut down with most of the windows broken and vines growing over the bolted doors. It’s become the place teenagers break into—mine included—and they go inside with flashlights and respirator masks (if they’re smart) to explore the old cafeteria, padded rooms, and craft projects left behind, mid-stitch.

So I started thinking, "What if a group of teens did more than explore and spray paint their names on the wall? What if they were on a search for something specific that was important enough to go deep into the most dangerous parts of that building to find it?” And that's where I am right now, walking around this place , talking with former nurses and patients, and blending the history with what is happening with these daring teenagers and with the building itself.

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

I’d like to say something about writer friendships. For those of us writing novels, it’s a several year investment in what begins as a blank page and a sense of obsession about some topic or setting or conflict. And in the years it takes to discover the story and get it right, there will be doubt and anguish and the sense that you aren’t going to be able to figure this story out. What saves you—what saves me—is friendship with other writers, who know what it’s like to be lost, to write into a dead-end, to go to a dark place and wonder if you can get back out again.

I feel like we buoy each other. We share the struggle and the joy of this work. We give company on what is so often a solitary process. We find ways to applaud the many milestones along the way. Interviewers often ask about the process and the journey of writing and publishing the book, but I want to call attention to those who’ve been companions on that journey because I couldn’t do it alone.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Elizabeth Church talks about the golden era of Las Vegas, showgirls and her stunning new novel ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS

I first met Elizabeth Church at a book festival (This is why writers adore book festivals. We get to meet the authors we love.) In our case, we instantly bonded, and I love Elizabeth so much, I keep trying to convince her to move next door. 

She's the author of THE ATOMIC WEIGHT OF LOVE was touted by the New York Times for its "elegant glimpse into the evolution of love and womanhood." Her new novel, ALL THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, about Las Vegas in its heyday, show girls, and the connections we make--and break--is even more glorious. Plus, it has feathers and sequins.

Big hugs and love to you, Elizabeth, for being here.

Your novel The Atomic Weight of Love won so many awards and was a mega-seller. Was it at all nerve-wracking to set forth on a new novel? Or easier because of your huge success?

I actually began writing All the Beautiful Girls even before I had an agent or sold The Atomic Weight of Love to a publisher.  What was nerve-wracking with this second novel was showing the manuscript of All the Beautiful Girls to my first reader, my agent.  I was fearful that she’d have to figure out some diplomatic way of telling me that I was a one-hit wonder, and that I should find some other way to pay my living expenses.  Since I’ve often sworn that I’d rather clean toilets for a living than return to practicing law, failure was not a happy prospect.

What instantly drew me into your fabulous novel was the story world, so alive with the glitter of Vegas, and the glittering personalities like Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Jones. That must have been really fun to research!  So tell us about the research—what surprised you? What derailed your plot and sent it in another direction?

Research was a blast!  I loved learning about the costumes, sixties fashion (including eye makeup especially), the stage sets, and of course those celebrity personalities.  I read a number of books, but I also discovered some treasure-troves of images (showgirl photos, costumes, actual menus from Vegas venues), online.  I will say that I ended up with a lot of bizarre pop-up ads, based on my internet searches.  Predictably, there were ads for Vegas airfares and hotels, but I also received ads for G-strings, club wear, and yes – feather outlets. 

I didn’t plan to write about what was going on outside of Vegas (Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement), but as time wore on, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between that city of make-believe and the rest of the world, how strenuously many must have worked to keep hippies and protestors away from the Strip.  I think that was the part of writing this novel that surprised me most – the insight I gained about growing tumult in American culture versus commercialism and peoples’ need to escape to places like Vegas.

I’m curious about why you set it in the Golden Age, rather than now. How have things changed?

I wrote about the time when I would have wanted to be in Vegas, versus now.  I actually was in Vegas in 1966, but I was a child – and so all I could do was walk the sidewalks, look up at the vast neon displays, and wonder what lay behind the doors and curtains.  I see classic Vegas as the best time for that city in the desert.  To me, it was a time of dignity and true class, and of acts that relied solely upon talent – not plastic showmanship – to entertain.  Today’s Vegas, with its fake tidbits from Paris or Italy, its push to be a “family” vacation destination – it all rings untrue to me, and it seems a pallid, watered-down version of what once was.  But, this is all from a woman who loves a good bar – dark ambience, cigarette smoke, highballs and Manhattans, cocktail dresses, men with ties, and even clip-on earrings.  Maybe my age is showing….

I don't want to give anything away, but what I thought was going to happen with her and the Aviator never did—and I actually found that tremendously satisfying. What were you thinking about when you created the Aviator?

I originally intended that the Aviator be present only for a few pages, as the man who killed Lily’s family.  But the Aviator refused to go.  He became – quickly and initially without my permission – an overarching figure.  And so, I let him stay – and as I wrote, his role became clear.  Truthfully, I’m more than a little in love with the Aviator, with what he comes to represent, the genuine, abiding, unshakable love he has for Lily.  In the end, he became a way for me to achieve many goals, among which was to pay homage to a man I dearly loved in “real” life.

So much of All the Beautiful Girls is about power and having control over our lives, despite former trauma. Even the word “Girls” in the title indicates that, and there is that haunting half photo of Ruby on the cover. I know how often covers and titles change, so can you talk about the process for us?

I had two original titles for the book.  My working title was “The Tender Places,” which was then replaced by “Map of Venus.”  I think “All the Beautiful Girls” says more than my original titles, though, because it speaks to the beauty in ALL of us, and in particular to the beauty we all have despite our wounds.  In terms of the cover, I absolutely adore this cover – it shows not only the limelight, the diamonds, and the glamor of what I try to depict in the novel, but also is enormously feminine.  I also quite relish the vivid blue color.  There is another version of the cover created by my publisher in the United Kingdom.  I love that cover, too – which shows a crowd of showgirls gathered backstage and features the perfect sixties font (I call it the “Jacqueline Susann font”).  Both cover images capture not only the beauty of female dancers, but also the accentuation of that beauty through stage makeup and all those elegant feathers.

I loved the line about having a future, except it doesn’t look like what you thought it might. Can you talk about this please?

I have to say that this is one of my favorite aspects of life:  the unpredictability, the humbling that occurs when I’m proven wholly wrong in my predictions and expectations about what my life will be. 

In my writing, I like to strip away all of my characters’ expectations, their best-made plans.  I set out to strip them of comfort and happy endings, because that is how I think life works.  What is interesting, to me, is how a person reacts to pain, to heartache – how she chooses to be in the wake of loss and disappointment.  I respect resiliency, and I think we’re all capable of it, if we require more of ourselves.  Besides, isn’t life our greatest creative project?  What matters is what we create for ourselves, each and every day, despite every hurdle that we might encounter. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Grief, family dynamics.  The often vastly different experiences of siblings within the same family, with the same parents.  Whether siblings can ever come to terms with their different upbringings, their competitions and jealousies, and whether ultimately there can be acceptance of each individual for who she is.  These are some of the themes I’m working on in my third novel.

I was fascinated by the palmistry. How did you learn so much about it? Do you read palms? Did you have yours read?
In college, I became fascinated by palm reading and tarot cards.  Rather ghoulishly, the scientist in me wanted to see the palms of recently deceased persons so that I could check their lifelines, learn whether those lines were accurate in their prediction of life expectancy.  I studied books on palmistry (and had to refresh my memory for purposes of writing Lily/Ruby’s story), and I had a few friends who knew some palmistry (one friend had an aunt who claimed to be psychic).  I’ve found that if word gets out at a party, I will have a line of people asking that I read their palms.  Do I believe in it?  Yes – but only in that it is yet another system by which we can try to understand our lives, the choices we’ve made. 
I once had my palm “professionally” read.  I was told that I had a very sparkly aura, that I was highly psychic, and that I would be reading palms within two years of that reading.  I think I prefer writing fiction – although some might argue that the two are not that far apart.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You’ve not asked me about something I know you understand, Caroline – and that is the mind-boggling thrill of learning that what I’ve created in the solitude of my home, what’s arisen in my mind when I walk or swim, has somehow resonated with a reader.  How breathtaking it is to discover that what I’ve written has touched another life, that my characters’ struggles have found a place in the thoughts of another.  I cannot imagine a greater miracle – or any more striking evidence of the power of the written word.

Monday, February 19, 2018

What would happen if all birth control were made illegal and parents had to be licensed? Kristen Tsetsi talks about that and her profound new novel THE AGE OF THE CHILD.

I first met novelist Kristen Tsetsi because of a hilarious video she and writer R. J. Keller made about writing from Inside the Writer Studio/Paper Rats. Of course I wanted to be in one, so I stalked them both, got to do one, and a friendship was born.

Kristin's newest novel, THE AGE OF THE CHILD, is a provocative look at reproductive rights in our culture. And it's already racking up raves:

"A masterstroke in the dystopian revival, The Age of the Child is visionary, relevant, and unnervingly plausible." Brian Felsen, founder of BookBaby

"When we are through [reading The Age of the Child], we are thinking hard about things we’ve heard many say and things we’ve thought or said ourselves about children or parenting. We’re tempted into a conversation that we’ve not had with spouses, friends, or acquaintances." Elizabeth Marro, author of Casualties

"Tsetsi tells a story that will keep you reading and wondering late into the night." James C. Moore, MSNBC political commentator and co-author of the NYT best-selling Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential

"An intriguing look at a future that feels frighteningly possible." Journal Inquirer

"Smart writing, interesting characters, and just a good story. Tsetsi gives the readers food for thought." Carol Hoenig, co-owner, Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine

Thank you so much for being here, Kristen!

What was haunting you when you wrote this book?

Oh, so many things... Pharmacists using religion as a reason to deny women hormonal birth control. Rick Santorum's concerns over "the dangers of contraception."  People who would argue that, say, a forcibly impregnated teenager (that's the most sanitary way I can say it) should be denied the option of abortion. The politician (I don't care to look up his name, because I don't care to know it) who suggested that women who don't want to get pregnant should put an aspirin between their knees.

But also, the lack of any conversation or any real, meaningful action that spoke to a genuine concern for the quality of life of these potential humans the pro-life movement professes to care so deeply about.

It's such a wild contradiction (and so bafflingly - is that a word? - hypocritical) that it was driving me mad. Any time I heard, "Think of the children," I thought, "Yes. Could we, possibly?"

The Age of the Child thinks of the children in two different reproductive rights restrictions scenarios, both carried out under a Citizen Amendment, which the administration had, by the novel's opening, recently ratified to protect every potential citizen's right to life. The first scenario: all birth control is banned and abortion is criminalized (even miscarriages are treated as suspect); the second: as a reaction to the consequences of the birth control ban, parent licensing has been enacted and anyone hoping to be a guardian (whether adoptive or biological) must first submit to an evaluation.

Parent licensing was the initial idea for the story, but I realized before finally sitting down to start that it would be impossible to write about licensing without also writing about how we got there.

What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way?

I was more anxious about this one. The subject matter is tricky, and I wanted to do it justice without getting Ayn Rand-preachy from any angle. It was also important to not write heavy when the subject matter was already pretty heavy.

What this means (this might sound terrible) is that I got to have a lot of fun with some otherwise brutal conversations and relationship situations. As you can imagine, a relationship will be tested in a no-birth control environment when a woman who doesn't want to have children avoids having traditional intercourse with her husband. (Amazingly, the real-life male politicians endorsing blocks to birth control and abortion fail to connect those actions with the likelihood that they may be threatening their own sex lives...)

When writing The Age of the Child, I went into it with a deep appreciation for Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, both of which incorporate humor and/or the absurd to make a devastatingly serious point. My other novels are a little more straightforward.

Did you always know your ending, or did it take you by surprise?

It came as a complete and thrilling surprise.

I'd written one ending and was positive that was it. "Good!" I thought. "Done!" But after going through the draft again and reaching the last page, I thought it was unsatisfying, somehow.

It's hard to remember when the right ending came to me - maybe while walking my dog, Lenny (who has a character named after her), or maybe it was while trying really hard to listen to something my husband, Ian, was saying (I don't mean to do it, I really don't, and I swear he isn't at all boring, but when you're working on a plot problem, there's really no point in trying to control concentration, is there? It doesn't work! Ian understands).

All I know for certain is that the original ending was making my center roil in an unsettling feeling of "meh" until I was hit by what should happen. It was the only thing that made sense. It was perfectly inevitable! It was one of those relief/excitement moments that make you want to shake somebody.

What was the why now moment of writing this novel?

First, it (reproductive rights vs a child's right to quality of life) was important to me as an issue. When something is important, I think it should be addressed as immediately as possible. I don't even think the subject matter I cover is timely as much as it's our history, our present, and likely our future (by "our" I mean globally). But it had all been bothering me so obsessively, and I'd been having so many real or imagined arguments about it, that it was time.

Second, how to address the issue(s) in a novel had finally been ruminated over long enough for the ideas and characters to have built into something I could finally start with enough confidence to believe I could move from one page to at least one more.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Trying to stay positive, because Trump.

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

The only thing I can think of, and this is only because I'm excited to share it, is that I'll be doing a book signing at the Manchester Public Library in Manchester, CT on Monday, March 12 at 7 p.m., and I'll be a guest on the Colin McEnroe Show (Connecticut Public Broadcasting/WNPR)  on Wednesday, March 21, 1-2 p.m.. Listen live or stream online!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Yes, women did work on the atom bomb, and Janet Beard's novel ATOMIC CITY GIRLS is a stunning exploration of what that was like.


Janet Beard is also the author of BENEATH THE PINES, as well as her latest, THE ATOMIC CITY GIRLS, which is a stunning novel about the women who worked on the bomb. And she's racking up the raves. Take a look:

"Beard has taken a project of momentous impact and injected a human element into it... This is approachable, intelligent, and highly satisfying historical fiction."-  Booklist *starred review

Thank you so much for being here, Janet!

What was haunting you when you wrote this book?

I’ve been haunted by the idea of the atomic bomb since I first learned about it as a child at the science museum in Oak Ridge near where I grew up. The challenge in writing the book was trying to imagine how the knowledge that they were helping to create these terrifying weapons would affect my characters, without imposing on them my twenty-first century knowledge and anxieties. They have their own knowledge and anxieties within the context of World War II.

Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear weapons has only grown more intense since I began the book, and I’m more haunted than ever in our current political moment.

What surprised you the most about your research?

One surprising takeaway from reading the many interviews and oral histories of young people who came to work in Oak Ridge, was how fondly they remembered their time there. Despite the anxiety of wartime and hardship of living in a military reservation, they had a lot of fun. For many, it was the first time they had left home, and they were living with hundreds of other young people, working hard but also playing hard in their free time at dances, roller rinks, and bowling alleys.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals, do you outline, or do you simply let the story tell itself (ha ha ha.)

I am a big planner and compulsive list maker in all aspects of my life, especially writing. I love research, even when I’m not writing historical fiction, which obviously requires it. And outlining is essential for me. I don’t really have any rituals, but I do try to force myself to write first thing every day that I can—before all the other items on my to do list take over my brain.

It’s fascinating that women were involved in making a bomb—we always tend to think of women as more reasonable when it comes to war. Can you talk about this please?

World War II affected all Americans, and people had a deep sense of patriotic and moral duty that can be hard to understand from a cynical twenty-first perspective. Most Americans were willing to do what the government asked of them, whether it was enlisting in the Army, collecting cooking oil, or working in wartime factories. The general sense was that the United States hadn’t asked to be part of the war, but when forced to become involved, America would do everything possible to defeat its enemies. That attitude extended to both genders, and the overwhelming reaction of women looking back on their work on the Manhattan Project was pride that they had helped end the war. Again, it can be hard for us to understand now, but the horror of unleashing atomic weapons on the world was not foremost on their minds at the time. Rather, they felt joy and relief that their brothers and husbands would be coming home.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Murder ballads. I’m working on a new novel about six generations of women in Appalachia, inspired by the old ballads that typically tell the story of a man murdering a young woman. I’m obsessed with why we are all so obsessed with telling stories about violence against women.

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

This is the hardest question of all! Probably the most important element of the novel for me is the characters. As important as getting the history right was to me, it’s meaningless without strong characters to craft a story around. Once they came alive in my mind, it was simply a matter of getting their stories on the page.

Buffalo Bill. Sitting Bull. And Annie Oakley! Deanne Stillman talks about the extraordinary relationship between the three and her book BLOOD BROTHERS.

I love history, which means I worship the books of Deanne. Her latest, BLOOD BROTHERS, is about the incredible relationship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill--and yes, Annie Oakley, as well.
Deanne Stillman is  the author of Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder. 

Thank you so much for being here, Deanne!
What was haunting you when you wrote this book?
When Sitting Bull went home to Standing Rock after traveling with Buffalo Bill in the Wild West show for four months in 1885, Cody gave him a horse.  Five years later when Sitting Bull was assassinated, the horse was outside his cabin and “danced” as the bullets were flying.  This was because it had been trained to perform at the sound of gunfire in Cody’s show.  Sitting Bull was killed at the height of the Ghost Dance frenzy – the apocalyptic movement which swept through the tribes of the Great Plains when their empire was fading.  It began with a prophet – or a con man, take your pick – named Wovoka, a Paitue Indian in Nevada.  If you danced with great intent, he said, the buffalo would return and the time before the white man would be reinstated.  Some of Sitting Bull’s people made a pilgrimage to Nevada and met with Wovoka, returning with his teachings.  Many Lakota started to dance – to the dismay of army officials. 
It was one more thing Sitting Bull was “blamed” for, in addition to killing Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  But he didn’t kill Custer and nor did he incite the dancing.  Nevertheless, it was time for him to go, and newspapers picked up the call.  Tribal police were enlisted to make his arrest, which led to his killing, and there was this horse – a Ghost Horse as I imagined it – joining in as Sitting Bull walked on, to use the Native American term for death. Or so went the legend.  That image haunted me for years, and I had to go inside it and find out what forces led to that moment in which a horse from Buffalo Bill was outside Sitting Bull’s cabin responding to his passing – and the end of an era.  I knew that some day, it would become a book, and that’s where Blood Brothers comes from. 

Why do you think the story of the friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill isn’t so widely known? Does it take away from Wild West mythology?
I think a lot of things about the frontier era, specifically many important elements of  the Indian wars, both before and after the Civil War, aren’t widely known.  But that only adds to the myth.  The Wild West is mysterious and alluring and exciting, but behind that is another story.
I would say that mainly, a lot of people are aware of “Custer’s Last Stand.” America lives inside that famous moment of defiance, whether or not it actually happened the way that it’s often conveyed.  Think about all of the jokes about Waco when that went down, at least in certain quarters.  “We ain’t comin’ out” is what people said it stood for, and we heard it in the recent TV series about that incident.  It’s a rebel yell, it’s what drove the invasion of Malheur.  The spirit of “go fuck yourselves” is really a primary component of our DNA.  When Custer was killed, someone had to be blamed, and that was Sitting Bull, already a notorious figure.  Although he didn’t pull the trigger, he was nearby.  As I write in my book, his medicine was all over the battlefield. 
After the Bighorn, he became Public Enemy One, and when he returned from exile in Canada a few years later, everyone wanted him for their road shows. He ultimately signed on with fellow superstar Buffalo Bill, a fated alliance in my view, two sides of the buffalo coin.  They were interviewed together from time to time as they criss-crossed the country, and praised each other in front of each other to reporters – a show business moment which we have no equivalent of today - and of course Cody was very much a man of his own mythology. But what went on between them was not tracked for the most part; people weren’t watched and scrutinized like they are now, and certainly men were not “sharing” their feelings in public announcements.  The main thing was the symbolism of their alliance, as publicity for the show said: “foes in 76 and friends in 85” and the fact that these two former enemies crossed a bridge under the banner of show business and inside of that, other things happened.  Again, I get back to the dancing horse.  The moment outside Sitting Bull’s cabin speaks volumes. 
In my book, I explore lesser known aspects of their time together, and speculate about some of that. They were two larger than life figures with much in common – fathers, sons, influential, charismatic, revered among their own people yet trapped in a bloody history and personas which threw them together.  Appearing as co-stars served to compound their fame, and heighten mythology of the Wild West - which Cody was presenting in his show, from the white man’s point of view.  I call it the national scripture; Cody and his cast were re-creating episodes of Manifest Destiny moments after they had happened, using some of the actual players. 
And this was happening as the frontier was closing, a strange portrayal of a world that was on its way out.  The Indians in the Wild West were essentially prisoners of war, joining the show as a way off the reservation.  As for cowboys, although the show was an equestrian extravaganza, the age of the horse was nearly over and outside of the show, they were out of a job. At Cody’s funeral in Denver in 1917, America had its first traffic jam.  That’s how many people came to mourn him – and it says a lot about the end of an era.  But that’s the era that lives forever in the American heart, for better and for worse. 

What surprised you the most about your research?
A most surprising thing was how critical Annie Oakley was to the coming together of Cody and Sitting Bull.  In fact, Sitting Bull may not have joined the Wild West had it not been for Annie.  Shortly before signing with Cody, he was in St. Paul, Minnesota with a reservation official, touring the area to meet local dignitaries and familiarize himself with aspects of the civilization which were displacing the Lakota. Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler, also a marksman, were giving a shooting exhibition, and Sitting Bull evidently was quite taken with Annie’s skills. After the show, he sent her a note “backstage,” or to her hotel room, kind of a fan note apparently, and said he’d like to meet her.  So they met and became fast friends, and soon he gave her the nickname of “Little Miss Sure Shot,” although that was a mistranslation. 
I can’t give away the real meaning here, but the main thing is that here was Sitting Bull essentially branding Annie Oakley, to use today’s parlance.  I’ve often wondered if she would have attained the same level of fame without that nickname, and in any case, she joined up with Cody shortly before Sitting Bull did, and when Cody was trying to convince Sitting Bull to come aboard, one of the things that made him feel more comfortable in doing so was the presence of Annie Oakley. He seems to have regarded her as a surrogate daughter.  Cody himself was quite taken with her, in love with her I would say, yet their affair was not physical - unlike his numerous others over the years, although he was married.
And so you could say that a woman runs through the story of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, and that woman was Annie Oakley.

I love that Annie Oakley is a character. What misconceptions do you think people have about her?
People don’t realize that she was a voracious hunter and that she supported her family from the time she was a little girl and until she became a traveling sharpshooter by way of her knowledge of the woods.  Her family was poor, like many on the frontier, and she provided them with supper that she herself had killed.  At some point, she began selling game to restaurants in Cincinnati, and making quite a good living.  In fact, she was killing so many animals that she was told to put a lid on it.  For that era, when there were few regulations about anything, especially something like hunting, that was a big deal.   

Of late, there’s been a retelling of what the old West was like. I saw and loved Hostiles, a nuanced film about what we did to the American Indians—and how they fought back. Can you talk about the Old West here, please?
Yes, it’s a very good film, and it has some parallels to the story I tell in Blood Brothers.  Of course the term “hostiles” refers to Indians who refused to turn themselves into reservations as the frontier wars were winding down.  Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and a number of others were such figures.  After Crazy Horse was killed following his surrender and betrayal, Sitting Bull and some Lakota who travelled with him into the protection of the “Grandmother”- or Canada – were the last “hostiles” to return to their lands south of the Medicine Line, meaning the Dakota Territory. 
 I recount the return of Sitting Bull and his people in my book, and it’s some of the most difficult material I’ve written.  You would think there would have been a lot of fanfare marking the return of this great figure, especially since many army officials viewed Sitting Bull as a premiere military tactician, a general for all time.  Really, there was none – among white folk, that is.  But others of his tribe who had already surrendered lined the riverbanks as the steamer carrying him arrived.  Later, in a ceremony at Fort Buford, he instructed his young son to surrender his rifle.  I’ve wondered what the soldiers who were in attendance were thinking. They were witnessing one of history’s great and most tragic reversals of fortune.  Not surprisingly, soon after Sitting Bull had laid down his arms, his captors sought his autograph, his company, his medicine – everyone wanted a piece of him, and he loaned himself to Buffalo Bill for a brief time.  According to a newspaper account of the first time that the two men met, amid a show in Buffalo, of all places, Cody actually seemed to shrink in stature as Sitting Bull approached.  It was a fleeting moment – but that’s how cataclysmic it was.
As the movie ads say, “We are all hostiles,” and as I mentioned, the coming together of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull was billed as “Foes in 76 and friends in 85.”  Who better to make peace than former enemies?  We saw this happen at Standing Rock during the protests over a year ago.  Army veterans, themselves descendants of soldiers who had fought at the Little Bighorn, apologized to Lakota elders in a ceremony that was not widely covered, acknowledging the American betrayal of the Indian nations on the plains.  To me, this marked a spiritual shift that is now underway, and it was a profound and necessary moment. I try to stay focused on that as the country seems to be coming apart at the seams.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

The government assault on land, sea, and air, and on wildlife.  It’s not new, but it’s a ratcheting up of this American schizophrenia that we have, this worship of freedom and simultaneous urge to wall it up and destroy it.  What’s going on now is the end game of the Indian wars, and now is the time to continue what began at Standing Rock in 2016 and what red and white men tried to do in their own ways long before that, even in that strange piece of living theatre called the Wild West show.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
  I think you’ve covered it.  Thank you!