Friday, January 19, 2018

Douglas Trevor talks about "the wild and messy world of the novel," his brilliant THE BOOK OF WONDERS, Proust, politics, and so much more








 Doug Trevor is one of my favorite writers (And I'm not the only one singing his praises. You noticed the Joyce Carol Oates quote on the front of his book, right?) I haven't had the luck to meet him yet, but he lives in one of my favorite places, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was once a bookseller, so that makes me want to meet him even more. Reading his collection THE BOOK OF WONDERS makes my admiration for his work even greater.

 Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know), and the short story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space. Thin Tear won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Girls I Know won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize. Doug’s short fiction has appeared most recently as a Ploughshares Solo, and in The Iowa Review, New Letters, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has also had stories in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, The New England Review, and about a dozen other literary magazines. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

Thank you so much for being here, Doug!

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I always want to know what was the why now moment for you in writing this book and these stories? Usually there is something haunting the writer. What was haunting you?

            When I began the stories that make up The Book of Wonders, I was thinking a lot about the status of books themselves. Both in our culture and in my own life. Is being a voracious reader always a good thing? What would the world look like without material books? And I was circling around that curious feeling, which strikes me time and time again, when you establish with someone you've just met, or a student, that you both share the love of the same book, but nonetheless the book you each love is loved differently, and in some meaningful way isn't exactly the same book. Because once we filter what we read through our own subjectivity, the narratives we absorb become something else. So I was thinking about books, but I was also thinking about relationships—how they can end, how people can become afraid of attachment, etc. I had gotten divorced a few years earlier—when I was finishing my last book, Girls I Know—and I wanted to write about the aftermath of relationships. So I had these two things—one conceptual, the other affective—and I was intrigued by the idea of putting them in orbit around one another.

But I also want to know why short stories? (I loved the story called The Novelist and the Short Story Writer, by the way.) I used to write them when I first started out, and I will write one if pressed by someone, but I can’t keep myself from the wild and messy world of the novel.  So tell us, what is it about the short story that you love—and how do you do it so brilliantly?

            Toward the end of writing The Book of Wonders, I definitely started to miss the "wild and messy" world of the novel, so I can see where you're coming from. For me, after finishing my last book, which was a novel, I had grown to miss the feeling of finishing shorter things, getting them published, and hearing from readers. Writing a novel is such a lonely experience. The novel I had started on the heels of Girls I Know, on which I'm still laboring, is big and bulky and I knew it would take me several years. And I did genuinely miss the short story form. I had heard intermittently from editors of the journals where I had published in the past, asking what I was up to, and I wanted to reconnect with people who care about short stories. Within the large world of fiction writers, the short story crowd is of course smaller and more intimate. I also love the challenge of getting a short story to work—of fitting the gears together, trying to resist the temptation to let things expand. The whole process seems like a great writerly calisthenic to me.

What I love about your stories are how different they are—your range from something that smashes our heart to something that is sly and witty—and also deeply important. I always wanted to know—how do you decide which story goes where?  

            Thanks, Caroline. In my day-to-day life I feel like I'm quite a silly person, but sometimes that hasn't always translated onto the page. So a few of the stories, like "The Novelist and the Short Story Writer" and "The Program in Profound Thought," play around with the ridiculousness in ways I haven't done before as a writer. And then, in both of these stories, I tried to shift from a satiric tone to something more serious, because I think that accurately reflects how much of life works. We're having fun, not taking stuff too seriously, and then suddenly we're walloped.
            Arranging the stories was something I worked closely on with my editor, Michelle Toth. It's one of my favorite things about writing a collection: you can move stories around as if you were creating a playlist. And there are so many factors to balance. Does it work for a certain story to lead into another? What does it mean to have long stories back to back? And so on. Michelle and I both thought the collection should start with a "user friendly" story that wasn't too long, so we chose "Endymion." After that there was a lot of mixing and matching. I was always committed to having the collection end with "Easy Writer," because that story is set in the near future and meditates on what it means to write and read short stories in the first place. But other than that, everything was up for grabs.

You also head up the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. (Fun fact: I lived in Ann Arbor and loved it so much, I stayed and stayed.) What do you tell the writers you work with? What kind of work are you seeing?

Oh, the students here are doing such amazing work. I can't wait for more of it to reach the world. We have a very diverse group of MFAs in our program, so the work spans all different kinds of genres and geographical spaces. The balance I try to strike as a workshop leader lies between offering my reaction as a reader/editor and trying to honor whatever a given writer is attempting to accomplish. I like to think, when workshop is "working," that we are all meeting in something of a liminal space. We as readers aren't simply imposing our sensibility on a given piece of writing, but we're also asking the writer to more assiduously attend to the world she or he is conjuring. Additionally, I try to make sure we talk about form. Which sentences resonate in a given story and why? Are there verbal tics of which the writer should be aware? And so on.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

            I despair mostly. I find the process of composing an early draft in particular to be SO difficult. But then the sentences turn into paragraphs and eventually I have something to work with. It's excruciating though, it really is. And then to look at page proofs at the end of the process and see sentences and phrases that still don't completely satisfy…that's enough to make me want to scream. I think, like a lot of writers, I exist in a state of perpetual wonder and frustration that writing remains so hard for me, after writing basically my entire life. But I also understand that this difficulty is part of the reason why I continue to write.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

            Like everyone I know, I'm in a state of disgust over what's happening in our country politically. I see students on a daily basis who are trying to make their way through an America that is in certain quarters boisterously hostile and dehumanizing and it sickens me. I have seen young white men in pickup trucks driving through campus, screaming things like "God hates liberals." It's just so appalling that we aren't in a better place in 2018 than we are. To try to create a welcoming environment at Michigan for writers to flourish, especially writers of color and writers not from this country, feels like such a daunting task these days. This feeling of whiplash, to go from someone as thoughtful and measured as Obama to someone as uninformed and intolerant as Trump, makes my head spin.
            I've been spending a lot of time reading Proust lately. It feels somewhat escapist, yes, but Lydia Davis is going to be visiting our campus soon so I've been spending some time with her translation. I don't think Proust's incredible sense of humor is adequately acknowledged in the literary world. He is deeply funny. His narrator has such piercing insights, but they are almost always balanced and mollified by a witty sense of his own foibles. In the age of Trump, I appreciate this humility and intelligence more than ever.

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

            Your questions were great. One thing I'd add about The Book of Wonders is that the stories are connected, so that even as the characters change, the situations build on each other. So, for example, the early stories witness relationships forming, while the latter stories emphasize their dissolutions. And the relationships people have with reading and ideas become gradually more complicated and unsettling. The idea is to take the reader on a journey during which a variety of different discoveries are made—big and small.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Melanie Benjamin talks about The Girls in the Picture, the friendship of American Sweetheart Mary Pickford and screenwriter Francis Marion, Hollywood's heyday, female power, and so much, much more



"Benjamin, known for her living, breathing portraits of famous figures, takes on The Golden Age of Hollywood, and the friendship between icons Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. As riveting as the latest blockbuster, this is a star-studded story of female friendships, creative sparks about to ignite, and the power of women. Dazzling."

Yep, that's my blurb for Melanie Benjamin's astonishing The Girls in the Picture. It isn't just a deliciously juice read about the friendship between screenwriter Frances Marion and star Mary Pickford. It's a book about female empowerment--and that makes it truly an important read. 

The one story I always tell about Melanie is that when I was reading in Chicago, during a blizzard, she drove me back to my bed and breakfast, only to find that my key didn't work. AND SHE STAYED UNTIL I WAS ABLE TO ROUSE THE OWNER AND GET INSIDE. It's little things like that that make her who she is, which is wonderful. 

Melanie's other mega-selling novels include Alice I Have Been, about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, the story of 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Stratton, a star during the Gilded Age; The Swans of Fifth Avenue, about Truman Capote and his society swans; and The Aviator's Wife, a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Her novels have been translated in over fifteen languages, featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. 

Thanks for being here, Melanie!


What made you choose these figures as your next project? And how does this feel personal to you?

I am a huge movie nut, and obsessed with old Hollywood, particularly those very early years.  There was just a vibe about it - the creation of a new art form - that attracts me.  So I've read a lot of books about this era.  And throughout many of those books, this close friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion is mentioned, especially in a book by Cari Beauchamp called "Without Lying Down."  I always thought this could be the basis of a great novel, this empowering female friendship of two collaborators working in this wild and crazy atmosphere, and finally, the time seemed right.  More right than I could have known; since the book was done, there have been so many explosive bombshells about the way men in Hollywood treat women, and these bombshells echo many of the things that Frances, Mary and their friends first encountered in that early Hollywood. 


How was writing this book different than your others?

Every book is different!  I find that so exciting; that every novel is a different experience, has  different highs and lows in the process. I've learned to embrace that rather than fear it.


I bet the research was lots of fun. What surprised you?

So much of this story I knew already, so there weren't a lot of surprises, to be honest.  I do think that the scope of Fred Thomson's fame is not well known today, and it was a bit of a surprise. (Fred Thomson was Frances's beloved husband.)  I loved staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel; it was where some of the very first Academy Award dinners were held, and Mary Pickford was an original investor. It was fun to taste a bit of that old Hollywood glamor.



You’re so well-known now, that I have to ask, do you still have the same primal terror most writers have when they start a project? Or do you feel secure now? Or are you one of the writers who never feels insecure! (And if so, how do I get to be that way?)

I have an odd ability to be one hundred percent confident while I'm writing, and then to be one hundred percent ruthless and pragmatic about the business once the novel is done.  If that means ditching it and starting over with something new, fine - I can do that.  I have done it, even since I've become better known.  That never shakes my confidence in my ability, weirdly; I'm able to say, "Well, that didn't work!  Let me try something else!" without being devastated or having my confidence shaken.  What I don't always have confidence in is the business part that I can't control.  I know that you can write your best book ever but circumstances - timing, whatever's going on in the world, other books out at the same time - can conspire to make it so people don't read that book.  And that's the part that still can make me queasy.


Can you talk a bit about what changes these women made on Hollywood and how they might have led to changes today? 

Mary Pickford was the first actor to have her own production company.  She was the first female head of a major movie studio.  She was the first actor to command a million dollars a year, more than any actor (save Charlie Chaplin, who briefly out earned her.)  Frances Marion was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and then Best Screenplay.  Those are amazing firsts, and they blazed the trail - only to have it grow cold.  I think the bigger story here is how these pioneering women's accomplishments did not lead to changes; things grew worse for women in Hollywood after them, as it became a bigger business.  We're just starting to regain the influence that Frances Marion and Mary Pickford had, in their heyday. Which is why this book is so timely now, when the issue of Women in Hollywood is such a hot button.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I'm watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" on Amazon and loving it!  It's what I watch while I treadmill.  



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

You always ask great questions!  I could have expounded a bit about how it was, as a writer, to explore another writer in my novel.  And it was fun! I was able to give Frances a few of my own quirks--including that weird self-confidence I mentioned above. 

A school shooting. A paralyzed boy. A fractured community. One of the best books of the year (trust me because this is true.) Stefan Merrill Block talks about OLIVER LOVING.











First there is the praise: "A miracle of a book," Newsday. Then there is the book itself. I am not kidding around when I say I live for books like Stefan Merrill Block's Oliver Loving. Gorgeously written, it's also deeply profound. About the aftermath of a school shooting, it changes lives for both its nuanced characters--and for readers. 

Thank you for answering my questions and being here, Stefan. I think I'd read your grocery list (well, as long as it didn't have lard on it, or mayonnaise.)


 And here is the bio: Born in 1982, Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Texas. His first two novels are THE STORY OF FORGETTING and THE STORM AT THE DOOR, which won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers' League of Texas, and was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre, and The Center for Fiction.



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

I love that you chose the word “haunting.” I don’t think that I believe in actual ghosts, but beneath everything I’ve written is a similar haunted feeling of unfinished business from the past, a lost person or lost people who still feel profoundly present in some way.  In the case of Oliver Loving, the haunting was tied up with my hometown of Plano, Texas. Plano was a boomtown for much of my childhood – for a few years it was the fastest growing city in America—but beneath all that sudden prosperity there was also some profound darkness. In the 1980s, the media dubbed Plano “The Suicide Capital of America,” after eight kids ended their own lives. When I was a teenager, another crisis rocked Plano: within a year and a half, eighteen kids from my town died from heroin overdoses and several more from suicide. It became a fairly big story in the news; reporters from all over the country showed up to try to answer the same question that those of us in Plano could not: why this town? Why did so many children of a prosperous, upper-middle-class community fall victim to such terrible despair?  All of this is now nearly twenty years in the past, but for those of us who were present for that time, the scars remain, as well as the essential unanswered questions.

Around the time I turned thirty, I came back to Texas for a long stay. I’d been living in New York since I graduated, and my homecoming felt surreal in many ways. Like anyone stepping into their high school bedroom, it seemed to me like some prior, teenage version of myself was still living down there in Texas. But in my visits to Plano, I also found myself thinking often of all those children who died, who will forever remain trapped as teenagers. The impossible conversation that I felt myself having with those lost children and also with a prior version of myself: that was the particular haunting that I wanted to explore in this novel.

You call your character’s last name “Loving,” and the town in which the tragedy unfolds is “bliss.”  What made you choose these ironic names?

Both those names, Loving and Bliss, have a big place in Texas history. The cattleman Oliver Loving is a kind of folk hero in Texas, and Fort Bliss is a major army base in far West Texas, not so distant from the fictional town of Bliss I invented. To my ears, both those names are steeped in Texan lore, and that was a big part of why I chose them. As a reader, I’m always attracted to novels where an essentially realist story has dashes of fable or myth, something mysterious and larger than human drama at work. Given all the unanswerable questions about what happened to Oliver --and the long, unknowable way he has spent the last decade-- Oliver has become “a boy and also a legend” to the people of his hometown, and I wanted to choose names that also carried a kind of mythic echo.  But you are right that those names are also ironic, considering all the tragedy that has befallen both Oliver and his town. In many ways, this is a book about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I liked the way the names “Bliss” and “Loving” reinforced that theme, suggesting a huge contrast between the hope implied by those words and the reality of the present-day situations. 

So much of this gorgeous novel is about family, and how our minds work—or do not work, and how we reach one another. I just loved it. Can you talk about this please?  And about how this differs from your earlier masterwork, the mystery of forgetting?

Almost all of my stories have an impenetrable or unknowable space at their hearts. In the case of The Story of Forgetting, it was the aphasiac mind of a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s; in The Storm at the Door, it was a grandparent who died years before I was born; in Oliver Loving, it’s a persistent vegetative state. In all three cases, the novels are largely about the stories that families create to make sense of those places where our ability to understand breaks down.  There are a lot of reasons why this dilemma appeals to me, but I know that one of my major motives has to do with my own feelings about the purpose of fiction. As literary fiction continues to wane from the public conversation, it feels important to me that we writers try to make a case for the necessity of invented stories. I’m always interested in thinking about what fiction can do that no other art form can, and the greatest power of fiction, to my mind, is its unique ability to enter the interior experience of minds other than your own. And that is a major reason that I’m attracted to these minds that exist in a space beyond our knowing: it is perhaps only through an imaginative literary act that you can throw some light into those dark and unseeable places.

How were you changed in writing this novel?

Caroline, as you have now written nine novels, I’d be curious to know: do you feel, with each book, that you are reinventing yourself? Zadie Smith once wrote, “fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move,” and that rings very true for me. To keep moving forward, it feels essential that I revise both my idea of myself as a writer and the sorts of books I’d like to write. In the case of Oliver Loving, that revision felt more radical than ever. Though my first two novels touch on my own personal dilemmas, I also wrote both (as an actor might say) “in character,” transforming my voice to fit the story at hand. With Oliver Loving, I had a new goal: I deliberately wanted to sound like myself. I wanted the narrator’s voice on the page to be closer to my voice in real life. I took the advice I tell my students: I imagined that I was telling this story to a close friend, with whom I could be as sad or funny or ironic as I am in my life outside of writing.  I don’t exactly believe in the old modernist ideal that every writer must “find” his or her truest voice – I think that every writer potentially possesses many different voices and tones in which he or she could write-- but I do feel that in the process of writing this novel, I found a way to be fluent in something closer to my actual self.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

After three novels that took place close to home in one way or another, I’m very excited to write about a time and place far removed from my own. I’m working on a novel set in Vienna in the 1930s, which was a fascinating, harrowing period in the city’s history. One can’t help but see –in the rise of fascism and the demolition of that city’s intellectual culture—dark parallels with our own moment. The story I’m working on is about an inordinately gifted but badly misunderstood child and his family’s fight for survival in a society where difference would not be tolerated. In part, I know that my curiosity in that topic is a response to what is going on in our country right now, but I can also see that my motives are more personal than that. My wife and I just had our first kid, and I find myself wanting to explore another parent’s story as a way to prepare myself for the joys and anxieties of raising a child.

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

One last topic that I would like to talk about quickly is the presence of gun violence in this novel. Even now, it somewhat surprises me that a mass shooting is there, right at the center of my book.  Of course, these shootings have become a national epidemic and an urgent crisis, but I think that my need to explore it in my book came from my own childhood. Every time I see the news of another mass shooting, especially one in which young people are killed, I think about all those kids who died in my own hometown when I was a teenager, the grief that I know will stretch for decades and transform a community forever. There is a tremendous sadness in the thought that this long story of aftermath usually goes untold, as the public attention turns to the next tragedy. In putting a shooting at the heart of my novel, I wanted to explore that longer, more inward story of how sudden, drastic loss transforms families and communities, a story that has only just begun when the media have already moved on.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Deborah Reed talks about how writing can be hell, the coast of Oregon, and her extraordinary new novel The Days When Birds Come Back.






Deborah Reed
is a marvel. It's always exciting when an arc pops in the mail for me to read and blurb, and I devoured The Days When Birds Come Back, so of course, I wanted Deborah on my blog. She's also the author Olivay, Things We Set on Fire, and Carry Yourself Back to Me. She has also authored two popular thrillers under the pen name Audrey Braun.  I'm thrilled to have her here. And now, some of the raves the book is already racking up:
 
"A character-driven narrative that focuses on the grief her two protagonists suffer. It's a sad tale in which grief almost becomes overwhelming but in which the reader is saved by Reed's lyrical and elegant prose and a sense of redemption at the end."The Oregonian

"Reed is skilled at unraveling their stories gradually, and is particularly adept at both drawing parallels between June and Jameson and depicting how the two help each other through their pain....An emotionally satisfying novel about the lingering effects of trauma and how people deal with guilt." —Publishers Weekly

I always think there is a why now moment, a haunting of the writer, that produces a book. What was yours? 

For me it was a major life change that led to living on the coast of Oregon, a place of immense beauty and fierce destruction, or impending destruction, as it were, living in a tsunami zone on top of the Cascadia subduction zone. It was all of this, as well as a casual conversation between a new
neighbor and me.
I was recently divorced, my kids grown, and I found myself living alone for the first time since my teens. Incredibly secluded and with open stretches of time, my past bubbled up to fill the void—the people, places, and things that had shaped my life, some good, some too terrible to speak of, but all influential, and I began to understand how I’d arrived at this moment in time of total isolation, penetrated by grief.
One day my neighbor mentioned that the house I was living in had been fully renovated by an extraordinary man of particular talent and integrity, a man with whom she'd become friends. In an instant I felt a story in my bones. Hard to explain how that works, like a spell coming on, the senses spark and tingle and the work simply begins. I didn't ask any more details; I just sat down and started writing a story about the true north of home and the struggle of rebuilding one's life in the midst of loss and tragedy. 

What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way? (I always feel that I am starting from scratch, that I have learned nothing…) 

To be honest, it was hell. I experienced one of the worst health crises of my life right in the middle of the work. I spent nearly a year feeling incapacitated most days by migraines of all kinds and vertigo and nausea, and yet I would drag myself to the computer and try to squeeze in at least an hour if I could. It felt like exorcising demons--the pain and disorientation constantly needing to be cast out. At one point I was literally trying to manage a way to write while the left side of my vision disappeared in the middle of working. All the words on the screen suddenly read diagonally through my right eye, and only in fragments was I able to decipher a word here and there. And yet, I was telling myself that perhaps if I turned my head sideways and closed that left eye I could see clearly enough to get some writing done. I could not, of course, and recalling it now I don’t have any idea how I got through.
However, I did find a strength I didn't know I had, and managed to unearth things that had been haunting me for most of my life. I figured out a way to let them go, and a catharsis took over and the illness disappeared. But the middle. The middle was horrific. The experience as a whole resulted in this book.
From the perspective of a writer, I know exactly what you mean about starting from scratch. This is my sixth novel and every time I feel once again as if I am lost at sea. I feel foolish and fake and baffled as to why anyone would trust me to do this again. And yet, here we are. I suspect this is a healthy dose of humility keeping things in check. I hope so. I no longer fight against it, whatever it is.
I wish this was not so, but loss always transforms us—as it does your characters. But there is always a choice. We can choose to be brave and transform, or we can succumb to the pain. Do you think there is a dividing line between the people who can and the people who cannot? And why? 

I think this is quite true, how very often we do have a choice to transform and must consciously make a decision to break through to the other side. But there is also the option of taking refuge in one’s pain, because the idea of shedding it for the unknown can, over time, become more terrifying than to live each day with the pain one has gotten used to. I also believe there are people who are convinced that they actually have transformed, and they wear this transformation like a badge, which feels an awful lot to those around them like the lady protesting too much. In the case of my novel, Sarah Anne appears to be the one who understands how to move on and transform her life into something more stable, more so than June or Jameson seem able to, but there is a large part of her who is hiding behind her foster child, doing all the right things for a child who needs her, but perhaps not for all the right reasons. She is blind to what it is doing to her marriage, to what it is doing to the very foundation of her life. June and Jameson come across as more flawed than Sarah Anne, but to me, they are more honest and even honorable to their loss by allowing the darkness to run its course, until they can find a way to reach the other side. I think many people make the mistake of not processing the worst kind of pain, and try instead to outrun it. You can’t outrun grief. Those seven stages are the real deal, and more powerful than any of us would like to believe.

I cried at the ending, and without giving anything away, I wanted to ask—did you always know this was the ending, or did it take you by surprise? 

I'm glad to hear you were so moved. Thank you. No, I didn't know the ending until about a month before I finished it. And, as with every ending I've ever written, I knew it was right and final only after I wrote it down. It’s a wonderful feeling, coming upon an ending in the same way the reader comes upon it. You write to see what will happen, and finally you turn to the last page, and there it is. You sit for a moment after that last word, thinking about these people you’ve come to know and love, wishing them well, and then you say goodbye in the same way the reader closes the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Honestly, the state of the world we’re living in. My grown children’s futures, and if those futures will allow them to have children of their own. I am in a state of constant concern about healthcare, women’s rights, peace and goodwill toward other nations. I am finding it increasingly more difficult to write when everything feels petty by comparison to nuclear war and a totalitarian regime. Are you sorry you asked this question?


What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How are you dealing with your obsession? The answer: Aside from phone calls and signatures directed toward making a change? Winging it, much like I did when I had to write but couldn’t see or sit up straight. Keeping a close awareness of the natural beauty all around me at the coast. Reading. Acknowledging the love of my family and friends. Continuing to search for hope.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Caroline Preston talks about her extraodinary memorabilia-as-novel, THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK







I'm not sure how or where I met Caroline Preston, except I've known and loved her for a long time. She's is the author of three previous novels, Jackie by Josie (a New York Times Notable Book), Lucy Crocker 2.0, and Gatsby’s Girl, and her first scrapbook novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. She has collected antique scrapbooks since she was in high school, and has worked as an archivist at the Peabody/ Essex Museum and Harvard University. Her latest book,  THE WAR BRIDE'S SCRAPBOOK is both a fascinating exploration of a long gone time, and a very personal narrative that reads like a novel. I loved it, I love Caroline, too.
      This is your second scrapbook novel. What first gave you the idea of creating a novel in the form of the scrapbook?

I like to say that the idea of making a scrapbook novel was 40 years in the making.  As a little girl, I used to pore over my grandmother’s flapper scrapbook filled with dance cards, ocean liner tickets, and even long curls snipped when she got her hair bobbed.

My first three novels were what I guess you’d call “conventional” format—i.e. just words.  My third novel Gatsby’s Girl was inspired by the meticulous scrapbook F. Scott Fitzgerald kept about his first love, Ginevra King.  Later he would turn the story of his unrequited crush into The Great Gatsby.

When I was casting around for the idea for my fourth novel, I wanted to create something that was as visual and powerful as a scrapbook.  And then I had a crazy idea—why not make a novel that WAS a scrapbook. Not a digital scrapbook, but an actual one made of real stuff that I cut up with scissors and pasted together with glue.  And so I created The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt.

The War Bride’s Scrapbook is a scrapbook kept by a young bride while her husband fighting overseas. What inspired you to make a WWII era scrapbook?

I have a large collection of vintage scrapbooks.  Some of the most fascinating ones are the scrapbooks kept by wives while their husbands were overseas during WWII. They are an odd combination of touching love letters, cheerful home front memorabilia such as ration stamps, grim war clippings about battles and casualties, and  military souvenirs such as dog tags and discharge papers. 

These “bride’s scrapbooks” provide an interesting glimpse into the reality of wartime marriages. Many couples had gotten married only a few weeks after they’d met and then were separated for years. Letters were often their only means for getting to know one another and forming an actual relationship.

The scrapbooks kept by war brides are often sweetly hopeful and aspirational. They draw an idealized image of what their marriage and life will be like when their husbands return from war-- babies, new houses, new appliances and cars, domestic routines and jobs picked up again.

Most WWII scrapbooks tend to end abruptly in August, 1945 with headlines about the atomic bombs. It seems like the scrapbooks were put away, never to be looked at again until they turned up on eBay.  We don’t know what happened when (or if) the husbands returned home after the war.

In The War Bride’s Scrapbook, I’ve tried to write the whole story behind one of these bride’s scrapbooks. Why the bride (Lila Jerome) started to keep it in 1943, why she stopped keeping it in 1945. And what truths her daughters discover about their mother when they find the scrapbook 70 years later.

Are Lila Jerome and Perry Weld based on your own parents?

Not at all.  My father was 4-F because of terrible eyesight and spent the war in San Diego as a Navy Jag throwing drunken sailors in the brig. My parents didn’t get married until 1947. But Lila and Perry’s story was inspired in part by real people and real events.

 My last surviving WWII-generation relative, an aunt, dropped out of Vassar at 20 to marry her college boyfriend before he shipped out.  She wrote me some very candid emails about how she came to regret her wartime marriage almost immediately but felt economically and socially obligated to stick it out for 20 miserable years.

I had Perry serve with the much-decorated 291st Engineer Combat Battalion. The 291st managed to halt Nazi assault in the Battle of the Bulge by blowing up bridges. It also built the first tactical bridge across the Rhine River.

How did you go about creating Lila’s scrapbook?

The War Bride’s Scrapbook turned out to be a much more complicated and time-consuming undertaking than I originally imagined.  I spent four years collecting WWII ephemera and doing research.  I was fortunate to interview several WWII veterans including combat engineers and the author James Salter. Many friends shared caches of their parents WWII letters, and I research 291 Combat Engineer records at the National Archives. I went to WWII reenactments and befriended combat engineer reenactors who educated me about supplies and equipment used in the European Theatre. My husband and I toured sites visited by US combat engineers including Normandy. I interviewed orthopedic surgeons and trauma doctors about Perry’s war wound and recovery.  

Are the items in the scrapbook original or are the images from the web?


Almost all the items in the book are original. I collected hundreds of WWII-era publications and objects to create my scrapbook.  My office looks like something out of the Hoarders show.

The primary sources that I started out with were magazines from 1940-1946. Life and Time  provided a weekly timeline of war headlines and everyday life on the home front. Women’s magazines (McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal) were chock full of wartime illustrations, advice columns, fashion spreads, and ads.

I collected boxes of V-mail stationery, picture postcards  and telegram paper for Lila’s and Perry’s correspondence. I assembled all the “scraps” that a bride in the 1940’s would glue in a scrapbook: menus, movie tickets, ration stamps, book jackets, train timetables, war bonds, maps, and matchbooks.

I found military memorabilia such as combat engineer manuals, k-ration boxes,  uniform patches, and the French phrase book the army handed out to soldiers on their way to the Normandy Beaches (with handy phrases such as “Please don’t shoot me.”.)

 Where’d you find all this stuff?

A lot of oddball places. A retired couple down the road from me in Charlottesville had built an entire Home Front museum in the basement of their ranch house and lent me things from their collection, such as the French phrasebook. One of my favorite vintage stores is Whiting’s Old Paper in Mechanicsville, Va. which has over one million pieces of ephemera. There is a huge military flea market at the annual Battle of the Bulge reenactment. (Yes, such an event really happens--in January in the Pennsylvania woods!) And I was almost always able to track down something I needed on eBay—from a knitting pattern for GI sweaters to 1946 Chevy manual. I got so many packages my mailman started to complain.

How does a scrapbook create a different narrative of World War II than a conventional novel?

I really see The War Bride’s Scrapbook as containing three separate narratives. The first is the story of Lila and Perry’s marriage, told through Lila’s captions and their letters.  The second is a timeline of the war from Pearl Harbor to J-V day told through magazine articles and newspaper headlines. The third is a social and cultural history of the WWII era revealed in magazine art and ads. Cigarette, girdle, and appliance ads tell us as much about the role and expectations of a wartime bride as a 300-page novel.

Without giving anything away, I have to tell you that the ending gobsmacked me. I was weeping and shocked and yet, it felt like the exactly right ending. Did you always know it would be that way?

When I started the scrapbook, I didn’t know how Lila’s and Perry’s story would end after the war and I struggled over it for almost 3 years! I found my ending in the WWII letters of some of my friends’ fathers. These were men I had known growing up—silent, remote, strict 1950’s dads. In their letters, I saw glimpses of their younger selves—full of passion and optimism—that had been extinguished by war. They were probably suffering from undiagnosed PTSD.

I was also inspired by James Salter’s description of a reunited wartime couple--What would they be like now…? ..there was the power of all the letters, of being  apart, the denied love that reality cannot equal.

The addition at the end of the American Studies material is also pure genius, and I think could be used to study this book , and it asks the question, what really is the truth? Is it the artifacts we leave behind? The stories? Or how we choose to tell them?
   
Lila’s scrapbook is an ahistorical artifact, like a diary. It’s found by her daughters after her death and it upends everything they knew, or thought they knew, about their parents. I had a lot of fun writing the daughter’s email and interview at the end. She has the same smug, know-it-all tone that I once used with my mother!

What are you working on now?

An illustrated history of dogs in American culture.  I’ve already found some treasures at vintage stores and, of course, on eBay. A Simplicity pattern for plaid dog coats, postcards of dog cemeteries, publicity stills of Rin Tin Tin performing on the radio…








Christina Adams is a leader in Autism and Camel milk and the author of A REAL BOY: A TRUE STORY OF AUTISM, EARLY INTERVENTION AND RECOVERY. You KNOW you want to read this interview







 





Christina Adams first attracted my attention on Facebook because she was just so freaking fascinating. And be prepared. She gets even more incredible.

Her essays and reported pieces have appeared in the LA Times, The Washington Post, NPR, OZY, Open Democracy, Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County Register, Global Advances in Health and Medicine and literary magazines. Perhaps more unusually, her work with autism and camels has been featured by Dubai One, Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Tata Sky Channel, Epocha, GOOD, Farming, radio and more. She’s spoken at Sarah Lawrence Writer’s Program, CSULB Distinguished Visiting Writer’s Program, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, international health and disability conferences, and just spoke at the Marwar Camel festival hosted by HRH The Maharaja of Jodhpur. She wrote A Real Boy: A True Story of Autism, Early Intervention and Recovery.



You’re a writer, but you have this other side. I’ve seen the photos.  You’re in India or Dubai or Cuba, or on some Amish farm. Is this related to your writing?


Yes, and it’s all because of my bedeviled writer’s mind. After writing in the corporate and government world, I got an MFA in fiction and wrote a novel. It won an award, but before I could publish it, my son was diagnosed with autism. So I worked hard to get him better and wrote a memoir about that (A Real Boy).  After it came out, I was at a children’s book fair. I got bored and my mind started turning when I saw a camel there, but no kids were riding it. I went over to chat with the owner and got an intuition that camel milk might help my son. After a lot of research and guesswork, I flew in some frozen milk from Bedouins in Israel. He drank it and got better overnight. That set me down the path into this strange world. Sort of my own Silk Road.

That’s an incredible story. How do you balance being a writer with your research and advocacy work? Do your two lives get along or conflict with each other?


I’m a literary writer at heart—I wrote my first short story at nine. I was so devastated when my son was diagnosed, and I swore that autism wouldn’t stop me from writing, but slowly you turn toward your lived story. Autism became a window on the world and informed my writing—it taught me biology, nature, law, psychology, medicine. And I had to try to help others. So I’ve written memoir, essays and reported pieces and do TV, radio and conference speaking. My first piece about camel milk and autism went viral and helped start the industry. Then I published a medical journal article on it. It’s cited a lot, but it’s a weird success for a writer since only scientists see it (it’s cute how many assume “MFA” is some kind of scientific credential!). That piece led to international speaking and advising. I’ve always had a knack for putting advanced concepts into explainable terms. I guess the takeaway is that life happens and since we chronicle life as writers, we have to chronicle what it does to us. Whether it’s overt or unconscious.

So your work energizes your writing?

Definitely. I just returned from a month’s speaking tour in India, and had overflow crowds on the topic of autism, camel milk and the value of camels to society.  Being barefoot in the TV studio was a fun new thing, wearing glam Indian clothes but no shoes. I wrote an essay for the Rajasthan Patrika (newspaper) and got a lot of press, which triggered a lot of interest. Being treated like a celebrity was really unexpected. A policeman showed up at my hotel at night, and I asked, am I in trouble? Turned out a VIP wanted to talk about camel milk!  Having people drive so far to meet me, being honored at a village temple, seeing my work in Hindi and Portuguese, was all gratifying, but once I got back home it was humble pie as usual. My favorite part was hanging out with the Raika camel herders, a reclusive camel caste I’ve gotten to know as we try to save their camels. Blowing smoke from a bedi (leaf cigarette) out my nose, like they did, won me some points--a guy wanted to trade rings with me. 

Camels are amazing creatures and more useful to humans than you could dream, almost sci-fi stuff. They have unique abilities found in no other creatures. Now the price of a pregnant camel has doubled in the US since I started, but camel cultures are under pressure. I just read my new piece about this at Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute’s series on Democracy and Education. These herders have never shared their ancient wisdom, so I help bridge the two worlds. Camels can help human health conditions like diabetes, STDs, snakebite, and cancer now, so I work with scientists and spend time with Somali, Tuareg, Amish, Indian and Arab cultures. I’ve seen 2,000 pampered camels gleaming in red desert sand, and fed bottles to bleating, curly-haired baby camels. My videos were translated into Malay this month. Some things you just can’t see coming.

Maybe not! So what stories have yet to come from all this?

I’ve been on this wild ride for over 10 years, so now I have a book proposal I’m finishing. It’s a great emotional subject. The camel world is super visual, hidden, magical and political. Camels mean different things to people: family member, heritage or ego symbol, currency, luxury pet or work animal. Also, this year I published print magazine essays, one about my “divorce apartment,” a place I rent to divorced people, framed by the story of my own divorce and remarriage, as well as a long feature on an autism school. Other things I want to write are about being an Appalachian that breaks tradition to leave home but finds out you never really can, with some sensitive family history about the Civil War and its aftermath. And one about marriage and divorce, a subject I finally mastered in real life.  But so many of my readers want this camel book, and I hope I can get it out there.

What are you obsessing about now?

Indian fabrics. I wore Indian clothes for my events and I’m missing getting up and choosing a dupatta (scarf), embroidered tunic, leggings and sparkly jewelry every day. I love the care women take with their daily style. I visited female sheepherders who wore ruffled bodices, armloads of bracelets and pink toenail polish.

Also people give me camel statues, art, chocolate and hats. So I’m facing ‘creeping camelization’ in my life, but trying to keep it micro.

What question did I fail to ask you?


The word ‘fail’ doesn’t apply to you! I love how real and friendly you are on Facebook and the NYC vibe is a bonus. People often ask how my son is. He’s doing great. Got a job without help, at a big employer. Taught a lesson in class. He even asked me what I wanted for Christmas. He never ends a call to me without saying, “Love you.” So that’s what it’s all about. A producer just finished a short documentary about him. He even did a radio show, discussing the ‘toxic masculinity’ of frat culture and why guys with autism are more logical than that. Like they say here in Orange County, Dude, that’s sick! (A compliment.)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The luminous Gayle Brandeis talks about her profound memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS: SURVIVING MY MOTHER'S SUICIDE, which is gorgeous, important, healing, astonishing, and every other great adjective I can think of


THIS  book. This book. This book.

Portrait of the artist as a gorgeous person

Gayle was wearing this jacket the first time we met at BEA

Some people you just know you have a bond with. I first met Gayle Brandeis on Readerville, and I felt that bond. That I got to meet her at BEA, and as soon as I saw her walk in in a green leather jacket, I felt this flood of warmth. Over the years, we've deepened our connection, in person, by phone, by email, by every bit of our cells.  I've watched all the amazing changes in her life--and in her writing. When she sent me THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS  to read, I was gobsmacked. I had never read anything so profound, so powerful, so brave and so gorgeously written. About love, about the mother/daughter relationship, about mental illness, about the things we do to ourselves to protect ourselves--it's an extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary person.

Gayle is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage and Delta Girls, and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns  which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin, and the e-book, .The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015.  Gayle is currently editor in chief of Tiferet Journal and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit.

I love you Gayle. Thanks for being here. Now let's have dinner together.


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How did you manage the courage to write this extraordinary memoir?

Theres a moment in Brene Browns TED Talk on vulnerability where she says that the original meaning of courage was to tell ones story with all ones heart. I love this. This definition resonates with me so much. It did take every ounce of my heart (and my gut and my head) to write this story. There were definitely times I had to back away, times I didnt feel capable of going to those painful places, but then I eventually regrouped and threw all of myself back into the endeavor.

What was the why now moment when you realized that you had to write it right now?

Really, as soon as my mom began to exhibit delusional behavior 16 years before her death, I knew that I would have to write about her. Writing is how I best make sense of things, and I couldnt make any sense out of these delusionsthey came out of the blue and turned my world upside down. She explicitly asked me not to write about her while she was alive, and I didnther words held great power over me. Even after she died, when I realized I was free to write about her, when I knew I HAD to write about her, it took me a while to unknot the gag order she had placed upon me (plus I was grieving and post-partum, so it was hard to do much of anything), but I could feel the words gathering steam inside of me and eventually they started to pour out.

What did you expect to heal by writing this--and what happened instead or besides, that was healing?


I wanted to write my way toward understanding my mom and her suicide, even though I knew total understanding wasnt ever going to be possible. I think I wanted to write my way toward a sense of peace. I wanted to build a container for my pain, to give shape to what felt so big and chaotic in my life, to gain some power over a story that had held so much power over me. What ended up being most healing, and was really unexpected to me, is how much compassion I gained by writing thisI started out really quite angry with my mom and ended it with my heart cracked wide open.


Our mothers are almost always a loaded subject. Especially when you are a mother yourself, as you are. How did writing this memoir change your mothering?

I think that as I started to feel more compassion toward my mom, I started to feel more compassion toward myself, as a mother and a human being, as well, started to be a bit more forgiving of both of us, to acknowledge that we each tried to do our best to our capabilities at any given time (and some times were more capable than we are at others). I definitely feel very conscious about wanting to avoid certain aspects of my moms parentingthe way she made everything about her, for exampleand wanting to emulate othersthe way she exposed me to the arts, the way she encouraged my creativity, the way she made me feel limitless (at least in certain ways.)

What is obsessing you now and why?

The thing I really wish I wasnt obsessed with is the news. I feel like I have to stay on top of it, have to know whats happening in the world so I can respond to it, so I can resist in the most effective way possible, and its exhausting. I dont step away from it enough and I know Im risking burn out. But voices like Roxane Gays and Rebecca Solnits and Lindy Wests keep me going, writers who respond to current events with such intelligence and fearlessness. Im definitely obsessed with reading good smart takes like theirs on whats happening in the world. And jellyfish. Im obsessed with jellyfishI love how beautiful and graceful they are, and am fascinated by how they can exist without a brain or heart. I was stung by one twenty or so years agoIm still waiting for my jellyfish superpowers.

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

Who is one of the most generous and amazing writers you know? Why, Caroline Leavitt, of course! I am so very grateful to know you and thank you for all you do of promote books and writers. You give so much and I hope you know how deeply it is appreciated, and how beloved you and your books are. 

If your mother had been able to read this book, what do you think her reaction would have been?

She would either never speak to me again or we would finally have the relationship I had always hoped to have with her, one in which we could speak openly to one another, one in which we didnt have to be on guard around each other. I very much would like to think it would be the latter. I know I feel close to her now in a way I wish I had when she was alive; Id like to think that feeling would be mutual.