On Second Chances and Permission: Author Interview with Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Nadine Kenney Johnstone
Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Of This Much I’m Sure by Nadine Kenney Johnstone

I met Nadine Kenney Johnstone almost two years ago when I attended my first Writers Conference. I put it in caps because it was a BIG DEAL. I’d finally started calling myself a writer, and showing up physically with other writers seemed like a good idea.

The first day, I attended a workshop taught by a fancy MFA professor. The degree wasn’t the only intimidating thing about her. Nadine was thin and blond and, well, incredibly talented. Turns out, she was also incredibly encouraging, funny, and kind.

This was why I was so excited to run into her again last summer at a writing retreat. Here’s the most fascinating thing about her:  she’s also human and like all of us struggling through life, she had an incredible story to tell.  Unlike 90% of the human population, though, she put a portion of her story down on paper and just released her first book,  Of This Much I’m Sure (She Writes Press, 2017).

Of This Much I'm Sure by Nadine Kenney Johnstone

A few weeks ago, we chatted by phone about her new book, National Infertility Awareness Week, her family, and the writing life. I’m thrilled she agreed to be interviewed and excited to feature her as my first subject in the return to the blog.

How are you doing with all the activity surrounding the release of the memoir?

It’s exciting and overwhelming – most of the hard work is done now, it’s just about showing up and trying to give it my all. I feel better than I did a few months ago when I was just working like a mad woman. Authors have to take on so much responsibility even if you have a publicist.

What would readers be most surprised to know after having read the book?

I think they’d be surprised to learn as much about my marriage, my struggles with anxiety, and my relationship with my mom. I go pretty in depth. I was turning in the final manuscript and I was like, “Oh, crap!”  But that’s one of the positives of having publication happen so long after you’ve written. It tells the story of my life from ages 22 to 30. This most significantly focuses on 28-30. That’s a version of me and a character, but it’s not necessarily all of me.

What are some of your biggest personal changes since the end of the story?

At the end of the book we were making the decision to leave Massachusetts and come to Chicago, and I had no idea if it would work out. It was a really big leap for my husband. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve moved out of the city into a suburb, and we have roots there now. This is where we want to stay.

We decided that Geo will be our only child. The book talks so much about chaos, always in this frantic state. The lack of changes is the biggest thing. We’re trying to ground ourselves and remain steady and not have the chaos that we had in the book.

Let’s go back a bit. How did you get started writing?

I’d always written, kept a journal. I was a really big reader, a total book nerd. I watched Little Women every Christmas, and wanted to be like Jo. I was nutrition major, and switched to English. Most of time at University of Illinois, I just studied literature, but I wasn’t writing anything.

Little Women 1994 Movie

One day, my sophomore year, I sat down in my sorority house and just wrote a story. I had been a camp counselor for mentally and physically disabled kids, and I wrote a story about one of the autistic kids I worked with. I sent it into this submission opening, and it got published.  It was a total fluke, and I’ve had so many rejections since then.

That first initial acceptance was a boost for me. I took a creative writing class that was good and then one that was awful. Then a professor said, “Did you know you could get an MFA?” I submitted to so many programs and got many rejections but got accepted at Columbia. That definitely made me serious about my work. Being around Eric May, Patty McNair, and the Chicago literary community, that’s what taught me to be serious about writing.

What can you share about your current project?

I’m writing an essay collection tentatively titled Try Again, Politely. We always say to Geo, “Try again, politely.” He’ll say, “I want milk.” We reply, “Try again, politely.” Then he says, “Mama, may I please have some milk?”

I was saying it a million times a day, and I started thinking about second chances, either me giving them or me receiving them. Moving back to Chicago, my second chance at that, second chances in my marriage, with my mom. We’ve really tried hard to repair our relationship. All these moments of starting again or repairing things that have gone wrong in a way.

That sounds like a universal topic. Is there a common thread that runs through your work?

I think it’s just me trying to work out some emotional kink. That seems to be my go-to. This was an issue or is an issue and I’m trying to work it, make sense of it, see it from different perspectives, what I’ve learned it, how it’s affected me.

Do you see yourself staying with  essay and nonfiction?

Right now, I don’t have any pieces that feel like fiction. Back when I was writing fiction at Columbia, it was very thinly disguised autobiography. I didn’t know I had a good enough story to tell. I thought the people writing nonfiction had extraordinary lives.

I had to grant myself permission to say my story mattered. I think I’ve always been a nonfiction writer who was using fiction as a way to skirt around some issues. I have a great love of fiction, and I wouldn’t write it off because who knows what story might come into my head that might be better served as fiction?

N K Johnstone by Suzanne Brazil

Do you think you’ll go with a hybrid publisher again?

I really don’t know. I had a great experience with She Writes, I would definitely go with them again.

I want to concentrate on the writing for now and get there eventually. I loved that I had input on the cover design, the internal pages. I felt like I was in complete control. We followed a timeline. I knew I wanted it to be published in April because of National Infertility Awareness Week at the end of the month. With the traditional route, none of that is within your control, and that’s the downside.

Who are your first readers?

I didn’t workshop much of the memoir. I was in a flow, and I didn’t want to show anyone at first because I didn’t want opinions and revisions to stop the flow. I hadn’t experienced a flow like that. I just wanted to go, so I went and created this draft. Really only a handful of people saw it. My agent has a great editing brain. I just felt very clear about my vision, and she gave me feedback and I revised. I was totally open to what was and wasn’t working.

I have good writing friends, Steph and Kate, who read my stuff. But I feel like I want to take a class again and just get inspired. I want to seek out people who I know will challenge me, inspire me and not create an experience where I’ll be halted. That’s what my biggest challenge is. Sometimes I care so much about other people’s opinions and revising that it can really interrupt the process.

What’s one piece writing advice new writers should consider ignoring?

I don’t necessarily believe that “you have to write every day” thing. You do have to exercise this muscle. I think it’s honestly kind of like exercising or a diet. If you have goals that are too large, they become unattainable, and as soon as you mess up you feel like you have failed, and then you don’t get back on the horse.

I like small, manageable goals, and that is what works for me. Like working out–I tell myself you have to be active four or five days a week, not a certain amount of workouts for a certain amount of time. Or you can never have sweets again…well that doesn’t work!

Describe the physical process for you. What was it like writing the memoir?

I wrote in various spots, revising at this Starbucks in Ravenswood.  I write standing up. Starbucks used to have two areas with a standing level bar area. I would drink almond milk with mocha syrup, basically chocolate milk! I put in my headphones, get all jacked up! I would listen to Eric Church and Fleetwood Mac albums over and over and over again, because I couldn’t listen to any songs that were new, or I would start paying attention to the words.

Now that I teach at Loyola, most of this second book has happened in my office. I never thought I would be an office writer,  thought I’d always be a coffee shop writer.

Now for the fun stuff. Think of it as the speed round.

Favorite book or author growing up:  Mary Downing Hahn’s ghost stories, Wait Till Helen Comes, so much suspense and mystery. Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley Twins, too.

Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn

Last great book you read, other than your own:  At Columbia, I was exposed to a lot of great fiction writers like Dorothy Allison and Edward P. Jones.  Right now in nonfiction, Abigail Thomas, Mary Karr, and Cheryl Strayed are great.

A piece of advice or something you’d wished you’d known starting out: Follow your instinct and attention. What I loved about Columbia, we worked on developing our themes. Even with a totally random image, the professor would tell us to go deeper dive deeper. To our logical brain, that doesn’t make sense. But if we followed our attention and intuition, scenes would develop that I never thought I’d write about.

When I sit down, I do some brainstorming, even if I’d planned to write about something else, I don’t discard what pops up. This is taking my attention for some reason, and I am going to follow it. It’s giving yourself permission to write those things. To write your story even if you think, “Oh it’s nothing crazy or big.” There’s something there. There’s some element of truth or emotion in what you have to say. If you’re thinking it, it deserves to be put on paper.

You can read more about Nadine’s writing and coaching services by checking out her website at www.NadineKenneyJohnstone.com.




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On Cat Butlers, Regency Romance, and Murder Mysteries: Author Interview with Catherine Lloyd

Death Comes to the Village

Catherine Lloyd Author

On a lucky trip to the library a few months ago, I pulled Death Comes to the Village off the shelf and quickly hunted down the next two novels in The Kurland St. Mary Mysteries series (Kensington Books).

There’s nothing like writing your own first novel to give you an appreciation for all authors. One of my goals this year is to reach out and thank those writers whose books I’ve enjoyed. That’s how I “met” New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author, Catherine Lloyd. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her books and her writing process.

Death Comes to the Village        Death Comes to London      Death Comes to Kurland Hall

Congratulations on the success of The Kurland St. Mary Mysteries. You write under a pseudonym (Kate Pearce) as well. Do you have a preference for one genre over another?

Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to write something different. I also write romance, but they are very different entities. With romance it’s more about the love story and the character’s romantic arc. With the mystery, the plot is more front and center, and the characters don’t have to be quite so romantic.

I don’t really have a preference for one genre. They speak to different sides of my brain and my writing process. I’m lucky to get the opportunity to do both.

You’ve previously said it took you five years to get your first novel published. Can you describe those five years; the successes and setbacks?

Yes, that was back in the days before self-publishing in its present form existed, so the process was literally to send off lots of submission letters with a stamped addressed envelope and wait for the reply in your mail box. It took me a while to find my first agent, who then immediately died, and a little longer to find my second agent. The third one was the charm. Once I’d sold a couple of my romance novels things did start to get easier, but it took me 5 complete manuscripts and almost five years to get there.

Sometimes it was difficult to keep going. At one point I almost gave up, but decided instead to be braver with my writing and really write what I wanted to rather than what I thought was the popular thing. That proved to be the right decision for me. I also learned how to deal with rejections in a more private way than anyone who self-publishes these days and has to deal with reviews on amazon etc.

With the mystery series things happened a bit differently in that my current editor asked me if I’d like to write something else for the same publishing house. I went home to think about it, and submitted a proposal for the cozy historical mystery series. It combines my knowledge of the Regency period with my love of Agatha Christie in a perfect way.

How did you develop a knowledge of the Regency Period?

Well, I grew up in London with a mother who did her teaching qualification in history, and always talked about places we were visiting, which inspired a great love of the past in me. I also did my degree in history, so I know how to research a time period. I read voraciously and loved Rosemary Sutcliff, Dorothy Dunnett, Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I gained a sense of what I wanted to write from there, and the rest I just research as I go. It really does help having been born in England with the history all around you.

You say you went with what you wanted to write rather than what you thought was popular. What did you think was popular? What were you trying to write?

I was originally trying to be Jane Austen or write more cookie cutter romance.  I couldn’t really be Jane, and I’ve always had something of a subversive nature, which meant that my historical romances always pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable. (I was more interested in writing gritty dark romances with multifaceted heroes with questionable sexual proclivities than the standard Alpha male. LOL.)

For my mysteries I wanted to write something that wasn’t centered in the city of London with a strong male protagonist. I wanted to write a cozy mystery set in the English countryside where the hero and heroine are unconventional in a different way. I researched what was published in Regency mysteries, and I found a nice little niche for myself.

What was your mindset during those years? What made you persist?

I think I just wanted to communicate. I knew that writing was the piece that made sense of who I was, and I was determined that I’d eventually get published. I couldn’t not persist if that makes sense, but I had to give myself permission to be brave, and think outside the box. Getting angry at all the rejections helped sometimes as well.

What does the physical process of “thinking outside the box” entail? Do you make lists, brainstorm, try scenes from different angles, etc.?

No, I just write and let my brain noodle away at what will happen next. Sometimes if I’m aware there is a problem my unconscious will happily provide me with a solution when I wake up. Sometimes I can see a scene is wrong, and I’ll go back, try it in a different point of view or look for where the problem starts, and write on from there.

For me thinking outside the box means more that I look at my strengths as a writer and I commit to using those strengths and not compromising when I write by worrying about the market too much or what I ‘should be writing.” You have to be aware of what is popular, but you can’t follow trends, and make yourself miserable writing things that don’t work with your writing style.

How does penning your own books affect you as a reader? Are you able to read and get lost in stories?

It depends on the story. A fantastic author who can pull me in, and not let go makes me very happy. I do have a tendency to work out the plots ahead these days though, which sometimes even annoys me.

What books are on your to-be-read pile now? Favorite type of story to get lost in?

I have eclectic tastes. I currently have:

Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes.

Look Me In The Eye by John Elder Robison.

Get A Clue by Jill Shalvis

The Roads of Taryn McTavish by R. Lee Smith

Dark Angels by Karleen Koen

I’ll try anything, I like to see how other authors do things especially in literary fiction.

Being a full-time author is a dream for many writers. What is one thing about the reality that would surprise most people?

I think it can be quite lonely, and that you have to establish boundaries to either protect your writing time, or not let your writing time take over your real life. For me, it’s also my job. I sit down five days a week and write. That’s what I do.

Aspiring writers have a fascination with the writing process of a published author. Do you care to share any special aspects of your process or your opinion on this fascination?

I plot my mysteries quite extensively, and talk them through with my editor. The end product sometimes doesn’t have a lot to do with that initial synopsis, but the basics are there. I like to be surprised when I’m writing, and I like to follow off down trails that appear and use them to make the book better.

For my romances I’m even more vague because I really enjoy writing in the moment and discovering the emotion along the way.

My husband sometimes taps me on the head and says, “Where does all that stuff come from?”

Answer: I have no idea.

How much of real characters in your life make it into your books?

None in the sense that you’d recognize anyone. I do, however notice small things about people, their body language, the way they accent certain words etc. etc., and those things sometimes creep into my writing. I am fairly famous for eavesdropping in restaurants.

What’s the best or worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

The best? Write the book. Repeat.

The worst? Write what you know.

Why was “write what you know” not good advice for you. Can you elaborate?

I meant it in the sense that most of us live fairly unremarkable lives, and can’t time travel back to the Regency or out into the future. To me my imagination was my escape from the everyday, and it’s where all my best ideas come from.

Something readers would be surprised to learn about you? Any hidden talents or obsessions?

I’m British, but I currently live in Hawaii. That’s fairly unusual I think. I love to knit. I make hats and scarves and Outlander cowls and send them overseas to the cold people in my life.

If time and money were no object, describe an ideal day for you:

I’m pretty lucky actually. I get to live on the Big Island of Hawaii, with my lovely husband and daughter, three cats and fluffy little dog. I can get to the ocean in ten minutes. I love my job. I can’t really think of anything else I’d want except if I were a billionaire, I’d have a cat butler to let the cats in and out because they drive me nuts.

Lastly, if you could get newer writers to understand one thing about writing a book, it would be:

It’s hard work, but if you get it done you will learn so much along the way that even if it sucks, (and first books often do), the next one will be better.

A big thank you to Catherine for her time and generosity! Look for Book #4 Death Comes to the Fair, set to be released November 29, 2016.

Visit my #BooksByTheBed page for my take on the first three books in The Kurland St. Mary series.

For more information about Catherine and her books, check out her website. If you enjoy edgy romance, check out her Kate Pearce Novels.









2 Thoughts on “On Cat Butlers, Regency Romance, and Murder Mysteries: Author Interview with Catherine Lloyd

  1. Just finished today the third of the Kurland St. Mary mysteries and loved all three – it’s a long wait until the next one

Interview with Anita M. Cal, Author of ‘Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story’


A.M. Cal Author

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story and was riveted by the life of this musical prodigy and by Cal’s storytelling. She is a double doctoral candidate at Pepperdine University, an accomplished journalist, television writer, film producer, and can now add novelist to her repertoire. You can read my full review of Eighth Wonder here. Cal agreed to answer a few questions about her writing and research, as well as the process of turning a true story into a novel.

Congratulations on the book launch. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you chose this story to write about?

I’m a former journalist. I covered education for the Greenwich Times in Connecticut and covered general assignment, education, and police for the Los Angeles Times. I transitioned to graduate school, studied film and screenplay writing, and became a professional TV writer and independent film producer. I discovered Thomas Bethune, known as Blind Tom throughout the world, while researching prodigies for my thesis in graduate school. He was in a book of prodigies, his picture and story amid Beethoven, Mozart, and Stevie Wonder. I was mesmerized by that photo, a well-dressed slave boy standing next to his master and a fancy grand piano.

Why a novel vs. a biography? What was the research process like?

I’m a creative, fictional storyteller. I love drama, dramatic plot, the journey of a protagonist and overcoming obstacles. I wanted this bigger-than-life, almost mystical slave prodigy to endure in a theatrical, literary manner.

The research was extremely intense and spanned several years. My journalistic background spurred me to explore every piece of information I could find, from news articles to photos, to personal testimonies, medical journals, poems, concert flyers, and Civil War journals, anything I could find about the slave prodigy.


There are varying accounts of Colonel Bethune and his treatment of Thomas Wiggins. Did you specifically set out to make him a sympathetic character? If so, why?

Good question. Slavery is a hot-button topic, still emotional to this day, and even in slave narratives there are wide-ranging accounts of treatment from masters, from horrific to paternalistic, even kind masters. To that end, while workshopping the screenplay version of this book, I received passionate, earnest feedback across cultures in writing classes: please don’t make the Colonel a devil, please don’t make the Colonel an angel. I strove to paint the closest shade of truth I could from my years of research. The facts are, the Colonel saved a blind, autistic, slave child who was seemingly useless, seemingly worthless, and I concluded only a man with a decent heart would do such a thing. I always went back to that day he rescued Thomas, weighing the Colonel’s initial actions in the smokehouse against his more calculating actions, like declaring Thomas insane so he could maintain control of him.

At the end of the day, the goal of a creative historical fiction writer is to entertain. Conversely while entertaining, we strive to so by sharing historical facts, while consciously blurring those facts with fiction in order to enthrall, engage, and captivate readers. In making my creative choices, I took into consideration the middle America pleas of workshop writers that a one-sided, unsympathetic Colonel would ultimately not serve the story well in terms of audience. Ultimately, though, based on the Colonel saving Thomas with nothing to gain, provided the underpinnings of a nuanced man, with both great qualities and questionable issues of character.

You based this on historical facts but have altered some events in Thomas’s life. Was this a conscious choice?

Yes. For the purposes of story, some fabrications were made and that is one of the delicious differences between biography and historical fiction.

Throughout the novel, morality is not black and white, but shades of grey. For example, outsiders judge Col. Bethune harshly, but he steadfastly defends his love for Thomas and the reader sympathizes with him. Was this intentional? If so, why?

Imagine my shock the first time I learned some truths about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, all arguably great men with blurred morality or specious social views. Humanity is flawed, heroes are flawed, and often in life there isn’t that clear cut perfection that we crave in man, but a delicate balance between goodness and treacherous.

What discovery about Blind Tom most intrigued you? Was it more difficult writing a story that has a factual origin?

The process was excruciatingly difficult at times. I struggled with finding Thomas’s voice, sifting through the biases of the reporters at the time, taking into consideration the socio-cultural milieu was a constant battle. What most intrigued me about Thomas was the amount of privilege he was allowed because of his immense talent and his insistence that he could hear angels sing.

Why did you choose to self-publish vs. traditional, especially considering you already have an agent for other creative pursuits?

Great question. Initially, I considered an agent and received more than 50 rejections. The book wasn’t ready. Actually, the book is with a few big agencies right now, but the more I thought about it, I didn’t want to wait for some outside force to judge whether my work was worthy to share with the public and then change what I’d written—if they deemed it worthy. I didn’t want the pushback from publishers and/or their editors. Let the people, the readers decide. I did my best to write the novel as if a big publisher were backing it. It feels great that SELF-e Library Journal of U.S. librarians recently honored the ebook as a highlighted book for November.

Do you outline or are you a “pantser?” What is your routine? Do you set daily word goals?

I’m an outliner who also likes to write in the moment, while taking into consideration plot, and the desire of the reader to want to know what’s coming next. I try and write daily, but I don’t have word goals. I write, rewrite, and polish all in the same sitting, then move forward, and repeat the process.

What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?

Don’t be afraid to write bad, because for me, it just comes out bad. I think, a better way to phrase that piece of advice is “don’t be afraid to just write.”

What is your future project? Will you return to novels, TV, etc.?

I’m moving towards writing more novels.

My next book project is also historical, or as I like to say, biographical novel. There is a difference to me. The next novel centers around a phenomenal fashion designing figure who rose to the top of the design world in the 1950s-60s, an African-American woman only known in the elite circles in which she designed. I’m working on polishing episodes for a series entitled, Beacon Hill, a 1970s family t.v. drama with some name talent already attached. It’s a passion project with great friends and seasoned stars.

For those attempting their first full-length novel, do you have any advice? Best tip for emerging writers?

Take a class or join a workshop! I wasted the first two and a half years because I had no clue. It’s essential to share, learn, and explore with other writer’s under the tutelage of an instructor who’s been where you want to go.

Get to Know the Author:

Best book you’ve read so far this year or book you’re looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to The Wedding by Dorothy West. I finished Feast of All Saints again, by Anne Rice, I’m fanatical about that book, I love that story and I’ve read it about fifteen times.

Favorite book or author growing up?

Growing up, I’d have to say Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as well as the Great Brain! I loved Edith Wharton in high school and the Bronte sisters.

Favorite place and tools for writing?

The couch and preferably my old Macbook.

Favorite sport or leisure activity?

Love watching NFL football, college, and pro basketball. Seahawks, UW Huskies, and the Lakers during the Jerry Buss years.

Favorite food?

Anything chocolate.

Something you wish others knew about your life as a writer?

It’s not a choice, it’s who I am.

Thank you for taking an interest in learning more about me and my debut book.

You can find out more about Anita M. Cal on her website, follow her on Twitter, and visit her Facebook page.



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Interview: Mila Kunis to Produce ‘Black Stiletto’ by Author Raymond Benson

Mila Kunis Black Stiletto

Mila Kunis Black Stiletto    Raymond Benson Black Stiletto

Question: What do Mila Kunis and James Bond have in common?

Answer: Chicago area Author Raymond Benson

Black Stiletto

The actress turned producer best known for The Black Swan and  That ’70’s Show with Ashton Kutcher, has signed on to produce a new television series for ABC based on Benson’s suspense novel series, The Black Stiletto.

Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis

Raymond Benson is best known as the author of the official James Bond novels from 1996 to 2002.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Benson this summer for Blogcritics, and he was hopeful about the television project.   You can read our interview below and read about the new series here.

He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the TV series news this morning via email:


When did you first learn that the project was a go?

Negotiations have been going on for about a month… was surprised by the announcement, I didn’t know when it was going to happen!


Is this your first time having a film/TV adaptation of an original work?



When/how did you learn Mila Kunis was attached to produce?

I found out in August that she was interested.  Producer Tony Eldridge had the original option, he teamed up with producer Nancy Moonves, and they were able to get the material to Mila.


What will your involvement be with scripts, casting, etc.?

Unknown at this time.


As a film historian/instructor, did you have any special concerns, hopes or insight on the adaptation process?

I’m realistic about how Hollywood works… an author shouldn’t have expectations that anything adapted will be entirely faithful, but I’m confident that Javier Grillo-Marxuach (writer/showrunner) will do a great job.


What are the next steps of the process in getting Black Stiletto to the small screen?

They have to get a script done that ABC Studios and the producers like, then get a cast and director, and hopefully get the green light to make a pilot.  Lots of hurdles still jump over.  One step at a time!


Most surprising part of the experience?

The experience is in its baby steps.  I was surprised by the announcement being made so quickly, but I’m glad it was!


The following interview appeared in its entirety on www.Blogcritics.org

New York Times bestselling author Raymond Benson has won numerous awards as a short story writer, novelist and game designer. He is perhaps best known for his work as the official James Bond continuation author from 1996 to 2002, publishing six original 007 novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories. He received the Lovey Award for Best Suspense Novel of 2014 with The Black Stiletto: Secrets and Lies. He continues to write and teach in the Chicago area.

Would you please tell us about your series The Black Stiletto and how you got the inspiration for the story?

Library Journal nailed it when they called it a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” It’s about a feminist before that word was in our vernacular; she’s a young woman who goes to New York in the 1950s and becomes a vigilante fighting crime and social injustice. She’s active for 5 years and then mysteriously disappears. Cut to the present—a grown man is taking care of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and he discovers that she was the Black Stiletto! So it’s two parallel stories—one in the present, which deals with family, Alzheimer’s, and threats from the past; and one in the past, told in first person by the Stiletto herself, about her exploits.

I had been toying with an idea about a grown man who discovers some dark secret about his dying mother with Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t know what that secret was. Then, I had lunch with my agent and he suggested that I write something women would like. I facetiously offered, “How about a female superhero?” We laughed and then he got serious and said, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.” So I went home and thought about it—and I put the two ideas together, and voila!

With such a diverse background, scripts, games, etc., do you have a favorite or how do you decide what to work on next?

Writing novels is my favorite thing, it’s what I’ve been doing solidly for nearly 20 years. I still perform music, it’s a big part of my life.  And I still have a connection to the video game world in that I’ve written several tie-in novelizations for popular video games. I’m also a film historian; I teach college-level Film History and write for Cinema Retro Magazine.

Can you describe your process? How do your ideas come to you and what are your first steps to getting the story out on paper?

There are six distinct phases. The first is the Concept Phase, where it looks like I’m not doing anything. Next comes Preliminary Research, in which I look into some of the ideas I’m thinking about. Third—the Outline Phase. The hardest one, the phase in which I tear my hair out and have sleepless nights and am grumpy for a month or two (see my answer on outlining below). Fourth—Nitty Gritty Research. With all my Bond novels, I traveled to the locations, walked in Bond’s footsteps, stayed in his hotels, ate the food, drank the drinks, but I didn’t jump out of airplanes without a parachute. Fifth—the Writing Phase. I try to write a scene a day. It may be a full chapter, maybe not. I don’t look back at what I’ve written. The next day I plow ahead with the next scene. I do that until there’s a finished first draft. This establishes pace. THEN I go to the sixth phase—Revising. I go back to the beginning and revise, edit, add, delete, whatever I need to do. I do that at least twice. Then I have my trusted beta readers take a look. Maybe there’s another revision after I get their notes, maybe not.

How did you become involved with the James Bond books and what did it feel like to get that call?

My first published book (in 1984) was a non-fiction, encyclopedic coffee-table book on the history of Bond (The James Bond Bedside Companion). During the process I went to England for research; there I met members of Ian Fleming’s family, his business people, his friends, most importantly, the folks at his company (then called Glidrose Publications) who control the literary side of Bond. At the time, John Gardnerwas writing the books (Glidrose periodically hires authors to continue the novels).  Cut to 11 years later—I receive a call from Glidrose. They tell me Gardner wants to stop writing the books, and would I be interested in giving it a shot?  OMG.  After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Sure.”  I had to first write an outline on spec, and it had to be approved by not only Glidrose, but also the British and American publishers. When that was okayed, I had to write the first four chapters on spec with the same approval process. Then I got the contract.

Did you receive only acclaim or were some fans unhappy with anyone other than Ian Fleming working on the great character?

Ha, are you kidding? No one gets only acclaim! Being the first American Bond author, there were a few British Bond fans who wanted to kill me. You can’t please everyone. But I did receive much praise and garnered a lot of fans all over the world. It was a roller-coaster of a gig.

Outliner or Pantser? Did you always work this way?

Outliner. I don’t understand how thriller authors do it without an outline. My outlines are really prose treatments broken into block paragraphs (each paragraph represents a chapter). I spend a lot of time on the outline, working out the plot, twists, and turns. I want to know how it ends. Once the outline is done and I’ve completed all my research, then writing the book is easy. But I know exactly what I’m going to write every day when I sit down to do it by following the “map” I created.

What is the greatest difference between writing a short story and a novel (other than the obvious length)?

I find it much more difficult to write a short story. They’re very self-contained and need to have a single, powerful point to it. A good analogy is that you tell the story of a novel on a huge canvas and have a lot of room. With a short story, you’re telling it on a sketch pad.

What is your next or current project?

I’ve just begun a science fiction novel, my first one. I’ve done some sci fi short stories, and some of my tie-in novelization work was in the science fiction arena, but this will be my first original SF novel.

Do you have a favorite author/book from childhood? Any books you read over and over?

I read the Ian Fleming Bonds again every once in a while. I first read them when I was 9-10 years old, so I suppose you can say they’re from my childhood! My favorite author is the late Ruth Rendell, and I re-read her stuff all the time—with over 60 titles, they’re always fresh. One favorite book that I do re-read a lot isReplay by Ken Grimwood.

What do you read most of now and what have you read recently that you wish you’d written?

I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries because that’s what I write. What do I wish I’d written?—hard to say.  Maybe Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. What a beautiful novel.

If you were mentoring new writers, and only had time for one lesson, what would you share to give them the greatest chance of success?

Read a lot. If you don’t read a lot and especially the types of books you want to write, you won’t be a good writer.

What should new writers be looking for when reading in order to help them with their own writing?

How an author constructs a story. How an author reveals character, or exposition, or plot surprises.

Do you have a dream project you’ve yet to see finished?

I’d like to see The Black Stiletto become a television series. It’s currently being developed as one. Fingers crossed.  Other than that, I’d like to write a Star Wars novel, I’d like to re-mount some musicals I wrote back in my theater days, I’d like to record an album, I’d like to . . . this could take all day so I’ll stop there.

Readers can check out Raymond Benson’s website for more information on his books, short stories, and upcoming projects.

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Interview: Lene Fogelberg, Author of ‘Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir’

Lene Fogelberg

Lene Fogelberg

I met debut author Lene Fogelberg on Twitter. If you’re an emerging writer and you haven’t found Twitter yet, I recommend checking it out. I’m thrilled to host Lene on her publication day! Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir (She Writes Press, September 2015) is available through all major outlets.

Lene Fogelberg grew up surrounded by the natural beauty of her native Sweden. She lived a fragile physical existence with an undetected, and therefore untreated, fatal congenital heart condition. A dangerous and daring move to the United States takes its toll on her health but also provides the keys to her survival. Beautiful Affliction is a lyrical blend of literal heartache, love, and perseverance. The full review of Fogelberg’s debut memoir can be found here. She currently lives in Indonesia with her husband and daughters, and is working on a novel.

Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir by Lene Fogelberg

Congratulations on the success with your first book! How did you decide to take on the project and can you share your experience looking for an agent/publisher? What’s surprised you the most about the road to publication?

Thank you! I am very excited to see my story in print and to share it with the world. It was a difficult decision to come to, but I am happy I have reached this place of my journey. I think my story is unique in that many people who have experienced something similar did not live to tell their story, so I feel some sort of responsibility to speak up.

Being a Swede, living in Asia, the whole American system with agents seemed like a crazy jungle to me. Nevertheless I dove into it and made some great connections. I sent letters all over the place and contacted everyone who seemed nice. That is how, four months into it, I had three contracts from publishers in my inbox, and two agents considering my manuscript. But Brooke Warner and She Writes Press blew me away, with their gorgeous books and professionalism, and as soon as Brooke sent me an e-mail telling me that she wanted to move forward with my book for publication, I did my happy dance and accepted.

I have been surprised many times, by different aspects of the road to publication. Now I feel like I really didn’t know much when I started out! But I am happy I persevered and I have been trying to learn and adapt along the way.

How did you decide on the title and who designed the beautiful cover?

Originally I wrote the book with the working title The Cicadas, but my publisher wanted to change it. We came up with at least fifty titles before I spent a whole weekend soul searching to find the core of my story. And suddenly it came to me: Beautiful Affliction, which captures the two sides of my story; the struggle, the fear and the pain, and also the beauty, the unbending love and the miracle of it.

Cover designer Julie Metz, who is also an author, designed the cover and I am tremendously happy with it. I think the cover captures my story perfectly, although I have to confess I was a little shocked initially. I love the torn paper heart, the stitches and the random letters in italics, reminiscent of an irregular heartbeat. The irregular letters are featured throughout the book, which ties it all together wonderfully I think.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book for you? Do you love outlining, revising, or is the first draft your sweet spot?

The most difficult aspect was living it. And after that I was just so grateful to be alive, I didn’t think for a second I would write my story, or that I could write it. Not until three years after my heart surgeries, and after we had moved back to Sweden from the US, did the thought take hold, that maybe I should try to write it down. But when I started writing, it all sort of came out, and once I started it just had to be written. We moved to Indonesia in the middle of the writing process and a big portion of the book was written in hotel rooms and temporary housing in Jakarta, when all our things were shipped in a container and we lived out of suitcases. I had my family, my laptop and some clothes, but that was all I needed. I wrote and cried and figured out something to eat for my family, basically, for weeks and weeks. It was like a writing retreat!

We know once you release a story into the world, the reader makes it their own. What would you most hope readers take away from Beautiful Affliction?

I hope to share a sense of awe for life, for the miracle that it really is, and the beauty that can be found in unlikely places, as well as the beautiful pattern our lives can shape, even though when we are in the middle of it, it might seem like a huge mess.

Life of Pi

What well-known author would you choose as a mentor if you could? Along the same lines, what book (fiction or non-fiction) has most greatly influenced your life?

I would love to discuss writing with Yann Martel. I found his book Life of Pi in a corner of a bookshop, only its spine visible on the shelf, and two or three copies of it. This was before it was everywhere, and long before the movie. I pulled it out, read the book description and knew immediately it would be magical. I just fell in love with it and it’s one of the books I have given most thought to, even long after I finished reading it.

Do you have a regular writing practice?  How do you fit writing into your life as a parent, wife, etc.? Any writing rituals, favorite pen, chair, or beverage . . .

I usually write when my girls are in school. If I am in the middle of something and get hit by an idea, I can be seen running back to the laptop for the rest of the day, but mostly I try to fit my writing into the school day schedule so I can be there for my family in the afternoons and evenings.  I always write directly into a document on my laptop and I listen to music, from classical piano, to Coldplay, and everything in between. My girls are great at suggesting new music.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel that takes place here in Jakarta. It is a hilarious and heart-breaking story where I combine the ancient myths of Java with modern society and where East meets West. The first draft is basically finished.

Any favorite reads you’re looking forward to or have enjoyed this year?

I am looking forward to fellow She Writes Press authors getting published this fall; I have a huge pile of books to read!

As a debut author, what is the best advice you received? Any advice you didn’t act on?

At some point I heard about a study, where they tried to get to the bottom of why certain people were successful, and what they supposedly found out was that successful people had a common habit of actively seeking out advice from people who were ahead of them in their profession. This has stuck with me, and I have sought advice from coaches and editors, and it has made a world of difference to me. I have learned so much and I love that feeling; of growing, of learning. So the best advice I got was from that study, to not merely accept advice, but to seek it out from people you admire and to act on it.

Get to know Lene:

Favorite scent?

Lavender, Frangipani flowers and Balinese incense.

Favorite indulgence food?

Swedish cinnamon rolls that remind me of my childhood, and apple pie, for the same reason.

What’s your go-to splurge item?

Handbags, beautiful coffee table books, and handicrafts such as Indonesian carved wood elephants (I have five).

Favorite song to sing out loud?

“Human” by The Killers: “…my sign is vital, my hands are cold, and I’m on my knees, looking for the answer, are we human, or are we dancer…”

A celebrity you’re dying to meet?

Oprah of course!

Most important holiday tradition?

The traditional Swedish way of holding hands, singing Christmas carols and dancing around the Christmas tree has been expanded in our family to dancing through the whole house. Our kids make sure we dance through every room, before we are done.

Divulge one: bad habit or secret phobia

I have a secret spider phobia, well perhaps not so secret to my husband, who has to catch the spiders! Here in Indonesia we have spiders as big as the palm of my hand. Within seconds of entering a room I have scanned the floor and every wall for spiders.

If you could go pro in any field (other than writing), what would you choose?

Artist. I loved to paint big paintings and even sold some through a gallery. But eventually I got breathless and exhausted while painting and I had to give it up. It became too hard to hold up the brush to the canvas, it sounds crazy, but that’s how weak I was because of my undetected congenital heart disease.

Lene’s Top 3 Commandments for a happy life?

Things will work out (and if they don’t, you’ll be ok anyway)

Communicate! (People can’t read your mind)

Show kindness (everyone is fighting a hard battle)

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Last but not least, any tips for beginning writers?

Seek advice and feedback on your writing from the best sources you can find and read a lot of different books. There is always something to be learned from every kind of book, just as there is always something you can learn from every person you meet.

You can find out all about Lene on her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out this wise and inspiring interview from award-winning author Marly Youmans.


3 Thoughts on “Interview: Lene Fogelberg, Author of ‘Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir’

  1. Yes! That was great advices for all of us, not just authors/writers! …”to seek it out”…. I especially liked that one. Very interesting interview, thank you!

  2. Pingback: Publication Day! - Lene Fogelberg

Interview with Amy Impellizzeri, author of Romance / Time Travel Novel ‘Lemongrass Hope’

Lemongrass Hope

Amy Impellizzeri Interviewed by Suzanne Brazil

Amy had an idea and decided to write a book, and then made it happen in a big way. We spent over an hour on the phone together talking all things book-related. The interview originally appeared on www.Blogcritics.org. Amy had so much more to share, I decided to publish the extended, full-length version here for her fans and anyone with a dream to write a book.

Amy Impellizzeri’s debut novel, Lemongrass Hope (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2014), is a 2014 INDIEFAB Book Of The Year Bronze Winner (Romance), a 2014 National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist, and the #1 Reviewed Book in 2014 by the Literary Connoisseur. Kirkus Reviews called it “A layered, bittersweet romance that questions consequences and explores second chances.” Impellizzeri spent 13 years as a corporate litigator in New York City before leaving to write and advocate for women entrepreneurs. Her writing has appeared in  The Huffington PostThe Glass HammerABA’s Law Practice Today, and Yahoo Shine. She is also the author of the non-fiction Lawyer Interrupted (American Bar Association Publishing), due out in 2015.  She drinks a lot of coffee at home in Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband and three children.

I finished the book yesterday and I really enjoyed it. Time travel seems to be a particular niche with readers; there are readers who go back to it time and again. 

Thank you! It’s funny for me because I love the idea of time travel but I don’t read a lot of science fiction. So, I really wanted to write a book that was sort of time travel but real. And it’s sort of funny to me now, and it was funny as the book was evolving, but I thought this is actually turning into a time travel book. Now I’ve totally embraced it but it’s interesting. I really wanted the book to be something that you’d sort of say this could happen or that could happen, that was my goal.

Can you introduce your book for us? What is it about to you?

Which is the question I get asked the most and the question I have the hardest time answering. It is a book about time travel but I never say that from the beginning. I never lead with the time travel element. I don’t know why I think partly because I do want people to be taken on the journey and surprised a little bit, although it’s marketed as a time travel book and most people who pick it up now know that that’s what it is. I usually call it an unusual love story, an unusual look at second chances and the road not taken, and hopefully a book that will surprise you. I’d like to think the characters are relatable and real but still have extraordinary things happen to them.

What do you hope readers come away with from the book?

I think my favorite compliments are that it felt natural, that it didn’t feel so outlandish. Also, it is a book club book, I think. We’ve marketed it as such. Book clubs have found it and embraced it, and are probably my largest reading demographic. I’d like to think that people will finish it and say it gave them a lot to think about and a lot to talk about. And I love when I get emails and Facebook messages from a reader in the middle of the night who say ‘I just finished it and I need to talk about this book.’ I love that it’s kind of a book that you want to talk about right away. I love when people say that it’s a book that stays with you for a little while, and makes you think about your own second chances and what-ifs, things I might have done over, things I might not have done over.

What surprised me about the book was the prologue/epilogue.  I was surprised by the main character’s willingness to look at her life differently. 

I actually spoke with editors and I had an agent and an editor who wanted me to change the ending. And I always resisted that. I had an editor tell me that it really couldn’t be commercial unless [I changed the ending]. And I said that was never the book I was going to write. My publisher said do not change a thing, do not change the ending of the book. But I still, I wanted there to be a little ambiguity.  I think what I want you to come away with and what I want you to think about is evolution. I’ve had readers say to me ‘How many times do you think this has happened? How many times did they go back?’ I’ve had one reader in a book club say to me ‘Well, I mapped it all out in the book, and I could tell you it happened six times,’ and I said ‘That’s awesome that you did that, but that’s not true.’  My answer to that question is I think they went back a lot. I want you to have this idea of evolution. That’s part of why the person changes in the story. It’s sort of a snap shot, it’s one sliver of time.

I want you to leave with the idea that this could have happened over and over and over again, and indeed it really sort of had to have happened a lot. At the end, I want you to think not that it happened six times, that it happened enough times, that it’s believable that yes, she’s making this decision. She’s making this decision with both feet in. But there’s still the question and I leave the question mark open in the book for me, and for all readers there’s still the question whether it’s enough.

Which poses an interesting question. What are the possibilities of a sequel?

Well I have toyed with the idea of not a sequel but a related book. I’ve often thought about writing the book from two different people’s perspective. Not this book but a story from either Stella’s perspective because I agree with you I think she’s a really interesting sympathetic character, and I’ve always had an idea about writing a book from Dee’s perspective because she’s one of my favorite characters. And every time I really try to do it, never say never, but I have not figured out a way to do it and still preserve what I think is a little bit of the magic and mystery of Lemongrass Hope. I usually say not now. If I ever figured out a way to do it, I would love to do it but I haven’t figured that out yet. I am working on my next book and it’s completely unrelated.

Is the working title the Secrets of the Worry Dolls?

It’s not final, it’s still a work in progress although it’s getting very close. It’s a totally different book though, not related to Lemongrass Hope.

How is writing the second book similar to or different from writing Lemongrass Hope?

It’s different in a lot of ways. Lemongrass Hope came about sort of by accident. I was a corporate litigator for over 13 years. I was taking a year sabbatical, and I was not taking a year’s sabbatical to write a book.  I took a sabbatical to catch my breath. While I was on sabbatical I was doing writing. I had always written. I’d always been a creative writer, but I’d sort of stifled that side of myself to be a lawyer. I wrote for a living, but I wrote what other people paid me to write.

“I had this dream one night. I went back in time and my children weren’t there. And that was it. There was nothing more fleshed out than that.” 

When you say you were a creative writer, what did that look like? Were you writing stories on the weekend? Were you submitting anything?

Not while I was practicing law at all but in college, I was taking creative writing classes. I always had a journal I have piles and piles of journals from when I was like 11 . . . you see the end point. They run from when I was 11 until I was 20, and then they just stop dead. I went to college knowing I was going to be a lawyer. That was my goal.  That was what I was going to do. I was going to go to law school. But I was going to do them both. I was going to write on the side, and I was going to be a lawyer. And I don’t know, looking back, what I thought that would look like. I wasn’t planning on writing professionally I was planning on being a lawyer to make a living, and I was planning on always keeping my journals, writing stories, submitting maybe small short stories.

I never had this dream to write a novel, but I did always love writing. I loved it. But in college, I made this decision at one point that this was too distracting. I had to pick one, in my mind, so I picked law. That was all I was going to do professionally and so I had to put all my energy and resources into that. I stopped writing creatively and only worked on my English and Philosophy majors. Then I went to law school, and I never wrote anything that wasn’t a case brief or something I was paid to write for a client, legal-related.

That part of me was really pushed to the side. When I took my sabbatical I started writing again. Now it was 20 years later, and I was writing essays on a computer and I had never done that before. Now I had a whole hard drive of essays, and I thought what am I going to do with these? I just filed them away, but sort of reconnected with that side of myself. It was a time that I was very much thinking about what have I done? I’ve totally pushed this whole side of myself away. I was only ever going to be a lawyer that was all I ever wanted to do. Now you’ve done it and have you’ve abandoned a whole path you could have explored. You really enjoy this, you really love it. It was in terms of my professional life that I was having a second thought. I think my subconscious was in overdrive on it. I had this dream one night. I went back in time and my children weren’t there. And that was it. There was nothing more fleshed out than that. And I sort of woke up and I thought so yeah that’s what it would mean to go back and do everything differently. Everything would be different.

I just started toying with that and it became an idea for a book. That was the first time I thought I’m going to write a book. I’m not just going to write essays anymore, and I’m going to not go back to practicing law. Because, in the meantime I’d hooked up with this start-up company who was doing a lot of marketing for women entrepreneurs. They were moving from a magazine to an online content site. Their mission was to empower women entrepreneurs, and they were starting an e-commerce site. I got involved with them on the business side. I was writing articles about the women, and helping the women write their marketing pitches. I did that as my new job, and on the side I wrote Lemongrass Hope for years.

You asked what’s different about the new writing process. When I started writing Lemongrass Hope, I didn’t set out to write a book. I sat down to flesh out this idea I had, and I would literally leave it for months at a time. I’d come back to it and I’d say ‘Is there anything here?’ And every time I’d say ‘There is something here. I want to come back to this.’ So after about three years, I said to myself, this is silly. I’m tired of saying I’m writing a book. I’m going to actually finish this book. So then I put myself on a deadline. And really the book got written in that last 12 months when I focused myself.

The writing process now is so different because now I have set out to write a book. And for good or for bad that is a totally different process than just sort of exploring an idea. I’ve been much more structured about this from the outset. I’ve been more structured about plotting out the characters and plotting out the plot. But I still notice about myself this is still the way I write. But I still keep putting it down, coming back to it putting it down, coming back to it. I almost can’t focus myself until I know exactly how it’s going to end. That’s how I was with Lemongrass Hope. Once I figured out exactly how it was going to end, then I was able to really focus myself on the rest of it. That’s how it is with Secrets of Worry Dolls. I had an idea. It was a general idea. I loved the idea. I’ve explored it a couple different ways over the last year. And the last month or two, I’ve figured it out. I know exactly how it’s going to end now. Now I can be very focused about it.

Would you say you have more of an outline then for this book than you did for Lemongrass Hope? Were you just writing scenes for Lemongrass Hope?

Yeah, yeah. I was. I learned so much because I wrote the Lemongrass Hope over the course of three or four years, but really focused in the last year. I remember someone asking me ‘how on earth did you know how to write a book’ and I thought that’s the best question I’ve been asked because I don’t really know how I figured out how to write a book. Because I didn’t figure out how to write a book until after I wrote a book.

Once I had the manuscript I started going to writing seminars and I started acting like a writer and I started shopping the book. Through a series of things that happened, a best-selling author got hold of a small excerpt and said to me this is a real book. We should do something, we should introduce you to someone. I ended up being introduced to Caroline Leavitt who is a New York Time’s bestselling author and works as a developmental editor on the side. I worked with her for a couple of months on the revisions and the structure of the book. She was really wonderful in terms of  saying ‘You have a real book and a real idea, but think about how you want to structure this so that this is a novel.’ The time I spent with her, and the time I spent after that finalizing and revising it is when I think I learned how to write a book.

Now I’m not telling you I’m an expert on writing a book. But I can tell you when I sat down to write Lemongrass Hope, I had no idea what it was to actually write a book. So many people say I have this idea for a book. And I encourage everyone, because I think everyone who says they’re writing a book should write a book. But I think probably 75% of those people think you write the words. You write them from beginning to end and you create a story. And that’s not really how you write a book.

On Secrets of Worry Dolls, I have not been writing it linearly, nor will it look like it does now when I’m ready to submit it. It’s a lot of different pieces and I need to figure out how they all fit together to tell the story the right way. I know what the story is and I can sit down and write those words. But, I need to make them all fit in a way that is compelling, and will tell the story in the way that I want it to be told, and let it unfold for the reader in the way I want it to unfold. That’s really the hardest part of writing the book; not just getting the words on the page but getting them in the right order.

“I don’t really know how I figured out how to write a book. Because I didn’t figure out how to write a book until after I wrote a book.”

If you had three hours I’d keep you on the phone as I just love this topic. A writing mentor recently told me “Look, no one knows how to write a novel.” It’s nice to hear you say that. When you said you know the story for Secrets of Worry Dolls or even for Lemongrass Hope, how much did the story change when you got into writing the characters and putting their words on paper?

It didn’t change so much as a lot of blanks got filled in. So I had a very skeletal idea of the story and that’s what I started with. I knew Lemongrass Hope was about second chances and what-ifs. This woman was haunted by her first love and she’s in a terrible marriage. She reconnects with her first love and what does that mean? But I didn’t know how her marriage was going to break down. Those things sort of evolved, those details and those scenes. Rob changed a lot. I had to really work on him. In an earlier version of the book, we know about Ian but we really don’t meet him. That was all wrong. Who got introduced when changed. The characters changed. I hope Kate became less superficial and a more substantive character. Rob is probably the character that changed the most.

I can see his arc in the final version. He’s certainly more redemptive.

My editor would say ‘Rob’s a bad guy, I don’t get it.’ I told my editor Rob’s the kind of guy that would take the kids to the diner and clean out the claw machine (winning prizes for them). She said, ‘Ok, where’s that?’ I said ‘Oh yeah, I’ll write that for him then, not just in my head.’

Can you describe the moment you got the news that you found out it was going to be published?

I know exactly where I was. I was at my son’s hockey rink at hockey practice. I actually pitched this book without an agent. I had sent the book to a couple of agents. Then I was introduced to this publisher directly. I had pitched her the book the week before. She had said ‘Let me see the manuscript and I’ll get back to you next week.’ It was Monday morning and I said to my husband ‘Maybe I’ll hear today.’ He was like, “No.” But she did. She emailed me that night. I opened the email at the rink and she’d attached the first draft of the publishing contract. It was very exciting and I squealed at hockey practice!

“If you have a real goal for yourself, and it sounds crazy in your head, say it out loud and it will sound less crazy.”

What would you say is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?

The one piece of advice I got hands down was to change the ending. An agent told me the book really wouldn’t be commercial unless I changed the ending. I still think there’s a lot of people who think the only books that are commercial are formulated books. But I think I see so many new writers getting caught up in, and I try to tell people, when you are writing your first book, focus on the writing first and getting it published last. I think people who do that are the ones who end up getting their books published more quickly.

I think people who are so focused on ‘I need to get this book published, I really want to get it published,’ completely lose sight of the writing, the editing. When you have a first draft, the things that happen to that book that are so substantive, so meaningful, from that moment until the moment it gets published are huge and important. Those are necessary. You need to get out of your head, out of your manuscript, and you need to have other very reputable, trustworthy people give you their input. Not too many people, though! A lot of advice can sometimes make you a little crazy. That’s one of the biggest hang-ups for new writers is to get too focused on the publishing and forget about the writing.

I think what makes the book linger is the fact that the ending isn’t formulaic.

There’s a time and a place for every type of book. But there’s certainly a time and a place for books that don’t fit the usual commercial mold and good for them!

Did you have a favorite book or author growing up?

My favorite book of all time that stands the test of time is Gone with the Wind. Recently, Beautiful Ruins is probably my favorite contemporary book. It’s tied with Jo Jo Moyes. I love the way she writes.

Is there a particular book on craft or what was most useful to you in improving?

I won’t say I’ve read them all cover to cover, but I have a bunch of craft books on my bookshelf:  Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.

“When you are writing your first book, focus on the writing first and getting it published last. I think people who do that are the ones who end up getting their books published more quickly.”

What aspects of craft do you struggle with the most or what do you feel you have a really good handle on?

Probably what I struggle with the most is the editor’s favorite admonition: show don’t tell. There’s scenes I get caught up in exposition. I want you to know every single thing going on in my character’s head. And I think, this is awful. I have to do this with dialogue. I have to do this with action. I have to make this more powerful. That’s what I still struggle with and probably will never ever master. I don’t know that I would say I’ve mastered anything. That would be crazy.

I think I have a voice, and I think I know what my voice is. I think that’s important for all writers. I love when a new writer will ask my advice or show me something and they have such a clear voice. I think ‘I know exactly what the book you’re writing. This is your voice.’  I’m comfortable writing in my voice and I try to write a book that makes sense even if you’re reading out loud. Does that make sense?

Yes. It’s very readable. It has complex ideas but it’s readable and relatable.

I hope so, thank you!

How important is your writing community and how did you forge that? 

I am a fan of critique groups. I’m not in a live critique group, but I do a lot of workshopping of my writing. You have to think about if you’re going to align yourself with a genre or not. The plus side of that is there are going to be communities that are readily available to you. If you clearly write science fiction, romance, thrillers, mysteries, there are usually associations. I belong to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and they do a lot of great online workshopping and online critique groups. I do writing retreats when I can, but I do have three small kids, 11 and under. I really don’t travel that much. I try to do a lot on line. Social media has made writing so much less lonely. I don’t know what people did 20 years ago. It’s such a notoriously lonely career.

Lawyer Interrupted

How do you handle the social media pressures and time sucks, do you have a certain schedule?

I am a terrible offender of getting distracted by social media. There’s an app you can download that prevents you from logging on to Facebook and Twitter for three hours at a time. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been able to do that! I do try to give myself a moratorium. But I have two books out now, Lemongrass Hope and Lawyer Interrupted. A huge part of being a writer is marketing your book. So, you end up on social media a lot, but I do try to limit myself. When I’m writing, I really try to reign myself in, especially in the summer. I really try to do morning and night, check everything and check off all the boxes. Some days I just get into it. The truth is there are real benefits to it as with everything.

I am a person who does like to write amidst chaos. I’m not a person who can sit in my treehouse. I always thought I would do that. I thought that’s how it would be. I painted my writing office and got a new chair.  I never write in there. I always write in the middle of chaos, and in the margins of doing other things, and on my coffee cup in the car at the red light. I’ve always written like that and I probably will for the foreseeable future. It’s important to admit you have a social media problem. Twitter is tough because that will suck you in.

If used for good, you have to use social media for good, developing the community is important and I love it for that.

What would you say has been the most surprising part of becoming a published novelist?

Everything has been so new and novel that I can’t say I expected any of it. I’d probably say the way book clubs have embraced the book has been such a wonderful surprise. I can remember pitching it to my publisher that way. I was in a book club, I still am in a book club. I love my book club. If we could get this to book clubs I think this would be a great book for book clubs. I put it out there on my website that I would come to book clubs. I can’t believe how many book clubs have emailed me. I’ve lost count. I think I’ve probably been to close to 50 book clubs live or by Skype. I love book clubs.

Every single discussion has been different. Every single experience has been different. Having the book received so well by book clubs and getting to experience other book clubs. I’m fascinated, it’s like a whole other demographic. I’ve been to book clubs that have been very formal, informal. I’ve been to book clubs that have people on a wait list to get in; people that hand-picked their members because they didn’t want it to be too homogenous, wanted different ages and different lifestyles represented. I’ve been to other book clubs where everybody is exactly the same. It’s been such a fascinating way to experience the book through all those different eyes.

“I always write in the middle of chaos, and in the margins of doing other things, and on my coffee cup in the car at the red light.”

There is a fierceness and determination in Kate and in your essays on your blog. Do you think this quality helped you become a published novelist? Did any of that influence your choices for Kate’s character in the book?

It’s always interesting for people who know me to read the book and to hear their take on Kate. It’s always interesting for people to try and read me into her. You have to read me into her. I wrote her. You have to read me into all the characters. That’s actually been an interesting awakening to me to now read other novelists’ books with that in mind.

I have this notion, like my personal mantra, if you say something out loud, if you really want something and you say it out loud, and you work towards it, you really can make it happen. I’m not talking about like going into space, I’m talking about if you have a real goal for yourself and it sounds crazy in your head, say it out loud and it will sound less crazy.

Of course part of that is written into Kate. I hope it is because I think that’s a great way to live your life. When I was writing this book and I was in the last year, the really focused time, I was with my sisters. We go on an annual girls’ trip and we were in Vegas. I remember the moment very clearly, as clearly as I remember getting the publishing deal, actually. We were going around, the three of us, talking about our fears and what was on the horizon for us in the next year. They kind of knew I was working on this book, but I had never put it together this concretely. I said ‘I’m working on this book and it’s called Lemongrass Hope. I’m going to finish this book this year and I’m going to try to get it published.’ They looked at me and they said ‘Well then, you probably will.’

Once you say something out loud like that you are accountable and you really have to work at it. I would like to write strong female characters who have that quality. But I don’t want anyone to read all my characters and think they’re completely autobiographical.

My next book I did a lot more research for. My new book takes place partly in Guatemala, and there will be a lot of research incorporated into it. But it will also be about sisters and a mother/daughter relationship. I’ve already known I had to sit them down and say ‘this isn’t about you,’ but it comes from a place of having been a daughter and having been a sister and a mother.

Lemongrass Hope

Was it a little scary for you thinking everyone was going to think this was your life?

My publisher asked if I wanted to handle pre-orders differently, if I wanted to send it to them [personally] so they [readers] wouldn’t have to wait so long. I said that’s a fun way for a new author to do a pre-order. It really wasn’t advertised that way, but I put it on my personal Facebook page. All my friends pre-ordered the book. Three days later, my feed was just filled with pictures of all my friends with their copy of Lemongrass Hope next to their morning coffee. I remember being so weepy, ‘This is so beautiful. How nice—my book is in the hands of all the people who love me.’ And then I’m telling you, I didn’t sleep for three days. I was sick to my stomach for three days. I thought, you didn’t think this through. Now, everyone you know, everyone in town is reading . . . your . . .book.

A little bit of stage fright?

A lot of stage fright. A lot of exhaling as the reviews started coming in. My favorite compliments were from people who knew me who said ‘You know, a couple of pages in and I forgot you wrote it.’ That’s the best compliment.

The more I work on my own writing and the more authors I speak with, I’m always in awe and have a renewed sense of respect No one tells you how much work it is. Isn’t it similar to motherhood?

Oh, Absolutely. It’s just as personal. It’s just as painful. It’s just as complicated and emotional. And I love to write. This is true and I really mean this—I’m probably going to sound insincere but I’ll say it anyway—I really would write even if nobody would read a thing I wrote. I need to write, and I love to write, but it’s even better that people are actually reading it. I have to tell you!

You were able to take something from nothing and make it into something. How did that feel?

I loved the whole process. I really didn’t shop the book for long. I actually finished editing the book in October and I had a publishing deal by January. That’s very unusual. The reason is I didn’t try to shop it to larger houses first. I’ve talked to many people who say you start with the bigger houses and agents and then you work your way down. As an emerging author, you see where you land, and that’s a valid methodology. I wanted this in print. Then I found a publisher very quickly who was enthusiastic about the book, and said all the right things about the book, and said don’t change the ending. In hindsight, the reason it’s been the best decision for me is I’ve been able to see this to conclusion, and it has empowered me to write another book. I want this book to be even better. I’m petrified of not writing a better book, but I’m going to try.

Check out Amy’s website and blog for more information about her fiction and non-fiction writing, appearances, and Book Club offerings

Amy Impellizzeri and I met through Women Writers, Women’s Books. If you love books, if you’re looking for a source of support for your writing, a place of intelligent discourse, a diverse group of warm, generous, and often hilarious women, you have to click here.






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Why Writers are the Best People


Ana’s beautiful pup, Avy

My commitment to living my life as a writer has brought me into contact with some interesting, creative, impressive and kind people. One of the many writer friends/mentors I’ve been lucky to meet is Ana Hays McCracken. She writes a whimsical and lovely blog about her dog, Avy and other curious things.

She has written professionally for many years and has been published in two Chicken Soup books. She also has an insightful, entertaining essay in “Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 51 Women Reveal the Power of Positive Female Connection.

Nothing But the Truth Book

Recently, she gave me a shout out on her website for which I am eternally grateful. I am moved to do the same.

We had lunch not too long ago and reminisced about meeting on a Haven retreat in Montana and how we’d love to have more writer-y experiences where we could talk books, write in a cabin in the woods and sip hot cocoa around a fire. My writing community is growing and that’s a great thing!

Ana Hays and Suzanne Brazil

Another exciting mention came from Laura Munson! She was kind enough to link to our interview in her Haven Newsletter. For inspiration and news about Laura’s retreats and her books, visit her website.

Writers never get tired of talking about books and writing and books and writing. Most are helpful and most love animals. See, they’re the best people. How have you been growing and tending your writing community?


4 Thoughts on “Why Writers are the Best People

  1. Kathy on April 27, 2015 at 7:24 pm said:

    Thanks Suzanne for stirring my pot of memories! Spending time with you, and all of the talented writers in the Montana woods fed my soul! I am enjoying your journey, and feel blessed to have participated in a sliver of it. <3

    • Thanks for reading, Kathy! I have a feeling we’ll be thinking of that time many years from now. I know I will…thought of you often as I walked on the beach looking at rocks yesterday 🙂

  2. Hi Suzanne!

    Avy Baby here. Mommy was so excited to see a post about herself on your website today. (She’s so vain.) And I was thrilled to see my picture hers and my hike this weekend. Arf. Hope you and Mommy can find that cabin in the woods soon so you two can continue chatting about books and writing. Maybe the cabin allows dogs. Arf. Arf.

    xo Avy

Interview: Laura Munson, Author of the Memoir ‘This is Not the Story You Think It Is’

Laura Munson

I’ve written about my experience at my first writing retreat several times on this website. I’ve also written about taking risks and “thinking big.” Still, it took me months to work up the courage to email a best-selling author to ask her for an interview. She replied immediately, generously and enthusiastically. She never questioned my status as a “real writer” or warned me about adverbs. Thank you, Laura!

This interview was originally published on www.Blogcritics.org. Check out their website for the latest pop culture news.

Laura Munson 

Laura Munson is the New York Times and international best-selling author of This Is Not The Story You Think It Is (Putnam 2010) and founder of the acclaimed Haven Writing Retreat. Her essay in theNew York Times Modern Love Column was recently listed as #2 on The Ten Best Modern Love Columns Ever list (New York Times, December 19, 2014). Her work has also appeared in  the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, O. Magazine, The Week, Huffington Post, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping and More Magazine.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started writing?

I have written since I was little.  I was that kid with the flashlight under her covers or up in her treehouse, writing in a journal.  I have boxes of journals that go back to 4th grade.  That said, the things that come most naturally to us are often the things we ignore, so I put all my passion into theater and film in school until I took a screenplay elective and realized that I was a writer.  I started writing screenplays, switched quickly to fiction and memoir, and have been writing ever since with all my heart.  It’s an obsession, really.

What can you share about your current project?

I am working on several projects at the moment — a novel, a memoir, and a book about living a healthy, balanced writing life.  I also blog regularly for my Haven blog and the Huffington Post, and write personal essays for print and online magazines.  I’m all about process, and I try to always have something in the creation process, something in the submissions process, and hopefully…something in the publishing process.

Is there a theme or common thread that runs through your previous books? If so, is that intentional?

I like to write about the stuff people do to each other and how we grow from it — good, bad and ugly.  I’m fascinated by the facets of the human heart and how we survive this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called Life.  I also like to weave the subject of Home into my writing, both in the world and in ourselves.  And usually, since I live in Montana, there is an element of wilderness that finds its way into my stories, real or imagined — the wilderness of nature and of the Human Condition.  I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it’s what comes out naturally, and I believe that when we tap into our natural flow, we are writing in communion with our best selves.

Do you derive creative satisfaction from other writing assignments that you may have for commercial purposes, i.e. magazine articles, essays, etc.? Is it the same as working on a memoir or novel? If not, how does it differ?

I only write what feels real and authentic to me, so whenever I have a writing “job” it’s always a perfect example of that quote: “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” I’m lucky that way. For a long, long time I didn’t get paid for my writing, and I didn’t let it stop me.  We must cultivate a hunger for our voice and once we do, the pay-off is immense. When we know our white-hot subjects, we attract writing projects/assignments which grow organically from what we have already put out there with past writing, so one honest, congruent piece begets another. At my Haven Writing Retreats, I work hard with people to find the subjects that are charged for them, and once they put their finger on the pulse of those themes and give themselves permission to write their way into them…that’s when things start cranking for people.  And there’s A LOT of satisfaction in that!

Who are your first readers — or do you share only with your agent/editor?

I have a strict protocol that I use for my early readers. The short version is: only give your stuff to people who really want to read it, who are relentless about asking you, have zero agenda, share your taste in books and writing in general, and will be honest. And set up a contract that works for you both to avoid awkward run-ins at the grocery store! That said, I love my agent and I trust her opinion with all my heart. Agents are very busy, and it’s in many ways a thankless job, so I only send it to her once I am SURE it is as good as I can get it and that usually means it’s been read by at least three people, and that I’m well into my third or fourth draft. The attitude that “an editor will fix all my issues” isn’t a good one to adopt. It’s the writer’s job to deliver as clean and alive a piece as possible and that takes work and time and a wide-open third eye.

Describe the difference in the feeling or emotion you receive from writing (the work) vs. publishing (the outcome).

The work: I love the journey. If you don’t love the journey, find something else that you love because it’s all about the journey. Delight in it, even and especially when it’s hard. Embrace the hardship! Breathe into the groundlessness of it.  Understand that all writing has an inherent problem and become the exact sleuth that will find the solution!

The published work: It’s between the published work and the reader at that point. It’s nice to be paid.  And it’s nice to have readers. Sometimes REALLY nice. But once your work is out there, it’s really none of your business anymore. It’s time to get back to the next writing journey!

One tip you think aspiring writers should consider ignoring?

Anything that starts with:  “10 easy steps…”  Or asks you to follow a method, a guru, or pay out a lot of money. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen and the guts to put your heart in your hand and translate thought into the form of heart language.  Sounds easy, huh.  It ain’t.  I wish someone had told me this a long time ago: You don’t have to do it alone!  Find a writing community.  Go on a Haven Retreat!

Where do you write? Special pen? Favorite chair? Beverage while writing, etc.?

I like to say that I’ve raised flexible children and a flexible muse. I’ve written on everything from cocktail napkins to fancy Italian leather-bound journals, from my laptop to my Mother-ship computer…in trains, planes, automobiles…you name it.  Lots of green tea with jasmine when writing. Sometimes wine while editing. Endless water. The muse really likes water, especially Montana well water.

Most unexpected experience bringing your first book to publication?

That would take a few hours. Suffice it to say that pretty much everything that has happened to me on the road of publication is totally outside of anything I ever read in any book about the publishing process. SO that’s good news. Know why you write, write, put it out there, and go back to writing. At a certain point, it’s a numbers game and all bets are off.  The only thing you can control is doing the work and submitting it.

Favorite book or author growing up?

Growing up, I loved anything with horses or nature in it. Now throw in a few derelicts on a hero’s journey who like good food, and I’m good to go. Which means, I really love Jim Harrison’s work.

Last “great” book you read?

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. She reminds me of the life that exists between the lines of prose.  You have to learn how to read those too…  Correction:  you GET to learn how to read those too. When you’re really doing the work, it’s all one big beautiful journey, even the hardship. Especially the hardship.

Update: I asked one follow-up question and here is Laura’s reply…

If you could give just one piece of advice or say one thing to writers at the start of their journey, what would it be?

Get clear about why you are writing in the first place.  Write a one line author statement.  Put it somewhere close by.  Refer to it often. Start it with:  “I write to…”  If you are clear about why you write, then no matter what happens along the way…you will always have your compass.  And it will help you do the work.  That’s all you can control: doing the work.  That’s good news!

You can find out more about Laura and Haven Writing Retreats by visiting her at www.lauramunson.com.

This is not the story you think it is

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Interview with Marly Youmans, Award Winning Author of ‘Glimmerglass: A Novel’

Social Media is an amazing thing! I Tweeted about a book I was reading and loving. Before long, I’m interviewing the award winning author of  Glimmerglass: A Novel. Read on for the lyrical prescription for what ails our reading souls. This interview was published originally on www.Blogcritics.org and also appeared in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. I reviewed Glimmerglass for Blogcritics in January 2015, and you can read the entire review here.


Interview: Marly Youmans, Author of ‘Glimmerglass: A Novel,’ Poet and Writing Instructor, Part 1 of 2

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Marly Youmans, Author

Marly Youmans is a poet, novelist, and teacher living in Cooperstown, NY, with her family. She has been called “the best kept secret” among contemporary writers and her prose hailed as “gorgeous, haunting, beautiful and brilliant.” Youmans is a recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship and her previous novels, short stories and poetry have won numerous awards. I found Glimmerglass (Mercer University Press, 2014) on my library shelf and after falling under its spell, requested an interview. She was gracious with her time and experience as we covered ground from the lack of quality literary criticism to the trait most writers need to cultivate.

As you know, I read and loved Glimmerglass and am curious to know where you got the idea for this tale about the artist in the gatehouse.

A great deal that characterizes the book has to do with my belief that Cooperstown (the inspiration for Cooper Patent) is a place that mixes the real and unreal, but there are more straightforward elements that led me to an artist and a gatehouse. I have a lot of friends who are painters, and Cooperstown is awash in visual arts; the Susquehanna River Valley is still strongly appealing as a place to live for many artists. My most frequent lunch buddies are the two painters to whom the book is dedicated, Ashley Norwood Cooper and Yolanda Sharpe, though I’m glad to say that they do not suffer from Cynthia’s art troubles.

We live in a time when every person who strives to make art that is authentic and strong must mull how the work can and should be done, and how it relates to a commercial, mainstream world that rates money above the true, the good, and the beautiful. Through Cynthia, I dealt with the problem of making art in our current culture (though that was not in the least what I consciously intended, when dreaming through the story), considering the situation of someone who had made a choice that she came to see as wrong. The book offers her a kind of redemption, and even though she does not get to keep the physical proof of what she achieves, the possibility of meaningful work is still is open to her. She reaches for the same joyful knowledge that Hawthorne’s artist of the beautiful achieves in his glittering, mechanic art.

glimmerglass a novelThe gatehouse is a charming local one with seven doors and a stream rushing by, down to Otsego Lake, James Fenimore Cooper’s Glimmerglass. I once ate lunch there and had a tour of the place, and the house stuck in my mind as magical and odd. (The watermark, the ceiling motifs, and the overall look of the place all draw on that memory. Frog pageants also were borrowed from the gatehouse residents.) I took the liberty of creating Sea House because the mansion near the gate burned to the foundation stones long ago.

Can you elaborate on your creative process? Specifically, do you begin with a pre-planned plot, a simple idea or problem? Does the story seem to write itself or come from some mysterious place within, and is it the same for all of your stories?

No, I don’t care for much pre-planning and am not one of the people (I know some of these and admire their organization) who make charts of characters and detailed outlines of plots. With Glimmerglass, I had a feeling for the places and knew that there would be a labyrinth. In writing, I tend to move by instinct, but I don’t claim that as a virtue – I don’t suppose there’s merit in one way of working over another. After all, it’s the final result that counts, no matter how it was made. I just write in the way that feels like a “rightness” to me. Sometimes I am suddenly gripped by something that I did not expect at all; that’s the way Thaliad (2012) arrived. I just woke up one morning and the narrative was in my mind, burning to leap out. The poems for The Book of the Red King (a lot of them have been published, but I’m still not quite ready for a book) arrived in a similar manner. For about three months I was inhabited by the book and wrote at least a poem a day.

With fiction, I often start with relatively little knowledge. With A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (2012), I wrote the first two chapters in a big swoop and then had to figure out what happened afterward. But some things were quite clear in my mind – the main character, the sharecropper’s farm (modeled closely on the one my paternal grandparents worked), the fact that Pip would ride the rails west and north. I did not know if he would ever return or find a place to alight and stay. My 13th book, Maze of Blood (September, 2015) is one of the few books that I’ve written based on specific happenings in our real world. Though fiction, it depends on events in the life of pulp writer Robert Howard. I’ve wanted to do something based on an existing pattern for a while, as I’ve long been fascinated by the way Shakespeare takes what was known about the history of a figure and makes something new from it. So I did choose some key moments to juggle and play with as fiction. That plan had its own odd challenges, and I ended up radically re-working the order of events.

My favorite times tend to be when poems rush out unexpectedly, or when stories or parts of novels seem to pour out as if by magic. I love the strange sensation that something is pouring through me – a waterfall of language that feels like me and not-me at once. It leads to a thrilling sense of surprise. Of course, there are parts of novels that must be stitched together in a more mundane way. I’ve never been particularly interested in elaborate transitions and the “fat” of many novels, and my books tend to be lean. If a reader does not like that Jack-Sprat tendency, well, he or she has a challenge.

I would say that every narrative begins in a different way, that it is never “the same.” In order to make books that live, a writer needs to strive to do something she can’t do – to make something that has no recipe or instructions, that is not explained or plotted-out by one of her previous books. So I never know at the start where I am going, or whether I can master the dream and make it shapely.

Even your prose responses to my questions seem to have a bit of poetry in them. Was this unusual way of looking at the world something you’ve always possessed? Do you view the daily “mundane” world through similar spectacles (e.g., when giving instructions to your children, etc.)?

Some of my early childhood memories sparkle – my memories of my years as a small child in Louisiana (Gramercy and Baton Rouge) are colorful and magical. But I think a lot of us tend to veer from the grossly mundane to the soulful, often in the same minute.

I believe that one of the great functions of storytelling is to share a kind of enchantment – to give us eyes to see how beautiful and extraordinary the world is, and to know that being alive and conscious is a gift. Storytelling also tells us how very far we have fallen from being creatures who know and love what we are, and who love the world we possess for a while as the stage for our lives.

“When giving instructions to children?” Interesting question. Children love it when things are slightly askew, and when adults are playful. So yes, I was sometimes playful. But I expect that many parents are. During the teen years of the older two, I posted a big chart of epithets that my three could use on one another – they were drawn from Shakespeare and Wodehouse. “Great steaming radish!” “Peevish canker-blossom!” “Prating malignancy!” For a time, that list eliminated most of the bad (and boring) things that they called one another and meant that they laughed a good deal more than they might have otherwise. And occasionally I would sing my advice or requests in operatic flights (Cooperstown is home to Glimmerglass Opera.) Right now I have only one child left in high school, and we do often act quite silly or dance around the kitchen together.

Can you describe in any specific technical detail how you approach the revision/rewriting process? Is this different every time as well or is there a routine you follow?

I’m fairly simple-minded in this area. With fiction, I write on the computer because I like being able to fly along with my thoughts. Then I print out what I’ve done and blacken it with additions and deletions. Then I let time go by and repeat the process. And again and again until I’m just fiddling. Then I stop and read the whole thing aloud to catch any weird, unattractive rhymes and sounds. Reading aloud to children, you learn that a great many writers skip that step, and that they should not. My mode is similar with poetry, although poetry enjoys a much richer structure of sounds.

Can you share a colorful or magical memory from your childhood?

When I lived in Gramercy, I spoke Cajun French with the children next door. I was only three and don’t remember it, but I do remember playing with Maxine, and that she taught me to wear little green lizards with pink throats as earrings. The poor creatures could not release themselves until we pinched their jaws. In the yard were holes with big, hairy spiders. We had a garden bed made out of sugar slag from the refinery, and the plants grew up into the trees. My small garden was cucumbers and moonflowers; I loved to see them spiral open at night, their faces looking up at the moon.

Back to your writing, when did you start to produce material for publication? How did you know you were ready and how long did it take you to get there?

In seventh grade I was living in Delaware and attending a huge junior high school. I remember that my English teacher recommended a piece of mine for the literary magazine, and that was the first time somebody requested a piece of writing, and that I was pleased. I had poems and the occasional story in plenty of school magazines, but I’m not sure when my first poem was accepted by a little magazine – probably when I was around 19. I doubt that I did know if it was ready! When I was 20 and graduated from college, I threw away everything I’d done up to that point. I was sorry later, as it was so full of youth.

Along the same lines, what is the one piece of writing advice you received yourself or have heard that you think newer writers should ignore?

Ignore it all! Listen to it all, and then take advice with a grain of salt. I was told all sorts of things – write what you know, don’t use certain words (like “love” and “rainbow” and “beautiful”), show don’t tell, and so on. Hearing those things just made me obstinate and determined to do the opposite, often in some unexpected manner. There is no writing rule that cannot be broken. Just write. After a while, you will have your own ways of putting words into patterns. But I expect that even those ways will grow constricting, and you’ll leap over them and make new ways and then leap over them.

In a previous interview you said that when you first started writing fiction, you didn’t understand anything about plot, propulsion or causality. How important are those things in Glimmerglass and your other stories and how did you learn about them? What aspect of the craft of writing do you think is undervalued? Overvalued?

My feeling is that you learn about how to write by putting words on the page. Between Little Jordan and Catherwood, there’s a kind of jump – I’m more interested in how choice causes event. Then by the next book, The Wolf Pit, I’m fooling around with both causality and form in a bigger way, so that the book becomes a kind of helix composed of two stories, each with its own propulsion. If you look at those books as a group, you can see a poet hopping forward from little lily pad to bigger lily pad, reaching toward those tasty bits of plot and form.

The importance of any aspect of a book is surely determined by the story. With Val/Orson, I was working with Shakespearean, mythic materials that had built-in traditional motifs and shapes, ready for play – mistaken identities, twinship and separation, Arcadian romance, fey hints, love for the wrong person that is later transferred to another, doublings, and more. Plot emerged naturally out of those things, and right up to the final page, the story is influenced by Shakespeare.

With the two Southern fantasies, The Curse of the Raven Mocker and Ingledove, crossing Cherokee lore with the beliefs of Scots-Irish settlers seemed to easily generate story, large mythic entities, and causality. In fact, I would say that marrying two unexpected elements tends to be generative for a writer because something new will always be born.

Underlying A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is a simple, basic structure of journey-and-return, but the main character’s hunger to know, to reject, or to search gives birth to a lot of action. The initial tragic event sends Pip pell-mell into the world, and then his inability to love and to trust keeps him moving and dictates a good deal of sudden change in place and event. Character breeds causality.

Glimmerglass is again a more mythic sort of tale – well, I can describe it but don’t know exactly what that book is, as yet! – but the engine-thrust of the story is Cynthia’s deep ache to be more than she has been, and to make something of meaning from her art and life.

Undervalued. Overvalued. “Value” is an interesting word when applied to craft because we live in a digital age awash in advice to writers on “product” and “platform” and how to become visible to the world. Google the topic, and a wearying onslaught appears instantaneously. The “value” most often evident in the online realm is the value of money – that is, the measure of writing is by its relation to money. We’ve slipped into a state where we measure and value success in writing by monetary success, even though we know perfectly well that major writers from the past often failed to find that kind of success and so failed to make a lot of money.

This tendency to rate by cash afflicts all the arts. (In addition, we no longer have the kind of publicly-admired critics who once helped us see merit and sort out the literary scene –figures like Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, or Edmund Wilson.) So I’d like to misread your question a little, avoiding craft and saying that what is overvalued is money as a measure of art. What is undervalued is mastery, which quite frequently has precious little to do with money and success.

Part 2 Follows

Interview: Marly Youmans, Author of ‘Glimmerglass: A Novel’, Poet and Teacher, Part 2 of 2

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Marly Youmans, Author_Version 2

Continued from Part 1

This is the second of our two-part interview with author Marly Youmans. Her deep love of language, books and art shone through her thoughtful answers. Read on for more insight into her writing process.

As for the aspects of the craft being valued or undervalued, I guess I was trying to understand how you learned to jump from lily pad to lily pad. What knowledge gleaned kept you from ending up on the same level of lily pad? Were you searching for “causality” and “propulsion” because a teacher or book told you that was the right way or was it more of a natural insight as a gifted storyteller?

I’m not so sure that we learn much from advice when it comes to writing. Yes, I may occasionally come upon a comment in a review, say, and think it a good point, and that I might need to think about an issue a little more. But we learn by writing. I’m not saying that a writer can’t learn anything from advice, but that I learn infinitely more by trying to make something out of words.

The way I think about moving from book to book is this: I’ve established a certain land mass, a kind of country made up of poems and stories and novels. That’s the ground under my feet. That’s where I have been, what I have made. When I want to write a new book, I run across the land and leap off the edge of the known world. I trust that my feet will find something solid as I fall.

Did you always trust your feet would find something? Is that a natural-born confidence?

I definitely grow bolder over time, so I suppose it is a learned confidence and faith that the work will find its way. Meanwhile, I’m not particularly adept about the business side of things. I do a good many events, but I have more and more gone on my own path in terms of publishing. I’m not with a Big 5 publisher any longer, and I have sacrificed a certain amount in order to have my books be the way I want them to be. I’ve loved being with small and university houses and plotting with my friend Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Artlog: to make beautiful books – particularly Thaliad from Phoenicia, The Foliate Head from Stanza, and Glimmerglass from Mercer. The Throne of Psyche and Glimmerglass are also immaculate-looking books (Mercer outsources to Burt & Burt, a great design team), though there’s less collaboration on those. Part of the impulse to make beautiful books [comes from] starting out as a poet, where smaller and university presses are so important.

Some time ago I parted with my agent, Liz Darhansoff, and I have not bothered to look for another one, a lack which has some drawbacks. Usually I’ve relied on requests for manuscripts from publishers. Also, I’ve gotten some recent film option nibbles and ought to get a good film agent, but I tend to be so busy with family and books that I don’t get all the practical things done.

Your work has received many awards and has been hailed as genius and rare and beautiful. How do you celebrate finished books and are you emotionally affected by critical acclaim?

I am one of those writers who gets good critical feedback and awards and has loyal readers but who really needs a larger readership. That’s something that’s hard to manage when I do a lot of projects with smaller houses, where marketing and promotion are limited. And I probably need a more “braggadocio” personality! When books come out, I’m pleased but don’t do anything extraordinary – just more events. I tend to be relieved as well as glad when I have good reviews and notice and awards. Relief was part of my attitude to my first book acceptance as well. Externals don’t affect what I do next.

A family thread runs through your responses, Glimmerglass, and much if not all of your other writing. How has being a mother influenced your prose and poetry? Is it possible for you to distinguish natural growth as a writer from any specific effects of parenthood?

Life comes before art, and parenthood is important to me. Children are not easy, they don’t need a writer in the house, and their needs seem quite pressing to them. Being a mother has meant that I had to learn how to use well what time I had – and to go without sleep when I needed to do so! It meant that I had to learn how to think about stories while doing other things (particularly housework). Sometimes it meant being clever about help; the two Southern fantasies were written as gifts for my daughter, who begged for them, and who babysat her busy little brother in order to get new pages. It was a good swap for both of us. Bits of my children as babies, children, and young people appear in characters who inhabit my short stories and poems and novels. Catherwood in particular is about the potency of motherhood and mother love. My eldest child’s obsession with the Civil War led me in the direction of The Wolf Pit. Lots of my poems began with some detail of a child’s life.

Anything that deepens your life is of use to a writer. Anything that makes you a bigger person on the inside is of use. Anything that helps you understand other people is of use. And anything that causes you to grieve, love, be sheltering, be upset, and feel joy is of use. Children may be Bacon’s “hostages to fortune,” but they also teach, widen the mind’s focus, and make a parent change and mature. I would say that my growth as a writer has often been tangled with my life as a mother.

You still do a bit of teaching. What do you try to offer your students if you consider a lot of writing advice suspect?

Clever of you to ask me about teaching stints since I’ve cast doubt on writing advice! Of course, I might very well contradict myself in a weak moment and blather away with advice! But if I did, I would always give the anti-advice that writers must find their own rules of how to go, and they must not let those rules harden into stone. A person’s own writing will dictate what she believes about and wants in her work, but those ideas should keep evolving.

Being individuals, students write differently than I do, so I don’t often give them generalized advice but like to figure out the nature of the writing they have already accomplished and in what direction they seem to be and want to be going. From that point, it’s interesting to consider what works and does not work in their pieces. Sometimes I might have them write in an unusual form and talk about the advantages and pitfalls of the form, or look at where their use of the form took advantage of its one-of-a-kind demands. Also, sometimes their stage of progression means that they have concerns and questions I did not anticipate. For example, one thing that I didn’t expect to do at Antioch last summer was to talk about ordering a poetry manuscript, but I had students who were ready to submit a chapbook or book. So we all tried arranging a couple of 10-poem manuscripts and then discussed why we grouped poems as we did.

What do you feel is the most common trait lacking or underdeveloped in writers who aren’t having much success?


In assisting your students with the chapbooks, how do you assess their levels? How do you judge “stages” of writing?

Assessing any work is a result of having read the good and the great – that’s the yardstick.

You mentioned a lack of great literary criticism nowadays. Do you consider yourself an astute critic of other literary works?

I do seem to be critical, which I find rather sad at times. I am less able to finish books than years ago, and more prone to setting down a book unfinished. But I have no desire to write criticism.

What do you like to read for pleasure? Are you always “reading like a writer” or are you able to get lost in stories other than your own?

At the moment, I have a number of books underway – Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and also his Selected Translations, Lawrence Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy, and Jack Zipes’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Soon I am going to read Scott G. F. Bailey’s The Astrologer, which has re-surfaced after being carried off and read by my husband.

Getting lost in a story doesn’t happen as often as when I was young. The last book in which I strongly felt that childlike sensation was Anthea Bell’s translation of a 1971 children’s novel by Ottfried Preussler, Krabat and the Sorceror’s MillI have it more frequently with poetry.

Favorite novel of all time?

Tom Jones? Bleak House? Pride and Prejudice? Jane Eyre?

Favorite poet of all time?

It’s between Yeats and Shakespeare.

First book you remember loving as a child?

I was given slipcased copies of the Alice books when I was about five, and I have never gotten over Carroll’s wondrous freedom.

Any last thoughts or recommendations for writers at the beginning of their journey, or something you wish you had known at the start of your own journey?

Many more presses and awards (especially for early books) and retreats and scholarships exist than when I was young. A national system for producing poets and fiction writers and supporting them via college and university programs is now powerful. A huge number of competent writers are at work. In poetry, I see a lessening of the stigma against writers who care about form and traditional tools. Publishing includes ebooks and self-published paperbacks. These and many other changes have changed the conditions for writers, but I think that a simple “Persist” is still the best advice to give a young novelist or poet.

Yet it’s a difficult path, and plenty of writers have found publication to be like dropping a precious manuscript down a well. Most novels are not anointed as lead book for a Big 5 publisher and given what’s called a push. Nor do most ebooks have the pleasant outcome of Hugh Howey’s Wool. Many poetry books find few readers. So I would add that if a writer chooses to put an end to his work, he should not be harsh on himself but search for a meaningful way of life elsewhere.

If I could tell my young self something, I’d say that she should not let anything take away her joy in making things out of words – that whatever tends to take away from that deep play and pleasure should be questioned. I would praise persistence and the weird intuitions of the soul. (I would probably also tell her that living in a snowbank in the remote boondocks is not all that helpful when it comes to visibility and doing events. On the other hand, a Southerner may get a lot of work done, living in a region of mighty snows and long winters.)

You can find out more about Marly Youmans, including all the novels mentioned here, on her blog, “The Palace at 2am.”  Her books are available at independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


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The 2K International Writers’ Blog Tour – Author Interview with Lauren Faulkenberry

Lauren Faulkenberry

2K International Writer's Blog Tour

Lauren Faulkenberry

I’m a writer and book artist currently living in North Carolina (US). I published a children’s book in 2002, but currently write novels and shorts stories. Under the imprint of Firebrand Press, I made limited edition handmade books that are letterpress printed. I’ve always loved books and illustration, and have combined my love of writing and image-making in artists books. My books are held in a variety of Special Collections libraries both nationally and internationally. I currently work for the National Park Service and travel to conduct printmaking and book arts workshops.

Lauren FaulkenberryWhat is the first piece you remember writing (from childhood or young adulthood)?

A children’s book called “Lost Dog” when I was in grade school. I wrote and illustrated it, and made book covers from cereal boxes.

What is your favorite aspect of being a writer? Your least favorite?

My favorite thing about being a writer is pretending to be someone else, learning about new places, jobs, and people as a mode of research for my imaginings. My least favorite part is the submission process and the marketing side of things–I find self-promotion painfully difficult, but I know I need to do it.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, what is your best tip for beating it? If not, why not?

I often feel stuck. It’s a bit like coming to a dead end in a labyrinth and having to problem-solve to make the next move. To beat it, sometimes I take a break and read, or draw, or work on another project for a while. If I find I’ve sat staring at the screen for a half and hour with no progress, I shift gears to something else. But sometimes I sit for a half an hour, thinking of how I can create another obstacle for my character. I think: “What would the Coen brothers do?” That sometimes helps. At the very least, it’s fun, and that loosens me up.

What is your current writing project? What is the most challenging aspect of your current writing project?

I’m rewriting a romance novel that I started years ago. The most challenging part of that is working out some plot points that have been irking me. I love my characters and think they have a great humor and chemistry, but I have to work hard to create an escalating plot. I sometimes get so wrapped up in my characters’ personalities that I lose sight of that escalation that I think is necessary.

What supports you in your writing?

Financially? My day jobs. Emotionally? My friends and family who encourage me–I’m very lucky to have them. I write because I love creating stories and creating alternate worlds for me to be a part of. It’s fun, and it’s magical when I’m doing it right, and I can’t imagine not doing it. So that fuels me to keep going when things are particularly hard.

What are you currently reading?

Lydia Millet’s “Mermaids in Paradise,” Neil Gaiman and Teri Pratchett’s “Good Omens,” and “Pride and Prejudice.” I like to spread my reading around, like watching different TV shows each day.

Where can our readers find you and your books online?

my blog: http://therightsideof30.blogspot.com/

artist books can be viewed on my site: http://www.firebrandpress.org/?page_id=326

Lauren Faulkenberry Artist Books

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