Monday, September 14, 2020

TBR: Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.

 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

A few years ago, it fell to me to clean 50 years’ worth of hoarded stuff out of my mother’s house. As I dug through it all, I realized I was far from alone—and I got to wondering why so many of us wind up drowning in clutter. Contemporary society likes to shame clutterbugs, but clutter has been around since at least the Industrial Revolution—and it’s a systemic problem more than a personal failing.


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?

To get at the bigger problem of clutter, I had to start with a painful private experience—the squalor my mother wound up living in. Early on, it felt like a betrayal to take that hidden shame and put the squalid details out there for the world to see. As I heard more and more cleanout stories, though, I realized that my mother’s situation, which felt uniquely awful to me, was part of a much bigger problem. I took heart from the idea that by sharing it, and sorting out how it got so bad, I might help lighten the load for other families. That gave me the courage to keep going, even when the going was painful.

 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

So many twists and turns! Nothing about the process unfolded the way I expected it would, and I’m sometimes amazed the book exists at all. I started work on it as a lifeline of sorts while I got my mother’s house cleaned out and ready to sell. I was stuck in a terrible job. It was a miserable time all around, and it was only out of sheer desperation I managed to finish the proposal. I worked with an agent for a while and we got nowhere. Friends advised me to drop the project. But I felt compelled to keep going, and wound up taking the proposal out on my own. A friend put me in touch with Dan Crissman, my wonderful editor at Belt Publishing. He’d been through a similar cleanout with his parents and understood why I needed to write this book. Working with him and with Belt has been a dream.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

There’s so much wisdom out there—I’m a big fan of Jon Winokur’s @AdviceToWriters Twitter feed, which serves up great quotes from lots of writers worth listening to. The two pieces of advice I give myself most often are “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done” (a somewhat kinder version of the “butt in chair” mantra) and “Get out of your own way”— meaning don’t let that inner critic get to you while you’re writing.

 

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How hard it is to write a book—even one that is “refreshingly concise,” as Kirkus described mine. And at the same time how satisfying it is to be able to stretch out and really explore ideas in a way you just can’t in a shorter-form piece of writing.

 

Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is anybody who has struggled to bring order out of domestic chaos, and has wondered why it is such an ongoing fight. You are not alone in the struggle, friends.

 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 My mother was a fabulous cook and baker. She probably owned 500 cookbooks and all kinds of specialized cookware, most of which I donated. One of her specialties, though—and one of the things I most miss her making—was Swedish coffee bread, from an old recipe handed down from my grandmother Alberta. The pecan-roll version was a staple of family Thanksgivings as long as I can remember, and the smell of cardamom still makes me nostalgic for Mom in the kitchen.

 

SWEDISH COFFEE BREAD [Alberta Nilson]

 

2 cups milk, scalded*

6 Tbsp. shortening, melted

2 packets dried yeast or 2 yeast cakes

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

2 beaten eggs

5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

12 cardamom seed pods, seeds removed and pulverized

 

*Note: If using dried yeast, scald only 1 2/3 cups milk and use 1/3 cup warm water to dissolve yeast.

 

Directions:

 Dissolve sugar in scalded milk and let cool to lukewarm. Add yeast, beaten eggs, melted shortening, salt, and ground cardamom seeds. Add flour gradually, beating a long while after each addition to develop gluten. Dough should be soft, not too stiff. Knead gently. Place in a greased bowl and let rise til double in bulk. Shape into two rings or braids and bake at 375 degrees on lower rack for 23 minutes. [My mother would sometimes sprinkle coarse sugar on the loaves before baking.]

 For pecan rolls: If you want to make pecan rolls, leave out the cardamom seed. Take a muffin pan and put some light brown sugar, melted butter, and chopped pecans in the bottom of each muffin tin. Add a ball of dough to each, let rise, and bake about 12 minutes.

 *****

 READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK: www.jenniferhoward.com

 ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://beltpublishing.com/products/clutter-a-history

 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

TBR: Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Road Out of Winter is a novel about a young woman who’s grown up working on her family’s marijuana farm. In an extreme winter, she leaves home, only to become the target of the leader of a violent cult because she has the most valuable skill in the climate chaos: she can make things grow.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

There is a young single mom in the story, like me, but unlike me she’s very outspoken. I loved writing her anger. I have a tendency to keep things in, but she lets you know, and I love that. It was therapeutic, writing her. A friend of mine who is also a survivor pointed out that she behaves as survivors sometimes do—no survival is the same, as no person is the same—lashing out, keeping people away to protect herself. She is what I want to say but wasn’t strong enough to at the time.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

We actually got an acceptance right away, which shocked me. We had a big list of publishers to try, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about MIRA Books, and that first phone call with Margot Mallinson. I knew she was the editor for my book. She saw it and she saw me.

I was very nervous about gate-keeping. That’s something that has happened a lot to me, and to many other writers who are poor or disabled, women writers, writers of color. I’ve had editors tell me I didn’t understand the words I used, editors that inflicted negative stereotypes into my writing about poverty, that changed my storytelling and therefore my story. But Margot told me straight-off as an editor the most important thing for her was to preserve my voice. She trusted me to write the book with my language, my intensity, my emotion. MIRA allowed me to tell the story the way it needed to be told, and I don’t think some editors or publishers would, especially with me being who I am.

I live below the poverty line in a rural place, I’m physically disabled—I’m never going to be accepted by a certain establishment, no matter how or what I write or am truly capable of. So I’m going to keep going, and do it how I can. Doors open in many different ways. Some of them are held open, some of them open with keys, some of them are pried open with knives. Just get in and hold the door for others.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

The story didn’t go where I thought it would. I really planned Road Out of Winter to be cross-country book. But the characters just got stuck. What I intended to be a small scene, an encounter with a dangerous group, ended up being a huge deal. And I was so surprised, I actually left the manuscript and walked away for almost a year. Then I came back, re-read it, realized: oh, they never get out of Appalachia. And finished it. It finished itself.

Sometimes it takes that time to complete a piece. Sometimes you have to walk away for a time. I don’t usually write about where I am—emotionally, anyway—but where I have been. Books need that reflection. Books, for me, are about looking back.

How did you find the title of your book?

I owe my title to the writer Jennifer Key. She came up with it in a brainstorming session. My title was originally The Grower, which I liked because the novel starts with the main character’s stepdaddy—so the reader might think the title is about him. He’s the grower. But it turns out, no—it’s this young woman. She has the power. She has the skill in this new winter world that people fight over, kill for.

My publisher wanted a title that was more dynamic, implying the journey that this book takes, and the danger. I fell in love with Road Out of Winter because there IS no road out of winter, no way out, nowhere to go to escape climate chaos—just like there is no road out of poverty. All my characters live in intergenerational poverty. And there is no one cure. No one way out.  You keep moving to survive.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Deer meat and fried potatoes, which I ate soooo much of when I was spending a lot of time out on a farm! The characters get sick of it, as I did. That said, potatoes fried in butter with onion is probably my favorite dish of all time. My fiancĂ© is Chicano, and we joke that we’re going to open a restaurant that blends Mexican and Appalachian cooking. I like simple, “trash” foods, things you can find in the woods like ramps, ground cherries. Ground cherry pie is the best thing I have ever baked. Chicken of the woods mushrooms also make an appearance in Road Out of Winter. They’re my favorite. You can spot them because of their bright orange shade. Fry them in butter.


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://www.alisonstine.com








Monday, August 31, 2020

TBR: In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays by Rebecca McClanahan

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!




Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Can we pretend it’s a high-rise elevator (it’s a New York City book, after all) so that I can take 3 long sentences? I’m pushing the elevator button now. Here goes:

Alternating between brief vignettes and sustained narratives, this memoir-in-essays tracks the heartbeat of New York through the ears of a newcomer: in overheard conversations on park benches, songs and cries sifted through apartment walls, and in encounters with street people dispensing unexpected wisdom. Having uprooted their settled life in North Carolina to pursue a long-held dream of living in Manhattan, the author and her husband struggle to find jobs, forge friendships, and create a home in a city of strangers. The 9/11 attacks and a serious cancer surgery complicate their story, merging the public with the private, the present with the past, to shape a journey richer than either could have imagined.


Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?

Since my book is a hybrid (a memoir-in-essays) rather than a collection of essays, it’s difficult to separate my process of writing the independent essays from my process of shaping the full book, but I’ll do my best: “Signs and Wonders,” the opening piece, was fun to write, as it represents the briefer, voice-propelled essays in the book. For me, this kind of essay comes naturally, as I can snap into my musical history (I was a vocalist) and delight in the sounds and rhythms of the lines. This is not to say that I don’t attend closely to the language of the longer braided, segmented, or narrative essays as well. But because longer essays require so much revising and reordering and reshaping before they are finished—a process that often stretches into years—I tend to remember their hard labor rather than the more joyous moments that were of course part of their making as well.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Oh dear, do I have to? Chronicle the lows, I mean? Following up on the “hard labor” note above, I prefer to be like those women who claim not to remember the pain of childbirth. Suffice it to say that it was indeed a long road we traveled—the book and I—on the way to publication. But each step (or misstep, perhaps) brought the manuscript closer to the book it was destined to become. I guess what I’m saying is that the highs and lows merge in my memory. Both were necessary, as I imagine they are for all writers who are committed to remaining on the long road of writing, wherever it may take them.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Writing begets more writing. Meaning grows on the page. And this, from William Faulker’s Nobel speech: “. . . the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about . . . “


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Every sentence I write is a surprise; I’m always amazed to witness words growing into sentences and then paragraphs or stanzas and then, if I’m lucky and hang on long enough, into whole poems or essays or stories or books. However successful or flawed the final product might be, the process itself always feels miraculous to me. Imagine: we writers have only the alphabet to work with, yet so many possibilities arise! As for this particular book, what surprised me was how organically related the essays actually were, once I discovered the threads that connected them. Though the pieces vary in length, timeline, form, and thematic emphasis, they all touch on what I imagine as the soundtrack—or heartbeat—of my New York experience. I was delighted when early readers of the manuscript heard this soundtrack. Their responses led me to the final title of the book: In the Key of New York City.


Who is your ideal reader?

In some ways, my ideal reader is always the same for every book: a reader who is willing to step into the pages with me and complete the transaction I’ve begun. I covet readers who are emotionally smart, who can do the work that I believe readers want to do: to make the text their own in any way they can. In the case of this book, of course I hope to touch any reader who has some connection to New York. But I hope that the book’s reach extends beyond that—to anyone who has ever been uprooted or who has felt like a newcomer or outsider, who has longed for connection, and who has been lucky enough to experience a place that changed them in remarkable ways. Maybe that’s reaching too high, but that is my aim. I am grateful to each and every reader. Readers make books possible.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

In one of the essays, I write about offering my homemade cookies to New York apartment neighbors—and the Con Ed guy—to entice them to become friends. Sadly, the scheme didn’t work too well, but the cookies were excellent! I used the traditional Toll House recipe for chocolate chip and the inside-lid recipe on Quaker Oats for the oatmeal ones, which were the Con Ed guy’s favorite, by the way.

[Editor’s note: Here’s the recipe for the chocolate chip cookies…a favorite in my house!]



READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.rebeccamcclanahanwriter.com


READ AN ESSAY FROM THIS BOOK, “’And We Shall be Changed’: New York City, September, 2001”: https://kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/remembering-911-web-feature/selections/‘and-we-shall-be-changed’-new-york-city-september-2001/



Monday, August 24, 2020

TBR: Etiquette for Runaways--A Novel by Liza Nash Taylor


TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

A sweeping Jazz Age tale of regret, ambition, and redemption set in rural Virginia, New York and Paris and inspired by true events, including the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935 and Josephine Baker’s 1925 Paris debut in Le Revue Nègre.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why?

I think that bad characters are fun, since we can have them act out things the rest of us (hopefully) repress, like fantasies of revenge, and throwing stuff. The trick is to make these characters sympathetic or likable in some way so they don’t come across as melodramatic stereotypes, right? My character Dora is a street-smart petty thief and probably a sociopath, but she’s generous with the spoils of her pilfering, and she’s a lot of fun at a nightclub.

And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Each of the three parts of this novel are set in different places and each has its own set of characters. I’d have to say that my main character, May Marshall, brought me the most grief. I went through two agents, an MFA program, and several workshops and classes working on this novel. My friend Mary Kay Zuravleff (who’s a fabulous teacher and author) told me early on that May needed to have more agency. She was right. With each revision and draft May’s character became more complex and conflicted. She found her own voice, and I was surprised at how much I was able to tap into my own memories of feelings—especially shame and social anxiety—and attribute those emotions to her. Sometimes that means delving into those locked drawers and reliving some painful stuff. In some cases, I found myself wondering why I continued to hold onto some of this old crap. But we do, don’t we? And here, look! It’s has a use, at last. As it turned out, May develops agency as the plot progresses, and maybe I was also developing some agency as a writer. In the final edits with my publishing editor Jen Pooley, May learned to speak up for herself and make a stand. Agency ended up being a primary theme in the story, and every scene seemed to tie back to that one thing. But it was a process and as a writer, I needed to give myself permission to write a character who is flawed and vulnerable.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

As I said above, this book took a lot of revising. I even did a big revision after it was under contract. It took a whole year for me to get my publishing contract once it was negotiated. During that time I didn’t touch the manuscript or even look at it, so when I did go back in with my editor I had fresh eyes. So that was something of a blessing, I suppose. As I said before, I submitted this manuscript in 2016 and signed with an agent. When it became clear, after almost a year that our separate visions for this story diverged, we split up, the manuscript having never been sent out to publishing houses. It was tough, and I had a lot of self-doubt. I had to revise and submit all over again. After I found a new agent the manuscript went out right away and took about six months to sell. During that time I finished my MFA and a second manuscript, which is a stand-alone sequel to ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. I was fortunate that my agent, Mark Gottlieb, brokered a two-book deal for me.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Let constructive criticism marinate.

While I worked on this novel I was getting my MFA, and I was learning SO much about dialogue, and character, and pacing—everything! It seems now like every lesson and workshop and advisor is represented in the final product. Taking constructive criticism can be tough, but I leaned that sleeping on it always helps. My first, gut reaction is usually feeling wounded or defensive, or misunderstood, and when we feel that way I think we stop listening. I know I do. The writer’s ego needs to go wait in the car while we get about the business of sifting through suggestions and criticism, picking out what resonates and implementing it, even when it’s hard and we’ve heard something we know is true (but didn’t want to spend the time fixing) like changing from third person to first person, or something huge like that—and once you accept it it’s actually a relief and you can get back to work with purpose.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Endings! In both of my novels the endings didn’t reveal themselves to me until I was about three-fourths of the way through. I realized, once I had an ending, that I needed to know my characters more deeply before their behavior could be predicted. I needed to let them fall down, and make stupendously stupid choices even while I was (silently) yelling, “No! Don’t DO that, you idiot!” or something similar. When the endings came to me, they weren’t tied up in a pretty bow. Life seldom is.

How did you find the title of your book?

ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS was not the original title. I liked my first title, The Thin End of the Wedge, but it proved, alas, to be problematic. It was a British idiom I first read in Nancy Mitford’s fabulous 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love. As proclaimed by her character Uncle Matthew Radlett, “the thin end of the wedge” denotes a seemingly insignificant event or action certain to lead to catastrophe and ruin. So, being that the phrase was British and somewhat antiquated, most Americans had never heard it. So it had to be explained, which involved describing not only the meaning of the idiom but also the source. This became tedious. People’s eyes glazed over before I even got to start describing my plot. Then, adding on to that, there was an ongoing issue of the title being repeated with the wrong wording. The title was THE THIN END OF THE WEDGE, but people kept saying “The Thin EDGE of the Wedge.” I got tired of correcting, then going on to explain the meaning, source, etc. as eyes glazed over. So after this happened several times, I asked my publisher if we could re-think it, and they agreed.

I pulled a lot of hair out, wondering, What makes a title great? If I figure it out, maybe I’ll write a book about it titled, Titles for Dummies, or similar. Here’s what I do know: good tiles are evocative and intriguing. Many of them challenge us to puzzle out their meaning—what the hell is a clockwork orange? What was the curious incident/ the something wicked? Those phrases would entice me to pick up the book and have a closer look, and maybe read the cover copy.

So, the final title comes from several references in the story to Emily Post’s premier guide to manners: Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, which was first published in 1922. My main character would have owned a copy. At several points in the story she wonders what Mrs. Post would do in similar circumstances.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Yes! I have a signature cocktail called a Bitter Blow. The book is set during prohibition, and at that time people were coming up with creative cocktails to mask the flavor of corn liquor. In the book it’s described this way: “Shadblowberry cordial, moonshine, soda water, and a dash of bitters.”  Shadblow berries are sort of a cross between a blueberry and a currant. My dogs eat them off the bushes in our yard. I’m working on translating this into a modern-day recipe. I’m thinking it will be something like a Cosmopolitan with Cassis instead of cranberry, or something similar.

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://lizanashtaylor.com/

READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://www.blackstonepublishing.com/





Tuesday, August 11, 2020

TBR: With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt

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TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

 Simon, a 40-year-old once famous rocker is arguing with his long-time partner, Stella, about coming with him for a possible breakout tour. But Stella wants him to settle down and grow up—she wants a child, to buy their NYC apartment. Arguing, they drink, and then drug, and both fall asleep. In the morning, Simon wakes, but Stella has gone into coma, and when she wakes, months later, Simon’s chance is gone and Stella now has a completely different personality, something that will dramatically change both their lives, as well as the life of Libby, the young doctor caring for Stella.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Truthfully, my favorite chapters to write were Stella in her coma. I’m not sure why, but it felt so different, so somehow freeing. What gave me the most trouble was the first chapter where it all is so fraught, and they are fighting and it’s blizzarding outside and everything, everything is falling apart. I was so into the scene, I kept going into my husband’s office across the hall to make sure he was there and we were all right!

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I’ve been blessed to be with Algonquin for my past four novels, so that is a definite high! My low was that just as I had this book sort of mapped out to sell, my editor there left! I cried, she cried, and though I could have moved on with her to another publisher, Algonquin had changed my life—they had truly given me a career—and I just couldn’t do it. So I was working with a new editor who bought the book, the award-winning Chuck Adams, and I was anxious. Would this work out? Would he like me and like my work? It turns out it was a brilliant move, and that is always the best, because the relationship between a writer and your editor is something sacred.

I’m writing this answer now months before things begin to happen, though I’ve already sold audio rights in auction, and the book was named 202 Most Anticipated by She Reads. There’s film interest. BUT there is a lot more scary things to come, like pre-pub reviews, etc. etc. You can never know how a book is going to be received. The only way I can protect myself from obsessing is to hurl myself into a new novel, which I’ve already started!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Never ever give up. When you most feel that what you are writing is junk and you should give it up and apply to dental school, it means that you are really digging deep into your subconscious, and your subconscious is doing push-back. Write what scares you.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

I was surprised by the emotions that the book brought up in me. I didn’t realize that I was so tortured by the idea of fame, who gets it and why, what it does and doesn’t mean, but it all came out with my character of Simon. I also didn’t realize I was writing about midlife, and how what we want changes as we change, until I reread some of my pages!

How did you find the title of your book?

Ah, titles! NO ONE liked my original title, which I honestly don’t remember. I had to come up with 20 more titles and they all hated those, too. (This is par for the course. I had wanted to call Pictures of You, Breathe, and they nixed it. I had so many titles, I finally told my editor to call it whatever she wanted so we could move on!) Same thing happened with Cruel Beautiful World, and my actor son Max, named it! Chuck, my editor, decided on With or Without You. And it stuck! (Hilariously, I am not a U-2 fan.)

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

STRAWBERRY SMOOTHIE
Stella’s mom makes this for her, and being Stella’s mom, she has no exact recipe.

Throw into a blender:
2 cups of nut milk of your choice, or whole milk if you want
1 ½ cups of fresh strawberries (or frozen is okay, too)
Dash of cinnamon
Drip of vanilla (almond extract is also the bomb!)
If you are daring, a dash of chile powder
Whir to the consistency you want!
Add a paper straw!

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.Carolineleavitt.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:


Monday, July 27, 2020

TBR: Tomboyland: Essays by Melissa Faliveno


TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Tomboyland is a debut essay collection about gender, class, and the American Midwest. Part personal narrative, part interview, part cultural reportage, it investigates midwestern traditions, mythologies, landscapes, and lives to explore the intersections of identity and place. From F5 tornadoes and fast-pitch softball to gun culture, strange glacial terrains, kink party potlucks, and the question of motherhood, it explores ideas of belonging and the body, isolation and community, and what we mean when we use words like woman, family, and home.

Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?

I think the opening essay, “The Finger of God,” was probably the most fun to write. An earlier version was published in Prairie Schooner in 2018, and it was about this F5 tornado that destroyed a small Wisconsin town called Barneveld, eight miles west of my hometown, in 1984, when I was a little over a year old. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the story of this tornado, and with tornadoes and severe weather in general. I was also, obviously, obsessed with the movie Twister; I thought I’d be a storm-chaser someday, and had a deep and abiding crush on the local television meteorologist. (I had a signed glossy photo of him on my bedroom wall; it was serious.) It turns out, my obsession with this story, and with tornadoes, had pretty much everything to do with religion—I grew up in a pretty religious town, and for a few formative years was very into Christianity, but have since lost that religion entirely. So the essay was also about faith, and destruction, and coming to understand that life is very fragile and random, that nothing really keeps us safe, especially not these stories we tell ourselves. It was hard, but it was also fun to write into all of that, and make those connections on the page. And the Twister sections were particularly fun, because the process involved watching that terrible and perfect movie over and over again (Spoiler alert: I still love it).

Then, last year, as I was finishing the book, I had a revelation: I had been telling this story about Barneveld all from second-hand accounts: my mother’s, mostly, neighbors and friends. It had become mythlike in my hometown, a place called Mount Horeb, which is a sister-town to Barneveld and has a thing for mythology. (It’s known as the “Troll Capital of the World”—you’ll have to read the book to find out more about that.) Anyway, I realized that, in order to tell this story right, I needed to talk to the people who had been there—the survivors of the storm, whose homes and businesses were destroyed, some of whom lost family and friends. So last summer, right around the thirty-fifth anniversary of the tornado, I went to Barneveld and talked to them, which was a challenging and rewarding experience. It opened the essay up in a way that was really exciting, and it became something new—a story that wasn’t just my own anymore, but was theirs, too.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

It was a very long road to get here. I started the oldest essay in this book in 2010, and I’ve been working on it—very slowly—ever since. There was a lot of rejection along the way—from magazines, agents, fellowships and grants and contests. There were times when I couldn’t write at all, when I was sure I’d never publish a book.

And then, in 2017, something shifted. In February of that year, I went to the Millay Colony for the Arts in upstate New York for a nine-day, self-guided retreat. I could only get one week off from work, so I spent a week and two weekends there. It’s not a juried residency; you pay a little money for the space, but you get a room and a studio in this very quiet, magical place, and it was so incredibly worth it. It was like a light went on. Walking through the woods every day, breathing the crisp, cold air, hiking in the trees where Edna St. Vincent Millay—who, notably, went by the name “Vincent”—wrote her poetry, something inside me woke up. In my little studio in the barn that Vincent built, I wrote a draft of the near-title essay of the book, “Tomboy,” in a mad rush of inspiration. It would become the essay that crystallized what my whole book was about—this intersection of the body and the land—and the essay that got my agent’s attention. A year later I went back, and wrote a draft of another essay, and that fall we sold the book. I will always credit the Millay Colony for helping me get to this point. It’s a beautiful place, and there’s magic in those trees, and it helped me understand not just what I was trying to say, but what I needed to do to get there. I stood on top of a mountain when I realized it, so that was a very literal high.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Every writer is different, and their processes are different too. Whatever yours is—whether you write every day or just on the weekends; whether you write complete drafts or revise as you go; whatever it is you do, honor that process and practice it as often as you can. And don’t listen to other people if they tell you to do it differently.

Also, a fellow teacher said this recently, and it struck me as pretty spot on in my experience: Writing is hard. Anyone who tells you it’s easy probably isn’t a writer.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

I love that! And I think it really aligns with the way I write essays—into a question, never really knowing where I’m going. Over the decade that I was working on this book, I wasn’t really sure what it was. I had all these disparate-seeming topics I was exploring: a moth infestation that I experienced when I first moved to New York, the Barneveld tornado, a rare geological terrain where I grew up called the Driftless Area. I wrote an essay about guns, and one about fastpitch softball, and one about BDSM and food; I wrote one about motherhood, chosen family, and the decision to have or not have children. I was working something out—somewhere there was a thread—but I couldn’t quite find it.

When I got an agent, the very smart and perceptive Adriann Ranta Zurhellen, she read my essays and she was like, “This is a book about gender.” And I was like, “Oh. Whoa. You’re totally right.” And then everything I’d been working on, all these seemingly disparate pieces, coalesced. I knew the through-line of the book was this question of womanhood—what it means to be a woman, where my body fits into that word or doesn’t; about strangeness and loneliness and family and violence and love, and how it’s all connected to what I was calling “the geography of identity”— how our understanding of ourselves is both defined and complicated by where we come from, and who we come from—our homeland, our socioeconomic status, our education, our family. It was a book about gender, yes, but it was also a book about those intersections: class and land and the idea of home, what it means to belong. That process of discovery was revelatory, and it helped me take these early drafts and revise and rewrite them in a whole new light. I also realized I couldn’t tell these stories or ask these questions alone, and that’s where the interviews came in. In addition to the tornado survivors, I spent a week in Wisconsin interviewing women and queer people, mothers and nonmothers; gun-owners and former gun-owners; family and friends—about fifteen people in total—to help me explore these questions more deeply.

Who is your ideal reader?

I think this book will resonate most with women, queer people, and Midwesterners—those who live there now or who, like me, have left, but still think of it as home. But more broadly, it’s my hope that the book will reach anyone who has ever felt like they exist in the spaces between—neither one thing nor the other, unable to fit themselves, or their bodies or identities, into one neat little box on a form. I also hope that people will pick it up who don’t necessarily feel those things, but might be open to learning something about people who do. Overall, I think this is a book for people who question things—their understanding, their lives, societal or cultural expectations and prescriptions—and who don’t necessarily seek a definite answer to anything, but find meaning in the questions.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Yes! There’s an essay in the book called “Meat and Potatoes,” which is essentially about food, sex, and my blue-collar Midwestern family food traditions. On my mother’s side, I come from a long line of Wisconsin Irish-German farmers and factory workers, and this essay spends a good deal of space discussing the foods I ate growing up, much of which came from the quarter cow we kept in the garage freezer, raised and butchered on the family farm; or from Oscar Mayer, where my dad worked for a while. One other important part of this essay comes from his side of the family, which is very much not Midwestern—my Italian grandmother’s Sunday gravy. I would love to share that recipe with you, but alas, the Faliveno family contract forbids it. What I can share is a recipe for something very Midwestern: tater tot casserole! (Always casserole, never hotdish.) I don’t actually cook this often, because I’m mostly a vegetarian these days. But when I want something that tastes like home, I usually want either the gravy or this.

Ingredients
  • 1 lb ground beef (we call this “hamburger”)
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (my mother probably would have used garlic powder, but let’s be fancy)
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 15 oz can green beans, drained (yup, always from a can, never fresh, extra slimy)
  • 10.75 oz can condensed cream of mushroom soup (Midwesterners have a few cans of this on hand always; it’s the primary ingredient to like 50% of our dishes)
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (or more; I usually do like 3 cups, if I’m being honest)
  • 2 cups frozen tater tots (I recommend Ore-Ida or, preferably, Schwann’s, if the Schwann’s man still exists, and you’re lucky enough to see him at your door every week)
  • salt and pepper to taste (by “taste” I mean a lot, of both; salt and pepper are ingredients, not seasonings, and should be employed liberally)

Instructions
1.              Preheat oven to 375F.
2.              Lightly grease an 8- or 9-inch baking dish. (If it was my mother it would probably be Pam; I use butter or Canola oil.)
3.              Brown the ground beef in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add a healthy (or maybe not so healthy) dose of salt and pepper. Drain excess fat. (Or don’t; I don’t.)
4.              Add the onions to the skillet and sautĂ© until translucent.
5.              Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for a minute or so.
6.              Stir in Worcestershire sauce, add more salt and pepper. (Don’t be stingy.)
7.              Transfer ground beef mixture to the baking dish and spread evenly.
8.              Top with cream of mushroom soup and spread evenly. Follow with the green beans, then the cheddar cheese. Add more salt and pepper. (I mean it.)
9.              Finally, top with glorious tater tots.
10.           Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until tater tots are golden brown and cheese is melted.
11.           Serve immediately. Regret immediately. Go back for seconds.

*****
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.melissafaliveno.com

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://bookshop.org/books/tomboyland/9781542014199

READ AN EXCERPT FROM THIS BOOK, 

"Why Our Gender Identity Language Isn't Enough": https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a32878718/why-our-gender-identity-language-isnt-enough/ 



Monday, July 20, 2020

TBR: The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed



TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

The Black Kids is a coming of age story about a privileged teenage Black girl set against the backdrop of the 1992 LA Riots. As the city burns around her, she’s forced to question who is the “us” and who is the “them”.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I most enjoyed creating LaShawn. I think so many portrayals of young Black men from South LA are so reductive and I really wanted to write a character who reflected the humor, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, ambition and frustrations of people I’ve known and loved. I also wanted to make sure he was a complex character who makes his own mistakes and wasn’t just a symbol.

I most struggled with my lead character, Ashley. Some things about her came to me easily, and some did not. I wasn’t like her as a teenager at all, but many of her concerns and struggles were the same ones I had as a Black girl in decidedly non-Black spaces for most of my life. I wanted to make sure she was somebody who was messy, delicate, a little lost. She’s somebody who makes some serious mistakes, but she’s able to learn from them and come out the other side of it as a better, more thoughtful and more empathetic human being. I think some readers struggle with characters being unlikeable, especially female characters. The fact that Ashley was an occasionally unlikeable Black female character at that was a bit scary to write.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Highs - I was elated and super fortunate that Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers pre-empted it. I had been absolutely terrified of people not understanding Ashley and her journey and not seeing the value in this book, so for an imprint I respected to have such a vote of confidence in it and me was incredible. I’ve worked with such a great team of people, and I’ve felt super supported throughout the publication journey.

Lows – In the midst of writing the book, both of my maternal grandparents died and it had been so important to me that they get to experience it and be proud of what I’d accomplished. Overall, I had an emotionally chaotic few years while writing it and there were plenty of times that I was ready to give up on it and myself. I think in a lot of ways the book kept me going and focused on something other than the weight of my feelings. In terms of the actual editing of the book, my wonderful first editor switched houses, and I was kind of afraid of what that would mean for the book, but luckily all my worrying was for naught.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Kill Your Darlings – Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and do it! We fall in love with passages or characters or even whole sequences that don’t end up serving the narrative. I actually kind of love cutting things out and moving things around and seeing if there’s a way to make something even more beautiful out of what was there. It’s frustrating for a while, but when it finally works, it’s like you get to fall in love with your story all over again.

How did you find the title of your book?

For such a simple title, it really is multifold. The Black Kids, as a title, originated with the short story. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should use it for the book, but it really feels like it encompasses the book as nothing else does. It reflects on Ashley’s journey of coming to embrace her blackness and what it means to be one of “the Black kids”. In a lot of predominantly white institutions, I’ve found that there’s often this othering and lumping together of “the Black kids” as a monolith and I wanted to confront that head-on. The title is also reflective of all the Black kids throughout the story—everyone from Latasha Harlins, whose death was among the real-life catalysts for the unrest, to the experiences of Ashley’s parents and her grandmother as Black children moving through a world that often doesn’t celebrate, protect and uplift black innocence.

****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK HERE:  

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Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.