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 sauté 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:  

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:


Monday, July 6, 2020

TBR: Lost Girls by Ellen Birkett Morris


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 title story of Lost Girls was inspired by the kidnapping of a girl in my community when I was 18. That story and the others reflect the range of women’s experiences, and the truth about the challenges and joys of being a woman, chiefly among them being seen, acknowledged, remembered and heard.

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

I enjoyed writing “Religion” the most. I started with the premise that the groups we belong to, no matter how warm and wonderful, can be like cults. From there I had a lonely virgin wander into a breast feeder’s group and become so enchanted that she stays. It was fun finding the comic potential of the story, but also doing a deep dive on loneliness and desire. The story unfolded in a way that was surprising.

“Inheritance” was the toughest to write. I had a girl whose family was so poor that her parents were allowing her to be violated for money. She was also a sin eater, who ritually consumed the sins of the wealthy. It is a story about power and oppression and sexual violence and I had to make sure the reader wouldn’t look away.

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

I had trouble figuring out which of my stories really formed a cohesive collection. I spent a lot of time shopping a collection of loosely linked stories with a male protagonist before I realized that I had a very compelling group of stories that showed the range of experiences of women and girls.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Isak Dinesen by way of Lee Martin, who is a fantastic writer, teacher and supporter of other writers.  “I try to write a little every day, without hope, without despair. The thing that gives me the most joy is the writing.”

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

Writing is all about discovery and surprise. I was surprised and delighted that I was able to convey the experiences of so many different kinds of women with love and empathy toward their struggles and triumphs. Elizabeth Strout talks about the importance of not judging your characters. I think that nonjudgmental approach helps you really get inside your characters and explore their motivations.

How did you find the title of your book?

The title of the book came from a short piece I wrote that was inspired by the disappearance of a girl in my neighborhood when I was eighteen.  There are so many women and girls that experience trauma. I hope these stories honor, remember and see them, and illuminate their stories through a fictional lens.

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

Pie from the apples Eve harvests in “After the Fall.” Here is a recipe:

I use premade crust to cut down on the work and add a little ginger for zing.


****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR:  https://ellenbirkettmorris.ink/



Monday, June 29, 2020

TBR: Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology by Chila Woychik


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 monthly look at rural living from a gal who has lived in small towns, metropolitan areas, and finally, the Iowa countryside. It’s more a collection of “incidents” and observations than memoir or essays. Each month deals with a particular theme especially related to rural life.

Which essay did you most enjoy writing?

Since there are no true essays in the book, but instead bits and pieces of hybrid pieces published by journals over the past five years, I’d have to say the introduction, which could be construed as an essay, is my favorite. It’s called, simply, “A Brief Discussion of Time.”

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

Lows might include the sheer amount of time it took to format this thing, pulling from so many different published pieces, probably 25 or 30, and trying to make the pieces fit together under the themes I chose. Another one of course would be finding a publisher when even small publishers are notoriously overworked, overbooked, and far too busy, strapped, or financially deficient to consider more than a few new works each year.

The highs would include sharing the joy with family and friends, the joy of finishing, the joy of finally holding a contract in hand, and the joy of seeing the links listed online!

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I actually have several, if it’s not presumptuous to share more than one. 1) disregard current writing trends in favor of writing YOU, of focusing on your strengths while strengthening your weaknesses; in essence, find your place in the writing world and avoid trying to stand in someone else’s shadow; 2) learn to write in more than one genre – for instance, if you’re an essayist, study prose poetry (which should come somewhat naturally), and if a fictionist, learn to write a great essay; and 3) which is somewhat like #1: when you receive writing advice, learn from it, surely, but take literally everything, all good intentions, all suggestions, with a huge grain of salt lest you lose your own unique voice, and your own take on the world. I might also add that I personally don’t read books that I don’t love from the first few pages. I have to love the writing style, the characters, the intuited motivation, everything. If I’m curious, or in love, or just can’t seem to stop reading, I’ve found a book I’ll finish, but if not, I set it aside. Life is too short.

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

I think I’m genuinely surprised that so many editors enjoyed so many of the initial hybrid essays and prose poems I had published, and so when compiling these together, I smiled to myself a lot. I smiled because what are to me everyday events had become a rather large 200+ page compilation of such events, and I knew/know the telling of these events were beloved by many, many editors. I’m still smiling about that. A lot.

What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?

I’d like readers to know that, as Stephanie Dickinson said in her foreword to this book, it can easily be read chapters at a time, but some may very much enjoy just one or two “dates” in one sitting. Sean Prentiss, who gave me a lovely back cover blurb, said he couldn’t stop until June, but I know that I’m one who likes to take these things a little slower, especially considering that the topics change abruptly and often, from one day to another, as is true with actual hours of rural living.

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

Great question! I mention some of the German foods my born and reared German mother cooked while we were growing up such as the wursts, the spaetzle, the plum cake (Zwetschgenkuchen), and the rouladen, the latter of which I cook decently well (I’m half-German), but I won’t share that recipe since it’s a closely guarded family secret. J I will, however, gladly share our “purple cabbage” recipe. It’s quite fast and easy, and as you can see, we don’t use actual measurements, just common sense and taste.

German Purple Cabbage

Brown cut-up red cabbage in lard or bacon grease (I use olive oil, so my version isn’t truly authentic) with onion, bay leaf, salt & pepper to taste, and a little vinegar. Add a little water, simmer until tender, and add a slice of apple if you wish. Remove bay leaf and apple before serving.


*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: http://www.chilawoychik.com/

ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:

READ AN EXCERPT via Amazon’s Look Inside feature:


Monday, June 22, 2020

TBR: Tea by the Sea by Donna Hemans

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: whats your book about in 2-3 sentences?

To find the daughter taken from her, Plum Valentine must find the childs father who walked out of a hospital with the day-old baby girl without explanation. Seventeen years later, weary of her unfruitful search, Plum sees an article in a community newspaper with a photo of the man for whom she has spent half her life searching. He has become an Episcopal priest and she has a plan to confront him and walk away with the daughter he took from her.

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

Plum was the first character I began writing and the one I enjoyed creating the most. When I start writing a book, I usually don’t know where the story is headed. The very first section of the book I wrote showed Plum getting her daughters ready for school. There’s a litany of tasks she completes in the morning before walking her girls to school and heading to work. But instead of going to work, she takes a detour to a church and I had to figure out why.

A few weeks later, while in Jamaica, I heard a radio program in which listeners call in to reconnect with others with whom they had lost touch. On that night, a mother trying to find her young son called in. She knew the father had taken the child but didn’t know where the father and son had gone. Once I heard her plea, I said “That’s my story.” So I enjoyed the process of taking what little I heard about a mother’s search for a lost child and building a novel with a mother facing a similar search.

Surprisingly, the character who gave me the most trouble was Opal, Plum’s daughter. I wanted to write a portion of the book in her perspective, but it didn’t quite work as I expected. Eventually, I figured that it wasn’t Opal’s story to tell, and readers would learn everything about her from her parents. 

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your books road to publication.

I published my first novel, River Woman, in 2002 and now my second in 2020. That’s a long time between books. Between River Woman and Tea by the Sea, I wrote two other novels that I am currently revising. So it was refreshing to find the story and the structure for Tea by the Sea and to work on a book that seemed to flow much more easily than the previous two I had been working on.

Whats your favorite piece of writing advice?

Read. Read books you like and books you don’t like and pay attention, not only to the story itself, but to how the writer puts a book together—everything from paragraph breaks and dialogue tags to how a writer uses flashback and moves back to the present moment of a story. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and why. So much of what I have learned about writing has come in these informal moments when I am alone with a book.

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

The setting in Anchovy, which happens to be where my father grew up. The house that Lenworth takes as his refuge is my grandparents’ house. As I wrote, I remembered more and more about the house and its quirks, running down the little hill by the side of the house, the cherry tree that had once been there, a doll my sisters and I found and took home. As I remembered each detail, I found a way to incorporate them.

How do you approach revision?

I tend to revise as I write. I usually start out with a character or a setting and a vague idea of what a book is about and where I want to go with it. The story and the characters unfold as I write, and I move back and forth throughout the manuscript tightening scenes and building characters. When I have a substantial amount written and I understand the full arc of the story, I start rereading to fill plot holes, build characters and add texture. So revision for me is an ongoing process.  

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

Given the title, teas, of course. Plum has a thing for teas and as a student at a boarding school, she longed to have teas made with fruit peel. She talks, too, about sorrel tea. Sorrel, also called hibiscus, is the traditional Jamaican Christmas drink. That version is typically served cold and with a dash of rum. But I also like it as a hot tea with ginger. 

Ingredients:
1 pound sorrel
2-4 oz. ginger
2 quarts water
sugar
rum (optional)
8-12 pimento grains

Wash sorrel thoroughly and put it into a stainless steel container.
Scrape and grate the ginger root and add to the sorrel. Add pimento grains.
Boil water and pour over sorrel.
Allow to stand 4-6 hours. Strain.
Sweeten and add rum to taste.
Serve with ice cubes.

*****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.donnahemans.com

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Monday, June 15, 2020

TBR: A Short Move by Katherine Hill

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 Short Move is the life narrative of an NFL linebacker, relayed in discrete episodes via multiple perspectives. Think A Visit from the Goon Squad meets Friday Night Lights.

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

It’s Mitch’s book, so the answer has to be him—both in terms of enjoyment and in terms of difficulty. I first met him in a short story as Alyssa’s dad, the retired NFL player. He was a minor character in that story, but I became interested in him because I felt connected to him in spite of the fact that he’s so completely unlike me: culturally conservative, physically strong, a man. He also peaks around thirty, when I was just getting started. I wanted to figure him out, so I wrote an episode about him as a teenager, and then I just kept going, coming at him from all sorts of angles. I knew pretty quickly that I had a novel and that it wasn’t going to be a traditional sports novel, in which big games are the main events. The main event was Mitch himself, and the formation of his identity. I’m one of those readers who loves art for what it leaves out—the negative space, the off-stage action, the gaps. Mitch, who sublimates everything, gave me so much to work with in that department.

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

It was a pretty typical road, by which I mean really, really tough. Not only did I insist on writing a literary novel about a football player, a notorious mismatch of categories, I also insisted on writing it in a form that resists most commercial expectations. Needless to say, it got turned down. A lot. At first it was perversely satisfying, even thrilling, to feel so overlooked and misunderstood. Then the deep depression set in. I believed in the book, fiercely, and I had devoted six years of my life to it, putting a lot of other things on hold. I knew it was better than my first book, which so many people claimed to love, and I knew the risky subject matter and weird form were the most interesting things about it. So while I never lost faith in the novel, I lost faith in the world I lived and worked in, which is almost worse. Thankfully, Robert Lasner and Elizabeth Clementson of Ig came along just in time. They loved the book I had written, and they were ready to put all of their energy into it, which was all I’d ever wanted in a publisher. I feel so grateful to have found them.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Trust the process. When I think of fiction writing as a practice rather than a means to an end, all sorts of problems are solved. It becomes impossible to waste time. Failure is ordinary. There’s no such thing as a finish line. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve only recently come to view my work this way. I used to be a lot more instrumental—I wanted to be paid, and I wanted to be respected—and this caused me considerable pain. Of course certain basic needs have to be met. You have to pay the bills, and you have to have fellow travelers. But when I approach writing as its own reason, the end in itself, I’m so much happier, and my work is better, too.

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

I know I am always somehow writing about life under capitalism. But when I started this book, I thought I was just writing about a football player. Turned out his life was a quintessential life under capitalism, booms, busts, chains, and all. So my surprise was actually the surprise of verification and connection. Like, oh, here’s this thing I’ve always known was true—and it still is! 

How did you find the title of your book?

My husband once heard Cornel West give a lecture in which he said something about life being a short move from your mother’s womb to your final tomb. I just absolutely loved that phrase, especially when I thought about football, a game of short, discrete moves.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

There’s a very important sheet cake in Chapter 6. You now have permission to purchase a sheet cake. You’re welcome.

*****



READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://www.igpub.com/a-short-move/


ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:  https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781632461032


READ AN EXCERPT OF THIS BOOK:  https://www.thecommononline.org/draft-day/



Monday, June 8, 2020

TBR: The Distant Dead by Heather Young

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 body burns in the high desert hills. A young boy walks into a fire station, pale with the shock of a grisly discovery. A middle school teacher worries when her colleague is late to work. By day’s end, when the body is identified as new math teacher Adam Merkel, a small Nevada town will begin its reckoning with a brutal murder that will test everything it thought it knew about guilt, forgiveness, and the debts it owes its dead, both recent and distant.

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

The character I most enjoyed creating was Sal. The transition from childhood to adolescence is raw and perilous and heartbreaking under the best of circumstances. I love writing about young people who are working their way through that seam in their lives while facing challenges and losses that would knock even a well-evolved an adult off their footing.

The character that gave me the most trouble was Adam Merkel. The “victim” in a mystery is too often a one-note character whose purpose is mostly to be dead—i.e., to drive the plot. I had to work to bring “the dead math teacher” to three-dimensional life; to give him an emotional journey; and to render him, even in death, as a human being capable of affecting the characters who survive him.

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

This book’s road to publication started out brilliantly. Just after my first novel was published, my agent asked if she could send what I had of my second novel (which at the time was only four chapters) to the editor of my first. My editor hadn’t bought this book, but she had the right of first refusal, and based on those chapters she made an offer that I immediately accepted.

That’s when things got rocky, because now I had something I’d never had before: a deadline. I had to finish the book in one year, when it had taken me seven to write the first one. I didn’t make that deadline. I promised my editor I’d have it written in another year. I didn’t make that deadline, either. Another six months went by, and every day there was a small pressure cooker inside my brain hissing, “You’re late! You’re late! You’re late!”

Finally, at the beginning of 2019, my editor told me that if I hoped to be published in summer 2020, I needed to get her a draft by March 2019. I don’t think I showered for the next three months. I’m not sure I even got dressed. But I did get it done, and entered the more familiar territory of revisions with a great sigh of psychic relief.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Don’t overwrite. Gorgeous, stop-the-reader-in-her-tracks prose is most powerful when used rarely, and with great intention. (I learned this lesson painfully and have never forgotten it!)

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

Sal’s uncles, Gideon and Ezra. When I started writing they were barely alive; just two neglectful guardians who served mostly to make Sal miserable. It was surprising and wonderful to discover their complicated relationship and family history, and even more so to find that all of it could be used to give the ending a twist that I thought made it much more interesting.

How do you approach revision?

When I revise at the macro level, I approach the text with an attitude of targeted brutality. Every scene, every moment, needs to move the plot forward or deepen character. If it does neither, I cut it. At the level of the sentence, my goal is to balance brevity and rhythm. After years spent honing legal briefs to fit within tight page limits, I know how to get the most out of the fewest words. But I’m also sensitive to the music of prose. I won’t sacrifice the patter of a sentence or the play of a paragraph just to cut a word or two.

****

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.heatheryoungwriter.com


ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062690814



Monday, June 1, 2020

TBR: The Distance from Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell


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 Distance from Four Points is about an affluent suburbanite named Robin who discovers that her late husband secretly blew their savings on decrepit rentals in the Appalachian hometown she’d escaped twenty years ago. To keep herself and her teenage daughter, Haley, financially afloat, she returns to Four Points--where she risks someone exposing her past as a teenage prostitute. When Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, disaster strikes—and Robin must decide if keeping her past buried is worth the risk of repeating her life’s greatest mistakes.
Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?
I really loved creating Cindy Sweeney, Robin’s childhood best friend. I intended for Cindy to be a minor character, a walk-on who proves to Robin just how dreadful it is to be back in her hometown. But as soon as Cindy entered the scene, she settled in for the long haul. She’s brash and foul-mouthed and spits out hard, unwelcome truths. She also has a lot to teach Robin about radical self-acceptance and loyalty. Cindy is a survivor, with no time for Robin’s fussy hand-wringing. 
Writing Vincent Latimer, Robin’s old lover, was more difficult. Vincent is such a villain--he treated Robin horribly when she was a teenager, and his actions shaped the rest of her life. Yet when we meet him, he’s seventy-eight years old; he’s struggling with serious remorse and regret. I couldn’t let Robin just forgive him, but I needed to make room for other layers, both within Vincent and between him and Robin. People do terrible things to one another, go on living, change. Making Vincent human, not just the monster Robin always believed him to be, was a challenge.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
When I began agent-querying this novel, I got lots of requests for fulls but no takers. It was too character-driven, quiet, not marketable, etc. etc. This was familiar territory. My first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, also set in Appalachia, did have an agent (until she left the industry), but never got to yes when it was on sub, for all the same reasons. It was ultimately published by the University of New Orleans Press, as the winner of their inaugural Publishing Lab Prize. I could have kept querying agents with Four Points, but I felt very pragmatic about the reality of this type of book snagging any interest. Why waste time? So I approached UNO Press and submitted Four Points for consideration. I was thrilled when they accepted it, knowing already what a beautiful job they’d do with editing and design. A second book in the world, from a great small press--a happy ending.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
The writing brain is a muscle that must be exercised like any other. It’s not easy to quiet the mind, focus, and access deeply creative spaces, but it gets easier with practice. When I’m actively engaged with a work, either writing or revising, I feel clearly the benefits of a daily routine: the pathways to the fictive world open more readily, and I can sink into my writing efficiently. Too long away from the work finds me distracted, frenetic, caught up in scrolling social media and running errands and crossing everything off my to-do list except the writing. When I’m following my own advice, simply the act of sitting down at my desk, lighting a candle, and opening my notebook or doc is enough to trigger the switch from life to fiction. 
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
I was surprised by how much my feelings toward the Four Points landlords changed. Initially, I presented the landlords as evil: letting their rental properties fall into ruin, taking money from struggling tenants with nowhere else to go. And then I inadvertently became a small-town landlord myself and found myself on the other side. My first tenant bounced all her checks and became a squatter, and it went on from there. After that, I better understood the landlords’ point of view, and why they might choose not to bother with property improvements. 
How do you approach revision? 
I’m not an efficient writer, so my revision process is sweeping and extensive, involving huge directional shifts and an alarming number of deleted pages. I hate writing first drafts, so when I begin something new, I just bang it out, not bothering to edit along the way. This results in a lot of plot and character decisions that eventually need to be unwound. My revision process is less marble-sculpting and more quarry-blasting. 
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
There’s a key food-focused scene in Four Points, when Cindy Sweeney brings Robin a pot of homemade halushki, an Eastern European dish made of cabbage and noodles, as a thank-you for a favor. Halushki is a definitive comfort food in southwestern Pennsylvania, and this shared meal is a surprising balm for Robin. Recipes vary, but the basic ingredients are cabbage, butter, and egg noodles or dumplings. Adding bacon is an (excellent) option too. Here’s a basic recipe from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, part of an article called “Halushki power!”  https://www.post-gazette.com/life/food/2015/03/11/Halushki-power/stories/201412110004

READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.margoorlandolittell.com
ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781608011797


Work-in-Progress

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