Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Overnight Success and Other Fables of the Writing Life

Overnight Success
and Other Fables of the Writing Life
by Caroline Leavitt

Way back when I was 28, I first got serious about writing, I had my career trajectory all planned out. I was going to publish a few books of short stories, then, when I made my reputation with them, I’d try my hand at a novel. I collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper my apartment. I kept going, sure it would happen. But when it did, everything was vastly different than what I expected.

My first published short story, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, won first prize in a Young Writers Contest. I was thrilled. And na├»ve. When it immediately sold to a publisher and the accolades came in, the attention, the book tour, the money, the reviews, I thought this was going to be the way it would be from now on—a book every year, money, fame, respect. I loved telling people I was a published writer. I loved being flown to New York (I lived in Pittsburgh then), and I loved having my next two books snapped up. I was on my way!

Except I wasn’t.

My first publisher went out of business shortly before my second novel Lifelines came out. I had a few brilliant reviews, which made me happy, and zip sales, which made me weep. Suddenly, all the bliss of first publication was gone.

My next publisher was a highly respected literary imprint called Arbor House. They loved my novel, they promised to publish it well…and then they went out of business, the whole sales force fleeing the week the novel came out. You can guess what happened, and I felt so ashamed, as if it were all my fault.

I kept writing. “You’re lucky to be published at all,” my agent at the time told me, and my spirits plummeted. I began to doubt myself. When people asked me, “What do you do?” I answered with a question. “I’m a novelist?” I didn’t know anymore who I was, but I kept hoping.

I cried. Of course I cried. But I kept writing and I begged my agent to find me a big publisher who wouldn’t go out of business. She got me a three-book deal from a big publisher who put my book on the cover of their catalogue. Success, I thought. Success is back again!

But in my first meeting with my publicist, all she had to show me for publicity was a single letter to reviewers. “No ads?” I asked. The publicist shrugged. I wouldn’t give up. I began to try to do the publicity myself, ignoring what everyone told me I should and shouldn’t be doing. I passionately begged book review editors to consider assigning my novel, and while most ignored my emails and calls, some took pity. I wrote essays for every publication I could think of. I contacted radio shows. “Don’t do this,” I was told by my publisher, “It really looks bad,” but I did it anyway, and as the reviews in major papers began to actually have a tally, I started to feel a little bit better. And I got a fabulous new agent who didn’t tell me I was lucky to be published.

I finished my ninth novel Pictures of You and my agent loved it. But my publisher said, “This just isn’t special enough. We don’t get it.”

I asked them, “Would you consider a rewrite? Or another book?”

There was a silence and then they said, “No. We don’t think those will be special, either.”

I knew enough about publishing now to know that if you don’t have sales, if people don’t at least know who you are, then I had about as much chance as getting a publishing deal as I did of becoming a world-class acrobat.

So I cried. And cried. I felt ashamed and miserable and frightened. I reached out to friends, sobbing, and they all commiserated. Then one friend said, “I love my editor at Algonquin. Maybe she’d take a look at your work.” I was so grateful, I wanted to hug her.

She sent a brief description of the novel to her editor. A few days later, she told me that not only did her editor like the description, but she wanted to see the whole novel. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t expect anything, but I sent it in, and two weeks later, I got a call from the editor. At first, I was just waiting for her to tell me why the novel didn’t work. But then, she began talking about what Algonquin could do for me, almost as if she were saying, “If you choose us.” When I hung up, my hands were shaking. They were asking me to choose them. I didn’t have to beg. How was this possible?

They bought the book a week later and invited me into their offices to meet everyone. The staff was smiling and friendly and as excited as I was, something I had never experienced since my first novel. “Are you sure you know who I am?” I kept asking them, and the whole office smiled. “We’re going to change things,” they said.

And they did. They took that “not special book” and got it into six printings before it was published. It got on the New York Times Bestseller List its first month out. And on more than a few Best Book of the Year lists. They bought my tenth novel and it got on the New York Times Bestseller List, too. I was the same person, but people treated me differently now. They took my calls. And because of Algonquin’s out-of-the-box genius publicity and marketing and an editor who knew me so well, we called ourselves “sisters on the page,” I didn’t have to beg people to review me. They actually wanted to.

Cruel Beautiful World is my eleventh novel. I’m stunned and grateful for the response the book is garnering. It feels as if I’ve been pushed up to the next level, and believe me, I know it is because I finally landed at my perfect publisher.

Because I never gave up. When I post my reviews and links to my NPR shows, I apologize for self promotion, but my friends chastise me and tell me I have to stop being so humble, I have to stop apologizing for my success, as if some terrible mistake has been made. “Honey, you have to own it,” one friend tells me.

I’m trying to. But I know that every book is a new entity, and my next book might not do so well. I know, too, that if you are looking at a career, there are ups and downs rather than the “straight to the top” trajectory. Yes, I got what I had yearned for all these years, a readership, reviews, respect, prizes, but it doesn’t mean what I thought it would mean to me. In a way, I’m glad it took me all those years to become, as one review said, “an overnight sensation.” I laugh at that until I’m giddy. I try to be Zen about all of it, to be in the moment and keep my eyes on the prize—which is being able to write my next novel. I try to help every writer I can, however I can, and I tell them the same things I told myself. Write the best book you can. Don’t ever ever give up. That’s where the magic is.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her newest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is set in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly. Cruel Beautiful World is the story of a runaway teenager’s disappearance and her sister’s quest to discover the truth and her own complicityand about an 80-year-old woman falling in love for the first time. Caroline’s many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New York Times Modern Love, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Announcing my next novel: Brave Deeds

I’m pleased to announce my next novel, Brave Deeds, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in August 2017.

Spanning eight hours, the novel follows six U.S. Army soldiers who have gone AWOL as they move across war-torn Baghdad on foot in order to attend the memorial service for their platoon sergeant. Here’s how it begins:
     We walk, we walk, we walk.
     We head into the fireball sun, packed in battle armor, baking from the inside out, throats coated with dust, hearts like parade drums, adrenaline spiking off the charts. We’re alone, cut off from the rest of the brigade back at Taji, and now thanks to a busted drive shaft weakened in last week’s IED blast along Route Irish, we are without a humvee. We’ll have to finish this on foot.
     We double-time across Baghdad on our twelve feet, a mutant dozen-legged beetle dashing from rock to rock, confident in its shell but always careful of the soft belly beneath. We are six men moving single-file along the alleys, the edge of roads, the maze of beige buildings. We keep moving: ducking and dodging and cursing and sprinting. We wonder how it could have gone so wrong so fast.

This book was inspired by a 2007 Washington Post article by David Finkel that told of a nail-biting march across Baghdad by 27 soldiers from Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division (the battalion later featured in his brilliant and devastating book The Good Soldiers). Like the men in Brave Deeds, their mission was to attend the memorial service for one of their fellow soldiers who’d been killed in an IED attack a week earlier. I was struck by the apparent simplicity of the mission (“get 27 soldiers from Point A to Point B, from their neighborhood combat outpost to an Army base four miles away,” Finkel wrote) counterbalanced by its deadly nature—venturing into an area “twitching with daily gunfire, mortars, rockets, grenades and, most of all, roadside bombs, all targeting U.S. soldiers.” I saved that article and scribbled a note to myself in the margin: “There is DEFINITELY a story—if not a novel—in this.” This seed of an idea germinated for several years, growing its roots slowly. Though this story bears little resemblance to that original mission by Alpha Company, I hope some of the unit’s can-do spirit and bravery remains in my men.

I am pleased to be once again working with Peter Blackstock, my editor at Grove/Atlantic, and I’m humbled by the kind words he wrote about this novel soon after accepting it for publication:
I’m really excited to have acquired David’s next book, Brave Deeds–one he’s been working on for many years. It’s a brilliant piece of writing–moving, thoughtful, funny, and smart, a literary exploration of the existential experience of being in a platoon of soldiers, a unit of society that has been in existence since ancient times. It’s a testament to the melting pot that is the modern American Army and written with the humor and pathos that made Fobbit such a remarkable piece of writing. I’m so happy to be working on this wonderful book and to have a second book from David to publish!

Thanks, Peter...and thanks to everyone else who has kept faith with me over the years as I worked on this book—especially my wife, Jean, who remains my greatest cheerleader after nearly 33 years.

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Deep Code by Charley Henley

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

One of the things I like most about the trailer for Charley Henley’s short story collection, The Deep Code, is its arty, independent film qualities. Stark, spare, a little surreal, it unspools like something from a Hollywood lens of the 1970s. Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, and Hal Ashby spring to mind, maybe even David Lynch (the video is from “Lost Highway Films LLC”perhaps a nod to the director’s 1997 film?). The title story of the collection is also set in the era of long, slow pans and sun-haze cinematography:
First time I ever met Stanley, my mother and I had pulled off the Interstate at a truck stop west of Missoula. We’d been living at this commune over in the Okanogan Valley, in Washington State. But then my mother wore out her welcome with the hippies, and we were back on the road again. It was three days to Ohio, and she said she needed a cold can of Hamm’s and a Vick’s nasal inhaler. This was in 1979. In those days such inhalers came with a ragged amphetamine in them. She’d cut the top off of the plastic. Then shove the little cotton swab down into a beer. Said she could drive all night like that. But then coming out of the store, she spied this little trucker bar up the road. Said she needed to get her mind right for the drive. So, we went back inside, where she bought me a Savage Sword of Conan and a meat stick. Then she dropped me off at the Gremlin. “Lock the doors,” she said. “And don’t talk to strangers.”
Those opening lines of “The Deep Code” hint at Raymond Carver and Richard Ford: the grim nostalgia of the lower-middle class. That tone seeps through in the excerpt Henley narrates at the beginning of the trailer, the opening lines of the book’s final story “Cerrito Blanco,” a conversation between a father and daughter about her mother (who is serving time in jail after having shot her husband):
“You’re never going to see that woman,” he said.
“She apologized,” said Tessa.
“Your mother shot me,” he said.
“Grandmother said you deserved it.”
A good book deserves a good trailer, and Henley’s The Deep Code gets it with this haunting short film. I’m ready to grab a six-pack of Hamm’s and some meat sticks, then hit the road with these stories of “desperation and perseverance.”

Monday, October 24, 2016

My First Time: Lenore Gay

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Lenore Gay, author of the new novel Shelter of Leaves. Lenore is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Masters in Sociology, as well as in Rehabilitation Counseling. She has worked in several agencies, psychiatric hospitals and for ten years she maintained a private practice. The Virginia Center of the Creative Arts has awarded her two writing fellowships. Her poems and short stories have appeared in several journals. Her essay “Mistresses of Magic” was published in the anthology In Praise of Our Teachers. “The Hobo” won first place in Style Weekly’s annual fiction contest. Lenore is also a volunteer reader at Blackbird, An Online Journal for Literature & The Arts.

My First Mentor

My father, a jovial, patient man, made paintings, mostly watercolors and pen and ink drawings. He wrestled big logs into his studio and carved them into abstract pieces. The smell of wax drifted from his studio when he polished the wood, to “bring out the grain.” He told me that by high school he’d figured writing and painting were both harsh mistresses; if he wanted a family, he had to choose. He chose painting and earned an MFA in painting.

At age sixty he enrolled in a poetry class at the local university, Virginia Commonwealth University, and took poetry classes for twelve years. His legacy was 1,000 poems. He’d edit a poem, and keep five or six versions. I watched his mind at work by following the trail of edits.

Wide, tall bookcases stood on either side of our living room fireplace. An early reader, I pulled books off the shelves and attempted to read them. I stumbled through my parents’ books: Gulliver’s Travels, Arabian Nights, Kidnapped, David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Rebecca.

Mother, a voracious reader, taught me to write my name when I turned four. We visited the downtown library, where I acquired my first library card. My joys were roller skating on city sidewalks, and reading. When I turned five, my father and I began visiting museums and art galleries. To my questions about why an artist painted a strange body or a sky with three suns he’d answer, “What do you think?” When I asked what to write about, he’d say, “Use your imagination.”

Later, fascinated with Japanese painting, my father wrote haiku, a seventeen-syllable Japanese form of poetry. He gave me books on haiku. He and I critiqued each other’s attempts. I wrote haiku through high school, along with mostly limp poems. In college I composed an epic poem for a final paper in Art History class. I figured it was an A or an F. The professor gave me an A.

Philosophy and psychology were my college majors; in graduate school I earned a master’s in sociology, later a master’s in rehabilitation counseling. Through the grad school years, counseling career and parenting, I had little time to write. But stories were always with me, floating through my mind, collecting.

When my daughter turned thirteen, I enrolled in a fiction writing class. From that time on, I’ve been writing. At first, I only had time to write essays, memoir pieces and short stories. One short story tugged at me. I wondered if it could become a novel. A writing teacher gave me a definite yes. I started working the following day. That first book, at 60,000 words, took me almost as long to write as a later book at 125, 000 words. I learned a novel wasn’t a long short story, rather a much different, more complex animal. Occasionally I’ll still write a poem or a short story.

I have completed four manuscripts. One of these, Shelter of Leaves, was published this past August. Some months ago, I started work on a fifth novel. For now, the novel’s the thing.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Radar: Jessica Keener, Keir Graff, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth Crane, Tim Wirkus, Denis Johnson, Mike McCormack, Stephen King & Owen King

Book Radar rounds up some of the latest publishing deals which have caught my eye, gathered from reports at Publishers Marketplace, Galley Cat, office water-coolers and other places where hands are shaken and promises are made. As with anything in the fickle publishing industry, dates and titles are subject to change.

From Publishers Lunch, news of the following book deals...

Jessica Keener’s STRANGERS IN BUDAPEST, about a grieving father, convinced his son-in-law has murdered his daughter, who travels from Boston to Budapest to take matters into his own hands when an American couple and their newly adopted son—also in Budapest—become dangerously entangled in the father’s obsession for revenge, pitched as reminiscent of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, to Algonquin for publication in 2017.

Booklist Online editor and author of The Other Felix and the upcoming The Matchstick Castle Keir Graff’s THE PHANTOM TOWER, where a pre-war apartment building in Chicago turns out to be a portal—for an hour a day—to its ghostly, never-built twin; when a couple of kids stumble upon the tower—whose residents may be alive, dead, or something...different—they’ve got to find their way back to reality, to Putnam Children’s.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, exploring the adult lives of the characters who grew up with Lucy Barton in Amgash, Illinois, to Random House for publication in June 2017.

Author of The History of Great Things and We Only Know So Much, Elizabeth Crane’s story collection TURF, featuring stories that explore and satirize our search for identity and belonging, tales of realism that blend into the fantastical, to Soft Skull for publication in Summer 2017.

Tim Wirkus’s THE INFINITE FUTURE, a genre-bending novel set in Brazil, Idaho, and outer space, which follows a librarian, a writer on the lam, and a disgraced historian, on an impossible quest for a fabled mystical book, whose pages we eventually find ourselves in, pitched as a mix of Bolano and Bradbury, to Penguin Press.

National Book Award and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Denis Johnson’s story collection (all original material except for two stories), for publication in January 2018, and a novel about a deposed Middle Eastern dictator retelling his life’s story as he is being interrogated, to Random House.

Irish author Mike McCormack’s SOLAR BONES, shortlisted for The Goldsmith Prize; on All Souls Day it is said in Ireland that the dead may turn up in their own home, and so we meet a middle-aged engineer who turns up between 12 noon and 1 p.m. at his kitchen table and reflects on the events that took him away and how minor decisions ripple into waves and test our integrity every day, to Soho Press.

Stephen King and son Owen King’s SLEEPING BEAUTIES, a novel set in the near future, to Scribner for publication in 2017.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Freebie: Fill the Sky by Katherine Sherbrooke

Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson.

This week’s contest is for Fill the Sky by Katherine Sherbrooke. I have two copies of the novel up for grabs. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

When Ellie’s cancer exhausts the reaches of modern medicine, she travels to Ecuador with her lifelong friends, Tess and Joline, hoping that local shamans might offer a miracle. During a tumultuous week that includes strange, ancient ceremonies and a betrayal that strains their bond, each woman discovers her own deep need for healing, even the skeptic among them. Fill the Sky is about the complexity of friendship, the power of the spirit, and the quest to not simply fight death, but to shape an authentic life. Bestselling author Anita Shreve had this to say about Fill the Sky: “Three women, each with an important question to answer, travel together into a world richly imagined and beautifully rendered to find unconventional answers. This is a deeply moving novel about love, honesty, respect, the unlikely, and the truly possible.”

Be sure to check out Katherine’s story about her “first time” which appeared earlier here at the blog.

If you’d like a chance at winning Fill the Sky, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest is limited to those with an address in the U.S. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 28. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Front Porch Books: October 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

Brat Pack America
by Kevin Smokler
(Rare Bird Books)

Continuing my binge of 80s pop culture (after swigging down Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond like it was a cardboard box of Hi-C Ecto Cooler), I’m ready to go back in time to hang out with the Brat Pack. Kevin Smokler’s “Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies” looks like the perfect ticket to go back to those days. DeLorean not included.

Jacket Copy:  From the fictional towns of Hill Valley, California, and Shermer, Illinois, to the beautiful landscapes of the “Goondocks” in Astoria and the “time of your life” dirty dancing resort still alive and well in Lake Lure, North Carolina, ’80s teen movies left their mark not just on movie screen and in the hearts of fans, but on the landscape of America itself. Like few other eras in movie history, the ’80s teen movies has endured and gotten better with time. In Brat Pack America, Kevin Smokler gives virtual tours of your favorite movies while also picking apart why these locations are so important to these movies. Including interviews with actors, writers, and directors of the era, and chock full of interesting facts about your favorite ’80s movies, Brat Pack America is a must for any fan. Smokler went to Goonies Day in Astoria, Oregon, took a Lost Boys tour of Santa Cruz, California, and deeply explored every nook and cranny of the movies we all know and love, and it shows.

Opening Lines:  It broke my heart that I couldn’t visit Hill Valley. It seemed like such a nice town to grow up in, even if it’d had a run of bad luck since 1955. Still, I was pretty sure that if stood near the clock tower right as the high school let out, I’d see Marty McFly rolling by on his skateboard. I’d yell “Hey, McFly,” but in a nice way, and thank him for being a weird kid from a weird family with a pretty girlfriend and a band and a mad scientist for a best friend. If I could visit Hill Valley, California, which I guessed was somewhere around the bend in the state’s elbow, maybe I could tell Marty McFly, “When I’m seventeen, I want to be just like you.”

The Horseman
by Tim Pears

And if I want to go even farther back in time, I’ll turn to the pages in Tim Pears’ new novel (available in the U.S. in February). The Horseman, set in rural pre-World War I England, is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring the titular equestrian Leo. I’m ready to go for a ride.

Jacket Copy:  From the prize-winning author of In the Place of Fallen Leaves comes a beautiful, hypnotic pastoral novel reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, about an unexpected friendship between two children, set in Devon in 1911. In a forgotten valley, on the Devon-Somerset border, the seasons unfold. Twelve-year-old Leopold Sercombe skips school to help his father, a carter. Skinny and pale, with eyes as dark as sloes, Leo dreams of a job on the Master’s stud farm. As ploughs furrow the January fields, the Master’s daughter, young Miss Charlotte, shocks the estate’s tenants by wielding a gun at the annual shoot. Spring comes and Leo is breaking a colt when a boy dressed in a Homburg, breeches and riding boots appears. Peering under the stranger’s hat, he discovers Charlotte. And so a friendship begins, bound by a deep love of horses, but divided by rigid social boundariesboundaries that become increasingly difficult to navigate as they approach adolescence. Suffused with the magic of nature, this hallucinatory, beautiful tale of a loss of innocence builds with a hypnotic power. Evoking the realities of agricultural life with precise, poetic brushstrokes, Tim Pears has created a masterful pastoral novel.

Opening Lines:  The boy, Leopold Jonas Sercombe, stood by his father at the open doorway to the smithy. Jacob Crocker’s younger son, the gangly one, fed a circle of metal into the furnace. Outside, behind the boy, the earth was frozen. His feet were numb and his arse throbbed with the cold but he could feel the heat on his face. His father’s gaze was rapt and hawkish, he’d come to scrutinise, for these wheels were for the great waggon and he’d let naught shoddy by. Merely by his presence he gave Jacob Crocker to know that if Albert Sercombe found fault, nothing would please him more than to reject the lot for the master.

Death: An Oral History
by Casey Jarman
(Zest Books)

I once wrote a terrible poem which began like this:
We are none of us
Given x number of days.
The heart will seize and stop,
Abrupt and rude as a slammed door.
You will choke in a restaurant
Filled with people who always intended
To take that Red Cross course.
And so on, until the final breath of the last stanza. Though its literary merits are debatable, one thing is true: we all think about death, we all try to prepare for death, and we’re all completely lousy in our predictions of when it will come for us. That’s one reason why Casey Jarman’s oral history of The End is an appealing read. The book won’t have the answer to my own personal finality, but it will be interesting to get a fresh perspective on the subject from a chorus of voices.

Jacket Copy:  In this illuminating collection of oral-history style interviews, Casey Jarman talks to a funeral industry watchdog about the (often shady) history of the death trade; he hears how songwriter David Bazan lost his faith while trying to hold on to his family; he learns about cartoonist Art Spiegelman using his college LSD trips to explain death to his children; and he gets to know his own grandparents, posthumously. These are stories of loss, rebuilding, wonder, and wild speculation featuring everyone from philosophers to former death row wardens and hospice volunteers. In these moving, enlightening, and often funny conversations, the end is only the beginning.

Opening Lines:  I grew up with photographs of my grandparents, but no actual grandparents. They all died before or shortly after I was born. None of them held me as a baby, or told me about the old days, or passed on family secrets from a bygone era. My folks told me stories about those mysterious figures from worn old photographs, trying to create some sort of bond between usbut all of the stories just swirled together. “Was it Grandpa Frank who owned a butcher shop? Or was that Mom’s dad? Wait, no, he was a preacher, right?” Cue the look of disappointment in my parents’ eyes. “I wish you could have known them,” they still say.

Blurbworthiness:  “Casey Jarman, one of my favorite Northwest journalists, is becoming the Studs Terkel of his generation.”  (Willy Vlautin, author of Lean on Pete)

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

If I wasn’t already primed and ready to add Jami Attenberg’s new novel to my To-Be-Read stack, this description of the main character from the jacket copy would be enough to make me bark a “Oh God, gotta read that!” without hesitation: a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh. But novels (most novels, anyway) are more than just the sum total of their characters. They’re about plot and style and art at the sentence level—and how all those elements come together in the bubbling stew of a book. Jami Attenberg has delivered plenty of tasty soup in the past and I expect more of the same from All Grown Up. I’ve got my spoon ready.

Jacket Copy:  Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke. But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.

Opening Lines:  You’re in art school, you hate it, you drop out, you move to New York City. For most people, moving to New York City is a gesture of ambition. But for you, it signifies failure, because you grew up there, so it just means you’re moving back home after you couldn’t make it in the world. Spiritually, it’s a reverse commute.

Blurbworthiness:  “Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up is one part Denis Johnson, one part Grace Paley, but all her. Every sentence pulls taut and glows—electric, gossipy, searing fun that is also a map to how to be more human.”  (Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night)

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White
by Melissa Sweet
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

One of the bigger revelations during my recent trip to Maine was the fact that it was where E. B. White lived most of his life. I’m sure this comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with the Charlotte’s Web author or Maine literature in general, but for me it was a wonderful footnote to an already glorious vacation to the Pine Tree State (my first time there). Right around the time I was walking along a mile-long path to a lighthouse along the coast, Melissa Sweet’s new young-reader biography of White was hitting bookstores. This exquisitely-designed book—every page is a collage of photos, drawings and artifacts (you can see a sample page below)—immediately found a home on my shelves. I plan to pair it with a long-overdue visit to my old friends Charlotte, Stuart and a certain trumpeter swan.

Jacket Copy:  “SOME PIG,” Charlotte the spider’s praise for Wilbur, is just one fondly remembered snippet from E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. In Some Writer!, the two-time Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet mixes White’s personal letters, photos, and family ephemera with her own exquisite artwork to tell his story, from his birth in 1899 to his death in 1985. Budding young writers will be fascinated and inspired by the journalist, New Yorker contributor, and children’s book author who loved words his whole life. This authorized tribute is the first fully illustrated biography of E. B. White and includes an afterword by Martha White, E. B. White's granddaughter.

Opening Lines:  Elwyn Brooks White became a writer while he was still wearing knickers. He was seven or eight years old when he looked a sheet of paper “square in the eyes” and thought, “This is where I belong, this is it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “What elevates this book to the stratosphere is the art. Practically glowing, it turns a very fine biography into something original, creative, and marvelous.”  (

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Contort: born with a twist and a slip and a slither

          I was born, not aborted.
         I contorted my way into this world with a twist and a slip and a slither.
         Back then, they called me Montana Lily, Butte’s Baby Wonder.
Those are the opening lines to my latest short story, a slippery stream-of-consciousness piece narrated by the most famous child contortionist to ever emerge from Butte, Montana (admittedly, perhaps the only headline-making, pliable-boned infant to come from the Mining City).

“Contort” is a brief look at the life of “Montana Lily” Pitkanen who wowed her audiences in the early part of the 20th century. Newspaper ads from 1924 touted her as “one of the greatest 15-months-old athletes in athletic stunts” under the direction of Dr. G. Pitkanen. The little girl, it seems, learned to somersault before she could crawl.

photo courtesy of Butte-Silver Bow Archives

I first learned of Montana Lily a few months ago when I was invited to contribute a story to a fundraising project for the Butte-Silver Bow Archives. The photo you see here was taken by C. Owen Smithers, a prolific photographer whose collection of more than 25,000 images at the Archives documents Butte’s rise as a cosmopolitan city. The Archives received the negatives several years ago and has been working to preserve them ever since.  However, the cost of restoration is a large one. As this Montana Standard article points out, “most of these negatives, if not in pristine condition, are in relatively good shape. However, floods, fire and time have taken a toll. Some of these negatives need a touchup here and there, others need a bit more work, while some negatives are in need of extensive restoration.”

That’s where we storytellers come in.

Several of us in the community were invited to contribute creative texts in response to specific photographs from the collection. I lucked out with a photo of a little girl balancing on the extended hand of a woman old enough to be her grandmother. I wanted to know more about this snapshot, and so Irene Scheidecker from the Archives emailed me with some background information on Lily and the aforementioned “G. Pitkanen.”

That would be Gertrude Pitkanen, the infamous abortionist of Butte, Montana. This is where the story really gets interesting.

There is an entire website devoted to Dr. Pitkanen and the legacy of “Gertie’s Babies.” As I read more about the doctor, my curiosity grew: “She was charged three times with manslaughter or homicide following the death of women who had Gertrude Pitkanen’s illegal operations, and each time charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.” And then there’s her lesser-known reputation for the illicit sale of infants she delivered.

Montana Lily was different. For some reason, Gertrude decided to adopt the infant (whose mother, I imagined in my story, was a hard-working lady at the Dumas Brothel). In her email to me, Irene wrote:
Research on genealogy websites shows that Gertrude Pitkanen adopted several more children after Montana, and that they were all placed in a Helena orphanage at one point in time. Montana Pitkanen got married at age 18 to a 32-year old man named John Williams, and apparently lived out her life as a beauty operator in Butte.
As you can see, this story practically writes itself. I’m just standing by, ready to put it all down on paper. (And, quite frankly, I don’t think I’m completely done with Montana Lily’s story; my brain continues to churn...)

Irene has transformed our creative interpretations of the Smithers photos into beautiful works of art for the fundraiser. Some are wall-mounted posters, some are fashioned into something resembling a scrapbook, and my story, fittingly, is a miracle of twisted origami.

The Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives event on October 28, “A Night in Black and White,” will raise funds to preserve the C. Owen Smithers Photograph Collection. There will be a live auction featuring never-before-seen Smithers images as well as a silent auction and an adopt-a-photo program. Click here to learn more about how you can help contribute to the photo restoration project.

The Archives plans to put together a book with the stories from “A Night in Black and White.” I’ll post an update when I learn more about how to purchase the book. For now, I’ll leave you with the closing lines of “Contort.”
Go ahead, balance me in the palm of your hand, lift me to the sky so I can tumble up to the clouds. Hold me in your hand and I will harden into a plank. Go ahead, swing me by the hair and see if they don’t put me on the front page of the newspaper: BUTTE’S MOST REMARKABLE INFANT. See if I don’t bump Jack Dempsey back to page 3. See if Warren G. Harding doesn’t bow to my remarkable talent. See if I don’t somersault over them all, leaping and flipping through the air, landing right in the center of that headline. Watch me now, you’ll see. I’ll show you REMARKABLE.

Monday, October 17, 2016

My First Time: Katherine A. Sherbrooke

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Katherine A. Sherbrooke, author of the new novel Fill the Sky, and a memoir, Finding Home. Katherine is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Stanford University, is an entrepreneur and writer. She currently serves as Chair of the Board of Grub Street. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts with her husband, their two sons, and a black lab.

The First Time My Book Was Done

I have always been a big believer in revision, so by the time my first manuscript was done, it had been through countless iterations. I had work-shopped almost every chapter, revisited tricky scenes with my writing group, and incorporated feedback on the entire manuscript from three trusted readers. The changes along the way ran the gamut, from adding additional points of view, to removing whole pages of exposition, pretty paintings that were hard to destroy but had no impact on the characters in the room. Then I spent several months honing and polishing. And finally, I was done.

That is, until I started over.

At the time, two writing friends of mine were enrolled in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator, a year of intensive manuscript revision under the tutelage of novelist Michelle Hoover. We had all started our novels at the same time—theirs were both excellent— and I was amazed when they described how much their books were changing in the class. The work they were doing wasn’t just moving furniture around that wasn’t working quite right, but whole-scale renovations. Some inner contractor told me that one more look at my manuscript might not be a bad idea. Michelle Hoover agreed to give it a read.

Michelle explained her timeline and process, which would include a written review of my book followed by an in-person discussion. Anxious to start submitting my book to agents without too much further delay, I suggested we schedule our meeting in advance, perhaps a day or two after her report was due. She hesitated, suggesting I should take time to process her comments before we spoke, and that I might not know how much time I would need until I read her report. I tried to explain that I was a fast processor of information and was practiced at quickly integrating feedback—I knew I would want to dive in right away—but she insisted we wait, and so I complied.

The day before her report was due, I went out to dinner with a group of close friends. We had all worked together at the business I had co-founded many years before, and it had been a while since we had all caught up. I excitedly told them I had finally finished my novel, that I was waiting “as we speak” for feedback from a teacher and novelist I really admired, but was hoping to have it out into the world soon. Even as I said things like, “she’s really tough, so who knows, she might tell me it’s terrible,” I secretly anticipated her rave reviews. I envisioned her amazement at how little there was to change, even without having enrolled in her intensive program. Everyone at the dinner table told me they couldn’t wait to see my book on the shelves. I would soon be on my way as “novelist,” a life-long dream.

As I boarded the commuter ferry that night, my email dinged. Michelle’s report was ready. What a perfect way to end the night—her words representing the last steps in the bridge between my old world of business and my new one as novelist. As I opened the file, several things struck me right away. The first was that her report was twelve pages long. Next, that it was single-spaced. Even a prolific writer doesn’t need five thousand ways to say “bravo!” The third thing I absorbed before my eyes began to blur was that it had only taken her two or three lines to tell me what she thought was working in the book before launching into the list of things that needed to be reworked. Furtively checking to see if there was anyone on the boat I recognized, I forced myself to read all twelve pages, twice. Then I cried the rest of the way home.

I didn’t request a meeting that next week. I was too busy being curled up in the fetal position on my couch. Nor did I request a meeting the week after that—too busy trying to uncurl myself. By the third week, I noticed that her comments had sprouted some new ideas about the book, tender and tiny, but taking root nonetheless. Two weeks after that, I had a host of tentatively drawn mental sketches for the kinds of changes I wanted to make, changes I knew the book had to have if it was going to be sound. Six weeks after receiving her feedback, I was finally ready to sit down with Michelle.

I outlined for her the things I was thinking about changing—switching the whole book from first person to third, collapsing four key characters into three, flying a back-story character to Ecuador so they could be in-scene, and adding a story-line I hadn’t previously considered, just to name a few. We talked through it all, and she validated the choices I had made. And then I asked her the most important question of my writing career thus far.

“Given everything I now want to change, if you were me, would you revise the manuscript I have, or would you start over?”

Michelle thought for a moment or two, and then looked me in the eye. “I would start over,” she said. It was a brave response, but I knew she was right. And I am grateful she had the courage to say it.

So I started with a blank screen, and began again from page one.

The truth is, starting over isn’t really starting over. I had developed a world that was real to me, I had created several characters that were living and breathing beings in that world. I just had to find a different way to tell their story. I approached it a bit like writing creative non-fiction. The “facts” were all there, but I needed to highlight different moments. The characters were already formed, but I had to illuminate their personal journeys in new ways. For me, it’s always the mental blueprint of the world and the birthing of the characters that’s the hardest. Putting them in scene is the fun part. So while it had taken me over two years to write the first version, I completed the new one in under six months.

More feedback ensued, my trusted readers weighed in again, and then, finally, one glorious day, I was really done. (Well, there was that revision for my agent, and then one more during the submission process…and then several more for my publisher…but who’s counting?)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

At most, the IED cost $100 to make, and against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

Congratulations to Ginger Heatwole, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Sunday’s on the Phone to Monday by Christine Reilly.

This week’s contest is for The Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson. I’ve got a hardcover copy of the new book about Niagara Falls to send to one lucky reader. Read on for more information about the book...

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a small but determined band of barrel jumpers risked their lives in one of the world’s most wondrous waterfalls. Only a few survived. By turns a family drama and an action-adventure story, The Age of Daredevils chronicles the lives of the men and women who devoted themselves to the extraordinary sport of jumping over Niagara Falls in a barrel—a death-defying gamble that proved a powerful temptation to a hardy few. Internationally known in the 1920s and ’30s for their barrel-jumping exploits, the Hills were a father-son team of daredevils who also rescued dozens of misguided thrill seekers and accident victims who followed them into the river. The publicity surrounding the Hills’ spectacular feats ushered in tourism, making Niagara Falls the nation’s foremost honeymoon destination, but ultimately set Red Hill Jr. on a perilous path to surpass his father’s extraordinary leaps into the void. Like the works of Jon Krakauer and David McCullough, The Age of Daredevils explores the primal force of fear and the thirst for adventure that drive humans to the brink of death to see if they can somehow escape.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Age of Daredevils, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 21. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Haunted by Books: Caroline Leavitt’s Library

Reader:  Caroline Leavitt

Number of Books:  Please don’t ask me to count. It will take me forever to number them because I know I will sit down and start reading.

My personal library began when I was 9 and my mother bought me a blue painted bamboo shelf for my room. I loved that I had my very own shelf! I immediately began putting my favorite books on it—starting with Nancy Drew and moving on to 1984, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, and all sorts of other books. Over the years, that little shelf began to buckle under all the weight of all my books, but I didn’t give it up until I moved to college and then to Manhattan, where I had books lining the floors, and piled up towards the ceilings.

When I got married and had an actual home, we had bookshelves on all three floors and in both bathrooms. But I have my own office on the top floor and three different bookshelves, all with the books I love the most.

This little shelf is more of my work shelf, with some of my books, my husband Jeff Tamarkin’s books, and books on writing. It’s an all-business sort of shelf, except for the silly birdhouse in the middle, festooned with writerly comics. I didn't photograph the bottom shelf because it’s stuffed with ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) and books I am going to read and review and I feel like those titles are private until the reviews come out.

Sometimes I keep a book because it got me through a terrible time and I’m grateful to it, like Larry McMurtry’s Moving On. I found that book in a second-hand bookstore in Pittsburgh when my first marriage was crumbling in the most astonishing way. Somehow the story of Patsy who left her marriage and found herself in the world of rodeo made me feel cheerful and although I haven’t reread that book for years, just looking at it makes me happy.

No rhyme or reason to how books are sorted on these shelves but notice all the foolish extras, including a Malibu Barbi with a broken leg, my son’s first baby sneakers, painted to look like a lion, dog buttons from Parnasuss Books, a tiny statue of a man wearing a fez....and so much more. Here are all the Richard Price books, bios like The Hemingway Women by Bernice Kert and The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller, and a first edition of Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson.

Book I’d run into a burning building to save:  I want to say A Little Life by Hanyah Yanagihara because it showed me that dark is never too dark and no other book has haunted me as obsessively. (I like obsessions.) But truly, a book I treasure is a collection of Kafka short stories given to me by my very first boyfriend when I was barely 17. The pages are underlined by him and there is an inscription that says only, “This is for you with love.” He wanted to prove to me that he was really smart. I knew that he was, and all those underlines made me realize he was full of heart, too.

This shelf is filled with my favorite books, from Anna Solomon’s Leaving Lucy Pear to Mary Morris’ The Jazz Palace to Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Edges. And again, note the amount of silly stuff, including Mrs. Mustard’s Baby Faces on the top of the shelf.

Favorite book from childhood:  Mary Poppins In the Park. Forget the dreadful saccharine Disney film and Broadway show—both so sweet you could get tooth decay before the first act. This Mary is a tart, no-nonsense and sort-of-scary nanny, and she showed me how there was a very thin line between what is real and what could be real, if only you would let it be. These books felt so real to me, so exciting and yet terrifying, too. And I think I loved it because that’s what my life has turned out to be.

Guilty-Pleasure Book:  I can’t find it in my piles but I know I would never part with it. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Yep, it’s deliciously trashy, about three young women whose lives upend when they get hooked on pills. I was shocked when I read it as a young girl, delighted in it when I was in college, and I still appreciate it now for its complete over-the-topness and hilarious dialogue.

And, finally, here is a 1951 edition of Winnie the Pooh that was my mom’s—and her writing is in it! (I think I love books with writing in them.) It’s falling apart but I loved it when I was little and I love it now.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her newest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is set in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly. Cruel Beautiful World is the story of a runaway teenager’s disappearance and her sister’s quest to discover the truth and her own complicityand about an 80-year-old woman falling in love for the first time. Caroline’s many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New York Times Modern Love, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.