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Jeffrey Koterba on Becoming a Cartoonist, Growing Up with Tourette’s Syndrome and His New Book, “Inklings”

Posted on August 2, 2010

One of the most valuable aspects of reading memoirs is being able to get an inside look at a way of life so different from yours and learning how other people cope with the challenges they have to face. Award-winning political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba has written an open, honest and completely intriguing account of growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome — and a volatile family — which I felt compelled to share with our readers. Here’s my interview with the amazing author (and musician!):

“Inklings” – a brilliant title, by the way — is fascinating on so many levels. It gives much insight into surviving a dysfunctional family, growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome and becoming an award-winning political cartoonist and successful musician. Which of these did you most want to write about or was it more important to show how all of those elements combined?

Thank you for your kind words. This may sound strange, but I sort of keep forgetting that the book is actually out in the world. I mean, I know it’s a physical book that exists—I’ve seen it in bookstores—but it’s surrealistic and exciting beyond belief that people I’ve never met are reading it. Regarding the title, I usually struggle with titles—but this one came naturally, literally in a flash. So I suppose it was meant to be. Regarding the overall theme of my memoir, I really wanted to show, best I could, how everything is interconnected. If not for the events and complexities of my childhood, and the Tourette’s, I might not ever have become a writer, cartoonist and musician.

You certainly had many obstacles to overcome to reach your goal of becoming a cartoonist but you never gave up, and I think your story will inspire many others to do the same. What gave you the courage and drive to pursue your dreams?

It’s funny you use the word “obstacles.” The other day, the phrase, “Let your obstacles become your muse,” came to me. Maybe because I have to often remind myself of my own life’s lessons. Instead of looking at the obstacles as a roadblock, I try to remember that in the past, my obstacles have often been exactly what I needed at that time, providing opportunities for growth. We all have struggles; the real challenge is how we deal with them, turning those challenges into blessings in disguise. I hope readers of “Inklings” will get that message.

What was it about cartoons that was appealing to you, as opposed to any other form of art?

That’s a great question. I think cartooning is part of my DNA or something. I’ve been cartooning as long as I can remember. Later, in high school and college, I thought I wanted to become a painter—the more abstract the better—but I kept coming back to cartoons—especially editorial cartoons. There’s just something so immediate and accessible about cartoons, but depending on what type of cartoon it is, there’s often a deeper layer. I’m all about the deeper layers. And sometimes, even though a cartoon might be pleasant to look at, the idea might be a bit dark or poignant. Ultimately, it’s not really about the drawing at all, but the message behind it.

Because Tourette’s is so visible, it must be especially difficult when you’re young. You touch upon the fact that other children teased you but don’t dwell on that in the book. How did you handle that?

I didn’t want “Inklings” to come off as a “poor me” kind of memoir, certainly, that’s one reason I didn’t dwell too much on the Tourette’s. And while Tourette’s obviously plays an important role in my creative life—I’m convinced that without the twitches and tics, I wouldn’t do all the things I do—it doesn’t define me. Kids can be cruel, but I certainly don’t hold grudges. In fact, looking back, it makes me sad for them—I wonder what kind of struggles were occurring in their lives, what obstacles they were contending with. The journalist in me would give anything to go back in time, to take notes of everything that happened, to interview those kids. But otherwise, I sure wouldn’t want to replay my childhood, although I’m grateful for my experiences, good and bad.

It seems that your family life would almost be harder to deal with than the Tourette’s. Do you think your dad was what would now be called a hoarder? For all your father’s craziness, though, what made me saddest was your mom secretly dressing you like a girl and calling you her daughter. What kind of effect did that have on you?

Because my father grew up during the Great Depression, in a large family without a father, and certainly with little money, when he discovered garage sales, he was in heaven. He could buy TVs, radios, stereos, sometimes for the change in his pocket. By today’s standards was he a hoarder? Maybe. But I can’t cast any stones. I’m currently in the process of moving and found I needed a place to store my stuff. As it happens, the house where I grew up is still in the family so I’m using it to store my cartoons. Bins and bins of cartoons and sketchbooks. All kinds of writings and drawings and musical items. I’m feeling like a bit of a hoarder myself. Another point about my father which refers to the earlier question about obstacles: As a kid I could see how sad and regretful my father was for not pursuing his dreams. I vowed to never have any regrets. Even if I failed, I would know that I tried.

Regarding my mom dressing me as “Cindy,” well, I don’t know, I like to think that as a male, it somehow gave me early access to my feminine side. As a boy I was pretty typical in that I played sports and liked to get my hands dirty and loved motorcycles, but I also loved, from an early age, the perfumed scent of a woman, the beautiful nuances of a woman’s face, what makes them look different from men. I think it helped me as an artist. I hope so, anyway.

How did your life change once you learned that there was actually a name for your tics? How do you think your family’s life might have been different if your father – and you — had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome many years earlier?

Growing up, I had what my father called “nervous habits.” He had them, too. And although Tourette’s is genetic, neither of us knew what caused the tics. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there simply weren’t the resources now available. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I was diagnosed, and although that diagnosis assured me that the habits weren’t simply something I could stop if I wanted, in a way I’m grateful for not knowing sooner. I mean, what if I had known as a kid and what if I latched on to that diagnosis and had defined myself as a Tourette’s kid? Of course, there’s really no way of knowing how things might have been different had I known. Maybe it would have saved me a lot of grief on the playground. But then, in a way, that grief inspired me to try harder, to prove myself that I wasn’t a failure.

As an adult looking back at your childhood, were you surprised to remember certain events? Did you gain any new insight or perspective in the process? Was it empowering to realize how far you’ve come?

I had been lugging around my stories ever since I was a kid. Frankly, I was getting tired of them. So it was a relief to finally get them down on paper and let them go. Still, I have more I need to get out of my system. It’s often said that a first-time writer puts everything into his or her book; on the contrary for me—there was so much I had to leave out, so many more stories. In the end I had to decide what served the overall story. While writing early drafts, however, I found myself twitching more than usual—my Tourette’s often gets worse when I’m stressed out, physically or emotionally. So to a certain extent it was a bit uncomfortable going through those first drafts. However, it was also while writing that I began to see all these connections in my life, in an even more profound way–events and connections with people that on first glance might have seemingly only played a small role in my life, but as it turns out, were significant in helping shape the person I am, for better or worse.

You’re the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the swing band, the Prairie Cats, as well as an incredibly talented cartoonist. You have to believe there’s truth to your doctor’s explanation that most people who have Tourette’s are artists in some form. Have you taken medication or are you concerned it will somehow mess with the creative process?

Over the years I have tried various medications, all to varying degree of success. In some cases, the medications seemed to have made my tics worse. But the stress might have had to do with outside forces. It’s difficult to know for sure. And yes, certainly, my biggest concern has always been that I don’t want to mess with a good thing—don’t want to dampen my creativity. But who knows? What if there is a drug out there that might ease the symptoms, but also give me more energy to create? The good news is that with age, the tics have seemed to lessen in severity and also a proper diet of avoiding caffeine and sugar, and also exercising regularly, has helped quite a bit. I’m always a bit concerned when I give a talk at a Tourette’s support group and all around they have snacks in the form of sweets. But that just might be my take on things, regarding sugar. Regarding those groups, by the way, it’s a great place to let go—of your tics, that is. That’s a place you don’t have to worry about people looking at you funny.

What were your parents’ reactions to the book?

Initially, they were worried what friends and family would say. Some of their concerns came from the level of detail I write about, and my parents, being very private people, were worried how others might judge them. Some of their reaction might have been a generational thing, too, my parents coming from an era when you “just don’t talk about such private things.” Growing up, we didn’t have many books in the house—certainly nothing like a memoir—so I’m sure it was a bit surrealistic for my parents to read about themselves so specifically. I did my best to remind them that many families have complexities and dysfunction. My overall intent wasn’t to point out my father’s weaknesses or faults, but rather, to show, how he rose above his disappointments and loved his family. And as part of loving me, he inspired me nearly every day, pushing me to be original and unique, to push my own personal envelope.

What advice would you give children with Tourette’s? How have they reacted to your book?

I once had a mother and her daughter who has Tourette’s come to see me at the newspaper. The daughter was in grade school and was already showing great promise as an artist and playwright. In front of her daughter, the mother asked me if I thought her daughter could live a “normal life.” That absolutely broke my heart. “Of course,” I answered. “In fact,” I remember saying, “not only will she live a normal life, she’ll live a great life!” The little girl looked up to me and smiled. That still gets to me.

I loved spending time on your site, going through the cartoon gallery. How are you so prolific? What do you do when you have cartoonist’s block?!

Well, I have to admit, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up with everything, especially because I’m itching to write another book. Having said that, I do often find that doing one thing often feeds me in other areas. Sometimes when I can’t come up with a cartoon idea, I might pick up the guitar. Just the act of strumming might free up my brain to come up with a cartoon idea. It’s all integrated, really, not separate things I do, but all connected in some grand way in my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Is there a specific subject you especially like to draw, that you find yourself returning to over and over? Which cartoon is your all-time favorite?

Even though drawing local cartoons typically doesn’t win national journalism prizes, those are probably my favorite. Mostly, because I know that the people I’m drawing about will see the cartoon. If I draw a cartoon about the leader of a foreign country, probably not. And picking one favorite is tough. I draw six cartoons a week, so in baseball terms, if I can get on base every time, I figure I’m doing well. If at least one of those makes it over the outfield fence, I’m happy.

What’s next for you? A subject you haven’t touched yet? A cartoon set to swing music?

I like that—a cartoon set to swing music would be awesome! Well, I am fiddling with a TV show idea with a friend of mine and an “Inklings” screenplay is in the works, so we’ll see. Otherwise, I’m mapping out my next book project. The problem is I have too many ideas and there’s only so much time. Maybe I should be working on a machine that would somehow expand time.

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I feel really privileged to get to know you a little better.

For me, the sign of a great question is when that question gets me to think about my life in ways I hadn’t previously considered. Your questions did that for me. Thank you so much.

Jeffrey Koterba is generously giving an autographed copy of “Inklings” and his latest Prairie Cats’ CD to one lucky subscriber. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment below by midnight Pacific time on Sunday, August 8. Winner will be notified by return email.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Happy 75th Anniversary, Penguin Books!

Posted on July 30, 2010

 

Happy anniversary, Penguin Books!

Seventy five years ago, today, Allen Lane changed the course of publishing by launching a new line of inexpensive, paperback books. His secretary came up with the company name, and he sent a designer to the zoo to capture the essence of that little bird which has since become an instantly-recognizable icon.

Penguin began with a 10-title launch, and critics laughed at Lane’s idea. By the end of the year, the little-publisher-that-could had sold more than three million books, and now has bragging rights for an author list that includes everyone from Hemingway and Tolstoy to Stephen King and Don DeLillo.

Believing that you actually can judge a book by its cover, Penguin has always paid as much attention to design as content. “Penguin 75” is a stunning representation of the publisher’s three quarters of a century of book cover design, with revealing commentary by the authors and artists.

As part of the anniversary celebration, Bravo’s series, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” challenged designers to create a book cover for a Penguin classic which would introduce it to a whole new generation of readers. John Parot’s winning – and eye-popping — design for H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” now graces the book’s cover, giving it a fresh new look.

Six additional titles also boast new covers – designed by some of the world’s best illustrators and tattoo artists. Check out these gorgeous new Inked editions of “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “The Broom of the System.”

You can read all about Penguin’s anniversary events on their website, and find out if the Penguin Mobile is coming to your town!

Meanwhile, we’re celebrating Penguin’s anniversary by giving away one of our favorite Penguin classics, “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner, as well as the winning Bravo cover design edition of “The Time Machine” and the Inked edition of “The Broom of the System.”

Enter to win by leaving a comment below. Let us know which one you’d like for your collection, and tell us which of the Penguin 75 is your favorite. Winners will be selected on August 9 and will be notified by return email.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Deb Wainscott Reviews “Tinkers” by Paul Harding

Posted on July 29, 2010

This Pulitzer Prize winning book is astounding and dense — and it is only 192 pages. It’s very hard to put down once you start it.

The story is told in the voices of three generations of a dysfunctional family. The old man is on his deathbed, in the dining room of his home, and the book covers his last eight days of life. He hallucinates, recalls and reflects on his life.

You flip from him growing up in Maine and then Massachusetts, and becoming a horologist (someone who makes clocks and watches). Then you learn about his father — a tinker with epilepsy — and his mother, who is contrary & cantankerous. My favorite line of hers is, “Don’t you try to make me feel better!”

The whole story is like the winding down of a clock, which is ironic since clocks were this man’s life.

You can almost feel every single thing that the author describes because the scenes are so vivid.

A spectacular first book for Mr. Harding.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Attorney Todd Doyle Reviews “Supreme Justice” by Philip Margolin

Posted on July 27, 2010

Accompanied by a Corona Lite or Mojito, this is the perfect light book for a summer beach day.

Author Philip Margolin is an ex-criminal attorney who, like John Grisham, went the way of fiction to make millions and enjoy the law without the mundane parts.  This is Margolin’s 14th novel, and it uses a number of characters from his 2006 best seller “Executive Privilege” to help solve crimes, bring some justice to the world and lay down a little punishment along the way. You don’t need to have read the prior book to figure out what’s going on here despite the numerous references to their prior collaboration.  The book is much less about the judicial system or Supreme Court than the title or cover would lead the reader believe.  But, then, you know the saying about a book’s cover …

The heavily plot driven story involves Sarah Woodruff, an Oregon cop, who’s on death row for murdering her lover, John Finley. Finley is (was), at various times, an import/export executive, a drug dealer, or a CIA operative. The triad of prior Margolin characters (Brad Miller – Supreme Court Law Clerk, Keith Evans – FBI, and Dana Cutler – Private Eye) get involved because Woodruff has filed a request for Supreme Court certiorari (cert for those in the law biz). This is a prisoner’s last chance for a review of their case and chance for a retrial. Without cert, its certain that Woodruff will be put to death.  In Woodruff’s case, the basis upon which cert is sought involves a mysterious ship that was docked in a small town in Oregon 6 years earlier. That ship left several men dead. But the ship disappeared, along with a possible large cache of drugs on board, and therein lies the backbone of the story.  Powerful people in Washington D.C. want to keep the ship’s existence and any evidence related to it a “state-secrets privilege,” meaning Woodruff can not use the ship’s connection to her case as a defense. Without that evidence, Woodruff is sure to face the gas chamber. You have puppet masters playing chess with real people while common folk with connections try to outwit and solve the mystery before it’s “too late.” This multi-layered situation results in some unscrupulous acts, legal maneuvering, detective work, assassination attempts and some killings. The author uses about 20 different characters in at least three different time periods to tell the story.

The danger and killing in the book are certainly not on par with one episode of Jack Bauer in “24,” but are still very entertaining. The multiple stories are woven together in a simplistic albeit an enjoyable way. The reader races side by side with the characters as they piece this puzzle together. There are no long scene descriptions or chapters devoted to character development. This is a quick-paced story that is driven through dialogue, some of which is rather uninspired.  The book is 310 pages, broken into 65 chapters, many of which are short mini-cliffhangers that will have you saying to yourself, “One more chapter.”  Easy stuff since many of those chapters are only 3 to 5 pages long. The multiple storylines get woven together like a 25 piece puzzle – in big chunks – which are wrapped up into a cohesive story with some twists.

The writing is easy to read, the story is plausible enough, the settings are interesting and there is enough mystery, suspense and thrill that I give “Supreme Justice” a B grade.  It will take even the slowest of readers — like me — only a few days to finish, and you quickies will plow through it in a day.  Don’t overanalyze or dissect the implausible parts and you will have enjoyable entertainment for your beach, pool or other vacation spot this summer.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

david nicholls, author of “one day,” takes us behind the scenes with emma and dex

Posted on July 26, 2010

The hot book of the summer, One Day is the captivating story of Emma and Dexter, who meet on the day of their college graduation and start a relationship that goes from lovers to friends and everything in between over the course of twenty years. The story picks up on July 15 of each year, and is so emotional, funny, smart and well-written, you will not be able to put it down. After I finished reading it — in almost “one day” — I immediately got in touch with author David Nicholls to talk about my new favorite book.

First, I have to tell you that I truly loved this book and felt a rare and profound connection to it. I read it in two days in Las Vegas, sending my husband off to play blackjack so I could keep reading. I literally couldn’t put the book down — which seems to be the consensus of everyone who’s read it. Why do you think readers are reacting so strongly to the story?

Well, that’s extremely kind of you. I sincerely hope your husband won at blackjack.

As to the appeal, well I think the structure helps – it means the reader is always actively filling in the gaps between the years, which is quite a potent hook. I also wanted to write a big emotional story — lots of humor, but lots of drama and sadness too — and I think that’s quite a rare find in fiction.

And, at the risk of sounding pompous or pretentious, I wanted to write a book that had the same emotional affect as a great pop song – it’s “God Only Knows” or “I Say a Little Prayer” for me. That bittersweet feeling – joy and sadness mixed. Does that sound pretentious? Too late now.

I was so attached to Emma and Dex, I felt like I really knew them and was personally invested in their happiness. How did you make them so real? Are they based on people in your own life?

It’s certainly not an autobiographical book, though there’s a degree of personal experience in there, both my own and that of friends. A lot of my male friends had quite a wild, hedonistic time in London in the Nineties, and that’s gone into Dexter’s character. Sadly I had a much more Emma-ish time – terrible jobs, a lot of anxiety and self-pity and staying in – and some of that went into her character. Unfortunately I lack Emma’s integrity and wit, and there’s no single, real-life Em. She’s an amalgam – of me, of my female friends, of characters from fiction and film. Elizabeth Bennett, Annie Hall, Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment, Beatrice, Katharine Hepburn…

Why did you decide to use July 15, St. Swithin’s Day, as the one day?

St Swithin’s Day is sort of our Groundhog Day– if it rains on St Swithins Day, it will be a wet summer — though it goes largely unnoticed in the UK. I chose it because it is both an unremarkable day, but also a date that the characters can notice and remark upon when the story requires them to. I like the poetry of it – notions of fate and predicting the future. Also, it corresponds to graduation day, which always seems like quite a significant moment in one’s life.

But the main reason was a fine, sad Billy Bragg song called “St Swithin’s Day” – track it down – which is about a lost friendship. Lyrically, musically, it was the perfect match.

I found the relationship between Dexter and his mom very moving. Why was it important to you to include a bond like that?

Dexter’s such a flawed character – vain, selfish, not necessarily all that bright. I thought it was important to have a character who could see through all that to the decent man within – a sort of moral touchstone, someone who could speak entirely frankly to him. I also wanted to establish where all that confidence and charm came from.  I love Alison Mayhew – she’s Dexter’s conscience.

Emma is one of my favorite literary characters in a very long time – I want to be her friend! – and, sorry, but it’s just a little surprising to me that she was created by a guy! You totally nailed the female psyche; her neuroses and self-deprecating humor are dead-on. You’ve bravely entered what’s traditionally been chick lit territory but the writing and emotional depth of One Day is so strong, you may have to re-claim that turf as alpha male! What do you think a male author brings to the art of the love story that’s different?

Once again, that’s very kind of you. And I don’t want to sound creepy, but I found it much easier and more enjoyable to write Emma than Dexter. I think the trick, if there is one, is to have faith in the similarities between genders, rather than the differences. A lot of popular fiction and film sets up this false opposition between white-wine drinking, shoe-loving, conservative women and beer-drinking, sports-loving, commitment-fearing men, and this just doesn’t seem to match up with my experience or that of my female friends. Shoes are fine, but I don’t know any woman who’s obsessed with them, and my idea of hell is watching a football match in a room full of drunk men. Having said that, I think the next book may well be about an ex-Navy Seal turned professional footballer on a murderous rampage. In outer space.

Why was Emma the one who had to give up her boyfriend when Dexter was finally ready for a real relationship? Why was she the one who always had to be “available?”

Hm. Well, good question. Partly, I suppose, because of the one-day structure – decisions that might take longer in real-life have to be artificially condensed. And also because that particular relationship in the book is largely sex-based. It’s Emma’s sexy fling. I don’t think it’s a real emotional wrench for her (or that poor, dumped French boyfriend).

Sexual tension is often the most exciting part of a relationship, and it definitely keeps the reader reading. Were you worried about what would happen if/when Emma and Dexter finally got together? Did you know when you started the book how you would end it?

The ending was always there. It was actually the starting point for the book, but it’s hard to say anymore without giving too much away.

And yes, the great challenge of modern love stories is contriving ways to keep the characters apart – the traditional barriers of class, faith, marital status etc don’t have the same potency now. Which is why I thought it was fun to start the story with the characters in bed together. That first kiss is just the start of the story, not the end.

You capture the social and political culture of the time so vividly, readers will feel a sense of nostalgia as they go through the decades with Emma and Dexter. How did you spend the 1990’s?

I was an actor, which is another way of saying that I was unemployed. Like Emma, I felt so comfortable and happy at college in the Eighties that the noise and political chaos and uncertainty of the Nineties frightened me a little. Certainly I didn’t spend it at nightclubs and wild parties, like Dexter. I played a lot of small parts in bad plays, and worked in a lot of restaurants, and read and worried about money. What I didn’t do was write – not until 1997. After that things got a little better.

I went to see James Taylor and Carole King in concert the night I finished One Day, and thought – even though it was off by ten or fifteen years — it provided a great kind of soundtrack to the book because the two of them had been singing together for so long and had their own on-again, off-again relationship/friendship. What was the soundtrack going through your head as you wrote the book?

We’re working on the film at the moment and as “research” – a way to avoid real work – I compiled an Emma Morely playlist — 2000 songs long, it is a thing of great beauty. It ranges from Carole King and Joni Mitchell to Wire and The Slits through The Smiths and Cocteau Twins and The Cure and The Kinks, Patti Smith and Robert Wyatt, Massive Attack and Talking Heads and Underworld and Tracey Thorn – as you can tell, the music was very important to me. In fact, the mixtape that Emma makes for Dexter in the novel is on iTunes and my website – search for “Emma Morley.”

You’re frequently compared to Nick Hornby, who wrote a nice blurb on your book cover. What do you see as the similarities and differences in your work?

Well, I suppose we write sort-of romantic comedies, from both male and female points of view, often with a London setting, often with cultural references, which hopefully appeal to both male and female readers. We have quite “literary” tastes but are perceived of as “popular” writers. I suppose the main difference is that I’m totally indifferent to football.

But it’s not something I think about. I admire Nick very much, in particular his support and passion for other writers, but I’d never dream of consciously writing in that particular vein. My biggest influences are Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, 1930s screwball comedy, British social novels of the 1950s…

Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess will be playing Emma and Dexter in the movie version of One Day. You’re writing the screenplay, thank goodness, so we know it will stay true to the book. How did you feel about the casting?

Delighted. We’re shooting at present, and Anne and Jim are great. Inevitably Anne’s nationality has caused some comment, but her accent is spot-on and after a moment you entirely accept her as British. And Jim has a charm and boyishness that helps to mask Dexter’s more obnoxious excesses. A young British actor called Rafe Spall is playing Ian, and I’ve been watching him on set. He’s hysterical, a perfect piece of casting.

Maybe we can talk to you again when the movie comes out?

Yes, I’m always delighted to answer questions!

Amy Greene Talks About “Bloodroot” and Life in Appalachia

Posted on July 23, 2010

“Bloodroot” is the kind of book that transports you to a world you couldn’t even begin to imagine and introduces you to strong, solid characters who long remain with you. It’s a story of poverty and riches, magic and harsh reality, pure joy and deep sorrow. I had so much I wanted to ask author Amy Greene about her own background in the mountains of Appalachia and the different voices she created to tell this epic tale.

I immediately fell in love with the book for starting out in places called Chickweed Holler and Bloodroot Mountain. Your language is so musical and so descriptive and I’m going to give you the credit for that even if that’s just the way people really speak there! Having grown up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, were the names and dialogue natural for you to write?

Bringing the language I’ve heard all my life to the page came fairly easily. The voices of my family, friends and neighbors just flowed naturally into the narrative. I didn’t have much trouble deciding what to call the homes of the characters, either. Places here are often named after how the terrain looks or what grows in the area.

The characters ring so true and I was rooting hard for happy endings for them. Are any of these characters or situations based on people you knew or stories you heard during your childhood? Why did you decide to tell the story through a half dozen voices rather than one?

While the characters aren’t based on specific people, they’re like composites of all the people I’ve known and loved, with bits of myself thrown in. Bloodroot is told by six voices because each one seemed so important to me. I felt strongly that they all had something necessary to say about Myra, who was the heart of the story.

I’ve never been to Appalachia but, after reading this book, I feel like I have. It has such a powerful sense of place. What are the first few words that come to your mind to describe this area and that you really wanted to get across?

The first few words would be mysticism, folklore and beauty. I grew up surrounded by beautiful mountains. I also inherited a rich tradition of storytelling and folk belief, passed down through generations of my family. I wanted to portray my own vision of home in the pages of Bloodroot, and hope all those elements came through.

How important was the location to the actual story? To me, they felt so strongly connected – that these events could only have occurred in this specific place.

Place definitely played a central role in the telling of Bloodroot, because the landscape does so much to shape the lives and insides of the characters.

While I was reading the book, it seemed like time stood still and the outside world didn’t exist. I could completely feel the characters’ isolation, and the poverty and sense of hopelessness were so pervasive, the violence seemed almost inevitable. How did this kind of environment affect you when you lived there, and has it changed over time?

I did want to portray the isolation that comes with living here. I experienced it myself, growing up in a rural part of East Tennessee. I spent most of my childhood alone, exploring the hills around our house. Like Johnny and Laura, it was only when I went to school that I realized how sheltered I had been. I also addressed in Bloodroot some of the social issues that are a factor here, such as the poverty. I still live in Appalachia and can see that conditions have improved over the last few decades, but progress is bittersweet. The landscape I based Bloodroot Mountain on has changed a lot since I was a little girl, and not necessarily in a positive way.

Can you tell me a little about what the title – which is perfect — means to you?

I discovered the title when I was thinking about what to call the mountain my characters lived on. I considered what would grow there, what plants and flowers would be indigenous, and bloodroot occurred to me. It grows in the hills behind my childhood home. The delicate white flower and its red root sap, which has the power to both poison and heal, brought the story’s theme together in my mind. It signifies to me the complex nature not only of the human heart but of life in Appalachia, and also the blood ties that bind my characters in more ways than one.

I was completely enraptured by the folk magic and mysticism, and held my breath as Clifford cured Byrdie’s thrush by blowing into her mouth. There was something so intimate and beautiful about that – and something so shocking about eating a chicken heart to make a man fall in love. How much of this was based on incidents you really saw or experienced?

That kind of mysticism is very much part of the Appalachia I know. The scene where Clifford blows down Byrdie’s throat is based on a story my dad tells of his mother taking his baby sister to a neighbor man who cured her thrush the same way. My mom had an aunt who took off her warts by rubbing a stone in a circle around each one and then throwing the stones away. When I was small, a friend of the family moved out of her house in the holler because it was hainted. People here still believe in and practice folk magic today, especially the older generation.

The women are such strong characters here, as seems to always be the case in difficult circumstances. Are there traits that you think were just necessary for their survival there?

I do think the hardscrabble Appalachian way of life, subsistence farming and raising large families, has made strength necessary for both men and women.

The loving relationship between Myra and her grandmother made me cry. Did you have a grandmother like Byrdie – or wish you did? Can you see anyone in particular portray them in a movie version?

I never knew either of my grandmothers—they both died before I was born—so Byrdie definitely comes in part from my longing for one. It’s hard for me to envision actors as the people in my head, but someone at a book club meeting I attended recently mentioned Sissy Spacek as a possible Byrdie. That sounded right to me.

What are you working on next? I can’t wait to read your next book!

I’m currently editing my second novel, called Long Man. It’s set in the Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression, about a little girl who disappears from a town in the months before it’s scheduled to be flooded by a TVA dam.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Donna Brown Agins Reviews “The Irresistible Henry House” by Lisa Grunwald

Posted on July 22, 2010

In her latest novel, The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald tells the life story of Henry House, a young orphan who was a “practice baby.” In the early part of the 20th century, colleges and universities across the US used real children to teach mothering skills to young women in home economics classes. These orphans were called “practice babies” and they lived in “practice houses” where they were passed off each week from one mother in training to the next. The orphans usually stayed for a few years before being sent onto adoptive homes. From the start, Henry inspires in women the desire for his exclusive attention, and at an early age Henry learns to use his charm to get what he wants from women.

Unable to let him go, the program director raises Henry until he is a teenager when, as a protest against his unusual situation, Henry refuses to speak and is sent to The Humphrey School for troubled teens in Connecticut. During his mute years at school, Henry expresses himself through drawing and painting and blossoms into a talented artist and a future lover of women.

Once Henry leaves the school he is hired by Disney Studios to draw penguins for the film, “Mary Poppins.” Later he moves to London and works on the film, “Yellow Submarine.” The book includes appearances by Dr. Benjamin Spock, Walt Disney and John Lennon. All through his life Henry is surrounded by a revolving door of girlfriends but is often perplexed at his inability to feel deeply for any of these young women. All but one, his childhood sweetheart Mary Jane, pass through his life without event. These multidimensional women in Henry’s life are archetypes that represent the fascinating cultural changes American women experienced during the latter half of the 20th century. But it is the story of Henry’s own struggle within himself to understand the desires of his heart that propel Lisa Grunwald’s novel. Although it is not easy for him, Henry is determined to transcend his unusual childhood, confront the truth of his past actions and find a place in the world that he can call home.

Ultimately, The Irresistible Henry House is a warm, original and entertaining novel filled with many characters and period details of American life that will ring true with many readers. I highly recommend this novel.

Donna Brown Agins is the author of two biographies: “Jacqueline Kennedy, Legendary First Lady” and “Maya Angelou: Diversity Makes for a Rich Tapestry,” which was nominated for an NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth and Teens. She has been the recipient of the Judy Blume Work in Progress Grant and the Sidney Taylor Grant for Outstanding Literature.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

“The Queen’s Lover” by Vanora Bennett Reviewed by Pamela Lear

Posted on July 21, 2010

Historical fiction, with a healthy dose of romance, “The Queen’s Lover” by Vanora Bennett is a story of 15th-century France and England, set during the Hundred Years War.  It follows the life of Catherine de Valois, who became Queen of England and then Queen Mother of Henry VI.   Although most readers will already be familiar with the story, Bennett keeps our attention with excellent writing and an ability to incorporate historical philosophy, events of the times and human foibles in a period piece that makes the most of the characters and historical settings. The settings are very well done, with images of Paris as a rather sad, decrepit city in the midst of chaos, and London with its realistic gray, gloomy aura.

The novel does a wonderful job of incorporating most elements of the British and French courts.  While reading about interpersonal relationships, regal wardrobes and royal insanity, the reader is also introduced to the conniving politics, sad tribulations and outrageous scandals that are a fascinating part of all history. Personally, I love historical fiction; I consider it an entertaining and painless way to learn of the past and also a way to know more of other cultures and places.  However, I don’t read many romance novels, as I have limited patience with lovers pining for each other over distance and time. As a result, a lot of the romance in this novel tested my patience; it often seemed like the proverbial dangling carrot, juicy and fulfilling, but just out of reach. In addition, while the history is factual for the most part, Catherine’s relationship with Owain Tudor, a Welsh pageboy who becomes important in the English court, is largely surmised.

The novel is a basic chronological narrative, primarily told from Catherine’s point of view.  Based on the period when she is a teenager until her mid-twenties, she’s a sympathetic character, one who overcomes political adversity and significant personal challenges to presumably find happiness in her later years. In the story, she is influenced by such diverse characters and situations as Christine de Pizan (an early feminist writer of the time), Joan of Arc’s plight, and all the various relatives, from her parents in France to Henry’s brothers and political advisors in England.  The political complexity of the times is clearly represented throughout the novel.

Vanora Bennett has been a journalist, with articles published in many prestigious publications and two non-fiction books. “The Queen’s Lover” is her third foray into novel writing; her fiction focuses on British royal history in the 15th & 16th centuries. All in all, the story was well told, intriguing, and certainly gave me incentive to read more historical fiction of the time. I would read another Vanora Bennett novel, but I would hope that the dramatic events and character developments take center stage a bit more than the romance.

Read Pamela Lear’s posts about Fifty Shades of Grey author, E.L. James, here, and World Book Night here, and her reviews of Fannie’s Last Supper here, and Lima Nights here.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Julie Buxbaum on “After You” and “The Opposite of Love”

Posted on July 20, 2010

We became fans of Julie Buxbaum after reading her first novel, “The Opposite of Love,” and reinforced our status with “After You.” Both of her books deal with grief in one form or another but they’re so funny and warm, they become uplifting stories of beginnings rather than endings. I recently caught up with Julie to find out about life in London, her baby daughter and how her Ivy League education led to a successful writing career:

As someone who always wishes on 11:11 (yes, both a.m. and p.m.), I was pretty much hooked from the first paragraph of “After You.” It’s those little details that suck us so completely into your novels, and in this one you also focus on one of my favorite books. “The Secret Garden” plays such an important role in “After You.” What kind of role did it play in your own life and why did it resonate so strongly with you?

“The Secret Garden” is hands down my favorite book of all time. I remember as a kid my mother and I cuddling up together and reading it — my old, torn mint-green copy is one of my most prized possessions — and in adulthood I’ve turned to the book on countless occasions for refuge and comfort.  (I even had a favorite passage read at my wedding.)  “After You” is, in many ways, an homage to “The Secret Garden” — it too is a story of redemption and the restoration of self — and so it was important to me to work it in as an integral and natural part of the story.

What other books have been influences on you – both personally and professionally?

I can honestly say that every book I’ve ever read has in some way or another made me a better writer.  Whenever I pick up a new novel, I always try to read critically and consciously, asking myself what works and what doesn’t about the structure, about each sentence, the voice.  Every once in a while, when I truly get lost, when I forget myself as a writer and lose myself in the work, that’s when I know I’m reading something magical.  

Both “After You” and your first book, “The Opposite of Love,” deal with grief and loss in some way. What makes this subject so appealing to you?

I feel like when writing a first novel, you can’t help but discover what you’re interested in; but with a second one, you find out what you should probably be talking to a therapist about!  What’s fascinating to me is not only that both of my novels deal with motherless daughters in particular — which is something I have personal experience with (I lost my mother at the age of fourteen) — but that, at their core, both books are a meditation on the aftermath of loss more generally.  “After You” is not only about Sophie’s dealing with the loss of her mother, but also about how Ellie has dealt with the recent loss of a baby.  I seem to be a little obsessed with the ways in which we manage to botch up our lives and then (hopefully) self-heal in the wake of grief. 

Why did you set this book in London and make Ellie have to cross the ocean rather than the country for her journey? And, hey, how did you end up living there as well?

I sent Ellie (and Lucy first) across the pond for a bunch of reasons.  I wanted to write about London, and in particular the expat experience of living here, which ironically was a topic I was interested in before I decided to move myself.  The fact that the “The Secret Garden” and gardens in general play such a large role in the book, made England a natural choice.  I also liked the idea of Ellie running far, far away from her own life, to a place that would require the crossing of an ocean (not simply the hopping in a car) to get back home.  And that also applies to Lucy as well, who we find out about halfway through the book also made an impulsive decision to get married to Greg and move, that London promised her a whole new life, the seduction of a blank slate.

As for me, my reasons for moving were a bit more mundane.  My husband was born and raised in London, and after seven years in the States I think he wanted to move back closer to his family.  When a great job opportunity in London came up, we jumped at the chance to try it out.

Your characters are so likeable because of their honesty about their own imperfections – they’re self-deprecating, easy to relate to and are the kind of women you really want to be friends with. Are they based on any of your own friends?

Actually, no. I do have wonderful friends, who are all those things you described — funny and warm and relatable — but none of them resemble Ellie or Lucy or even Emily in “The Opposite of Love.” I find when I’m writing that basing characters on people I actually know is too difficult, because it’s frustrating to tie myself to reality. The best part of my job is that I get to make things up and create new and interesting people in the process.  The only time I’ve deviated from this is with the character of Inderpal in “After You,” which is loosely based on my husband as a little kid.  But we met as adults, so this rendering is fully fictional.  In my next novel, I also borrow loosely from my grandmother’s life, but again, the character is her as a young woman, and I only had the pleasure of knowing her in the later stages of her life. So again, I don’t get to loose the pure freedom and pleasure incumbent in writing fiction.

How has your husband reacted to your two books about women dissatisfied – or, at least, not completely satisfied — with the men in their lives? Is he worried?!

That’s so funny! I’ve never asked him.  Interestingly, both characters have trouble with the men in their lives, but in both instances the trouble is almost completely self-driven and self-created.  I doubt my husband is worried, though.  He is one of those frighteningly well-adjusted non-neurotic people, who doesn’t waste time worrying about that sort of stuff.  Of course, in that way, we are complete opposites!  See, now I’m worried…

For readers who don’t know your background, you graduated the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School, and had a successful career as a lawyer. What made you decide to give up law for writing, and are there skills from your lawyer days that come in handy as a writer? Which career is more difficult?

The discipline and work ethic I learned as a lawyer have translated well into my writing life, since my days are completely self-directed now. But other than that, I haven’t found that much cross-over, since with brief-writing you are tied down to the law, and with fiction writing you get to make stuff up, which is a lot more fun.  In some ways, they are both sort of masochistic and difficult careers.  Being a lawyer was torture for me, because I found the work tedious and boring.  Now that I’ve tasted the writing life, I can’t ever imagine going back.  That being said, in some ways it is almost more difficult doing something you love passionately.  The stakes always feel high, and my working day never has an end point.  I let it bleed into everything I do, and when I’m in the thick of writing a book, I have trouble concentrating on anything else.  But believe me I’m not complaining. It is such a blessing to get to wake up each morning and do something I love!  It literally feeds my soul.

I’m too math-challenged to figure out the timing but I know you have a baby girl now – congratulations! – and I’m wondering if you wrote “After You” while you were pregnant, and how the two processes affected each other. I would imagine you would have cried through the whole writing process. Can you tell me a little about this connection?

I actually got pregnant a few weeks after handing in the final draft of “After You.”  I’m so glad the two things didn’t overlap, because I think writing about loss (and in particular Ellie’s experience with losing a pregnancy) while pregnant would have been too difficult!  But when I went back and read “After You” one last time it became clear to me that my own readiness or yearning for a baby definitely leaked into the work.

Are you looking forward to reading “The Secret Garden” with your own daughter? What other books will you make sure to put in her library? 

Yes, I can’t wait to read “The Secret Garden” with Elili!  (She already has multiple copies on her bookshelf, and I’m thinking of starting a collection for her.)  I’ve had a lot of fun stocking her library. I’m actually not that well-versed in children’s books, so it’s been interesting browsing through the bookstores.  She already has a bunch of young adult classics, like “Little Women,” and I’ve kept all of my Shel Silverstein from childhood for her as well.  Lately, though, it’s been less about literary merit, and more about books that allow me to make silly sounds while I read to her.  (She’s six months old.)  A friend recently gave us “Bear Snores On,” which I had never read before, and now love. When else do you get to spend a half hour making funny snoring sounds!  Bliss!

I understand Anne Hathaway will be starring in the movie version of “The Opposite of Love.” Congratulations! What do you think of that casting? Will you be writing the screenplay? Who would be your top choice to play Ellie in a movie version of “After You?”

I honestly couldn’t think of a better or more appropriate actress to play Emily than Anne Hathaway.  Not only am I a big fan, but I think she will perfectly capture Emily’s vulnerability, her humor and her charm.  As for Ellie, I get asked this question all the time, and I haven’t yet come up with a perfect answer.  Since the powers that be in Hollywood did such a great job casting Emily, maybe I should leave it up to them.    

Because they’re so compelling, your books are such fast reads – which means you’re going to have to write faster to keep your fans satisfied! What are you working on now, and when will get to read it?

Thanks so much! I’m currently working on my third novel, which will hopefully reach readers by next year.  I’m a little superstitious about talking too much about what I’m working on. I don’t know why but I always feel like I’ll jinx it.  The new book, which has the working title of “The Modern Girl’s Handbook,” is primarily set in 1950’s Long Island.  I can say this, though: I’ve had a ton of fun researching the time period.  When else can you watch old “Father Knows Best” episodes and call it “work?” 

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

midge raymond talks about “forgetting english”

Posted on July 13, 2010

Midge Raymond

Even if you’re staying home this summer, Midge Raymond’s Forgetting English will make you feel like you’ve been on an amazing journey around the world while, miraculously, keeping you grounded on familiar emotional terrain. These universal stories are so beautifully written, you’ll want to read them slowly and savor every word. Here’s my conversation with Midge, who has turned me into a short story aficionado — and who I’m now proud to call my friend.  more »

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