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I love love love the new Beauty and the Beast movie. One of the best parts, of course, is the Beast’s library, so I wrote “Belle Would Be Enchanted by These 10 Lovely Libraries in Hotels” for USA Today 10Best.

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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 »

Shira Tarrant Reviews “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” by Rhoda Janzen

Posted on July 12, 2010

I have to admit: What drew me to Rhoda Janzen’s memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, were my own memories of Quaker boarding school and the day that our Mennonite classmate, Romy Flichenbacher*, showed up for the first day of class. Romy came riding up the long country driveway, sitting upright and facing backward in the bed of a pick-up truck. She wore a long black dress, equally black and sensible shoes, topped off with two long braids and a crisp, white bonnet. By the end of the year, Romy had let down her hair and borrowed a pair of Levi’s. She was later spotted in a big-city punk club wearing leather and a shaved head, waiting for her girlfriend’s band to finish playing their set.

Author Rhoda Janzen faced some big life changes of her own and I wanted to know if they would be nearly as dramatic. Janzen’s surprise break-up from her husband was also, it turns out, of the stunning, “Hi, Honey. I’m gay!” variety.

Raised in a traditional Mennonite family, Janzen moved to Los Angeles and pursued a Ph.D.  Along the way, she married Bob—only to later find that her husband of 15 years had a boyfriend he met on Gay.com. As if that wasn’t enough, Janzen was seriously injured in a car accident the very same week as this unexpected discovery.

Janzen returned to her parents’ home for some much-needed R &R and the charming family interactions that accompany her extended visit take center stage in the book. Facing 40, divorced and over-mortgaged, Janzen looks back at her childhood to piece together the present parts of her life: faith, family, love and humor. Along the way, she realizes that things will always be okay (if imperfect) and that despite any difference in their choices, Janzen’s family would always be there for her. In fact, Janzen realizes, there was never any question about that.

This touching memoir is graced with a front-cover blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) promising laugh-out-loud wit. There are clever moments throughout, like Janzen’s list of Shame-Based Foods her mother packed for school lunches. Damp Persimmon Cookies, beet borsch, and a viscous meatball sandwich get top billing. By around page 108, I finally got the LOL-effect I was looking for when Janzen translates a children’s song about potato salad. (Don’t ask; read the book!) Mostly, though, the appeal of this book is in Janzen’s low-key descriptions of everyday life with parents who are as understanding and frugal as they are loving toward their two daughters.

Janzen’s blind-date motorcycle ride with a hottie 17 years her junior is a brief and steamy interlude and the back-of-the-book additions are gems shining light on Mennonite culture and the life of a writer. There are recipes for classic Mennonite dishes and “A Mennonite History Primer” to clue us in on Mennonite politics. Janzen also clears up the details, once and for all, about that big Amish-Mennonite breakup of 1693. (The Amish thought Mennonites were too liberal and rode off in their buggies to green pastures and hard work.)

For the most part, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is about one woman’s search for herself after marriage. Rhoda Janzen is a deft poet who now dips her creative pen in the life-story inkwell for the rest of us to enjoy. And if you like your summer reads easy-breezy, toss this one in your tote and head to the beach.

*Not her real name.

Shira Tarrant lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her books include When Sex Became Gender, Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power, Men and Feminism, and Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style, and her writing has been featured in Bitch Magazine, BUST Magazine, the Ms. Magazine Blog, Huffington Post, and anthologies including Fix Me Up and Robot Hearts. To read more about her work, visit http://shiratarrant.com.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Jeanne Becker Reviews “The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake

Posted on July 8, 2010

Full disclosure:  World War II is my era. I have a natural affinity for it.  My daughter is certain she was born in the wrong time, having missed out on the Summer of Love in the ’60s and soaks up everything she can about the time when the times they were a changin’.  My fascination is the 1940s.

The Postmistress is set on the eve of America’s entrance into WWII, and I’m predisposed to liking it for that fact alone, but I found so much more to recommend it as a thought-provoking, satisfying read.

Sarah Blake’s prose beautifully evokes both the passive pace of a small coastal Massachusetts town in 1941 and the startling existence of Londoners during the Blitz when nightly bombing raids changed the complexion of the world they awoke to each morning — where the neighbors they waved to one afternoon are pulled from the rubble the next.

The American public tuned in avidly to hear the news from Europe, most of them content to remain spectators. Blake perfectly captures the calm before the storm that we know is coming: America holding its breath on the eve of war.

The main characters are complex and engrossing.  Populated, in part, by familiar historical names from the era, the story centers on three women whose lives intersect in the form of Will Fitch: one is his wife, one a reporter and one the postmistress of his hometown whom he entrusts with a potentially heavy burden.

Emma, orphaned as a child, finds in her young husband the pair of watchful, loving eyes she lost when her parents died, and tries to hold back what is coming by refusing to look straight at it.

Frankie, a radio journalist, believes in reporting the unvarnished truth as a clarion call to action.  Her frustration with America’s inertia as England, France and Poland are shattered by the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine leads her into occupied territory to get the story out to the world.

Iris, the eponymous 40-year-old spinster postmistress, invests her belief in the stability of the post office, the keeping of order as a wall against what she cannot control. But the messages delivered by her have the potential to evoke the very devastation she tries to restrain.

“I don’t know what’s on its way … whatever it is, you can’t stop it,” proclaims Sarah Blake in the voice of one character, adding, “You can’t change what’s coming and you shouldn’t try,” in the voice of another.

This is a perfect book for curling up with a cup of tea and a stretch of time in front of you. Compelling and absorbing, it is the kind of book that takes up residence in your brain for the duration, asking you to ponder as well as enjoy the journey.

Since I tend to be an organizer, a list maker, a believer in by doing the right thing I can create the right outcome, The Postmistress has provoked some interesting conversations in my head. This book had me looking outward from an unfamiliar point of view, and that is a worthy endeavor now and again: to slip on a different perspective and walk around in it for a while.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Jean Kwok on “Girl in Translation”

Posted on July 6, 2010

Jean Kwok’s debut novel, “Girl in Translation,” has already hit the extended New York Times Bestseller List, been named an Indie Next List pick by independent booksellers and been selected as a “Discover Great New Writers” pick by Barnes & Noble. The book – which would be a great choice for a mother/daughter book club — takes a very personal look at the life of a young Chinese immigrant girl who moves to New York with her mother, only to discover a whole other world of obstacles to be overcome. Talk about makeovers! I recently caught up with Jean to find out how closely her life has paralleled that of her heroine, Kimberly, and how she feels about being an immigrant again – this time in Holland!

“Girl in Translation” is doing so well – as it should! Why do you think it resonates so strongly with readers?

I am completely amazed by the response the novel has gotten, so I’m probably not the best person to answer this question.  I always thought I’d become bitter and old before my time when the book was published, complaining to anyone who would listen about how it wasn’t getting any attention.  Instead, it’s become this international success, coming out in thirteen countries thus far.

I can only tell you that I tried to write about worlds that I knew well: that of the working-class immigrant who toils day and night to survive, and that of the exclusive private school.  I wanted the reader to undergo the experience of being a foreigner in a strange country instead of being told about it.  That’s why the reader can hear Chinese as fluently as a native speaker in the novel, yet will be perplexed by some of the things English speakers are saying to Kimberly.  We can only hear what Kimberly does.

People who have read the book tend to either thank me for showing them a world they haven’t seen before, or to be glad that I’ve written the hidden story of their own (or a loved one’s) pasts.  I think that most people who work in sweatshops as children grow up to be adults who work in sweatshops, and not novelists.  I feel very lucky to have been able to set these worlds down on the page.

And people also talk about the characters and storyline.  Lots of people say they couldn’t put the book down.  I feel a great deal of affection for my characters as well, so this makes me happy.

The book felt so real to me, and I cared so deeply about Kimberly. How much of the story is autobiographical? It seems from your background info, it’s very similar! How is Kimberly like/unlike you?

Like Kimberly and her mother, my family and I moved from Hong Kong to New York City when I was a child.  I was only five, younger than Kimberly in the novel.  We found ourselves in a position where we needed to start our lives all over again.  We worked in a clothing factory in Chinatown, where the fabric dust descended in thick layers over everything.  My father brought me there after school each day and I helped as best I could.  We lived in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn and also needed to keep the oven door open in the winter to have a tiny bit of warmth in the apartment.  Luckily, like Kimberly, I also had a talent for school.  Although I struggled at the beginning because I didn’t speak a word of English, I did start doing better and to make a long story short, was accepted early to Harvard and graduated with honors.

Jean at 5 years old

Jean now

Kimberly is obviously a fictional character and I wouldn’t claim to be as brilliant as she.  However, I think that one thing we both have in common is that we believe in something fundamental: that WHO you are inside is more important than WHAT you are on the outside.  Even when my family didn’t have any money, I never felt like I was worth less than anyone else in a deeper sense, because I tried to be a decent, kind person and I believe that’s the most important of all.  I’m sure I didn’t always succeed, but I made the attempt.  I always think that you could possibly fool the whole world about something shady you’re doing, but you need to be able to meet your own eyes in the bathroom mirror every morning.

What do you think is the hardest part about being an immigrant?

How very alone you feel.  When we first came to the US, my entire family seemed to disappear on me because they all needed to work day and night simply to survive.  I was taken along to the factory when I was only five because they couldn’t leave me in that rundown apartment and they couldn’t spare anyone to stay home and look after me.  Even at the factory, of course, everyone had to work non-stop and there was no time for play.

An immigrant child is also very much alone in the sense that there is no one to help her if things become difficult.  When the child runs into trouble at school or socially, she must often resolve it herself and that is a heavy burden.

I was so thankful for Annette! How important was having such a good friend to Kimberly? How important are friends to you?

Annette was inspired by a few real-life friends of mine.  The grandmother of one of my best friends in elementary school actually was a real estate agent and helped get us out of the horrible apartment we lived in.  She even went to the bank herself to vouch for us.

Jean with school principal

I think that when the parents are less able to support the child in school and society as a whole, friends sometimes step in to fill in the gap, for better or for worse.  When I was growing up, I relied upon my friends to help me understand this strange world I inhabited.  Since my parents didn’t speak English, my friends often bridged the gap for me.  I’ve been so lucky to have had wonderful people in my life upon whom I could depend.  However, it’s also easy for such a child to fall in with the wrong crowd.

When I look back now, I also find the number of people who befriended my family and me in the past to be remarkable.  We weren’t in a position to be able to do anyone any favors back, so people were kind to us out of genuine human compassion and warmth.  It was a wonderful testament to the good side of humanity, which is why in the novel, Kimberly also encounters some real kindness.

Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir?

I made a clear decision not to write a memoir.  I never expected or wanted to talk about my personal background, but when the novel began to get so much international attention, it became clear that the autobiographical element was an essential and important component.  People wanted to know: could this really happen in America?  And I had to answer, “Yes.”

Although the novel reads quite effortlessly, it took me ten years to develop the literary technique necessary to create a seamless, compelling and moving book. In order to do this, I needed to experiment with language and structure in ways that are impossible in a memoir.

Many people say to me after reading the novel, “I see my country and language from a completely new perspective now.”  I believe they feel this way because I used the first-person voice of Kimberly Chang, the heroine, in a way I hadn’t seen before, which was to place the reader on the other side of the language barrier.  The reader is sent so far into the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant that they can no longer understand the English spoken by westerners to Kimberly, yet they hear Chinese expressions as naturally as a native Chinese speaker.  As Kimberly becomes more assimilated, that language and cultural balance changes.

Although the novel reads like a memoir, and is in fact partly drawn from my own life, “Girl in Translation” is actually a precisely crafted piece of fiction designed to transport the reader into a new world.

How is Kimberly able to overcome unfathomable obstacles like living in a freezing, rat and roach-infested apartment, not speaking English, living well below the poverty line? (It seemed to me her academic ability, her work ethic and her mother’s love got her through and I felt that those were, in some ways, very positive cultural values. Does that make sense to you or is that the misconception of an outsider looking in?)

You’re entirely right that Kimberly’s success springs from her academic brilliance, her hard work and her mother’s love.  I do want to make clear that the point of the novel is that Kimberly Chang is extraordinarily fortunate in her gifts and for every Kimberly, there are so many who are left behind in the world of the sweatshop.  It’s not that it’s easy or automatic for every immigrant to succeed.  In fact, the majority don’t.

The story is so inspiring and should be read by young adults as well to give them hope. It should also be read by everyone else to teach them how to treat people who are from different countries and trying to make it in our county. What kind of message do you hope readers get from the book?

I started by wanting to write this book for my mother, who fell asleep working on piles of clothing during my entire childhood and who never learned to speak English.  I wanted to show people that foreigners who may not speak English perfectly could be as articulate and wise as Kimberly Chang’s mother in the book, who comes across as very simple in English.

I really hoped that people would enjoy the book so much that they couldn’t put it aside, but that afterward, maybe they would look at working class foreigners with a bit more compassion.  And for those who were still struggling, I did want to give hope.

Your characters and settings are so vivid (I cringed when Kimberly had to change for gym with the other girls and I could picture her struggling to get warm in that green toy fabric she found in the garbage), I can absolutely see “Girl in Translation” as a movie. Any chance of that?

The film rights have been put on the market very recently and we’ve already had a fabulous response!  It seems that there are film people who can really see it as a movie too.  I can’t say more right now but I will state that there are some very exciting developments in that area, and all of my fingers and toes are crossed that things continue to progress so well!

You’re living in the Netherlands now – what’s it like to be an immigrant again?

It was much easier the second time around in Holland because I was moving from a western language and culture to another one.  I also knew that it was essential for me to learn the main language, Dutch, as quickly and well as possible, so I did.  But I was lucky because like Kimberly, I also have a knack for school.

I got a job teaching English at Leiden University within a few days of landing in Holland, and soon started working for the university as a Dutch-English translator as well.  You can find a long interview of me speaking Dutch on national Dutch television on my website here: http://jeankwok.com/nederland/agenda.shtml.

People who don’t speak Dutch can’t understand a word I’m saying, of course, but they seem to think it’s quite funny to watch!

Can you tell us what you’re working on now? And can you tell us about ballroom dancing?!

I am about halfway through my second novel, which is set in both the Chinese immigrant community and the professional ballroom dance world.

In between my degrees done at Harvard and Columbia, I worked for a few years.  At Harvard, I’d made the decision to become a writer and I didn’t want a job that would consume me.  I wanted something that would leave my mind free to write.  I saw an ad in the newspaper that said, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer.  Will Train.”  So I went, even though I was terrified.  I loved to dance and had taken as many lessons as I could when I was older, since there was no money for me to be trained at a young age.  There was an audition in a room packed with people.  We were taught a number of combinations and watched carefully.  Most of the group was cut and about twenty of us were invited back for a three-week intensive “training class.”  Of course, this was just the next step of the elimination process.  Every day, people from my group disappeared.  I never saw any of them being taken aside but they were simply missing.  Finally, I came one day and I was the only participant there.  I thought, “Either I’m going to disappear too now, or I have the job.”  Fortunately, I had the job.

That was when my real training began.  I was extremely lucky in that that studio had some of the best dancers in the world then.  I did competitions and shows, and taught students.  It was an exhilarating time and I’m looking forward to sharing this next book with readers.

For fans of “Girl in Translation,” I just want to note that while I won’t write a sequel to this novel, I do know what happens to everyone and you may just catch a glimpse of their lives in my later novels.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Required Reading List

Posted on January 11, 2010

My reading list grows longer by the day! Here are half a dozen of the ones we’re especially excited about:

 Little Bee by Chris Cleave. There’s quite a lot of buzz about this novel which is narrated by a young Nigerian refugee.



The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’m hooked by the subtitle, “Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.”


Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro. One of my favorite writers takes us along on her spiritual journey.



The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle. She just announced its title on Facebook (join her fan page for more details!) but we’ve zipped through her first three novels and would read it, no matter what it was called.


Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson. The author of Three Cups of Tea continues his efforts to promote peace through education.



U Is For Undertow by Sue Grafton. I’ve read these Kinsey Millhone mysteries letter by letter, and am hoping the alphabet will miraculously expand as we too quickly approach Z.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

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