Life and Other Near Death Experiences: A Conversation With Camille Pagán


For many people, their bucket lists remain abstract, a list of things to do some day in the future. But for Libby, the protagonist of Camille Pagán's novel, Life and Other Near Death Experiences, a terminal cancer diagnosis prompts her to take charge of the little time she has left to reinvent her life.

I'm very curious about the experience of writing from Libby's point of view. What was it like to immerse yourself in point of view of woman with such a grim prognosis?

I wrote this book on the tail end of a very difficult time in my own life. My situation was not the same as Libby's, thank God, but I had recently lost a dear friend to cancer and was dealing with various other situations that had me feeling fried, fed up, and completely unsure about my future. I channeled my struggle into Libby's voice, as well as her reaction to getting the worst news of her life -- twice in a row! So many readers have emailed me and written reviews saying, "I went through something similar and that's exactly how I felt." That has been incredibly humbling and wonderful.

Do you believe in Libbyland -- the magical place with rainbows and kittens where everything is okay? What does it mean for Libby to walk away from previously optimistic nature?

If anything, my personality is far more similar to Libby's twin brother Paul's: I'm prone to anxiety, catastrophizing, and trying to head off disaster at the pass. I've always marveled at people who go through life looking on the bright side, which is probably why I was compelled to write a character like Libby.

What fascinates me is that research shows that personality is, in many (but not all) ways, innate. We can make choices that help us be the best versions of ourselves -- but in the end, we are the people we are. And that's a good thing. I don't think it's right or wrong to be optimistic or pessimistic; what's most important is to be true to yourself and your values. When Libby's life falls apart, she instinctively changes her attitude and approach. Yet her dyed in the wool personality ultimately resurfaces, and helps her make the most of her circumstances.


You come from a non-fiction writing day job; what is like to switch gears and tackle fiction?

I think journalism is the secret to my fiction, and vice versa. Readers regularly describe my books as page-turners, and I think that owes much to my sixteen-year journalism career, which requires me to "write tight" and clearly portray the message of any given story. On the other hand, fiction prompts me to think about the beauty of words and sentences, and thoughtfully consider the best way to tell any given story -- and that, in turn, has immensely improved my non-fiction.

Beyond any of that, it's just so enjoyable to step away from research and statistics for a while and put together a story -- a world, really -- almost entirely out of my imagination.

The novel paints Vieques as a true paradise. Tell us more about it. Why did you pick this island in particular?

My husband J.P. was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and the island is a hugely important place to us both; we try to visit a few times a year. We went to Vieques, which is a small island off Puerto Rico's southeastern coast, when I was pregnant with my daughter. It was an absolutely magical trip that affected me in a way that very few travel or life experiences ever have, and even then (this was almost eight years ago; I had only just started writing fiction) I had a strong suspicion I'd write about it one day. When I began drafting Life, I knew right away that Libby would go to Vieques, and that the trip would change her life for the better.



Every Mother's Nightmare and Every Writer's Dream: Meet Steena Holmes

As with her earlier novel, Finding Emma, about the after effects of a toddler's kidnapping, author Steena Holmes doesn't back away from tackling the devastating events every mother fears in her latest novel, The Word Game. Holmes introduces us to sisters Alyson and Tricia, their friend, Myah, and their mother, Ida. Despite the closeness between the women, dark secrets threaten their children and their relationships with each other.

The Word Game and your earlier novel, Finding Emma, both focus on terrifying events, the stuff of a parent's nightmares. What draws you to these intense subjects? How did you come to tell this story in particular?

One thing I've learned as a mother of three girls - it's best to face those things we fear the most in order to help raise strong children. In facing those fears, we learn there's a strength deep within us we might not have known before, and that's my goal: to take a journey with my readers through these fears and realize we are stronger than those nightmares. I had to deal with this particular nightmare, the one we see in The Word Game, personally with one of my own daughters. It made me question how well we know those in our lives and tested my own control issues when it came to my children. How much is too much when it comes to protecting them?


The Word Game is told from each woman's point of view. What lead to this use of multiple voices for this story?

I loved the idea of having two sisters be so opposite when it came to dealing with one situation. There was a depth there that wouldn't have been seen if I had only written this story through Alyson's point of view. Their parenting styles, how they faced life... it was fascinating to me. Then I realized that by ignoring Myah and Ida's views, I was missing another dimension. Each woman handles pressure differently and I'm interested to see if my readers are able to connect with one woman over the other or see facets of their own personality through my characters. 

The devastating effects of secrets is clearly woven through this novel. What would you like people in similar situations to take away from The Word Game?

To realize they have a voice, that the topic of The Word Game isn't one that should be kept a secret - not when it comes to our children. 

What proved to be the biggest challenge in writing this novel?

The emotional intensity of it seemed to affect me more than I thought it would. This book went through seven drafts before I felt it was ready. The relationship between women - whether it be moms, sisters or daughters - is intrinsic. I knew that if I wanted to touch a reader's heart with my story, I needed to push through my own past and fears.

Your biography notes that you always wanted to be a full-time novelist. What path did you take to get here?

Sometimes it takes a while for people to have the faith in themselves to see a dream come true. I didn't write my first novel until 2005 where it won a contest and was published by a vanity press. In 2010, I decided to try my hand at self-publishing, and after receiving my rights back from that novel, I published it myself. It was an instant addiction, and I tested the waters by writing novellas. In 2011, I pulled my first contemporary women's fiction novel from agents and published it myself - it turned out to be my 'breakout' novel. Finding Emma is the story that has made my dreams come true in more ways than one - it was also the first story where I decided to push myself and dig into those fears most mothers try to ignore. Being able to live a dream, of having a career that feeds your soul... it's something I never thought I could experience as well as a journey I would never give up.



Put a Ring on It: A Conversation with Beth Kendrick

Put a Ring On It is a delicious romp of a novel by Beth Kendrick, author of New Uses for Old Boyfriends. Here we meet Brighton Smith, a reluctant heartbreak tourist, who changes everything with a drunken night that turns into what she calls a "screw up summer" and a new chance at love.

I love the magic of Black Dog Bay with its heartbreak tourists; how did you "find" this place?

I vacationed with my family in Bethany Beach, Delaware. After three days of drinking chilled white wine and eating boardwalk fries and "not writing," I had an idea for a new series-and by incredible coincidence, it was set at the Delaware beach!

Black Dog Bay's claim to fame is that it's the best place in America to bounce back from your breakup. So I got to create all sorts of thematic local businesses: The Better Off bed and breakfast, the Eat Your Heart Out bakery, the Rebound Salon, and the Whinery bar where you can sing karaoke and spend a restorative weekend with Jake Sorensen, the town's "designated rebound guy" (who looks like the lost Hemsworth brother).

The iconic black dog for whom the town was named just sort of scampered into the manuscript without warning. I called my editor and said, "By the way, there's gonna be a magic dog in the new book," and she said, "Okay, that sounds fine." (This is why I adore my editor.)

Brighton learns not only about passion in the bedroom but passion in her career. What kind of jewelry would you have Brighton design for you? What would make it unique for you?

I'd commission a gold cuff bracelet with inlaid with a small black dog (onyx or black diamonds). Inside, Brighton would inscribe the Louis L'Amour quote that inspired the whole Black Dog Bay series: "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning."

Brighton loved her ten-year plan; what do you think people gain and lose with such long-term thinking?

Ten-year plans have their place. Striving for excellence is admirable, and you can't achieve goals you haven't set. But ten-year plans don't always account for growth and change and all the blessings and tragedies and surprises life throws our way. There is beauty in flexibility and self-forgiveness.

What would you do with a screw up summer?

What wouldn't I do with a screw-up summer? I'd cash out my savings and travel the world, I'd eat sugar and carbs with wild abandon, I'd get a regrettable tattoo in a regrettable location. Surfing and sangria and shortsighted decisions all the livelong day.


The name Genevieve is given a lot of "weight" in this story. How did you pick her name? What about your other characters like Brighton?

I love the name Genevieve; it's elegant and classic. It's also relatively unusual. That's why I chose it--it's familiar enough that readers can pronounce it in their heads but it's rare enough that it's highly unlikely that you know more than one Genevieve. Like, who has two exes who are both dating Genevieves? How can that be a coincidence? It's clearly Fate.

As for Brighton, I wanted to give her a name that was offbeat, and well, bright. A name that belies the strait-laced, corporate image she tries so hard to maintain. She can wear pinstripes and pearls all she wants, but she can't escape the fact that she's an artist.

Put a Ring on it was so much fun to read. I can only imagine how much fun it was to write. What is your process like? How has it evolved now that you have 12 novels under your belt? What do you do to keep it fun?

I love my characters, and they love me. (Don't tell me they're imaginary; our love is real.) You'd think that after 12 books, I'd have established some sort of streamlined process, but no. I just get a little fizz of inspiration and figure out the story as I go along. I originally introduced Jake Sorensen (the hero of Put A Ring on It) two books earlier (in Cure for the Common Breakup). He was meant to be a tertiary, transitional character, but as soon as he hit the page, I knew I'd be back for him.

When I started the first draft for Put a Ring on It, I interviewed a woman who's been designing and selling estate jewelry for years. Turns out, jewelry stores are hotbeds of scandal and intrigue: engagements and breakups and clandestine trysts everywhere you turn. I was scribbling down story ideas as fast as I could when she showed me an unusual piece: a poison ring, which turned into major plot point in the book. That's usually how it goes with research--you don't really know what you're looking for until you find it, and then you can't imagine how you ever could have written the story without it.



Wendy Darling: A Conversation With Author Colleen Oakes

There are certain stories we can always return to. Based on the popularity of the story, plays, and film adaptions, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is one of those classics. In Wendy Darling (SparkPress, October 2015), Colleen Oakes explores Wendy's experience in Neverland, unfolding this classic tale in a marvelous new direction.

What made you fall in love with Wendy?

When I was searching for a character to adapt for my next YA series, I knew that while I wanted a strong female, I also wanted an interesting female -- the two are not always sympathetic to each other. I had just finished writing about a fierce warrior full of rage in Queen of Hearts, and I really wanted someone different, someone who I could dig deep emotionally with. After reading the original work, I knew immediately that it could and would only be Wendy Darling. She's such an fascinating character -- the book really starts and ends with her, and yet she is treated as a shrinking violet, a lovely magician's assistant to Peter Pan's show of miraculous adventures. Being a woman, I knew there was so much more to the story. My Wendy is a product of her time longing for more -- an Edwardian lady of society, repressed and controlled by the whims of her parents (who are loving, but at the same time bound by their social class.) My main questions for Wendy's character arc were "How does a girl defined by other's expectations become brave?" and "What would a person who was bound of rigid social dynamics be like when taken to Neverland -- a place with no rules?"Wendy Darling: A Conversation With Author Colleen Oakes

What part of Neverland would you most want to experience yourself?

I've always been a child of the sea, even though I've grown up in disappointingly land-locked Colorado, so I would want most to see the mermaids, and experience the perfectly turquoise waters lapping against a crushed pearl beach. Hopefully, they would let me bring some drinks with umbrellas in them.
Why do you think the idea of not growing up has such a timeless appeal?

I think as adults, we long for those carefree days of childhood, where our responsibilities and the daily cares of life were taken over by adults. In addition, I think there is always a nostalgic part of us that wants to go back and be a little more wild, take a little more risks, kiss the person we desired and never did. That is exactly what Neverland is -- a place of no regrets, a place where time doesn't matter. A place where we can let our wildest inhibitions run feral, where we can do what we want when we want. Isn't that what every ad in the world sells us, in some sort of way?

Is Peter a hero or a villain or something in between?

I would say in the original books, that he is perhaps a misunderstood child, rather than a hero or a villain. He's really neither. There was some dark implications in his character, but I'm not sure that was Barrie's intentions. In my books however, Peter Pan is both hero and villain, and we will learn more about that as the story goes on. I think he will make your blood pressure rise either way, and there are absolutely some intense psychological nuances presented in his character. I LOVED writing him.

If you would have dinner with J.M. Barrie, what would you want to talk about?

I would be absolutely fascinated to learn about what being a writer was like around 1904. How do you explain things that people couldn't even begin to imagine? What was the culture like for the literary arts? And how did this man come to imagine something so perfectly attuned to the experience of childhood? What was his childhood like? I would come in with a book of questions, and he would probably be quite annoyed.



A Romance Only Bookstore: The Ripped Bodice

The Ripped Bodice

The Ripped Bodice aims to be the only exclusively romance bookstore, opening in March 2016 in Los Angeles. With tag lines such as "Purveyors of Fine Smut" and "Smart Girls Read Romance," sisters Leah and Bea Koch seek to build an interactive, local community store around a genre adored by millions of women and men both. With the Romance Writers of America estimating the 2013 sales of romances at $1.08 billion, The Ripped Bodice is sure to find fans in its new home. We spoke about their inspirations, goals, and exciting plans.

First, I wanted to say I loved the name, The Ripped Bodice. What started the journey toward creating The Ripped Bodice? When did you know this bookselling niche must be filled?

Thank you! We are lifelong romance readers and Bea even wrote her masters thesis on romance novels. Her thesis was titled, "Mending the Ripped Bodice," and we loved that the name The Ripped Bodice poked fun at the tawdry reputation of romance novels. For us, it's about celebrating romance. No need to shy away from the historical perception, let's embrace it!

Romance is the best selling genre in North America, so it was mind-blowing to us that there isn't a store dedicated exclusively to the genre. We think now is the perfect time to open both a romance only bookstore with both a physical location and an online presence -- this way we can act as a community gathering space for readers in Los Angeles, while also including fans of the genre around the world.


The Ripped Bodice hopes to become a community space with readings and other interactive events. If you could host any authors publishing today, who would make up your wish list and why?

That list could be ten pages long! There are so many fantastic writers working right now and we are so excited to give authors a romance dedicated space to host readings, signings and lectures.

Leah: I primarily focus on contemporary romance novels and my favorite -- and I think one of the most original writers these days -- is Christina Lauren. I would also love to host Kristen ProbyJulie James and of course, Nora Roberts.

Bea: I read Regency romances and particularly enjoy quirky humor and empowered heroines, so I would choose Julia QuinnEloisa James and Tessa Dare.


Your foundation story offers evidence of loving books together since childhood. What about the flip side? What are the books you disagree on? Who has a favorite the other can't stand?

Leah cannot understand heroines who wear twelve petticoats, and Bea doesn't like her heroes to wear jeans. But we actually tend to be pretty in sync. We read mostly from different genres, but we have a lot of fun trying to get each other to read outside our genres. When we travel, we'll switch whatever books we've brought to try something new.

Romance really has something for everyone; you just have to find your place. We see it everyday when we talk about our favorite books.

What sub-genres is The Ripped Bodice most excited about breaking out in your non-alphabetical store layout?

Paranormals are so much fun, and we love that we'll be able to have separate sections for witches, vampires, werewolves, etc.

The growth in the New Adult genre (the protagonists are between 18 and 25) has also been wonderful to see. We are excited to be able to introduce younger readers to romance with books featuring heroines their age. Romance novels are hugely educational for young readers, showing them what informed consent and good sex look like in healthy relationships. We hope The Ripped Bodice will be a safe space for readers of all ages to explore the genre.

Why did you decide to include charity as function of The Ripped Bodice?

It's how we were raised and indicative of the romance community as a whole. We are lucky enough to be able to make our dream a reality so we'd like to give back to our community in whatever small way we can. As female entrepreneurs, we feel it is important that we support organizations that focus on the health, education and advancement of women and girls.

What parts have you enjoyed the most about starting a new business? What challenges remain?

We love when people share our excitement. We are so happy seeing everyone on Twitter getting excited about the store and all of our Kickstarter rewards. As fangirls, it's been particularly exhilarating to see so many of our favorite authors showing support.

The biggest challenge that remains is building our physical location. We've been working for almost a year now on our business plans and all the tiny details, and we had to put that stuff on the back burner while we got our Kickstarter together. Now that our Kickstarter has launched, we ready to get right back into the nitty-gritty of opening a brick-and-mortar bookstore. We have begun scouting locations in downtown Culver City. It is so exciting to imagine our store in different spaces. We plan to sign a lease as soon as our Kickstarter is funded.



Meet YA Author Rebecca Villarreal

Rebecca Villarreal is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Selma Calderón, a magical young adult mystery novel about globetrotting, magic, courage and friendship. We spoke about sharing magic with young readers, honoring grandmothers, and what it takes to start your own press.

Tell me about Selma and her friends. How did you "meet?"

Selma is one of the most curious characters you will ever meet. Whether it's traveling to Paris to taste real chocolate croissants, learning about endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, or solving the mystery of her missing parents, she's always in a state of wonder. Originally from Philly, Selma is mixed Mexican and Polish. Her best friend Hurley is African-American from the south and now lives in a predominately Latino neighborhood in Chicago. Together, as outsiders, they find a way to trust each other and build a close friendship. Hurley is courageous in his own strong, yet quiet way. A big part of his unique personality comes through in his obsession with playing marbles. I love Hurley for the big heart he shows and for his own brand of courage and conscience. Selma needs him to balance her neverending desire to leap.

Selma was born out of my sense of awe, wonder and curiosity upon moving to Chicago more than a decade ago. Whether riding the L trains or seeing the murals in my Pilsen neighborhood, there was always a story to uncover or a new food to try. I met Selma from the spark of all of that wondering.

Photo credit: Tim Arroyo

Do you believe in magic? Where do you find it? What does it take to share it with others in your writing?

I absolutely believe in magic. It's everywhere if you stop and stay in the moment. You can choose to be open and take notice of little details. Nature is a great place to start. It's even doable in the city by people watching. There are so many magical miracles big and small which have impacted my life. I was feeling that open-hearted joy when I wandered into Café Jumping Bean where I met my husband. (That's also where Selma and Hurley hatch their plans.) An additional magical surprise came when I ended up moving into the very apartment where I had a photo snapped years earlier.

It takes vulnerability and courage to share magic with others in my writing. I've written poems, stories and essays for decades and I've had a blog ( for three years. The book took me ten years to finish while working full-time and going through lots of changes, like becoming a mom. Sharing magic in my writing requires a belief that my words will help someone. Many people have told me they felt better, loved and in some cases, even healed by my words. Selma was like that. I was afraid to publish it, because I put so much of my heart into it. And yet, I know now, my heart just keeps filling up. My wish is that the book has that effect on readers around the world. Trust me, believe in magic, ask for it, and you'll get it.

The book jacket copy features several reviews from young readers. What was it like to share your novel with children for the first time?

It was exciting and nerve-racking. Kids are honest. I didn't know if it was going to hit or miss. I did have a lot of faith in the story and in Selma and Hurley. People want to hang out with them. One mom recently told me that her daughter stayed up way too late reading the book. She kept running into her mom's bedroom to say, "Wow, it's funny too!" and "Things are really heating up now!" But she wouldn't tell her what was happening because her mother was going to read it and she doesn't like spoilers. After they had both read it, they were walking together and the daughter found a marble and said she wanted to change her name to Selma and find a best friend named Hurley. Honestly, stories like this bring me to tears of happiness. It's that pulsating joy any artist feels when her work finds its way into the hearts of readers.

Who is Mama Chelo? What is next for the Mama Chelo Press?

Mama Chelo is my amazing grandmother who passed away two years ago at the age of 105 which is how I decided that my novel is for ages 10 to 105. Her full name was Consuelo Calderón before she married. She ended up as a single mother of four from that marriage and then pulled three more children from an orphanage (from my grandfather's previous marriage). She was an incredible seamstress and milliner. She even had hats in the famous Philadelphia department store Bonwit Teller. She had a luncheonette at one point too. I remember Mama Chelo telling me how she needed to repair the chimney on the roof and she just went up there with bricks and mortar and built one. She was an amazing cook, loved to tell stories, sing and dance for people. She even claimed to be the first woman in Mexico to fly a plane. She embodied magic and made me feel so special. The press is named after her because she had the courage to do anything.

The next project for Mama Chelo Press is Book 2 in the Truth & Magic series about Selma. The story is sketched out--it's intense and full of big surprises. I've written one scene and plan to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November. I'm excited to spend time working on it in April at a writers and artists refuge called "Drop Out" on Orcas Island. I was honored to be invited to write in this tech free cottage nestled in nature. I will also do a reading there at Doe Bay Café --the same place where my novel culminates. This is the full circle magic that happens when you keep showing up and trying. In the long term, I hope Mama Chelo press can produce a cookbook made up of Selma readers' recipes from around the world. Food and fellowship is a great pathway to understanding and compassion. And that is magic.

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to publish a book?

Yes, do it. First, though, find a team of people you can trust. You need readers who will challenge you without trying to completely change your style of writing. You need people who love your story. You need a careful editor. Read books of all sorts. Take the time to work on it and experience the magic inherent in life. And remember, it doesn't have to be perfect. Take some time away from your manuscript too. Then come back, give your story some love and hit publish.

For more information about Rebecca and her novel, please visit: You can find her on Instagram at
rebeccavillarrealwriter and on Twitter @RebeccaVWriter.



Fat Girl Walking: A Conversation with Author Brittany Gibbons

Fat Girl Walking

What if you looked at your daughter and saw yourself? Not only the good parts but all of the negative self-talk you heaped upon yourself since you emerged from childhood. What would you do to stop your daughter from carrying the weight of that nonsense?Brittany Gibbons, blogger and author, answers that question in her memoir, Fat Girl WalkingFat Girl Walking captures Brittany's life from her late teen years to the early years of her marriage and motherhood. She takes an honest look at anxiety, self-image, and how to embrace yourself--no matter what size--not just for your benefit but for the betterment of your daughters, sisters, and nieces, too.

Photo Credit: Andy Gibbons

Between your blog, your TED Talk, wearing a swimsuit in Times Square, you have had many avenues for making your voice heard. What lead you to writing a book? How did Fat Girl Walking come to life? What is your story as a writer?

Every blogger wants to write a book. It's basically our tagline. I truly didn't think that it was going to be in the cards for me, I was just too in love with the online platform. But, following some media attention from a piece I'd written about how I'd used having sex with my husband for a year as a journey of body love, I was approached by a publisher to write a memoir. After that phone call, the seed was re-planted.


You said in a Holiday Café interview that Fat Girl Walking "is literally the hardest but awesomest project, ever." What made it the hardest for you? What made it awesome?

I think I googled "how to write a book" at least 100 times. I was used to jamming a life's worth of thoughts into 1000 words. Writing a book forced me to be expansive, and address the parts of the story that were hard and uncomfortable. Fully reliving something instead of just flashing through the highlight reel was really emotional. But, as hard as it was, and as often as I walked out of my office with my eyes puffy and swollen shut, it was also amazing to see how changed I was from those experiences. Here I thought I was just lucky to make it out alive, when in truth, I am thriving and stronger than I'd given myself credit for.

How do you feel about the term body image advocate? What does that mean to you? What role do you see yourself playing in this conversation about body image in our society?

A few years ago, I would have proudly worn the badge "Body Image Advocate," but these days I consider myself more of a Women's Advocate. This whole movement to reinvent beauty and teach self-love and respect isn't exclusive to plus size women, it's a battle for all women.

What would you like to see happen for young girls growing up to empower them to turn off the negative self-talk?

What young women and girls need is a map for how to treat themselves, and each other. Right now, that isn't happening. All they learn is that in order to be successful and valued, it's at the expense of each other. There is room and value enough for all of us here, it's time we show them how to do achieve that.


What advice do you have for people that want to be passionate advocates for change? What would you tell them about writing and making their voices heard?

Being an advocate isn't about being the loudest when the cameras are rolling. It's doing the hard work when nobody is watching. It's fighting the fight when it feels like nobody cares. And it's counting every singular person that steps up beside you as a win. My advice would be to be consistent and relatable. You wouldn't think fighting for women of all sizes was an issue men would care about, but a week doesn't go by that I don't get emails from husbands, boyfriends and fathers. It matters to them because I made it matter to them.

How does writing for a blog differ from writing a book? What did you learn about yourself and your process as a writer?

Like I mentioned above, books are long. Who knew? The internet is full of hyper-moments. Making the biggest impression you can in the most digestible form of media. Writing a book was the chance to tell a full story, and that was something I'd never done before. Length aside, there is a huge difference in medium. Writing online comes with a healthy dose of instant gratification and discourse. I write something, it's ingested, and we talk about it, good or bad. It took me ten months to complete Fat Girl Walking, and I can barely contain my excitement for its publication. I just want someone- anyone- to talk to about it besides my mom.

Who do you want to play you in the movie of Fat Girl Walking?

I don't care, as long as it's not an actress in a fat suit. I would, however, nominate Aidy Bryant. She is hilarious and my current comedy girl crush.


You mention the important of finding clothes that fit you; how did you figure this out? What process do you use? I mean my god, how much time does it take?

This took forever. It was months of going shopping on a Tuesday afternoon, when I knew the stores would be empty, and the retail staff would typically be older and less shocked by a 30 year old woman crying in a dressing room stall. Because I didn't look like the typical model in a clothing ad, I had no guide for the shapes and cuts that looked great on my body. I tried on everything. With time, I was able to rule out pretty easily what wouldn't work, which cut down on the crying meltdowns by at least 50%.

Along with good clothes, you mention practicing camera angles; I long suspected some women from my high school took a secret class that enabled them to pose for pictures, but it never occurred to me to practice. What are some tips to shorten the learning curve?

Oh yes, learn those angles. Stand in front of a mirror and practice holding your head, shoulders and legs in a way that makes you feel attractive and confident. Practice this every day as you are getting dressed or brushing your teeth. Eventually, your body will remember what those poses feel like. Now, when I pose for a picture, my muscles know what to do and I'm pretty confident I'll like the way it comes out. This does not hold true for those candid shots taken of you eating chips and salsa in the background of a party. What kind of person posts those online and then tags you in them? They should have their Facebook accounts suspended.

What's next for you?

Fat Girl Walking comes out May 19th, and the next week I am hosting the first session of my annual adult summer camp, Camp Throwback. Beyond that, I'm really looking forward to a summer of traveling around and interacting with people who loved the book, and in the rare moments of free time, writing the next one.

You can find Brittany at her blog or on Twitter @brittanyherself.



At the Water's Edge: A Writer's Conversation With Sara Gruen

At The Water's Edge

Sara Gruen author of the new release, AT THE WATER'S EDGE, shared some insight into her writing process and what lead her to set her latest novel at the edge of Scotland's Loch Ness during World War II.

How did the story for AT THE WATER'S EDGE unfold for you? What drew you to writing it?

I had a long-standing fascination with the Loch Ness monster, starting when I was twelve and first visited Urquhart Castle and was convinced I was going to see it, and a random news article rekindled my interest. The idea of incorporating my favorite castle in the world with the looming prospect of the monster was irresistible, so I booked research trips without having any idea of what my story would be. Ultimately, it came to me in a rush when I was standing at the Water Gate in Urquhart Castle (a location that has great importance in the book), and I spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That day was definitely one of the highlights of my writing life!

Both Jacob in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and Maddie and Ellis in AT THE WATER'S EDGE suffer a sort of fall from grace at the start of stories, losing access to a once guaranteed future. What do your stories say about making life your own?

In the broadest sense, almost all stories begin with an upheaval of some sort, because normal people doing normal things does not a good story make! I think the stories that appeal to us as readers are those in which people have to examine what's really going on in their lives, or face a huge change in circumstances, and then see what they do going forward. In the case of AT THE WATER'S EDGE, Maddie and Ellis both face enormous changes in circumstance and their understanding of life as they know it, and react in nearly polar opposite ways to the truths they find.


What roles do travel and research play in your writing? When does imagination come in?

I love the research part. One of the best things about this job is that I get to find something that fascinates me and that I hope will be fascinating to others, and completely immerse myself in it for a few years. It happens different ways for different books, but in this case the location came first, and after a few weeks of full immersion in the Highlands, the story came to me. It happened while I was standing at the Water Gate, and all the little amorphous bits that were floating around in my brain started to take shape, so I sent my guide back to his car and spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around the castle dictating ideas into my phone. That's one of those writing moments you hope and dream will happen, but very rarely do. I still have the files on my phone. They're taking up a huge amount of space, but I can't bring myself to delete them.

Your books draw richly on the history of the times; in AT THE WATER'S EDGE, World War II frames the narrative. What do you think it takes to accurately portray a time period? How do you balance telling the story and setting the historical scene?

For me, I need to take an almost obsessive approach to research. When I'm at the writing stage, I pass through a kind of creative portal every day and feel like I'm really in that other world I've created, and so it has to exist right down to the trowel marks in the plaster, and I'm a stickler for detail. The saying "the devil is in the details" is absolutely right.

This is your fifth book; what have you learned about your writing process as you gained more experience? What stayed the same for you and what has changed?

I've realized that I can't structure my work time and progress quite as rigidly as I would like to. For my first couple of books, I aimed for (and got, even if it nearly killed me) 2000 words a day. Then I moved to 2000 words a day or eight hours, whichever came first. Now, I feel like if I show up for work and put in an honest day, I've done well. Because I can't force the creative process. Sometimes I am typing as fast as I can all day, and have to drag myself away because there's more to be done, and other times I stare glumly at my open file all day, which is okay, because I've come to realize that when I can't get any words out, it means there's something I need to figure out and change in the storyline and even if my fingers aren't busy, my brain is.

Out of all the character's you created, who is your favorite and why?

Before this book, I would have said Rosie, but now I have to say Maddie. She changed so dramatically from what I imagined her to be--coming to life in the way that characters do--and she was so willing to look at things that she had never examined before, in an open-minded and big-hearted way, and she showed courage and resolve in a situation that was utterly impossible, and became increasingly so.


I read that you needed an internet-free zone to write WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. Zadie Smith spoke about using a computer program to block herself from the internet while writing her novel NW. How do you keep yourself from going down the rabbit hole of cyberspace?

I wrote a large chunk of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS in a walk-in closet, because at that time we didn't have wi-fi and it prevented me from obsessively checking my email, shopping on eBay, and basically blowing an afternoon watching cats in boxes on Youtube. Then I used Zadie Smith's method--I know the program she's talking about--but I found a workaround, and so that ended up being no help at all. And just in case she ever reads this, I'm not going to say what that workaround is because I do not want to be singlehandedly responsible for the delay of a new Zadie Smith book.



The Good Neighbor: A Conversation With Author Amy Sue Nathan

Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Good Neighbor, brings us the story of Elizabeth aka Izzy Lane and her introduction to the worlds of Internet celebrity and dating after divorce. Set in Philadelphia, Nathan's book really captures Lane's struggle with moving on after her divorce. We talked about the secrets we keep, what makes Philadelphia awesome, and how imagination is the writer's best friend.

Tell us about The Good Neighbor; how did you first come to know Izzy Lane?

I met Izzy Lane when I thought "what if..." Then, Izzy became near and dear to my heart for two reasons. First, she did the opposite of something I did. While we both started blogging anonymously after our divorces, I did it as a way to tell the truth. And I did! I told some funny and obnoxious dating stories, I wrote about my kids, I wrote about motherhood and life. Izzy used her blog as a way to disguise her life, not to recount it. Izzy lied on her blog, and then she continued to lie. In real life, my true blog stories led to writing essays for magazines and newspapers. No lying going on there! It was so much fun to flip life around and really give Izzy good reasons to make up stories, and get herself into a lot more pickles than I ever have. (Thank goodness!) Second, and probably what makes Izzy near and dear to me, is that , I based Izzy's old neighborhood on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in, and where I lived until I was twenty-six. That street, and that neighborhood is ingrained in me, and I could easily have been one of Izzy's neighbors. Maybe I was...


What do you hope The Good Neighbor says about secrets?

I think the story says "be careful." Be careful what you tell, and be careful what you don't tell. Mostly I think The Good Neighbor says BE YOURSELF--because a secret or lie that hides who you are might feel good at first, but at its core, it's the worst kind of secret. It robs others of the opportunity to know you. Izzy learns that lesson well in the book.

I see that you live in Chicago while The Good Neighbor is set in Philadelphia. As a fan of Philadelphia, I must ask--what do you think makes Philly great?

That's easy! Soft pretzels, Butterscotch Krimpets, and growing up on a one-way street where you knew everyone and everything by heart.

I lived in Philadelphia until I was twenty-six, it's all I knew. I went to elementary school, Hebrew School, junior high, high school, and I went to Temple University while living in the house I grew up in and commuting to campus for four years. Then I worked in Center City (and wore sneakers with my business suits when I rode the El, bus, and subway) until I married and moved away. And, while I haven't lived in Philly since 1990, I am planning to move back in a few years!

While The Good Neighbor is set in Philadelphia, it's not set in Center City, nor is it sprinkled with historical landmarks. What it does offer the reader, I hope, is the real experience of being part of a working middle class neighborhood where kids played in the middle of the street (and survived to tell the tale), and where everyone lived there for as long as you did, or longer. The Good Neighbor doesn't chronicle Izzy's childhood, but growing up on that street shaped her, as it did me.

It's a little funny that the very thing that gets Izzy Lane in trouble, her great imagination, is what helps you to succeed as a writer. What do you think it take to be a women's fiction writer? What inspires your imagination?

Real people and the funny, happy, sad, and wacky things they do or say inspire me. I'll never tell who inspired Mrs. Feldman and her story - but she and the life she lived were a combination of several people I know (now everyone I know will read more carefully). I usually take something or someone I disagree with or don't understand and I flip it around and make it right, and that's what inspires story details, plot, subplots. I also take something I admire of someone else's and make it my own by giving it to a character. It can be as simple as a haircut or as complicated as a career choice. My characters spur my stories, and they appear ready to tell me what's what. I have learned to listen to everything they say.



The Lioness in Mark Twain's Court: A Conversation with Lynn Cullen

Lynn Cullen beautifully imagines the life of Isabel Lyons, secretary of Mark Twain, her historical fiction novel, Twain's End. Cullen's novel unravels how Lyons shifted from being Twain's beloved secretary who knew him better than anyone else to, as he called her in a 429 page document, "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction." In this interview, she talks about her discovery process, public versus private personas, and where her research and imagination might lead her next.

Share your discovery process; how do you find the books and articles that informed your telling of Isabel Lyon's story? What first prompted you to capture her story?

After decades of resisting the urging of one of my wisest friends, I reluctantly looked into the life of Mark Twain as a possible subject for a novel. Strife drives a novel, and I wasn't expecting to find much of it in the life of the wry humorist who wrote such homespun Americana as Tom Sawyer. Well, like Isabel Lyon's mother says (with her typical questionable humility) in Twain's End, I can admit when I'm wrong. The man's life was one drawn-out battle--with mankind, with loved ones, with himself.

My study of Mark Twain began with the excellent biographies by Michael Sheldon and Ron Powers. I knew that I must write about Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens once I read in the Powers book that young Sammy's parents sold their only slave, a house servant named Jennie, when Sammy was six. Of the assorted slave dealers in Hannibal, the elder Clemenses chose one infamous for selling his "merchandize" down the Mississippi to certain death in the fields around New Orleans. Mental alarms clanged as I wondered what had provoked Sammy's parents to wish death upon the woman who had served them since their marriage. More importantly, I wondered what damage might have been done to Sammy's spirit by witnessing his parents' cruelty toward a woman who'd had an important hand in raising him.

At the same time, I was reading Sheldon's Mark Twain, Man in White, about Clemens's final years. I learned about Twain's abrupt termination of his relationship with the person with whom he was closest at the time. This sudden turnabout raised another of the alarums upon which I've come to depend when finding my way to the heart of a story. I then looked for biographies specific to the relationship between Clemens and Lyon. One, Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy, takes Clemens at his word when he called Lyon the nasty terms listed above. The other, Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley, presented a case for Twain's change of heart as a cover-up for the scandal caused by his daughter, Clara. Cherry-picking from these sources and more, I put together a case that not only suggests that Twain was covering up his daughter's dirty tracks, but ultimately sacrificed the person closest to him in order to maintain his image as the most beloved man in the world. To me, his overweening need to be adored came from his need to assuage his self-hatred and unconquerable guilt. Twain's End is the result of my personal search for the seeds of the shattering guilt with which he was wracked after the many tragedies in his life. I'm also pretty keen on giving Isabel Lyon a fair shake after more than a hundred years of infamy.

The personal lives of the Clemens's family stands in ironic contrast to Samuel Clemens' professional life as a writer and communicator. The family, Lyons included, suffer from a failure to communicate. Where do you think this failure stems from?

With the success that Clemens found after creating his Mark Twain persona, came the price he had to pay for it: Playing along with the act to keep the love of his adoring public. He soon learned that his image had to be more "sivilized" (his mocking spelling of the word) in order to be more palatable to his public. His choice for a wife in Olivia Langdon, the refined daughter of a wealthy Eastern coal merchant (Father Langdon was also a well-known abolitionist) aided in smoothing Clemens's small-town Southern boy's rough edges, of which he was self-conscious.

"Livy" quickly became his editor, purging his manuscripts of crudities. His daughters got in on the act of "dusting up" Papa's crude manners when with company . Honing the exterior of Mark Twain until it shone--allowing him to be just a little lovably naughty--was the Clemens Family enterprise.

By their teenage years, his daughters resented having to completely subsume their own identities into their roles as Mark Twain's bemused, adoring children. They could see that they weren't going to find relief for their father's need to control them.Twain's End illustrates several actual instances of his daughters' entreaties for him to be a regular dad for once, and to take the backseat during moments of importance to them. But time after time, Sam was unable to honor this simple wish. As much as he loved them, Samuel Clemens was astonishingly unable to empathize with his family; his failure to do so would hamper any chance of his ever communicating with them.


How do you balance research with the creative side of writing? Did you ever make a decision to divert from something you found in Isabel's diary or other research?

I don't ever consciously divert from the facts. It's my game with myself to compile all the details I've gleaned from biographies, autobiographies, period travel guides, and such; from my characters' writings; from family photographs; from my travels to every place my characters had visited together; and, in this case, from the entries of Isabel Lyon's diary, housed in the Mark Twain papers at University of California, Berkeley; and then see how they relate. My thrill is in finding the connections between all these bits. As a novelist, I have the freedom to use all these components to look at the larger picture. I'm not beholden, like a biographer, to take things my characters have said or written at face value or run the risk of appearing unscholarly--it's my job as a novelist to look for the truth which can be found between the lines. I live to decipher the unspoken and then to imagine "what if?" While I'm at it, I'm always looking for the universal truths that might be found through these real-life individuals' struggles. As Clemens well knew, important truths might be told through the guise of fiction.

In your last book, Ms. Poe, you explored the lives of Virginia Poe and her rival for Edgar Allen Poe's affections, Frances Sargent Osgood. Which historical figure might capture your imagination next?

I am homing in on painter Georgia O'Keeffe. I wish I could shut myself away and devote all my time to writing about her. Her battle against crippling self-doubt and overcoming her husband's control to become the most famous American woman painter absolutely fascinates me.



Pretending to Dance: A Conversation With Diane Chamberlain

Molly Arnette, the protagonist in Diane Chamberlain's beautiful woven novel,Pretending to Dance, left Morrison Ridge, North Carolina, and all of her family behind for good. Now their secrets and her own lies catch up to her as she dreams of a different future and starting her own family. Chamberlain spoke to me about her influences, the nature of pretending, motherhood, and her writing process.

Every story starts out with the tiniest of seeds. How did you meet Molly and her Morrison Ridge family?

Pretending to Dance was inspired by my sister Joann's experience of living with progressive Multiple Sclerosis. Joann is a constant source of inspiration for me and all her know her. She helped me understand the physical and emotional challenges faced by Molly's father Graham as he copes with the same disease. I knew, however, that I didn't want Pretending to Dance to be a downer of a book, so I decided to tell the bulk of the story from fourteen-year-old Molly's point of view. The relationship between Molly and her dad was a joy to write.

Pretending emerges clearly as a theme in this novel, beginning with Molly's father's work as a "pretend therapist." How did you come upon pretend therapy? Can we really fake until we make it?

My training as a psychotherapist involved traditional long-term therapeutic approaches, but early in my career, I took a job with an HMO that allowed me very few sessions with my clients. That's when I began studying cognitive behavioral therapy and saw, in the case of many people I worked with, quick, dramatic and positive change. Molly's father Graham takes that approach to heart in 1990 when he writes his books on Pretend Therapy, which I view as a variant of behavioral therapy. In simplistic terms, he would say, "If you want to be brave in a situation, pretend you are brave and you will become brave." I've proven this to myself on numerous occasions. I was, for example, phobic about hospitals. After the death of a friend, I felt a strong calling to work as a hospital social worker. I had to "fake" my courage to be able to take on that sort of work, but the faking ultimately made the courage real. 

Molly struggles keenly with the idea of motherhood in this novel from her own upbringing to her desire to adopt. What does Pretending to Dance say about motherhood to you?

I think the message is this: Different mothers have different strengths and all of those strengths have value. Sometimes, though, it can take us well into adulthood to recognize that fact! That's certainly the case with Molly as she struggles with her memories of her own two mothers and her entry into motherhood herself. 

Novels like Pretending to Dance that weave two time periods together so seamlessly amaze me. How did you tackle this structure during the writing process?

Although I knew I would have a present-day story as well as a story set in 1990, I wrote all of the 1990 story first. I then examined the themes and the character development from the events of the past to determine how they would play out in the present. I then created the current-day story and determined the most seamless way to weave it into the past, chapter by chapter. 

You have written your twenty-fourth book! That is very impressive. What brings you back to the page each day? How do you find inspiration and new characters to enchant you?

I think a true fiction writer sees inspiration everywhere. If I see a dented fence around an old house, for example, I immediately wonder what intriguing event caused that damage. Or I may overhear a startling bit of gossip while in line at the grocery story or read a newspaper article that fires my imagination. I'm at an age when many of my non-writing friends are retiring. Teachers, social workers, Realtors--they're putting on their golf shoes and heading for Florida. Not so my writing friends. Why would we stop doing something that gives us so much satisfaction and joy? Our stories change as we get older and wiser and mellower, and seeing our own growth is part of the pleasure. I imagine I will always have more to say and I relish the challenge of saying it in ways that continue to resonate with my readers. I look forward to every new tale.



After The Parade: An Interview with Lori Ostlund

In After The Parade, a new novel from Lori Ostlund, Aaron, an English as a Second Language teacher leaves behind his partner and the home they shared to make his way to California to begin anew. Ostlund beautifully weaves us through past and present as Aaron grapples with the events of his life and their unfolding ramifications. Ostlund spoke to me about the hero's quest, kindness and the power of teaching.

Aaron's journey reminds me of a hero's quest. What do you think he needs to learn along the way?

Aaron needs to learn a lot of things: how to be alone, first of all. As the book starts, he is just leaving Walter, his partner of twenty years, because he no longer loves him. As is often the case when you push yourself to confront one thing, it gives way to an avalanche of other issues, and this is the case with Aaron also. After he leaves Walter in Albuquerque and arrives in San Francisco, he realizes that he needs to confront his childhood, specifically the mystery of his mother's disappearance many years earlier. I won't say that he needs to make peace with it because I tend to believe that the past is something that you have to keep making peace with. Near the end of the book, Aaron wonders whether talking about the past allows you to clarify it so that you can move on, or whether talking just continues pulling you backwards, which is probably how I (a pragmatic Midwesterner at heart) view such things also.


The kindness of others is a motif that runs strongly throughout this book from starting with Aaron's relationship to Walter. What do you hope After the Parade says about helping others?

For seven years, my partner and I owned a small furniture store, and during this time, I met many people who were desperately lonely, who came in and spent hours in our store, talking and confessing things that shocked me--shocked me not because I considered the details themselves shocking but because I was a stranger receiving these most intimate of stories. After the Parade is, among other things, about deep loneliness. Aaron is lonely, and he befriends others who are also lonely. Some of these people have been turned misanthropic by loneliness while others have been left kind but vulnerable. Though I was not necessarily considering a message when I wrote the book, I would be happy to know that the book allowed readers to consider the loneliness all around them or encouraged them to listen to a stranger's story. Aside from food and shelter, I think that what most of us crave is to have our stories listened to by others.

At one point, Aaron's mother says, "You can't make other people happy. It's silly to try." Where do you come down in this debate?

Within the context of the book, Aaron's mother tells him this when he is around twelve and struggling to understand her unhappiness, believing that he is partly responsible for it. Though his mother has reached the point where her own unhappiness makes her nearly incapable of thinking about others, I consider this moment, this comment, an act of kindness of her part: she is releasing him from his responsibility to her, even if he does not understand that. In terms of how I view the debate, I believe that you ultimately cannot make other people happy, yet I also believe, strongly, that you should always try to do so, both with friends and strangers. That is, we should always act with the goal of making others happier, even though that goal is not within our control.

Some writers see the scenes unfold in their mind's eyes, others hear the dialogue like an overhead conversation, some plot and outline carefully like architects--how does your muse appear?

Most often, a new work begins because I find myself inside a character's head. This was the case with After the Parade, which I wrote over the course of nearly 15 years: early on, I wrote only childhood sections, nearly 400 pages of childhood scenes, until I realized that Aaron needed to grow up, become an adult. It was then that I decided that the book would begin with him, at forty-one, leaving his partner of twenty years. I am definitely not a plotter or outliner. My characters take shape as I write, and as they take shape, they begin to act in certain ways, and this is what determines the plot. When I spent the summer of 2013 in my dungeon (my windowless garage office) piecing this book together, I still did not know how I would wrap up some of the bigger plot questions, namely what had happened to Aaron's mother when she disappeared or how the book would end. These were questions that could only be resolved once I'd written much of the book and understood these characters.

In your acknowledgements, you think your students for making you feel hopeful and useful. What role does teaching and mentors play in your life? In your writing process?

One of the things that I love about teaching is that it allows me to step outside my own concerns and focus on my students. I like their enthusiasm and hopefulness because, as I said in my acknowledgments, it is hopefulness that allows me to write. I also like to feel useful, and when I teach, I generally do. Finally, I like having a period each day when I set my writing aside. This is particularly welcome when things are not going well.

At the end of the day, I don't like to talk about my writing too much or discuss it with others. When After the Parade went to my agent, the only other person who had seen it was my partner, Anne. In 2008, when my story collection, The Bigness of the World, was selected for the Flannery O'Connor Award, Anne was the only other writer I really knew. I also knew little about publishing, but I quickly learned that writers were a very helpful and generous lot. This didn't surprise me, but it was a wonderful discovery, nonetheless. This is one of the reasons that I got involved with the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, which I am putting in a plug for right here.



Suspense and Medicine: A Conversation with Author Sandra Block

Sandra Block's latest novel, The Girl Without a Name, follows the medical resident, Zoe Goldman from her suspense debut, Little Black Lies. Lisa Scottoline says that she us a "forever fan of the Zoe Goldman series and will read anything Sandra Block writes." I spoke with Block about medicine, writing, and what it's like to solve the case.

Both you and Zoe share a career in medicine. While she has a growing interest in forensics, you found a new path as a writer. What started you on this journey? How does your medical training influence your writing?

In my heart, I've always wanted to be a writer-it just took me a while to get there. Since high school, I straddled both medicine and writing. I was premed in college, but majored in English. I worked at the Buffalo News as an intern, but also shadowed a psychiatrist. Finally, I had to make a decision, and I chose medicine. But, I kept writing. I wrote a roundly rejected novel back in medical school and then put my pen away. Twenty years later, thankfully, I picked it back up. That's how Zoe Goldman came to be.

In a way, I'm glad I chose medicine first. Medicine absolutely influences my writing. Zoe's character brought me back to my residency (though mine was neurology). Residency happens during our twenties, a truly formative time. We pick our mate, our career path, and basically, finally become adults. Everything I went through there - the late nights, the frustration with attendings, the mysterious and difficult patients, the joy of saving a life, the grief of losing one-is infused into this character.


When you first found Zoe Goldman in Little Black Lies, did you know you wanted to carry her story forward in a series? And how did you find Zoe? What came first--the story or the interesting woman that narrates it?

The character came first for me. Walking up the stairs one night, I noticed a pattern of moonlight on the laundry room floor which reminded me of blood spatter. (Odd, yes I know.) I envisioned a little girl in there, scared and alone. She quickly grew into the quirky but intelligent Zoe Goldman, now a psychiatry resident. Then, I had to go backwards and figure out how she got in that laundry room.

Zoe Goldman becoming a series was a bit of a fluke. I love Zoe, everything about her: her height, her humor, her ADHD, her flaws. She spoke to me. When I got my agent, we went on submission (trying to publish Little Black Lies), and it took a looong time. Just over a year. Instead of stressing (well, okay, I did plenty of that) I took a leap of faith and started writing another Zoe novel. When we finally got some real interest for the first, we had a mini-auction going on, and part of the negotiation was a two-book deal. And guess what, I just happened to have written another one! It certainly taught me the lesson that when all else fails, keep writing.

Zoe learns an interesting lesson about the flaws that make us human. While in her case her ability to hyper-fixate and not give up until she finds an answer helps Jane Doe, other characters' flaws reveal the darker side of human nature. Do you agree that the cracks let the light in and make us who we are?

I think Zoe is a better psychiatrist because of her "cracks." She has been on both sides of the psychiatry couch. But, this does not always help her. It got her on probation; it nearly gets her fired. We are all human; we all have faults. Yes, they let the light in. But, they can also trip us up, and even kill us.

There is a concept in Judaism called "tikun olam" or fixing the world. I considered this often while writing the book. Zoe is a healer. She is trying to fix the world. But, you cannot heal everyone. And sometimes, it's the cracks that make us beautiful, and human.

What's next for you and Zoe? Will you continue to follow her on her journey to study forensic psychology or do other characters await?

Zoe took a bit of a break, but I hope she'll be back! The current novel I'm working on is a Detective Adams novel. He had a small role in Little Black Lies but a more prominent one in The Girl Without a Name. Zoe does make a cameo at least. But, by choosing forensic psychiatry, I left the door wide open for her return...I'll have to leave you with that mystery for now. :)



Bartering With Your Life: A Conversation With Siobhan Adcock

Bridget, the main character in Siobhan Adcock's novel, The Barter, faces one of life's hardest questions: what would you give to save your family? To save your life? Adcock spoke to me about the nature of sacrifice, how women barter, and the power of fairy tale.

The Barter is such a haunting book; which elements first came to you?

Back in the dim and distant pre-kid years, I read a short story by Alice Munro calledDifferently, from her collection Friend of My Youth. In that story, a woman -- a mother -- has a realization about herself that has never lost its power to scare the bejesus out of me.

In Munro's story, the main character comes to a point where she realizes there's this thing she can't live without, something she wants for herself, and she wants it so badly that giving it up feels like a question of life or death: "She would not have bartered away an hour of her children's lives" for this thing, but getting it back, if somehow she only could, "would have given her a happiness that no look or word from her children could give her." An hour of her children's lives? In exchange for her own happiness? What kind of a choice is that? What kind of a woman is that? What kind of a mother is that?


So The Barter kind of builds and borrows on this moment (which apparently I'm still not done talking about or thinking about), while turning it into a ghost story -- because in a way I think it's one of the spookiest things I've ever read.

Bridget thinks to herself, "You're allowed to want things. You don't have to be special, and you don't have to be a monster to want more in your life than your baby and your house and your marriage." I suspect this is a concept that women grapple with constantly, especially those adjusting to new motherhood. Why do you think it is so difficult for Bridget to know what she wants? Why is it difficult for people in general to accept want?

As a mother of a preschooler, I am constantly quoting Mick Jagger: "You can't always get what you waaaaant!" This is an important lesson, and not just for four year-olds, obviously. But learning what you can live without is sort of the flipside of knowing what you must have, no matter what. The woman in Alice Munro's story knows what she cannot live without -- what makes her moment of understanding so terrifying is that she also reckons its cost.

I think one of the things that worries us modern moms is the thought that someday, maybe even today, you're going to want something so badly, for you and no one else, that your children are going to have to give up something precious so that you can have it. I'm not talking about the last scoop of ice cream in the freezer, either. And what are you supposed to do then?

Two key concepts of The Barter surround the ideas of exchange or surrender. Bridget's Aunt tells her that the things women do "are not for sacrifice" but rather exchange "with will and with purpose." What about this theme of barter resonates for you? What is this novel saying about the nature of women's lives as caregivers?

"Motherhood = sacrifice" is a really persistent and problematic idea, I think. We've defined it that way for so long because it's an equation that satisfies: it's simple and in many ways true. As parents, we're proud to sacrifice for our children -- putting other people before yourself is one way to make the world a marginally better place. It's the golden rule, basically, but with diapers.

But women are put in a particularly tough position by this definition of motherhood as sacrifice, because it means that we often have to make the painful choice to give not just of ourselves, but of our children and our partners, in the name of personal power and fulfillment. By this equation, anything we want for ourselves that doesn't also benefit our children can be called selfish, and often is: I've worked in digital publishing as an editor and community moderator for many years, mostly at sites whose main audiences were women, and one thing I can say with confidence after moderating a few thousand comment-blowups is that selfishness is the accusation we women most often level at each other. You're selfish if you have one child, you're selfish if you have five. You're selfish if you go back to work and put your child into daycare, and you're selfish if you keep your little one at home with you instead of putting him into preschool. You're selfish if you don't enroll your kid in baby swim class or a dual-language program or STEM classes or whatever -- and you're selfish if you do, because clearly then you're just one of those aggressive type-A moms.

I think maybe the reason selfishness is such a potent accusation for mothers is because any inner or external resource that we can possibly muster that might help our kids, we feel a tremendous obligation to give them, because we know how hard it is out there. We know how hard it is to get what you want, let alone what you need. And any resource we hold onto for our own success is therefore defined as something that we're not giving up for our kids -- it's like this zero-sum game where we've got to give everything we have to help our little ones succeed.

But of course it's not a zero-sum game. Women have to succeed in order to succeed. And you can define success however you want to -- working, not working, preschool, home school, baby swim class -- but we shouldn't define it as sacrifice. Because if our kids look at us and see women who sacrifice so much that we never get what we want, what they see is not "success." What they see is: "Mom gives stuff up."

Sometimes, we have to get what we want. We have to at least go after it. Even if we're "selfish." Even if we're the only ones who stand to benefit.

The stories within the novel, the fairy tales the mothers make up for the children, the stories the magician tells, delight me. What powers do you feel stories, especially the heavily metaphoric fairy tales, possess? How does that power manifest in your own life?

Thank you so much for that question -- all the (made up) fairy tales and stories and folk tales throughout the book were so fun for me to write. They were inspired by a mix of the Brothers Grimm and by all the children's books you read so incessantly as a parent of a little kid. Before I had a kid, I never realized how much the job of parenting is the job of storytelling. I think most parents can relate to the feeling of being Scheherazade, telling stories and spinning your imaginative wheels to keep meltdowns and bad moods at bay, and that's certainly part of what inspired me as I was writing this book. The stories that the characters tell are performing a similar function, I think: We tell each other stories to help us make sense of the world and to soothe old hurts, and that all starts when we're children. You can't really write a novel about motherhood without addressing the power of stories.



The Opposite of Ally McBeal: A Conversation With Lindsay Cameron

BIGLAW, the debut novel by Lindsay Cameron, plunges us into the world of high-powered corporate law through the experience of second year associate, Mackenzie Corbett, as she navigates the complex landscape and extreme expectations required to reach the next level in her career. Cameron and I spoke about Ally McBeal, how 9/11 still impacts the world of work and whether or not overachievers can ever slow down.

BIGLAW paints unflinchingly honest portrait of Mackenzie Corbett's experience in a top law firm as well the personal prices she pays for her "golden handcuffs." Are there any redeeming qualities to working in a high-powered law firm? Does it ever get to be like Ally McBeal?

Hmm... redeeming qualities other than making a hefty dent in your student loans? I think the best takeaway from working at a large law firm (because lawyers love nothing more than a good takeaway) is the strong friendships you form along the way. You are crouching in the trenches with these people -- you share all three meals, endure numerous all-nighters together and witness them shaving their legs at their desk. Strong bonds are formed in the trenches. I made some of my best friends while working in law, and even met my husband!

Much to the disappointment of many, there are never choreographed dance routines in a unisex bathroom a la Ally McBeal or drinks with your hard-bodied colleagues at 5pm. Ally, you tricked us! And the guys from Suits are deceiving a whole new generation! But you do get to wear some pretty cute suits (even if they're not quite as mini as Ally's...)


Mackenzie grapples with her desire to achieve with the life she longs to live. Can an overachiever ever learn to relax?

If you figure out how, let me know! I could use some help in that area. Maybe they can add relaxing to their to-do list. That would certainly be well within the comfort zone of the overachiever. Does adding yoga to your to-do list negate the zen aspects of it?

BIGLAW also tackles the fall out of working in a post 9/11 New York. What do you feel 9/11 continues to teach us? What does it take to write about 9/11 respectfully?

The story line in the novel that deals with 9/11 is very personal to me. My father worked in the World Trade Center, in the second tower to be hit, and walked down 103 floors to safety. When you think even for a moment that you've lost someone you love, it changes how you prioritize parts of your life. And with how the terrorist attacks unfolded on TV, 9/11 was a "life is too short" moment for all of us and prompted many people not only to question what they wanted out of life, but to change the way they were living. Even so many years later, I think the 9/11 anniversary still spurs us to stop, take stock and think about what matters most.

For some people, myself included, writing about trauma is an effective way to process what happened. This is why authors shouldn't be afraid to write about these events even if it feels overwhelming. When I wrote that part of my novel, which is essentially my father's story, I asked him to read it when it was done. It was emotional for both of us and I'm thankful I had written something we could both be proud of. I will say that when you're writing about a trauma that has existed not just on a personal, but a national level it's important to be mindful that your readers have each had their own experiences and for many it is still very raw. If you're considerate of that and don't try to sensationalize, you can write about a tragedy respectfully.

How does your law training and experience influence your writing? What path did you take to become a writer?

My legal background did provide me with some ostensibly transferable skills -- time management, oodles of writing experience and the ability to get by on four hours of sleep a night. But when I sat down to start writing my novel I realized my legal writing skills did not, in any way, translate into writing fiction. Lawyers are wordy (why say in two words what you can say in ten?) and write in a way no one would ever speak. When was the last time you heard someone say "hereinafter?" So, when I edited my first draft I realized I had to forget everything that had been drummed into me while practicing law, drop the legalese and get into the groove of writing fiction. I learned to write dialogue by saying the words out loud, testing them for authenticity. This led to some odd stares when I was writing in my local Starbucks, but it's all part of the process, right? Now I feel like I'm a server that's been wiped clean of legal writing skills. I don't think I could sit down and draft a contract today. Or maybe I just don't want to.

Becoming a writer was not part of my plan. I'd gone to law school to be a lawyer and didn't think I would deviate from that path. But as the saying goes -- We plan, God laughs. I had what Oprah would call my "light bulb moment" while I was sitting at my desk at 3 a.m. staring down at a pile of documents that were waiting to be reviewed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was also munching on a plate of pancakes I'd just had delivered... as one does.) It hit me that the world of large law firms is so different than what is portrayed on TV and how surprised people would be if they knew what went on inside those shiny skyscrapers. I grabbed a notebook and scribbled furiously in a creative frenzy everything that came to mind, perhaps a little delirious from the sugar high combined with the sleep depravation. For the next few months I kept the notebook in my office and spent twenty minutes a day jotting down my observations. When writing in that notebook became my favorite part of the day, I knew my goals had shifted. I left my job to start writing my novel and am no longer eating pancakes at 3 a.m. Ok, rarely.




Lying Is for the Birds: An Interview With Kris Radish

Kris Radish's tenth novel, The Year of Necessary Lies, follows an eventful year in the life of budding ornithologist and activist, Julia Britton, who learns through the beauty and power of birds the skills to change her own life. I spoke with Radish about the powerful women behind this novel, ways to create and stoke the fires of female friendship, and the power of transformation.

Who are some of the foremothers that built the character of Julie Britton for you? How did you get exposed to their contributions?

History is littered with brave and bold women who were not afraid to take chances and make their own lives and the world a better place. I never want to forget them and what they did that has allowed me to live with such freedom and with so many choices. The Susan B. Anthonys, Sojourner Truths, Emma Goldmans, and Margaret Sangers of the world were followed by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Mother Theresa, and hundreds of other brave hearts I have always admired. I have always paid attention to women like this, and the Audubon Society's backbone was carved by the real women in my novel like Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway. History books are littered with the accomplishments of women like this and inspired by their bravery. Julia appeared to me as a tribute to all they have done.

As much as there is love between Julia and the men in her life (I won't give any spoilers here), The Year of Necessary Lies, captures the beauty of female friendship. What do you think it takes to find and nurture relationships with other women?

The joy of female friendship has always been one of the major foundations of my life and wow, have I ever been lucky! Being open and able to share feelings and what is inside of your heart is crucial to all relationships but especially so with female friends. I have always felt that all women are connected by an invisible string and that we have common denominators that keep us linked. Whatever you are feeling, someone else is feeling and has felt so there is a link there that sustains all women. Be nice, be brave, and put yourself out there, and you can also feel the joy that I have felt with my amazing friends. And be willing to take the good and the bad because it's part of the deal.

The Year of Necessary Lies features an interesting frame with Julia's great granddaughter, Kelly, adding her own layer to the story. What do you hope this element of the narrative adds to the story? Why did you add Kelly's reflection and growth?

I have an amazing daughter who is now a young woman, and I wanted to create a special place for celebrating and understanding the gifts that the women who went before us gave us. It's important to remember and to honor and to also know that everyone gets to have their own YEAR, but sometimes it takes longer then 12 months to get there but that's okay. And sometimes our inspiration for what we can attain may be living right next to us.

The phrase "moment of resurrection" is a powerful one. Have there been times when you needed to redefine yourself? What gave you the power to move your life in the direction you choose?

I sometimes feel as if I've had so many resurrections that I should start my own church! Many of my huge life changes have come about with the help of other women who held my hands and showed me the way and that is something I celebrate in my work. It's also so important to know that there are reserves inside of you just waiting for your hand and heart to dip into them so you can move forward and live the way you want to live and not the way someone else tells you how to live. I have stumbled and there have been many dark days, but I take comfort in my past victories, in knowing that I still have miles to go (and books to write!), and that I took the moment, held it close, and then bravely stepped forward myself.

This is your tenth book, and you work in both memoir and fiction. What is your writing process? How do you decide which ideas to go all the way with?

I think a great Pinot Noir helps! Hells bells my mind is a tornado and I often just look into the mirror and see my new face lines and think, wow, I know how that got there; I bet other women have the same lines, and I need to write about that. I'm always working on a non-fiction book and fiction book at the same time, but I am also to the point in my career where I am having lots of Moments of Literary Resurrection. Historical fiction is new for me, and the next novel is REALLY new also, but I will always focus on female empowerment as my starting point. The book that springs to life is the one with a character who will not let me sleep, eat, pushes me into walls, and demands that I get on with it. Wait until you see this next woman! She's standing right next to me now!



Lies and the Hills We Climb to Escape Them: A Conversation with Author Sonja Yoerg

Sonja Yoerg's fiction is not stranger to the concept that people lie and keep secrets to protect themselves and those they love. In her debut novel, House Broken, she explored an entire family system punctuated more by what they didn't say than what they did. She returns to this theme in her amazing new novel, The Middle of Somewhere, which follows a young widow, Liz, as she grapples with both the mountains of the California Sierra and the prospect of a future with her boyfriend, Dante. To get through both, Liz learns firsthand the power of facing your demons. Yoerg spoke with me about the process of writing such a gripping novel and her own love of hiking.


Liz's predicament in the first four chapters excruciating. I longed for her to save herself from her own undoing. How as an author do you fight the impulse to save your characters?

Unless someone is in deep doo-doo, there's no story, right? I don't plot out my books, so I don't know how bad it will get or from where salvation might arise. It's stressful for me not knowing how my characters will find their way through the mess I've created and, at the same time, it's deliciously fun.


Lying can be exhausting. What is it like as an author to balance knowing the truth your character's hide and revealing it on the page slowly to keep the book interesting? How do you keep track of the secrets yourself?

Long-held secrets are treasures. People don't give them up unless they are desperate. The anxiety created by a deep-seated secret becomes part of a person's character, so it's actually easier to keep lying than to come clean. But there are motivations for honesty, too, and holding the tension between those desires is an exercise in brinksmanship. I have to work hard at it. I don't have trouble remembering each character's inner story. Perhaps I should be concerned about what that says about me!

Redemption is also a great theme in your work. What makes a good ending for a novel to you? How do you navigate finishing the story and making everything too perfect?

Confession: I'm terrible at it. I feel so sorry for my characters and the wretched things I've done to them that by the end I'm desperate to make it up to them. For both books, I initially wrote a fairytale ending and had to revise it. I'm not skilled at finishing things in general. The last five percent of any project feels like wading through muck.


The Middle of Somewhere clearly demonstrates a love of hiking and the great outdoors. What inspired you to write this book? What is your own experience with hiking? I heard a rumor that you just completed another long hike -- where did you go?

To celebrate our empty nest, my husband and I hiked the trail described in the book -- all 220 miles of it. As I walked (and walked and walked and walked), I had ample time to reflect on what a rich setting it was. The wilderness is vast but, as one of the characters says, the trail is "just a skinny little thing," so the storytelling possibilities are both enormous and constrained. I stayed true to the actual John Muir Trail, which meant I couldn't invent a river crossing or a summit or another physical challenge whenever I needed one. Getting the plot to fit the trail was like trying to dance in a broom closet.

I adore hiking, and backpacking in particular. Carrying everything I need on my back makes me feel whole and self-sufficient, and I love the rituals of setting up camp each night and breaking camp each morning. I grew up in Vermont and mountain landscapes speak to me. My husband and I recently hiked for a month in the French Pyrenees, staying in inns and hostels, rather than camping. We were traveling light, which was wonderful, plus we had real food and wine every night! The wildflowers there were the prettiest I've ever seen, and unlike the Sierra spring, the Pyrenees were mosquito-free.


Do you have any advice for people who read The Middle of Somewhere or Cheryl Strayed's Wild and feel inspired to put on hiking boots and hit the trail? Do you have anything special to say for couples that want to do this together?

I'm an advocate for the role of adventure and physical challenge in keeping us healthy and sane. If my book or anyone else's inspires people to spend time outside or even climb a mountain, I'm delighted. With sensible preparation, even the deepest wilderness is a welcoming, beautiful place. Go!

Some people find it remarkable I would choose to spend a month in the woods with my husband. We adore it. It's a quiet, low-stress environment. Other than choosing whether to have pasta or curry for dinner or selecting a campsite, there aren't a lot of decisions. We walk and talk, or silently share our delight in the wonders around us. We joke around, make friends with other hikers, sleep eleven hours a night and start planning the next trip before we reach the end of the trail. If you can swing, give it a shot.





The Admissions: An Interview With Meg Mitchell Moore

Meg Mitchell Moore is the author of three novels, including her latest, The Admissions, which takes a strong look at a family gripped by the pressure to succeed.Emily Liebert, author of When We Fall says, "Moore digs deep into the zeitgeist of a modern family desperate to keep their heads above water. Add in long-hidden secrets, cutthroat college admissions and revolving perspectives and you have an undeniably addictive read." We spoke about the stress families face, creating compelling characters and our motivations and fears.

You wrote very convincingly about both this family and the stress they face from high-stakes living both in terms of their careers and their children's education. What did you learn while writing this book that helps your own family find balance?

First of all, thank you! Second, probably what I've learned the most is how the hard part for us is still coming up, which is scary. My kids are now 12, 10 and 8. I don't think I would have written a book like this if any of my kids were in the thick of college applications. It would have felt too close to home. It seems hard to be a kid these days! There are so many pressures coming from so many different places -- parents, teachers, friends, technology, parents or friends who are using technology to apply more pressure -- that sometimes there's no escape. I hope what I keep in mind as my kids get older is that home and family should provide a refuge wherever possible, not another pressure point.

Some people argue that author inject some of themselves into their characters. Which characters in The Admissions did you relate to or connect with this most? Why? What does it take to write a compelling character?

As far as age, gender, position in the family, etc., certainly I relate to Nora Hawthorne (the mother of the family) the most. In a general sense, I gave Nora some of the worries that plague me or friends who are also parents -- and especially working parents. I definitely exaggerated some of those worries for the sake of a good story, but I believe many of her feelings are very common in today's generation of parents. We all want our kids to do well and be happy, and it's easy to forget that happiness and success are not always the same thing.

I think the most important part of writing compelling characters is empathizing with each one in one way or another, even if it's not the most obvious way. If the character is not your age or your gender or your race or your economic background, what fear or secret desire or weakness does that character have that you either have yourself our can imagine having? Everybody has made mistakes at some point in his or her past; everybody has something they'd rather not have the whole world know about. That's an easy feeling to empathize with.

A big part of this book deals with expectations both internal and external. What do you hope The Admissions says about desire, motivation and our anxieties surrounding success and falling short?

I hope the book makes some readers say, "This is crazy, right? What we're doing for (or to) our kids, or ourselves?" I hope it makes some people say, "Why don't we all just live our lives and let our kids live their lives and laugh or eat ice cream or jump in the ocean instead of worrying so much." I hope it says that it's okay to mess up and fall short sometimes, and that one mistake doesn't negate the possibility of success or happiness.

The Admissions is your third novel. Tell me about your writing and publishing process. What advice do you have for new authors looking to get started in publishing?

I always start with characters and situations. The plot comes later for me. I write a first draft fairly quickly and then spend a long time revising and editing once I have feedback from my agent or editor. Most of my revisions are plot revisions.

Advice: 1. Read, read, read. 2. Be patient with your voice developing. It takes most writers a long time and a lot of trial and error. 3. Don't try to chase a publishing trend because by the time you get there it will be gone. 4. Develop a thick skin, then do whatever you can to make it even thicker. It's a subjective business, which is part of the beauty of it. You will come across people who don't like your work, and if that's going to undo you, think about a different career path.