Monthly Archives: May 2014

Q+A With Carol Merchasin

Carol Merchasin, author of the Shebook, How It Goes in Mexico, explains how she swapped out her life as a lawyer for her new post as an expat essayist.

What prompted you to write How It Goes in Mexico?

After I moved to San Miguel de Allende, I was stunned by my own ignorance about Mexico – history, culture, honestly everything except maybe tacos and tequila (actually, including tacos and tequila).  I began to write these essays to try to help my family and friends understand the magic of living here. I wanted Americans to glimpse the Mexico I experience every day – a place so rich, so different and so misunderstood.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I heard Anne Lamott on the radio doing an interview for Bird by Bird in 1995.  I was driving and I had to pull over into a parking lot to make sure I could hear every word.  I was not a writer then, I was a lawyer, but I took an index card and wrote “index cards” on it. Ten years later, I read Hiruki Murikami’s story about how he decided to become a writer in What I talk about when I talk about running and I took out the carefully preserved index card and decided to become a writer.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I occasionally consult with companies on harassment and discrimination training.

I was a waitress when I was a teenager and that was probably my most interesting job.  As Dr. Seuss said, “Oh, the people you’ll meet…..”

What is your favorite word right now?

“Village.“ I love the word “village” and its denotation of a small place, a cluster of houses and shops, as well as the connotation of a less frenzied, more human scale, unfiltered life.  I am living in a Mexican village now and it fascinates me!

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now?

Yes. I read on my iPad, which is an extension of my right arm. I usually like to have a lot of books going at once so I can chose according to how I feel.  Right now I am reading The Life and Times of Mexico by Earl Shorris, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

What’s next?

I am finishing up the remaining essays for How It Goes in Mexico to be published in early 2015.

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Jane Ciabattari: “I tend to be drawn to taboos. I can’t seem to help it.” | Q&A

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I grew up in a book-loving family (my father was on the local library board). I read continuously growing up. My first efforts were poems—I was haunted by the myth of Sisyphus as a child and wrote a convoluted poem about it. I edited the literary magazine at my small public high school in Kansas and dreamed of getting out. And I did, starting with a National Merit Scholarship, which gave me the chance to study creative writing at Stanford. Nancy Packer at Stanford was tough and, because of that, encouraging.

I wrote “Hide and Seek,” a taut, suspenseful–and withholding–story about a young girl being abused by an older neighbor boy in her workshop. She told me it was good but that I didn’t go far enough. I wasn’t able to at the time, but she taught me you could. That lesson helped me write my first published story, “Hiding Out,” which ended up in the North American Review, Redbook, and LiteraryMama.com.

In graduate school I was most deeply influenced by Herbert Wilner. I was doing directed writing with him while working full time as managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle. I was working on a novel. He was clearly ill from a heart condition caused by treatment for a lung cancer years before. He had surgery and died. I couldn’t continue that novel. I got a scholarship to Squaw Valley Writers Community and got back on track up there. “Stealing the Fire,” the title story in my first collection, uses some of that emotion and that setting. It’s about a writer finding her voice. So that’s what I was up to then.

A group of us in Herb’s writing workshop (including Molly Giles and Jane Vandenburgh, who all went on to publish novels and story collections) started a writers’ group. It went on for years. We’d gather at each other’s houses and drink wine and critique the work. We weren’t always kind. But we all ended up being better writers.

Are there any themes, characters, or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

I tend to be drawn to taboos. I can’t seem to help it. Although I’ve lived for many years on the Upper West Side and in Sag Harbor, quite a few of my stories are set in California—Squaw Valley, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, the canyons and bars of Southern California. For some reason that landscape inspires me. I like to write about experiences I haven’t had.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Writing about brutality. Writing about addiction (“Arabella Leaves,” in California Tales, is about a crystal meth addict; I wanted to show what a sparkling girl she was before she was lost to drugs, and how she was loved). Writing about troubled families (“Aftershocks,” which is about a boy, a girl, and a dog who meet in the Viper Room during the devastating Los Angeles earthquake, deals in part with the aftermath of suicide). It’s terrifying to take on the realities we’re living now.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Expect to throw a lot away. Expect to work hard and revise constantly. Love it. Or don’t do it. Isn’t that what we all say?

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?

I use my background as a journalist to research stories. Then I wait for images to come. While I was writing “Arabella Leaves,” the first story in California Tales, I  researched Harley Davidsons, methamphetamine addiction, Southern Californian flora and fauna, and biblical references to Lazarus.

Many of the seemingly unrelated details I added to information based on this research come from the business of living life, taking notes on the small things that most people never notice—the sound of coyotes, the smell of the arroyos, a stainless steel motorcycle I saw on the Port Jefferson ferry, a street in New Orleans. Arabella was named after a street sign in the Garden District of New Orleans. Her mother had spotted it on a brief visit to the Big Easy. Her boyfriend D has a custom Screamin’ Eagle Deuce, with a Twin Cam 95 V-Twin engine. It’s the thing he loves most in the world.

I collect photos, pressed flowers—all kinds of things connected to characters or stories. This physical evidence helps me make the transition into writing the story.

I looked through newspaper archives reporting the Northridge earthquake while I was writing “Aftershocks.” “Payback Time” came out of my fascination with the dot-com boom and bust a while back.  The story is about what happens when the corporate world turns malevolent.  But I also was inspired by Chekhov. The Cherry Orchard. Silicon Valley, once filled with apricot orchards, becomes a dream killer for a workaholic just as he’s on the verge of cashing in.

Do you currently have a job other than writing?

I’m a book critic and columnist. I write the Between the Lines column for BBC.com and contribute regularly to NPR.org, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, and others. I’ve been involved with the National Book Critics Circle for  many years. I’m a past president and currently vice president/online in charge of the Critical Mass blog and social networking.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

Not sure if it’s odd, but I have a webcam on Mavericks, the surfer spot; I love to go to Lagunitas TapRoom live concerts; I rode a Honda 250 Scrambler until I got married and settled down (I was still an undergrad). I’m still married to  my first husband: I met my darling on a blind date and we were engaged after two weeks.

What is your favorite word right now?

Chimera. It came to me when working on my novel in progress, in connection with the character I call Shanika. Here’s an excerpt:

Shanika took her laptop from the table, opened it, and sat quietly for a moment.

“Chimera,” she said.

“What?!” Abby snorted with laughter.  This girl was so unpredictable.

“It’s a word I learned on the Internet. It’s got a lot of definitions. One. A fire-breathing she-monster in Greek mythology having a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.  There are lots of pictures. Two. An illusion or fabrication of the mind; especially an unrealizable dream.

“And here are the synonyms,” she continued. “A fantasy, illusion, daydream, a vision, or hallucination. Something you see but it’s not there.”

Shanika smiled, clearly delighted with what she’d learned, thanks to the mysteries of Google.

“Chimera,” she repeated. “That’s what I’m going to call my business.”

“And what will you sell?” Abby asked, amused and curious.

“Not things for sale,” she said. “It’s a massage thing. You come in, you relax, we make you feel peaceful. It’s an illusion. But you’ll feel good for a while.”

How will I keep up with this one? Abby wondered.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Flannery O’Connor. Margaret Atwood. Marilynne Robinson. Toni Morrison. Chimamanda Adichie, Dorothy Allison, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Egan, Rachel Kushner, Dawn Raffel, Elissa Schappell, Jane Smiley, Marisa Silver, Susan Straight, Amy Tan, and hundreds more whose work I’ve reviewed. When I review a book I read it at least twice, sometimes three times. I look at the structure, the language, the themes, the intent. I admire too many contemporary writers to name.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing a novel I’ve been working on for several years. Revising is so humbling. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and drafting. Now I have to let most of that drop away. But I needed that back-story so I could feel the truth of the story as I wrote the first few drafts. It’s called The Road to Eastville. It’s about Abby,  who grows up in a small Illinois town founded by her abolitionist forebears. She falls in love in high school with Zeke, a classmate who is the fourth in a line of men whose ancestor was a runaway slave who worked on the Underground Railroad with the abolitionist founders. He becomes radicalized and leaves her when their son is not even two years old. The book is set in 2004 during the Obama-Keyes senatorial campaign in Illinois. Abby is living in New York and quietly going about her chosen business as an American history postdoctoral fellow. As the novel opens, she gets a call from her son, who is in jail for being highly successful in the drug business. His girlfriend, who also is in jail, shoplifting for drug money, is pregnant. Twins. So Abby goes back to Illinois. A heap of trouble comes from that phone call. Like the story of Ruth, the novel tells of the love between generations that transcends family blood ties.

I’ve been workshopping the novel with my husband, Mark, who also is a fiction writer, and Greg Sarris, a novelist whose work I admire greatly. We’re all coming toward completion of our manuscripts. It helps to have others along on the long journey.

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Dig into tales of California’s intense pressures and addictions: California Tales, only at Shebooks.

Mary Jo McConahay: “Write every day. Not every other day, not when the spirit hits. Every day.” | Q&A

Award-winning journalist and author of the Shebook, Ricochet, Mary Jo McConahay gives us a peek at her storytelling process.

How do you think your religious identity has influenced your writing?

Not only did our parents tell us stories in the family and read to us, but at Catholic school and at church on Sundays issues of faith, moral dilemmas, history, the miraculous, and far-off places were presented through stories I practically memorized over the years. I think that kind of upbringing influenced my point of view that such themes naturally might weave themselves through a good yarn.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I never thought of myself as anything but a writer of one sort or another—journalist, playwright, travel writer, short story writer. My first published piece appeared in my grammar school “newspaper,” a story in which I took on myself the character of a young raindrop who fell away from her family onto Earth, experienced adventures, and eventually ended up in a river from which Louis Pasteur took her as a sample for his experiments in germ theory so she was responsible for saving millions of lives. Not too self-centered, is it? I was young.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

I keep in mind the reader who is smart and curious but hasn’t necessarily been to the places I am writing about, so I am careful to create the landscape throughout, describe appearance and history, smell and light.  Everything I write, I hope, starts with a sense of place.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Write every day. Not every other day, not when the spirit hits. Every day.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m writing a book with the working title Tango War about the struggle between Fascism and the Allies for South America during World War II. Research has already taken me to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and recently to Italy where—a fact not generally known but well remembered by Italians—South American units fought bravely.

Do you have any secret talents?

No secret talents, but some of my friends think I should not mention certain jobs I’ve had—as a model, a flight attendant—because they suggest a past incongruent with being a serious writer. I loved those jobs.

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Read Ricochet: Two women war reporters and a friendship under fire only at Shebooks

Ariel Gore: What do you owe a dying parent who never really took care of you?

Ariel Gore, author of the Shebook Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver and publisher of Hip Mama magazine, tells the story caring for her difficult mother in her final days.

 

My mother wore a coral sweater and matching nail polish the day she came to tell me she had stage 4 lung cancer.

I took a deep breath and exhaled.

In her usual and offensive communication style, my mother shook her head. “Pitifully, Ariel,” she said with a sigh, “you’re all I have.”

I didn’t want to take care of my mother. But I knew I would.

I’d join 65 million other Americans—almost 30 percent of the U.S. population—who care for an ill, disabled, or aging friend or family member.

These “informal caregivers” offer an average of 20 hours a week in unpaid labor and more than $5,000 a year in out-of-pocket expenditures. These are our measurable contributions, anyway.

And the typical caregiver, it turns out, is me: a working woman with children of her own caring for her widowed mother.

We take care of our ailing parents for any number of reasons: love, duty, necessity, or some combination.

Some caregivers want to reciprocate the care they themselves received as children.

But what do we owe a self-centered parent who never really took care of us?

I’m sure there were plenty of loving, attentive mothers in the “me generation,” but none of them lived at my house.

When I was a kid, my mother’s parenting style teetered between benign neglect and intense bouts of violence.

My stepdad was gentle, but he didn’t intervene if my sister and I were getting our heads bashed together.

I left home at 16, started my own family at 19, and tried to build a life free of meanness and abuse.

I reared a daughter, sent her off to college, then had a second child.

That’s when my mother showed up at my door with the news. She might live six weeks or she might live a year. She was 68 and a widow.

My grandmother had just died a few weeks earlier, so my mother had a small inheritance, but beyond that she relied on Social Security and Medicaid. She didn’t qualify for most of the assisted living facilities we could afford, and her epic temper tantrums had already gotten her kicked out of the one we could afford.

To be fair, my mother wasn’t bursting with excitement at the prospect of having me as her caregiver. “If I’m a burden,” she promised, “I’ll just blow my brains out.”

I guess this was supposed to make me feel better.

“You’re not a burden,” I lied.

And I agreed to buy a duplex with her and move my family two states away from our home and community.

Friends who didn’t know my mother promised all the beauty and dignity that our cultural mythology promises—reconciliation and a gentle death.

But what if the way we die is no gentler than the way we’ve lived?

Cancer or no, my mother was harsh, charming, and chaotic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, for example, when, as we were en route to this new life, my mother had the duplex we’d bought gutted and burned half my furniture.

My partner and I were horrified, of course, but we told ourselves the situation was temporary. Stage four lung cancer is no joke, after all. We hated to think of it this way, but truthfully it was reassuring: My mother would die soon.

But, alas, my mother did not die soon. As a good friend warned me the night we got the diagnosis, “I know your mother. She’s a narcissist. And narcissists take a long time to die.”

I don’t know if my mother was a narcissist—or bipolar or borderline. Those were words she tossed around over the years. As in: “You wouldn’t believe what that moronic psychologist suggested.”

But she was something.

Home hospice nurses would catch their breath when they first met her and whisper, “Your mother is so beautiful.” Within a few days they’d quit, crying, “Your mother’s a witch.”

Both observations were true enough.

My partner and I stayed on, tried to do our part. There were nurses and naturopaths, radiation technicians and shamans. And there was my mother.

One morning I woke to discover my bank account overdrawn by thousands of dollars. In a late-night shopaholic moment she’d hacked both my PayPal and eBay accounts—easily answering my security questions like “In which hospital were you born?” and “What’s you mother’s maiden name?”—and bought more antique French dishes than we could ever eat off of.

One night, upset to find a good knife in the dishwasher, she woke me, blade pointed at my throat. She hummed a Simon and Garfunkel song. And then started laughing.

When I commandeered the knife, she cried, “I have cancer!”

When I told her that cancer or no, her behavior was unacceptable, she dramatically disowned me.

After the knife incident, I moved my family out of harm’s way, but between her rages, my mother got sicker.

When she was being released from the hospital for the last time, a social worker friend urged me not to answer my phone. “You have to legally abandon your mother,” she told me. “The state will have to take care of her if there’s no one to release her to.”

But I didn’t have it in me.

It wasn’t payback time. It was time to be the grown-up.

I may have raised myself, but I raised myself right.

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My mother a few days before she died

 

I didn’t take care of her full-time, but I bottom-lined the show for those last three months: I called everyone I knew to come and help, hired nursing students to stay with her nights, fed her soft foods even though I couldn’t remember her ever feeding me.

I didn’t owe her anything in the caregiving department. Still, I tried to behave in a way I would be proud of.

Some days I wanted to slap her (and I didn’t).

Some days I wanted to scream expletives at her (and some days I did).

Some days I wished she would have some miraculous end-of-life revelation and stop being so abusive to me, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

She died the way she had lived: mean and beautiful, with a good manicure.

 

This post was originally published on Ariel Gore’s Psychology Today blog at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-and-happiness/201303/what-do-we-owe-dying-parent.

Want to hear the rest? Read Ariel Gore’s short e-book memoir Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, only at Shebooks!

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 Plus, check out Hip Mama: http://hipmamazine.com/.

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Sonya Huber: “I don’t actually know what you should do. I just know what I did wrong.” | Q&A

Sonya Huber, author of the Shebook Two Eyes Are Never Enough, shares her thoughts about memoir, the Common Core, and her past life as a trash collector.

Is there anything that you consider too personal to write about? How do you find that edge?

I generally try to avoid writing about my son’s life in any great detail, although I’ll mention anecdotes that include him as a way to get into a topic about myself that I’m investigating. I avoid writing about my relationship with my husband because it’s not troubling, and I generally write about trouble.

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

I had someone close to me get upset because I didn’t put her in a memoir—when I thought people hated to be written about. I thought I was doing her a favor, but it turns out there’s no “perfect” in memoir. I shy away from a few (OK, maybe hundreds of) topics that I know would hurt people, but I’ve still hurt people I loved by writing about them, even if I hid their identity and agonized and did it with the utmost of care. It’s just weird to be written about, and it’s great for a memoir writer to have someone else write about them. I’ve had that opportunity, and it’s instructive. I only write about something that might be hard for someone else if I can’t not write about it. And then I worry about it for three to five years first.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Apply for writers’ residencies before you have kids. Shoot big with your applications and your submissions. Study the places that you’d die of joy to be published in, and then hound them with your submissions, and don’t give up. (Those are a list of my mistakes flipped around into advice, so I don’t actually know much of what you should do. I just know what I did wrong. I didn’t think of myself as having the potential to be a “real” literary writer until I was 30, so I missed some time rubbing elbows with people, getting my work out there, and going to writerly places.)

And here are a few things I did right: develop a second skill related to writing, like copyediting, proofreading, digital design, Web stuff, reporting, and so on. You can get paying work that way, and you never know when it will come in handy for creative projects.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I’m an associate professor at Fairfield University, but I was once a trash collector, a failed environmental canvasser, and a nude model for an art class.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I make a mean stuffed cabbage, but most cooking stresses me out.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two books simultaneously, which is how I like to do things. One is an essayistic memoir about what it means to be a witness to substance abuse, and the other is a book for teachers about how the literary essay might find a home in the Common Core (the revised national curriculum adopted by most states).

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Read about Sonya Huber’s experience working in Direct Care in Two Eyes Are Never Enough.

Nancy Rommelmann: I am a crack baker. | Q&A

Journalist Nancy Rommelmann, author of the Shebook Destination Gacy, explains what prompted her to visit serial killer John Wayne Gacy days before his execution.

What prompted you to write Destination Gacy?

I was living in Hollywood in 1994, writing pieces for these SoCal young dude magazines called bikini and Ray Gun. A video director I knew said, “Hey, Rommelmann, remember that party we went to at that guy Rick’s house?” I did, vaguely. “Well,” the director said, “he’s going to visit John Wayne Gacy and he wants someone to write about it.” Rick Gaez, who was 26, turned out to be a longtime pen pal of Gacy’s, as well as a collector of his paintings. Why would Rick court a relationship with a serial killer? Gacy was the most notorious killer of our time, his upcoming execution a mainstay of the nightly news. I saw the opportunity to explore the relationship between Rick and Gacy as fortuitous, as would be meeting Gacy and trying to understand why a man convicted of torturing and murdering 33 young men and boys held such sway on the public imagination.

I’d never written a feature longer than 1,200 words and did not know where or how to pitch, so I asked a friend who was at the time beauty editor at Glamour. She said to get it to her friend Joe Dolce, editor-in-chief of Details. I pitched Dolce; he bought the piece, 5,000 words and expenses for the trip. Rick and I set out in a rented Ford Tempo to drive from LA to Illinois. We knew each other not at all and he later confided to me that he’d packed a bag of psilocybin mushrooms in case I turned out to be a total drip. But we got on well, which was good, as the 6-day trip turned into 12 when we were at first turned away from seeing Gacy.

I filed my story. Dolce asked for a rewrite. As I was working on it, he moved over to Vogue and the new editor-in-chief killed my piece sight unseen. I was left holding what had grown to be a 9,000-word feature. Gacy had been executed, and it’s crude but still true to say I felt as though I were dragging around a corpse. Anne Thompson, a film critic at the time for the LA Weekly, got it to an editor there. The paper bought the piece. I was so green that when I went in to edit and the editor said, “We’ll put a drop cap here,” I asked, what’s a drop cap? I did not have the courage to ask whether the story would be on the cover. The day the paper was coming out, I was at the World News stand in Hollywood early. A truck dropped off a bound stack of Weeklys, and on the cover was my piece. I grabbed a copy, walked into the alley alongside the newsstand, and screamed.

The piece launched my career: within a month of it appearing, I had a column at the city magazine and was writing for the LA Times. The article did not, however, have long legs in itself, as it was published before the advent of the Internet; it’s never been online. I’ve had so many people in the intervening years ask to read it. Now they can.

Are there any themes you find recurring in your writing?

Murder has been a theme, if not a steady beat. Writing features and books about murder takes a long time—people, with reason, do not want to speak with a stranger about the hardest thing they’ve probably ever been through. Plus, we see a lot of sensationalism when it comes to the true crime genre, which is not what I consider my work to be, but sometimes those you seek to speak with cannot or will not differentiate.

Anyway, if I divide my career into decades, the first was murder and nightlife, the second, murder and food—I was freelancer for ten years for Bon Appétit—and now, moving into the third decade, murder and books, notably as a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. I also have written and always will write profiles of people, from barflies to movie stars. I find nearly everyone and what they do intriguing. My longtime editor at the LA Weekly said, “People tell you everything.” I am rapt to hear it.

Do you have an e-reader? When do you read on it? What are you reading right now?

I do have an e-reader. I am on my second Kindle, the Paperwhite, which I love. Actually, it’s my third. About 15 years ago, my husband bought me the first-ever e-reader, called a Rocket, which was about the size of a shoebox. I justified my not reading on it by thinking that I could not see myself tossing it in a cloth bag and skipping down some stone steps to a beach in Spain. Not that I’ve ever been to Spain. When the first Kindle came out, I was sent an advance copy in order to write a think piece about it for a Seattle Arts publication. I did, comparing it to “reading with a condom on.” My sister-in-law, also a writer, said pshaw, it is another way to read, and what can be wrong with that? She’s right, of course.

I love the Kindle—and the Kindle app; I’ve read about 25 books on my phone—because you can read about a book and just hit “buy.” I tend to read fiction more than nonfiction on the Kindle; as for work, I sometimes mark up books, and I don’t find it easy to make notes on the Kindle. I recently read Mary McCarthy’s The Group on the Kindle, and this morning a Shebooks title, Blood Brother, by Mona Gable. The Kindle is brilliant for singles and article-length e-books. Conversely, for massive books, as you don’t really notice you’re making your way through a 775-page hardcover, to wit, The Goldfinch. The only downside is the short attention span problem. If you travel with one book in your bag, to Spain or otherwise, you read one book. Your Kindle library can be a bit of a candy store. There are worse problems to have.

What writing projects are you working on?

I am working on To the Bridge, a book of narrative nonfiction about Amanda Stott-Smith, who forced her two young children off a bridge in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of the night on May 23, 2009, killing her four-year-old son. Her seven-year-old daughter screamed for 40 minutes and was rescued. I started writing about this the following day. I needed to know why and how this happened. I needed to know as a mother, as a journalist, as a citizen of a city rocked by the event. Reading, as I repeatedly did, that Stott-Smith was “evil, pure and simple” and should be slowly lowered into the Willamette River, preferably weighted with cinderblocks, told me of the public’s taste for vengeance but little about the road Stott-Smith traveled to get herself and her children to the bridge that night.

Do you have any secret talents?

Yes. I am a crack baker. I bake the best chocolate-chip cookies you have ever eaten. Don’t believe me? Let my friend Sandra Tsing Loh tell it, in Cookie Dominatrix.

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Check out Destination Gacy: A cross-country journey to shake the devil’s hand only at Shebooks!

 

 

Brittany Tuttle: “I want to write about women as if patriarchy had never existed—put them into worlds where nobody has ever had a sexist thought” Q&A

Brittany Tuttle, author of the Shebooks fantasy thriller Stone and Spring, shares her thoughts about sexism, sci-fi and too much coffee.

What prompted you to write Stone and Spring?

The short answer might be a lot of coffee. Stone and Spring was one of those rare pieces that seemed to drop from the sky, fully formed. I sat down in a cafe and started writing, and there it was. I do think there are parts of the story that reflect my subconscious dealing with depression, making it into a fable.

Are there certain themes you find recurring in your work?

My upcoming novel is about four grown siblings on a road trip, searching for some truth about their father, who died when they were young. It centers around one of the sisters, who is strange and not quite human. The tone is very different from Stone and Spring—but this idea of an odd woman on a search for truth seems to be something I needed to write more than once.

How do you think your gender identity has affected your writing?

I’ve always assumed I would write about women, and I want to write about them almost as if patriarchy had never existed—put them into worlds where nobody has ever had a sexist thought and move on with the story. I’m tired of the oppressed woman narrative. I want to revise history, or at least our conceptions of it. I don’t think stories about women who have sovereignty over their lives are any less true; It’s just that we aren’t used to hearing that narrative.  

Is there such a thing as women’s writing? Do you hate the term “chick lit”?

I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this question. It’s got me brushing up on Hélène Cixous. I kind of just want to start using the term “dick lit” and move on.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer?

I am fortunate that my first experience with publishing has been with Shebooks. I can’t imagine a better place for women who write. Working in a library, I’ve found it’s not unusual for men to come in and say they don’t want any recommendations for books written by womenl; they won’t read those. To these guys, I say, Great! I didn’t want to commune with you anyway. My audience is someone else.“

When did you first decide you were a writer?

Just now when you called me a writer.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for?

No. When I’m writing I pretend that no one is ever going to read it. That’s the only way I’m able to turn off my internal editor and write the thorny stuff.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken in your writing?

My first short story was about a unicorn. I was seven or eight. I used the thesaurus to replace the word tired with “fatigued.” In the long run, I think it’s really paid off. But it was scary at the time.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer?

Sit down and write. Don’t worry if it sounds good. Don’t worry about plot or details. Just sit down to write as much as possible, and see what’s there. Don’t expect it to be easy.

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because people you know might read it?

There are some things to be written as memoir or essay, and others that can only be woven into fiction. That said, I do love Anne Lamott’s advice that “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

How did you dream up the setting for this story? 

I keep trying to think of something profound or at least helpful, but I really don’t know. There is a real setting—Wyoming—and an imagined setting, a sort of haunted forest. The setting was necessary for the story. The disturbing images appeared in my brain, and I wrote them down.

Do you currently have a job other than writing?

I work at my local library. I’ve never been able to keep a job that isn’t in some way related to books. I also have two little girls. I couldn’t keep that job without books, either.

An odd fact about you?

I don’t get brain freeze. Like, ever.

What is your favorite word right now?

Sovereign.

Have you ever been in a book club? What does that experience offer you?

I’m in a book club right now. I think I’m a really bad book club member. I try to be open-minded, but underneath I tend to think opinions about books that differ from mine are wrong. Don’st tell my book club I said that.

Do you have an e-reader?

I don’t have an e-reader. I’m not against e-readers; I don’t think they signify the end of something that is vital to the survival of our reading race. I read Shebooks on my iPad–I just downloaded Anna Marrian’s Love Junkie–but really need to get an e-reader to reduce the strain on my eyes. 

Who are your favorite authors?

Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy, and Maria Semple.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m getting ready to send my road-trip novel Angel Food off to print. I’m also working on a short book of essays about being a feminist and raising daughters.

Other than writing, do you have any secret talents?

I think I’m really great at accents. My husband might disagree.

Any last words?

One thing that keeps me writing sometimes is Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Trust your story.”

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Want to escape to another world? Try Brittany Tuttle’s otherworldly frontier tale Stone and Spring, only at Shebooks!

Teresa Wiltz: “I was in elementary school and my playmates kept asking, ‘What’s are you?’” | Q&A

Journalist Teresa Wiltz, author of The Real America, chats with Shebooks about the challenges she’s faced as a woman of color in the newsroom and beyond.

What prompted you to write The Real America?

I’ve been obsessed with the topic ever since I was in elementary school and my playmates kept asking me, “What’s your nationality?”

How do you think your gender/racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

They’re inseparable. How I’m perceived in the world as a woman of color impacts the way I am treated and, as a result, the experiences that I’ve had.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Certainly in the newsroom. There seems to be this unconscious thinking that men are there to think (and write about) deep thoughts, while women are there to do the lighter stuff. It’s not everyone, and it’s often unconscious, but it’s there.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

When I was in the sixth grade and we had to write weekly compositions for English class. My baby sister was a toddler then and she was quite the handful. So I started writing fiction about her—short stories where I would send her to the moon for NASA. I got A+++s.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Writing about myself, rather than reporting about the lives of other people. That’s terrifying.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Read everything. Write all the time. (Old school newspaper training is invaluable for that.) Learn the rules of grammar and style. Know them cold before you start getting all experimental with the written word.

Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

Yes. But I’m working on that.

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Want to get real about race? Read Teresa Wiltz’s journalistic memoir, The Real America, only at Shebooks!

Ethel Rohan: My Fear, Revealed

A guest post by Ethel Rohan, author of the Shebooks memoir Out of Dublin.

 

Out of Dublin, my short memoir from Shebooks is just ten thousand words. Ten thousand of the hardest words I’ve ever laid down. I’ve felt similar pain, and fear and anxiety, when I published my chapbook, Hard to Say. Yet while there’s a lot of my past in those fifteen tiny linked stories, I wrote them as fiction peopled with characters, and with distance and imagination. Out of Dublin is a whole other beast. In Out of Dublin, there’s no where to hide.

That’s why I wrote Out of Dublin, though. I’m done with hiding, and with the unsaid. The unsaid has tormented me over decades. What price will I pay, though, for these ten thousand words. I’m frantic Out of Dublin will cost me family and friends, that some will criticize me for putting in print what they believe should stay private. I write, though. That’s what I do. I write about what matters most to me.

These past several months, the fifth commandment, Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, has breathed on the back of my neck, chasing me. My parents would hate that I’ve written this book. That’s what presses on my chest, makes me panic. I’ve agonized. For me, it comes down to intention. My intention is not to dishonor my parents. I love my mother and my father. My intention is to make the truth into writing that’s artful and valuable, because the truth alone hurts too much and does no good.

I’m often scared and confused. I often don’t know if I’m doing the right or the wrong thing. I always try, though, to do my best. Recently, when I felt most afraid, most anxious, and most confused about publishing Out of Dublin, I made myself sit in my garden, and close my eyes, and listen to the birds, and feel the gold of the sun on my face, and even though I got calm and still, I didn’t feel or hear or see anything that seemed like a sign.

I had to make up my own mind, and I did.

It’s easier to look away from the hard things, to stay silent.

Easier isn’t enough for me. I decided to keep scaring myself.

 

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Read Ethel Rohan’s powerful memoir, Out of Dublin, only from Shebooks.