Monthly Archives: July 2014

Alison Luterman: “At age 50, I married a cat.” | Q&A

Prize-winning writer and poet Alison Luterman is the author of a new Shebooks collection called Feral City. Here she shares a little bit about the origin of her funny, authentic personal essays…and her newfound love of cats.

You say you are married to a cat?

In our marriage, I’m the dog while my husband is the fastidious, territorial cat, but I know there are many couples in which these roles are flipped. And perhaps there are couples out there composed of an aardvark and a screech owl, or a horse and a chicken. The possibilities, when you think of it, are endless. This is how, late in life, I find myself fascinated by animal behavior. And how, after fifty years of declaring myself not very into cats, I am now married to one (in human, male form), and the food-can-opening, litter-box-scooping love-slave to two more, in actual cat bodies. Life is full of surprises.

Alison Luterman with her cat

What is it about cats?

I was never a cat person until I got married. I was an adamant, dyed-in-the-wool dog person who scorned cats as moody, finicky snobs. I am not by nature, attuned to subtlety. I like people and animals to show their love by jumping on my lap, wagging their tails, panting and smiling and basically going over the top. My husband and the cats have really made me aware of a whole world of more quiet expressions. A soft purr. Choosing to sit on the same couch at the same time.  Saving the crossword puzzle until we can both do it together. Who knew love could be so gentle and various?

How did the Internet change your experience of dating?

The Internet makes it possible to meet people whom you wouldn’t meet otherwise, which is both a good and a difficult thing.  On the one hand, once you’re out of college, and if you work a non-traditional job (free-lance writer, poet-in-the-schools), it’s hard to meet eligible people, so the Internet, for me, was a terrific boon.  On the other hand, the folks you do meet over the Internet are not necessarily from your world, nor are you from theirs.  So you both have to do a lot of work building cultural bridges between your two separate planets, because sexual attraction will only carry you so far.  The rest of it is communication, empathy and if you have the resources, good therapy.  It’s worth it, but it’s not easy.

Did your writing change after you got married, having been a single person for so long?

My writing did not change, probably because I’ve been at it so long.  I’ve always written about whatever was going on in my life, whether it was dating disasters or hanging out with neighborhood children, or working with drug addicts in the Tenderloin.  For the last seven years, since I met Lee, I’ve written a lot about intimacy, the wonder and also the huge challenge of it: joining households, ceding power, stretching to understand another human being even when I’m feeling cranky and selfish and like I just want to do things the way I want to do them.  Digesting the huge change that came over my life when we became a couple has been like eating a dinosaur.  Writing is how I process whatever is going on in my life so the marriage has provided a lot of grist for the mill.

In your book you mention a couple that went to the beach and fought about the sand. What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve argued about with your spouse?

Oh my God, what haven’t we fought about?  Well, every week when we attempt to do the New York Times crossword puzzle together–in ink, because that’s how my family does it–we have a fresh opportunity to appreciate our differences.  Lee is very deliberate, methodical, and skeptical.  Even when an answer is screamingly obvious (to me!) he doesn’t want to commit any ink to paper until he has checked it out from every angle.  Whereas I operate much more from a first-thought-best-thought attitude, and am frequently subject to intuitive flashes, some of which are even sometimes correct.

 

Need a good belly laugh? Read Alison Luterman’s Feral City, only at Shebooks.net

Feral City

50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, so why do we feel so alone?

Michelle Brafman, award-winning author of We Named Them All discusses the taboo of pregnancy loss and how writing helped her heal.

 

I recently made a promise to my husband that I don’t know I can keep. I told him that I would no longer DVR The Young and the Restless. I am as addicted to Victor and Nikki Newman, matriarch and patriarch of Genoa City, Wisconsin, as they are to each other. What lures even more, though, is watching my television family pull together during their times of need. They put aside their feuds over affairs, blackmail, arson, and various forms of public humiliation to show up at hospitals and cemeteries with tissues and hugs.

I am at the age where I’ve lost friends and relatives, people whom I’ve loved deeply. In the aftermath of each passing, I’ve received flowers, notes, or phone calls. But I’ve also endured losses in which no cards arrived, no funeral was held, and people avoided me completely because they didn’t know what to say.

The loneliest grief I’ve experienced was when I suffered miscarriages. I was far from alone, according to the March of Dimes, as many as 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriages. 80% of these miscarriages occur within the first three months of pregnancy, before the couples have announced their news. But it doesn’t mean that we haven’t picked out baby names or imagined our kids’ first steps or wondered if they would inherit our grandmother’s pretty blue yes.

I found this loss difficult to share with my closest friends and family members, particularly the ones who were procreating with ease. Sometimes I’d unload my sorrow on perfect strangers.

I was told that this was “God’s way of correcting His mistake” and to buck up and get right back on that horse. I was asked if I thought that the miscarriage had perhaps somehow been my fault. While in my first trimester, did I travel? ski? have sex?

I don’t blame them. It’s almost impossible to say the right thing to someone who has lost a pregnancy. I certainly did not know how to comfort my friends before my own “spontaneous abortions” —who on earth came up with that term?

My isolation led me to write. I burned to tell the story of this special brand of crazy that my infertility was making me, so I wrote a story called “Sylvia’s Spoon,” about a woman who steals a family fertility totem from her barren aunt. I rewrote this piece maybe a hundred times, partially because I was learning the form, and partially because I needed to tell the story over and over to understand the scope of what I’d lost. When Lilith Magazine published a version, I discovered that there were droves of women who had shared my silence and shame about their fertility issues. This inspired me to write “Shhh,” the second story in We Named Them All, to give voice to the father and baby and to understand my own husband’s sadness.

 

We Named Them All

My story had a happy ending. My husband and I have two children. My experience did, however, teach me that a sincere “I’m sorry for your loss” can go a long way in providing comfort to someone who is grieving. I also know that with any kind of loss, even if pretty handkerchiefs and hugs are dispensed, as they are so freely on The Young and the Restless, we are all left to experience our own brand of crazy. And in so doing, we heal.

Michelle Braffman with her children

Looking for a book to make you laugh and cry? Read an excerpt from We Named Them All, Michelle Brafman’s masterful short fiction—only at Shebooks.net.

This is What Happens When You Take Away a Woman’s Reproductive Rights

Denise Emanuel Clemen’s new memoir, Birth Mother, chronicles her secret pregnancy as a teenager living in a small Catholic community in the 1970’s. Clemen asks us to imagine the shameful and powerless reality which, given America’s current political debate, might be closer to us than we realize.

 

Imagine a world where there is no such thing as birth control. No abortion either. Imagine a place where single mothers are shamed and baited. Imagine that the term single mother is replaced with the word slut. Imagine that you are the slut. You are pregnant. You are too dirty, too worthless, too much of an embarrassment to raise your baby. So you give him away.

Now imagine that this world is a real place. Because it was.

When I was a pregnant teenager in a small Catholic town in 1970, men were most decidedly in charge of women’s reproductive rights. The same issues are making headlines today. The Birth Control Panel. The Personhood Movement. The Hobby Lobby decision. In the past few months legislatures in three dozen states have introduced over 300 measures that restrict women’s reproductive rights. The desperation and damnation I experienced while struggling to keep my pregnancy secret in order to preserve my family’s good name rise up with a fresh dread. Decision by decision, state by state, young women are experiencing some of the same humiliations that I experienced.

 Denise Emanuel Clemen

1970. Seven months pregnant, age 17, at my senior prom.

 

The world was teeming with change when I became pregnant at the age of 16 in October of 1969. Neil Armstrong had taken his first steps on the moon just a few months earlier. Lounging in a folding chair in a campground in Kentucky, I squinted at a black and white portable TV that someone had wired to an electrical outlet at an RV hook-up. Neil bounded through the lunar dust as the evening buzzed with insects and conversation at the wonder of it all. Two years before that, the 1967 “Summer of Love” had taken place in San Francisco, but in my world, a man walking on the moon seemed less remarkable than young people in San Francisco experiencing their own release from gravity.

In 1965, two years before the Summer of Love, Griswold v. Connecticut had made information about birth control, and birth control itself, legal for married women. Millions of American women, living in more open-minded places, were already using the birth control pill by the time I started high school in 1966, but in my Catholic town of 3,000 people even the word “rubber” was still spoken in hushed tones, and there was no place that a high school girl or boy would have dared to purchase one. For Catholics, Pope Paul the VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed all types of birth control other than the rhythm method. The 1973 abortion rights case of Roe v. Wade was still only a glimmer in some non-Catholic’s eye by the time I graduated from high school and left my small town forever the summer of 1970.

The fall weekend during my senior year of high school that permanently changed my life and my son’s did not present many options. There was no way to prevent my pregnancy short of abstinence, which was something I didn’t quite manage on one particular Saturday night. Nine months later as I delivered my son without the support of family or friends, I took no consolation from the fact that I’d gotten pregnant during my very first sexual encounter.

Imagine it. Imagine you. Imagine me. Imagine then and imagine the future—because it’s happening right now.

 

Read Denise Emanuel Clemen’s new memoir, Birth Mother, only at Shebooks.

Birth Mother

Kate Flora: “I have no secrets. I save all of them for my characters.” | Q&A

Shebooks is thrilled to publish Flora’s latest mystery Girls’ Night Out, a deliciously dark book club murder tale. A popular crime and mystery writer, Kate Flora has a fascination with people’s criminal tendencies that began after law school when she worked in the Maine attorney general’s office. Deadbeat dads, people who hurt their kids, and employers’ acts of discrimination aroused her curiosity about human behavior. Her books include seven “strong woman” Thea Kozak mysteries and three gritty police procedurals in her star-reviewed Joe Burgess series.

 

What prompted you to write Girls’ Night Out?

I’d been working on a book, Finding Amy, about a real murder, and one of the things I learned about the killer was his history of sexual violence toward women. He believed he was “entitled” to have sex if he wanted it, and if it wasn’t forthcoming, he would use violence or drugs to achieve his goal. He was charming and attractive and the young men in his circle admired him while the women felt guilt and damaged and as though it was their fault that they’d become victims. So that was the first strand.

The second strand is that I’m a good old-school feminist who likes to see women rescue themselves. My first mystery series, the Thea Kozak series, features a strong young woman who is a rescuer. Often, when I write a story, I begin with an image, a picture of someone in a situation, and ask myself, “What is that about?” In this case, the initial image was of the character Jay Hanrahan’s victim’s face when he gives his smiling press conference expressing pleasure that the jury understood it was a consensual act that the woman later regretted. I then began to imagine her friends seeing the devastation on her face and wondering what they could do to help her recover. That led me to the book group  and a friend’s declaration that she was sick of men getting away with behaving badly.

What would you say is the key to successful mystery or crime writing?

When I figure this out, I’ll be happy to share. Obviously, there is no one key. Characters the reader wants to spend time with. A story that’s sufficiently compelling to pull the reader in and hold her there. Enough plot twists to keep the reader unsettled and keep her guessing. And of course, along with endless research, there is the element of curiosity. If the writer isn’t curious about things, the reader won’t be.

Why do you think people find glee in reading crime stories and murder mysteries even when they are horrified by real crime?

A librarian once told me that the reason her patrons are attracted to crime novels is that it lets them experience the world from the safety of their chairs. There’s a lot of vicarious pleasure that comes from those adventures. And my friend Hallie Ephron, in an interview during her book launch right after 9/11 where she was challenged about the morality of writing books that profit from violence, crime, and death, said that we should all wish the world were more like the world of a crime novel, where justice is gotten for victims, morality prevails, and order is restored to the world.

Are there any characters or themes that you find recurring in your writing? What is their origin?

Characters? That’s easy. I write two different mystery series—one featuring a strong woman, the other a weary, damaged, middle-aged male cop—and with them, I’m exploring how people find balance between work and life and manage the complexities of family relationships. Thea Kozak grew out of going to law school in the 1970s, wanting women to have bigger roles in the world, and seeing so much embedded discrimination at work. Once—the storyteller can’t help herself here—I did a three-plus-hour negotiation for the state on a computer services contract, at the end of which the contractor’s lead guy rose, said to the room, “Thank you, gentlemen,” and left. The world has changed but we always have to keep an eye on it.

Thea is also my vehicle for exploring how women find balance between work—especially the kind of work that can fill all available time—and having a satisfying personal life.

Themes? I have several themes running through my work, both fiction and nonfiction. Probably because of my early work with abused and neglected children, I’m very interested in the relationships between parents and children—the ones that work and the ones that don’t, who is resilient and who isn’t. I also spend a lot of time with cops and people who work with victims, and I’m interested in how people are shaped, so I’m always sending scenes or questions to psychologists or psychiatrists and asking them if the adult behavior I’m portraying matches the childhood I’ve imagined.

Also, for a time, I was a volunteer working with domestic violence victims, and I tend to explore power balance issues in work and domestic situations.

Why did you choose to use a book club as the central group of characters for this piece?

A couple of reasons: First, because it goes against type—the image of women’s book groups tend to be passive readers who eat delicious food and sip wine and chat. This group is anything but passive. Second, because there are often such strong connections and loyalties in book groups, and often, also, a long shared history. Here, these women have been together since college. Now, they’re professional women who can use their skills to make things happen in the world. Their lives may have diverged, but their connections and their caring have not. And they are all strong women who have had to take chances to get where they are and are willing to take chances for each other.

Have you ever been a member of a book club yourself?

I’ve been in a version of the same book club for decades. The membership keeps changing, but there are two of us who’ve been around forever. I love my book club because it makes me read books I otherwise would never choose, including classics. We’ve also been through our children’s adolescence, college applications, career launches, marriages, and now we’re exploring being mothers-in-law and grandmothers.

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

The fabulous Roxana Robinson wrote an opinion piece recently in the New York Times about the question of whether we are entitled to write about the things we haven’t experienced because of our race, our gender, or our experience. It’s an important question for writers. I’m deeply aware that I come from a monoculture—white, rural, and Protestant—and something I’ve explored in my upcoming books, And Grant You Peace, is the way that people in a culture like mine deal with immigrants, especially immigrants from very different cultures with very different attitudes.

I tell my students that trying to understand, and write about, people who are different from us begins with us and moves out to grappling with the question of “How is that person not me, and what do I need to know to understand him or her?”

But this is what writers have always done: created well-understood and well-rendered characters who are very different from [the people who read about them].

Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term “chick lit” or think we should embrace it, like the term “gay”?

I love and hate the term “chick lit.” It tends to be demeaning, as reviews (we’ve all read the stats, haven’t we?) seem to value men’s writing and men’s viewpoints more than women’s. On the other hand, to the extent that “chick lit” represents a focus on a world where relationships and love and the way women find balance in life [matter], and how valuable women’s friendships are, maybe we should just own it in a more positive way.

For a wonderful essay about whether there is a “woman’s voice” in fiction, I always refer people to Francine Prose’s marvelous article “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink”.

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

I always say three things:

One: don’t wait for the fluttery little muse to land; writing is a discipline and you have to exercise your writing muscles so you’ll be there when inspiration does arrive.

Two: Only you get to decide that you’re a writer and you have to be your own best advocate. No one is ever going to ring your doorbell and ask to publish your story.

Three: If you’re aiming at publication, you’ll need the skin of an alligator, because the publishing world is cruel.

I also tell them to establish a sense of themselves as a writer before taking too many classes, so they don’t get whipsawed by too much contradictory advice.

What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

Writing is the most interesting day, night, weekend, all-the-time job I’ve ever had. Being a lawyer was excellent preparation, but nothing is quite like shooting big guns, getting found by search and rescue dogs, going on a stakeout and finding the bad guy, or riding an ATV through the Canadian woods. And then there’s the night the medical examiner shut me in the morgue refrigerator with all the bodies.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing the next book in my Thea Kozak series, Death Warmed Over. Prepping for the fall launch of a true crime, Death Dealer, and a police procedural mystery, And Grant You Peace. Gearing up for two major rewrites, and then? Well, by then something else will have come along.

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

Not too many of those. That I used to have a chicken hospital for the chickens the other hens had picked on? That I own a blueberry field? That I was once a candidate for Maine Blueberry Queen? Oh. I stole two milk crates in Albany, New York, back in the 1970s. I sometimes claim that I have a tattoo and ask people to guess what it is and where it is.

What is your favorite word right now?

Siloed.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

I have no secrets. I save all of them for my characters.

Do you have a quote, mantra or thought that you’d like to end with?

I’ve said this before, but it’s something I keep coming back to often. It’s a quote from Philip Gourevitch, in his sad, horrifying, and powerful book about the Rwandan massacre, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Gourevitch writes, “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.”

 Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, imagining it is a necessary part of the job if I am to write the kind of powerful books that will let my readers truly see the stories in their imaginations. And it can be a hard job, going around with such dark characters and images in my mind, hardest of all when the characters are real. That’s when taking a break, going into the garden, having lunch with a friend, reading a funny book, or hitting the gym and getting pumped with endorphins may become necessary. But it’s also a job I embrace, because when I rise to the challenge and it works, I’ve written the book I set out to write, and hopefully, made you feel the story more deeply.

Girls Night Out Cover

Looking for a little suspense? Read Kate Flora’s latest mystery Girls’ Night Out, Only at Shebooks!

EDITOR’S BLOG – “Something to Cry About,” indeed

Laura Fraser

By Laura Fraser, Shebooks editorial director

 

I was so proud yesterday when a friend—and Shebooks author—Jenny Boylan went to the White House to meet the President. She went as co-chair of GLAAD, there to witness Obama signing an executive order protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination at work. I was excited about the legislation—which is long overdue, and big praise to Obama for signing it—but also just thrilled that a friend was being recognized for her work.

It was a big week for Jenny: In addition to going to the White House, she had an op-ed piece in the New York Times, writing about her boyhood from the perspective of a transgender adult, and was on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” program on NPR, talking about “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.” In between all that, she managed to write a blog for the Huffington Post to let people know about her recent Shebook, a sweet and comic novella, “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.” And it’s been a big summer: Jenny was named a Professor of English at Barnard College, and that’s enough of an honor without having to add that she’s the first woman not born a woman to achieve that kind of post.

All of this speaks to the fabulousness of Jenny, and all she has achieved in making the world more normal and accepting for transgender people. But to her friends who remember her as Jim, it is especially affecting and gratifying to know that she is doing all this as Jenny, in the full flower of herself.

I’ll be honest, when my old roommate Jim, whom I knew in college and shared an apartment with in New York, called to tell me that he was having a sex change, I was shocked. I didn’t know anyone who had done such a thing, and Jim didn’t seem like a good candidate. He was such a cool guy—funny, cerebral, and, well, boyish. But the longer I thought about it—and Jenny was there to talk about it—the more it all made sense. Jim had never felt that comfortable in his skin. There always seemed to be a ghostly presence of another self hovering nearby. When I saw Jenny during her transition, it felt like she was finally herself. She looked great with long hair and highlights. She seemed relaxed in her body the way it takes most people born women in this culture decades to achieve.

One of the things Jenny has done is made us realize that transgender people are not so different than the rest of us. They are our friends; their challenges with who they are and where they’re going in their lives are like ours. As she wrote in her recent NYT piece, “The world is full of souls who struggle to find the younger person they once were within the body of the older person they have become. Struggling to make that connection is not the unique territory of transgender people.”

I have kind of forgotten that Jenny used to be Jim. The important stuff—the humor, the good writing, the heart—are the same, only more so. She’s grown into herself the way we all do, with luck, and with more than a little soul-searching and effort. She’s had a much harder time doing that that than most of us, and she’s done it with spectacular results.

It’s wonderful that an old college friend can call with a start-up venture and ask the best-selling author of 13 books to write a piece for something called Shebooks, and even more wonderful that she not only agreed, she insisted on doing it for free. That’s a friend; that’s a classy lady. I hope you all will read her novella, which did, in fact, give me something to cry about.

So did seeing her meet Obama.

Shebooks goes to Texas! | Event at Bookwoman

Last night’s Shebooks’ Shebang was held at Bookwoman, Austin’s beloved feminist bookstore since 1975. Marion Winik, visiting from Baltimore, and Beverly Lowry, who lives in Austin, read from their Shebooks — Marion, selections from “Guesswork” and “The End of the World As We Know It,” and Beverly her essay from “Summer,” an anthology edited by Alice Gordon. About 35 were in attendance. Marion explained the Shebooks model and why it’s exciting for both readers and writers. Susan Post, the owner of Bookwoman, explained how to use Kobo to download e-books so that part of the purchase price paid goes to the independent bookstore of your choice. Those who had brought their readers got going then and there. The authors’ print books and e-books aplenty were sold

 

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A snapshot of religious India

 In Great Buddha Gym For All Mens and Womens  award-winning writer Sallie Tidale captures the cacophony and culture shock of her pilgrimage to the four vital sites where the Buddha lived and became enlightened. It’s a remarkable travel memoir, which masterfully evokes the tastes, smells, sights, and sounds—as well as the dizzying history—of religious India. Here are a few photographs that Tisdale snapped while on her journey…you’ll have to read the book to experience the rest!

The Bodhi tree, center, with a view of the bowing platforms. ??????????????(photo: Sallie Tisdale)

“India is light switches that change function with the barometric pressure, monkeys breaking into hotel rooms to steal underwear and Kleenex”

“Everydog,” at Sarnath. (photo: Sallie Tisdale)???????????????????????????????????????

 “India is rolling blackouts, coleslaw sandwiches, mongooses, relentless and more or less pointless honking, India is museums with no signs and stores with no shopkeepers, wild indigo, phones that can call each other from 100 miles away but not from the room next door.”

The Home Cave at Vulture Peak (photo: Sallie Tisdale)?????????????????????????????

 Bathers at the Ganges. (photo: Sallie Tisdale)???????

“India is outrageous noise, outrageous beauty.”  

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Is your interest piqued? Read Sallie Tisdale’s short memoir Great Buddha Gym For All Mens and Womens to learn the stories behind these fascinating images, only at Shebooks.net!

GreatBuddhaGym320

What It Was Like To Be a High-Fashion Model in the 1970’s

2014 Photo Credit Tom Grill

Models in general have great stories, and Susannah Bianchi, author of the Shebook Model Behavior, is no exception. Here is Bianchi’s take on what the modeling industry was like in 1972 and how it’s changed.

 

1) The industry was more personal.

The modeling world of today is very different than it was back then. It’s become very impersonal but back then, Wilhelmina, my agent, was a very caring lady who did try her best to protect her girls. We had to attend seminars on the 7th floor of 9 East 37th to learn all the things she felt all of her girls should know. She taught me how to walk and talk, to dress simply so people would notice me and not just what was on my back. Whenever I slink into my LBD—little black dress—I think of her. I can hear her say, “Bianchi, less is more. Too many jewels my darling, too many jewels.” Top models came to talk with us so we’d know what to expect. In today’s industry all of this handholding would be unheard of.

Susannah Bianchi

1972 Photo credit: Hank Gans

 

2) We were still plenty wild.

Our job was to build our book, test, test, test, so when the European agents came to town we’d have something impressive to show them. Of course we were still let loose like gazelles all across Europe presumably under the watchful eye of whatever agent took you on, but we got in hot water just the same.

 

3) A Polish surname was career kryptonite.
I owe a lot to Willie for giving me the opportunity to travel and meet all kinds of people in the fashion industry, and from changing my name from Carneski to Bianchi after perusing an Italian Vogue because it wasn’t hip to be Polish in 1972. She was also somebody to look up to because she was so, so beautiful and gracious becoming one of my first real role models that rid me of those awful red, pleather pants, forever.

Susannah Bianchi

1983 Photo Credit Elizabeth Lehman

 

4) Sexual harassment wasn’t called sexual harassment.

When I was 20 and some frisky fashion guy got fresh, one had to be clever or you wouldn’t work. Now you could sue for sexual harassment. Would Willie get a kick out of that.

 

5) Other models were your best friends and support system.

I think close friendships are made when one is very young, and when you’re thrown into a fast world the way we were, it’s almost crucial for survival. We were kids on our own pretty much with about as much sense as you’d expect. We really only had one another.

Susannah Bianchi

 

Check out Susannah Bianchi’s Shebook, Model Behavior

Model Behavior

Rochelle Shapiro: “The dead are fair game.” | Q&A

Rochelle Shapiro, author of the Shebook What I Wish You’d Told Me, shares the story of how she became a writer…and a professional psychic.

 

What prompted you to write the short stories in What I Wish You’d Told Me?

These are my out-of-the-closet stories, so to speak. Each novel I’ve published, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and its sequel, Kaylee’s Ghost (Barnes & Noble and Amazon, 2012),featured Miriam Kaminsky, a telephone psychic who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., like me. But readers were so wowed to read about my psychic self that when I went around to do book talks, all the audience wanted to know was, “How do I become psychic? What are the winning numbers of the next Power Ball? Is my Aunt Mathilda around me?”

For readers, I was a psychic who happened to write. With my Shebook, What I Wish You’d Told Me, a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the wacky and the tragic in their lives,I hope, oh, do I ever hope, that readers will see me as a writer who just happens to be psychic, too.

When did you first decide to write?

I didn’t decide to write. Writing decided it was for me. As a kid, I wrote postcards to even the most remote relatives. Most of them my parents never mailed because they were afraid the recipients would want to pay us a visit. From there, I went on to poetry. I still remember my first poem:

From my piggy bank

I sadly learn,

My spending money is all I earn.

But in college, I pursued my other love—fine arts—and went on to an MFA. Just as I began making my mark on metal plates, etching, I became allergic to the acids and, before I knew it, allergic to almost every medium I was interested in.

I had always been psychic, a gift I inherited from my Russian grandma, my Bubbie. I began doing psychic readings by phone. Although I loved it, I was used to having a finished product to show for my efforts. I began keeping a journal and then took a course in a local adult ed program in poetry. I was so hooked that I would drag my husband with me to the library so I could use his card as well as mine to get out double the poetry books I would be allowed. With each publication of one of my poems, it was as if the white dye had floated up in the blue water of a Magic 8-Ball with a yes! And I claimed being a writer as writing had claimed me.

Have you experienced sexism as a woman writer?

It was in the art world that I felt the burning slap of sexism. For my one-to-one evaluation with my professor, I set up the paintings I’d done for the semester against the wall.

Do you have a studio in the area?” he asked without looking at my paintings.

No, I paint in my parents’ finished basement in Far Rockway,” I said. (Far Rockaway was three city buses from campus.)

Still without looking at my work, he suggested that he get a room for us at Carl’s Airport Inn, a motel that my mother referred to as “that cathouse” any time we passed it.

The one girl who did sleep with him as well as [with] most of the other heterosexual art professors was brilliantly talented. She could carve life-size women out of columns of wood, curvaceous babes, obviously modeled after her.

In the end, none of those professors would give her a recommendation for grad school. They must have been afraid she’d become famous—and I’m sure she would have—and write a memoir that their wives and children might read.

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people close to you?

Yes, and I’ve been sworn to never again mention their names or even their relationship to me without their names. When What I Wish You’d Told Me came out, a family member said, with an edge, “Before I read this, are any of these stories based on me or on my family or anyone else I know?” And the person is right to feel this way. My Russian grandma, Bubbie, from whom I inherited my psychic gift, told me years and years ago, “People shouldn’t go from you crying.” But the dead are fair game. There’s often a bit of my own parents in my fiction, as you’ll see in the short stories Secrets and in Great Aunt Mariah and the Gigolo.

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

I would say to start with poetry. Poetry makes you hyperaware of each word, each line, the sound of what you’re writing. And then leap to other forms.

Also begin to read like a writer. A writer doesn’t just read for content. He wants to know how a story is constructed. Buy books and mark them up. Note where the transitions are and how the writer made them. Notice where the climax is and if the writer kept your interest during the denouement—the winding down of the story. If not, actually mark where you got bored. It’s a good practice to prevent it from happening to you.

And don’t ever say to yourself that “vampire books are selling now” and then try to write one. By the time you get it finished and find an agent, the fad will be over. Write what you’re just dying to write and you’ll find your readers.

What I Wish You'd Told Me Cover

Looking for something short and satisfying? Check out Rochelle Shapiro’s collection of stories, What I Wish You’d Told Me, only from Shebooks!

Lee Montgomery: “My mother and my friends’ mothers were the miserable housewives of the fifties and sixties.” | Q&A

Award-winning author Lee Montgomery talks with Shebooks about how she developed her latest novella, New Englanders, out of a combination of memory, history and imagination.

NewEnglanders

What prompted you to write New Englanders?

New Englanders is part of a novel based on a story that floated around my hometown. Three men disappeared on a sailboat while sailing to Bermuda, leaving their families to forever wonder what became of them. I know that this happened, but I’ve never talked to anyone who was actually associated with the tragedy. I knew the children of one of the men, went to school with his daughter, had a brief and wonderful affair with his son, but never talked to them about what happened. When I started writing this, I asked friends from town, talked to the historical society, and researched in newspapers and so forth, but never found any record, so I don’t know the true story. Yet it still persists in my imagination. I have imagined and reimagined the story so many times that I’m actually no longer sure what is true and what is not. The people and places I write about in this novel don’t represent any real part of my life, but one I’ve dreamed up based on pieces of people and places I have known.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What’s their origin?

I often write about disenfranchised women, New England, and class because these issues surrounded me as a young woman coming of age during the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and the cultural revolution of drugs, free love, and rock and roll. The world was quite literally exploding for women of my generation. This was the “anything-is-possible” seventies, the era that spun out new and brilliant career possibilities for women. My mother and my friends’ mothers were the miserable housewives of the fifties and sixties. They were smart, had gone to Smith and Yale, but wanted more in life than volunteering as a docent at the local museum. On the outside, they drank too much, had nervous breakdowns, slept with each other’s husbands, and so forth. On the inside they were fluent in French, poets, writers, actresses, and artists. I remember being taken with this predicament at a very young age. My mother was a world-class alcoholic. My best friend’s mother had bipolar disease and was often out of her mind. The woman next door hung herself. Another friend’s mother was having an affair. There were the men, too. By the age of 34, I’d known 12 people who had killed themselves, many of whom I knew from our neighborhood, many of whom were considered “privileged.” As an adult, I knew I had to do something to tell these stories.

I am also interested in class, partly because I don’t have any and was often thrown into circles who did. This had something to do with my parents’ backgrounds. My mother, having come from a line of successful family members during the boom in upper Michigan, including a governor and a mayor, considered herself fancy. My father’s family, coming from a long line of New England farmers, carpenters, and fisherman, was not. (My father was the first of his family to go to college.) And as a family we were not wealthy but my mother’s upbringing had her aspiring to those circles. This is why my brother, sister, and I all went to prep schools. That threw us all into a world that was a bit foreign and would forever provide an interesting conflict to write about.

How did you create the setting for this novella?

Millwood, Massachusetts, is a fictional town located in a spot similar to Hingham, Massachusetts, or Braintree, in the southern part of Boston Harbor. Boston, its harbor, and its islands have always fascinated me. The old warehouses, which now have become the fancy Rowes Wharf, were once old docks with local businesses; the North End and the Haymarket were places of my youth. I became even more obsessed with the old world of Boston Harbor after finding a book called King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor (1882) in a secondhand store in, of all places, Carson, Washington, not too far from Portland, Oregon. Reading through the histories of the Boston Harbor Islands and the small towns, seeing the amazing woodcuts and illustrations, I became enchanted with the islands, the towns on the harbor, their histories and stories. The actual layout of the town of Millwood has been lifted from old Framingham Center, the town where I grew up, and combined with sections of Westport Point, where my brother and his wife have lived for 40 years. A lot of the characters of Millwood are based on characters I have known and given family histories based on what I learned from this fabulous book.

What writing projects are you working on next?

Besides this novella, I’ve been working on some short stories and a group of essays for a book-length project called My Brilliant Career. The book’s title is based on an essay I wrote about working as a book editor in Beverly Hills, where I worked with O.J. Simpson jurors, movie producers, pornographers, and Heidi Fleiss whores. Before this job and getting an MFA, my professional life was varied, often sketchy, and unbelievably strange. I have driven ice cream trucks, castrated 300 pigs, worked the graveyard shift at a nursing home, been a room service waitress at the Parker House in Boston, done aversion therapy for fat people, delivered cows, worked as an abortion counselor, did experiments on placentas and blood cells and in drug studies at Harvard, Tufts, and OHSU. I’ve also worked for coffee heiresses and very rich men and as the editor for a small-town newspaper in Malibu. For the past 20 years I’ve worked as an editor for literary journals and book companies, all work that I love, though not half as exciting.

Do you have thought that you’d like to end with?

It takes many years of biting the dust to hit pay dirt.

NewEnglanders

Read New Englanders, Lee Montgomery’s darkly humorous tale of 1970’s New England, only from Shebooks.