Author Archives: Renae_L

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!

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!

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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.

 

Jennifer Finney Boylan: 5 Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person. (And 3 Things You Should.)

Jennifer Finney Boylan GLAAD cochair and author of the Shebook, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, offers up a list of cringe-worthy conversation no-no’s she’s encountered as a trans woman.

 1. “Hey, you! Have you had ‘the surgery’?”

This is kind of like someone coming up to you and asking about your vagina or penis. No, wait, it’s exactly like that. While there are some trans folks who are eager to start blabbering away about their nether regions, most of us consider our private parts, you know, private. Go figure.

2. “So you must love that Judith Butler!”

OK, so plenty of transgender people love Butler’s groundbreaking work, which has to be respected for (among other good reasons) the way it brought the phrase “gender binary” (as in “reject the gender binary”) into the vernacular. But there are plenty of us who kind of sigh when we encounter a sentence like, “If there is a sexual domain that is excluded from the Symbolic and can potentially expose the Symbolic as hegemonic rather than totalizing in its reach, it must be possible to locate this excluded domain either within or outside that economy and to strategize its intervention in terms of the placement.”

It’s worth remembering that for many trans people, our lives are not a clever academic theory, but a daily struggle against violence, a difficult search for dignity and respect. Make sure, if you’re talking to a trans person, that you are thinking of that person as an individual whose fight for identity is real, and not a person whose identity is some kind of scholarly abstraction.

3. “Do you love RuPaul? How about that Rocky Horror Picture Show!”

It’s important to understand the difference between drag culture and trans embodiment. The former can be about performance, exaggeration, and entertainment; the latter is about people’s actual lives. Plenty of transgender people have begun their journeys in the drag community, and you will find many trans folks who adore all of the subversive, transgressive energy that drag can bring. But many of are uneasy when our lives are mistaken for “performance,” and it’s disrespectful to trans people to conflate the two.

As for Rocky Horror, there’s another delightful piece of subversive drag culture, made more enjoyably depraved over the years by the legendary participation of its audiences at the film’s midnight screenings. All of that is great. But remember that while Frank N. Furter sings he’s a “transsexual transvestite from Transylvania,” he’s surely not an actual trans woman, any more than Al Jolson in blackface is actually Thurgood Marshall.

4. “Can you can have an orgasm?”

Again, getting kind of personal with this one, aren’t you? Most trans people, post-surgery, are perfectly capable of orgasm, but perhaps it’s understandable if this isn’t the first thing folks want to talk about with a stranger. Author Kate Bornstein, in answering this question, playfully observed, “The plumbing works and so does the electricity.” So OK, the answer turns out to be The Hell Yes. But whenever someone asks me this question, I think of the story of the guy who kept asking his parrot, “Can you talk? Can you talk?” and at last the parrot says, “Actually, yes, I can talk. Can you fly?”

5. “You know who I feel sorry for is your children.”

This is a classic way of being judgmental while pretending to be nonjudgmental. As it turns out, most trans people’s children are exactly as screwed up, or not, as anyone else’s children. But it isn’t having a trans parent that affects children, either for the better or for the worse.

What damages children is other people treating their family with disrespect.

Three Good Questions to Ask a Transgender Person

1. “How are you?”

By which I mean, approach a trans person with exactly the same respect and openheartedness you’d approach anyone else with. In the same way you wouldn’t begin a conversation with a stranger by inquiring about that person’s race, or spiritual beliefs, or politics, you probably wouldn’t want “So, you’re transgender?” to be the first words out of your mouth. Many of us would rather not talk about what makes us different, especially with strangers. Many of us would rather talk, at least at first, about the things we have in common.

2. “Do you mind if I talk to you about some gender stuff?

If you’ve established a rapport with a trans person and feel that the conversation has reached a point where Going There would be respectful, proceed with caution and see just how willing your new friend is to have at it. Most of us are happy to talk about the issues, at least in a general way, if we think we can do so in an atmosphere that feels safe.

3. “Are there books you’d recommend I read?”

When I first published my memoir She’s Not There, a dozen years ago, there were precious few books that seemed to address our issues with much subtlety or with any literary quality; that field was reserved pretty much for Kate Bornstein and her groundbreaking Gender Outlaw. Now there are lots of good books, by authors such as Helen Boyd, Jameson Green, Leslie Feinberg, and yes, Judith Butler. I published a memoir about being a transgender parent this spring, Stuck in the Middle with You, as well as the updated anniversary edition of She’s Not There, which includes a new epilogue by my wife, Deirdre Grace. Both of those books are available from Random House.

Two other recent standouts include Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, the first transition memoir to also address issues of gender theory, not to mention the unique challenges faced by trans people of color like Mock. And the brand-new Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth (and with an introduction by me), is a 600-plus-page resource guide from Oxford University Press containing information on identity, love, transition, and politics, written by trans people for trans people.

Finally, your own Jenny Boylan has just published a new novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, now available exclusively from Shebooks. This novella tells the story of the Riley family, traveling from Maine to Washington, D.C., to see their young son perform “The Flight of the Bumblebee” at Ford’s Theatre. But most of the drama focuses on 16-year old Alex, a teenager who has just gone through transition. This is the first time I’ve written a piece of fiction for adults about trans identity, and I hope readers will find Alex an inspiring character, giving life, humor, and dignity to the experience of trans men and women.

I'll Give You Something to Cry About

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. A contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, she is also the national cochair of GLAAD. Her latest novella, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, centers around a transgender teenager, is only available from Shebooks.

Sarah Einstein: “Be as naked on the page as possible.” | Q&A

Sarah Einstein is a Pushcart award-winning writer known for her smart, revealing personal essays and creative nonfiction. A provocative collection of Einstein’s essays, Remnants of Passion, gives us a perfect excuse to pick the author’s brain about memoir and the rest.

 

How do you define “truth” in memoir?

I work very hard to be faithful to my own memory of events and, when I’m including historical information, to documented accounts. But when my memory conflicts with another person’s, and neither of us has anything but memory to suggest that we have the truer version of events, then I rarely change what I’ve written. Memory works that way, and memoir—as opposed to autobiography—reflects memory. It’s a writing down of the stories I tell myself to make sense of my life, not an accounting of that life as it might have appeared to another.

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

There is nothing that is too personal to me, but I keep other people’s confidences and don’t write stories that aren’t mine to share. I also try not to ever write anything that might make another person feel ashamed or get into hot water. (For instance, the only time I change names or key facts is when what I’m writing could cause another person personal or legal trouble.) I believe that in memoir, it’s important to be as naked on the page as possible … but not to strip others of their dignity.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

I love my iPad, in part because it’s like having a bookstore in my own home. Does it sound like I’m being insincere if I say that right now, I mostly have Shebooks on my Kindle app? I just finished (and loved) Anna Marian’s Love Junkie and plan to start Barbara Graham’s Camp Paradox tonight. I’m sure I’ll love it, too.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I am in love with the works of Abigail Thomas, whose books Safekeeping and Three Dog Life taught me to think of form as my plaything, rather than as a set of rigid rules. I love brave women writers who write about experiences that go against the grain of what women are told we should think, feel, and do, so I’m particularly fond of the works of Lidia Yuknavitch, Laura Bogart, and Rebecca Solnit. Each of them writes against expectation in a very different way, but each one challenges the expected narratives for the lives women lead. I also have a few touchstone books that I return to again and again to remind me of how beautiful language can be: Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Kevin Oderman’s How Things Fit Together, and Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. But really, I love reading. I could answer this question for a week and only start to get it right. I believe other people’s work is the food writers need to fuel their own.

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”?

It’s funny, because I actually think we should fight against the term “chick lit” for all the same reasons I think we should fight against the term “gay” and, instead, embrace the terms “women’s writing” and “queer.” I like names that include everyone who might want to be included, and “women’s writing” can do that. “Women’s writing” tells me that the author of the work identifies as female; “chick lit,” on the other hand, tells me that the work is written for an audience of women. And I think everyone should read—and review!—women’s writing. That women’s writing matters as much and means as much as men’s writing to all readers.

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

Make a deal with your mother that she will only read your work when you tell her that she should, and then don’t share anything with her that will make her genuinely unhappy. It may sound like I’m kidding, but I’m not. Many, many writers I know have a hard time getting past the self-censorship that comes from worrying about what their mothers will think. My own mother is wonderful. I tell her which works are Mom-friendly, and which aren’t, and she genuinely stays away from the ones I ask her not to read. (Remnants of Passion is most definitely on the list of works that aren’t Mom-friendly, of course!)

What is your favorite word right now?

Blunderbuss. I’m working on a series of essays about my recent trip to visit my husband’s family in Austria, and his mother took us to all of these wonderful Christmas festivals in and around Salzburg. At many of them, men in lederhosen fired blunderbusses into the air to ward off winter. And, now that I think about it, I like the word lederhosen very much!

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m putting the finishing touches on my book-length memoir about a fascinated friendship I had with an older homeless man. We were fabulous friends, and I spent some time “houseguesting” with him in his homelessness in the American West. It’s not a book about life lessons. It’s really more of a road-trip story in the classic sense. Two buddies, out for an adventure. I hope to finish it this summer.

 

Remnants of Passion

Looking for stories that will spice up your afternoon? Read Remnants of Passion by Sarah Einstein only from Shebooks.

 

Alone in the Woods: Beautifully Hypnotic Trailer

Micah Perks is the head of the creative writing program at UCSC and has written extensively about her childhood growing up on a commune in the Adirondacks. Her Shebook Alone in the Woods is a meditation on wilderness, the wildness she sees in her adolescent daughter and memories of her own wild girlhood. Here is the beautifully hypnotic trailer for Alone in the Woods.

 

 

Check out Alone in the Woods, only at Shebooks.

Alone in the Woods

Jennifer Finney Boylan: “I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.” | Q&A

A conversation with best-selling transgender author and GLAAD cochair Jennifer Finney Boylan about her new Shebook I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.

 

What prompted you to write I’ll Give You Something to Cry About?

My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the East Coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.

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

I’m known for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenage girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender-variant young people.

That said, Alex is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, had I been in her shoes when I was 16. Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”

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

Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write mostly nonfiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.

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

I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writers’ lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body; these were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.

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

Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.

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

Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.

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

Write every day, including Christmas and New Year’s. When you’re just starting, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”

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?

As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people, of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.” I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?

These are all real places—the Liberty Bell Pavilion; the Gettysburg Battlefield; Ford’s Theatre. If you live on the East Coast and have middle-school-age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.

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

If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.

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

Starting this summer, I leave my job as professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.

When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the Santa Claus suits?”

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

I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.

What is your favorite word right now?

Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.

What or who inspires you most?

I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.

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

I play piano in a crappy rock ’n’ roll band. We are called the Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about the Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.

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

From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”

I'll Give You Something to Cry About