Category Archives: Authors Extras

Lee Montgomery: New Englanders Don’t Write Blogs (and 20 other things you never knew about the Northeast)

The community manager at Shebooks suggested that I write a blog post to promote my new e-book titled, New Englanders. She recommended, “10 ways to spot a New Englander,” or something in that vein. Being that I am a New Englander I told this woman I could never write a blog about what it was or wasn’t to be a New Englander.

New Englanders don’t write blogs.

Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who feel they can write such baloney: ten things about New England or how to spot a New Englander. All to say there are a lot wannabe New Englanders. Wannabe New Englanders are not True New Englanders. They are the faux New New Englanders. Much has been lost to faux New England. There are many imposters, many interlopers…my mother’s family were such people, from Michigan.

So let me set the record straight:

True New Englanders don’t write blogs.

Computer cat doesn't like blogs

They also don’t write promotional materials of any kind — either to promote themselves, their work, or anything or anyone else. Any New Englander knows promoting anything is nonsense, too high falutin’ tooting one’s horn. If a New Englander wanted to write promotional materials, they wouldn’t write fiction about depressed New Englanders. They would work in PR for a social media company and move to Brooklyn.

A True New Englander needs to have at least one side of the family living in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Maine for the last 400 years. (No Connecticut does not count. Too close to New York ways. They’ve been trying to wiggle their way into New England Club Status for centuries. )

A True New Englander knows everyone secretly wants to be a New Englander. Everyone but a true New Englander, in fact. (The last place a New Englander wants to be is New England.)

New Englanders don’t go to prep schools. New Englanders do not wear those fat rimmed cordoroys, khakis, or Izod shirts. A true New Englander would not caught dead in penny loafers.

Prep schools and preppies have tried time again to steal the mantle of New England chic all to no avail. They may be situated in New England and adorn the trappings of a New Englander but they are not New England.

New Englanders do not worship Dunkin Doughnuts; they have never even seen a Dunkin Doughnuts. (That’s Connecticut again.)

New Englanders do not go on family ski vacations. New Englanders don’t downhill ski; they cross country or in extreme cases snow shoe, and, then, only if they have to e.g., if they are snowed in and out of gin.

New Englanders do not wear topsiders. They wear moccasins or blue boat shoes. New Englanders don’t wear pink and green. They do not wear whale belts or Lily Pulitzers. (That’s Long Island). They do not carry whale bone purses or Nantucket baskets with whale bone clips. New England women either go without (wallet in pocket type of folk), make their own, or carry ugly black or brown leather purses their mothers bought at Jordan Marsh or Filene’s Basement in the forties and handed down.

New Englanders do not drive snowmobiles.

They drive tractors or American cars. They don’t wear bean boots either. They wear rubbers. New Englanders do carry Bean sail bags, though, have for as long as they can remember Bean came to town.

True New Englanders are not impressed by the interlopers at Harvard either. Nor those drab and boring brown-wearing Bostonians. Don’t even get a New Englander started on the Boston Brahmin or those of the Cambridge ilk.

True New Englanders do not grow weary by the streets of Boston and their rotaries laid out by wandering cows. True New Englanders wouldn’t be caught dead in Boston.

Nor in a church.

True New Englanders don’t go to church except occasionally maybe to sing. They may believe in god but they do not worship him. Like the good Transcendalists, they worship the earth.

A New Englander does not run in marathons, saving that for Boston (and Connecticut). They do not run, period. They don’t play tennis, golf or other sports with balls. They do not hunt horses. They drink to excess often, especially on Sunday when the Blue Laws make it illegal. (More fun.)

New Englanders are sailors, when they are not busy building useful things – doohickies for the garden, compost bins, painting boats.

New Englanders don’t like lobster or clam chowder, leave those for the newbie’s, baked bean lovers, and tourists. They eat trout for breakfast and a lot of turnips. They love kohlrabi and rhubarb.

They do not admire the foliage. If it’s foliage time that means it’s time to pick up leaves. And if it is time to pick up leaves, snow is surely to follow.

True Englanders secretly love Northeasters, the bigger the better, but only before and during storm. After storm they want to slit their wrists.

True New Englanders know Indian staircases, and under ground tunnels to run from being attacked by Native Americans e.g., Indians. They know about cotton battens in the crème puffs, plum pudding you slice with a thread. They know how to grow pumpkins, burn leaves without burning down the town.

True New Englanders also know the crap they teach in school about the pilgrims and the American Revolution, including Plymouth Rock, and the whack job Paul Revere, are not the whole story. Some true New Englanders were loyal to the King, and no they were not tarred and feathered because they were safely off in Canada until everyone could settle down.

New Englanders farm, fish, and garden, putter around the old homestead.

Cat screws in a lightbulb

They reshingle barns. They mend fences. Build stone walls. Only a few do manufacturing and high tech on Route 128; something other New Englanders don’t understand.

New Englanders know to make hay when the sun shines, don’t make much ado about anything, can’t get there or anywhere from here.

Truth is, it’s harder and harder to find true New Englanders in New England. After four hundred years of winters, true New Englanders worth their salt have all moved to California.

Sign buried in snow

 

Lee Montgomery is an award-winning writer, read her latest novella, New Englanders, only from Shebooks.

NewEnglanders

Michele Weldon on privacy, memoir, and finding time to write

 

 

Michele Weldon on privacy, memoir, and finding time to write

Michele Weldon

 

Memoir is such a crowded genre these days. What makes your book stand out?

MW: In order for a solid piece of nonfiction to resonate it has to move far beyond the self-indulgent navel-gazing of some memoirs that capitalize on celebrity or calamity. That is why I am so proud to be included in the stable of great writers I respect at SheBooks. The goal is to have masterful writing that bears broader meaning for the writer as well as for readers—moving beyond a simple regurgitation of events into territory that is universal and compelling.

How do your sons react to you writing about them in such a public way?

The quick answer is they are used to it. I have been a newspaper and magazine columnist since before they were born. So for all of their lives—and they are 25,23 and 20– I have been writing about my life and theirs as well. But I have some deliberate rules and boundaries. I write about my reactions, not theirs and I do not assign them any emotions or feelings. I am not a mind reader. I will ask them what they think about something and write that. I do not write anything that will embarrass or hurt them or that they want to keep private. I do feel that this piece of their lives is a tender minefield—the abandonment of their father. I asked each his permission, and each one of them has read this ebook, as well as the larger work. I write about my family, my emotions and what I know. They each have different reactions to what I write and how transparent I am. Still, there are things I will never write about that are to kept private forever. It is my story, not theirs.

Why is this book relevant to the conversation about parenting today?

I am weary of the narrative of mother as a crazy, harried buffoon. Work-life is presented as this perilous trap where you risk falling off the edge at every moment. Yes, it is hard, but so is putting blacktop on the driveway. I feel that an honest, uplifting approach to the precarious nature of raising good humans is edifying. I also feel that presenting a type of woman who can handle what is thrown in her path with humility and a call for help, is encouraging to those who handle much deeper crises. It is possible to do what you dream and also successfully parent, laughing and crying when the need presents itself.

When do you find the time to write?

I do a lot of different things professionally. I work full time, travel to lead seminars and deliver keynotes, but writing is always at the core. If I don’t write for a day or two—whether that is an essay or for a larger work like a book–I honestly don’t feel well. It feels as if my head is too big for my body, or that I am out of register. Writing is my cure. Because I have so many demands and responsibilities, I block out chunks of time—at least 3-4 hours—to write. It could be early morning, it could be late at night, or even midday. And I look forward to that like a dip in a pool on a hot day or a glass of pinot grigio with ice with a marvelous friend. It is my reward as well as my sustenance and a way to pay the mortgage.

Do you have a community of support for your writing?

I have been in a writing group of amazing authors for 13 years. Last count, between the six of us we had published or written in that time more than 28 books. Never mind that one of my writing group friends herself has published 19. We meet every week, Thursdays, from 6:30-9 at the local library. We each aim to bring 10 pages of double spaced writing with copies for everyone. We draw numbers, then each writer reads her work aloud, then we discuss it, line by line if we need to. We are never mean. We applaud, encourage and suggest. It is many times the absolute best part of my week. I love these women and how talented and creative they are. For about 8 years we met at each other’s houses, but then it got to be about the wine and the food and we would go long into the night, wrapping up after 10 or near 11. We get thrown out of the library at 9, so we have to set a timer for each person. We are starting to meet before group for dinner now. So I guess we are back to our old ways.

If you could make a bumper sticker about this book, what would it say?

Do your best. You will be OK.

 

 

Bonnie Friedman on breaking up with a female friend

Bonnie Friedman’s Shebook, Devil Doll, is about the common, and often heartbreaking, experience of breaking up with a best friend. Here, she answers questions about female friendship. 

 

Devil Doll is about a “breakup” with a best girlfriend. In what ways is this different from a breakup with a guy?

There’s more guilt. And it’s harder to explain, even to yourself, why you became estranged. In a romance, the breakup might be due to an overt cause: he wants kids and you don’t. Lousy sex. One of you is simply moving too far away. With a girlfriend, the break-up tends to be for inchoate and visceral reasons, and there’s no accepted method of how, emotionally, to process it. It isn’t quite supposed to happen, whereas we understand from the very beginning, with a romance, that there might come a time the relationship will end.

Do you think these kind of “break-ups” with best friends are common?

Yes, but because they cause shame and there’s something mysterious about them, we tend not to talk about them so much. We worry people will think that we don’t know how to be friends or to love. But yes. My mother and her best friend stopped seeing one another or even speaking the day my mother married. Her best friend didn’t believe that she herself would ever have the opportunity to get married, as off-base as that likely sounds. It was the 1950s. It was a lifelong sadness for my mother. Even in her nineties, she talked about her girlhood friend Anne, who she missed. I think lots of friendships break up because one person begins to evoke the other’s envy to an unendurable extent.

In Devil Doll, you write about how you craved to be Catherine’s friend, and how much you longed to learn from her how to have style and originality. Do you think many early girlhood friendships have this aspirational quality?

I do. When you think of the literature of girlhood friendship – the friendship in Jane Eyre with the generous and otherworldly Helen Burns, the friendships in Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, Mary McCarthy’s The Group (although those women were recent college graduates) – there’s a sense of one’s friends providing possible versions of one’s self, of one’s own life. We inspire one another. Jane Eyre learns a lifelong spirituality from her childhood friend; the women in The Group provide cautionary experiences. In real life, our friends are the people who show us how to be a viable person. We’re in flux together, our identities being invented and molded at the same time; we aren’t yet fixed. And we gratefully accept one another’s mistakes – until maybe we don’t.

Lastly, did you find a method of processing the end of your friendship with Catherine?

Yes and no. If I saw her again, I’m sure I’d still feel a surge of guilt and admiration and happiness and longing. But the time when we could become friends again is long past – it was a moment in our youth. I betrayed her, I believe, by not being able to talk to her about my almost violent sudden estrangement. The reasons why I couldn’t stay friends with her weren’t actually her fault. It resembled the girl’s sudden antipathy and longing for her mother in Jamaica Kinkaid’s first book. A visceral shift happened, for good or for ill, and there was no going back.

Devil Doll

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt on having a kid on her own

Has your writing changed since you’ve become a mother?

My writing has changed. In the past I’ve been driven to write by painful experiences I needed to work out. Even DIY Mom began as that. But after the birth of my son, I’m driven to write by much more positive feelings and inspirations. I definitely don’t feel like I have as much time to get into the zone I need to be in to do my best work, and I’m not sure what I’ll write next. It feels good to float for now, and see what this next phase brings. My life has become much more routine as a mother, so it’s exciting not knowing what will happen next for me creatively.

What prompted you to write DIY Mom?

After my first book, In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love Commitment and Motherhood, I got a lot of letters from readers asking what happened to me next. I figured I owed it to them to tell that story. I also really wanted to dispel some of the myths about modern single motherhood, and be a positive role model for women who are considering this choice.

Have you had any negative reactions to becoming a single mom by choice?

I haven’t really gotten any negative reactions, but then again I live in San Francisco and there’s very little judgment about the kind of family you choose here. One former friend did say she thought it was “weird” when I expressed the idea that I might want to contact other families who used my same sperm donor. But then again this was coming from someone who constantly complains about and criticizes her own more conventional life, and once told me she thought it “weird” that “two dudes shack up.” You’re always going to meet someone who doesn’t support your choices, and the way to deal with it, I’ve found, is to gracefully let that person and their negativity go from your life.

What advice do you have for other women considering becoming a DIY mom?

My advice to other women who are considering having a baby without a partner is not to make the decision in haste, and to make sure they want it in the deepest reaches of their heart because there’s no going back. If you have the right kind of social support — and this does not mean that you have to be rich — it could be the best decision of your life. I really can’t imagine life without my son now, and in hindsight the torture over the decision seems like too much. But maybe that was part of the process. Just do it; it’s truly amazing.

What are some other books about single motherhood that you’ve loved?

I loved Operating Instructions by Annie Lamott, and I loved Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman as a light read. I honestly don’t read that many books about parenting or motherhood.

DIY Mom

Elizabeth Geoghegan: On Accidental Cocktails, Cities & Sweethearts

“Shebooks editorial director Laura Fraser was drinking a Negroni with some Italian women when one told her that everyone in Italy–tutti quanti–are talking about Shebook’s The Marco Chronicles, by Elizabeth Geoghegan. It’s creating a sensation in Italy–try it! As delicious, and slightly bitter, as a Negroni. Can you resist a book that starts, “If Rome were a woman, she’d be a whore”??? (To make a Negroni, shake equal parts red vermouth, gin, and Campari over ice and serve in a martini glass with a twist of orange).”

“How perfect,” I thought, when I saw Laura Fraser’s remarks about The Marco Chronicles. The night beforehand, friends had gathered to toast the publication of my 2nd Shebook Natural Disasters. Traditionally, August in Rome means most inhabitants have high-tailed it to the seaside or mountains for the summer holidays. In case you didn’t get the memo, in Italy, summer vacations are compulsory. At this time of year, Rome can have an almost post-apocalyptic feel. A sultry hush falls over the city, favorite cafes are shuttered, tourists trudge in circles, stunned by the heat. And yet insiders know August is the best time of year to be here, so when could be better to raise a glass and celebrate a new book? But at “casa mia” we do things with a twist, so my friends chose to “cin-cin” with a Negroni Sbagliato instead.

In Italian, “sbagliato” means mistaken. Legend has it the Negroni Sbagliato was born when a bartender accidentally splashed white wine in the place of gin. My Roman pals love anything bubbly, so we dash in Prosecco in the clear component’s stead, rendering the colorful cocktail effervescent and laced with the bitterness of Campari that Italians so favor. But why do Italians crave bitterness? Do they prefer an aperitivo or espresso “amaro” to remind them that life isn’t always sweet? Do they just like extremes? Can you only appreciate the richness Italy offers when it is paired with something tart? It seems so. And does the penchant for all things bitter explain why Italians embraced The Marco Chronicles? It might. In Italy, there is a saying, “Ciò che è amaro alla bocca è dolce al cuore” or “what is bitter to the mouth is sweet to the heart.”

When The Marco Chronicles came out, Italians and expats alike seemed to feel a kind of kinship with certain (admittedly outrageous) pronouncements I made about my adopted city and its inhabitants. But they implicitly understood that I meant no harm; if I was making fun of them, I was also ridiculing myself. It was the wink of “we get each other” not the raised eyebrow of indignation. Perhaps the Italians get me in the same way I presume to get them because we are all of us in love with the same thing: Rome. Besotted though we may be, we are also ever on the verge of divorce—albeit “Italian style,” meaning it may take years. Possibly forever! As glorious as it may sound, living in Rome (or living with Rome) is no picnic. It’s a rite of passage hard won that even the locals suffer. I’ve learned you cannot love the sweet heart (or is that actually the sweetheart?) of the matter unless you first earn it with a touch of bitterness to the tongue. In The Marco Chronicles I may never get the guy, but I most definitely get the girl. I get “La Grande Bellezza.” And in August, I get her all to myself. Like a Negroni Sbagliato, Rome sparkles but lets face it, she’s got an edge.

The Forum in Rome

Read Elizabeth Geoghegan’s latest stories with an edge in Natural Disasters.

 

4 lessons about sex from a woman who’s seen it all

Jane Juska, bestselling author of A Round Heeled Woman and a new Shebooks memoir The Last Thing to Go, shares a bit of hard-earned bedroom wisdom.

Men are not repelled by imperfect bodies.

When I was 67, I placed a personal ad in The New York Review of Books. I got many responses, then met some of those men, waiting for each one to be repelled by my not-so-young body. Never happened. Men, I discovered, are far less troubled by imperfect bodies than are women.

There is no justice when it comes to breasts.

I first became acquainted with my breasts in 1945 and have had a difficult relationship with my saggy, outsized bust ever since. “Well,” said the ob-gyn “she won’t have any trouble nursing.” “Wrong,” said my huge post-partum breasts and dried up. My boobs failed the single test that would have rendered them legitimate. When it comes to breasts, life’s not fair.

Marriage is not a particularly good alternative to birth control.

In the 1950s, boys and girls didn’t talk to each other before, during, or after sex. Nor, at any time did my boyfriend and I discuss marriage, which I considered automatic, or birth control, which I never considered, because I didn’t know where or how to get it. I never told him that every single month I spent five days terrified of being pregnant, the rest of the month relieved that I wasn’t. How could I have been so foolish? The answer is simple: I was starving for sex. I got pregnant during a time when legal abortion wasn’t even around the corner and I got married. There is something to be said for marriage, even a minor one, even an unhappy one. Marriage resolves an important problem: celibacy.

Looking older is not a sin.

“You don’t look like you’re in your 70s,” I have been told. I answer, “Yes, I do. This is what it looks like.” What they mean is “You don’t look old.” Looking old is the sin. Being old is okay because then they can ignore you, but looking old? That stares them right in the face and says, “Not long from now you’re going to look like this and then you’ll die.” Without tampering, nearly all of us reach an age when we look interesting, when we are interesting. The marks of living a full life are right there for everyone to see if they’d only look. Want to read more?

The Last Thing to Go

Check out Jane Juska’s The Last Thing to Go, only from Shebooks.

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!