Writers Who Read: Marly Youmans

Our Writers Who Read series continues this week with Marly Youmans.

Who are you? Marly15
Marly Youmans. Some people know me as the author of 13 books, counting this year’s Glimmerglass and next year’s Maze of Blood. I write poetry (mostly formal, including long narratives), short stories, novels, and the occasional essay. Other people know me by my married name, and as the mother of three children. A few village spies have figured out that I am both of those people.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
As a child, I was a maniacal reader who read during school, in the bathtub, and at night under the covers with a flashlight. I don’t think that I’ve ever met anyone quite so obsessed as the child I was. She astonishes me. Far and away, my two favorite books were the Alice books. I owned them (back then children didn’t own as many books as many do now) and I read them whenever I ran out of library books. I’m not sure what the third should be, but probably the illustrated Louis Untermeyer anthology of poetry that I wore to pieces.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
In the case of a book for older children or for people who love Dickens, I often find myself recommending Leon Garfield’s book Smith. In poetry, I’ve often recommended Charles Causley and Kathleen Raine in the past few years; people in the U. S. don’t seem to know their work. I’m not sure, but I believe Tom Jones was the last novel that I recommended.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading? 
The thing I care most about in a book is the sense of energy, the semblance of a living thing.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I have no prejudices, though I like reading outside in the sunshine—not something that happens all that often to this Southerner living in upstate New York.

SmallerGLIMMfrontWhich books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
That’s huge, so I’ll stick to writers with books in the English language, and who had an influence on some story or poem I’ve written. That means I’ll leave out a lot that I love.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medieval lyrics. George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, Edward Taylor, John Donne, Thomas Traherne. Shakespeare. Milton. Fielding’s Tom Jones. Keats. Coleridge. Wordsworth. Jane Austen. Emily Dickinson. Whitman. Carroll. Christina Rossetti. Charlotte Bronte. Dickens and his pal Wilkie Collins. Hawthorne. Melville. Yeats. Frost. More Yeats. Smattering of Pound. Ted Hughes. Perhaps that’s enough. I could natter on all night.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I’m not as good at it as I once was. Being the mother of three children meant that a lot of my time was given over to them, and living in a small village means being asked to volunteer a lot. I’m currently trying to read more. As a writer, I often go in maniacal bursts and then will be dormant for a while, aside from stray poem or short prose piece. Occasionally I fall under the most marvelous spell of poems. I love those flood times.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
I prefer print books, though I often listened to audio books when driving my children to visit family in North Carolina. I also listen to books when I am folding laundry or cleaning house. But I find it harder to retain what I hear. I like to take notes and mark my way through a book.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I do not. Perhaps I am too whimsical. Perhaps it smacks too much of school. I would dislike being so organized about my reading, though being organized is, I admit, a good thing.

What are you reading now?
Luisa Igloria’s Night Willow (prose poems) should arrive from Phoenicia Publishing tomorrow or the next day, so that’s sure to happen next. I was just reading Jeffery Beam’s The Broken Flower (poems); Jeffery gave me a wonderful blurb for Glimmerglass, so he was on my mind. In nonfiction, I recently finished Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis for a study group of priests and pastors that will meet soon. I’m not a priest or pastor but received an invitation because I am a poet, and Leithart talks a good deal about poetry in the book. And I just listened to the fables of Phaedrus and Aristotle’s Poetics while doing a mountain of laundry. As is usual with me and the recorded word, the syllables marched firmly into one ear and then rambled around in my head before easing out of the opposite ear. Alas.

Marly Youmans is on the usual social media, but is especially active on Facebook  and twitter. Her blog is at http://www.thepalaceat2.blogspot.com; near the top of the site are tabs that will take you to pages for each of her books. Her newest book is Glimmerglass, a story that begins with a failed painter who thinks she has glimpsed the muse in the woods near her house. Available on September 1st. Recent in-print books are A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Thaliad, The Foliate Head, and The Throne of Psyche. Forthcoming is Maze of Blood.

Writers Who Read: Joyce Thierry Llewellyn

Sitting on the beginning of languageOur Writers Who Read series continues this week with writer Joyce Thierry Llewellyn.

Who are you?
I was a field biology technician in Northern Ontario then went back to university to focus on creative writing and became a magazine and newspaper journalist before moving into film and television screenwriting and story editing, which I’ve now been doing for almost 20 years. I also write travel and creative non-fiction articles (see examples at my website). I have taught television screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for 15 years.

Two years ago I began exploring the world of Young Adult novels and have written two YA books that I’m very proud of. One is a science fiction novel and the other a travel adventure story, both with female protagonists. I can’t believe how much fun it is to get lost in novel writing. This new area of writing has led me to (re)read my way through a diverse range of YA books. YA literature is one of most exciting genres around at the moment—amazing writing!

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
That’s a hard question to answer. Since I have to limit my list to three books, then The Island of the Blue Dolphin, The Incredible Journey, and all of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories (I know, that’s cheating) would be my picks. I have always been an avid reader, a must if you want to be a writer. I spent my childhood summers until I was 17 living in our family run, isolated, fly-in only tourist camp in Northern Quebec. We didn’t have electricity—no TV or flush toilets or ice cream but lots of mosquitoes, forests, and freedom. My mother arranged for a box of books to be sent in from the Montreal Library on the biweekly bush plane. That box was a lifeline for me. A short non-fiction piece I wrote about this experience, “When Lions Came in Brown Boxes,” was picked to represent Canada in the 2011 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel, My Brilliant Career. That book gave me the courage to believe I too could become a writer. “Hope, sweet, cruel, delusive Hope, whispered in my ear that life was long with much by and by, and in that by and by my dream-life would be real. So on I went with that gleaming lake in the distance beckoning me to come and sail on its silver waters, and Inexperience, conceited, blind Inexperience, failing to show the impassable pit between it and me.” It was made into an equally wonderful Australian film starring Judy Davis.

Since this is a blog and I don’t think word count matters in the same way it would for a magazine or newspaper, I also want to flag writer Joseph Boyden’s multi-award winning Three Day Road, a novel that moves from an Oji-Cree reserve in Northern Ontario to the WWI battlefields of France and Belgium, and back again. It is a hauntingly beautiful book.

What is your book kryptonite—those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading? 
A street performer friend of mine, Peter, used to dump a large bag of Smarties onto a brightly-coloured tray and ask people to put the candies into a shape representing the important things in their life. The first time I did this I made a five-legged starfish. One “leg” represented my daughter (I was a single parent in those days) while the others were my writing, singing, love of travel, and the fifth was for future surprises. “You have trouble focusing,” was Peter’s response. That starfish image flashed to mind when I read this question. My kryptonite is genre in nature. I am constantly reading travel-inspired narrative non-fiction stories like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Across the Pacific in a Raft, Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior, anything by Paul Theroux and Tony Horwitz, and more recently, Jay Ruzesky’s In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage. Other genres I’m passionate about are science fiction, British mysteries, Young Adult fiction, and pilgrimage or sacred journey stories. The stories can take place in an African desert or on a planet with three moons as long as I care about the characters and want to keep turning the pages.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
At night in bed, the house quiet, with my husband reading beside me.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (an amazing book that taught me as much about good story telling and writing as any “how to” writing book I’ve ever read), Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life, and two books whose titles I won’t mention but their combination of trite storytelling AND grammar and punctuation errors left me thinking, “If this kind of shit can get published…”

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
My goal is always to read more because my “to read” list of classics and newly published work grows faster than I can cross them off. I write every day but have never set specific goals. I understand Stephen King writes ten pages a day every day of the year and Hemingway wrote 500 words per day. I’m interested in hearing what goals other writers reading this interview set for themselves. Do you go by page count? Word count? Work for a certain number of hours?

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
There is nothing like holding a real book in your hands. I spend so much time during the day sitting at my computer writing, marking student scripts, researching, or answering emails that the last thing I want to do when I’m relaxing is spend even more time in front of a screen, even if it’s small and held in my hands. I am, though, a huge fan of podcasts. They aren’t quite audio books, but some of the best documentary writing is being done in podcasts. I have Podbay loaded on every device I own and regularly access one of thousands of podcasts on everything from art and history to screenwriting, comedy shows, finances, paranormal events, music, and the latest food fads when I’m waiting in an office or even lying in bed at night. And let’s not forget about TED Talks.

Do you consciously plan your future reading—i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I am a binge reader whose reading is usually influenced by what I am researching and writing in the moment. I can be on a Young Adult novel kick or immersed in one British mystery series after another, or moving from continent to continent through non-fiction travel adventure books. I find immersing myself in the world I am writing about helps me stay in that world, whether I’m working on a film or TV script, a travel blog, or a creative non-fiction article. I do want to say that my writing time is precious in my busy life and I guard it selfishly, something I’ve only learned to do after years of trying to fit everything else in too. I am really picky about what groups I join, especially if they are related to my day job or involve writing in some way. And where I once volunteered weekly for several different organizations, I now limit the time I take away from my writing.

What are you reading now?
I’m going to challenge myself next by writing a mystery so I’m rereading my favourite Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Conan Doyle books. I’ve recently discovered a terrific Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny. My writing also influences my television viewing, which means my homework these days includes watching such terrific TV series as Sherlock, Elementary, The Bletchley Circle, and the very dark True Detective and Top of the Lake. I love being a writer!

You can find out more about Joyce on her website or LinkedIn.

10 Weird Things on Screwing Mr. Melty

SCREWING MR. MELTY was my first book, and it’s been quite a ride, between writing the initial draft for National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) in 2010 to giving myself ice cream headaches for research. Here are ten weird things about the creation of the book:

7_Final_Set1.) The first draft of the book didn’t include Mr. Melty—or (gasp!) even any ice cream. The character Max, who owns Mr. Melty Ice Cream in the books, was a small baseball team owner or something. I believe when I revised, my thought process was as such: No ice cream? NEEDS ICE CREAM. This would probably work for revising a lot of stories, I’m thinking.

2.) There are nine f-bombs in the first chapter of the book.

3.) After writing a draft of the book for the 2010 NaNo, then revising it the following spring (MORE ICE CREAM), I kept the draft in my drawer for two years. I dusted it off and started revising it again when I saw a notice for a love story contest from a small publisher. I didn’t win that contest, but throwing myself into writing fiction—which I’d never really done, minus the NaNo adventure—made me realize how much I loved it. Which made me learn more about how to tell better stories, craft sentences, publish. Writing fiction is now a giant passion of mine, one of the focuses of my world and pillars of my sanity.

4.) I wouldn’t be able to eat Mr. Melty Minty Mango, a flavor in the book, because I’m severely allergic to mangos.

5.) The draft of the book changed drastically between revisions. The second draft was probably 95% changed from the first, the third draft 50% changed from the second, and so on. But throughout the revision process, Max’s flashback scene in the middle of the book has been there relatively unchanged since I wrote that crazy crummy first draft. It’s also one of my favorite scenes.

6.) The book’s original title was Flavors of Lust. I wasn’t entirely happy with it, so when my husband and I were spit-balling possible titles on a drive one afternoon and he jokingly suggested “Screwing Mr. Melty,” I glommed onto it. Much to his chagrin.

7.) Jason’s name was originally Baxter, but I changed it in later revisions after realizing some beta readers were confusing Baxter with Max because the names are similar.

8.) I called a genetics hotline as part of my research for the book. It was kind of embarrassing, but the nice woman on the line assured me that they “get calls like this all the time.”

Frozen Fruity Flaxseed

Frozen Fruity Flaxseed

9.) I’ve tried to make a couple Mr. Melty Ice Cream flavors mentioned in the book, to mixed results. But this summer I’ve mostly been too lazy and have been eating store-bought mint chocolate chip, one of my faves.

10.) A few readers have mentioned the Stapler Scene in the book as being their favorite…which says something about my readers, I’m thinking. Like maybe they used to work at office supply stores where they had a lot of downtime.

If you enjoyed SCREWING MR. MELTY and want to recommend it to a friend, it’s going to be free on Amazon this Tuesday, August 19th, through midnight on Wednesday, August 20th!

Writers Who Read: Désireé Zamorano

Our Writers Who Read series continues this week with writer Désirée Zamorano.

DZamorano - smallerWho are you?
Author of The Amado Women, multi-generational family drama, out this summer from Cinco Puntos Press. A Mexican-American who grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, from Maya Angelou to Bible stories to the encyclopedia set Man, Myth and Magic in the Compton Library. A native Californian, I didn’t discover noir mysteries until I read Raymond Chandler while sitting on the left bank of the Seine—and fell in love with noir so much I created my PI Inez Leon for Human Cargo and then Jackie Paz for Modern Cons, both ebooks published by Lucky Bat.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
I did love Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. When I discovered A Wrinkle in Time I wanted to be a character in that book.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
It kind of depends on who I’m talking to, sometimes it’s Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, other times it’s David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

What is your book kryptonite—those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
I am absolutely gobsmacked by authors who weave multiple story lines and bring them all together in a dazzling finish. For me that would include practically everything by Kate Atkinson and Martin Cruz Smith.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
By the light of a late afternoon in a silent back yard with a cool breeze to keep me company.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?Amado Orig
Carolyn See’s generous and insightful Making a Literary Life truly sustained me when my writing ambition was like a heavy stone on my chest. She compares writing to a quick and easy 30 minutes or a long and slow 18-hour chili recipe. I think now I can confidently say I’ve made the 18-hour recipe. Dagoberto Gilb’s Gritos, a collection of essays, reminded me of the challenges Mexican American authors face.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I excuse my reading addiction as telling myself that all reading deepens my writing. The problem arises when I use reading or research in place of writing.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Each one has a time and a place for me! I love ebooks on a plane, audio when I exercise, and a physical book in a physical place, like bed.

Do you consciously plan your future reading—i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
There are many writers I admire, like Roxane Gay, Kathryn Schulz, Sarah Weinman, Maud Newton. When they recommend something I keep a list—buy the books or request them from the library. Unfortunately at times my TBR list turns into a NEVER TBR pile.

What are you reading now?
Just finished Wendy C Ortiz’s Excavation—A Memoir. Truly stunning, like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.

You can learn more about Désirée on her website or on Twitter. The Amado Women is available through most independent bookstores, and, of course, online; here’s a recent review of the book.


Writers Who Read: Kristin Fields

Our Writers Who Read series continues this week with writer Kristin Fields.

Who are you?Kristen Elise Fields
I’m a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY. I studied Creative Writing and Geology at Hofstra University, where I was mentored by novelists Martha McPhee and Julia Fierro. In 2007, I was awarded the Eugene Schneider Award for Short Fiction for my story, In a Teacup. I spent the next five years not writing and found myself running the education department at a historical farm museum, professionally belly dancing, teaching high school English, and teaching teenagers how to write and dance at the Great Neck Library. I read once that Monarch butterflies continue the journey their ancestors began long before, and enjoy exploring that theme with the characters in my debut novel, Secrets Kept on Firefly Wings (forthcoming).

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
There are so many, but the three that come to mind are Madame Bovary (yes, I know that’s a strange one for someone under twelve), Tuck Everlasting, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Looking back, the three are strangely connected. When I read Tuck Everlasting, I was thrilled to find a strong female character who didn’t sacrifice her life for love and found happiness in the life she was given.

Madame Bovary was my first experience with a desperate character who would never be happy. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe showed me characters who found their sense of self in an unexpected place. I sometimes think that if Emma Bovary had had a wardrobe to escape through and a new place to grow, things might have been very different for her.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
I absolutely adore the Outlander series. If I find a way to jump through standing stones, I’ll definitely let you know. I did find a very unique rock pile in Prospect Park, but it didn’t hum and buzz like they did for Claire. The search continues.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
My all-time weakness is when writers transform ordinary places into extraordinary settings and even the most mundane things suddenly have deep-rooted significance. A perfect example is Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth. The story is set in a sleepy, ordinary town, but the turbulent, ill-fated love story between two of the characters transforms even the simplest things (a house, a street) into something meaningful.

Here’s a perfect example:
“The sky is already purple; the first few stars have appeared, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a handful of silver across the edge of the world.” ― Alice Hoffman, Here on Earth

In so many words, Alice Hoffman transformed an ordinary place into one the reader feels privileged to enter and offered us a glimpse of real, living life. It’s my kryptonite because it makes me want to find all the extraordinary things around me.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
I love reading while traveling. It fills the in-between time of getting from place to place with another world.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
When I first “came of age” as a reader and graduated from young adult to adult fiction, I was drawn to Alice Hoffman and Elinor Lipman. Both authors are exceptional storytellers and weave unique stories through ordinary landscapes. With Alice Hoffman, her whimsical writing and use of magical realism was a wonderful transition into the adult reading section, but what I was most drawn to with both writers is how ordinary the events/characters of their stories are. People fall in love. People die. Both writers capture relatable moments in the lives of women, and as their characters grow and change, the stories become extraordinary.

Alice Hoffman also loves to play with the past. I read once that Monarch butterflies continue the migration journey their ancestors began years before, and it’s a theme I enjoy exploring in my writing. Like Alice and Elinor, I like to capture small moments in the lives of my characters, the ones we’re likely to overlook in our busy lives. Sometimes those are the moments when our past and present merge and become very clear to us. I like to think of them as transformative moments.

Both writers convinced me that women’s fiction holds a vital and essential place in the literary world, and that there’s plenty of room for new women’s voices in both characters and authors.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I’m still learning to do this, but I think the key is to give in to what feels natural. There are weeks when reading feels more fulfilling than writing and vice versa. I try to remember that spending more time with one doesn’t mean I’m neglecting the other; if anything, it’s a symbiotic relationship and one benefits the other.

Someone once told me that great writers were often great readers first, and I believe it’s true. If a writer truly wants to perfect his/her craft, it needs to be studied.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
When I tried to carry the third Outlander book to jury duty (which is roughly the size of a small dictionary), I had an epiphany: if I had an e-reader, I could carry all my books with me in one tiny device. I happily made the switch to ebooks, although I do enjoy borrowing a good physical every once in a while.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
Thanks to Goodreads.com, I have a very healthy list of TBR books and some very excellent book clubs to participate in. I love exploring books through book clubs because it introduces me to titles I might not have heard of otherwise, and hearing so many different takes on the same passages inspires me as a reader, writer, and a life student. It also helps with creating a reading schedule, which isn’t something I’m particularly inclined to do otherwise.

What are you reading now?
Too many! Right now I’m reading The Same Sky, a travel memoir written by my friend Debbie Yee Lan Wong, and I’ve got the first Game of Thrones book on audio. I’m also working my way through Kimberly Brock’s The River Witch and Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth. My book club is reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and I’m finishing up Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. It’s been a busy summer for reading.

You can find out more about Kristin on her website, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Writers Who Read: Stephanie Feldman

IMG_6797Our Writers Who Read series continues this week with novelist Stephanie Feldman.

Who are you?
I’m a fiction writer from the Philadelphia area. My first novel, The Angel of Losses, literary fiction with a fabulist bent, is out this week. It explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
I don’t revisit many books from my childhood. I loved to read but was often left unsatisfied—”kid” books were unchallenging, and the “older” books presented to me, like Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables, were a little too old-fashioned to stick with me as favorites.

That said, Maniac Magee was the first book to ever make me cry. There’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Sweet, sad, weird–everything I love in a story. I loved Christopher Pike’s books. He’s the author I was reading nonstop before taking the leap to “grown-up” fiction. I re-read one recently (I won’t say which) and was disappointed by the politics in it, something I didn’t pick up on as a kid. Now I’m afraid to re-read the others.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Everyone, go read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson! It’s so captivating and smart and sweeping and enlightening. I read it just before it came out (thanks, Librarything!), and became an early cheerleader. The book went on to win the Pulitzer, and I felt vindicated but not satisfied–I still want more people to read it.

What is your book kryptonite–those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
Books with ambitious and lyrical language. Books with ghosts. Books with young women wreaking havoc (for good or ill).

What is your ideal time and place to read?
Any time I can steal for reading is ideal! The only time I usually don’t read is at night. I have a young child, and by evening, my brain is too fried. When I lived in New York, I loved reading on the subway, and I still look forward to reading on trains. We just got a new, ultra-comfortable chair that looks out on the backyard—a perfect reading spot—but I spend more time staring longingly at it while I wash dishes than actually reading in it.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?angel
Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie was an important book for me. I wanted to write character-driven, poetic, socially conscious stories (I still do), and all of the examples my writing teachers presented were strictly realist. I love to read realism, but as a writer, I find it limiting. It’s just not my voice. That collection showed me there’s a way to do all the things I want to do as a writer.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
I’m always trying to write more and read more. I find that they feed each other. The more great books I read, the more excited I am to write, and the more time I spend writing, the more I look forward to giving myself over to someone else’s story for a while.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical book, all the way. I wish I could do ebooks—so much more convenient!—and I try now and again, but it’s just not a comfortable reading experience. I don’t listen to audio books. I’m a visual learner, and information doesn’t stick as well when I’m listening.

Do you consciously plan your future reading–i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I keep a loose to-read list—more of a way to remember interesting books for the future—but otherwise I don’t impose goals on my reading. I go with the flow. Maybe this is the same reason I’ve never joined a book club. I only want to read books that are exciting to me, when they’re exciting to me. There are too many books out there to read someone else’s choice grudgingly.

What are you reading now?
I’m finishing Submergence by JM Ledgard. It’s fantastic. The novel is about two lovers, their meeting in a French resort, and their subsequent individual journeys to the Arctic—she’s a scientist studying the deepest parts of the ocean—and Somalia—he’s an intelligence officer, quickly kidnapped by jihadists. It moves between their stories, with digressions about history, art, religion, and the science of life. The first book in some time that I really could not put down.

Stephanie Feldman is a graduate of Barnard College. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and daughter. The Angel of Losses is her first novel. You can find out more by visiting her website or following her on Twitter. You can purchase the Angel of Losses at Barnes & Noble or Powell’s, among other stores.

Creativity is (Mostly) Bullshit

UntitledWhen I was in fourth grade, I got rejected from my elementary school’s gifted and talented program. My math score was too low, and I also failed in one other key area: creativity.

I wish I could remember the specifics of the creativity test the woman administering it gave me. All I remember was I asked to make up a story at one point, and at another point she showed me a picture and I was encouraged to say what the image looked like.

It was a blob, rounded on top and squiggly on the bottom, and I was probably supposed to say it looked like an alien or something, maybe an alien named Fern who would come take my family on a wild adventure. Or something else, you know, creative.

Instead I said the first thing that came to mind, what it looked like to me.

“It’s a chandelier.”

This was the start of my uncreative life.

Never mind that I was probably always going to fail the test. I’m not terribly good at thinking on my feet, and I’ve always been more of a writer, not a let-me-randomly-launch-into-an-alien-story-out-loud type. Never mind that I’d been an incurable daydreamer since at least age seven, making up stories in my head every day, usually romantic ones, so often that it was like breathing; I didn’t even realize I was doing it most of the time.

But, no: I was suddenly destined to be one of those noncreative schlubs standing in the line at the DMV during my lunch hour from my desk job while some ultra creative guy somewhere was blasting classical music and throwing a bucket of red paint on a big canvass. I was uncreative.

I think creativity is bullshit. At least the way our culture views it, like it’s something some people have and others don’t, like a vacation home or retirement plan.

I don’t mean to imply that all gifted and talented programs that recognize kids’ intelligence and creativity are useless. I have friends who’ve experienced these programs and found them to be encouraging and inspiring and fostering of wonderful connections. I just wonder if we could recognize that other kids could benefit from the gifted resources too, not just the ones who test as creative, but those that are creative in ways we don’t always measure.

I’ve talked a little here about being a special needs mom. One of the more painful experiences I had when we were realizing something was not right with my son’s development was being around other parents at playgroups. “He’s so, so smart,” a mom would say about her kid as we stood in clumps around the playground. And another mom would chime in to say the same about her offspring. And then another. All these kids were brilliant. In my more bitter moments, I thought to myself, That’s just not statistically possible.

But I was wrong to think that.

We all know the bell curves, right? The graphs that show us that most folks are in the big lump in the middle on many traits, average in intelligence and maybe creativity and whatever else. And then there are outliers: at the low end, of course, but also at the far right. The geniuses. The paint-splattering artists.

But at least with creativity and perhaps with intelligence too, this is flawed. There are multiple intelligences, and a zillion and one ways to be creative. A lot of people would’ve flunked the creativity test like I did. But maybe some of them can look at the underside of a car and tell you how to rewire it to make it go crazy fast. Maybe some of them would have seen the round squiggly thing as a chandelier and then also drawn you a picture of a room that would match it perfectly. Those are both creative.

Not everyone paints or can tell us the backstory of Fern the Alien, but we all are creative in some way. Or maybe many ways. Cooking. Piano. Writing. Storytelling at a party. Party planning. Squirrel collages. Or simply seeing the world in a way that’s uniquely ours.

It’s time we recognized that, respected it, and fostered it. If not with us adults, then at least with our kids.

Romance Writer Rebecca Brooks: In Defense of Stupidity

Above-All-CoverToday I’m welcoming a guest post by debut romance novelist Rebecca Brooks, author of the erotic romance Above All.

When my debut contemporary erotic romance Above All was published this month, I was in touch with several reviewers who wanted to know more about the book. Does it have a happy ending? (Yes!) Is there anything dark or disturbing they should be aware of? (Nope—just beautiful scenery and really good food.)

One reviewer had a specific request. Before she agreed to read Above All, I had to answer a simple question. Is there anything stupid in it? Answer honestly, she added.

I’m dying to know whether anyone actually says yes. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to see what a great question it is.

Every story needs conflict. There’s a reason Happily Ever After comes at the end, not the beginning. Hero and heroine meet, forces pull them apart, but we know they’ll find their way together again. Forces of Evil make stories juicy—well, that and great sex. But tension is the crème filling. Without it, all the chocolately goodness gets dry.

It’s hard to find interesting, plausible reasons to push hero and heroine apart. Too big an issue and there’s no reason for them to get back together—who wants to return to an asshole? Too weak and that’s exactly what the story becomes. I’ve read plenty of books where the pair could resolve their giant misunderstanding in five minutes if they sat down and talked to one another as people in love are sometimes known to do.

So I get what this reviewer was asking. Is there anything dumb, irritating, or utterly flimsy driving the hero and heroine apart? No one wants to read about characters who are whiny, petulant, and overly dramatic, jumping to conclusions and creating drama just to manufacture plot. There’s only so much I want to throttle a character before I’d rather put down the book.

But I find myself feeling a little prickly about this word stupid. The terms I’ve used to describe it, the emphasis on drama and an absence of thought, clarity, or self-reflection—aren’t these the very insults hurled at women all the time? Hysterical. Irrational. Overreacting. Overly emotional.

And so now some stubborn, contrary part of me—the part that someone reading the story of my life would probably call stupid—wants to keep a space for the illogical, the emotional, the thing that might not be perfect but is, in the moment, the truest expression of the self.

In my own novel, Above All, Casey’s family thinks she’s nuts for leaving her unhappy life in New York City and starting over in the Adirondacks. But the reader knows she’s right where she belongs. Meanwhile Ben’s overbearing father wants Ben to work at a fancy Italian restaurant in Manhattan instead of opening his dream café. If we’re going to judge whether something is stupid, then shouldn’t we be asking, stupid to whom?

The reader might want to smack Ben upside the head for even considering anything that would take him away from the woman he’s meant to be with. But is Ben stupid for finding himself pulled in different directions? Is he stupid for ever experiencing doubt? I don’t think so! I think he’s being human. The distinction between stupid and flawed comes down to whether Ben is being authentically Ben, true to his character when he vacillates over what kind of life he wants for himself.

Perfect communication and decision-making don’t make for a very good novel. But if characters are genuine and multidimensional, if they feel so real you want to invite them over for coffee and chat about their lives, if you’re sad when they’re sad and their butterflies flit around in your stomach too, if you believe their anger, confusion, and hurt, and understand why they do things that might not always look “right”—then they won’t be stupid, no matter what dumb things they might do.

Rebecca Brooks lives in New York City in an apartment filled with books. She received a PhD in English but decided it was more fun to write books than write about them. She has backpacked alone through India and Brazil, traveled by cargo boat down the Amazon River, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, explored ice caves in Peru, trekked to the source of the Ganges, and sunbathed in Burma, but she always likes coming home to a cold beer and her hot husband in the Bronx. Her books are about independent women who leave their old lives behind to try something new—and find the passion, excitement and purpose they didn’t know they’d been missing.

You can find out more about Rebecca on her website, Facebook page, or on Twitter, and you can check out and purchase Above All on Amazon or Ellora’s Cave.

**Rebecca will also be running a giveaway with copies of her book plus an Amazon gift card through August 18th! Click here to find out more.**

Writers Who Read: Tanya Selvaratnam


Tanya with author Sylvia Whitman

Tanya with Sylvia Whitman

Our Writers Who Read series continues with writer Tanya Selvaratnam.

Who are you?
Tanya Selvaratnam, a writer, producer, actor, and activist based in New York City and Portland, OR. I was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Long Beach, CA. I’m the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock. Part memoir, part manifesto, it’s about the choices women have to make and how those choices impact the future. The Big Lie is that we can do things on our own timetables. The Big Lie is that there is such a thing as work/life balance. The Big Lie is that we don’t need feminism anymore.

What are three beloved books you first read before the age of 12?
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton

As a child, I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka. Being a former British colony, works by British authors were abundantly available. I bought Enid Blyton books in the local bookstore.

When I was young, books were my salvation… an escape, a comfort, a window to unexpected worlds and ideas. Earlier this year, I read a story in the news that, according to Common Sense Media (the San Francisco-based nonprofit which focuses on the effects of media and technology on children), young people are reading much less than the generation before and also they are reading less proficiently. We need to fix that.

What is one book you are always recommending to friends and family (and maybe the local barista) as an adult?
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. The writing is gorgeous, spare, vivid, devastating, and ultimately uplifting.

What is your book kryptonite—those unique elements in a book, beyond just great writing and three-dimensional characters, that make you unable to resist reading?
Humanity, depth, alternative universes, rhythm, a writer who is putting their guts on the floor, courage, a wild imagination, a fantastic sense of humor, writers who think big but make the ideas accessible, compassion, empathy, and humility.

When I come across a book that blows me away, I then buy many books by the same author and read them one after another. I’ve done that with work by Michael Ondaatje, Yasunari Kawabata, and lately Anne Carson.

What is your ideal time and place to read?
On the subway or bus any time of day or night, and in bed before I fall asleep. I can never read on planes.

Which books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
When I was writing The Big Lie, I read a number of memoirs that influenced me, including Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. I was also inspired by Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography—the depth of her reporting and the openness of her voice.

How do you balance reading and writing in your life?
The harder aspect of my life is balancing producing and writing. At this point, I do one to support the other, but they require such different types of focus and ways of being. With reading and writing, I have to be reading something while I’m writing. I need to lose myself in one or the other. In my bag, I always keep a book to read and a notebook to write in. As for balance, if I’m actively working on a book or piece, I try to sit at my desk for a minimum of three hours. Whether I write a word or a page, I feel like I’ve done something. I also meditate every day, a practice I started two and a half years ago.

Choose your penned poison: ebook, physical book, or audio book?
Physical book! I like the touch, the look, the smell of it. I like folding the corners of pages I especially want to remember. I’m working on a piece about book deserts, the possible long-term effects, and tangible solutions. Recently, I saw Sylvia Whitman of Shakespeare & Co (I produced a short film about her a few years ago), and I am so inspired by her steadfastness and joy. In the face of extreme and irrationally unchecked challenges towards physical books and bookstores, she has figured out ways to adapt her business and thrive.

Do you consciously plan your future reading—i.e., set book goals, keep a TBR list, participate in book challenges or book clubs? Why or why not?
I have a book club that meets sporadically. It’s really just me and a friend, and we invite other friends to join us for sessions. Among the books we’ve discussed are Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Asunder by Chloe Aridjis, Remainder by Tom McCarthy, and the poetry of Matthew and Michael Dickman. Aside from the book club, I read what friends recommend or what I discover while browsing in bookstores.

What are you reading now?
A lot of Cesar Aira, whom a writer friend recommended. I recently finished An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare. Now I’m on Shantytown. Aira is from Argentina and has written more than seventy books in Spanish. New Directions released translations of some last year, so now I can read them. In addition, I just started Jenny Davidson’s Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, about loving to read.

Tanya Selvaratnam‘s work has appeared in Vogue, Bust, Paper, xoJane, Huffington Post, Pop and Politics, the Toronto Review, Art Basel Magazine, the Journal of Law and Politics, on Women’s eNews and CNN. She has produced work by Gabri Christa, Chiara Clemente, Catherine Gund, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Jed Weintrob; and toured around the world in shows by The Wooster Group and The Builders Association. Tanya has been a fellow at Yaddo and Blue Mountain Center. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Chinese language and history from Harvard University. 

Writing Romance: Sex as Dialogue

dinos-1.jpgThere is sometimes a tendency to read or write a book and think about sex scenes as if they are something separate from the story that is happening. It’s like the story is a salad, and the steamy scenes are cherry tomatoes thrown on top, something small and sweet to add to the lettuce, croutons, and lumps of blue cheese. You can add as many tomatoes as you like, but you can also pick out the tomatoes without ruining the salad.

I don’t think it should be like this. I think sex in a story should be like an ingredient in a casserole. Squash, maybe. Or cheese. (Because, well, cheese.) It can be added, yes, but once it is cooked it’s hard to extract because it’s part of the story, it is the story—it’s not just an add-on. It absorbs the flavors of the rest of the casserole, the characters’ personalities and dynamics and feelings and development. It is within the story, not just tossed on top.

This is what I try to do in my writing, make sex scenes reflective of what’s happening and always moving the plot forward–like a good character conversation does. Because it is dialogue. Within sex, there are actions and reactions, surprises, suppression, subtext. Game-changers. The bickering co-workers have hot angry sex in their sausage delivery van, reflecting their fiery chemistry. The college student finds herself locked in a tender kiss with the girl she’s competing for an internship with, turning the plot on a dime.

Seeing sex as dialogue helps me craft a better steamy moment. Instead of just keeping in mind the goal of writing a tantalizing kiss, I’m also trying to show the unique chemistry and relationship between the people involved. This lends itself to a one-of-a-kind love scene. Sometimes it’s strange or uncomfortable; sometimes there are stapler incidents. And sometimes there are sweet moments the characters don’t see coming.

Sex should be dialogue. Tasty, tasty dialogue.

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