Out now: the March 2019 issue of Columbus Monthly magazine with a feature article I wrote for the medical guide advertising section. The piece was about the groundbreaking immunotherapy, trials, treatments, and techniques coming out of the city to help cancer patients.
I particularly enjoyed learning more about how CAR T-Cell Therapy works (it’s game changing), but my favorite part was interviewing my friend Sarah who survived breast cancer. The strength and faith on her is truly awe-inspiring.
In my recent re-reading of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” I was struck by the description of the first time morphine needed to be mass produced—and fast—in the United States. Answer: “The U.S. Civil War prompted the planting of opium poppies in Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina for the first time and bequeathed the country thousands of morphine-addicted soldiers.”
It’s just one example of how the environment and landscape of the United States was forced to change during the Civil War.
Was the physical world
during the Civil War a parallel to what was happening to the soldiers and civilians
embroiled in it?
“That is a good
analogy,” Cashin says. “The armies—both armies, Confederate and Union—exploited
the physical world to the full just as they exploited the civilian population.”
The book explores these exploitations, recounting how and why they happened, who suffered because of them, and how they changed the course of the war.
I love reading books like this—historical documentations that tell story after story of real lived experience. It’s packed with anecdotes that could consume a creative writing class for a whole semester. All my fiction-writer friends out there, books like this are also great for research.
“Some civilians began to crack under the compounding pressures of war, engaging in increasingly reckless behavior. In May 1864, a tall, well-dressed clergyman walked right through the Battle of Yellow Tavern, calling out in a booming voice, ‘Where’s my boy. I want to see my boy.’ The man strode across an active battlefield while troops shouted at him to leave before he disappeared, uninjured, into the woods. … Other civilians were overcome by trauma, undone. A white girl stood at her front door watching the buildings burn on her family’s property. She began yanking the hair from her head, repeating the curses she heard from passing troops, and shouting with maniacal laughter.”
Chapter six, “The Uncanny”
Cashin’s most recent entry into the huge Civil War canon is an intriguing one. Expertly researched and woven together by her energetic voice, Cashin gives the devastating subject matter a balanced place to call home. And homes, as you’ll read, are a big part of the environmental Civil War story.
Below, read more about Cashin’s experience writing the book, what’s been inspiring her lately, and who she’d invite to a dinner party. Hint: her guest list’s conversations would be fodder enough for her next Civil War book.
What is war “stuff”?
The stuff that armies needed to wage war, that is, the material resources, such as food, timber, and housing, as well as the human resources, such as the skill and knowledge of the civilian population. Throughout the history of warfare, armies have often turned to civilians for what they need to wage war.
Why is it important to examine how the Civil War
impacted the environment (and how the environment impacted the Civil War)?
I think it reminds us of how horrible war can be. Wars that last any duration of time always inflict damage on the environment.
It was very interesting to read about houses being destroyed and civilians trying to stop the destruction of homes or buildings—and how some soldiers were deeply conflicted about this tactic. It made me consider how different the experience of “home” and “making a home” was circa the 1860s versus today. You commune differently with a place you’ve built with your own two hands. What was the most interesting thing you learned, discovered, or meditated on while working on this book?
I agree completely that most people had a deep sense of connection with their homes, even more so if they had helped build those homes. That is quite different from the world we live in today. I was surprised by many of the things I came across during research for this book, but the section on housing and what happened to the private home was one of the most shocking.
Yes, it’s fascinating to read stories of how people survived, including the mental warfare that had to be waged in order to maintain resources. I’m thinking particularly of Cornelia Parsons’ submissiveness and smile (!) that shamed soldiers into leaving her home. Were there any firsthand accounts from the book that especially stuck with you?
Yes, many of them stuck with me. Cornelia Parsons certainly did, along with most of the hostages who were taken by the two armies. I believe that “The Uncanny” section of Chapter Six is memorable.
When do you write?
My best writing time is the afternoon, so I try to teach in the morning. I try to do some writing every day, six days a week, even if it is only 10 minutes on a very busy day.
What is the best thing about being a historian?
The research, the writing, and the teaching—in short, just about everything!
What has been inspiring you or interesting you
Judith Giesberg’s edition of a diary by Emilie Davis, a black woman who lived in wartime Philadelphia, which came out in 2014, was inspiring to me. I am also looking forward to reading “The Civil War: An Environmental History” by Tim Silver and Judkin Browning, which is coming out with UNC-Chapel Hill.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book on material culture and an article on animal studies, both for the war era.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Great question. I would invite three people from the war era: Angelina Grimke Weld, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln. I have some questions for all of them.
2018 has been my favorite one yet! And one of its biggest moments was my gallery exhibition in September.
I finally started making the embroideries for “Gone, Country” (after, like, a year of talking about it as if I had already started…ha!…) the same month I quit drinking in 2016. I didn’t/ couldn’t allow myself to realize it at the time, but that embroidery work became a physical representation of what I was trying to make happen in my life.
It required humility and fearlessness to just make something, the same way it required humility and fearlessness to make such a huge change. I punched designs into paper one needle-hole at a time, the same way I didn’t drink one day at a time. I made those small incremental holes in the darkness of an image, the same way I slowly began bringing light to parts of myself I had long been avoiding.
Taking time to make an embroidery gave me something to do with my hands while I simultaneously took on the terrifying business of learning to talk to myself in a new way; it took the pressure off. It also proved to myself that I wasn’t just someone who talked about her dreams. I had the courage to try. And, in the meantime, I made some cool shit.
Creativity was means/space/outlet for healing. I recently spoke about this process to the awesome women of The Unruffled Podcast. It’s such an honor to be included in their interviews, and I am thankful for their efforts to create a community for women to talk about these experiences of making art while making a more compassionate way of life. (If you’re interested in creativity and overcoming the nonsense we put in between ourselves and our greatest potential, I highly recommend adding Unruffled Podcast to your pod roll!)
Here’s my episode! I love that it’s the last one for the year. I hope to embrace 2019. To keep getting better, braver, kinder, stiller.
Sending you all so much love into the new year. Thank you for being part of my story. I hope you have THE FUCKING GREATEST 2019 EVERRRR!
P.S. / FYI: I am co-launching Zero Proof Book Club in February with my good friend Shelley Mann. We read and discuss books about sobriety, self-growth, or surviving—and then thriving—in spaces that profit when we numb ourselves, from ourselves. You can go LIKE the page now and stay tuned for more in the future. xoxo
The objects we use on a daily basis play a big role in our cultural story and memory. As writers, we know the importance of objects in terms of symbolism—and ensuring we are, when writing fiction at least, placing historically accurate objects into settings, character descriptions, and dialogue.
Your Civil War heroine with an iPhone is no bueno, bud.
That’s why tomes like “The Middle Ages In 50 Objects” (Cambridge University Press, 2018) are so helpful to writers doing research for a novel or screenplay in this time period. “50 Objects” features beautiful images of objects from the Cleveland Museum of Art paired with an essay that digs into its visual and cultural significance within the wider context of how the object was made or used.
The book is divided into four topic areas (The Holy and the Faithful; The Sinful and the Spectral; Daily Life and its Fictions; and Death and Its Aftermath) and loaded with fresh historical insights provided by the scholars Elina Gertsman (professor of Medieval Art at Case Western Reserve University) and Barbara H. Rosenwein (a medievalist who specializes in the history of emotions).
And though it was written in part to progress academic conversations about the Middle Ages—and recently made the High Brow/Brilliant end of New York Magazine’s approval matrix—this book is a visual and intellectual goldmine for arm chair art history lovers. <raises hand> Reading this book was like getting an answer key to some incredible works of art; like sitting in on a university lecture from the comfort of my aforementioned arm chair.
Example: Object 22’s painting of the Madonna and Eve on wood panel features inverted letters signifying the way Mary supposedly reversed Eve’s original sin; Eve’s sexuality is underscored by the Tree of Knowledge growing between her legs. (Which, if ever there was an ideal place for a tree of knowledge to grow, I’d say it’s there… She wouldn’t even have to stand up to pick out a new book to read from its branches! #teameve)
I had the pleasure of asking Elina and Barbara a few questions about the process of writing their new book, why they made the curatorial decisions they did, what objects in the book were most interesting to study, and more. Read their thoughtful answers below, then get your own copy of “The Middle Ages In 50 Objects” here!
The hard cover is coffee table chic.
Why are objects worth studying in order to understand the past?
Objects are not just things “out there” but agents of history in every way. They are created for reasons ranging from utterly practical to outrageously frivolous—but always in ways that are particular to certain people and places at particular times. As they come into being and use, they carve out their own meanings and interact with other objects—and people. Consider the scene of the Crucifixion (Object 43): the bottom of the Cross depicted there has been touched by pious fingers and lips so many times that the paint and ink are smudged.
The Middle Ages was a culture of the senses. Think of the incense perfuming the air in places of worship (churches and mosques alike), the music of liturgy and entertainment, the visions of color and light afforded by manuscript illuminations, the taste of the Eucharist melting in the mouth, and the invitation to touch offered by ivory and alabaster. Considering objects in all their materiality opens a royal path to this rich and little-known culture of the past.
How did you narrow it down to just 50 objects?
We wanted to produce a book that would be both comprehensive and yet not overwhelming. We knew that each object we chose would be worthy of many pages of explanation, but we decided to limit ourselves there as well. The number 50 seemed a good solution: enough to cover several entangled cultures that had to be considered together in order to illuminate each one.
How would you describe working on this book? Was it a joyful experience?
Joy is the right word. The book almost wrote itself once we had decided on the themes and the objects that belonged to them. We generally worked in relay. Elina lit the torch, as it were, by focusing on the objects, teasing out the network of associations they triggered, visual discourses they tapped into, and the ways in which they were viewed in the past. Then it was Barbara’s turn to consider the larger context, wrapping each object in the intricate web of events, patrons, social needs, and religious uses that explained its creation and importance.
Why did you decide to balance the representation of objects used or cherished by the elites and those used or cherished by the non-elites?
There is no denying that medievalists have on-hand more material objects from the elites than from the non-elites. Patrons of the arts—both individuals and institutions—were normally wealthy, and we today prize the results of their largesse and taste—the astonishing delicacy of Books of Hours, emotionally evocative images of Saint John softly resting his head on Christ’s shoulder, or elegant tombstones made to mark the burial of pious Muslims. But it is also important to see and understand the material lives of others less well-to-do, for they represent the majority of people in every period. When we view an iron barbute (Object 37), we are brought into the world of the soldier.
Its pits and dents remind us of the everyday dangers and hardships suffered by men in the Venetian army garrison at Negroponte. Negroponte? What was Venice doing there, 1,200 miles from home? The barbute thrusts us into the thick of historical events, as Venice takes over an island that had long belonged to Byzantium. Surely, we must cherish it almost as much as the man whose life it protected.
I really enjoyed the way you divided the contents into four topic sections. Was it difficult to organize? What was your thinking behind dividing them in this way?
We didn’t want to do the West first, then the Islamic world, then Byzantium, or anything of that sort because those cultures were too intertwined to be conceptualized in that way. Nor did we want to divide the book by chronology, as if it were a textbook. We chose, rather, to work with themes that cut across the whole period and united all of the cultures.
Did any of the 50 objects surprise you or is there an object in the book you particularly liked learning about?
All of the objects turned out to have surprising twists and turns. But we especially enjoyed working on objects that opened up many different paths to explore. An example is the miniature from a Mariegola (Object 21), which required us to research Venetian guilds, anti-Jewish stereotypes, ideals of poverty, and the realities of untold wealth.
Can learning about objects from the Middle Ages help us better understand the objects of contemporary visual culture?
There is no question that sensitizing ourselves to the objects that mattered in the Middle Ages helps us understand our own. But beyond that, some of the same themes and uses have distant echoes today. This goes beyond obvious similarities, as for example the persisting image of the Crucifix. Consider depictions of Death as a skeleton (see Object 50) or contemporary gestures of prayer, which derive from the medieval practice (see the hands of the Virgin in Object 43).
If you could pick one or two objects from contemporary culture that you think future historians would find important, what would they be?
Barbara: I’d choose the Apple Watch, which is a fashion accessory, a practical conveyer of time and information, and a good symbol of our desire to be constantly in touch without touching.
Elina: I’d choose a pair of boots: shoes are always a powerful symbol of presence and loss, and the last century or so has been deeply fraught. Shoes are intimately tied to memory, often terribly so: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum displays thousands of shoes, taken from the prisoners at the Majdanek concentration camp. Just two months ago, countless pairs of shoes were placed in front of the Capitolio in Puerto Rico, to mark the absence of men and women lost in Hurricane Mari and unaccounted for in the official death toll.
What has been inspiring you lately? Any books, music, podcasts, movies to recommend?
Barbara: In a small 12th-century church in Saint-Dyé, France, I heard an incredible concert that combined ancient instruments and songs with compositions by a living composer. The music worked together seamlessly, making the past present and the present past ways I could not have imagined. It was truly inspiring.
Elina: I am reading Paul Auster’s splendid “4321”—complex, sensitive, always stirring, dark at times, but somehow always jubilant. I’d recommend it without reservations.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Barbara: This is tough. I’d love to have a good dinner conversation with many people. But I guess I can narrow it down to one party in which the guests might compare notes and (let’s hope) learn from one another. I’d invite Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife, who was billed as a nasty shrew by Xenophon; Christine de Pizan, a late medieval feminist who supported herself and her family by writing witty books for wealthy patrons; and lastly Catherine Dickens, best known as the unhappy wife of Charles Dickens. My first question to them would be: What place should women have in society, and what attitudes, institutions, etc. would be required to get them there? And my second question: If you could choose a different time and place to live in, what would it be? If I dared I might pose a third: What do you think of the LGBTQIA movement, and what do you think it portends for gender relations in the future?
Elina: I’d invite Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German visionary; Voltaire, an 18th-century French Enlightenment philosopher; and Andrei Voznesensky, an extraordinary Soviet/Russian poet, who died just a few years ago. I’d love to hear them talk about poetry, politics, and everything in between.
Michael McCormack’s new book, Born Fanatic: My Life in the Grip of the NFL, began as a letter of complaint to his father, who was a world champion football player (Cleveland ftw! For once!), NFL coach, and hall of famer also named Michael McCormack.
But he never envisioned what writing his story would turn into: A balm of healing for some of the wounds left behind by their dissonant relationship.
Similarly, Born Fanatic is a football memoir, but it’s much more than that. It’s a tale of father and son, country and game, money and love, addiction and recovery.
McCormack’s painfully honest retelling of his family’s football fanaticism and his father’s abuse and its influence on his own addiction is destined to pay that healing forward. Readers will find threads of their own story woven throughout the tough pigskin of his.
It will also offer hope. The pair slowly began to mend their relationship through their undying love of football. As McCormack wrote, he began to understand his father better. In this is an important lesson: Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean you think what happened was OK.
Set for release on April 24, get your pre-order today. I watch football for the tight pants and still found a lot to love in this book. McCormack, who works as a lawyer, writer and speaker in Seattle, answered a few questions about the book in anticipation of its release.
He signed off his email, “Be well.” I think he wants that for everyone.
Why was telling the story in this book important to you?
I didn’t set out to write a memoir. Rather, in the aftermath of my father’s death, I ramped up my journaling, trying to sort out life-long confusion, pain and anger. Then, several off-field pro football stories motived me to consider the work as a memoir told from the perspective of an uber-fan. Even once I started down that path, I had no idea where I would end up.
Now in the aftermath, I’m reminded of a metaphor to help explain what’s become most important to share: Providence puts a diamond in our pocket because it knows that’s the last place we’ll look. In the challenge of searching for it, we learn to treasure it more. I’m moved to share how my search unfolded and what my diamond turned out to be.
The prologue of your book is really powerful and, I think, relatable for many even for those without football playing dads. What was the most difficult part of writing about your relationship with your father?
Writing it meant feeling it. All of it. That included feeling my own complicity and dysfunction as a son, a football fan, and a person. I couldn’t have written the book without facing up to some responsibility, but there were many, many moments when I REALLY didn’t want to do that. I came close a couple times to deleting all saved versions of the manuscript and burning all paper copies.
What was the most rewarding experience or outcome for you of writing this book?
The most rewarding experience was the most surprising, namely that in writing, I discovered forgiveness. That discovery led to the diamond in my pocket. That is, my father’s legacy and what I intend will be my own.
This family football story is such an American story… especially for the generations we see in this book and the way family history impacts us in the present every day. Do you have any anxiety about the book being published or are do you feel excited to share this story?
I have felt a lot of both, anxiety and excitement, over the past year as we prepare to publish. Sharing the project with my mother and siblings was not easy, and that’s still a source of heartbreak for me, as the memoir displays. But the anxiety and excitement have given way to something more valuable: gratitude. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned about myself and my father. In terms of publishing the book, I’m grateful for the people with whom I’ve worked and for the conversations with fans, media, and journalists like you. If we don’t sell a single copy, it was worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.
What do you think is the general public’s greatest misunderstanding about addiction?
Understanding that I’m no clinical expert, and there’s a lot to unpack here, I offer this from personal experience. Addiction does not come from a desire to use per se. It comes from having only two choices: Use or Die. Within the throws of addiction, the option to live a full life free of substance abuse isn’t on the table. Life in that sense is a blind spot altogether.
PS – Fanaticism at its most extreme is an addiction.
I think one of the most difficult elements of writing real stories is knowing what parts of the story to include or not include. How did you edit down or decide on what scenes to include in this book?
Spot on observation! At one point, the memoir was twice as long as it is now. That was two years ago, and after two years of work. I was certain at that time I was finished. I walked away for a week, came back to the manuscript and realized I was not done for the very reason implied by your good question. With the help of a patient and persistent editor (Bryan Tomasovich of The Publishing World), I lashed myself to the mast of one theme: the relationship triangle between my father, pro football, and me. Everything not explicitly within that theme had to go. Looking back over the last two years, I bet I undertook that process of walking away, returning, then cutting fifty times more after I was certain the book was done.
Do you have a daily writing routine or schedule when you were working on this book? If so, what is it and how does this help you get the work done? (Basically, we fellow writers love any advice on getting the job done!)
I had to stick with my day job as an attorney. And even though that involves a lot of writing, it’s a much different style, which was not helpful. So, finding a routine for creative writing proved difficult for a while. Things flipped when I committed to making my creativity the most important thing in my life. As soon as I woke (sometimes, many times, at 3 a.m.), my personal writing came first. It also helped when I quit judging the quality of the words when they first hit the page. I would just write, then organize and clean it up later. I also tacked to the wall a quote I found on the internet: It’s not that good writers have a particular gift. They just write. A lot.
What has been inspiring you lately?
Wood, water, stone, air, and fire. My wife and I are on the cusp of an empty nest after raising five kids. So, I have more time for listening to nature. I want and need more of that.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Abraham Lincoln has always been at the top of my list for questions like this. According to history, he overcame a lot of failure in business and politics. He was challenged by depression. And yet despite those challenges – or maybe because of them – he made obviously positive contributions to a greater cause.
Second, I’ll pick Brazilian writer Paulo Cohelo, author of The Alchemist, an all-time favorite, although I’m most smitten with his work The Fifth Mountain. I would have to learn Portuguese though, I bet.
Last, I would invite my father. He and I have some unfinished business.
That is, new to me. Cynthia’s been writing for some time, and her short fiction has been published in The Arkansas Review, Epoch, The Missouri Review, Slice and others.
Her new novel Birds of Wonder, released March 2 and published by Standing Stone Books, is her triumphant return to writing fiction following a long spell unraveling the magic of art history — buried in other people’s books.
I, for one, am glad she’s back to writing her own fictional tales.
“One August morning while walking her dog, high-school English teacher Beatrice Ousterhout stumbles over the dead body of a student, Amber Inglin, who was to play the lead in Beatrice’s production of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Barely able to speak, Beatrice calls the police. That is to say, she calls her daughter.
Jes is a detective with two years of experience under her belt and a personal life composed primarily of a string of one-night-stands, including the owner of the field in which Beatrice has found Amber. In addition to a house and a field, Child Services lawyer Liam Walsh owns a vineyard, where Amber Inglin, along with a handful of other teens who’ve had difficulty negotiating the foster system, was an intern.
Set among the hills and lakes of upstate New York and told in six vibrantly distinct voices, this complex and original narrative chronicles the rippling effects of a young girl’s death through a densely intertwined community.”
This is a murder mystery, sure, but it’s also a study of family ties — what bonds them, builds them and can potentially break them. With sprinkles of humor and strokes of darkness, the book is lovely lyrically. I enjoy Cynthia’s ability to turn a basic everyday something-or-another into such a scene that I find myself doing something-or-another inspired by it in my real life later.
Like pick forgotten flowers from the side of the highway and lovingly restore them as a dinner centerpiece (ie: this passage about Beatrice considering a walk to the farmers’ market with that beloved dog Geneva):
“True, the humidity had been stifling, the stretch closest to the highway lined with jiffy-lubes and chain drugstores, and the rushing traffic had made Geneva skittish. But she’d spied wild salvia growing along the roadside, pushing bravely through the gravel. The bright blue blossoms were a bit bedraggled now, but a drink of water would fix that. They’d be a charming centerpiece for tonight’s dinner table.”
Birds of Wonder is juicy escapism with a literary garnish perched on the rim. It’s just what the book-doctor ordered as we fog up our windows searching to see if the birds and the sun have come out yet to play.
Get your copy of Birds of Wonder here, and don’t miss my interview below with Cynthia below!
She offers great insights for writers about the writing process, including the best tip she’s ever been taught for developing characters for a multi-voiced piece of fiction. And I love reading about how and why she struggled with writing Jes — it will add a depth of understanding and appreciation to your reading that you won’t regret.
What brought you back to writing after your hiatus from fiction? Why write a novel?
I have a dear friend in Spain who pestered me for, literally, years after she read a novel of mine that never got properly published — long story, from way back in the ‘90s.
In the meantime, I had taken a deep dive down the scholarly black hole and didn’t want to hear it. But still, as they say, she persisted… And, funnily, in 2011 or so, via reconnecting with an old friend who, most unfortunately, has gone back to being no longer a friend — another long story — the opportunity to sort-of publish that one came about.
It went spectacularly south, nothing about it went right, we had no idea what we were doing, B U T: That near-miss awoke the Writing Beast once more — the genesis of Birds of Wonder. That ex-friend was actually a big part of its early inspiration and brainstorming. There’s a line in the acknowledgements thanking him. Wherever he is.
I conceived a novel because at that time I had yet to meet the person who would suggest, long about 2013, that I try my hand at short fiction, and I am very glad that she did!
Birds of Wonder is told in six distinct characters’ voices. Did you do any specific kinds of character work to distinguish these voices from one another?
Lots and lots and lots. Pages and pages of backstory for each that never made it into the novel, nor should they have. I did all sorts of down-the-rabbit hole research for each one of them (yay for the internet), which maybe generated a page of text. But I’m kind of used to that, being a medievalist in my day job. I’m used to wasting time in the archives.
Perhaps the most useful ‘trick,’ if it can be called that, is one I learned from the wonderful Gill Dennis, in his ‘Finding the Story’ workshop that he taught for years and years at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers (highly, highly recommend their summer workshops, btw): For each and every character, a writer should know (and know well enough to write, tho’ these may not be things you actually use) the moments of greatest terror, joy and shame in that character’s life. Those are harder than you might think to nail down (in a plausible way), but once you have them (and, of course, all the background research), then you have your character and you can go from there.
Were there challenges to drawing upon stories and experiences from your own life when writing Birds of Wonder or was that helpful for developing the story? Both?
Both, for sure. Though all of the characters have something of me in them, likely more of a something than I know, the closest to me is Jes. There are a number of pieces of my own baggage that I gave her to haul (the sorts of relationships she establishes, and eschews, with men, for instance, or some of her more traumatic experiences — I’d spoil the plot if I elaborated further on those), that brought her so close to me that I was beginning to find her difficult to write.
I had to go back to the drawing board on her character quite a number of times, though her moment of greatest terror did end up looking a lot like my own. And it was only very late in the writing process that I was able to give her that. Once she’d been made into enough of her own character that I could clearly see she wasn’t me.
What was the most difficult point in completing this novel? Was it getting started, the middle build, completing it, or something else entirely?
The low point for me was when my long-suffering agent took one, or two, or three — I lose count — earlier drafts to editors and no one bought. That was absolutely excruciating, because everything about regaining the Writing Thing up to that point had been scandalously easy for me. Getting short fiction published, finding just the right trusted readers, getting into Squaw not once but twice, getting a wonderful agent (actually I had my pick from a number of wonderful agents)… then, slam.
Once I picked myself up off the floor that first time, I saw I needed to kill off a character and give voice to another who was more central to the story. So I did that.
Which took me about a year.
And then that one didn’t sell either.
We were just about to put it into a drawer and go forward with the new one I am working on, when I was presented with the opportunity to work with Bob Colley at Standing Stone Books, an upstate-NY based, indie press. It was during revisions with him that I finally excavated to the rock bottom of Jes (I’d been protecting her, as one often does with characters one likes or identifies with). I stopped doing that, and everything fell into place, including a new ending that rang much truer to the story and its characters.
This is a long process! Much longer than anyone ever wants it to be, but there it is.
Do you have any advice for writers doing factual research for a fiction novel?
Really, with the internet the sky is the limit. Or, as I discovered, the absolute rock bottom of the sexual tourism business in Thailand. Absolutely everything is on the internet. So you start there. Even if you will eventually wind up in libraries an archives, you start there, and then follow the leads where they take you — to a vineyard, in my case, or to another country, or just another county, to the courthouse archives.
I do recommend always resisting the temptation to do an information dump on your readers. Once you have become a temporary world expert in Topic A or B, you will want to share your newfound knowledge, all of it, with the world. Don’t.
But you are now able to supply — or quickly find — that one bit of data that, inside your character’s head or coming from her mouth, will be convincing and hook readers/editors/agents, whoever you’re trying to hook.
What do you listen to or watch or read to get pumped up to write?
I watch almost no television (except select political shows, MSNBC on speed dial), almost no movies. I don’t binge-watch. I don’t own a subscription to Netflix, and I’m not even sure whether Netflix is a subscription service!
I have two jobs, in essence — my teaching and research etc., and my writing — and I just plain don’t have time. Maybe I am depriving my subconscious and my psyche of all sorts of great stimuli, but too bad. Not enough hours in the day. I do have a bunch of books going at once — always a couple of literary journals (I subscribe to several; I don’t always like everything they publish, but I try to read the stuff I don’t like too, because I think it’s good for me, and they must have chosen it for a reason).
I always have at least one collection of short stories going — right now it’s one by Molly Giles. I try to read each year’s O.Henry and Pushcart prize collections as well. I always have at least one thing going in Spanish — right now it’s Javier Marias’ BERTA ISLA.
At least a small daily dose of poetry, sometimes medieval sometimes not, and a couple novels that bear on things that interest me that usually have to do with the current novel project. It’s almost never the latest or most trendy best-seller. I read other people’s reviews of those for a while, usually a year or two, before I decide whether to bite or not.
I love to listen to classical music, pretty much all of it, and I have grown spoiled and lazy because our local station is so good that I can always count on them to supply my Muzak. I am also a huge fan of opera and never miss at Saturday Live at the Met broadcast if I can possibly help it.
When it’s time to actually _write_, tho’, I turn all the sound off.
Do you have a daily writing routine or schedule when you’re working on a novel? If so, what is it and how does this help you get the work done?
I have to balance the two jobs — the one that keeps the lights on and the one that truly inspires me — which tends to make my writing time a late afternoon-early evening thing. I start off by reading for about half an hour, generally rather randomly from among the selection I listed above. Then I open the computer.
Each novel or short story generally goes through several pre-drafts in note-card and white-board form, with these notes often being written down first in Spanish — I seem to free-form best in some language that is not my own but almost is — and when it’s time to really get serious, I switch to English. If I am having trouble with a scene, I will often stop and note-card that particular scene… it’s very control-freak-y and nerdy and scholarly but when you consider my day job, maybe that isn’t very shocking.
What has been inspiring you lately?
The #metoo movement, for reasons both personal and universal.
Pablo Neruda en español.
My upcoming spring break to London, to hopefully finish a fourth draft of my new novel in and around the very hotel that inspired its setting.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
My mother, because she died of melanoma when I was 25 and I never knew her as an adult.
My brilliant, multilingual and disgustingly talented friend Mark (we were inseparable in grad school)—he died of AIDS a year after my mother passed away. They would have adored one another. In another life my mother would have been a fashion designer (in this one she was a Southern housewife).
And Louisa May Alcott, because they both loved Little Women.
If we could maybe have a fourth, I’d invite my librarian aunt, who died a victim of gun violence when I was five. She was the first to put a book in my hands. She was a divorcee down south back when no nice ladies in the south were divorcees.
I think we would all have a fine time.
*NB: I didn’t name all the amazingly brilliant states-persons, writers, poets, etc., that might come to mind, because I’m quite sure I would be totally and completely tongue-tied in the presence, say, of Virginia Woolf.
This California-based writer pens a weekly column for the feminist magazine’s website. It chronicles the mostly fascinating, truly fabulous, and sometimes straight-up weird life and style aspects of Victorian culture.
Auburn hair, with a florid countenance, indicates the highest order of sentiment and intensity of feeling, along with corresponding purity of character, combined with the highest capacities for enjoyment and suffering.
Matthews has two non-fiction books on the way, including “The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries,” due out in November, and “A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty,” due out July 2018.
As an attorney with a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, it’s no surprise Matthews can expertly handle not only separating fact from fiction — but making them play together nicely.
This Victorian romance is the perfect companion for a cuddled-up Fall Saturday. It follows the story of the dynamic Sylvia Stafford. The tragic death of her father demotes her to a life of spinsterhood (no more pumpkin colored evening gowns for Ms. Sylvia!), until fate intervenes and she is reunited with her former love, the once charming Colonel Sebastian Conrad, gone surly and sour from a devastating battle wound. The Victorian countryside is the lush backdrop for this story of love, loss and redemption.
In the following interview, Matthews talks about her own love affair with the Victorian era, how she balances research with crafting fiction, what she’s working on next, and advice she has for anyone writing a historical novel.
Oh, and which Bronte she would invite to a dinner party. Would you be able to choose just one?
What do you love about the Victorian era? What draws you to it?
The Victorian era has always appealed to me on multiple levels. First, there’s the obvious: the gorgeous fashions—from wire crinolines to enormous bustles. Then there’s the emphasis on manners and decorum; the strict societal rules for ladies and gentlemen and the limitations imposed on courting couples. The Victorian era was also a time of enormous advancements in industry, medicine, and the rights of women. Aniline dyes were discovered, the sewing machine was invented, train travel became ubiquitous, and women shed their cumbersome skirts and hopped on safety bicycles, an invention which gave them enormous independence. What’s not to love?
What made you want to write fiction about a subject whose real-life stories you’re so knowledgeable about?
The Victorian era has a wealth of fabulous history to tap into. And I already write so much about it in the non-fiction realm, it seemed only natural to set my novels there as well. I think my readers would have been disappointed if I hadn’t. Not to mention, when I read historical romances, I really notice when an author gets their history wrong. I was determined that I would use my knowledge of Victorian social history to help me get my own novel right.
How do you balance being true to the gender roles of the Victorian era with creating an interesting woman and romance your reader wants to root for? (Hello, Sylvia!)
It’s a challenge, especially as I hate when characters in a historical [novel] come across as nothing more than modern men and women in costume. This is why I really liked writing Sylvia. Since she had essentially been ejected from fashionable society, she wasn’t strictly bound by Victorian social conventions. It was up to her to make her own way in the world. It was a grim situation, but one that allowed her to gain a measure of feminine independence. At the same time, she was still quite constrained in regard to how she could interact with the opposite sex—especially Sebastian. Also, it helps that a lot of the emotion that she and Sebastian felt—the romantic angst, fear of rejection, and feelings of betrayal—is emotion that many of us have felt at some point in our modern romantic lives. This made the characters relatable in spite of the restrictions imposed by the era.
How did your background studying Victorian era history and culture help and/or hinder the fiction writing process?
It helped tremendously in that I was able to draw on my knowledge of Victorian fashion, etiquette, and social norms without having to do too much additional research. It hindered me on occasion because I’m such a stickler for historical accuracy and, in writing a scene, I would often think, “They would never have said/done this!” It was sometimes hard for me to put that aside in order to allow my characters to have time on their own to talk—or to kiss!
Do you have any advice for writers about doing research for a fiction novel?
If they’re striving for true historical accuracy, I would strongly advise them not to limit their research to uncited blog posts or Wikipedia articles. They should read historic newspapers, magazines, and books. They should get a feel for the language and the behaviour of the era in which they’ve set their story. And if they’re writing about something they know nothing about—like horseback riding—they really need to have their research down. Nothing is more irritating to a reader than being absorbed in a story only to have some anachronism wrench them out of it.
What do you listen to or watch or read to get pumped up to write?
I get most pumped up to write when I’ve been researching something. I often find some odd Victorian fact which inspires me to envision a scene or a scrap of dialogue. Victorian fiction—especially classic novels like those by the Brontë sisters, Margaret Gaskell, or George Eliot—also inspires me and helps to get me in a certain frame of mind. As for music, though I love it, I can’t really listen to it when I’m writing. It’s too distracting. I have to have everything super quiet.
Do you have a daily writing routine or schedule when you’re working on a novel? If so, what is it and how does this help you get the work done?
I had to finish my latest non-fiction book, “A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty,” on a hard deadline. I was at my computer writing every day by one o’clock. I would then write straight through until dinner. For fiction I’m not so strict with myself. I write whenever the muse takes me. There are some days I can write thousands of words. Other days I only write a few hundred—or none. I aspire to be more disciplined (and more prolific), but life often gets in the way.
Do you want to write another romance set in this time period? If so, what will you do differently or how do you want to grow or explore as a writer in a second book?
I’ve got a few other novels set in the Victorian era that will be out over the next year or two. “The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter” is coming in January. I actually wrote it before I wrote “The Lost Letter.” Because of that, I’m not sure how much it will read as if I’ve grown as an author. It’s far less angst-ridden than “The Lost Letter” was. In fact, it reads more like a romp, with an impulsive, rakish hero and a prim heroine who can’t resist him. Following that, I have a much darker Victorian novel coming out (as yet untitled). It’s about an injured soldier in coastal Devon who places a matrimonial advertisement in a London newspaper. The woman who arrives on his doorstep is not quite what he was expecting. This novel allowed me to explore more sinister themes, including those relating to the legal power that Victorian men had over their wives and female relations.
What has been inspiring you lately?
I’ve recently been researching 19th century breach of promises cases. In many, the gentleman had written compromising letters to his betrothed before breaking their engagement. The jilted girl’s father then used the letters as evidence when bringing suit. I’m planning on using one of these old cases as a basis for a novella about a broken engagement which results in a breach of promise suit. I’ve already written the first five pages. We’ll see where they lead!
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
I’d like to say Queen Victoria would be on the list, but I actually think she’d put a damper on dinner conversation. The guests would be too intimidated to speak. Instead, I’d invite all three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. They were three of the most talented authors of the Victorian era. I would love to hear their thoughts on life, love, and the business of writing.
However, his ability to eloquently and righteously steak knife a sacred cow from either side of the culture war is my favorite thing about him. He’s endlessly intellectually challenging.
And that, as you’ll read here, is the whole point.
This Friday Justin releases his third professional hour worth of stand-up comedy on an album titled “American Apathy.” In our following interview, we talk about his influences, plans for his fourth hour, what motivates him to stay in such an admittedly brutal field, and why comedy is entertainment—not talking points.
Check out his podcast “Justin Golak’s Safe Space” this Thursday. On this week’s episode, I interview him about the evolution of modern comedy and the business and barriers of stand-up and making it a full-time profession. Prepare to hear a lot of my aforementioned sighing.
The story I always tell, because I do feel it was the true kernel that sprouted the idea, is this: When I was in second grade, I told my mom that when I grew up I wanted to be funny for a living–because up until then (and, for the most part, after then too), being funny between lesson plans was the only thing I really enjoyed about school. My mom said that there were no jobs where you could just be funny, unless I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Everything my mom said after “unless” was delivered with a heavy, but fair when coming from a mother to her child, lather of sarcasm and dismissiveness. However, just knowing that there was something out there, something that was established, with a title and everything, that was a job where you just had to be funny definitely locked that general destination into my life’s journey.
I love the essays you write at the end of each episode of your podcast. Why stay in this field, this form?
I really enjoy hip-hop. And often when we’re listening to it together, you say something about being surprised that I don’t really care for poetry (which I do not–sorry, poets). I never had a really good response as to why I love one and loathed the other. But recently I was thinking about it, and I think that I like that the MC puts their name on their work, along with their voice, their face, and, at a live show, their presence. There’s something about the full ownership of your art that I think live, or even recorded, performance has. I think satire and humor writing of all kinds can be great, but to me, being a humorist feels like being a drone pilot, lobbing shots from behind a keyboard. Being a stand-up feels like going headfirst into the jungle with just a tactical knife strapped to your belt. And I like being in the shit, looking at the whites of eyeballs.
Coming back to hip-hop, I also have made the comparison between “wack” and “hack” in hip-hop and comedy respectively. I watched a documentary about hip-hop where the documentarian asked an MC about what it meant for someone or something to be “wack.” In short, it means someone or something is bad or inferior. But besides that part of the description, I loved how the MC made subtle reference to the fact that he believed it was a term used amongst people in the creative community of hip-hop with maybe some extension to the most diehard of fans.
That’s just like “hack” in the comedy community. Not only is it the most damning of terms one can levy as a comic, it’s really something said amongst comics. Your average comedy consumer doesn’t really use that word. But, I think that’s why stand-up comedy churns out some of the most original, biting, and profound content of all of the other creative art forms–because there’s quality control amongst the community itself. If you’re not coming correct, it’s an uphill battle for you at best.
You have to play to the front and back of the room at all times. And that keeps things tight. I love that about stand-up, and it’s why I want to stay in it forever. I love being in something that has contempt for mediocrity. It makes you work harder and push yourself further. I don’t think every art form, even some that include live performance (sorry, poets), has that. Bullies are always gonna be insufferable dicks that help no one. But too much support can also dilute the product. And that’s no good either.
What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being a comedian today?
Getting paid. Entertainment is the last thing people want to pay for anymore. And it’s not just money, but what that money represents. If you can go “full time” with comedy, you have more time to perform, which means you can get better and produce better content for the ether to consume. The more time you must dedicate to an unrelated day job, the more your finished product is sullied. And that’s a shame not just for the performer but for the entertainment consumer as well.
So, demanding money for creative work isn’t some crass request, it’s simply telling the end user that you get out what you put in. And even a couple bucks here or there to the people or products you really like will benefit you and the things you like in the long run.
I love being in something that has contempt for mediocrity.
What three comedians, jokes or comedy specials have been most influential to your style?
Let’s get the most problematic out of the way first: Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby is a master class in pacing. Everything is deliberate and confident. He’ll take as long as he wants or needs to get to the punchline (or even the next joke) and he’s not worried about you losing interest along the way. It’s fucking beautiful, man. He had a quote once that essentially said you don’t have to be funny the whole time you’re on stage as long as you always have the audience’s attention. And he always did. And that’s something I try to mimic. I love hearing an audience laugh. But nothing makes me happier then looking out and seeing them look up at me like a dog looks at you when you bring a bag of takeout home.
Chris Rock’s “BringThe Pain” & “Bigger and Blacker.” It’s two specials, but since they’re from one comic and blew my mind in the same way at relatively the same time, I listed them together. Chris Rock may be the best comedian of the post-Carlin/Pryor generation. I consider him the best stand-up comic of all time. I love that Chris Rock elevates everything he touches. He was just as charismatic, energetic and visceral as the Def Jam comics that were performing when these specials hit and just as intelligent and insightful as any social commentator or spoken word artist. He elevated both sides and perfected a persona that was a flawless combination of both: hip, urban humor styling that wasn’t just pussy jokes and thinker-humor that gave you actual belly laughs and not just nods of agreement and polite applause breaks. He made both sets of comics work harder because he showed the holes in both their games. Bill Burr once said that when Chris Rock released “Bring The Pain,” it was like when Nirvana released “Nevermind.” Hack comics knew their days were numbered just like the hairsprayed rockers on Sunset knew the same thing. The bar had been raised.
George Carlin. His ability to dissect a subject is unfuckwithable. He doesn’t just skewer something. He pokes a million tiny holes in it and let’s it collapse under its own volition. That’s what makes him the most original and prolific. If every subject is a chicken, all the mediocre comics come in and carve off the breasts, maybe take a couple legs. He takes what’s left of the carcass, breaks it down, boils it in a stock pot, and makes the most delicious stew you’ve ever had. He takes the parts of a subject no one is using and makes better jokes than the ones made with the obvious parts. It’s, again, a master class in setting yourself apart from the pack.
What does the idea of American apathy actually mean to you? What makes you an apathetic American?
I called the album “American Apathy” because I think all jokes are a form of apathy. All art, really. Me being a professional joke-teller is the most apathetic part about me. I remember once, I did a set that involved me cracking-wise on some social subjects. I was talking to a girl after the show, and at some point, I mentioned that I don’t always vote, and she was stunned. And furious. She questioned how I could talk about society and not actively and constantly participate in it. And I think that’s a major confusion a lot of people have about art and society. I MAY just happen to care about the thing I’m talking about on stage, but it’s not implicit. I’m talking about something on stage because it has comedic value. And that’s really it. I’m not trying to make a point, or change a mind, or do anything noble. I’m trying to be entertaining.
I feel like most political comedy shows on TV are just slightly funnier (and sometimes not even that) versions of Hannity or Rachel Maddow. Hannity and Maddow already present news in an entertaining way. What differentiates them from a straight up comedy show about society and politics? It used to be that the comedy show put funny above viewpoint. Hannity and Maddow are restricted to a point of view that they believe will make the country better. Comedy should just take the funniest stand. And that’s it.
People now take serious umbrage with the points of view–I’m not talking someone being offended, I’m talking people being seriously mad about only the position taken on an issue–of comedians on political comedy shows. I think those people are ridiculous. But, I do also put the blame on a lot of people in comedy who seem to take on that mantle to become slightly jokier journalists or commentators. That’s not what you are. And to take that on is equal parts insulting to the funny-makers and the news-tellers.
Why is American apathy interesting to you?
It’s not that I don’t care about the world around me or that I’m some sort of nihilist. But when I’m on stage, it’s about the funny. I think there’s a lot of people giving a big ol’ eye roll to the new style of social and political comedy. Just Google “clapter.” I wanted to put a label on my comedy that lets you know, no matter what I talk about, what angle I take, or whatever, for this next hour, I’m just trying to entertain you. And if you miss entertainment for entertainment’s sake, give what I got a spin and I hope you have a good time.
If a comic is saying something with the express purpose to change someone’s mind to that opinion or to only gather people with those beliefs, what differentiates him from a preacher or a politician? I think the most a comedic performance can do, besides purely entertain, is to get people to think. And that is important.
When I do a bit that pokes holes in something like, let’s say, religion, I’m not trying to convince people to become atheists or to curate an audience of all non-believers. I hope you leave the show with those jokes in your mind and they actually stimulate your brain on a subject that may have laid dormant or just unknowingly unaddressed. Then that means you actually think on it. You look at my little, jokey points and address them within yourself. And I don’t really care if you say to yourself, “No, fuck that, there are things I know that will always make me believe in God,” or, “He’s right, there probably is no god,” I’m just happy that you actually have, or have reclaimed, your beliefs after firmly considering them.
I think a major problem with society isn’t what people believe but that they don’t constantly question what they believe. So even if that belief doesn’t move, at least you’re pressuring it in its current position at all times.
Can you recognize your growth as an artist in this album?
Definitely. I feel like what I did, and then ultimately laid down, after the previous hour has always been better. Including on this album. Which is good. And reassuring. Because once you lay something down for an album, you’re like, “What if that’s the funniest thing I ever do?” I’m in that terrified mindset right now. So, who knows if my fourth hour will even be a thing. I do know that the third one is my best yet, though.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
Doug Stanhope. Anything and everything he’s done. He’s fearless in a way that’s almost cartoonish. And I mean that as a compliment. Like, it’s a surreal, otherworldly level of fearlessness. You see it and just think, “I thought this level of I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck was meant to be strived for but never attained? How am I actually watching it happen then?”
What do you hope has evolved by the time you record your next album?
Technical skills. It’s all about that going forward. I’ve spent the last 10-plus years finding a voice, finding a style, learning how to be funny, learning how to be comfortable on stage, coming up with a writing system–all that foundational shit. Now I want to start gleaning the specific skills the guys from question four have mastered. Album three, you’re listening to a backroom brawler. Between that and album number four, I want to learn how to box.
If you could invite three people living or dead to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Bill Clinton because every dinner party needs someone with some good stories. Kerry Washington because she’s gorgeous and every dinner party needs some eye candy. But, when you only have three guests, you can’t waste a whole pick on just beauty. I’d also choose her specifically because I’ve seen her make appearances on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and she can hold her own with certified pundits. She’ll keep meal chatter lively. Finally, Sylvester Stallone. Because you have to use one invite just to get the chance to be in the same room with someone you’ve always wanted to meet.
Penny Wade is a young social worker in South Boston, earnestly trying to help others, while also hoping to find love.
Online dating seems like the perfect way to meet new people, and distract her from a painful past. After a string of disastrous first dates, she finally meets a man and tumbles into love with him. Her happiness is short-lived, however, when digital dating turns deadly as a killer scans dating profiles to select his targets.
Penny must manage her challenging caseload, including a particularly heart-tugging case in which she’s working to support a depressed young mother and assess allegations of abuse, while also trying to find a murderer before she is “ghosted” for good.
Lucy’s writing power comes in the form of a deft balance of empathy and humor, both of which underlie the juicy thriller at this story’s heart.
Below, the author gives some great insight on how she’s worked to nail that voice (because it is work and she’s refreshingly honest about that), how she balances writing with being a single mother of two boys (Lucy, you’re a hero), what writing tools she uses, why she writes and social workers, and more.
I think I started for the challenge. Then I got hooked. The stories and characters exist for me now, so I’m sort of compelled to write them down. I remember once reading an interview with Alice Walker about how she entered the story world and saw stories unfold that didn’t feel like they were coming from her. I thought that was strange but now it happens to me. But to be clear, it didn’t just start happening on its own. I had to really put in effort and I still do have to work hard at the writing. People who want to write tell me “I don’t have stories in my head.” Well, neither did I. I started out in a very mechanical way. I decided to write a mystery because it would have lots of structure to guide me. I need a crime, and suspects, and red herrings, and a good flawed heroine. It was only through that process that things began to come alive.
I love that I get to live different things through Penny. In some ways she’s very intentionally unlike me because I want to see what it’s like to be someone else. I can sort of live an additional life through her and expand my experiences and gain compassion in different ways that in my “real” life.
I love that I get to live different things through Penny. In some ways she’s very intentionally unlike me because I want to see what it’s like to be someone else.
What does your daily writing process look like when you’re working on a novel?
I’m not terribly consistent. Sometimes I write sitting on my bed, sometimes in my little home office, which is a tiny stand-alone building in my back yard. Sometimes I write in my dining room at my big farm table covered in crumbs and sticky smears from boys. If I listen to music it’s usually classical, but mostly I prefer quiet because when I’m really writing (as opposed to doing research or planning), I go into Penny’s world and I don’t want anything anchoring me back in mine.
Are there any rookie mistakes you made when writing your first book that you would offer up to new writers as things to avoid or at least be aware of?
I had tons of mistakes in my first book. I worked with a great developmental editor, who helped me to do three major redrafts! I think the main thing I learned was that the story can take on a life of its own and I have to respect that. I had the murderer wrong at first in Ruby Milk. Ooops. I learned that there’s some stuff I don’t get to control and if I’m stubborn, I’ll just end up going back and re-writing because the story knows, and I need to listen. I think my advice would be to first plot things out as well as possible so that the structure for the book is solidly in place, then truly enter the world and write the flesh onto the bones. When I get stuck I grab a spiral notebook and interview my characters to find out what I need to know. This is really great because they know what’s happening and are always willing to help.
Do you have a set amount of words you write each day or how do you approach meeting a book deadline?
In writing mode, I’ll often set a goal of 2,000 or 3,000 words per day but I don’t hold myself to it. Some days I’ll write 5,000 in what seems like just moments. Other days I need to do research, fix a problem, or just move slowly because that’s the kind of day I’m having. I try to remind myself that I do this by choice and for love, so there’s really no urgency beyond my own momentum.
In writing mode, I’ll often set a goal of 2,000 or 3,000 words per day.
How do you write while working and being a mother? I know that sounds trite, but I mean it. Any tips on juggling everything and working writing into a busy schedule?
I’m very lucky that I work from home for my day job so I don’t have to put on makeup or commute. That saves time. However, I think my real secret is that I don’t watch tv. The New York Times reported that the average person watches five hours per day. I’m sure people are doing other stuff while they watch, but I can’t imagine multitasking writing a book with watching tv! I think that’s my best secret time saver! Otherwise I try to keep the calendar organized with the boys’ activities etc. and I don’t take on a lot of volunteer stuff at their schools or anything like that. (Bad mom confession: I don’t really enjoy that stuff anyway.) As I write this, I’m on vacation with my boys on Cape Cod. It is 6 am and they’re still asleep. My brain works best early in the morning. I think knowing when you’re sharpest is important. I can do twice as much per hour at six in the morning compared to nine at night.
Why write about social service professionals? What challenges present themselves when writing about a world you know intimately in real life and how to you face them down?
I write about a social worker because I admire them enormously. While I’ve worked with them in a liaison capacity, I’ve never been one, and one-on- one work isn’t my strength. So, I’m not overly close to it. I think that helps because Penny can make mistakes and it doesn’t freak me out as a professional. Think how boring it would be to read about Penny the Perfect Professional!
As someone working in the corporate world, I find I need to create “the business case” to get large employers to provide helpful benefits and supports for employees. That’s just how big organizations work — lots of decision makers and a need for a rational case to spend money. I’m inspired by the world of social work because it’s full of people who are doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. There’s a purity there that I appreciate and want to celebrate in my books.
Do you have any book recommendations for aspiring writers?
Writing funny stuff can be hard and there are tons of really bad books about it on the market, so one of my favorite book recommendation is The Hidden Tools of Comedy by Steve Kaplan. He basically says that funny is an ordinary man or woman, without special skills or knowledge, up against seemingly insurmountable odds, and never giving up. That’s Penny. That’s me. That’s all of us, right? Life is funny!
I also love Story by Robert McKee, which is actually about writing screen plays. I love books on writing screen plays because the story elements are so well thought out and there’s something clean about how good plots are described.
I love books on writing screen plays because the story elements are so well thought out and there’s something clean about how good plots are described.
Do you have any podcasts you listen to or tech tools you use to help you with the writing process?
I learn much better when I read the written word, so I have tons of books full of highlights, notes and post-it flags, but I tend not to listen to podcasts when it comes to content on writing. The tool I use is Scrivener, which is software that helps to organize a book. I can see a list of chapter folders containing each scene on the left-hand side. I name the scenes and that makes it easy to move around in the book. I don’t always write scenes in order. It also helps me to keep notes like what day it is in each scene, etc. It isn’t a perfect tool but it’s way better than trying to deal with an enormous Word document.
Penny Wade! How did you approach character development for Penny in order to make her a dynamic, multi-dimensional female protagonist?
Penny’s character was inspired by social workers. She’s fighting an uphill battle trying to help people in a system where few resources are available. She gets in trouble for getting too invested in her clients and spending too much time. She wears herself out physically and emotionally trying to help while also trying to create a life for herself separate from work. She has demons to deal with including having lost her little sister to a heart defect when she was young. The drive to “fix” and “save” is deep-rooted in Penny. She also has her struggles in relationships with men, and her own decisions about what she wants from a relationship. She isn’t the white-picket-fence type, and isn’t sure how to construct the life she wants because she doesn’t have a template like “get married, move to the suburbs, have kids”. Penny is dynamic and complex and very real to me, so the challenge isn’t making her those things, but getting her on the page effectively.
If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be and why?
One would have to be Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser mysteries series and role model for me. His books dealt seriously and sensitively with important social issues. Like Penny Wade Mysteries, they were set in Boston.
I’d also have many dinners with Robert B. Parker’s character, Spenser. He would be single. We’d go to the Bristol at the Four Seasons in Boston, where he often drank and dined. A key scene in my first book, Ruby Milk, is set there in homage to Parker and Spenser.
I think the third person would be Eva Peron. There are so many different takes on her life, but there’s no doubt it was interesting and she was a talented, brilliant, and brave woman.
Ever notice how the people who are the “characters” in your life (ie. “She’s a real character, that one!”) are considered so because they refuse to live in our reality?
I love those people, “characters” — when it’s genuine, it means they’re brave enough to construct their own world and define how they live in it.
Artist Michelle Maguire’s Great Aunt Doll is one of those people.
Aunt Doll has lived in Canton, Ohio, all 85 years of her life. She’s Italian American and easily unimpressed.
“She cusses, loves cured meats, knows more about the NFL than you do, plays strip mall slot machines with her vegetarian hairdresser of 42 years, isn’t trying to be funny but is, worships the sun from her concrete-slab patio, and frets about nothing except her beloved Italian bread packing on the pounds,” Michelle says. “Aunt Doll makes the most if it.”
And Michelle made the most of her relationship to this potato chip queen in Canton by making a limited-edition book that chronicles her time with Aunt Doll.
Titled “Salami Dreamin’”, it compiles lithography and silkscreen-printed images of Aunt Doll doing daily life things. Michelle’s application of color in these images is engrossing and almost crass, perfectly befitting a woman that makes “Fuck it” feel like a rallying call to arms to live life to the fullest — whatever that means to you. On the white backdrops, Aunt Doll’s life pops, just like her.
With each of Michelle’s carefully crafted images is a letter-press printed anecdote by writer Aaron Beck. It’s here we hear the sizzle of a tongue tested and triumphant in telling the truth.
For example, on a gorgeous day spent in the sun:
“I ain’t goin’ anywhere today, babe. The sun’s out and my ass is stayin’ right here. This is it.”
Humor aside, what strikes me about Michelle’s work is her eye for finding something most of us wouldn’t see in a moment (alas, like an artistic version of her beloved aunt). The scenes of “Salami Dreamin’” push through the brazen nature of the character and give hints of everyday human experience, even for our favorite “characters.” Doll’s snacking, reading the paper, or simply just hanging out.
In these moments both she and the artist watching her find peace in the simplicity of just living. There can be optimism and beauty in monotony… if you just shut the fuck up and let it happen.
As for “Salami Dreamin’”, a copy of the book is now in the permanent collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Joan Flasch Collection. It’s open to the public so you have no excuse not to go meet Aunt Doll.
“The gist of her story,” Michelle says: “Enjoy every chicken wing while you holler at the Cleveland Browns on your gigantic analog TV, because we aren’t here forever.”
Enjoy every chicken wing while you holler at the Cleveland Browns on your gigantic analog TV, because we aren’t here forever.
How did you make the actual physical book? Why put it together into a book?
For most of my adult life I’ve documented certain members of my family. Aunt Doll is one of Aaron’s and my all-time favorite people, so we hang out with her pretty much every chance we get, most typically in her Canton, Ohio home. For years I’d take still photos of her, much to her annoyance, while a tiny video camera rolled away in the background – both devices simultaneously capturing mundane and domestic goings-on, and creating an automatic transcript of her hilarious dialogue. I did this only to document and preserve her for myself; the idea to take all of the material and turn it into something came only after we realized how much I’d gathered. So I started to explore what it would mean to turn it into a book.
I’m a librarian in the Department of History of Art at The Ohio State University, so I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful resources, including printmakers and bookbinders. I began asking friends and colleagues around campus who to talk to, and pretty soon had assembled a wonderful crew of people to help me bring the book to life. What that series of photos and video evolved into has been the most rewarding and challenging project I’ve ever taken on.
How long did Salami Dreamin’ take to make? Were there ever any moments where you felt discouraged or like it wasn’t worth it? If so, what caused those moments and how did you work through them?
Production took a team of 6 people (including myself) with full-time jobs a year and a half, from making mock-ups, to cutting down paper, to mixing inks, to printing, to building and sewing the book. Fifty-five times! It was an enormous undertaking. That’s major dedication by a bunch of skilled, talented, obstacle-tackling people who didn’t even know me prior to this book project. I am forever in their debt.
There were many moments where every one of us felt overwhelmed, like the times when a layer of a print would be a real bastard registration-wise, which was nerve-wracking and caused me to repeatedly question why I created artwork with zero wiggle room. Edition bookmaking is no small task. It definitely made me sweat but it always felt like it’d be worth it.
How did you collaborate with a writer/Aaron? Did the artwork come first or did you two work in tandem?
We were together the entire time the footage and images were being recorded, so it felt only natural to work as a team to tell her story. Collaborating with Aaron was great. I knew if he was going to be involved that it would be funny and thoughtful and full of wonderfully vivid descriptions, perfectly conveying the essence of Aunt Doll. He really nailed it.
Any advice for readers looking to self-publish or make a book?
Go for it! And don’t be in a hurry.
What moves you to make art?
I feel my best and most alive when I’m making something. It’s how I respond to everything, it’s how I most naturally connect with people, and it always leads to new things.
My dad died unexpectedly almost 5 years ago, and since then that compulsion to create has become amplified. My dad was an autobody man. He spent 40 years smoothing, buffing, and painting banged-up cars. My drive and focus to work with my hands was passed down from him, we just have different applications. I love sharing that ability with him. He relished hearing about whatever I was working on, and I could hear his words of amazement throughout the entire book-making process.
It helped me move through grief.
What has been inspiring you lately?
We just took a trip to San Francisco and its coast to the north and south, so, rocks! Both in landscape and on architectural facades. The former are rugged and massive and make me feel tiny and insignificant; the latter make me feel like Fred Flintstone. I love both.
How do you stay focused when you’re working on a project?
I listen to music, I stay well-fed. I also step away pretty often – to eat and run around the block and re-group. Forcing an idea or a task leads to nothing, so I take frequent breaks and change up my environment, in hopes of inviting other inspiration or a new strategy to seep in.
If you could invite three people to a dinner party, living or dead, who would they be?