Fiction that tells the truth: Civil rights, the Middle East, and the Rosenberg case

September 21, 2015

Tags: political fiction, Mourner's Bench, All I Love and Know, The Hours Count, Rosenberg case, civil rights, Judith Frank, Sanderia Faye, Jillian Cantor

Fiction is the best way I know to understand the world. Oh, I read the morning paper and follow online alternative media, and watch the evening news. But my deepest delving into the big issues, the messy complicated and critical issues, is through imaginative works of fiction. Of course the facts, the details of time and place and person are often changed (re-imagined) to serve the story. But if the novel works, it takes the reader across otherwise insurmountable borders of time and nation, of race and ethnicity and gender and age, to experience – “first hand” – the thorny and challenging issues facing our world.

Three recent novels took me to new/old places, and illuminated segments of the world – both historical and contemporary. MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem, as a family responds to the terrorist bomb that kills two of its members. THE HOURS COUNT, Jillian Cantor novel’s about Ethel Rosenberg, brought me home, to my own family. Each of these novels successfully bring to life an important moment in history. Each offers an experience that readers might not otherwise access.

I was thrilled to hear that MOURNER’S BENCH was being published. I met the author Sanderia Faye, about ten years ago in a Contemporary Novel writing workshop led by Dennis Lehane. It was an enormously productive week for me, but the thing I remember most was Sanderia’s chapter from this novel. Her young protagonist Sarah is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.

I’m just finishing my second reading of Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW, in preparation for leading a book group discussion. Some novels fade a bit with rereading, but not this one. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.

Finally, I want to talk about THE HOURS COUNT, by Jillian Cantor. I heard about this book from a friend and contacted the author, requesting an advance copy. I did so with mixed emotions, because – as I’ve written about previously – I haven’t loved most of the fiction based on my family’s story. (I’m married to Robert Meeropol, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.) Cantor’s story is told by Millie, a fictional character who lives in Knickerbocker Village and becomes close friends with Ethel. A mix of fact and fiction is always tricky and some of Cantor’s choices don’t make sense to me. Why name one of her characters Jake Gold, when Harry Gold was a “real” participant? Why name Millie’s son David, to be confused with the “real” David Greenglass? Why rewrite how the bomb sketch was used?

That said, I found the novel emotionally compelling. The relationship between Millie and Ethel was complex and tender. The depictions of the parenting challenges shared by the two women was well done and felt true. On a personal level, I have spent decades wondering who Ethel Rosenberg really was – reading her letters, examining photos of her, listening to stories from those who knew her. I’ve spent years writing about her as a way to try to know this woman who gave birth to my husband. Reading Jillian Cantor’s novel, I was surprised at how close I felt to this novelist’s fictionalization of my mother-in-law, whose 100th birthday, by the way, is September 28 . Thank you, Jillian, for that gift.

A dark domestic tale

September 9, 2015

Tags: In the Context of Love, Linda K. Sienkiewicz, sexual assault

IN THE CONTEXT OF LOVE is a story about love gone wrong and the long journey back. Angelica Shirrick is a young mother whose husband is in prison. In order to move forward with her life, she faces both her ruined early love affair and a web of family lies and secrets. This is dark domestic material, woven into an emotionally powerful tale. After reading the novel, I had some questions for debut author Linda K. Sienkiewicz.

Q. Several times, I found myself surprised while reading this book. Things happened that I didn’t expect. In writing the book, did your characters surprise you at any times?

A. Yes, they took some unexpected turns. Angelica, in particular, concerned me. I worried about her behavior, especially at her ten year class reunion. I knew she was falling into a deep hole and I had to be sure I could get her back out. Her husband, Gavin, was rather shady and unpredictable, and it was interesting to follow him over to the dark side. I would say Angelica's father, too, surprised me. I didn't think he'd end up being such a pivotal character.

Q. In the heart of this book is a secret, a dark secret. It’s part of what drives the plot and what keeps us turning pages. I’m curious about when you, as the writer, discovered this secret – did you always know it and construct the narrative around it? Or, did you discover it along with Angelica?

A. The secret was the inspiration for the novel. In the nineties, I'd read a Glamour magazine article about several women who had learned this devastating truth about their conception when they were young adults. Their stories, their strength, and their capacity to forgive so impressed me that I decided to write a fictional story about such a woman. I didn't know how Angelica would learn the secret, or what she would do, but exploring those questions was the challenge and joy of writing this book.

Q. One of the things I loved about your novel was your use of second person. Angelica tells this story to Joe, her first love. Joe seems present throughout the novel, and the reader feels very close to Angelica’s yearning for him. I wonder when in the writing/revision process you decided to utilize that point of view.

A. I had written a rough first draft when I had learned about first-person/second-person address from Josip Novakovich's craft book, Fiction Writers Workshop. Novakovich wondered why it isn't used much in fiction because he feels it can be an effective point of view, particularly in love stories. In fact, to my knowledge, the novels that make use of this literary device can be counted on one hand. I was so intrigued that I had to try it with my manuscript. Changing it was a monumental undertaking, but the more I worked with this point of view, the more excited I became. I even wrote my MFA thesis on second person address. I consider it to be the most intimate point of view a writer can use in fiction.

Q. I read – and was very moved by – your blog about sexual assault. Did you know from the onset that a character would experience this kind of assault? What was your emotional experience of mining such painful personal experience for literary purpose?

A. I didn't relate my own experience to the story until recently, but I'm certain that what happened to me was one of the reasons I was compelled to write such a novel; I just didn't realize it at the time. The way victims of sexual assault are shamed by society has always disturbed me. Victims are essentially silenced. For years I felt I was to blame for what happened to me, and was sure no one would believe otherwise. Being able to write about it, to say, "This happened, it wasn't right, and it hurt me," was incredibly empowering. Likewise, for the characters in In the Context of Love, speaking out is powerful and healing.

Read about Linda's experience and more about this book on her website.

Things that help

August 5, 2015

I haven't posted a blog in a while; this has been a difficult period for my family. Until recently, my elderly father lived in an independent living apartment, with help from me and from aides in the facility. In the past month, he has had three ambulance rides to the Medical Center Emergency Room, three hospital admissions with significant problems and “procedures” to address those problems, and three returns to the skilled nursing rehab part of his community. That’s a lot for a 98-year-old blind man, who is also hearing impaired. He’s exhausted and so are we.

Most of us go through similar crises with elderly or ill family members sooner or later. Eventually, most of us experience the broken U.S. health care system. They are so good at saving lives, at high tech interventions, and my father has certainly benefited from that expertise. But they are often poor at communication – between departments, between providers, with and to the patient and family. Still, there have been, there are, some amazingly kind and thoughtful and helpful individuals and we are so grateful for their caring.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I’ve been thinking about the things that have helped me during this month. Things that have offered moments of respite, even of joy, in the middle of the sorrow.

The first is wildflowers. I’m so lucky this happened in July, when Robby’s garden and the land around us is in full and glorious bloom. Coneflowers and daylilies, susies and coreopsis, poppies and balloon flowers. Even a Monarch butterfly in the milkweed patch by the kitchen window.

Second is music. I admit that in recent years I forget to listen to music; words fill my brain. But this month I’ve rediscovered the dusty CDs and the ipod shuffle and even – amazing! – an afternoon on the lawn at Tanglewood. I’ve listened to a lot of music since that first awful dash to the E.R., mostly in the car on the daily drives to and from the hospital or the nursing home. The two most healing albums have been American Beauty (Grateful Dead) and Hijos del Sol (Viva Quetzal). Go figure.

The third thing that kept me sane, or close to sane, is work. Deadlines. My laptop has been close by all month. My dad’s medical issues came as I was still on book tour, so I’ve had to reschedule a few events and figure out how to be away from home as little as possible. This crisis also occurred as I signed the contract for my next book, and worked furiously to finish the revision. The novel includes hospital and nursing home scenes and it probably didn’t hurt to have those sensory details so available. Mostly it helped to be able to lose myself in a different narrative from my own.

Finally: family (Robby and Jenn, especially) and friends. You know who you are. Thank you.

The Great Cookie Caper

June 28, 2015

Tags: resistance, cookies, retirement community

There’s a new rule at the retirement community where my dad lives: only one cookie with your fruit cup for dessert.

You’ve got to understand that this is epic for my almost 98-year-old father. Blind and mostly deaf, he makes his own breakfast and lunch, but eats his evening meal every night in the dining hall. The food is decent and the staff is pleasant and accommodating. My dad has lived there for ten years, and the wait staff all know his standing dessert order: a fruit cup and two oatmeal raisin cookies.

Until last week.

On Thursday when Robby and I show up to join him for dinner, I ask my usual question. “What’s new, Dad?”

His usual answer is, “Nothing much.”

On Thursday, he says, “Well, you won’t believe what they’ve done,” and proceeds to tell us about the new regulation. “Can you believe that?” he asks, full of indignation.

Honestly, I agree with him. My dad came of age during the Depression and never wastes food. He often requests a half-order of an item he doesn’t think he can finish. He never leaves food on his plate. But, like many residents at this establishment, he sometimes brings a bit of food back with him to his room. In case he gets hungry later.

“So,” he asks, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Maybe you and Robby can order cookies, and give them to me? That’s what my friends did last night.”

Of course. We never have dessert and would be happy to join his plan. “You know, Dad. That’s kind of civil disobedience,” I say.

He nods.

As we were finishing our main course, the waitress came over to take dessert orders. “The usual, Jack?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says. “A fruit cup and two oatmeal raisin cookies.”

She smiles. “I can only bring you one. New rule.”

“I’ll have oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert please,” I say.

“Me, too,” Robby adds.

The waitress nods and walks away, just as the two gentlemen my father eats with when he’s not with us, walk up to the table. One of them, let’s call him Arnie, looks around to make sure no one is watching, then hands me a plastic carryout box, covered with a cloth dinner napkin. In the box are three oatmeal raisin cookies.

“We take good care of your father,” Arnie says. “Plus, we still like to break the rules.”

I love that. You’re never too old to resist.

Book tour reflections

June 9, 2015

Tags: book tour, venues, On Hurricane Island

I figure I’m about halfway through the book tour for ON HURRICANE ISLAND, the active, travel-heavy promotion journey. It started with the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Asheville a month before the novel’s publication; I expect it to begin winding down in the late autumn. Of course, that’s one of the pleasures of a small press like Red Hen, which considers a book “new” for 18 months or so. Actively traveling and promoting a book for such a long time also has its challenges, and this weekend (two days “off” to visit with old friends in the Bay Area), I’ve been reflecting on the experience.

So far, I’ve done more than 30 book events, ranging from readings in indie bookstores and public libraries to book festivals and conferences and house parties and author fairs and book groups. They’ve been organized by Red Hen Press, or by my wonderful publicist Mary Bisbee Beek, or by me, following up with friends, contacts from my first novel, and suggestions from other authors. The range of venues has been wide, from the amazing Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica to a wine bar in Boston’s Back Bay to a friend’s living room. From San Antonio and Lynchburg and Albany to Oakland and Manhattan and Cambridge and Washington, D.C. Attendance has varied widely too; two people in a bookstore in a city where I knew one person (she brought a friend) to crowded auditoriums at literary festivals and colleges.

What do they all have in common? My gratitude that readers still come to hear authors read, and talk with them, and ask questions, and offer opinions. The connection I feel to readers and writers and booksellers and conference volunteers. The pleasure of meeting people who love story as much as I do, and who get it when I talk about my characters as real people. The inspiration to go home and write the next book.

"I loved this book" "I hated this book"

May 20, 2015

Tags: An Untamed State, Roxanne Gay, book group

A few days ago, a book group I attend discussed Roxanne Gay’s debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I had suggested the book for the group, and read it for a second time in preparation for the discussion. So I admit I was shocked when the first two comments were, “I hated this book.”

Me, I love this book.

I suppose I wasn’t entirely surprised, because of Gay’s subject matter. AN UNTAMED STATE is about the kidnapping and brutal sexual torture of a young woman who returns to Haiti to visit her parents. It’s not an easy book to read. It’s not a comfortable place to go. So why do I admire it so much?

For one thing, the first sentence is one of the best I’ve ever read in a novel. It sent shivers up and down my spine, hooking me immediately into the story:

“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”


I love that first sentence, because it tells me that this novel is about the fairy tales we like to tell ourselves, but they lie. This young woman will not live happily ever after. I love the book because the bad men – and they are very bad – are young men with hope beating in their chests. This doesn’t excuse their actions, but it certainly deepens the story. I love this book because it’s about the enormous chasm between wealth and poverty and how the fairy tale princess and her family share responsibility for the brutality of that system. I love this book because it’s about the impossible choices people make, and then must live with.

In powerful prose – no one disagreed about that – Gay shows us the tangled and terrible realities of a very ugly class and race system. I love this book because even though the princess doesn’t live happily ever after, she does survive.

Even though we disagreed about the book, it was a terrific discussion. I still love the book, and I love book groups too.

What My Mother Taught Me About Having It All

May 8, 2015

Tags: mother, Mothers Day, having it all

My mother wanted it all. She was bossy and demanding, a terrible cook, ambitious and very determined. I’m rather like her, except I’m a better cook. Raising my younger sister and me in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Mom told us that we could have it all, be everything we wanted to be, but she was clearly unhappy in her short stint as a stay-at-home mother. The moment my sister started school, Mom went back to work as a high school chemistry teacher.

Being demanding and smart served her well as a teacher. She taught in my high school; her students loved her. Me, not so much. My friends competed for her coveted lab assistant positions. I focused on English classes and the school newspaper and took chemistry in summer school. Mom stayed late every afternoon after school, as faculty advisor to student groups and to meet with students needing extra time. I learned to cook dinner.

Mom demanded a lot of herself. In her fifties, she returned to college for a Masters and then a PhD and started teaching at a state university. By then, I was out of the house with a family of my own. I was proud of her, but I lived far away and her accomplishments had little to do with me. I worked on feminist issues (reproductive health and abortion and day care), earned my living as a nurse, and co-raised my daughters. My mother retired from teaching and turned her considerable fervor to collecting silver and turquoise Indian jewelry. In my fifties, I decided to write fiction. I took online classes, attended writing workshops and conferences, and then earned an MFA, completed just before I turned 60.

My mother died in 2008, three years before my first novel was published. She never knew that in my own way, I followed the path she blazed. But every time I do a reading from my work, I wear one of her silver bracelets.

Writing and nursing? Really?

April 29, 2015

Tags: reading, nurse, characters

During the Q&A after a reading last night (thank you, Storrs Library) a woman asked what influence my nursing career had on my writing (I worked for almost 30 years as a nurse and pediatric nurse practitioner). I didn’t have a good reply; I had never thought about it. I answered something about my first novel being about medical/nursing ethics, but beyond that I floundered, saying something general about seeing the world through a nurse’s eyes. I knew there was more, but couldn’t put my finger on it.

This morning, on the treadmill (where I do some of my best thinking), I realized that for me, being a nurse was an odd mixture of empathy and nosiness. In nursing school I was taught that one aspect of my job was to help my patients accomplish the things they wanted done but couldn’t do alone, respecting their individual, cultural and spiritual beliefs. I was taught to empathize, to understand what another person is experiencing from within her frame of reference, to see the world through her eyes.

That’s eerily like my approach to characters; it’s my job to discover who these “beings” are who wander into my brain and take up residence, and helping them develop personalities that serve themselves and the story.

And then there’s the other part: I’m nosy. I like to watch other people and know what they’re feeling. If they won’t share, I imagine it. Okay, there’s more, I like to deconstruct and manipulate those feelings too, but I try to limit that to my characters. So, on the bulletin board over my computer is a large piece of newsprint, covered with the complicated and sprawling family tree of my characters. Yes, the major characters in four novels and over a dozen short stories are all somehow related – by blood or love or geography or circumstance. They’re my literary karass. (For those of you who are not Vonnegut fans, that’s a term he coined for a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner.)

So, to the woman who asked the question last night – I wish I knew your name – let me answer that being a writer, like being a nurse, gives me the opportunity, the privilege, of sticking my nose into the business of others with as much respect and curiosity and skill and love as I can muster.

Everyone's a critic

April 6, 2015

Tags: Billie Holiday, Ethel Rosenberg, book promotion

On Friday our local paper, the Hampshire Gazette, published a guest editorial Robby wrote about the strange convergences between Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg, both of whom would have turned 100 this year. I think it’s a gorgeous piece, simultaneously thoughtful and timely.

Our cats didn’t agree.

This morning, the editorial page was shredded, particularly Robby’s essay. We know that Cory (aka Coriopsis) was responsible. He chews paper, while Loopy (aka Lupine) prefers plastic.

Robby’s comment: “Everyone’s a critic.”

It got me thinking about how we handle the promotion – and the criticism – of our work. I’m smack in the middle of the book tour for my new novel; I’ve done thirteen events in the past two months and another two dozen scheduled are through the spring and summer. Today, still unpacking from Texas and starting to prepare for Wednesday’s trip to Minneapolis, I’m both exhilarated and tired, both pleased and always wanting more. Without all the effort of promotion, new books would not find readers. But promotion has a high cost: I haven’t written a word of fiction in weeks, and it will be weeks before I can return to my manuscript-in-progress.

So today, in line with Cory’s breakfast and Robby’s comment, I think I need to take a deep breath, pick up one of the several books I’m halfway through, find a comfy chair, read and relax. If I’m lucky, Cory will curl up on my lap and purr.

Virginia is for (book) lovers

March 22, 2015

Tags: Virginia, bookstores, readings

I got home last night from a six-day, five-city, four-event book tour to Virginia and D.C. The hardest part was sleeping in a different bed every night. There were many best parts, like:
• Meeting wonderful booksellers, like Kelly and Diane at Fountain Books in Richmond, Kim and Rocky at Phantastic Books in Lynchburg, and Anne from Over the Moon Books in Crozet.
• Hanging out with writing buddies from grad school, like Meriah Crawford and Bunny Goodjohn and Ted and Annie Deppe.
• The kindness of strangers, like Gary Dop and his Taproot Reading Series in Lynchburg, like the dedicated volunteers who make the Virginia Festival of the Book so amazing.
• The generosity of old friends, who opened their homes and invited their friends to my readings.
• Talking books and reading at writing with all of the above.
• Meeting new readers, like the woman who bought a book and sent my friend this email later that night:

“So, it's 11:00 P.M. and I Can't Stop Reading. Just wanted to thank you so much for including me in such a special night at Elli's book reading night. ...That's all for now because I'm on page 148 and the hurricane has not yet hit but I hate Tobias and am so proud of Austin and hope Henry emerges as a hero and...okay...I have to go back to reading now...”

It doesn’t get much better.