April 18, 2016
It’s not always easy to remember a single moment when your life path changes, but for me it was a summer afternoon in 2003. Three years earlier, I had started writing fiction. I was in my fifties and happy in my nurse practitioner career. But I had always wanted to write novels and stories. It turned out to be much harder than I anticipated, and that summer I signed up for the Stonecoast Writers Conference in Maine.
My workshop leader was Manette Ansay and she was terrific. But she was (correctly) pretty critical in workshop about the story I submitted for the conference and about my writing. I had a lot to learn and I wasn’t at all sure I had the talent to be a writer.
On the last day of the week-long conference, participants were invited to read aloud a short excerpt, five minutes maybe, to the conference community. We gathered in rows of folding chairs set up on the grass under a tent; it was a hot afternoon. I don’t remember what I read. What I do remember is this: as I walked back to my seat, Lee Hope, the director of the program stopped me. She leaned over and whispered, “I want you to come to our MFA program.”
Lee had talked to us all about the MFA the day before, and the idea was bouncing around a bit in my brain. I didn’t see how I would manage it, even a low residency program, with my full-time job. And, like I said, I wasn’t at all sure I had what it takes to be a real writer.
Lee’s comment changed everything. That moment, I knew I would apply for the program. I knew I would be accepted. I knew I would love it. I knew I would write novels and stories and people would read them. All those things came true.
Like I said, Lee Hope changed my life.
March 23, 2016
This past week I’ve been doing a series of book events in Florida and D.C. promoting ON HURRICANE ISLAND, my novel about an ordinary woman who is suspected to have terrorist information, detained and interrogated. On Monday I spoke to 200 people at the annual author luncheon at a condo community in Boynton Beach. A wonderful group – engaged and thoughtful and terrific questions.
At book events, it’s not unusual for someone to ask a particularly hard question and I have to think fast. I know that my immediate answer isn’t the whole story, isn't the best response, and later I chew on what I could have said. That happened Monday, when a woman asked, “Doesn’t the government have the right to protect us from terrorists like ISIS? Even if they make mistakes every once in a while?”
What I said: Yes, the government’s job is to protect its people. But if we acknowledge that terrorist attacks are criminal acts by individuals and groups, not acts of war by nations, then we should use our criminal justice system to charge and try them. We should not respond by shredding the constitution and ignoring the rule of law. I also said that if we stopped invading and bombing other countries and killing their people with drones, there would be fewer terrorist attacks against us.
What I wanted to say: “The U.S. government made one of those “every once in a while mistakes” when it executed my mother-in-law. Ethel Rosenberg was held hostage to try to pressure her husband into confessing. That was NOT okay.
What I could have asked her: “Do you have grandchildren? If the government by mistake detained and interrogated one of your grandchildren, like they treated Gandalf in my novel, would that be okay with you?”
What I could have said: The logical conclusion of what you are saying is that it’s okay to do anything necessary to protect our country, as long as that anything is being done to someone else, someone you don’t know and love.
Or I could have quoted Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Of course, whole books could be written on this topic and I keep thinking about other responses. Do you have suggestions of other things I could have, should have, said?
February 24, 2016
My mom and her dad in 1925 Brooklyn
I love Brooklyn. I love the brownstones and the storefronts and the tiny gardens tucked between buildings. I love eavesdropping on conversations in languages I can’t identify. I love the mix of foods – Halal food trucks next to kosher butchers and Calexico beans and yuppie bistros – cuisine from every corner of the world.
Most of all, I love Brooklyn because my grandchildren live there. Last week, Robby and I were in Brooklyn, hanging out with Josie and Abel during school vacation week. We painted pottery and played Chutes & Ladders and Zingo. We colored and drew and drove trains around the living room floor. There were Shopkins and Lincoln Logs and Legos and extraordinary combinations of all the above. There were parks and playgrounds and Transit Museum; and I can’t leave out the delightful and overpriced (everything in Brooklyn is overpriced to this Easthampton wallet) Curiosity on Court, with climbing wall and playscape and subway station.
I also love Brooklyn because of the ghosts. My family ghosts. Both my parents lived in Brooklyn; they met at Brooklyn College. In the medium days of her Alzheimer’s, my mother used to ask me if I remember the apartment she lived in on Keap Street in Williamsburg, decades before my birth. At sixteen, my dad moved from Manhattan’s lower east side to Bensonhurst with his family; I remember visiting my grandparents in that house. My grandmother was short, and I loved that the kitchen sink was built low enough for me to wash dishes. The el was close-by and the corner store sold tasty penny candies.
Those two Brooklyns – of my parents’ youth and that of my grandchildren – exist many decades apart. But walking those streets last week with Josie and Abel, I felt the company of my family ghosts.
February 3, 2016
In honor of book groups
For many passionate readers, book groups are our reading family. Like all families, there may be a few dud selections, the equivalent of the second cousin who spends holiday dinners staring at a screen, or the uncle who farts, but we still love them. I have two book group families. One group, which has been going for over a decade, is through a local indie bookstore. I love the fact that it’s open to anyone who has read the month’s book and wants to discuss it. I also love that about 1/3 of the time we invite the author to join us.
The other group, which we call Stones and Bones, started in 1994 as a group of friends, originally convened at the Odyssey Bookshop. We chose the name because we noticed how many books we discussed that first year or two had “stones” or “bones” in the title (Stones from the River, The Bone People, Stone Diaries.) Over the past 22 years, the group has lost and gained members and has moved from meeting at the bookstore to members’ homes, but continues to offer us an opportunity to read books we otherwise probably would not have chosen, and to enjoy the books a second time through discussion. Although most meetings involve sitting around someone’s living room talking about a novel, we’ve tried different bookish activities, ranging from weekends on Martha’s Vineyard (discussing novels set there, of course) to reading poetry to each other.
In honor of this group, and all book groups, I’d like to share our twenty-two years of literary selections.
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
Indian Lawyer, James Welch
Bless Me Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya
The Bone People, Keri Hulme
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez
Middlemarch, George Elliot (more…)
December 10, 2015
Like many passionate readers, I enjoy looking back at the year’s reading, and trying to pick out my favorite books of the year. This year was harder for several reasons. First of all, my second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, was published in early March, and I’ve done close to fifty events in thirty-plus cities; that means significantly less time for reading. Secondly, I’ve been a particularly picky reader, discarding about a quarter of the books I started after fifty or a hundred pages. And thirdly, I’ve been disappointed in many of the big buzz novels this year; they just didn’t work for me. But then, reading fiction is such an individual pleasure. These are the ten books that moved me most in 2015, in no particular order. I hope some of them speak to you as well.
SPEAK by Louisa Hall is told by five narrators spanning five centuries and several continents but they all explore the human need to communicate, to connect, to be understood. Each character tries to bridge gaps – between friends, lovers and non-human intelligence. This book is dark and smart and sometimes pretty disturbing. I loved it.
GIRL AT WAR, Sara Nović’s debut novel set in Croatia in 1991, is also both dark and emotionally gripping. The ten-year-old narrator Ana is our guide through the frightening realities of civil war – the shortages and bombings, suspicion and losses. The novel moves back and forth in time between 1991 and a decade later, a college student in New York, returns to Croatia to make peace with the legacy of her childhood. Strong debut work.
Karen Joy Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES was published a couple of years ago. I’m so glad I finally read it. From the first pages, 22-year-old Rosemary shares her grief at the loss of her sister, her twin, Fern. When we learn that Fern is a chimpanzee, and that the family was part of a scientific experiment, this moving and often-humorous family saga opens up into something much larger. This book gave me a lot to think about.
THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard was also published in 2013 but I heard the author read from it this year. I bought the book partly because she uses an omniscient narration, something I was working on, but mostly because I was so taken with her story of Chinese laborers brought to North Adams, Massachusetts in 1970 as strikebreakers. This is historical fiction at its best – an author’s imagination forging connections between past and present that offer the reader insight into the current issues of immigration, race, and xenophobia.
THE BEGINNING THINGS by Bunny Goodjohn. Tot is twelve, sizzling with an urgent crush on the wrong boy. Her mother sews to support the family after her husband’s desertion. Dan, the father of said missing husband, moves into the house on Stanley Close, newly widowed, penniless, and very fond of his drink. Tot and her “Dangrad” have always been close and share an affinity for spoonerisms. These linguistic twistings add humor to the prose and provide an oblique way for Tot and Dan to talk about their uncomfortable and difficult-to-discuss issues. Using British slang and a poet’s ear, UK-born Goodjohn weaves the Thompson voices into a cohesive and tightly paced story. I love the toughness of this book as much as I am grateful for its compassion and tenderness.
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, Jacqueline Sheehan’s forthcoming novel, has it all: heroes and villains, death squads and family loyalties, massacres and soccer, heartbreak and redemption. This novel is both an emotionally intense mother-daughter story complicated by secrets and danger and a sizzling love story, set against the background of civil war in Guatemala and U.S. dirty tricks. Very highly recommended.
MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. The young protagonist 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.
Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem. 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.
DESIRE OF THE MOTH by Champa Bilwakesh follows a shorn and shunned 15-year-old widow ostracized by strict 1930’s caste customs. When Sowmya meets a devadasi and begins studying the forbidden dances, her transformation parallels the intense social, political and cultural changes in South India during the struggle for independence. The writing is lush with music, sensuality and artistic gravitas. A wonderful novel.
Simon Van Booy’s FATHER’S DAY won’t be out until April, but this novel is worth waiting for, especially if you admired THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS like I did. This book weaves in and out of time to bring us a girl named Harvey, orphaned and adopted by her felon uncle. Van Booy’s beautifully-written story of loss and hope and second chances is quiet and sad and engaging. I loved this book.
November 18, 2015
The Beginning Things by Bunny Goodjohn
Published by Underground Voices, November 2015
Three members of the Thompson family narrate this engaging novel about endings and beginnings and how they fit together. Tot is twelve, sizzling with yearnings, hormones, and an urgent crush on the wrong boy. Her mother Elaine, sewing to support the family after her husband’s desertion, gets a job fabricating a silver spaceman suit for a male stripper who wants more than shiny cloth and quick-release Velcro fastenings. When Dan, the father of Elaine’s missing husband, moves into the house on Stanley Close, newly widowed, penniless, and very fond of his drink, Tot has a male relative to ask about her boy trouble.
Four generations of Thompsons, and Elaine’s sewing business, squeeze into a small council house. In addition to Dan, Elaine and Tot, Elaine’s older daughter Dorothy and her out-of-wedlock toddler son add to the chaos. The details of Goodjohn’s descriptions of crowding and room repurposing are both biting and tender, and the reader roots for the characters.
Tot and her “Dangrad” have always been close and share an affinity for spoonerisms. These linguistic twistings add humor to the prose and provide an oblique way for Tot and Dan to talk about their uncomfortable and difficult-to-discuss issues: his drinking and her growing understanding that her unfortunate romance skipped the “beginning things.” Tot can admit to her grandfather that a boy put his “ningers down my fickers” and she liked it a lot. He answers her questions about how to build a friendship and romance, offering a step by step approach. In return, Dan accepts her interference with “mucking fess” of his drinking problem.
With the pleasure of British slang and a poet’s ear, UK-born Goodjohn weaves the three Thompson voices into a cohesive and tightly paced story. I love the toughness of this book as much as I am grateful for its compassion and tenderness.
November 16, 2015
Writing fiction takes you places you never expected to go. My stories and novels have transported me to cults and islands, to interrogation rooms and quarry caves, to Caribbean palace guards and gun stores and courtrooms and sacred dingles. But I thought that once imagination has brought the words to publication, the creative part was done. Turns out that’s not entirely true; there’s also room for invention and exploration in bringing books to readers.
We all know that publishing with an independent press – probably with ANY press in today’s market – requires significant author involvement in promotion. My first novel taught me to look beyond bookstore venues for readings and book-signings. HOUSE ARREST took me to libraries and house parties, to book fairs and reader retreats and conferences and book groups. I took advantage of all those additional venues when ON HURRICANE ISLAND was published. But this novel, because of its topical content, presented an unexpected opportunity: to develop a “platform.”
The idea of “platform” is usually reserved for nonfiction books. It refers to the author’s authority in a subject area and her access to a group of readers already interested in that subject. Novelists may have a fan base and literary credentials, but it’s challenging to identify new readers based on what the book is about, since fiction’s subject matter isn’t so easily identified or defined. It’s also tricky because many readers seem to read EITHER fiction or nonfiction, not both.
The plot line of ON HURRICANE ISLAND is frighteningly topical. Actually that makes me laugh, because when I started writing it seven years ago, even my husband said that the premise was possibly too unbelievable. It’s the story of an older woman, a mathematics professor, who is picked up by federal agents at an airport, hooded and cuffed and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. Snatched right out of the headlines, isn’t it? Which suggested to me that perhaps I could interest people who don’t usually read fiction but do follow the news.
This train of thought led to the “Disappeared in America” events. In each one, I partner with an attorney and/or a justice-oriented organization to explore the literary and the legal issues brought up by the novel, and the intersection of the two. Usually the event consists of a short reading from ON HURRICANE ISLAND, a response from the attorney and conversation with the audience. So far, event venues include libraries and law schools and churches; sponsoring organizations include the Center for Constitutional Rights and chapters of the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International. Upcoming events will be held in Amherst, MA, Springfield, MA and Ft. Lauderdale, FL – and wherever else people are interested in these issues.
I can’t claim that these events sell a lot of books, but I’ve been surprised – amazed, really – at how much I’ve learned. And how rich the conversation can be when it includes different perspectives on story and reality, on imagination and social justice.
September 21, 2015
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.
September 9, 2015
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.
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.