Monday, August 30, 2010


Most likely I won't have to introduce many of you to my guest, the wonderful Juliette Fay.  Her first book, SHELTER ME, was a huge success.  SHELTER ME garnered her accolades as well as a tremendous group of loyal readers who are eagerly awaiting her new novel DEEP DOWN TRUE that will be published in January of 2011.  I came to know Juliette when she graciously offered a blurb for my debut novel.  But Juliette, in her amazing way, didn't stop there.  She offered encouragement and advice and continues to be a supporter of my work.   Please welcome Juliette to the blog -- and as always -- can't wait to read your comments!

The Truth Behind Fiction   

When my first novel, SHELTER ME, came out, people often asked if it was autobiographical. “No,” I’d reply. “It’s pure fiction.” Sometimes this question came from people who actually know me—even a few who’ve met my very much alive husband. I found that a little surprising since the story is premised on the main character’s husband being dead by page one.

I can’t imagine writing a memoir—happily, my life isn’t nearly exciting and/or horrific enough. But readers often want to know a writer’s connection to a fictional story. Had someone very close to me died? Do I have people in my life like the characters in the book? Is the main character like me? I can’t answer yes to any of these.

Readers also ask if my characters are based on real people. They’re not. It’s much more fun to invent a character than to be limited to the boundaries of a live person. Also it seems like a great way to get yourself into some interpersonal hot water. You can’t write authentic characters if you show only their good sides, but their true life counterparts would rightly hate you if you revealed their less-attractive traits. I do occasionally borrow little incidents, phrases and mannerisms. For instance my son once wore goggles for no apparent reason, as Dylan does in SHELTER ME. Other than that I generally rely on my wayward imagination.

And yet …

There’s a way in which all the characters are vaguely autobiographical. As a writer, I have to be inside the “head” (as it were) of each of my characters, and those mindsets make sense to me in a fairly personal way. How would I—as character X—feel if … fill in the blank? It’s a lot like method acting.

Also, writers write about what interests them. I cooked up a story about a recent widow because of a long-standing worry that something would happen to my own husband. Then I wrote about a woman going through an adult version of middle school, while helping her daughter negotiate real middle school, because middle school was miserable for me. Also I’m fascinated by how adults have to work out identity issues from time to time even though we think we’re “grown up.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay once famously said, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.” Fiction writers may not be recounting factual events, but we often reveal something of ourselves simply by virtue of the stories we choose to tell and the characters we create to tell them.

I guess my “pure fiction” isn’t quite so pure after all.

JULIETTE FAY’s first novel, SHELTER ME, was named one of the ten best works of fiction in 2009 by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress. It was also one of six novels chosen for Target’s 2009 Bookmarked Club, a Good Housekeeping featured Book Pick,and was included on the American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next List. She received a bachelor’s degree from Boston College and a master’s degree from Harvard University. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children. Her second novel, DEEP DOWN TRUE, will be published in January 2011.

Twitter: @juliettefay

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Barbara Ungar

I believe that a lot of what happens in life is serendipitous.  Chance meetings, people passing through, brief introductions that somehow snag in your brain and cause you to remember.  I met Barbara Ungar through a mutual friend years ago.  I had young children and was trying to balance my creative life with the lives I was now nurturing.  Barbara was this quiet creative force -- a poet -- her words stormed off the page. Over the years I would receive occasional updates via my friend on Barbara's work. I knew she had had a child and written a  stunning collection of poems on motherhood which I promptly devoured.  I went to a few readings.  But then, as these things go, I lost track of Barbara until one day I was posting a piece over at The Nervous Breakdown and saw Barbara's name run across the header. Much to my surprise it was the very same Barbara Ungar that I knew -- and I sent her an e-mail, turns out we live in the same town now and we met for breakfast that bled into lunch.  When I heard Barbara had a new book of poetry coming out I asked her to guest post.  She wasn't so sure that she had anything to say -- until she sent me this beautiful piece loaded with bittersweet ennui about the end of summer. 

Upstream by Barbara Ungar

                        Ever upstream from myself,
                        I advance, implore and pursue myself.
                                                              —Edmond Vandercammen

A friend of mine, when asked her three favorite things about teaching, says, June, July, and August. By this July, I was already in mourning. Already counting the days, computing fractions and percentages in my head. Does anyone else do this? Perhaps it began when I used to swim a mile a day: I would not only count the laps, but in my boredom, constantly compute: 9 laps = ¼ mile = 25 % . . . My colleagues are occasionally astonished by my cheerful response to a casual greeting, “The semester’s already 2/7ths over!” I don’t just do this with work and chores, anticipating the end, but with enjoyable time—summers, vacations, weekends—time I wish I could slow down. Each summer I am acutely aware of the zenith, the Ides of July, and from then on, feel summer ebbing away, sucked into the storm drain of awaiting work. This is one of the great joys and worst drags of teaching. We are kept perpetually childlike, subject to the Sunday-night, back-to-school and work-week ache, magnified, each August.

Late August also brings my birthday, which used to be a paradox: I longed for my party (once-a-year horseback riding with my girlfriends) and presies—almost as much as I dreaded the end of summer. I was swinging on my stomach in the backyard when I first understood that dread—I didn’t want to go back to school. I was 8, returning to third grade. And now it’s upon me again, intensified by the strange fact that time moves a bazillion times faster now than it did then. I am getting older; each summer represents a smaller fraction of my dwindling whole. The summer I was 8 was almost eternal, or at least as slow as Zeno’s paradox. Now the months whiz past so quickly, I barely see them go. What happened to June, for example?  Now the message is simple and unified: each birthday brings the end nearer.

This is the end of everything! wails the imprisoned Toad in Wind in the Willows. Every single thing he has lived through falls behind. No matter whether he hops, punts on a stream, ambles in a gypsy caravan, tears through the countryside in a motorcar, or weeps on straw. HERE he always is, balanced on the fulcrum of NOW. It keeps coming at you. Turn the page. You never know what’s coming next. Relax
and ride the waves, watch them come and watch them go.

So here I am, wasting precious late summer hours and minutes and seconds brooding over time. Heidegger wrote that human existence is being-toward-death. The death of each moment as it flies—the barn swallows swooping and chattering, keen black wings and yellow bellies. Gone.

            Be Here Now, as Ram Dass said, so long ago. Or, in the sayings of the Jewish Zen Masters,
            Be here now, be someplace else later. Is that so hard?
            Apparently, yes.

Barbara Louise Ungar’s latest book, Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, is forthcoming in January 2011 from The Word Works. It can be advance ordered now at:
(or She is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Thrift and The Origin of the Milky Way. The latter won the 2006 Gival Press Poetry Award, a Silver IPPY (Independent Publishers’ Book Award), an Eric J. Hoffer Notable for Poetry Award, and the Adirondack Center for Writing Award for Best Book of Poetry 2007 (co-winner). She is an English professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I had the pleasure of meeting Zoe Zolbrod at a reading we did together at Pianos Lounge in New York City this past April along with two other talented ladies I hope to introduce you to here soon.  
Zoe has written a captivating book heavily influenced by her time traveling in Thailand.  You will be transported to another world -- here's the link to purchase as well as to watch a fantastic book trailer  

In her blog post  Zoe broaches the interesting subject of competition among writers (both alive and dead) for not only subject matter but shelf space, reader recognition and the reader's emotional response to the material.   Who is your competition?  Leave a comment below-- I'd love to hear your point of view.

In the middle of a conversation we were having about another topic, my friend remembered something. “Oh!” he said. “I read your book!” He said he enjoyed it. He said it was pretty good. He told me he read it in between The Lazarus Stories and As I Lay Dying, and there was a slight pause, which I took to mean: “That’s why I said pretty good.” He said he pities authors. We’re in competition with centuries of writers. We’re in competition with Moby Dick, I think was the one he mentioned. And then we changed the subject. 
The conversation rattled around in my mind, where it bumped into a similar dialogue I’ve been having with myself and with a book review by Eric B. Martin that appeared in The Rumpus this past May. Here's the link> In it, Martin offers a pessimistic view about fiction’s necessity, saying that nonfiction killed the realist novel and that, with all the other kinds of media entertainment out there, it’s not enough to write a good book anymore. He states that novels must move with the times and go “bigger or smaller,” that they must either hew more closely to genre or to be more experimentally engaged with language if they are to remain relevant. The commenters tended to agree, and one guy posed the same notion as my friend: As writers, we’re not only in competition with The Wire and documentary, but also with centuries of other writers. 
I’m reluctant to get all gender studies here, but is it a male thing? This idea of competing? Of writing in order to topple the greats, upend the apple cart, rise up the charts? I have honestly never thought in those terms. 
Of course, on the one hand, I get it. Writers want readers. Readers have limited time and a dazzling number of options. I’m not immune to checking and sighing over my Amazon rating, to gnashing my teeth that it’s many times lower than that of The Beach, another novel about Thailand published when I started writing mine and offering—so says me!—fewer pleasures. But first and foremost, I’m a reader myself. I’m not drawn to genre titles, and I’d be bereft if I only read experimental fiction. My goal was to write a book I would love reading: A page-turner that also explored tough questions; something carefully composed and constructed that also rang true. I don’t care if these kind of books sell only a few thousand copies even if “successful.” My urge to write stems from wanting to converse with the authors and stories I love, not to try to one-up them. 
I worked on my novel, Currency, for over ten years, and it speaks to issues that fascinate me: money, class, gender, foreignness, America and the cost of dreams. Long before I set pen to paper, I sought out other writers on these topic—or maybe it’s fairer to say that these issues fascinated me in part because of books that came my way during impressionable moments: The House of Mirth, in which economics as well as character is destiny; The Quiet American, with its devastating critique of American culpability and naiveté; Passage to India, brilliant on colonialism and with characterization; The Color Purple, the first book I read showing that nonstandard English can create both poetry and plot. I returned to each of these old favorites repeatedly as I crafted Currency. When I discovered as I was writing some magnificent books set abroad and featuring cross-cultural romance—Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup, Kate Wheeler’s When Mountains Walked—I didn’t despair at being scooped by better authors. I didn't look at these finds with the squinty-eyed glance with which I sized up The Beach. I felt thrilled—stay-up-way-too-late, hold-you-breath-as-you-read thrilled—to turn their pages. If better books are the competition, they're the good kind. The kind that inspire rather than incite. 
I suspect my friend has not read most or even any of the books on my list, that the themes do not call to him, and that my novel is not one he would have picked up if he hadn’t known the author. But if readers searching for stories set in exotic settings and telling tales of cultural conflict turn to Passage to India instead of Currency, I don’t feel beaten. I understand that choice. But I would hope our common interests might one day lead them to my book, and in the unlikely event that it did, I think Currency could stand up well, a modern take with a twist.  I guess my aim has been to sit at a table with the authors who have awed me, if only for the day or two that I am visiting the campus. It could be I lack ambition, and that this lack ensures my remove from greatness. Certainly, I’m a touch defensive, perhaps protesting too much that the literary labor of non-greats is not indulgent. But genuinely, Moby Dick has never been my cup of tea. 

Zoe Zolbrod’s novel Currency was published in May, 2010 by Other Voices Press, the first in their Morgan Street International Series. Zoe lives with her family in Evanston, IL, and blogs at

Link to buy the book:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Michele Young-Stone author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors

I had the pleasure of reading this book several months back and was thrilled that Michele agreed to guest post! For all aspiring writers out there I think Michele offers some practical advice -- speaking from experience and her heart.  Please share your stories with us about your road to publication in the comments section! 

Practical Advice from a Debut Novelist by Michele Young-Stone

How to publish your first novel in just five easy steps:  (This is like a recipe.  You might want to write it down.)

Step 1:  After you’ve revised your manuscript until you can’t stand the sight of it, set it aside for six months to a year and then revise it again.  (This is the most important step!)
Step 2: Research the best agents for your book.  I recommend  You don’t want to query literary agents who aren’t accepting manuscripts or who don’t represent what you are writing. 
Step 3:  Write and revise a knock-out query letter one page in length that “sells” both you and your novel to the agent.  It should zing and pop and make the agent WANT to read your book.
Step 4:  Wait and wait and wait.  When the rejections come, and they will… think of it this way:  “I am one step closer to being published.  Rejection is a part of the process.”  For each rejection, compose and send off a new query letter.  Don’t give up!
Step 5:  If, after a year, you aren’t able to find an agent passionate about your manuscript, it’s time to revise again.  (Oh, and while you are doing all this waiting, work on something new.  Paint.  Join a band.  Write another book.  Even after your novel finds a home, there’s a lot of waiting.  Keep those creative juices flowing!)

That’s it.  Looking back, I guess none of these steps are particularly easy, but with faith and perseverance; with a vision and passion, you can publish your book.  If an agent reads a manuscript that’s undeniably great, he or she won’t reject it no matter the economic climate or any other factors.  Keep writing!

*Michele Young-Stone is the author of the debut novel The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors (Shaye Areheart/Crown, 2010).  A fan of the underdog, her characters have been described as “endearing losers,” “complicated, nuanced and sympathetic.”  Publisher’s Weekly listed The Handbook… as one of the top ten fiction debuts of the season, and The Boston Globe called it, “an exceptionally rich and sure-handed debut, full of complex characters, brilliantly described. . .”

Michele earned her MFA in fiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Currently at work on a new book, Michele resides in Richmond, VA with her husband, her son, a sweet dog, some hermit crabs and a showy fish.  A very long time ago, Michele was struck by lightning and survived.

Visit her at    

Friday, August 6, 2010


When I put out an open call for writers to share their stories on my blog -- I never realized how exciting it was going to be to introduce you to writers I can't wait to read.  Today the amazingly talented Siobhan Fallon author of the forthcoming YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam (January 20, 2011) shares her thoughts on the human and not so human babies in her life.

Here's what others have to say about Siobhan's debut:

“Siobhan Fallon is a remarkable debut author whose first collection of short stories, YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE, signals the debut of a new American talent.  I was drawn into a world I had never seen before, and found heartache, courage, and laughter there.” 
—Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation
"In this poignant and beautiful collection of linked stories, Siobhan Fallon has created a world of characters we need to know. These are our wounded, our courageous, our disheartened, our cynical and our brave. You won't read these stories on the front pages of the newspaper, but still they feel like a news flash about the emotional toll of war. YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE delivers to us the inner lives of families who fight for our country while fighting their deepest fears and demons. This is a brave and illuminating book.”
—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion

My Babies by Siobhan Fallon

You often hear writers referring to their books as “babies.” But what if you already have a living, breathing baby with an entire set of hungry, angry, vomit-spewing needs of its own? How do you reconcile the baby-book with the baby-human?

Personally, I like to think of my “babies” as twins (I am apologizing in advance to my friend, January, who actually has flesh and blood twins and is probably not the least bit amused with this long-winded metaphor). I started writing my book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, when I was pregnant with my daughter. Sure, I had the usual bouts of morning sickness and writer’s block, but all in all it was a lovely pregnancy. I felt so fecund and creative, so inspired and dreamy, such flowing plots and storylines, such adorable maternity dresses!

Ah, but then the birth. Then the drama. Then the adorable little babies who had gotten on so well in the womb were at each other’s throats. Baby-human did not want to nurse, have her diaper changed, or sleep. Baby-book did not want to be rewritten, edited, or the least bit revamped. Baby-human wanted ALL of Mommy’s attention, and of course Baby-book wanted ALL of Mommy’s attention too.

You assume that twins will at least distract each other, play together, cuddle on the sofa and share a sippy cup while Mommy is gulping down her first coffee of the day. They are supposed to best friends, right? Mine do not even remotely get along. I would say that they are even deviously at odds, deliberately sabotaging each others’ development. And there is no hope that they will ever get along since my affection and attention to one intrinsically dictates the neglect of the other. Baby-human used to start screaming at the top of her lungs as soon as I turned on my lap-top. Baby-book would send inspiration my way, the perfect sentence or crystal clear imagery, that would evaporate if I didn’t write it down immediately, usually as soon as Baby-human scraped an elbow or pooped herself.

I try to balance their needs, soothe their divergent demands, put one to sleep so I can focus completely on the wild-eyed other. But I can’t help thinking that I would be a much better mother without Baby-book filling my mind while Baby-human is begging me to play My Little Ponies. And I think the inverse, of course, fleeting moments when I imagine the writer I could have been if I had days and nights, hours upon lovely silent hours, to tend to every adorable word and phrase. But ultimately they are my babies, they are my life pared down into two very different beings. There may be a few mild regrets about Baby-human: childhood firsts lost to daycare, one too many hours of Dora the Explorer as I tried to meet a deadline, fun afternoons with Daddy that I had to miss. The same goes for Baby-book: paragraphs too hasty, endings not as perfect as I would have liked, character dialogue that makes me cringe. But I could never possibly regret their simultaneous existence, the push and pull and wondrousness of this motherhood. I’ve done the best I could do and, though there are so many ways I may have let them down, they are each small and lovely miracles to me.

And now?

Baby-human is almost three. I no longer worry about her bumping her head on sharp-cornered tables, falling off slides, swallowing bottle caps. She is articulate and to some degree reasonable, determined to wear pink tutus and cheap glittery shoes, all around delightful.

Baby-book is a few months away from publication. No more edits or rewrites or sudden despair that it is a horrible, unreadable failure. Baby-book is tended by a fantastic and slightly maternal editor and other capable people responsible for Baby-book needs. And my babies no longer despise each other thoroughly but play, a bit warily, side by side. They occupy my waking mind, they always will, but sometimes I look at them and think I didn’t do that bad a job after all.

Though nowadays my mind is a little wrapped up in Baby-book number two, a novel so recalcitrant and willful I can’t imagine ever getting it to sit still on the page. And now, of course, my husband keeps talking about making Baby-human number two…

Siobhan Fallon's debut, You Know When the Men Are Gone, is forthcoming from Amy Einhorn Books, Penguin, on January 20, 2011. She lives with her family in Monterey, California. For more, please check out her website at