Joelle Herr

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Writing well takes a lot of practice—and a little guidance from professionals can go a long way. Here are three new books brimming with insights and instructions for writers of all kinds.

Memoirs are as popular as ever, but for those who aspire to tell their stories, starting off with a blank computer screen can be quite daunting. Enter Beth Kep­hart, author of five memoirs and a teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania. If you can’t enroll in her class, at least you can read her new book, Handling the Truth. Kephart describes a memoir as “a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream,” with a creative process that is different from writing fiction. She presents the countless questions that memoirists must ponder: Who are you? Where have you been? What do you believe in? What is the sound of your voice? An extensive appendix featuring more than 75 recommended memoirs makes this a must-read for anyone seeking their own truth, written or not.

LESS IS MORE

Although short-form writing has been around for millennia (think haiku), it’s no longer just for poets and ad writers. With attention spans waning and Tweets limited to a mere 140 characters, writing efficiently has become an essential skill. Lucky for us, Roy Peter Clark has written How to Write Short. Clark’s succinct (naturally), snappy chapters feature writing exercises to get unwieldy writers practicing what he’s preaching. The first section introduces the concept of short writing, with examples and tips galore. For instance: Start paying attention to short writing that is typically overlooked, like the predictions contained within fortune cookies. The second section concentrates on writing short “with a purpose.” In other words, once you know how to write short, you need to know why—which often involves getting a point across, so Clark’s tips on how to sell an idea or craft the perfect headline will come in handy. This engaging tome is packed with sage advice for communicating in the digital age.

HOW NOT TO WRITE

You know bad writing when you see it—dangling modifiers, mixed metaphors, affected dialogue and seemingly ubiquitous clichés, the ineradicable cockroach-like pests of the written word. Wretched Writing isn’t your typical writing guide in that it dishes up examples of what you shouldn’t do, whether you’re posting a status update or tapping out the next Great American Novel. This compendium of “crimes against the English language” highlights several felonies committed by Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros—often considered one of the worst published novelists of all time—but right alongside hers are the missteps of Jane Austen, Jonathan Franzen and other literary greats. The types of atrocities include alliteration, obsessive; romance, unromantic; and simply words, wrong. Featured under anatomy, problematic is this head-scratcher: “She sat huddled in a chair, covering her ears with crossed legs.” Though perfect for quick reference, this writing guide is also a thoroughly amusing page-turner, a statement I once would have filed under impossibilities.

Writing well takes a lot of practice—and a little guidance from professionals can go a long way. Here are three new books brimming with insights and instructions for writers of all kinds. Memoirs are as popular as ever, but for those who aspire to tell their stories, starting off with a blank computer screen can […]
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This summer marks the 165th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick. Two fascinating new books—one a historical novel, the other nonfiction—each identify a different person as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s iconic novel.

In his debut, The Whale: A Love Story, former journalist Mark Beauregard supposes what many have speculated: that the brief but intense friendship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne went beyond camaraderie. 

The novel opens on August 5, 1850, with Melville and Hawthorne meeting for the first time while on an excursion with mutual friends in the Berkshires. Hawthorne is fresh off the success of The Scarlet Letter and living in Lenox, Massachusetts, while Melville is visiting his cousin Robert in nearby Pittsfield. Melville’s career is waning, and he is in a bit of a rut working on a novel about the whaling industry.

Though both are married, Melville instantly falls for the handsome, congenial Hawthorne. Shortly afterward, Melville moves his family to a modest farm six miles from Lenox. Hawthorne keeps Melville at arm’s length to resist his attraction to the younger writer, and so Melville funnels his yearning into his work. In effect, Beauregard presents Hawthorne as Melville’s own white whale, the object of his obsession.

Beauregard consulted biographies, journals and letters in crafting his clever and engaging, if unconfirmed, account. While the physical aspect of the relationship is limited to a couple of charged caresses and a drink-fueled kiss, the emotional toll of the affair—which ends when Hawthorne moves away from Lenox in 1852—is high, particularly for Melville. 

In Melville in Love, Michael Shelden—a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Orwell: The Authorized Biography—presents another candidate for Melville’s muse, one whose importance has been entirely overlooked for the past 165 years. 

Among the guests at cousin Robert Melville’s house in Pittsfield during the summer of 1850 were the Morewoods of New York City. Sarah Morewood was the “bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate” wife of a wealthy merchant. That summer, the vivacious Sarah organized picnics, hikes and other jaunts, which Melville enthusiastically joined. The attraction between Sarah and the dashing writer was immediate and mutual, and Shelden asserts that Melville moved his family to Pittsfield to be close not to Hawthorne, but to Sarah, who was in the process of purchasing Robert’s estate. 

Shelden argues that the ensuing affair energized Melville, and the passion that Sarah stirred in him flowed through his pen onto the pages of Moby-Dick. Unlike Hawthorne and Melville in The Whale, Shelden claims that Sarah and Melville consummated their relationship, during an overnight trek to the summit of Mount Greylock.

While there is no definitive proof of the affair, Shelden offers compelling evidence supporting his theory, including clues in Melville’s works. Melville in Love is a beautifully written, captivating story that may also be one of the most surprising literary revelations of our time. 

 

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

This summer marks the 165th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick. Two fascinating new books—one a historical novel, the other nonfiction—each identify a different person as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s iconic novel.
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Draco Incendia Trychophyton—also known as Dragonscale—is a deadly spore that causes people to spontaneously combust. Theories on its origin range from the melting ice caps to biological weaponry to a simple evolutionary turn. Elaborate—beautiful, even—black and gold tattoo-like markings identify those who are infected. Because there is often no warning before a person ignites and there is no cure, paranoia and hysteria spread like, well, wildfire. Eventually, cities burn and civil order dissolves, with ruthless and sinister Quarantine Patrols and Cremation Crews driving the infected into hiding. 

The titular character of Joe Hill’s fourth novel (following, most recently, NOS4A2), John Rookwood, is not an actual fireman, but a mysterious, charismatic Englishman. He wears a firefighter’s uniform because it not only hides his markings, but also allows him to be in the open without arousing suspicion. The heart of the book, though, is Harper Grayson, an elementary school nurse with compassion, gumption and an affinity for Mary Poppins. Harper is infected, frightened, alone and pregnant when John leads her to an underground community of infected folk who show her that it is possible to live in harmony with the spore. Soon, though, it becomes clear that safety does not always lie in numbers and that there is as much to fear inside the camp as outside.

With plenty of pop-culture references and playfully meta moments (like when characters discuss what they would do if they were in a movie or book), The Fireman is a bona fide, post-apocalyptic page-turner that’s equal parts touching and pulse-pounding, surprising and awe-inducing. The icing on the metaphorical cake? Easter eggs referencing his father Stephen King’s works—ranging from Hill’s use of “shine” as a verb of the supernatural variety to one character murderously swinging a shovel “like a croquet mallet”—pepper the book, delighting this fan of both writers.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Draco Incendia Trychophyton—also known as Dragonscale—is a deadly spore that causes people to spontaneously combust. Theories on its origin range from the melting ice caps to biological weaponry to a simple evolutionary turn. Elaborate—beautiful, even—black and gold tattoo-like markings identify those who are infected. Because there is often no warning before a person ignites and there is no cure, paranoia and hysteria spread like, well, wildfire. Eventually, cities burn and civil order dissolves, with ruthless and sinister Quarantine Patrols and Cremation Crews driving the infected into hiding.
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Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.

Daughter of King Thutmose I, Hatshepsut was highly educated, trained in her duties from a very early age. At the death of her father, when she was 12 or 13, Hatshepsut married Thutmose II (her own brother—inter-family royal marriages were de rigueur in Egypt 3,500 years ago). Three years later, Thutmose II was dead. Hatshepsut had only one surviving child with him, a daughter, and so the crown was passed along to Thutmose III, whose mother was a lesser-born wife of Thutmose II. Because Thutmose III was only 3 years old at the time, it was clear a regent would need to rule in his stead. Hatshepsut easily stepped into the role.

It was common for mothers of young kings to rule for their sons until they came of age, so Hatshepsut becoming the regent for her stepson/nephew was nothing out of the ordinary. She was an effective, fair and respected ruler who surrounded herself with the right people. What was out of the ordinary, however, came around six to eight years later, when she announced that Amen-Re (king of the gods) had declared her to be co-king (there was no Egyptian word for “queen”). And so she shrewdly ruled Egypt alongside Thutmose III until her death, likely in her late 30s.

Though the exact reason is unknown, some 20 years after her death, Thutmose III ordered the removal of Hatshepsut’s name and likeness from all Egyptian buildings and monuments—which likely explains her obscurity in part. Though Egyptologists have managed to uncover and piece together some details of her rise to power and rule, hard facts are few and far between, something Cooney acknowledges right off the bat. While much of The Woman Who Would Be Queen is conjecture, it is informed-by-expertise, compellingly written conjecture that will draw curious readers in with its vivid depiction of life in Ancient Egypt and a truly remarkable woman.

Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.
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BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2014

It was on a gray December day that 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff, nestled into her couch rereading Persuasion, received the call that she had gotten the job. Fresh out of grad school and without much of a game plan—aside from a deep-rooted desire to become a poet—Rakoff landed a position at one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City, one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume.

In her absorbing new memoir, My Salinger Year, Rakoff (A Fortunate Age) recounts her time spent working as an assistant at what she simply refers to as “the Agency.” Even though it was the mid-1990s, the Agency office was a midcentury time capsule, where agents still smoked at their desks and there was nary a computer in sight, and a temple, where priceless first editions lined the endless shelves of books. After learning how to turn on her decades-old Selectric (that’s a typewriter, in case you didn’t know) and adjust the playback speed on her boss’ Dictaphone, Rakoff learned that one of her duties would be answering the fan mail of the Agency’s star client: the reclusive J.D. Salinger.

The letters to Salinger were voluminous, deeply personal and passionate about his works. It didn’t take long for Rakoff to ditch the form-letter response and start composing thoughtful, personalized replies—in secret, of course. The formidable, top-brass agent she worked for (referred to as “my boss”) is part Miranda Priestly, part Amanda Farrow, and deeply devoted to protecting Salinger’s privacy and legacy.

Naturally, there’s more to the book than just Rakoff’s job (and Salinger). There’s Don, her live-in socialist boyfriend with writerly ambitions of his own; there’s the striking contrast of making under $20k a year while living in a city and working in an industry that both revolve around vast amounts of wealth; there’s the universally relatable experience of being young and finding your own path in life.

Told with effortless, pitch-perfect prose, My Salinger Year is a deeply moving but unsentimental coming-into-your-own story that will keep readers thoroughly engrossed through the very last word.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Joanna Rakoff for this book.

BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2014

It was on a gray December day that 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff, nestled into her couch rereading Persuasion, received the call that she had gotten the job. Fresh out of grad school and without much of a game plan—aside from a deep-rooted desire to become a poet—Rakoff landed a position at one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City, one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume.

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It is a cool October night on Falstaff Island, about nine miles off of Prince Edward Island, and Scoutmaster Tim Riggs is enjoying a sip of scotch. He can hear his five 14-year-old scouts talking and laughing in the next room, most likely telling ghost stories before they fall asleep. All six are completely unaware of the horrifying turn their annual camping trip is about to take.

The familiar comfort of their night is interrupted by the sound of a motorboat approaching the island. The boat’s sole passenger is a grotesquely gaunt, obviously very ill man who’s so frantic with voracious hunger that he’ll eat anything, even a moth-eaten chesterfield sofa. Tim, a small-town doctor, at first tries to help the man—and keep him away from the naturally curious boys. Tim soon discovers, however, that the stranger is infected with something more dangerous, deadly and contagious than he could have ever imagined. And so begins the terrifying thrill ride that is Nick Cutter’s The Troop.

Cutter’s decision to alternate perspectives between chapters is a wise one. Not only does it allow readers to get to know each character (and their backstories), but it also keeps us guessing as to who—if anyone—is going to make it through the ordeal. They’re a ragtag but close-knit group: Kent, the arrogant jock, most popular guy in school; Ephraim “Eff,” the troubled, anger-prone youth; Eff’s best friend, Max, earnest and loyal; Newton, overweight and socially awkward; and Shelley, a loner with some unsavory interests.

Reminiscent of Scott Smith’s The Ruins and with shades of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Stephen King’s “The Body” (on which the film Stand by Me was based), The Troop is brutally visceral, pulling readers right into the action, tapping into our most primal fears: isolation, hunger, survival. Cutter is at his best when describing the ooey-gooeyness of infection—the stench, the sounds, the texture—and in articulating the abject and utter terror of the characters unlucky enough to witness, or experience, these ooey-gooey happenings. The book isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, then chances are you’ll enjoy succumbing to the thrills of this highly entertaining page-turner.

It is a cool October night on Falstaff Island, about nine miles off of Prince Edward Island, and Scoutmaster Tim Riggs is enjoying a sip of scotch. He can hear his five 14-year-old scouts talking and laughing in the next room, most likely telling ghost stories before they fall asleep. All six are completely unaware of the horrifying turn their annual camping trip is about to take.

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In an author’s note at the end of Doctor Sleep, Stephen King explains how the idea of writing a sequel to The Shining—his third novel, published in 1977—was planted by a fan at a book signing back in 1998. King mulled it over for more than 10 years before sitting down to figure out how 5-year-old Danny Torrance fared after his narrow escape from the horrifyingly haunted Overlook Hotel.

As one might suspect, Danny didn’t fare very well. Aside from psychological scars, he must contend with the occasional unwelcome visit from Overlook “ghosties”—the pungent bathtub lady, Mrs. Massey, for one—in some of the novel’s more hair-raising scenes. But he also battles demons inherited from his father: namely, a severe alcohol addiction.

After hitting rock bottom, Dan winds up in Frazier, New Hampshire, and lands a job at The Helen Rivington hospice, where he uses his telepathic “shining” abilities to comfort dying patients, earning him the moniker of Doctor Sleep. He connects with a young girl named Abra, whose ability to shine is off the charts. It’s so potent, in fact, that it’s attracted the attention of a sinister tribe of drifters called The True Knot.

Members of the Knot do their best to blend in with society as they travel the highways in their RVs. The chill-inducing truth, though, is that they are quasi-immortal paranormals who subsist on the “steam” released when children who shine are tortured. The leader of the Knot is Rosie, a gorgeous seductress, who is rarely without her jaunty top hat—and who always gets what she wants. And she wants Abra.

Needless to say, expectations for a sequel to a beloved book like The Shining are high, and for the most part, Doctor Sleep delivers. Accompanying Dan through the rough years that followed his time at the Overlook—sometimes you wish you could give him a hug, other times, a sense-infusing slap—makes it all the more gratifying to come out the other side with him. Fans will surely forgive a few questionable plot turns and once again marvel at King’s seemingly boundless ability to conjure super-creepy, utterly evil villains like the members of The True Knot. Though it’s sprinkled with King’s tension-relieving, trademark humor throughout, Doctor Sleep still contains plenty of sleep-with-the-lights-on scares that’ll have you looking sideways at the occupants of the next RV you encounter.

Expectations for a sequel to a beloved book like The Shining are high, and for the most part, Doctor Sleep delivers.
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In Priscille Sibley’s The Promise of Stardust, Matt is devastated after a horrible accident leaves his wife, Elle, brain-dead. Though utterly heartbroken, he knows he must honor her wish to not be kept alive on life-support. The discovery that Elle is pregnant, however, turns an already wrenching decision into an impossible choice.

One of the best parts of reading a well-crafted novel is connecting emotionally with the characters—imagining what you would do if you were in their shoes. In this riveting debut, Sibley confronts her characters—and readers—with a heart-wrenching life-and-death moral dilemma that no one would ever want to have to face. The result is an immensely moving and unforgettable page-turner.

We asked Sibley—a neonatal intensive care nurse in New Jersey—about her inspiration for the book, her experience writing it, and what she’s working on now.  

This is your first novel. What sparked the idea for it, and how long did it take you to write it?
I’ve struggled with end-of-life issues since my early days as a nurse. At one point I took care of a child who was in a persistent vegetative state, and his plight deeply troubled me. The scenario in my book is different, but it deals with themes that started to gnaw at me back then. The first draft of the novel took about a year, but there were many revision rounds. From typing the first sentence until last copy edit, it took about four years.

How did your experiences as a nurse inform the novel? Have you ever faced ethical dilemmas in caring for patients?
These are actually difficult questions to answer because I can’t be specific for ethical reasons [grin]. Ethical practice is a fundamental part of being a nurse, be it as simple as not discussing a patient’s condition in the elevator where it might be overheard to doing no harm with our interventions. We’re supposed to be compassionate, and we are not supposed to judge. My job is to support and comfort. No, I’ve never seen the exact situation that I created in the book. If I had, I don’t think I could write about it without violating the privacy of my patient. At the same time, I do witness many different reactions when a family is in crisis. I think that allowed me to provide my characters with authentic reactions to the world I built for them.

The book is very balanced in its portrayal of a contentious and political topic. Was this a struggle for you while writing?
Because of the point of view I took to write the story (the husband’s), I had to support his side of the story, but I don’t necessarily think he’s right. I don’t necessarily think he’s wrong, either. Man, does that sound like I’m a weasel? I guess my point is that I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong. I felt empathy for all the sides chosen in the story. Even the antagonist’s. And yes, at times my characters said things I didn’t necessarily believe.

Was it always your intention to start with the accident and then tell Elle and Matt’s love story in flashback? If so, why did you choose this structure?
I was afraid that if I wrote a linear story and halfway through Elle suffered her brain injury, readers would throw the book at the wall. It was the reason I made him a neurosurgeon, too. I didn’t want to give the reader the false expectation that she would magically wake up at the end of the book. He understands what happens to her, at least on a cognitive level. Emotionally, he still goes through moments of denial, because that is part of the grief process. The backstory was necessary to make sense of the characters’ different motivations clear. I placed those chapters where they were essential to the parts that would follow. And readers needed to see how much Matt loved her to understand him.

What made you decide that Elle was going to be an astronaut?
That’s just how she came to me. I realize that sounds like hocus-pocus, but she just evolved in my imagination that way before I started tapping anything out on the keyboard. She also needed to be his equal. If he was going to be a brain surgeon, she had to be at least as smart as he was. Smarter even. I wanted her to have a heroic streak, too. I wanted her to go off and do something dangerous, but I didn’t want her to be a soldier.

Being a nurse no doubt helped you with the medical details in the book, but did you have to do a lot of legal research, as well?
The legal parts were very, very difficult for me. I went to the courthouse where I placed the story. I read through files there hoping to absorb the legal lingo. I read everything I could on the Terri Schiavo case, courtroom transcripts and so forth. And I was very fortunate because one of my writer friends, Maria Imbalzano, is an attorney. She read my courtroom scenes over and over again. She sent me back for rewrites many times. Ultimately, if I got it wrong, it’s my fault though, not hers. And it is fiction.

The novel raises many questions that lend themselves to book club discussion. Here’s one question we think book clubs will be asking: Why had Elle not told Matt about the baby before her accident?
Elle didn’t know she was pregnant until the morning of the accident. She felt a little off. She had been pregnant before and it felt familiar, and so she took the test that was already under her bathroom sink. In the voice mail she left for Matt, she was hinting at it: “Let’s talk.” She would have told him that night.

Did you know how the book would end when you first started writing?
Not entirely. I had an idea. There were moments when I thought about sending it into an entirely different place. Even during the last revisions, there were subtle changes.

Many readers say your book has moved them to tears. Can you tell us about a book you’ve read that moved you or made you cry?
It’s not that I never cry, but I don’t cry a lot when reading, but Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine had me in a few places. That is one brilliant book. A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz had me. Night Swim by Jessica Keener pulled me in so deep I had to put it aside a few times because it had me by the throat. It’s a beautiful book.

What’s next for you?  
I’m slowly working on another contemporary novel. It’s quite different in many ways, but it still deals with family and loyalty and an entirely different kind of promise. 

In Priscille Sibley’s The Promise of Stardust, Matt is devastated after a horrible accident leaves his wife, Elle, brain-dead. Though utterly heartbroken, he knows he must honor her wish to not be kept alive on life-support. The discovery that Elle is pregnant, however, turns an already wrenching decision into an impossible choice. One of the best […]
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Have you met Maddie yet? She’s a ridiculously photogenic brown coonhound rescue with white speckles, huge, flappy ears and eyes that tend to squint, seemingly indicating a certain level of bliss (and/or sleepiness).

A couple of years ago, Maddie’s owner, Theron Humphrey—feeling unfulfilled by his corporate job, stung by a recent breakup and pondering the direction of his life following the death of his grandfather—set out to travel the country, to meet and photograph one new person each day. At his side was Maddie.

During the yearlong, 65,000-mile road trip, Humphrey discovered Maddie’s uncanny sense of balance and started taking photographs of her perched atop everything from a scooter to a horse to a fence to a tree. These guaranteed-to-put-a-smile-on-your-face photos have been collected in the recently published book, Maddie on Things.

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Humphrey is back on the road, this time on a tour to promote the book—visit www.maddieontour.com to see the schedule—and also continue work on a documentary called Why We Rescue. We spoke with Humphrey about the book when he and Maddie were in Baltimore, about to head to DC for an event at Politics and Prose. 

Tell us about how the book came about.
The Maddie Project just happened organically over time. I was out on the road traveling America to shoot a documentary [Why We Rescue] to get stories from everyday folks, and Maddie came along with me. I rescued her right before I started traveling. Over time, I just started to point my camera at her.

Was there anything that Maddie couldn’t balance on?
We just got really good at picking out things she could balance on. Early on, you try a couple of things and realize that it has to be a certain width and has to be stable and bolted down. You just get better at figuring out what to try and what not to try. 

Maddie is perched pretty high in some of the photos. Were you ever worried about her falling? 
No, I mean, we were doing it for only so long. She’s so well trained to stand still, and she just has great balance. For all of them, I could stand on my feet and put her up there, so none of them were too crazy. She’s never fallen. 

You guys were on the road together for a year. Its hard to imagine because she's so adorable, but does Maddie have any typical-dog habits that kind of got on your nerves?
[Laughs] Yeah, Maddie’s really food-driven. We always ate together. These days, whenever there’s food, she’s always in my face. When we were on the road, it was just the two of us, and she was good company, so I dealt with it and maybe even slightly encouraged it. But now, we go to people’s houses to eat, and we have to put Maddie in a separate room because she’s just conditioned to think that when there’s food around she gets fed, too. But that’s all right. 

That’s not too bad. What would you say might have gotten on her nerves about you during your year on the road?
Oh man [laughs], probably that we had some long days of driving. I’m sure if she had her pick she wouldn’t have chosen to be in the car for eight hours. She would have rather been in the woods. But she would hunker down, and we’d get some miles in on the road, and she would fall asleep—and play afterward. 

What was your favorite day of the trip? 
We had a really awesome day in Moab, Utah. We went hiking in Arches National Park. I got up to the top, and there were a couple hundred people around the rim taking photographs of this giant arch, beautiful and epic. . . . When I lifted Maddie up to take a photo with my cell phone, everyone around the rim started cheering—I was holding this dog above my head in front of the arches, and the lighting was pretty awesome. It was kind of cool to have this whole group of people I didn’t know, just like “yeah, there’s a dog!” It was a moment. 

Did you ever have any bad days? Ever think about calling it quits?
Oh, yeah, definitely. . . . Maddie would run off into the woods and come back covered in cow shit. I’d be like, “Maddie, why did you do that? We’re in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t have any way to wash you!” There were perils like that, of traveling with a dog, but more often than not, it’s an awesome experience. 

You’re back on the road to promote the book now. Where all are you going?
The book tour has 45 official stops. Concurrently, we’re shooting the documentary—taking portraits of people and their animals, recording oral histories, and trying to change perception of rescuing adopted animals, showing people that they can be a joy in your life.

Tell us about your next book.
I don’t know exactly, but I know it’s going to be something with Maddie and sandwiches.

Whatever the next book turns out to be, one thing's for sure: We want more Maddie.

All photos from Maddie on Things. Used with permission from Chronicle Books.

Have you met Maddie yet? She’s a ridiculously photogenic brown coonhound rescue with white speckles, huge, flappy ears and eyes that tend to squint, seemingly indicating a certain level of bliss (and/or sleepiness). A couple of years ago, Maddie’s owner, Theron Humphrey—feeling unfulfilled by his corporate job, stung by a recent breakup and pondering the […]
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According to Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers, Mark Twain was a "voracious pack rat." Among the abundance of artifacts he left behind are thousands of letters he received from people from all over the globe, of all ages and representing all facets of society. Lucky for us, Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen decided to take on the enormous task of sifting through all of them to compile this fascinating collection of never-before-published letters to the beloved and iconic writer.

Spanning more than 50 years—from 1863, the year Twain adopted his legendary pen name, until 1910, the year of his death—the 200 letters are all transcribed, some accompanied by facsimiles of the actual letters and any notes that Twain made on or about them. Further rounding out the completely satisfying experience of reading Dear Mark Twain are Rasmussen's thoroughly researched mini bios of the letter writers, which further illustrate the expanse and diversity of his readership. Twain acolytes, history buffs and anyone looking for a riveting read are sure to appreciate this literary gem. 

We asked Rasmussen—who lives in Thousand Oaks, California—a few questions about how he went about tackling the project and about some of the more memorable letters featured in the book. 

What inspired you to gather these letters into a collection? Why do you think it is that no one had published them before now?
I've long been interested in exploring little-known aspects of Mark Twain's life. In 2008, I was reading John Lauber's The Inventions of Mark Twain and was intrigued by a several-page discussion of letters that readers wrote to Mark Twain. The examples Lauber discussed were so fascinating, I wondered if it would be possible to assemble an entire volume of such letters. Lauber wasn't the first biographer to publish extracts from readers' letters, but apparently no one had even tried to put together a book of them. I thought I had found a golden opportunity to do something original. Why no one else had assembled such a book, I don't know. I can only surmise it was because no such collection of letters to any major writer had ever been published. A friend has suggested that Dear Mark Twain may be the first book in a new genre.

How many letters did you sift through? Did you originally have a checklist of sorts regarding the types of letters you wanted to include in the book?
The Mark Twain Papers in Berkeley hold more than 12,000 letters addressed to Mark Twain. I looked at all of them. However, because I decided early on to restrict my collection to letters from ordinary readers, I was able to skip over most letters from relatives, friends and business associates. I eventually determined that well over 1,000 of the letters in the files could be regarded as "reader" letters. I read all those letters carefully.

What was your process of narrowing them down to 200, and how long did it take?
Of the 1,000+ reader letters I examined, I pegged more than half as candidates for my book. I transcribed all those letters and did at least preliminary research on all of them. I may have fully annotated as many as 300 letters. When I realized that the space limitations imposed by the press would not provide room for anywhere near that number—along with Mark Twain's replies and my annotations—I set 200 letters as my target minimum and then went through the difficult and often painful process of deselecting letters. To make the process easier, I followed a few rigid guidelines—only one letter per correspondent, no letters that I knew had been previously published (I allowed a few special exceptions), as much variety in content as possible and as wide a geographical respresentation as possible. Deselecting letters became a little easier when I realized I was leaving out enough high-quality material to assemble a second book as large and as good as Dear Mark Twain. I don't recall how long the process took, but I do recall making several passes through the letters, making more ruthless cuts each time.

(Above: A reader ribs Twain on a recent—and very public—practical joke that had been played on him.)

The letters span from 1863 to 1910—50 years that saw great change in this country, including the expansion westward, the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the United States as a player in global affairs. Are these changes reflected in the letters? If so, how?
Most of the letters are concerned more with Mark Twain's writings and events in his life than they are with world developments. However, there is a significant change in the tone of many letters when Mark Twain began writing anti-imperialist essays around the turn of the 20th century. Those writings were probably his most overt attempts to comment on contemporary world events.

Tell us about one of the more outrageous letters. Is it one for which we know Twain’s response?
The most outrageous letter in the book is a long undated message from 1885 (no. 76, pp. 116-118) signed "Thomas Twain," an obvious pseudonym. It concerns a comparatively obscure article titled "On Training Children" that Mark Twain had published in the Christian Union, responding to someone else's earlier article on child rearing. In it, he had criticized the parental discipline of a man called "John Senior" (another pseudonym), while praising his own wife's methods of disciplining children. Thomas Twain's letter not only castigates Mark Twain for his comments, but also severely criticizes Mark Twain's wife. Moreover, it goes on to suggest how the author would like to sexually discipline Mark Twain's wife, When I first read the letter, I was stunned that Mark Twain had saved it. It struck me as something he would have wanted to destroy. I was also surprised by Mark Twain's evidently mild response to the letter, which he guessed had been written by the "John Senior" of the original Christian Union article. His attitude seemed to be that John Senior was within his rights to complain about what he (Mark Twain) had said about him. Moreover, he seemed to have allowed his wife to read the letter, and even his daughter Susy knew about it. I can't help but wonder if he didn't fully understand what the letter was suggesting. If he had understood the letter, I could imagine his having its author tracked down and horse-whipped.

What about one of the more touching ones? And, again, is there an indication of how Twain responded?
There are many touching letters in the book, but the one that moved me the most is Mary Keily's letter of Feb. 11, 1880 (no. 34, pp. 63-65). In fact, the letter moved me so strongly that I dedicated the book to Keily. It was one of at least 12 letters that Keily wrote to Mark Twain. I chose it over the others because it is only one of her letters to which Mark Twain is known to have replied, and it is also the most focused of her letters. Keily was a mental patient in Pennsylvania who felt she had a very intimate connection with Mark Twain. His reply to her letter is very touching. I regard the exchange as the heart of my book.

Is there an overarching tone to the letters? Are they mostly complimentary?
Most of the letters are complimentary, but they are not all sincere, and many letters are self-serving or dishonest. If there is a single overarching tone, it reflects the personal warmth and closeness many correspondents felt toward Mark Twain. It is hard to imagine many other authors receiving letters of similiar warmth.

Is there any one of Twain’s publications that seemed to elicit the largest response from his readers?
Huckleberry Finn is probably the subject of the most letters in the book, but this is partly due to my favoring letters about it because of its importance, as I explain in the introduction. There are also many letters about Tom Sawyer and the travel books. One of the things that surprised me in the letters (including those not in this volume) is how many are about Mark Twain's lesser-known works, such as his Christian Union letter.

Twain is one of the country’s most beloved writers and humorists. Is there something about him revealed in these letters—either in one or in the collection taken as a whole—that will surprise today’s readers?
Perhaps the biggest surprise to modern readers will be the sheer diversity of the letters. In addition to predictable letters about his published works, he received a wide variety of requests for help—including financial assistance—and suggestions for participating in bizarre schemes. People wrote such letters to him because they felt he was approachable. In the absence of similar collections of letters to other authors of his era, it's difficult to make confident comparisons, but it seems unlikely that other authors would have received similar letters.

(Below: This charming illustration is accompanied by a request for Twain to send $10.)

According to Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers, Mark Twain was a "voracious pack rat." Among the abundance of artifacts he left behind are thousands of letters he received from people from all over the globe, of all ages and representing all facets of society. Lucky for us, Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen decided […]
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Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club offers a fascinating peek into the lives of the extraordinary women married to America's first astronauts. Over the years, the Astrowives formed a close-knit community, celebrating, encouraging, helping and comforting each other, ultimately creating dear friendships that are still going strong today. We asked Koppel some questions about her experience of writing the book and what it was like hanging out with America's first reality stars.

What sparked the idea for the book?

I saw a Life magazine photo of the wives in their skyrocketing beehives, outfitted in their swirling candy-colored Pucci minidresses, and turned to my husband, who is also a writer—and said, “Has a book ever been written about the wives?” I’ve always loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and of course Mad Men, but I never realized how much I wanted to know more about these women until I saw that vintage picture. It was just the tip of the iceberg. It was an interest in the personalities, especially the women. When I found out that they actually have a Club—and that they raised their families in the Houston “space burbs” near NASA’s operations, in a community known as “Togethersville”—the whole thing was just amazing! I knew I had to write the book and tell their story. The emotional side of the space race.

How many of the wives did you interview? Were there any Astrowives who declined to participate?

I started by visiting the wives across the country, unlocking the secrets of this very exclusive club of women behind the astronauts with the “right stuff.” I let their stories, missions and characters guide me in an organic way, focusing on the wives who had the most interesting—and at times difficult—tales. I was lucky that the women were so forthcoming with me. Now in their 70s, they finally felt it was time to come clean. They told me about their friendships with Jackie Kennedy. Joan Aldrin, Buzz’s wife, gave me her diary to explore, which she kept on the Apollo 11 “Giant Step” world tour as her husband’s life was spiraling out of control. Finally, I sat down at my MacBook and started to write, which all in all took about three years. Although it is serious history, I always wanted it to read like a page-turner.

I interviewed more than 30 women, individually and together in groups. They were very encouraging of one another and felt this was the right time to participate in this book. A few I was not able to meet, but with stars like platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter (whom JFK made clear was his favorite), Betty Grissom and Marilyn Lovell (whom people are already familiar with from Apollo 13) all opening up their lives and homes to me, sharing their stories and memories (photo albums, scrapbooks—the Pinterest of the 1960s—and in the case of Betty Grissom, her vintage designer wardrobe purchased mostly from Neiman Marcus in the 1960s, including a pair of fur hot pants), I had more than enough material to work with.

At the height of their fame, the astronauts and their families were offered tons of freebies. What was one of the most wacky, outrageous things/services they were given? Did they ever turn anything down, for whatever reason? Did you get the sense that cash was ever in short supply for them?

These were like the first celebrity endorsements. There were dollar-a-year Corvettes provided for any astronaut. There were dollar-a-night rooms at the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach for any astronaut. With this instant celebrity came all of the Astro Goodies, as I like to call them. And there were many. And many that had to be refused, because it really turned into quite a scandal in the early ’60s when they moved to Houston and a contractor wanted to give all of the astronauts and their families free dream homes. The public absolutely erupted over this. The Astro families ended up building their own dream homes with the land and contractor rates given to them at bargain rates.

Cash was certainly in short supply for them back when the astronauts were military men. (The average pay for a military test pilot was $7,000 a year.) Then when the original seven were made spacemen overnight, the Astro families were splitting $500,000 from Life magazine for exclusive coverage of their lives, which meant about $70,000 a year for each family. It was like winning the lottery.

Later, financial hardships would hit home for some of the astronauts (after the Apollo program was canceled) and especially for the wives who were divorced from their husbands. In many cases, the women sold off valuable space memorabilia from “the good old days” just to survive and pull through and raise their kids.

In the book, you reference the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. What effect do you think it and the subsequent Women’s Movement had on the wives?

The wives’ story isn’t all martinis and deviled eggs—it is also the launch of the modern woman. We see the Women’s Movement emerge through characters like platinum-blonde Rene Carpenter, who was opinionated, savvy and went onto write her own women’s newspaper column. People magazine described her as the “archetypal astro wife.” By the end of the book, she has adopted a Gloria Steinem-look and is hosting her own feminist television talk show, essentially taking on the patriarchy. There are many women among the Astrowives ranks who would “lean in” today.

What surprised you the most about these women?

The wives were like America’s first reality stars, with reporters embedded in their suburban homes. After their husbands became astronauts (and Life magazine bought the rights to the couples’ “personal stories” for half a million dollars), the astronaut families were all thrust into the spotlight. The wives' mantra throughout the space race was "Happy, proud, and thrilled." It was their "keep calm and carry on" motto, the women’s way of coping with having their lives turned inside out and the press camped out on their lawns during the missions. On top of dealing with your husband riding a giant stick of dynamite, the women had to worry about how all of America would receive them on television and the cover of magazines.

On the one hand, the wives were such integral parts of each other’s lives, sharing experiences no one else could possibly relate to. At the same time, though, they didn’t really get to commiserate with one another over the stresses, the dangers, the infidelities that plagued their lives and marriages, which gives their relationships a tinge of inauthenticity. Did this occur to you? Was it something you were able to reconcile over the course of writing the book?

Many wives experienced severe heartache and tension, and I felt deeply for them and tried to put myself in their shoes. It was because of this pressure-cooker environment that they had to rely on each other. Of course, all of the wives wanted to believe that their own husbands stuck to their training for all those weeks at the Cape, resisting the "Cape Cookies"—the pretty, tanned groupies who followed the astronauts as if they were The Beatles. Sadly, they also lost them to the space race. After the men came back from the Moon, many of the marriages fell apart as a result of a decade of living under severe strain. They hadn't known just how much their husbands' trips to space would change their lives on Earth. "It was hard for them to come home," said one wife, Faye Stafford. "Who could ever compete with the Moon? I was lucky if I could come in second."

To cope with the unique pressures of being married to a spaceman—from trying to live up to NASA’s impossible standards for the ideal housewife to dealing with absentee husbands constantly tempted by Cape Cookies—the wives banded together in the Astronaut Wives Club. Their saga, with its countless launch parties and endless bottles of champagne, at times seemed less like The Right Stuff and more like Valley of the Dolls Goes to the Moon. The women in the Astronaut Wives Club supported each other, but there was also a kind of competition between them. The women tried to remain above the competition, but sometimes that was impossible.

In the cutthroat NASA environment—where every man was vying for a flight position and the ultimate, a chance to go to the Moon—the women were terrified to say anything that could reflect badly on their husbands and cause them to lose out on a choice flying assignment. I don’t see the wives inability to share some of the innermost fears and loneliness with one another as inauthentic. I see it as part of the enormous burden they had to bear. The wives’ relationships have also evolved and today they are much closer than ever before, a symbol of the changing times we live in today and the fact that without all the competition they can finally be honest with each other. They still meet and get together with their friends—and remain closer than the astronauts. Astronaut wife Marilyn Lovell characterized the wives' enduring female friendships as proving ultimately more powerful than many of the marriages, saying, "I felt like we were on a mission together.

It seems like there could be a whole other book written about the children. What did they have to say about what it was like growing up as Astrokids? 

I talked to many of the Astrokids, and in many ways, growing up in a close-knit community of astronaut families who lived together in the Houston “space burbs,” as they were called, back when the space program was ramping up in the '60s, was growing up in the cradle of the American Dream! Journalists called their neighborhood “Togethersville,” a place where the astronaut families helped raise each other’s children and supported each other through triumph and tragedy. The Astrokids describe having an astronaut daddy as nothing unusual since all of their friends in the neighborhood had astronaut daddies too, or fathers who worked for NASA as engineers or contractors. Their mothers often had to pry them away from Star Trek to watch their dads' launch into space. It was also hard on the kids having a hero dad who was often an absentee father figure, so the Astrowives took on the role of “superhero mom” while the astronauts were away training for most of the week down at the Cape.

Can you share one of the more memorable (touching, funny) moments from your interviews with the wives?

Spending a girls’ weekend in Texas with Marilyn Lovell and her best friend Jane Conrad at the Lovells’ home. It was a girls’ slumber party, and I felt privileged to be made honorary Astrowife for the night. Jim “Houston, we have a problem” Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, took us for a ride in his Cessna. At night, we kicked back over glasses of wine, and I took notes as me and “the gals” sat around talking late into the night in PJs and robes.

What’s up next for you? 

I remain dedicated to telling unforgettable, never-before-told stories. Perhaps unusual for a writer who has written two non-fiction books, I love reading the Harry Potters and books like that. One of my books in the near future will be a novel I’ve been dreaming about, and working on, for some time . . . but I can’t yet divulge what it is about. I’m superstitious like that. (The Astrowives, of course, had many superstitions and guards against jinxes, too.)

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Astronaut Wives Club

Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club offers a fascinating peek into the lives of the extraordinary women married to America's first astronauts. Over the years, the Astrowives formed a close-knit community, celebrating, encouraging, helping and comforting each other, ultimately creating dear friendships that are still going strong today. We asked Koppel some questions about her […]

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