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Southern writer Patti Callahan Henry has been compared to Anne Rivers Siddons, Mary Alice Monroe and Dorothea Benton Frank. With a touch as graceful as a twilight breeze, she explores the lives of women;old and young and in-between;in novels like Losing the Moon and Between the Tides. Her fifth book, The Art of Keeping Secrets, is a delicately wrought exploration of the unlikely relationship that forms between two women, Annabelle and Sofie, after the untimely death of Annabelle's husband, Knox Murphy, in a plane crash. The Art of Keeping Secrets delves with kindness into the dilemmas of history and memory, love and duty as Annabelle and Sofie are forced to confront and examine the truth about Knox and their pasts;something each has actively avoided until now. We caught up with Henry at her home near Atlanta to ask about the new book and the appeal of the literary life.

This is your fifth novel in five years;and you came to writing after pursing a career as a nurse. What has been the biggest adjustment you've had to make to the writing life?

Before I was published, writing was my private passion, something I did for my own heart and soul. The biggest hurdle came for me when I had to somehow integrate my passion into a job a blessing and a struggle simultaneously.

Is there something about writing that's surprised you?

My two biggest surprises and joys have been the relationships I've made with other writers and then the life lessons I learn from the craft of writing. When I first began to dip my toes into the literary life, I immediately found a world I hadn't known existed, a world where other people cared as much about books, words and novels as I did. My life has been enriched with these newfound relationships.

Secrets and their consequences are the centerpiece ofseveral of your novels. What fascinates you about the nature of secrets?

I'm intrigued as a storyteller about the unlived life, the road not taken, the secret not told. I'm always thinking about what-if scenarios, that "Y" in the road where a character makes what seems a small decision at the time, yet it is something that changes a life for better or worse. These are the things that have me returning to the page again and again.

Your novels center on the myriad relationships between women. Do you draw inspiration for these supportive relationships from your own life?

I have been blessed with wonderful, kind women in my life, so I am sure I draw from those feelings and memories both intentionally and unintentionally. I also think that we as writers paint a picture of the way we would like things to be, or how we would like things to turn out for all of us.

There are some beautiful scenes connected to dolphins in The Art of Keeping Secrets. How did you do your research? Are dolphins really that smart?

Thank you for the compliment. Those scenes were a delight to write. I spend my summers on the South Carolina coast where the dolphins are an integral part of the landscape. I have watched them for years, touched their sleek backs, believed they were talking to me and inspiring me. I can take a walk along the beach and watch a dolphin follow me, flicking his tail at me as if trying to tell me something important. They can make me cry. I also did research to get the facts right. I read numerous books on dolphins, read research papers and contacted a marine scientist at Duke. And, yes, dolphins are that smart – but that's just my humble opinion.

If a book club chose to read your book, what is an appetizer or small plate you might suggest to complement the mood?

Knox's famous crab cakes [mentioned in the novel]. OK, so I have no idea how to make them, but they sound good.

What books are in your beach bag this summer?

I've heard this called the summer of women's fiction, so after my book tour, I'll grab a handful and hide with my family. I can't wait for Anne Rivers Siddons' new book, Off Season, and Mary Alice Monroe's Time Is a River. I'm also a big fan of Elizabeth Berg and I know she has a new one. So many books, so little time.

Novelist Barbara Samuel writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Southern writer Patti Callahan Henry has been compared to Anne Rivers Siddons, Mary Alice Monroe and Dorothea Benton Frank. With a touch as graceful as a twilight breeze, she explores the lives of women;old and young and in-between;in novels like Losing the Moon and Between the Tides. Her fifth book, The Art of Keeping Secrets, […]
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There's a sweet new voice in the world of Southern fiction, and it would be wise to listen. Known primarily for her books about spirituality (The Dance of the Dissident Daughter), Sue Monk Kidd now offers us her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. But in her first work of fiction, Kidd does not stray far from her interest in the interior life. More than the coming-of-age story of Kidd's endearing heroine, Lily Owens, The Secret Life of Bees is the story of a soul's journey, its evolution and its slow awakening to life's great mystery. 

"I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening . . . to this other realm," Kidd says during a recent call to her home in Charleston, South Carolina.

But the path toward enlightenment is not always an easy one. As a young child, Lily's life was changed forever by one tragic event — the death of her mother. When we meet her as an adolescent, she is trying to come to terms with this loss, and with her relationship with her cruel father, T. Ray. Life on their South Carolina peach farm might be too bleak to bear if not for the feisty Rosaleen, Lily's "stand-in mother" who works for the family. Kidd writes beautifully of their relationship, its subtle workings and its fierce love.

"The yearning for home and mother, which is what drives Lily, is deeply embedded in all of us," says Kidd. "The symbolic layer of the novel for me was this longing that is in every human soul for the mother. The mother within, the archetypal mother, the divine mother, whatever you want to call that, it is in us, and we recognize it when we see it in another story, and it resonates in us. And home — the deepest calling we have is to come home to ourselves. And so those things were operating in my mind when I was trying to write Lily's story. Mostly, I have to say, I wasn't thinking about all that; it was sort of in the background. I wasn't trying to write symbolically, and I wasn't trying to write about these archetypes and symbols, I was just trying to tell a really good story." And at that she succeeds. The Secret Life is Southern storytelling at its finest, but the layers of this story run deep.

Ironically, Lily's journey home begins when she leaves the peach farm. The opportunity comes when Rosaleen takes a stand against some racists in town and is beaten and jailed; Lily then knows that it's time for them to fly. Led by Lily's search for clues about her mother's past, and guided by a picture of a Black Madonna her mother left behind, they make their way to Tiburon, South Carolina. It is there that Lily and Rosaleen meet three sisters who welcome them into their world of bee-keeping and their own brand of spirituality centered around a Black Madonna. And it is there, among these bee-keeping sisters, that Lily embarks on a mystical journey into the world of bees and the sacred feminine.

The symbol of the bee and of the Black Madonna are perfectly wedded to one another, yet Kidd says that she didn't know any of the symbolism of bees before writing The Secret Life or about the amazing connections to the Virgin Mary. Somehow the two just coalesced. "I think we have to trust that choreographer inside of the writer who does offer up these gems and images at times. And we don't know how rich and layered they really are." When she began her research, she thought, "I can't believe it! Here we go." Upon discovering that Mary was often referred to as the queen bee and thought of as the bee hive, Kidd says, "I was so floored." She adds, "Bees and honeymaking lend themselves to ideas of change and transformation. And they also sting, so you've got to have that side of it."

Kidd's research included spending some time with beekeepers. Her hours in the honeyhouse and at the hives were invaluable. "Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book. The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it. . . . The way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse . . . The senses are alive in all of that experience." Kidd's vivid prose makes The Secret Life a sensual experience for the reader, too.

Kidd was also inspired by a visit to a Trappist monastery in South Carolina where she came upon an unusual statue of Mary, unusual in that it was a ship's masthead that had made its way to the abbey from the shores of a distant island. "The day that I discovered her, I was totally captivated by . . . the powerful imagery of this masthead Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness so to speak, and here is the feminine, returning. And I just could not get over that."

It seems the time was right for Kidd to make the jump from memoir to fiction, and indeed this novel feels inspired. Kidd says the work was a challenge, but one she'd always hoped to meet. "In fact, when I first came to the idea that I would pursue a career as a writer I wanted to write fiction. But things didn't work that way for me. . . . Maya Angelou said [to be a writer of fiction] you have to have something to say and you have to have the means or the ability to say it, and then you have to have the courage to say it at all. And I don't think I had enough of all three of those . . . when I was in my late 20s and early 30s."

The Secret Life makes clear that Kidd does possess all the elements that make the alchemy of storytelling possible. She adds to that mix humor and an understanding of human relationships, and the end result is something quite extraordinary. "Sometimes you just get a gift from your own unconscious or from somewhere," the author muses. The Secret Life of Bees is certainly a gift to Kidd's readers, one that both entertains and satisfies the soul.

 

Katherine H. Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

There's a sweet new voice in the world of Southern fiction, and it would be wise to listen. Known primarily for her books about spirituality (The Dance of the Dissident Daughter), Sue Monk Kidd now offers us her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. But in her first work of fiction, Kidd does not […]
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Cassandra King’s new novel, The Sunday Wife, a tale of a woman who doesn’t belong in the place where she finds herself and the like-minded misfits she befriends, is one of those books that keeps you up till three in the morning and makes you wake up three hours later to pick up where you left off.

Dean (Willodean) Lynch is the wife of Ben, pastor of the Methodist church in Crystal Springs, Florida. Uneasy in both Crystal Springs and her marriage, the mousy, middle-aged and endlessly self-deprecating Dean is still determined, like the foster child she was, to make the best of things. But the world she struggles to make tidy is upended forever when she meets the Holderfields the handsome Maddox and his madcap wife Augusta, a woman who is as out of place in Crystal Springs as Dean is, but gets away with it because of the position her husband’s wealthy and powerful family holds in the town.

Dean is immediately smitten, first by Augusta’s beauty and then by her sheer bad-girl recklessness. One of the funniest scenes in this frequently funny book is when she and Dean rush down to a marina to warn Augusta’s two-timing friend of the imminent arrival of his wife and son, and end up spending the night on his boat. Augusta makes Dean see that her own horizons can open up, despite Crystal Springs and the appalling Ben, who is so priggish, self-centered and utterly lacking in empathy the reader may wonder, first, how Dean could have stood being married to this hateful creep for 20 years and, second, when he’s going to meet the horrible death he deserves. Unfortunately, Ben isn’t the one who buys it, and the novel’s central tragedy throws Dean’s life, and the lives of her friends, onto paths they couldn’t have foreseen.

King, the wife of novelist Pat Conroy, is a graceful writer, and her descriptions of people, places and things range from delicate to deadly; the seafood meals depicted in the book made this reviewer go out and buy oysters for bisque, and the scenes of beaches in moonlight and sunlight are achingly beautiful. King also excels at keeping the plot cooking, page after page. The Sunday Wife is a tasty and irresistible treat. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

Cassandra King’s new novel, The Sunday Wife, a tale of a woman who doesn’t belong in the place where she finds herself and the like-minded misfits she befriends, is one of those books that keeps you up till three in the morning and makes you wake up three hours later to pick up where you […]
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A nervous teenaged couple dumps a newborn in a box at the door of an elegant-looking country house. It’s a strange way to begin a book called <B>Blessings</B>, but the story that follows is stranger still, though entirely mesmerizing.

The driver was in such a hurry that he abandoned the baby in front of the garage instead of the house proper, and the young handyman recently out of jail was the one to discover the baby, still alive.

So far, so good. Now, do you think the handyman, Skip Cuddy, would decide to take care of the baby? Can you see him studying a baby book, buying diapers and formula? Carrying her around in a chest-pack while he works, and naming her Faith? Me neither. But author Anna Quindlen can, and she has a talent for getting readers to view life on her terms. Perhaps it comes from her years as a columnist, first for <I>The New York Times</I> and now for <I>Newsweek</I>. She puts Skip into the nurturing role of caregiver and writes with such feeling that readers cannot easily dismiss him.

Most people turn out the way you would expect," Skip muses near the end of the novel. But not all. Not by a long shot." Readers who believe in Skip will be rewarded by a story they cannot put down. It reaches back into the past and involves much more than one baby’s lot, though on the surface that propels the plot. The tension between appearance and reality and the lasting influence of childhood experience are underlying themes.

At the center of the book is the sprawling white country house called Blessings, where Skip lives over the garage, and the very demanding Lydia Blessings, 80, lives alone in the house. The abandoned baby becomes a welcome responsibility. Faith’s innocent presence helps Lydia to see life clearly, for once, and to realize that doing good can be more rewarding than doing what looks right to the rest of the world. But don’t listen too hard for a swelling of violins. This is Quindlen; the ending is bittersweet. <I>Anne Morris writes in Austin, Texas.</I>

A nervous teenaged couple dumps a newborn in a box at the door of an elegant-looking country house. It’s a strange way to begin a book called <B>Blessings</B>, but the story that follows is stranger still, though entirely mesmerizing. The driver was in such a hurry that he abandoned the baby in front of the […]
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What marks the start of the holiday season for you?
In the past, I've started listening to Christmas music in early September! It's some of the most incredible music ever written and there are so many terrific offerings, both old and new. Since our children are grown and we have young grandchildren, more recently we've waited until the weekend after Thanksgiving to plunge into all the trappings of the season.

Does your family have one very special holiday tradition?
We have several I love. One is making (and eating) a birthday cake for Jesus to be served on Christmas Eve. It's His birthday, after all. Another is setting out a variety of nativity scenes—from a teensy wooden one purchased when our married daughter was just a baby, to the large paper mache one for under the big tree in the living room. We also go a bit overboard in that we put up a tree in every room in our house, including the laundry room! And we make gingerbread houses as a family every single year, complete with picture-taking before, during and after. Don't even ask to see all the scrapbooks of this event.

What are you most looking forward to during the holiday season?
Having our special needs son and daughter home for Christmas again this year.

What’s your favorite holiday book or song?
Stories: “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Little Match Girl.” Songs: “Jesu Bambino” and “What Child Is This?”

Why do books make the best gifts?
Books have the power to live on in your memory . . . to motivate, inspire, educate and heal. They transport us to places of the heart and beyond.

What books are you planning to give to friends and family?
The Missing, my latest novel, as well as Lynn Austin's new novel, Though Waters Roar. Levi's Will by W. Dale Cramer, Gold of Kings by Davis Bunn and several old classics.

What was the best book you read this year?
Dewey by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter—absolutely loved it!

What’s your number one resolution for 2010?
Living with purpose and focus is my life mantra. I'm not very big on New Year's resolutions.

What marks the start of the holiday season for you?In the past, I've started listening to Christmas music in early September! It's some of the most incredible music ever written and there are so many terrific offerings, both old and new. Since our children are grown and we have young grandchildren, more recently we've waited […]
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Ambient city sounds—horns, sirens—provide a fitting soundtrack for a recent conversation with Cathleen Schine, a New Yorker who has written so astutely about the lives of other New Yorkers. She does it yet again in her new novel, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that tells the story of three urbanites in exile, and the cast of characters in their orbit.

During the interview, Schine, also the author of The Love Letter and The New Yorkers, makes a frank confession: “This is very unfashionable to say, but I read for comfort a lot of times. That sounds very old-fashioned, but that’s my dirty little secret.” Her readers can take comfort in the fact that she’s created another ensemble novel that, though sad at times, is also entertaining and diverting.

Other facts one might be surprised to learn about this prolific author: She’s partial to terriers (and presently owns a Cairn); before becoming a writer, she studied to be a Medievalist; and she didn’t read Jane Austen until well into adulthood. “I’m very unusual among novelists in that I didn’t read Austen until I was an adult,” she says. But when she did, “It was an incredible revelation.”

Asked about being dubbed by critics as a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen, a moniker she’s flattered by but reluctant to claim, Schine responds, “I’ve been writing for 25 years. That was written about me when I was quite a bit younger, but I’ve noticed that any woman who writes a comedy of manners is always in some way compared to Jane Austen. She’s the gold standard.”

The Three Weissmanns of Westport will, of course, invite comparisons to Sense and Sensibility, but Schine insists, “It’s somewhere between a theft and an homage, but what it’s not is an appropriation or a comparison. That, I know better. Jane Austen is an inspiration to anybody who writes a comedy of manners because she practically invented it.”

Schine’s story begins when 78-year-old Joseph Weissmann decides to divorce Betty, his wife of 48 years, citing “irreconcilable differences” (read: another woman). The genuinely perplexed Betty replies, “Irreconcilable differences? . . . Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce?”

Approaching grave subjects with levity is Schine’s trademark. “For me, it’s just the way I experience the world. It’s a good survival mechanism,” she says. In the past, she’s leaned more heavily towards comedy, but feels that “this book is sadder, more serious, a bit emotionally darker than other things I’ve written.” Though that may be true, she strikes a balance between pathos and humor. Let’s just say that if The Three Weissmanns of Westport were a movie, Nora Ephron would direct it. Or if it were a food, it would be some kind of chocolate-covered pretzel concoction—a little salty, a little sweet.

Schine has said elsewhere, “Families are funny and adultery is funny; families are tragic and adultery is tragic. Love just complicates everything that much more.” In The Three Weissmanns of Westport, she explores love in its many forms—maternal, romantic and filial.

As the world she knows unravels, Betty’s daughters—the passionate Miranda, a famous literary agent, and the more subdued Annie, a sensible library director—rally around her in support. Forced out of her elegant New York apartment by her husband’s mistress, Betty, joined by her girls, takes refuge in her cousin Lou’s cramped, run-down beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut. As they mingle with suburban socialites, they discover love in unexpected places—and truths about themselves and each other.

Schine describes the process of writing this novel as a dynamic experience, a kind of call and response between her book and Austen’s. “It’s partly my being caught up by the narrative of Sense and Sensibility and partly my own story and characters, sometimes pushing toward that and sometimes pulling away from that. . . . It was kind of like a dialogue. For me, reading and writing have a lot in common. So there was a lot of communication with the characters,” she says, adding, “All apologies to Jane Austen, of course.”

What appeals most to Schine about Austen’s work is that, though written two centuries ago, it still resonates with readers today. “So much of it feels so alive,” she says. She found herself asking, what in modern-day society approximates that? What is the equivalent?

She also wanted to write about “women who’ve lived a certain way whose whole lives have been pulled out from under them.”

“I know women to whom that has happened,” she says. Schine, like Austen, is particularly interested in the ways in which, even today, women depend on marriage to ensure social standing and economic security.

In writing this novel, Schine found herself returning time and again to the relationship between Betty and her daughters. Schine, who’s very close to her own mother, says, “I love writing about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. That’s one of the things I found when I was writing this, that the mother took on a much more important and central role in my story; that’s one way in which it really veered from Sense and Sensibility.” Most poignant, perhaps, is the way Schine describes the awakening of Miranda’s maternal instincts after she meets a winsome toddler named Henry (the son of her new lover). “It’s hard to write about kids without it being sentimental,” says Schine. But she does it, drawing on her own experience of raising two boys.

Asked if she would ever write a memoir, Schine says she finds she can come closer to the truth when writing fiction. “Also, it’s just more fun for me,” she adds. “Part of the fun of writing is finding out what’s going to happen next.” Her ultimate goal, she says, is to create recognizable characters and a story that rings true to life. She does both in The Three Weissmanns of Westport, her lambent wit flickering across each page like moonlight on the waters of Westport.

Katherine Wyrick writes from Little Rock.

“Any woman who writes a comedy of manners is compared to Jane Austen. She’s the gold standard.”
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Kim Cash Tate went from law partner to novelist when her first book, Heavenly Places, was published in 2008. Her second novel, Faithful, has just been released by Thomas Nelson and tells the story of three successful best friends facing personal, work and romantic challenges. Tate took the time to answer a few questions about writing from her home in St. Louis.

What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
I think the best writing advice I’ve gotten is to write from the heart. It can be tempting to look around and see what’s hot and trending, and try to conform. But true passion and satisfaction flow when I write the stories of my heart.

Of all the characters you've ever written, which one is your favorite?
My favorite character is Treva from my novel, Heavenly Places [read our review]. I had such a heart for her because I knew women like her, women who’d been treated in an inferior manner by their mothers and grew up trying to find self-worth wherever they could. I loved taking her on a journey where she would begin to see herself, not through her mother’s eyes, but through God’s eyes. And it was just plain ol’ fun writing her because she had attitude and would say things that many of us might think but never give voice to.

What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
The proudest moment of my writing career thus far was being signed by Thomas Nelson Fiction. I had always admired them as a premier publisher, but because I didn’t see any fiction by African-American authors coming from them, I didn’t think it was a “natural” path for me. When they expressed an interest in signing me, I was elated! And the experience of partnering with them has far surpassed what I imagined.

Name one book you think everyone should read.
Definitely the Bible. That’s the one book that has completely changed my life. I’m also a HUGE Lord of the Rings fan. I love the epic story of good versus evil, of the unlikeliest of people being used to do great things. There are so many life nuggets I’ve taken away from that story. But I admit I kind of cheated—that story is actually contained in three books.

What book are you embarrassed NOT to have read?
The Help is staring at me right now, so that’s what comes to mind. So many have told me that I need to read it, and I’ve had it in eye-shot for the longest. Admitting my embarrassment might be the very motivation I need to crack it open!

How would you earn a living if you weren't a writer?
I practiced law for a number of years as a civil litigator, so if I had to earn a living outside of writing, I’d probably return to that. Or not. I’ve always wanted to start my own business, so maybe I’d throw caution to the wind and make some crafty little thing and sell it . . . except I’ve never really been the artsy-crafty type. Hmm . . . guess I’d better hope this writing thing works out.

What are you working on now?
I’m editing my Fall 2011 release, Cherished, and beginning work on the novel that will follow that one. I’m really excited about what’s on the horizon.

Kim Cash Tate went from law partner to novelist when her first book, Heavenly Places, was published in 2008. Her second novel, Faithful, has just been released by Thomas Nelson and tells the story of three successful best friends facing personal, work and romantic challenges. Tate took the time to answer a few questions about […]
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While she was being “wildly irresponsible”—writing her first novel, Still Alice, instead of going back to work at a high-powered Boston consultancy firm—Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, decided, what the heck, she might as well take acting lessons too.

“I was a divorced single mother at the time,” Genova says during a call to her home on Cape Cod. “I wasn’t doing anything I was supposed to be doing, and I had always wanted to act.” So for a year and a half Genova trained as an actress. “One of the things I learned,” she says, “is that you always raise the stakes as high as possible whenever possible.”
 
It’s a lesson Genova seems to have applied in much of her creative life. When Still Alice wasn’t picked up by a publisher, for example, she decided in 2007 to self-publish the novel, which offers a moving depiction of the life of Alice Howland, a Harvard professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “It was self-published for 10 months and in that time I sold just over 1,000 copies, and I was really, really proud of that,” Genova says, laughing. “Then it was bought by Simon & Schuster, and Barnes & Noble sold more copies than that on the first day it was released!” 
The popularity of Still Alice allowed Genova to become an Alzheimer’s advocate and to write full time. When she began to develop the character of Sarah Nickerson, the high-achieving, 30-something narrator of her new novel Left Neglected, Genova says she was inspired first by her curiosity about an unusual condition called Left Neglect Syndrome and then by her concern about the crazy-busy lives so many Americans lead these days.
 
“Most women who are raising kids and who have to work are finding themselves doing way too much in a day,” Genova says. “In fact, it’s sort of a badge of honor to say that you’re really, really busy. So I could have given Sarah a normal job but I thought, raise the stakes as high as possible whenever possible, and I decided to give her a really crazy job. I wanted to make her exhaustion and level of multitasking pretty severe. I wanted readers to see that there are so many things she’s not paying attention to in her own life. She’s not paying attention to her distant relationship with her mother because it’s easier not to look at that. She’s ignoring the fact that she and her husband haven’t had sex in a while. She’s ignoring the elliptical machine in the basement and the fact that she’s 20 pounds overweight. And she’s not paying attention to the road because she’s on her cell phone.”
 
Left Neglected tells of Sarah’s attempt to recover from that moment of inattention on the road and to learn to live with Left Neglect Syndrome. “It’s a confusing condition to wrap your brain around,” Genova says. She first read about it in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and the disorder would crop up in her neuroscience classes at Harvard. Left Neglect is a condition in which trauma to the right side of the brain results in a person not being able to recognize left-side space. “If you ask a patient with it to draw a clock,” Genova explains, “they would draw the numbers 12 through 6 and think they had drawn the whole clock. I’m like, wait a minute, how does this person walk through the world if they’re only recognizing half of it? I knew that if I got to write another novel, I wanted to write about someone with this condition.”
 
One of the great accomplishments of Left Neglected is how fully Genova allows a reader to inhabit Sarah’s experiences of this peculiar disorder. Those experiences are often frustrating, but they are also laced with humor. “I didn’t know Sarah would unfold that way,” Genova says. “I haven’t written humor before, but there’s a lot of physical comedy in the book, and that was fun to see evolve.”
But Genova also has a larger purpose in mind in writing Left Neglected.
 
“I wanted to use this condition as a metaphor for our crazy lives as a culture right now,” she says. “It’s one of the things I have wrestled with in my life. In my 20s, I was very driven to succeed, like Sarah. I had my head down barreling a thousand miles an hour toward what was an outwardly, visibly successful life. A Ph.D. in neuroscience, a job that was very, very well paid. I had a sort of laundry list of things I would have: I would get married, I would have kids, I would do it all, without really thinking about what I wanted my life to look like. Then when I was 33, I got divorced. That sort of shook things up. It was devastating on the one hand, and on the other hand it gave me an opportunity to stop and think about what I wanted.”
 
In Left Neglected, Sarah Nickerson quite literally crashes and is then forced to rebuild her life. She struggles with her disorder and she struggles to reconnect with her mother, her husband and her children and to discover how to lead a meaningful life without the preconceived standards of success.
 
In Genova’s own life, she metaphorically crashed after her divorce and “began choosing a simpler life.” In 2007 she married photographer and filmmaker Christopher Seufert and moved to the Cape, where the family lives in a house overlooking a saltwater creek. She writes at Starbucks most mornings and attends her 10-year-old daughter’s soccer and softball games in the afternoons. She is now the author of two novels and the mother of two more children—a two-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter.

“That’s right!” Genova says, laughing, “I delivered a baby and a book this year. It was a little crazy.” 

 

While she was being “wildly irresponsible”—writing her first novel, Still Alice, instead of going back to work at a high-powered Boston consultancy firm—Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, decided, what the heck, she might as well take acting lessons too. “I was a divorced single mother at the time,” Genova says during […]
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When Kim Edwards began writing a follow-up to her wildly successful novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, she intended to create a contemporary story in the picturesque area of upstate New York where she grew up. She soon found, however, that the past kept asserting itself on the present.
 

The resulting novel, The Lake of Dreams, is a seamless interplay of the two—part historical, epistolary novel and part modern-day quest story. “The two are deeply interwoven,” Edwards says during a call to her Kentucky home. “The past presses itself on the present . . . it became more forceful as I was writing it.”

 
 

“I think the landscape of everybody’s childhood really stays with them.”

 
 

When the novel opens, Lucy Jarrett is at a turning point in her life and has returned to Lake of Dreams, New York, from her recent home in Japan, after a decade-long absence. Back in the rambling old house of her childhood, she finds that she is still haunted by her father’s unresolved death in a fishing accident years earlier. She also learns that her brother, Blake, has gone into the family business and joined ranks with their uncle in a controversial project to develop the area’s pristine wetlands.

 

Meanwhile, Lucy also reconnects with her first love, Keegan Fall, a sensitive, thoughtful glass artist who still carries a torch for her after all these years. But one morning, everything changes when Lucy makes a curious discovery in a window seat of the house’s long-neglected cupola. There she unearths a cache of letters, ephemera linked to the suffrage movement and an heirloom tapestry bordered with interlocking spheres—an ancient symbol that, as Lucy soon learns, also appears in stained-glass windows crafted by a local artist almost a century earlier. Thus begins a journey that will force her to rewrite her family’s history—and her own.

 

Though Lucy’s life doesn’t directly mirror the author’s, there are some parallels. Edwards grew up in Skaneateles, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and after completing her graduate work, she traveled to Asia with her husband, where they spent the next five years teaching. Later on, she enjoyed revisiting the upstate area and muses, “I think the landscape of everybody’s childhood really stays with them.” She also relished rediscovering the region’s history and its ties with the women’s suffrage movement. “It was really, really fun to see it through that lens,” Edwards recalls.

 

An associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky, Edwards has been on leave for the past two years to write The Lake of Dreams. After a whirlwind tour following the success of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which has sold more than 4.5 million copies, she alighted in Kentucky seeking the solitude required to write. Her husband, former chair of the English department at the university and a carpenter in his previous life, built her a secluded home studio in which to work.

 

Edwards “wrote the book from the outside in,” she explains: “I told myself I had to write 1,000 words a day just to see where it took me.”

 

The story for The Lake of Dreams, however, had been germinating long before The Memory Keeper’s Daughter came into being, its images floating in the author’s mind like dust motes in the dappled light of a stained-glass window. Years ago, Edwards wrote a draft of a novel (her first) that had similar themes, like a concern for the land. Over the years, she returned to her discarded novel and came to understand it in a totally new way—an exercise that proved fruitful, because it was during this process that she found the voice for The Lake of Dreams. “For me, and many writers, that’s a crucial discovery,” Edwards says. If she had to identify the seed of the story, however it would be a stained-glass window. “I loved the metaphor of glass, as something that moves between states of being.”

 

It’s while standing before a series of these windows that Lucy experiences this revelation about her ancestor, Rose: “It was physical, almost, my desire to know who she was and how she had lived. . . . From this point in time, almost a hundred years later, the events of her life looked fixed, determined. And yet, in her brief notes I had recognized a restless passion that seemed familiar, mirroring my own seeking, my own questions.”

 

Fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees will find much to love in this novel, especially the way Edwards integrates arcane subject matter into a contemporary story. The character of Lucy, with her wanderlust and longing for self-knowledge, recalls literary heroes across time.

 

“I think of this book as kind of a quest story, and so the underlying structure of that, both seeking something in the world and undergoing some kind of internal change, too, is the structure that was in my mind when I was writing it,” Edwards says. “I did a lot of reading about myths, traditional and ancient quest stories along the way. One of the elements of a quest story is that the hero gets called back from whatever he or she is doing at the time, so it seemed to fit really beautifully with the wandering Lucy has done.” (Edwards even manages to work a chalice into the narrative.)

 

Not surprisingly, dreams also figure prominently in The Lake of Dreams. At different points in her career, Edwards says, she has been interested in theology and the works of Carl Jung—interests that clearly inform her fiction. The design that appears on the heirloom blanket Lucy discovers was inspired by the Chalice Well of Glastonbury—on which appears a sacred geometry that consists of two interlocking circles, called vesica piscis, or in more modern terminology, a Venn diagram. At her urging, the book’s designers incorporated the blanket’s border into each chapter heading.

Though parts of the book feel a touch treacly, Edwards writes well about familial relationships and the tenuous ties that bind us. One particular passage stands out in which Lucy, visiting an abandoned chapel, sits bathed in the ethereal light of stained-glass windows. This magical, meditative scene transports the reader, with Lucy, to a place like dreamtime, where the veil between the worlds—the seen and unseen—grows thin. It’s a place Edwards herself has come to know through the creative process. Of the act of writing, she says, “I would emerge from it feeling like I was still partially there. . . . The writing changes you. You leave as a different person. You never know what you’re going to discover.” 

 

When Kim Edwards began writing a follow-up to her wildly successful novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, she intended to create a contemporary story in the picturesque area of upstate New York where she grew up. She soon found, however, that the past kept asserting itself on the present.   The resulting novel, The Lake of Dreams, is […]
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Recently, Karen Kingsbury, the prolific author crowned the queen of Christian fiction by Time magazine, will celebrate the publication of Leaving, the first book in her four-part Bailey Flanigan series.

But she won’t be celebrating alone.

“I created the series because the reader friends asked for it,” Kingsbury says in a phone call from her home in Vancouver.

“Whenever I wrote about the Flanigans, the reader friends wrote back and asked for more Bailey. Then I introduced Cody, a kid with problems, and readers just loved him.” Now, fans will get what they’ve been asking for in a series that will finally complete the Bailey/Cody love story.

In Leaving, 20-year-old Bailey prepares to leave her childhood home in Bloomington, Indiana, headed to audition for a Broadway musical in New York City. But Bailey’s heart is heavy as she leaves for what may be the opportunity of a lifetime. If she gets the coveted role on Broadway, it means leaving family and friends for an extended period of time—and that includes Cody Coleman, the love of her life back home. Cody has suddenly disappeared from Bailey’s life, taking a coaching position in a nearby small town to be closer to his mother, who has been jailed on drug charges. Bailey is always on his mind and in his heart, but Cody doesn’t think he’s good enough for her. Complications arise, as they always do; for Cody, it’s the presence of lovely Cheyenne, the widow of his best friend who was killed in Iraq; for Bailey, it’s the possibility of a whole new life in New York—and a deepening relationship with her handsome movie star friend, Brandon Paul.

Since the Flanigan family is loosely based on Kingsbury’s own family (which includes husband Donald, one daughter and five sons—three of whom are adopted from Haiti), she didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

“It was crazy, because while I was writing scenes in Leaving about Bailey packing up to move to New York, my daughter Kelsey suddenly decided to go to college 1,500 miles away from home. It certainly added an emotional intensity to my research.”

But where does Bailey end and Kelsey begin? “My daughter has the same courage and conviction as Bailey, but God’s plan for her life is still unfolding, and that takes a lot of patience. Kelsey and Bailey are both enrolled in college and interested in musical theater, but Kelsey hasn’t starred in a movie, or been offered a spot on Broadway. And she doesn’t have a Cody or Brandon in her life.” Yet.

One thing that stands out in Leaving is that two of the characters—Bailey and Ashley Baxter Blake, whose husband is facing health issues—repeatedly, consciously choose to live in the moment. When asked about that choice, Kingsbury says, “In the past, I was vaguely aware of the concept of being fully in the moment, and I might have mentioned it at a women’s seminar or at a conference, but it wasn’t a principle that I had put into daily practice.”

Then in January 2010, her husband Donald had a stroke, followed by successful surgery in March to close a hole in his heart. “After the challenges of last year, I learned to appreciate every moment, and I do my best to savor and enjoy each experience.”

One of her favorite times for making memories is Easter. “When I was growing up,” Kingsbury says, “I had three sisters, so there were always plenty of pretty dresses and the usual Easter eggs, baskets and bunnies—symbols that we associated with the renewal of life.”

Easter was always full of light and hope in Kingsbury’s childhood, especially compared with the somberness of Good Friday. “Even as a young girl, I really grasped the sadness of Jesus on a cross. It always made Easter so much better. The sun always seemed to be shining on Easter morning—a reminder of God’s promise after the darkness.”

These days, one of Kingsbury’s favorite Easter traditions is talking with her husband and children. “Each Easter Sunday, we gather and share about how we’re doing so far in the new year. We talk about what’s going on in each of our lives, our hopes and dreams, and how the Lord is working among us. Always we’re amazed at the miracles of God around us.”

Surely Kingsbury has already fulfilled many of her hopes and dreams. With 54 books (and counting), millions of copies sold worldwide, her name on USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists and honors galore, she has become a mainstay in Christian fiction. And she’s certainly not going anywhere anytime soon. Next in the Bailey Flanigan series is Learning, followed by Longing and Loving.

In Leaving, Kingsbury delivers an entertaining story with memorable characters and a powerful message about the only things that last—faith, love and our connection with God. As she says, “Jesus stays.”

 

Recently, Karen Kingsbury, the prolific author crowned the queen of Christian fiction by Time magazine, will celebrate the publication of Leaving, the first book in her four-part Bailey Flanigan series. But she won’t be celebrating alone. “I created the series because the reader friends asked for it,” Kingsbury says in a phone call from her […]
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Ann Packer found a devoted audience with her first two novels, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words. Though her latest work is a collection of stories, she still manages to write female narrators who stick with you for days—especially the mother in “Molten,” a story about a woman who copes with the death of her teenaged son by listening to his rock music collection.

The stories in Swim Back to Me take place in California, but we were curious about how else Packer feels they are linked—and whether she’ll return to the form that made her famous, the novel. Read on for those answers and more.

How do you feel that the stories in Swim Back to Me fit together? In what ways are they linked?
I'm drawn to writing about people who find themselves in situations that challenge their assumptions about who they are and how they can and do live their lives. Loss is obviously a big theme for me, and in these stories my characters deal both with loss of the actual—divorce, the deaths of loved ones—and also loss of their dreams, by which I mean the stories they've told themselves about how life will go. And lest this seem grim, I mean the loss both of positive stories—stories of long and happy marriages, for example—and also negative ones, stories in which pessimism has played such a central part that good fortune and possibility can be so surprising as to be initially uncomfortable.

Do you have a favorite from this collection? Although it was incredibly wrenching, I keep returning to “Molten,” which is filled with such wonderfully raw—and oddly humorous—moments. (“The nerve. That was all Kathryn could think: the nerve.”)

I don’t have a favorite. Whatever I am writing at any given time matters most, in that I am consumed by the task of making it work. I have fond memories of writing “Molten,” despite its difficult subject matter, because it offered a unique opportunity for me to use another language (the language of music) to animate the story.

As the daughter of two Stanford professors, do you identify with either Sasha or Richard—both professor’s kids—from “Walk for Mankind”? In what way?

I identify with both of them, but probably no more so than other characters. Creation of character is in a sense a prolonged act of identification. That said, the time and place of “Walk for Mankind” had special resonance for me. It’s fun to delve into memory to create a setting.

Swim Back to Me comes full circle in the closing story, where a kid from the opening novella is an adult and watching over her dad at a wedding. When you wrote the first story, did you know you’d revisit the Horowitz family many years later? Besides a brief mention, Richard is absent from this story—why?

It was always my intention to open with “Walk for Mankind” and to close with a return to its characters, but for a long time I didn't know how I’d do that. I knew I’d focus on Sasha and her father—I started with his voice, complaining to her that he thinks he’s dying—but I didn’t know Richard would be absent entirely. It just ended up feeling right. I thought it was true to life that a relationship that had been hugely important to one person might turn out to be much less so to another.

Though your first published book was a collection of stories, you received widespread acclaim for your novels—especially the well-loved The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. Why did you return to short fiction? (Or had you been writing short stories all along? You mention in your acknowledgements that these stories were written over many years.)

I wrote these stories over the course of at least a dozen years, usually between drafts of my two novels, so it feels less that I returned to short fiction than that I finally got to a point where I had a group of shorter works that felt like they worked together as a book.

Can readers expect another novel from you?

Definitely. I’m just getting started, so it’ll be a while, but I am pretty sure what I’m working on right now will turn out to be a novel.

What books have you read lately that you’d recommend?

I loved Carol Edgarian’s new novel, Three Stages of Amazement. Jennifer Egan’s award winning book A Visit from the Goon Squad. And I am always reading and recommending Alice Munro.

 

Ann Packer found a devoted audience with her first two novels, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words. Though her latest work is a collection of stories, she still manages to write female narrators who stick with you for days—especially the mother in “Molten,” a story about a woman who copes with the […]
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The author of Shanghai Girls brings back three of her favorite characters in a new novel set during one of China’s darkest periods.

Dreams of Joy is a sequel to one of your previous novels, Shanghai Girls. What made you decide to revisit that story and its characters?
I didn’t plan to write a sequel. I thought the end of Shanghai Girls was a new beginning. Readers thought otherwise. Absolutely everyone, including my publisher, asked for a sequel. I loved spending more time with Pearl, Joy and May. I’ve now been thinking and writing about them for four years, so I know them really, really well. It was interesting to go even deeper emotionally with all of them.

This novel offers a vivid picture of the hardships endured by the Chinese people during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. How did you conduct your research and what obstacles did you encounter?
There are a handful of nonfiction books written about the Great Leap Forward, which helped me with the straight facts. When I was in China, I interviewed people in Huangcun Village who had lived through that time. I also talked to younger people in China to see what their impressions were of the Great Leap Forward and what their parents had gone through. The main obstacle I encountered, even with young, educated people, is the belief—after years of education—that the famine that occurred during the Great Leap Forward was caused by “three years of bad weather.”

All of your books are rooted in fact and real historical events, so why do you choose to write fiction rather than nonfiction?
What I love about books—as a reader myself—is opening the pages, stepping into another world, connecting to the characters, and by extension to larger things like an historical moment, the human condition, how women were treated and things like that. I’m willing to go on a journey and read about history if there are characters, relationships and emotions I can connect to. It’s those things that keep me turning the pages, and along the way I learn a lot. That’s what I love in the books I read, and that’s what I hope for readers of the books I write.

Your fiction has opened a new window on China and its people for many American readers. Do you feel that there are any stereotypes about China that continue to persist despite your efforts?
I actually think people are very confused about China. Is it an economic global superpower or a rigid Communist country known for its human rights violations? Is it one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of gender equality or is it a place where people give up their daughters for adoption? Is it the country with the third largest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world or a country of dire poverty? On any given day, any stereotype can be accurate, even in this country.

The movie version of your novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will premiere this summer. How does it feel to see your characters come to life on the screen?
It’s both wonderful and weird. The parts of the film that are true to the book are absolutely true—lifted word for word from the novel. But I’m sure that many readers of the book will be just as surprised as I was to see a singing and dancing Hugh Jackman.

Dreams of Joy makes plenty of references to the Chinese Zodiac: Dogs are likeable, Rabbits are friendly, Dragons are ferocious. Your Chinese zodiac sign is the Sheep; how well do you think you embody your sign?
A Sheep really loves home. I also love to be at home. It’s one of the reasons I became a writer. I can stay at home all day.

What is the most important thing you have learned about writing from your mother, novelist Carolyn See?
Her work habits. Write 1,000 words a day, plus one charming note or phone call.

Your Chinese heritage is obviously very important to you as a writer; are there any other Chinese (or Chinese-American) writers that you feel deserve wider readership?
I love Ha Jin and Yiyun Li. They’re both critically acclaimed, but they haven’t had the readership they deserve.

With bookstores closing and eBooks and self-publishing exploding, the literary world is in a period of rapid change. Are you concerned about what the future holds for books and reading?
Of course I’m concerned. Who isn’t? I love real books, but I also have a Kindle that I use on trips. As soon as I come home, though, I’m back to a real book.

 

The author of Shanghai Girls brings back three of her favorite characters in a new novel set during one of China’s darkest periods. Dreams of Joy is a sequel to one of your previous novels, Shanghai Girls. What made you decide to revisit that story and its characters? I didn’t plan to write a sequel. I […]
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She was one of the nation’s first celebrities— a miniature human who hobnobbed with presidents, queens and Rockefellers. 

P.T. Barnum showcased her in his American Museum, and her wedding knocked news of the Civil War off the front pages of newspapers. 

In a remarkable, soaring novel about 19th-century sensation Mrs. Tom Thumb—a real-life dwarf born Mercy Lavinia (Vinnie) Warren Bump—author Melanie Benjamin fully inhabits this 32-inch woman, who took a nation by storm. 

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb examines just how Vinnie became a global celebrity—a precursor to the current crop of stars who are famous for being famous. With no discernible talents other than her small stature and pleasant singing voice, Vinnie still managed to rise to unparalleled fame.

As portrayed by Benjamin, Vinnie was ambitious, business-savvy and desperate to escape her ordinary life as a Massachusetts schoolteacher. 

She accepted an invitation to join a traveling curiosity show that drifted along the Mississippi in a ramshackle steamboat. When the escalating Civil War made that too dangerous, Vinnie returned home and immediately began marketing herself to the famous P.T. Barnum. Together, they plotted her introduction to New York society as “the queen of beauty.” Their deep connection and shared love of good publicity forms the emotional center of the story. 

Even Vinnie’s 1863 marriage—to fellow dwarf General Tom Thumb—seemed more rooted in strategy than love. Benjamin depicts their relationship as cordial but platonic. Together, they traveled the world giving performances and meeting heads of state.

So how would Vinnie feel about Benjamin’s novel? 

“She’d be coming on [book] tour with me!” Benjamin says with a laugh during a call to her home in Chicago. “She would be so thrilled to see her name in the public again. She just thrived on that attention and meeting new people. I always say she’d have her own reality show if she were alive now. And a Twitter account.”

This isn’t the first time Benjamin has imagined the voice of an iconic female. In her last novel, Alice I Have Been, she wrote about life after the rabbit hole for Alice in Wonderland. 

Writing literature set in another time has its dangers—which, to Benjamin, is also its attraction.

“It does worry you,” she says of setting her stories in other periods. “You have to be very careful of language and be really concise. Say if I’m writing in the 19th century—contractions weren’t as prevalent. To me, that’s the fun part of historical fiction. Part of my nerdy-history personality helps out. I was one of those kids who on vacation loved to go to all the museums.”

Benjamin is an astonishingly self-assured writer, especially considering the fact that she didn’t start writing until her late 30s, when her two sons were in middle school.

“I just instinctively knew it would be impossible before that point,” she says. “I don’t know how young mothers do it. I was PTA president, a full-time mom, a room mother.”

It was an offhanded remark from a friend—who said she always thought Benjamin would be a writer—that spurred her to start writing essays and short stories. She began writing more after her children left for college (her oldest son just graduated from DePaul University and wants to be a comic book author, and her younger is a junior at Indiana University, who to her relief has secured himself “a nice summer job”). At this point, Benjamin does several book club appearances a week via Skype, and is embarking on a tour to support The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Book tours “take a surprisingly big amount of time,” Benjamin admits. “I’m thrilled to do them. I’m lucky to do them. I actually like it. But then, I also like putting on my sloppy writer clothes and hiding from the world. I enjoy both parts of the author life.”

Benjamin has a home office for the “hiding from the world” part of her job, but often finds herself roaming around the house with her laptop and doesn’t tie herself to one routine.

“I read. I watch movies. I go visit museums and wait for that inspiration to strike. Once I decide on a subject, I have to let it percolate for awhile and live with the character and really formulate the story and absorb the time period.”

Mission accomplished. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a fascinating story of triumph and tragedy and one person who refused to live a small life. Part biography, with a healthy dollop of artistic liberty, it is a spellbinding tale from the Gilded Age that seems more relevant now than ever.

She was one of the nation’s first celebrities— a miniature human who hobnobbed with presidents, queens and Rockefellers.  P.T. Barnum showcased her in his American Museum, and her wedding knocked news of the Civil War off the front pages of newspapers.  In a remarkable, soaring novel about 19th-century sensation Mrs. Tom Thumb—a real-life dwarf born […]

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