Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Brittany Drehobl

You guys, get ready for me to throw the book at you, because Convos with Writers is back and my new interviewee will basically convince you that the hottest club in town is your local library and you will need to HIT IT UP TODAY.

She’s a marathoner with a master degree.
A Cubs fan who also resides in the Holy Land (Wrigleyville)
A Slytherin / Feminist / Activist triple threat
She is…my favorite pink-haired librarian, Brittany Drehobl.

Let’s stop the book-throwing and start the book-talking. Onward!

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I honestly write whatever comes to me, and lately that’s been a blog recapping my Chicago Marathon and training way back in 2014 that never transitioned into anything else, some private hand journaling, some well-intentioned Tweeting, a few quarter-finished Young Adult novels, and approximately the 17th round of edits on a picture book featuring my dog, Mac.

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For the past four years, I’ve also been reviewing children’s materials -from picture books to young adult novels- for an international publication, School Library Journal.

I believe that reading widely not only makes me a better librarian, but will also make me a better writer, so can my answer be that I’m reading everything? And I read relatively quickly and often am reading multiple things at a time (I think my record is 9 books at once), so it’s hard to pin down what I’m reading at any given point in time without such a complicated answer. But if I must, I’m very slowly rereading Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar (of Holes fame) to prepare for a library program I’m planning in May, and I just started listening to Becoming Kareem by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

2. If you are a librarian, why aren’t you 75 years old with a turtleneck and glasses?!
You know, I wore the outfit you’re describing to work just the other day!

But really, I think with any group of people or profession, you’re going to find stereotypes like this one. And honestly, in almost any library, you wouldn’t be hard pressed to find an older female employee with glasses and a cardigan covered in cat hair, drinking tea while shushing you. But these days, I also don’t think you’d be hard pressed to find a young guy or woman with a hair color only found in the rainbow, rocking Doc Martens and a few tattoos. But I think I’m just one example that librarians can and should be different than what you expect, whether that means a male, another race, pink hair, whatever! Libraries and librarianship are definitely changing from those stereotypes we all know and associate with the profession, and the people you see working in libraries are changing right along with it.

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3. When did you know you were a writer?
I’ve always been a big reader ever since I learned how (and note, I don’t say I’ve always been a GOOD reader…), but the moment I began thinking of myself as writer was in 3rd grade when my teacher gave out class awards and I received Budding Author. At the time I was really bummed because my third grade self had no idea what the heck a budding author was and why I got that dumb award over something cool like Most Athletic or Funniest.

But when I walked up to accept my weird award, my teacher privately explained to me that mine was some of the best writing she’d ever seen for someone my age. I immediately started to explore my writing talent, penning some poems and even a book about a girl who got a dog for Christmas (talk about wishful thinking!). Writing quickly became a passion… and it turns out that I actually was (…am?) pretty good. I mean, I *did* get a 12/12 on my ACT essay.

4. You get to read ARCs…advanced reader copies of books BEFORE they are released to the public. You also get to give feedback on the ARC. Tell me why that’s so cool.
On a personal level it’s cool because sometimes I get to use my librarian powers to read a book I’ve been dying to get my hands on before it comes out.
Professionally, it’s really cool for a lot of reasons. As a librarian, I can decide for myself if it’s a book that’s worth ordering for my library instead of relying on what other people say in review journals. I can also decide if I should promote the book to patrons the day it comes out, and which patrons would like it, or what specific content is or isn’t in the title because, as a children’s librarian, some parents like to know that information before giving a book to their child.
But as a reviewer, it’s even cooler. I get to help influence what other librarians purchase and market based on quality, appropriateness, and inappropriateness of a text- because librarians aren’t able to read every book, so we rely really heavily on professional reviews when we purchase and market books.

In a few extreme cases, I’ve called out big issues in pre-published books that have actually gotten changed before the books went to their final printing. I’m not sure whether my reviews aided to the problematic content being altered, but it sure feels good to make those revisions to my reviews to reflect the books’ final, hopefully less problematic, edits. Either way, I know I’ve saved some libraries from purchasing some problematic material, but I’ve also gotten some great books onto the shelves where they need to be. That’s literally one of my favorite parts of this job: finding every book its reader, and every reader their book.

5. What were you like in high school?
A Hollister-wearing Hermione Granger, but with stick straight hair and no magical abilities. Really, I was a straight-A student who always did the extra credit and relished raising her hand and getting the right answer in class, who never broke the rules, was involved in way too many after school activities and sports, and who would have never dyed her hair pink.

So I’m exactly the same in a lot of ways, but I’m also completely different in others; like I’m still super nerdy and a total rule follower (…as long as the rules make sense!), but I’ve learned to say no to things I don’t have the time or energy for, and hello, my hair is PINK. That’s growing up for you!

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6. Let’s talk schedules- what kind of quality of life does a librarian have and how do you carve out time to write?
Most librarians and library staff regardless of if they are full or part time have some sort of a weekend and/or evening rotation so the library can stay open as often as it is. I personally have a pretty steady 9-5 schedule and only have to work an occasional night for special library or school events, and at least 4 weekends a year, but usually the rotation is more regular than that. One or two designated nights a week and about a weekend a month is pretty standard.

For a part timer who is possibly juggling multiple jobs (as I have a few times in the past) might be working multiple nights every week and even more weekends a month, and that can be a really rough ride.

And I’ll be honest now, I’ve been in a been of a writing rut lately. For me, I switched from a part time job to a full time job back in August and was involved with a book award committee (the Caudill, have you heard of it?), I’m still learning the ropes at work, my commute is long, so it can be hard to find the time and energy to dedicate to my personal projects. Part of me is frustrated with myself over my lack of progress with my writing and all of these excuses I just listed, but the other part thinks I need to relax.

But I have found that when I have a firm deadline with School Library Journal or one-off projects (like Convos with Writers!), I’m able to plan my days. Also utilizing a laptop, tablet, cloud storage, or even a good ole pen and notebook for my projects so I can write mobily. I have faith in myself and am persistent to a fault, though, which in the writing business, is more than half of the battle.

7. Who are your mentors? How does one identify great mentors?
I have three really great mentors, all of whom hired me for my first library internships and my first real librarian job. Especially at those first jobs they hired me for, but even after I had left, they’ve always been very supportive of me and my career and have been willing and even proactive in helping me become the best librarian I could be.

I think all you need to do to identify a great mentor is to see not only who offers you help if you say you need it, but who takes the time to guide and help you even when you don’t know you need it, and then trusts you enough to achieve your tasks, make mistakes on your own, and go over how to learn from them going forward. There’s a really fine line between guidance and control, and a good mentor will help you feel confident about your skills and the knowledge you have without making you feel like you can’t go it alone without them. You’ll know which side of the line your potential mentor stands on when you’re the one giving feedback, or they’re the one asking for help; a good mentor will make it a conversation and take your opinions into consideration no matter how far their junior in age or experience you are.

8. What music do you listen to? What is inspiring you these days?
I am all about that bass. And by bass I mean Taylor Swift.

I’ve relied heavily on Top 40 hits since I was about 10 so I still listen to everything from the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys to P!nk and Fall Out Boy to Kesha and Chance the Rapper. And Taylor Swift. Lots of Taylor Swift. I also love a bunch of old stuff I picked up from my parents and husband, like the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Fleetwood Mac.

Music is and has always been a really big influencer for me, especially when it comes to writing and working out. But I’m honestly most inspired by big issues and how they’ve affected me when I was younger and how they’re affecting young people today. Literally two of my work-in-progress young adult books could be summed up in the popular hashtags, #MeToo and #Enough. I think as long as I’m working with young people and striving to make the future better for them, I’ll keep being inspired by them and their passions and what affects them most.

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9. A student walks into a library unsure of where to go or what do to. How should they proceed?
ASK! I know it can be intimidating to approach an adult in a public place, but just go up and say “Hey, this is my first time here in a while and I was wondering what programs and services you have for a high schooler like me.” Just the fact that you asked would make any librarian worth their salt want to show you all the cool things they have for you- because believe me, they have cool things for you.

Or when all else fails, READ THE SIGNS. Librarians love to organize, and we put signs everywhere explaining everything. If you look hard enough, you’ll find a sign pointing you in the right direction for the Teen Space, the bathroom, the copy machine and computers (AND how to use them), and so much more.
And if that fails, really, just ask! Please ask!

10. How did you *know* that this was the right career for you? How did you go about creating it for yourself?
I’ve always known I wanted to work with and for kids, especially young adults, and I’ve also always had an affinity for writing and books. After I graduated college with degrees in creative writing and developmental psychology, back during the hardest years of the recession recovery, I was working as a nanny. My youngest charge was 3 years old and in preschool every other day, so when he didn’t have school I would take him to the library to get us out of the house. It was literally during a storytime while the children’s librarian was reading a book about a fire breathing dragon making popcorn that I had this epiphany where I thought to myself, “Hey, I love kids and I love books. I bet I could do this.”

Then, after a lot of research about how one becomes a librarian, getting the required masters degree in library and information science at the University of Illinois (did you know you need a graduate degree to be a librarian?!), two internships and four years of hustling, here I am! I’ve been doing the librarian thing for almost five years now, and I met Kelly (editor’s note: yep, that’s me) at my first real librarian job in Glencoe about that long ago. And that’s really what erases any doubts from my mind that being a librarian is a great fit for me: because as much as I love the book and information parts of my job, I’ve found I mostly love connecting with the people who I work with. Connecting over books and childhood and growing up creates really special bonds between people. It’s a bond I treasure and look forward to making and strengthening every day.

And as for the writing, well, I’m still working on creating that piece of my career, and I know it’s right for me because no matter how hectic life gets, it’s always something that’s on my mind; something I feel like I should be doing. And while I’ve accepted that I can only focus on one career at a time, I think now that I feel so solid in my library life, I can make some big strides in writing soon.

11. Tell me a story about a story.
My husband is one of sixteen cousins on his dad’s side, and we were recently at that grandmother’s house for Easter. I don’t know about you, but since I’m such a goody goody, I always want my significant other’s family to like me and with sixteen grandchildren and going on fourteen great-grandchildren, it’s sometimes hard to find time for special conversations with anyone, let alone the matriarch of the family.

Well, on Sunday, it happened, and Nana asked me if my husband and I went to the movies much. Though we had been a few times recently, I said that we really didn’t, but asked if she had seen anything recently that she would recommend.

She said “Love, Simon.”

I absolutely lit up from the inside out. Not only is “Love, Simon” one of the two movies my husband and I had seen recently, but I got to share with Nana not only that I adored the movie, but how I had read and reviewed the book it was based on (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli) for School Library Journal. Nana knows I am a librarian, but she didn’t know that I reviewed books for a big publication, or that “Love, Simon” was based on a book! It was so amazing to not only be able to bond on such a personal level, but to be able to share such a huge part of my life with her in a way that directly connected to something she wanted to share with me meant everything to me, especially these days that I have no living grandparents of my own. I just can’t wait to lend my copy of Simon to Nana Ronnie and have even more to discuss at our next family gathering!

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Bonus points:
What is a librarian’s pet peeve?
“It was a book with a dog on the cover with a red background and I saw it over on that shelf or maybe that shelf when I was here last year with my mom.”

Don’t worry, we will help you try to find that book and we are also very guilty of remembering the exact same non-specifics about books like location and book covers… but please don’t get mad or frustrated when we can’t find what you want or it’s not what you expected! Sometimes covers of books change in different printings (it’s why you shouldn’t judge them that way!), and sometimes the way the books are on the shelves changes when librarians add or delete items from the collection. And would you believe that sometimes, you misremember everything about the book in the first place?! I’ve definitely done it more than once.

What book should everyone read this year?
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertali
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
March Series by John Lewis

This is such an unfair question to ask me; I could go all day!

How does activism correlate to reading books?
I think it’s as simple and complicated as this: studies show that people who read have elevated levels of empathy for others. And empathy, the ability to understand how others are feeling, is the key ingredient to any kind of activism. Anyone can get loud when they’re personally wronged or inconvenienced, but it takes an empathetic person to go a step further and want to ensure that what they’ve experienced, either through their own lives or secondhand through the news or fiction, doesn’t happen to or is better for everyone else.

Not only does reading help you see more of the world and understand people who aren’t like you, but it gives you the ability to further delve into the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others and believe, no matter how alike or different they are from you, that they matter.

These days, many people favor Kindles or eReaders. What does this technology mean for libraries?
All it means is that libraries have to keep on keepin’ on, and stay on top of the technological trends! I think a lot of the population correlate libraries with books, period. But ask any librarian what their job is and sure, books fall into that, but most importantly it’s serving the community we work in and making sure our patrons get the things they need and want. So just like video didn’t technically kill the radio star, physical books are still the preferred method of a majority of readers, but that doesn’t mean libraries aren’t doing all they can to make your favorite books, movies, TV shows, and more accessible on your favorite devices.

Many libraries today lend out e books and e audiobooks, and even have apps you can download to watch popular movies, television shows, and even listen to music with your library card. And going beyond that, many libraries lend objects other than media, like puzzles, STEM kids, even seeds and cooking utensils. Definitely visit your library and see what cool things they can offer you!

What are the best free things at a library that everyone should take advantage of?
Space! No matter what library you walk into, whether you have a library card for there or another library or none at all, nobody is going to question you or what you’re doing or why you’re there (unless you’re breaking the rules); it’s one of the last indoor places in America where you don’t have to buy your right to be there and use the facilities in-house. Whether you need to work on a group project or need a warm place to spend a few hours after school or need a place to take the kid or sibling you’re babysitting, the library is a space where you should always be welcome and respected.

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A big ol’ tall book of thanks to Brittany for sharing her writer life. If you find yourself inspired by her book-reviewing, activism, library-loving life, follow her on Twitter, check her out on Instagram, and swing by her website. Then go stock your shelves with some delicious reads.

In the mean time, do us all a favor and go get yourself an almond milk latte, walk into your library, and ask for three book recommendations and a schedule of events.

Happy reading, friends.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Barbara Mahany

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How kind was life to slide Barbara Mahany into my heart? We met at a book signing for a famed Tribune food columnist years ago. We exchanged email addresses and questions. She was patient and encouraging with me. She taught me to ‘thumb slam’ with my writing (but more on that later). She penned a book (Slowing Time). Then another (Motherprayer). And she continues to weave a beautiful cord of faith and serenity into a world that can often feel wobbly and frightening.

Let’s get to chatting.

1. What do you write and what are you reading?
These days I spend a good chunk of my time writing essays from the heart. Essays from the homefront. Essays in which I slide quiet, barely noticed moments under the magnifying glass, and begin to explore, to plumb their depths, to listen to the questions they beg, and fumble toward moments of epiphany.

2. The cover art for Motherprayer is stunning- a wild wreath encircling two eggs. What can you share about this image?

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I knew I wanted a deeply of-the-earth feel. I love old etchings, and botanical drawings. It’s my fascination with biology and nature, first of all, and my leaning into nonfiction – even in art. I’d stumbled into the nesty theme in the organization of the sections of Motherprayer, and a representational drawing of a nest, one that one of the great naturalists might have jotted into field notes, it suggested the realism, the delicacy and strength of composition I was hoping for. The designer popped in the two fine eggs, and the moment I saw them I was charmed. I happen to be the mother of two boys; I’ve wondered if I were the mother of girls, would they have popped two pink eggs in my cover nest?

3. You write candidly about faith from the well of your Jewish-Christian marriage. Presently, our country is wading through turbulent political dialogue in which faith diversity and practice have come under scrutiny. What has this dialogue felt like for you?
The divisiveness in our national dialogue breaks my heart, shatters my heart more accurately. I long ago committed myself to a life of ecumenicism, of open heart, of searching for common threads, recognizing and honoring differences, but weaving, always weaving, toward union. So the dis-union of now sickens me. Because words are my daily bread, I live by a promise to not use words as sharp-edged weapons. I will speak the truth, but I try to make sure to say it in ways that employ tools of opening, not hurting or jabbing, or leaving others wincing. I find illuminating more powerful than eviscerating.

4. To write is to know rejection well. Tell me about a time when rejection was especially poignant.
Some of my toughest rejections are probably the ones that unfold in my head, as I scare myself out of even trying to play in the big kids’ playground. I’ve been working on what a friend of mine calls “the thumb slam,” that moment of distilled courage in which you hit the send key and dispatch some latest version of an unsolicited essay or article to any one of the publications we all consider Big League. I only had my first byline in The New York Times a few weeks ago. I’d twice sent essays to the motherlode blog, and twice been told, no thanks! The Times felt like a threshold to me that I might never cross. Ever since I left The Chicago Tribune, where I was a writer for almost 30 years, I’ve had to employ degrees of courage that frankly exhaust me. Since much of my writing is from the heart, a rejection of that feels like a double whammy – I always think, “Oh, my writing isn’t good enough.” And follow that with, “Oh, I guess my heart isn’t good enough either.” Ouch.

5. Motherprayer is a stirring meditation on how we love so wholly and deeply. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
I love rather deeply. I love the nooks and crannies of the human heart, in all its limitless iterations. I love plumbing the depths, finding the universal core, the story at the shining heart of whoever it is I’m writing about. When I was at the Tribune I loved the chance to discover the beauties at the heart of whomever I was writing about. It’s my abiding belief that if you listen long enough, and closely enough, you will find the pulsing story that animates each someone.
In writing about my own moments in mothering, I’m exploring and reflecting on the intricacies of my own motherheart, as deepened and expanded by the loves of my life, my two boys. I’ve been a student of the human heart my whole life. Before I was a journalist, I was a pediatric oncology nurse. And now I’m a mother. Each one of those three threads is a call to attend to the heart. Often, the undisclosed heart. The secreted-away heart. In peeling away the layers that occlude the heart from everyday notice, I’m delicately exploring, holding up to the light those shimmering marvels of humankind. Saying, this is beautiful. This hurts. This is courage. This is hopelessness. I use my pen as an instrument of precision and plumbing. Empathy is always my aim. See the beautiful. See the glory. I find it often, in nearly anyone I take the time to write about. And certainly from the front rows of mothering, I am endlessly fascinated by this up-close watch on the human heart and soul unfolding, stumbling, fumbling, getting up again and trying once again to soar…..

6. What does a perfect writing day look like for you?
A perfect writing day begins early, before dawn, when I’m the only one stirring in my old house. I write by lamplight, at the kitchen table, or at my old pine writing desk. I might take a stroll outside, sit for awhile on my garden bench. Breathe deeply. Pay attention. Scribble notes. Then, in a morning fueled by coffee, I’ll sit down with something that feels pregnant with possibility. I’ll not know exactly where I’m going, but one synapse will fire and connect to the next. And suddenly dots are connected, depths are traversed, epiphanies occur. I needn’t write all day. I just need to write well. With birdsong in the background. Or the tick-tock of an old grandfather’s clock.

7. It’s a tradition in this series to talk about sex (more specifically writing about it). What can you share?
I hate to disappoint, but I don’t write about sex, and here’s why: My husband, the Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, is a somewhat public figure who writes deeply seriously about architecture and design. That he happens to be married to me, a journalist who has veered into the realm of first-person essay writing, does not mean he should be subjected to the exposures I’ve made part of my regular writing landscape. So our unspoken agreement is that I don’t write about him or the intimacies of our life together – and by that I mean our conversations, his dreams, our struggles; the whole landscape of anything from his private realm is considered out of bounds. Of course I honor that.

8. Let’s hear some of your goals, the wilder, the better.

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More than anything I wanted to become a wise old lady. One whose kitchen table was always open for business – for the business of hearts being shared, stories unfurled, and wisdom swapped back and forth. I would love to write essays that stir upon impact and that linger, leave a mark. New York Times bylines would be lovely. Essays for NPR. More books if I think I have anything worth saying. I’d love to study poetry in a more rigorous setting – a class, a poetry seminar, or years-long tutorial with a mentor/teacher. Teaching writing in small groups, or leading conversations into the depths of the sacred, of the human heart – preferably in a breathtaking, bucolic setting (I’ll soon be teaching in an old farmhouse on a magnificent Midwest farm), with a rooster crowing in the not-so distance.

9. You were a pediatric oncology nurse, an occupation that must have felt so heavy on the heart. What lessons have you carried from that time?
The truth of my years as a pediatric oncology nurse was that I learned from “the kids, my kids” a true lightness of the heart. Kids with missing limbs, not a hair on their heads, with tubes inserted here and there, those kids laughed and joked and – most days – made you forget they were stricken with cancer. I wasn’t yet a mother when I worked at Children’s, but the devotion of the mothers and fathers took my breath away every time. These were mothers who never left their sick child’s bedside, yet somehow managed to be there for their other kids as well. I marveled at how they awoke at the barest whisper, how they kept vigil through every needle stick and poke and prod. I held mothers as they wept. They taught me, day after day, what love looks like, how it’s lived. I learned of course how precious each and every day is. And I learned that you never ever know when your life is about to be turned on its head. And how you can take on anything, any thing, life throws at you. And you can laugh along the way, and stitch each day with joy and tenderness, and love that will not die.

10. When were you most proud?
In my writing life, the moments that most glimmer in my memory include my first byline in The Chicago Tribune, when I was still in journalism school, (and waiting at midnight at the corner of Fullerton and Lincoln for the Tribune delivery truck to lumber along, and the driver to leap out and load the stack of next-day papers in the news box) and my recent byline in The New York Times Book Review, which I never thought I’d see. I loved most that it was an essay about my firstborn’s boyhood books, and how deeply those books were etched into my heart. It was the perfect first NYT byline. But just as lastingly, it’s the moments when someone will write me, or come up to me, and tell me that they’ve cut one of my stories out of the newspaper, and tucked it in a wallet, or a bedside table, or into a kitchen “stash” drawer, and over the years, they’ve read and re-read it. To know that your words reached so deep into someone’s heart, that’s pure blessing. It’s why I write: to put words to the whispers – the heartaches and anguish and loneliness and, yes, ineffable love – in all our hearts. To say, in words, we’re not alone.

11. Tell me a story about a story.
One night, many summers ago, I was driving down Western Avenue when I glanced toward the side of the road, and saw a bent old man covered in pigeons. Pigeons on his head, his shoulders, his outstretched arms, his lap, his shoes. I wasted no time in pulling a Chicago-U (right turn to right turn up the alley, then two more rights, and back to where I’d just passed) and sure enough there he still was, the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square. A thousand questions tumbled forth: Who was this, why was he there, was he always there? Why weren’t the birds afraid? How open was his heart?
I circled back the next day. Waited near the fire hydrant. Wandered into nearby storefronts, started asking questions. Right away, I heard the stories. Oh, the Pigeon Man, you mean? And then the who-what-where, as well. He was a regular in the streetscape theater. He followed a daily rhythm. He’d be coming soon, sure as the sun would reach high noon. So I wandered to the bus stop, and I waited. Sitting back away from the curb, so as not to pounce. The bus lurched to the stop, off stepped the bent little man, his janitor’s pants a few sizes too big, cinched by a too-long belt, his satchel weighing down his shoulder, giving him a lopsided gait. I absorbed the posture of the pigeons – I held back, kept a respectful distance at first, gained his trust, then inched closer in. I asked questions, he began to answer. The more solemnly I listened, the more he bared. He took me, proudly, to his neat-as-a-pin room, in the attic of a bungalow a few bus stops away. He showed me his meticulous method for feeding the pigeons, the dearest, most loyal companions in his long and rough-hewn life.
I wrote his story for The Chicago Tribune. He laminated half a dozen copies and carried them in his ever-present satchel. Two years later, the day he was struck by a van and died on the sidewalk along the busy city street, he was clutching a laminated copy of that story. And that’s how the Chicago cops came to call me to ask if there was anyone in the world – besides me – who might want to know that Joe Zeman, the Pigeon Man of Lincoln Square, had just died.

(Editor’s note: WOW)

Bonus points:

What children’s book is forever imprinted on your heart?
The Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales, breathtakingly illustrated by one of the 20th-century’s great illustrators. In my mind’s eye I can still see page after page, each one an invitation into the depths of imagination. And, just as breathtakingly, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, also illustrated by Tasha Tudor.

Special thanks to Barbara for sharing her words and heart with us today.
Pick up Motherprayer.
Follow Barbara on Twitter.
Read her stunning essay for The New York Times here.

But most of all, carry her lovely energy out the door and plant yourself a word garden. Let your writing grow into something more.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

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Photos courtesy Barbara Mahany

Convos with Writers: 11 Questions with Wendy Altschuler

Imagine surfing in El Salvador
Kayaking in Big Sky, Montana
Strolling atop the Burj Khalifa in Dubai
Wandering the markets of Hong Kong
Traversing a glacier in Iceland
Practicing yoga in Mexico

Now imagine that you’re paid to do this. More specifically, paid to write about it.

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Such is the life of travel writer and world adventurer Wendy Altschuler. She’s vibrant, zestful, and stunningly beautiful inside and out. Simply put, Wendy’s the kind of luminous go-getter that will inspire you to grab a bag and run into life’s next big moment. But more so she will passionately convey the notion of being a good person, exuding confidence, and throwing yourself out of your comfort zone.

Also have you ever seen a cooler photo than this?

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Yeah, that’s what I thought. Let’s get chatting!

1. What do you write and what are you reading?
The anomalous thing is that, even though I’m a travel and lifestyle writer, writing is not my passion. My passion is learning about other folks’ passions—exploring the “how” and “why”. For me, writing is a means to an end. I get the biggest rush out of discovering the behind-the-scenes story of how a woman owned and operated bakery came into fruition after years of setbacks; or why a cubicle-tied, working professional decided to leave a hard-earned career to start a surfing retreat for solo travelers; or why a grandmother decides to skydive over 1,500 times, even after friends died practicing the sport; or why a master sommelier decided to write an entire book on one specific, tiny region in Argentina that makes Malbec wines.
When I was younger I felt sort of sorrowful that I could never be an expert of many things and that really knowing how to do something well takes a lot of time and energy. So, I’ve found great happiness in a career that allows me to see slices of life, cut from many amazing—and diverse—human beings, that have done the hard work, made the effort and took risks to live out loud and declare, “Why not me?” I have the amazing opportunity to learn from, and be inspired by, story-worthy mavens with all sorts of dreamy backgrounds and know-how.
I’m glad you also asked what I’m reading because I truly think you can’t be a great writer without also being a fervent reader. I get really excited about books, which leads to reading multiple titles at the same time.
Anyway, currently, I’m reading “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan; Ronda Rousey’s “My Fight Your Fight”; Amy Schumer’s “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo” and, because hiking the Appalachian Trail on a thru-hike with my boys is on my bucket list, Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

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2. Your Instagram account is a dreamy lens into our world’s landscape. Tell me about a place that took your breath away.
In 2016 I visited seven countries (including Mexico three times) and each experience was, of course, incredible and offered an inimitable experience. I was the most surprised by Hong Kong, however, because I knew, or thought I knew, so much about it prior to visiting and my expectations didn’t align with the actual experience. After all, isn’t this why we travel—to be blown away, to see the world through a kaleidoscope lens, to learn a new truth? I loved how accessible nature was and how, even though the population swells to well over seven million people, it’s easy to find peace and beauty within the urban landscape. The food was incredible, the street markets were insane and detonating with life, and it was super easy to get around—the public transportation was clean, efficient and wicked fast.

3. What does a travel writer’s schedule look like- and is it really that glamorous?!
I always say, the writing is the easy part. The challenge, the meat of it all, is all of the hard work that goes into what happens before and after something gets published—pitch letters, interviews, building relationships with PR/Media companies, fielding a ridiculous amount of press releases and e-mails, following up and keeping everything (and everyone) straight, constant promotion and social media campaigning, freelance reimbursement record keeping, etc. It’s a lot. And, because I’m often working on multiple projects at once, that are in various stages of development, I have to be well-organized and have a clear picture of the process from beginning to end.

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4. To write is to know rejection well. What can you share about being rejected?
Often we take rejection so personally, and how can we not when we’re invested in something? What I’ve learned is that—assuming you’ve done your homework, and have done your best to direct your concepts to the appropriate objectives—rejection rarely has anything to do with you, your talent or your ideas and it usually has everything to do with what is needed at the moment or with what a publisher/editor has envisioned. I’ve also learned that if you raise your hand, put your heart-felt aspirations out there, and live with an ethos dependent on integrity, the universe will provide—in spades.

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5. What locations should everyone have on their bucket lists?
I think that everyone should visit somewhere, anywhere, alone—at least once. When you travel solo you’re much more aware of your surroundings, you’re more willing to make eye contact and talk to locals, you really appreciate your loved ones back at home and you leave the experience with a certain confidence and trust in yourself that you didn’t have before.

6. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?

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When I became a mom 10 *cough* years ago, I became very aware of how I was influencing my boys (I have three adorable feral creatures). I want them to see me as someone that’s gritty and brave, someone that doesn’t shy away from experiences that are petrifying (hello, skydiving, trapeze, skiing after injury, roller derby, urban rappelling, solo travel, running half marathons…) and these adventures are all ones that I write about and often bring my boys along to witness or experience themselves. I also adore my husband, Scott, a man I’ve known exactly half of my life. I use him as a sounding board for my ideas and he’s the one that pushes me to follow through. Scott is my living journal and the one that will remember our intertwined life through a different perspective, which makes me incredibly lucky.

7. It’s a tradition in this series to talk about sex (more specifically writing about it). What can you share?
I once contributed to Parents magazine on how sexy I felt in my body when I was pregnant—well, at least that’s how I felt the first time when everything was newfangled. I loved how my shape morphed and matured and I was able to let all of my body insecurities go—that reckless noise that so many women allow to grow loud. I felt comfortable in my skin. Turns out, being confident and loving the skin you’re in is super sexy to your partner as well! Now, that’s a good recipe for searing sex.

8. Biggest, wildest dream for yourself?
Jim Carrey gave a commencement speech a few years ago that really stuck with me because he said, “I did something that makes people present their best selves to me wherever I go.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if you chose a path in life that inevitably brought others delight and happiness, so much so that you are constantly met with respect, kindness and love? It’s selfish really, but the result of making others feel good is that you too feel good. My wildest dream for myself: be an agent of joy.

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9. If someone wants to be a travel writer, how should they get started?
Travel. Write. Read. Repeat. If you want to be a writer, of any kind, write. Eventually, one clip will lead to a bigger clip, which will lead to bigger clips. Also, read the kind of stuff you want to be writing and surround yourself with other writers and creatives.

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10. When were you most proud?
I think I was the proudest when I realized that I could do big things and have the kind of life that everyone deserves—one full of love, adventure, friendship, success and happiness. I was raised in an exceptionally poor family that deeply struggled in heartbreaking ways and, because I didn’t have a safety net or support of any kind, I had to claw my way out of that story and be an advocate for myself. I had to go after things with a scrappy “fake it till you make it” sort of methodology because, even though I believed I would probably fail, I couldn’t leave anything on the table or to chance. There’s great power in being completely responsible for your own happiness, your own life, and not displacing sadness, fear or anger onto the cards you were dealt or onto someone else. Also, misery loves company but that doesn’t mean you have to visit.

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11. Tell me a story about a story
After sweating it out on the tarmac for hours, waiting for Chicago to get its weather act together, (our plane) finally took off; circled Chicago, circled Detroit, and then *groan* turned around and headed right back to Toronto. I sat on that plane for six hours, thus missing my next flight to Finland.
By the time I learned the Chicago flight was cancelled and I’d be stuck in Toronto for two-TWO-days, it was 1:00 a.m. and there were zero hotels with a room available. This unpredictable travel adventure has taught me some great lessons:
1. When someone says they can’t help you and that X is all they can do, ask someone else…keep asking.
2. Someone always has it worse! There were several babies and children on the plane, elderly and folks that didn’t clearly understand French or English.
3. When you’re in the millionth line the next day, with a horrible headache, and you’ve just slept in a hard chair at the airport, it’s ok to hop the long line and go through first if an agent is waving you up—w/o Priority status—for your rebooking. (Lesson: you don’t know what every traveler went through, you’re not being slighted and the person might have a legitimate reason for cutting-they may not have carelessly slept in or possessed poor time management, like I’ve thought before.)
4. An act of kindness or a friendly face can go a long way—the adorable and funny ticket agent actually made me tear up when she joked with me, after a long day of frustration and disappointment.
5. Pack light-possessions are an extreme burden when you’re an airport nomad.
6. Invest in PacSafe RDIF gear so if you do pass out, your stuff is safe and you won’t get your identity swiped/stolen.
7. Always pack protein snacks and a refillable water bottle.
8. Appreciate the people in your life that will talk you off the ledge, keep you company over the phone so you’re not lonely, and work it out with you, even at 1 a.m. (Thank you, Scott Altschuler, I love you!)
9. Keep your contact case/solution, hand lotion, Chapstick, a shawl or snugly sweater and wet wipes (for emergency “showers”) in your carry on.
10. All in all, take flight cancellations/changes in stride; be patient; do all that you can, as quickly as you can; communicate with people that were depending on you to make your flight or connection and try not to worry about what you have zero control over.

Many thanks to Wendy for her worldly candor and cogent advice for those writing and hoping to travel-and-write. Here’s a little link love:

Salivate over Wendy’s Instagram account
Check out her website for clips/bio

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(as you fan yourself with wanderlust, peep these bonus points)

Wendy’s secret tip for packing:
Figure out what you want to pack and then leave 25% of it home. I also pack some clothes that I intend on donating or trashing, which leaves room in my suitcase for souvenirs.

Her best airport meal:
One that involves a glass of wine or salty margarita.

Go out and explore, friends. Write it all down.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Nathan Bransford

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If you are in the writer world, then you already know of Nathan Bransford. His website/blog is lauded with awards from Writers Digest. He is a former literary agent and CNET social media manager. His tips for querying are recommended by some of the biggest names in books (ahem, Veronica Roth). He penned a trilogy of middle grade novels, and speaking of novels he literally wrote the book on them. Exhibit A: How to Write a Novel by Bransford himself

(Editor’s note: not only is this on my bookshelf, but it’s relatable and readable in just one day. Highly recommend).

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Nathan was game for a convo so sit up in that seat and get ready to hear some good ol’ fashioned storytelling from a guy who knows just about everything when it comes to books but can still cry about a good rejection.

And away we go…

1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I’m currently working on a young adult novel, in addition to my blog about writing and publishing. I recently finished reading Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, which was fantastic by the way.

2. For years your website has consistently been named to the list of ‘Best Websites for Writers’ by Writer’s Digest. Assuming you don’t scroll your own posts, where do you go to get help or inspiration for your writing?
I mainly get my inspiration from my own writing and from the editing projects I’ve tackled over the years. I try to hone in as much as possible on what works and what doesn’t so I can develop “rules” that will help me see my own work more objectively in the future.

3. You used to be a literary agent. Talk to me about all the times your name has been misspelled (and other pet peeves, natch).
Oh man. That’s assuming they even got my name right entirely. I kept track on query salutations one time and fully 23% of the people who queried me got it wrong. And it’s the absolute easiest thing to get right!!

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4. Tell me about rejection.
I was an agent when I was submitting Jacob Wonderbar to agents, and a part of me thought it was going to be a walk in the park. I mean, I was an agent! I knew a bunch of agents! Then all the agents I knew rejected me.
Thankfully Catherine Drayton took me on, then she submitted it to editors. I had submitted tons of books to editors so naturally I thought I would be super cool out on submission. Two weeks and a dozen rejections later I was awake at 2am on a hotel room floor in the fetal position. But eventually I got a few offers and chose to go with Penguin. Then when Jacob Wonderbar was getting reviewed I found out a certain publication accused me of stereotyping and I was sobbing in a cab.
Rejection is constant and I don’t think it really gets easier. You just have to suffer through it to get to the good stuff.

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5. How did you come up with the idea for Jacob Wonderbar? Have you always wanted to write Middle Grade?
The idea for Jacob Wonderbar just came to me one day, I didn’t set out to write a Middle Grade novel. I imagined this kid stuck on a planet full of substitute teachers, and from there, I just kept building the world around that kid.

6. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
My friends and family. I haven’t yet written a character who is based on a single person, but there are little snippets in there everywhere.

7. It’s a tradition in this series to ask about writing sex scenes. What can you share?
That I’m terrified of my mom reading one I’ve written.

8. Biggest, wildest dream for yourself?
I’d like to earn enough from writing that I could own a brownstone in Brooklyn and “rent” the in-law apartment downstairs for free to a promising novelist working on their debut.

9. Writing a novel feels so overwhelming yet you (literally) wrote the book on how to do it. What advice you share to ease a first time writer’s fears?
Embrace the right kind of fear! Fear how upset you’ll be if you don’t ever write your novel more than you fear feeling crazy for trying to write one.

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10. Let’s talk about the cover art for the Jacob Wonderbar series.
I was ridiculously lucky that Penguin chose Christopher Jennings to do the illustrations. In fact, I had originally described Dexter differently than Christopher drew him, but I liked Christopher’s illustrations so much I changed Dexter’s description to match the illustrations.

11. Tell me a story about a story.
There once was a storied story named “Story,” which was written on the 15th story.

Bonus points:
How many book ideas or half-drafts of novels are laying around your hard drive?
My hard drive is 95% story ideas, 5% actual novels.
Least favorite word?
Hack, in pretty much every usage possible.

Humble thanks to Nathan for sharing so candidly (even about sex scenes which one day his mom might read).

Peruse Nathan’s popular blog
Follow him on Instagram
Also on Twitter
He’s even on Facebook
Purchase his books
And be a good person (just because)

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.
***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Lisa Jakub

You already know Lisa Jakub and that’s okay.

You know her from her work in Mrs. Doubtfire or Independence Day or maybe even George Lucas in Love, that viral video before ‘viral’ was actually a thing. She’s a face you grew up with and there’s probably a part of you that recalls a sweet childhood or family memory when you see her face. And that’s adorable.

But Lisa Jakub has left the film world and she’s done so gladly. Nowadays she strolls a path of vivid authenticity as a writer/ writing instructor and her words are wildly refreshing. I invite you to put the Lisa you-think-you-know on a shelf, and get ready to meet a remarkable, down-to-earth, and absolutely exquisite writer.

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?

My first book is a memoir called You Look Like That Girl. It’s about growing up as a child actor, and my decision to leave Hollywood to search for a life that felt more authentic to me. I am currently finishing up my second book, which is about anxiety, depression and panic attacks. It’s my story of dealing with a panic disorder and interviews with other people who are struggling. I also look at the latest research on what works to make life a little easier for those of us with mood disorders. This book is grounded in love and humor and it feels like we’re just sitting over coffee and talking about specific ideas we can try so we feel a little better. I’ve read a lot of anxiety books by doctors and that’s great – but this more accessible, honest approach is what I wish I had when I was at my darkest point.

As for what I’m reading, right now it’s Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Meltonand The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

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2. Your book You Look Like That Girl opens with a scene of you being coiffed by a team of stylists only to have producers look you over and announce that you ‘just weren’t pretty enough.’ This rejection felt so gutting. What has rejection taught you?

Rejection feels brutal and you just want to crawl under a bridge and stay there. But rejection is inevitable if you are getting out in the world and trying things. It can also clarify your priorities. For me, being told I wasn’t pretty enough helped me to realize that those values didn’t align with what I wanted to be doing with my life. It reinforced that I needed to retire from acting and figure out what I really wanted to be contributing to the world.

When I found my passion in writing, I didn’t suddenly become immune to rejection. The first time I submitted the memoir manuscript to an agent, he said I should just ditch the whole project because no one would be interested in a ‘celebrity memoir’ that didn’t have rehab, orgies, and car crashes. This time, my reaction was different. That rejection spurred me on. I wanted to prove him wrong because I believed there was a place for a book that showed who actors really are – just people with jobs. I wanted to talk about the fact it’s okay to change your mind and change your life if it’s not fulfilling, no matter who you are.

I really should send that agent a copy of the book and thank him, because his rejection was very motivating for me.

3. Best book you’ve ever read?

That question is unanswerable, it’s like choosing a favorite child. I will say that The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt recently rocked my world. As did Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I reread John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany every other year. Everything Zadie Smith writes leaves me weak in the knees. Brene Brown’s work speaks to a deep truth that I need to have drilled into my brain on a daily basis. That’s not one book, but it’s the shortest response I can offer. I’m sorry.

4. Anxiety is deeply personal for you. What should people know about it?

(It) is real and it’s not shameful. We need to start thinking about mental health issues the way we think about physical health issues. No one would ever say they should just ‘get over’ cancer, or think they got appendicitis because they’re weak. And yet, many of us feel like we need to deal with our mental wellness alone. But if we are brave enough to be honest, there is help available and things can get better. I really struggle with feeling like I’ll never fit in, but I now have a whole toolbox of tactics to deal with my anxiety. Mostly I’ve learned acceptance and love and gratitude. That’s made all the difference.

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5. When were you most proud?  

Ugh. I find being proud to be very difficult. I think this can be a hard thing for women in general but add to that the fact that I’m Canadian and I take humble to the point of obnoxious. But it’s important to acknowledge your accomplishments, especially in our society that keeps moving the bar so we are often striving for unobtainable goals.

I do speaking events at colleges, high schools and conferences. When someone comes up to me afterward to tell me that something I said resonated with them, that they related and they want to share their story – it hits me right in the feels. I also love the community that I’ve cultivated around my blog and social media sites, that direct communication with my readers is so meaningful to me. When we can connect and feel less alone, there is not much better than that.

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6. Writing about sex can be so awkward. Talk to me about it.  

After my grandmother told me that she wanted to pick up ‘that book with the shades of grey’ I stopped thinking sex was taboo. I think if there is something I really find awkward to write about, that is exactly what I should be writing about. Shame is a dangerous thing, it locks us up in the basement and keeps us from engaging with the world. So, the more shameful something feels, the more I know I need to write about it.

I wrote a blog post about my decision to be child-free and didn’t post it for years. But when I finally did, the response was fantastic and supportive. We tend to think that everyone is going to think we are weird if we get vulnerable and real, but actually, it empowers other people to do the same.

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?  

My dog, Grace, was always a huge part of my writing process. She was a rescue, we adopted her as a senior from the shelter, and she was my guru and my muse. She passed away three months ago, and I’m still trying to figure out life without her. It’s strange to write without her curled up under my desk. But the lessons she taught me, about resilience and love and devotion will be part of my work, and my soul, forever.

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8. You are a dedicated yogi. Tell me three reasons why I should start practicing.

I try not to be a crazy proselytizing yogi, so I’ll tell you why I practice and you can decide for yourself.

(1) It is the most important thing I’ve done to get a handle on my anxiety and depression (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is also way up there.) It taught me how to stop constantly obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. It taught me many lessons about presence and acceptance that translate off the mat – making me more courageous and capable in the real world.

(2) Physically, I’m in the best shape of my life – and since I’m creeping up on forty, that’s a big deal. I broke my back when I was eleven years old and was plagued with lingering issues and pain. But that all changed seven years ago when I walked into a yoga studio. I couldn’t touch my toes, but that didn’t matter. Yoga is for everybody – you start wherever you are. I hear people say all the time that they are not strong/flexible so they can’t do yoga. Yoga is how you get strong/flexible. There are no prerequisites – if you can breathe, you can do yoga.

(3) I found the community I always wanted. My yoga studio is like home, I walk in and I’m welcomed regardless of what kind of day I’m having. It’s my safe space. I have laughed louder and cried harder in that studio than anywhere else. No one cares if you look cute or if you fall down on your face and stay there because you are just too tired to get back up. It’s a place where it is totally okay to be yourself.

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9. You have gone from high school dropout to writing instructor. What’s your encouragement for others who are on a difficult writing journey?

I think all journeys are difficult, just by the definition of being a journey. If you are growing and following those things that make you feel sparked up, it’s inevitably going to put you in new and difficult situations. I think it’s a powerful practice to get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you choose to not run away even when it gets challenging, yes, you are risking failure. But I realized that I would rather fail than quit – because at least failure is brave. One of my yoga teachers says, if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. The ‘comfort zone’ is boring. I’m all in favor of growth and change – even when it feels a little scary. Maybe especially then.

10. Who are your mentors?  

I don’t have official mentors, but there are several women in my life who I look to for inspiration and encouragement. I started a little writing group and those folks prop me up when things feel overwhelming. I have friends – singers and illustrators and podcasters and writers and teachers – who are doing spectacular things with their lives and they remind me to keep doing what I love. My husband is my constant support and he believes in me even in the moments when I am uncertain. I gather strength from all of them.

11. Tell me a story about a story:  

When I was six years old, I learned how to tell a good story by sitting on the diving board of my grandmother’s pool. Every night, Gramma would swim laps before bed while I perched on the edge with my toes dangling in the water. I told her stories that mostly centered around the nocturnal adventures of the owl statue that sat in her garden.

After the swim, Gramma would dry off and critique the story. She was particularly qualified for this, as she had come up through the newspaper world in the 1940s, a gutsy ‘Girl Friday’ broad who demanded to be paid the same as her male coworkers. Gramma taught me about foreshadowing and conflict and character development. She’d tell me the parts of my story that she loved and the parts where she lost track of the plot line. There was no coddling, she never gave praise when it wasn’t due. I’d nod and thoughtfully furrow my brow and consider how I could refine the owl’s story for tomorrow night’s swim.

I don’t have an MFA, I don’t really have any writing education at all – she was the best writing program I could have had.

BONUS POINTS:
Who makes the best yoga pants?

The best yoga pants are the ones that actually get you to do yoga. I don’t care about pricey yoga gear – my stuff comes from Target or Marshalls.

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High-five to Lisa for being game for this interview and for giving me a reason to get back into child’s pose.

-Peruse Lisa’s writing, blog posts, and speaking engagements at her website.
-Purchase her book You Look Like That Girl
-Follow her on Twitter: @Lisa_Jakub
-Marvel her yoga poses via Instagram: @LisaJakub108

Namaste, friends.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions With Sari Wilson

When I first heard of the novel Girl Through Glass, I remembered the sheen of my dance tights. I recalled the tight bun coiled on top of my head, the sweat dripping down my spine, and the dinners scarfed in the car as my mother shuffled me from one class to the next.

“A young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet—a story of obsession and the quest for perfection, trust and betrayal, beauty and lost innocence.” (HarperCollins)

This, my friends, is the wonderful, demanding world of ballet as told by debut novelist Sari Wilson. It is a world that no dancer forgets. I met Sari this past February during a Chicago stop on her book tour and our conversation grew and unfolded from there. I’m humbled and thrilled to welcome her words to Convos with Writers.

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?

I am reading Dana Spiotta’s new book (Innocents and Others) and a very interesting, sweet book: Terez Mertes Rose’s Outside the Limelight. Rose writes ballet novels- it’s a genre that she champions and there are a growing number of them. She was a professional dancer and writes of two sisters joined by love as well as this destructive competition.

2. I have ballet shoes buried in a drawer. I can’t give them up, they make me feel like a dancer. Tell me the ways in which you still feel like a ballerina.

Probably too many ways because I’m in my 40s now and I haven’t taken class in 25 years! The training really imprints on you. I also have my pointe shoes in a drawer! It’s so interesting to think- what is that about? Why I am still obsessed with ballet? For one, I’ve always been very concerned with form and the perfection of form whether in writing (I worked on this novel for a long time!) or trying to understand the form of a novel and how it works with readers. Second, ritual and repetition with dancing- you never really arrive, you know? You hit a pose once but then there’s another class the next day. You keep going onto the next thing. That’s been helpful as a writer and life in general. I’m relentless about process.

3. What are three books that have stayed with you (over time)?

A Tale For The Time Being (by Ruth Ozeki). It helped me finish my edits as it tells two story lines that time-travel. Ozeki also evokes a great experience. She’s a Zen priest and I have an interest in Buddhism so I was into that filter, that way of looking at the world. J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (which came out a decade ago)- I read and re-read it. It’s the moral complexity of a man falling from grace and repairing his life- it’s beautiful. My good friend Zoe Zolbrod, her memoir The Telling which I read in manuscript and final form. It’s arranged around her experience of being sexually abused but truly it’s about her memory and response and how what happens to you as a child stays with you over time.

4. You write about an enormously revered real-life ballet icon: George Balanchine. What is the challenge in writing fiction about someone that exists/existed?

Enormous and very scary for me- I avoided it for a long time. For one, historical records are important (you must get it right). In a sense there is historical fiction in my book so one has an obligation as a writer to equate oneself with authenticity. Secondly, sensitivity to the complexity of human beings- when I created the character of Mira and began writing about her ambition, rise, and obsession with ballet, I had to have her go to School of American Ballet which was the center of the ballet universe. I needed her to go there and did a lot of interviews with girls who went to that school and danced for that company. I read memoirs of Balanchine dancers. I also took a graduate level seminar on George Balanchine. On publication deadline, I was sending those scenes to my contacts who had been there in those dance classes asking- did I get it right?!  Some feedback I got: “Yes, you got it right but she wouldn’t wear those kind of shoes, she would wear soft-soled shoes.”

5. What is success for a writer?

Well first there is commercial success and that’s about numbers. Beyond that, success for a writer is starting to look like communicating with readers- you know, finding an audience. The act of connecting with readers is so powerful. It’s sort of like preparing a large feast and inviting people to come over- you are sad if no one comes! You want people to enjoy the feast. Readers talk to me about (my characters) Kate and Mira as if they were meaningful and real in their lives- it’s very special. It’s why so many writers write and readers read- we’re all in on the intimacy of creating worlds together. And all writers start out as readers.

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6. Writing sex scenes…tell me about your process.

I don’t think there is one process. For me, the sex scenes in my novel grow out of the characters’ realities. Sex is just a part of human experience. One sexual act is going to be different from another because we’re all just different. We look for different things in sex, we understand our sexual reality really differently. In this book (the characters of) Kate and Mira are coming of age in the ballet world and at the time the focus was the child-like body (puberty becomes vilified for girls). What happens to normal sexual development is that it’s thwarted and repressed. It looks unhealthy and damaging and I was interested in charting that. For these characters, it has some disastrous consequences.

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?

Well, I would start with my family. My husband is a cartoonist and we’ve been together 25 years. My daughter is 9 years old. I love my parents, who gave me a loving childhood. I have three brothers- a big and close family. Loving people very deeply has taught me compassion and to try to understand other people’s realities without judgment. I take that into my fiction. My characters are not always good people but my job is to understand their reality. That feels like an act of love.

8. To write is to know rejection. Tell me about a time when rejection was poignant for you.

In the early days of trying to write this novel, my attempts were rejected. I applied for a number of grants and was rejected by them all. I was even rejected from a class I tried to get into from a writer I that greatly admired. It was important- I had to decide if I was going to continue with this material which felt frivolous then. It would have been easy to abandon.

9. You have some naughty, nefarious characters. How much of real life bleeds into the creation of said characters?

I am a fiction writer so fiction allows me to move in a parallel sphere, which is so wonderful. In my daily life I’m a well-balanced parent and professional and I value those things. But in my fictional world I am fascinated with human extremity and excess. I don’t understand that relationship but I write the opposite of my life. I ask myself- What does this tell me? What does it say about US? Our world is filled with examples of people who are nefarious and abhorrent. I’m into it from a fictional perspective.

10. When were you most proud?

You know what’s gonna come to mind? When I saw my daughter in The Nutcracker last year! I kept her out of dance because of my complicated history but she auditioned on her own for her school’s program. With no background at all she got in, treated it seriously, and she (with all the children) were just beautiful. Seeing them love movement and music  was really very moving. Also when Girl Through Glass was finally published- that was immense. And these things happened at the same time!

11. Tell me a story about a story

The very unlikely story of ballet in America. I just think this is fascinating: There was a series of coded movements that arose in the Renaissance courts of Europe and they ended up in St. Petersburg. Then the Russian revolution happened and many of the dancers that were trained in this tradition of movements left and were exiled. They were exposed to many other artistic influences- Modernism, the avant garde, etc.. When WWII struck  these dancers and choreographers spread all over the world. Many came to America. These ex-patriot Russians set down roots in America and in doing so created a cultural institution of America and American childhood. That’s the story of ballet in America. It’s rather unlikely. I mean, how many millions of girls and boys has it affected? It’s part of American childhood!

Bonus Points:
What are your quirks? I really like tea. I have a tea obsession, love tea shops. Would be so happy to spend all afternoon in a tea shop.

How does a character become named? It’s a process- kind of a long one. I start working on that character but as I’m moving along the character shifts, changes, and becomes more complex- often the name doesn’t feel right. So I change it. A character might go through 3 or 4 names. I just intuitively feel that it’s right when the name just sticks.

Graceful thanks to Sari for her candor and extraordinary commitment to getting the ballet world just right- I am still reeling from her incredible story about the history. Just remarkable.

Follow Sari on Twitter and Facebook.
Buy her incredible book ‘Girl Through Glass’ here.
Visit her website.
Learn about the revered George Balanchine here.

Pictured above: novel cover art submitted by Ms. Wilson; author photo credit: Elena Seibert

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself: KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Bethany Neal

When I was 17 I was reallllly into headbands, Green Day CDs, and Doc Martens. Oh and I regularly took style cues from Tracy Flick. Ah memories!

But here’s what sticks from that time: the power of a crush, the tight bond of friendships, and the deep, frustrating awkwardness of having zero self-confidence. In short? It is so hard to really ‘get’ teenagers.

Enter someone who does: sweet Bethany Neal, YA author of My Last Kiss and Halloween enthusiast (so we’re practically gothic, spooky soul mates, ya’ll).

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Yeah, she’s cooler than an ice cream cone. So before things get all melt-y let’s dive in.

1. What do you write and what are you reading? I write YA with a little dark side and a lot of kissing. I love writing anything that dangles a lingering question in front of the reader like a juicy carrot. It’s always so much fun to keeping secrets from readers! I read what I write (which is great advice for all writers). So lots of mysteries, darker contemporary stories, predestined love stories. For me, a good book is all about character voice. Right now I’m reading Nova Ren Suma’s 17 & Gone.

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2. Talk to me about the influence of music. Music is huge for my writing process. I actually got the idea for My Last Kiss from a Metric song called “Help, I’m Alive”. I watch a lot of music videos to get inspired, too. They’re like little mini movies that pique my storytelling feelers because a song is only a couple minutes long. After I watch a video that exercises good storytelling, I always get this itching in the back of my brain that there’s more to the story. And, if I’m lucky, I start to fill in the blanks and begin fleshing out a new novel. I’m constantly trying to find meaning behind the story a song tells to me.

3. What books shaped your childhood? Anything R.L. Stine. I am addicted to dark and spooky! Also, the Baby-Sitter’s Club books. My friends and I were obsessed! Claudia was my favorite. (Editor’s note: I call BS; everyone knows Stacey was the best)

4. Who are your mentors? Hmm, this is a tough question. I had a couple very successful authors very generously (and randomly) be kind enough to read my work before I even landed my agent. They helped me immensely with character voice and story construction. I will be forever in debt to them, but I don’t necessarily keep in close touch with them the way I would a true mentor.

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5. Wildest dream/goal you have for yourself? I have always, from day one, wanted to be interviewed in Entertainment Weekly or to have them review one of my novels. That magazine is, no joke, one of the top reasons I started writing. They write how my brain thinks. (As for) dream: Walk a red carpet.

6. Tell me about writing sex scenes. I’m a fan of sensory details over physical. Sex scenes and fights scenes are actually quite similar in that respect. It’s a lot more entertaining to be inside the character’s head as opposed to reading an instruction of what’s happening. I’m also a huge fan of the fade-to-black fake out. What I mean by that is the author ends a chapter just as things get steamy. This happens a lot in movies just as the couple hits the bed. The fabulous luxury books have is being able to go back in the next chapter via the character’s memory of the moment. This is almost better than an in-the-moment sex scene because we not only get the rose-colored glasses view (always more sultry) but we also feel redeemed because we thought we weren’t going to get the steamy details then wham! The author fakes you out and makes you swoon. So good.

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7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing? Characters from TV shows, movies, and books that I adore. I picture them in my head as I write. It’s almost like having a friend beside you telling what to say in the next line of dialogue (I promise the voices in my head are only real on the page!) A lot of writers try very hard to make everything they write 100% their own. I’m not like that at all. When I write it’s a pop cultural homage to all the writers, directors, and actors who have made me who I am today. I love them, and why not write what you love?

8. You write for young adults. How do you slip into the voice and heart of a teenager? I wish it was harder for me to do because that would mean I’d somehow grown and evolved. Alas, I am ever and eternally approximately 17 years old…mentally. It probably doesn’t hurt that the majority of my favorite shows are on MTV and I read almost exclusively YA. I think this goes back to the reading what you write thing. In order to stay in touch with your audience you need to be part of it. I will say, again, though that music is a huge help. I make playlists for every book I write and each character has his/her own theme song. All I have to do is sit in front of my computer, play that song, and I’m transported. I live for that feeling!

9. Tell me about failure and rejection. Do I have to? As a writer, rejection is unavoidable. There isn’t a single book in the world that everyone enjoys. Training yourself to accept that is key to persevering in publishing. I try my best to view obstacles and perceived failures as wreckage that falls in front of me, not to block me, but to build a staircase for me to climb higher.

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10. What inspires story ideas for you, and what inspired the story for My Last Kiss? Spoiler alert (re: question #2), My Last Kiss was inspired by a song. At its core though, my source of inspiration comes from writing what I want to understand. They say write what you know, but I believe you should write what you want to know. I’m constantly trying to figure out why humans are such complex little monsters.

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11. Tell me a story about a story: When I was in fourth grade, my best friend  told me a story about a boy who was locked away inside the walls of his home because his parents were punishing him for being too loud. Oh, and his parents also cut out his tongue, ya know, because he was so loud. I was terrified until a few months later her older brother rented a movie called The People Under the Stairs that had an eerily similar plot. To this day, I’m not sure if I was more mad that she essentially plagiarized Stephen King’s story or that she’d made me watch a horror movie when I was nine.

Extra credit: Bethany usually writes or edits while laying on the floor and if she weren’t a badass writer she’d be an actress (longtime dream still holding strong!).

Tons of thanks to Miss B for caring and sharing a whole slew of good tips and solid stories. Peruse her playful website, The Writertorium, and follow her nail art and cat captures on Instagram. Giver her a follow on Twitter here. Oh, and buy her book which is so good at getting your head and heart back to high school.

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life. Images above include author’s headshot, book cover, photo with her writing partner (yep, her cat), and the moment her book was released at Barnes & Noble (Ann Arbor, MI location). 

***Know someone that would be a great fit for 11 Questions? Nominate them or yourself by reaching out to me at KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com.