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.

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Anna Lane

Crack your knuckles and do some light stretching because the dynamic, articulate, fun, and spirited woman you’re about to meet will have you laughing so hard that you’ll mildly choke on that glass of wine paired with Oreos (no judgment; it’s nice to eat allllll the treats once kids go to bed).

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the vivacious Anna Lane. She’s a hybrid of former actress/ stellar comedian/ humor writer who serves as the Los Angeles Editor of StrollerTraffic and the voice behind Misadventures in Motherhood. And yes, her California-sunkissed blonde hair and radiant smile is the stuff of dreams but that is besides the point.

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Now that your appetizer is over let’s shimmy right along to the main course.

1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I like to say that I write anything – as long as I’m being paid for it!  Mostly I write a blog, Misadventures in Motherhood, and I’m the LA Editor for StrollerTraffic.  I freelance for a living, so I’ve done everything from punching up scripts to ghostwriting a TED talk. I’m currently reading A Little Life.  It’s beautiful, yet also disturbing, especially if one is a parent.

2. You’re a former actress and stand-up comedian. When did you recognize that you had a way with humor?
I’ve always been described as “quirky” so stand-up comedy really came about when I was frustrated with acting (or, more correctly NOT acting) and I needed a creative outlet. I was terrible at first, as are most people, and it takes quite a few years to learn how to write a great joke, but I found stand-up to be so much more fulfilling than acting. Once I learned to write jokes and realized how good I was at doing so, humor writing was a natural progression. I’m sure there are people who find my sarcasm about parenting off putting, but you can’t please everyone, and I’m fine with that.

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3. You throw the door open on deeply personal topics. How do you decide the right level of candor when you write?  
Interestingly enough, I’m actually a very private person. The thing that I love about blogging is that I choose how much to share and how much not to share. I try to be very careful and respectful of my kids and my spouse and to not reveal things that are incredibly embarrassing. That being said, I think it’s important to discuss the realities of birth and marriage and sex after kids. Women should be fully informed that their lady parts will NEVER be the same after giving birth, and that even if they can fit into their pre-baby clothes they aren’t going to look good on a body that’s carried, birthed and fed a child or three.

4. Who are your mentors?
  
When I was doing stand-up I worked with Wendy Liebman who is the most incredible woman. She’s a talented writer, a warm and caring person, and an amazing wife and step-mom. She’s truly the type of woman that has me asking, “How does she do it?” I’m also really inspired by the ladies at StrollerTraffic, because they are all Moms who are writers, and it’s pretty awesome to have a job where your colleagues understand if you have a sick kid. My blogger crush is Ilana Wiles from Mommy Shorts – I’m constantly amazed at the amount of content she manages to generate and how she keeps her blog fresh and funny. Plus I would kill for her traffic and sponsors!!!

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5. What does rejection look like?  
Haha – the entirety of my adolescence and acting career!  My therapist, however, has probably paid her mortgage thanks to all of the sessions we’ve logged due to my rejections. Look, it’s difficult to not take rejection personally especially when you do a creative job that comes so much from your heart and soul. It sucks. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older and more confident in my abilities as a writer that I’m not quite as bothered by people telling me “no thanks” anymore.

6. Talk to me about writing sex scenes.


I think as a society we have a very unrealistic idea of what sex is “supposed” to look like. The reality is that after ten years of marriage and two kids you’re just trying to stay awake long enough to do the deed.

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
I love my kids so much, and I’m grateful to them for sending me down the path of being a writer. If I hadn’t needed a creative outlet after my son’s birth, I would never have started blogging, and my blog is the way I got all of my other jobs! Sometimes I think about shutting down my blog, and I just can’t do it, because it’s sort of The Little Engine that Could, slowly trudging up the big mountain and making it to the top when no one thought it would happen.

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8. Your Instagram account (@TheAnnaLane) is peppered with a hilarious stream of motherhood memes. Tell me more about it.  


I have to give credit for the memes to an old stand-up colleague, actually. I was putting funny jokes on Facebook and Twitter and he emailed me and said that I should turn them into memes, and suggested I use my profile photo as the background. I had NO IDEA how to make a meme, and he actually walked me through how to do it. I’m so thankful that he did that, because it’s really helped with my branding, which I was struggling with on Instagram’s visual platform. I think people don’t often read the captions, so the memes are a way for me to tell my parenting jokes in the photo.

9. What has been your greatest lesson with being a freelance writer?
That my work is worth GOOD money. I’m still learning this lesson, especially when it comes to my blog and sponsored content. Writing is a talent and a skill.  Writers are necessary, and it’s important to understand your value. That being said, when you first start out you may have to take a couple crap jobs to get established and build your resume, but you need to understand when that’s no longer appropriate. Ask for what you’re worth, you might be pleasantly surprised at people’s reactions.

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10. Wildest dream you have for yourself?  
To turn my blog into a TV script, sell it, and write on the show. I should have time to write that script in about 18 years when my kids leave for college…

11. Tell me a story about a story:  


I’m not even sure what you’re asking here, but I’m almost positive that the writers from Sex and the City based the baby gherkin storyline on me. I dated a guy in college when I was living in New York and he had the tiniest dick ever, and I was in the bathroom at a club, crying in a stall and complaining about it to my friends and how there was no way I could continue to date him. Two years later that whole scene showed up in SATC practically verbatim. The guy was a total douche who still lived with his parents at age 33 and not worth my time or my bedroom skillz, but hindsight is always 20/20. I comfort myself by reminding myself that he’s enjoying a lifetime of women dumping him because his penis is too small, so there’s that.

BONUS POINTS:

Favorite snack? Chocolate covered pretzels are my undoing.

On a kidless day, what are you doing? Yoga, mani/pedi, reading Domino, and probably day drinking with a girlfriend.

Gracious thanks to Anna for sharing bits of herself and a Sex and the City reference I will not soon forget. Follow her hilarious memes on Instagram, check out StrollerTraffic, and read along on her ‘little engine that could’ blog.

***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 by reaching out to me at KellyQBooks (@) gmail (dot) com.

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions With Kayt Sukel

I am gobsmacked by Kayt Sukel. It’s not often that you come across someone who is dynamic in all forms: brilliant, curious, stunningly pretty, wickedly funny, easy conversationalist, and all-around cool girl. I imagine she kills it at just about every dinner party.

Kayt is the author of Dirty Minds: This is Your Brain on Sex and The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance (just released as of this month). With a zest for science and worldly adventure, her writing covers everything from love, neuroscience, single parent traveling, politics, and yes, even orgasms (more on that later). You can find her contributions in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, the New Scientist, USA Today, Pacific Standard, The Washington Post, ISLANDS, Parenting, the Bark, American Baby, National Geographic Traveler, and the AARP Bulletin.

If you’re not totally intimidated by her awesomeness by now, you should know that she easily copped to an affection for wine and Cheetos. So now that we’re all officially in love with her and her work, let’s get started.

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I write mostly about travel and neuroscience – but I also dip a toe from time to time into healthcare technology, current events, parenting, and the occasional Facebook rant.  As to what I’m reading…this could change literally from day to day.  I am an unapologetic book nerd.  That said, I’m currently re-reading Emma Donoghue’s Room. Because being a Mom means never seeing Oscar-nominated films in the theatre, I wanted to revisit the story before I saw the movie.  But I also recently finished Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, Shanna Mahin’s Oh! You Pretty Things and Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. They were all amazing. It’s funny. I am a non-fiction writer who revels in fiction. Forget revel—I like to roll around naked in all those amazing words and stories and fall in love. I am a fiction junkie, always looking for my next fix. And all I have to do is open the cover and begin.

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2. Your new book The Art of Risk juxtaposes the fearless child you were and the practical-minded adult you became. In the aftermath of risk…what was your greatest failure and conversely greatest reward?
According to my mother, my greatest failure is never finishing my doctorate. I don’t quite see it that way—but she still hasn’t relinquished this idea of me working as a professor at some funky liberal arts college somewhere. I think she has the fantasy down to the specific artsy scarves I’d wear during office hours.
But if you ask me, my greatest failure isn’t one particular incident but rather a single quality that brings to bear on just about every situation I find myself in:  my impatience. Especially now that my kids are getting older, friends and loved ones are moving on or dying off, I realize that the world is not going to end if something doesn’t happen right this very second. I should take more time, play it where it lays, and pay attention to what’s right in front of me. It’s probably fair to say that I often have great difficulty living in the moment. But it’s something I’m working on.
That ties into my greatest reward, too. Because when I can be more patient, slow down and really take in what’s around me—man, life can be pretty fucking wonderful.

3. Tell me about getting a book deal.
By many accounts, I should have never gotten a book deal. I was living in Europe at the time and wasn’t that tuned into the literary scene. But I went to some great writing conferences. I met some fabulous writers who not only inspired me but also invited me into their worlds. A fellow writer introduced me to my agent. She then helped me hone a simple idea into a compelling book proposal. And somehow, someway, the work prevailed. I’d like to say I’m lucky. But it really came down to being part of a community—and when I say community, not just taking, but giving all I could back to those amazing people, too—and a lot of elbow grease.

4. You write about fascinating, complicated science. How do you take something complex and break it down effortlessly for the average reader to grasp?
Many people raise an eyebrow when I tell them I write about both science and travel. But, for both, you need to be able to find the story and then tell it in such a way that people can really connect to it. Think about the last travel story you read about a beach. When it comes down to it, any beach, no matter how fabulous it might be, is just water and sand. How is that beach different from the one your parents dragged you to when you were a kid? How do you turn that one beach into a place that everyone wants to visit? You find the story. The story that makes that place feel real and beautiful—and makes it comes to life in the reader’s mind. Science is no different. When you talk about the neurons and the genes, you have to find the story. The story that makes those weird acronyms and processes make sense. The story that makes it about the reader as much as the scientist or the finding. I think once you find that story it makes it easier to break down the complexity in a meaningful way.

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5. What does life look like when you’re in the process of penning a book?
Really embarrassing, actually. Think of a woman in her PJs, on the couch, with Castle re-runs on in the background. There are probably a couple empty bottles of Diet Coke nearby and three individual packs of Cheetos. Because if you buy the individual servings, you lie to yourself and say you’ll only eat one. And all those wrappers are invariably on top of the stack of papers I need right that very minute to finish my chapter.
That said, I try to keep life fairly routine whether I’m working on a book or not. I’m a Mom—so there’s still homework to oversee, kids to chauffeur, and dinners to make. But during the day? Oh god. All Diet Coke, all the time. 

6. You famously ‘showed’ your orgasm on the Internet. Talk to me about throwing the door open on sex.
Sometimes I think “Had Orgasm in fMRI Scanner” will be engraved on my tombstone. But it really just was one of those things. While writing my first book, THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX, I interviewed Barry Komisaruk, a researcher who studies the female orgasm. As we spoke, it was hard for me to imagine how it all worked. While studying neuroscience, I piloted quite a few fMRI studies. I knew how loud, how cramped, and just plain uncomfortable it was in those machines. So how were these women achieving orgasm—and were the orgasms they were having even remotely like ones they might have outside the laboratory? These were questions I couldn’t answer unless I participated myself. So I did.

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
I love my husband, my kids, my dog, my Mom, my friends, Nathan Fillion, my dog, and my family. Did I mention my dog, Maggie?  
They sneak into my writing because they inspire me to be silly, to be curious, to be kind, and to be open. They ask good questions—or they give good snuggles. They make me laugh. They support me even when I’m neck deep in Cheetos and edits. And they make me want to go forth and explore. Sometimes even in a Firefly class space ship.

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8. When were you most proud?
This is a hard question!  I can be a little hard on myself so it’s hard to pick one crowning moment of pride. I remember feeling all verklempt when I graduated from college and my entire extended family came to root for me. And then again when I held my book in my hands for the first time. And when my son won the second grade science fair. I can’t pick one “most” here. Because I have to admit that I also want to high five myself when I make a chocolate soufflé and get it out of the oven without it collapsing.

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9. Who are your mentors?
I am inspired by so many people. My undergraduate thesis advisor at Carnegie Mellon University, Marlene Behrmann, taught me to not only love neuroscience—but to be a curious skeptic. Her voice is the voice I hear in my head every time I read a new study, asking questions and pushing boundaries. I love writers like Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston for their fearlessness. And Steph Davis, a free solo climber and BASE jumper I featured in THE ART OF RISK is amazing. She reminds me that we are, each and every one of us, capable of much more than we realize.

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10. What does regret look like?
I do my best not to pay mind to regret, certainly not enough to tell you what it looks like. But that’s because I know it does us no favors to mull on what could have been. Like every college student, I read Still Life With Woodpecker. It’s practically an undergraduate rite of passage, you know? Robbins has this one line in there, “Success can eliminate as many options as failure.” That’s something that has always stuck with me. Because I learned early that achieving the things you wanted (or thought you wanted) can be just as limiting as falling flat on your face. And when you understand that life can take you in so many weird and wild paths—all of which offer opportunities for laughter, learning, and wonder if you allow yourself to be open to them—there’s no point in getting stuck on the woulda, shoulda, couldas.

11. Tell me a story about a story:

I am in love with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.  I re-read this book at least once a year. But I have to buy a new copy of it pretty much each time I do. Because it’s a book I love to give away to other people. I try to explain it and just conclude with, “You have to read it…here, take this copy.” At last count, I have purchased The Blind Assassin 16 times. And I’m fairly certain that I’m due to buy another copy. Just need to meet the next person I’m going to give it to. It won’t be long now.

Bonus points: Tell me about the cover art for The Art of Risk.
I love the cover! Do you know what I love most about it? People can’t decide whether the rope is orange or red. I feel like it’s kind of a risk test. Those who see it as orange, the color for caution, are more open to unbridled possibility. Those who see it as red? Not so much.

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(Editor’s note: Orange all the way. How about you?)

Huge thanks to Kayt for being incredible and for making me crave a chocolate soufflé at 10:30am.

Follow Kayt and her oversharing on Twitter.
Get lost in her beautiful website.
Watch her presentations at TEDMED and Chicago Ideas Week here.
And of course, pick up The Art of Risk (the opening pages will yank you right in)

***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.

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions with Jen A. Miller

Running is the biggest pain in the ass and the most incredible endorphin rush. Kind of like writing.

I often thought running and writing sweetly held hands because both require daily, consistent devotion to translate into long distance/page count goals. Today’s feature, Jen A. Miller, is so effortlessly cool that I want to dash outside for a set of sprints with the sun on my face. Girl is a published author, freelancer, Jersey Shore aficionado (with none of that MTV snark), and marathoner. And she’s hella nice and articulate. So there’s that.

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I write non-fiction – day to day, that’s work I do as a freelance journalist. I am just about to publish my memoir, Running: A Love Story, which is a lot more intimate.
A lot of my work is about running, but I’ll take on just about anything that interests me. I write a lot about technology and security because it’s fun, and I learn a lot. I’m currently reading The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick (who wrote The Silver Linings Playbook while he lived in Collingswood, which is where I’m at – I used to see him running around the same park that’s in my book). Next I’ll be reading Eloisa James’ My American Duchess. I don’t hide that I read romance. It’s like any other genre fiction in that, when it’s done well, it’s good. Plus I don’t want to read anything too taxing right now. My brain is already overloaded.

2. To me, The New York Times is the holy grail of periodicals. What was it like to see your byline in those pages?
I broke into The New York Times in 2005 in my first year of freelancing. I wrote about, of all things, a t-shirt. I lived in a second floor apartment then, and ran downstairs to grab the newspaper from the front lawn. I was teary. Then I forgot to cash the check (which is one reason I love direct deposit and sign up for it whenever I can).
I didn’t come at journalism through what I’d guess is the traditional route: I didn’t go to J-school. At the time, my college had one journalism class, and no one who worked on the paper took it. I was editor in chief of my college newspaper for a year and a half, and I thought one day it might be nice to write headlines for The New York Times Book Review. I never thought I’d be a journalist, let alone write for the Times. That first byline meant a lot to me, but building a consistent relationship with the paper, especially over the last five years as I have done with the Well section, means a lot more. That first clip was also a lesson in to always take the shot. I didn’t think I had any business pitching the Times. They didn’t buy my first pitch, but the editor responded favorably and told me to send him more. I did. It’s been my approach to freelancing for 11 years.
It was so early in my freelance career that it doesn’t feel so much like a turning point. Them running an excerpt of Running: A Love Story was a much bigger deal.

3. When did you realize you were a writer (and a powerful one at that)?
Oh what a tough question because I feel I have so far to go. I have said many times that while I think I’m good at running the business of being a freelance writer, that I’m not the best writer out there. I didn’t realize how my writing was touching people until I started writing a running column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which I did for a little over three years. I did a lot of reporting there, but every once and a while, I’d write a piece about myself. I got a lot of emails from those, especially this one. Then I wrote a piece for the Times about using running as therapy, and the response was a deluge. At the time I wrote that, I was finalizing a two-page proposal that I would take to agents for what became Running: A Love Story, so the response was a big boost before those meetings.

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4. Running is an enormous part of who you are. Tell me how it has built you up or conversely, broken you down.
Running is a constant cycle of pushing the limits and then recovering. As I’m writing you today, I’m taking an unexpected rest day from training for my sixth marathon because my hip is sore and I know one more day of rest means it will probably be fine for the last nine weeks of training versus trying to gut through it and then maybe be too hurt to start the race on May 1. I’ve learned a lot from that.
Publishing a book is an incredibly exciting but incredibly stressful time. I have a lot of work I’m trying to jam into every day, and sometimes I just stop, lie down, read, and wait to start again the next day. Just like my running is after a rest day, my writing is fresher too.But sometimes you just have to shove through it. If I never did the tough running workouts, I’d never reach my race goals. If I didn’t write the tough things, I’d never advance in my skills and my career either.

5. Let’s hear some of your goals, the wilder, the better.
Can I have Elizabeth Gilbert’s career? My favorite book of hers is The Last American Man. I recently read The Signature of All Things on vacation. I want to be able to go in that many different directions and genres, and make it work. I’d also like to run a sub-four hour marathon. That’d be a pretty significant lowering of my current personal record in that distance. But hey. I try. After the next marathon, I may tackle a trail marathon or ultra marathon. Dream big, right?

6. Tell me about writing sex scenes.
I think they’re awkward to write, but no more awkward than trying to write down what goes through my brain when I run a marathon – that was the most technically challenging part of this book. There’s some sex in Running: A Love Story because you can’t tell the story of relationships without it, but it’s mentioned just like any other thing – which sex is, when you get down to it when you strip it of all the cultural associations that are shoved on it. I’m a 35 year old, unmarried woman. If people think I haven’t had sex, then I don’t want to know what they think about the lives of single women (editor’s note: Jen recently garnered that many view single to mean ‘not in a relationship’ and she is in one).

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
I’ve been writing about my family a lot, and I think that’s an offshoot of how much I wrote about my mother in Running: A Love Story. One of my friends who read an advance copy of the book said she deserves the best supporting actress award for this book (he wrote it right after the Oscars).
I dedicated the book to my paternal grandmother who was a big influence on me too. Before Thanksgiving, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post about hosting Thanksgiving for the first time and how my divorced parents were going to be there and how we were the definition of the new, modern, American family. They’re very important to who I am – my extended family too. I think I’ll be writing more about them down the line (if they let me – ha)

8. You nabbed your first personal finance writing assignment the same week that Lehman Brothers folded. What is your best personal finance tip for writers?
Put away a percentage of every single check into savings, another percentage into a pot marked for taxes, and another percentage into your retirement accounts. When you’re an entrepreneur (which freelancers are!), you have no backup, and if you’re like me and live alone and run a household on your own, you really don’t have anything else to fall back onto except what you create yourself.

9. Tell me about failure and rejection
It’s just another part of the game. It hurts sometimes, but usually a lot less than it did before. I’m used to it. For the ones that hurt: it’s okay to sulk for a while, lick your wounds. But the only way you get over it is to try again. Except for very rarely, it’s not personal. If my idea doesn’t help a publication reach their mission or tell the stories they want to tell, then they should reject my ideas. And I still soldier on.

10. Your contributions to magazines, websites, and periodicals are vast and esteemed. How do you decide where a story should go- do you start by writing the article or making the pitch?
Unless a publication approaches me, I start with the idea, and then I figure out who that idea is best for. A lot of factors come into play: How quick are they to respond and how long does it take to get the idea into print (which is crucial when you’re dealing with timely subjects). What do they pay? How much is it a pain in the ass to get paid by them? I recently fired a client because they were paying 70 days past invoice and only after I followed up multiple times. The editors there are great, but I can’t put up with that on the back end and still run my business effectively.
A lot of writers go strictly by how much the publication pays per word, but I try to go by how much it’ll work out to an hour (and that includes any time needed to chase payment). That’s why a $.50/word client might be a better fit for a pitch than a $2/word one. For regular clients, sometimes I only need to send a one-line pitch, or forward an email, and they’ll consider it. For some, they want a longer pitch (and I don’t blame them!). One of my clients likes to get the idea in an email to see if they’re interested, and ask me to flush out the idea over the phone. I like that too.The only exception to that is essays. Most places want essays done. I’ll usually write it with an outlet in mind, and if that outlet passes, go to my B, C, D, E choices because at that point, I want it to run somewhere.

11. Tell me a story about a story:
When I was a kid, I tried to write the sequel to Bridge to Terabithia. I wrote it out in a spiral bound copybook. I wish I still had it. Though that’s not my favorite Katherine Paterson book! That would be Jacob Have I Loved.

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Bonus points: The coolest place Jen has ever run was Rome, dodging between tourists and cars and motorbikes on extremely narrow roads and sidewalks with a paper map in hand. She fondly recalls the streets looking like they’d been spun in a salad spinner.

We thank Jen for this feature and wish her good luck on her sixth marathon. Keep running that path, keeping writing the journey.

Dem Links:
Crush on Jen and her brilliant work over at her website here.
Purchase her brand spanking new memoir, Running: A Love Story, here.
Get Jen’s personal finance tips and other money advice here.

That’s it. That’s all. Now get outside and get moving.

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***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.

Convos With Writers: 11 Questions With Susan Blumberg-Kason

Susan Blumberg-Kason is fascinating. There, I said it. She’s the kind of woman who has worldly dreams, a zest for adventure, and a degree in Mandarin. In her early twenties, she headed to Hong Kong for grad school. Just one month into the program, she met a tall, dashing student from central China, and six months later they married. Her memoir, Good Chinese Wife, covers the five years in which she struggled to assimilate to Chinese family life.

Shall we do this? Yes, let’s.

1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I write mostly non-fiction about my past life as an expat in Hong Kong and my current incarnation as a mother of three in the Chicago suburbs and how I’m trying to expose my kids to Chinese culture. My oldest son is half-Chinese and if I didn’t make an effort, he wouldn’t have any connection to that side of his heritage. Right now I’m reading Shannon Young’s new page-turning novel, Ferry Tale, which is a love story set in Hong Kong. I was just reading it before I started answering these questions!

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2. Your stories are deeply, profoundly personal: divorce, STDs, abuse, the strain of culture assimilation, etc.. How do you share freely about real life difficulties without upsetting those around you (is such a thing possible?!)?
I’ve found that the best way to be honest and open is to try to take the blame away from others as much as possible and focus on my role in the problems. In my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I could’ve made my character a very angry one who blamed all my marital problems on my ex-husband. Instead, I tried to show how I put up with that nonsense and let a lot of it happen. Everyone says there are two sides to every story, but I think there are an infinite number of sides. It all depends on how they are presented. When I’ve read reviews, which I know I shouldn’t do, readers have been more upset with me for putting up with Cai’s antics than with Cai for doing those things. I can live with that!

3. Name three books that changed the game for you
Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves inspired me, as did Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. If it weren’t for these three books, I might not have seen a book in my story.

4. Best ‘pinch me’ moment about becoming an author

My book launch at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore in Chicago. It was the night of my publication date and I needed to guarantee 30 attendees for the store to agree to hold the event. They don’t do a ton of author events and wanted to make sure it would be worth their while to stay open late. I told them I could get 30 people, and mentally went through a list of people who would probably turn up. It was just 30. But the night of the event, I counted 80 people and I knew probably all but one or two, either from a chapter in my life or through social media. It was lovely seeing all those friends that evening.

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5. What’s the wildest, craziest, most impractical writing goal you have for yourself?
Publishing more books! I’ve been trying to get a second book published and it’s no easier than getting a deal for the first one. If anything, it’s more difficult. If I can look back in ten or fifteen years and see two or three of my books on the shelves, it will be a dream come true.

6. Tell me about writing sex scenes
I’ve always thought a single, catchy line is more effective than the actual deed. Like in Crazy Rich Asians—one of my favorite novels—there’s a scene where Michael Teo is feeling left out of his marriage and his wife finds a text on his phone with one line: “I want to feel you inside me” or something like that. I thought that was way more sexy and memorable than actually reading about whatever Michael may or may not have done.
The first sex scene in my memoir took place in my in-laws’ apartment in freezing central China. I couldn’t think about taking off any clothes because there was no heat in the apartment. That’s not very sexy. So I started that scene with the issue of birth control when my then-fiance clandestinely jumps into bed with me. His parents are sleeping in the next room and he’s supposed to be in another bedroom because we’re not married. I create dialogue around preventing a pregnancy and have him say he’ll pull out early. He really did say that, and I chose to use that line because I thought it would make the scene more vivid and realistic rather than describing what happened play by play, although I do use metaphors like rain and clouds (the Chinese euphemism for sex) and sprinkles in a dry desert.

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
My husband and children. So I added them into the epilogue of Good Chinese Wife, although my oldest son, Jake, was in more of the book. I also included my mother as one of the main characters, because she was in that part of my life and still is. I’m working on a follow-up memoir about raising my kids with Judaism and Chinese Culture and my husband and children figure very prominently in this manuscript.

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8. The cover art for Good Chinese Wife is stunning (see it here). Tell me about it.
This was one of the most exciting parts of publishing the book. A year before my publication date, my editor at Sourcebooks e-mailed me a cover concept. It was more or less what ended up being printed, apart from the subtitle. It was love at first site and I thought it was so me. My family had that china pattern when I was growing up and I love tea, but my editor said the key to that concept was that it showed that everything was in order in my marriage but at any moment could fall over and shatter. I still love this cover as much as I did the first time I saw it.

9. What happens when you stumble upon a negative review?

At first it upset me, which is natural. All authors receive negative reviews. The thing about getting a negative review for a memoir is that it’s often personal. Some reviewers haven’t liked my writing, but most of the negative reviews have been about my character. My book has been out for 18 months now and I’m at a point where I laugh at negative reviews. A recent one on Amazon stated that the reviewer hated my book and hated me. I felt like reaching out and patting her on the back (if I could), concerned that she was so upset. In the end, an Amazon review is an Amazon review and I’m happy with the number of reviews I’ve received. If some are one or two stars, so be it.

10. Best writing habits to live by
I take advantage of quiet days when my kids are at school and try not to schedule other things during a day when I want to get a lot of writing done. In reality, I do a lot of it at night after the kids go to bed. The house isn’t perfectly quiet then because my husband and older son are around, but they are either reading, doing homework, or watching TV at a decent volume.

11. Tell me a story about a story
(My book) is about my marriage to my former husband. We’ve been on good terms for the last 16 years, ever since I left him in early 2000. But I only recently saw him for the first time since the book came out and it was on his turf in Shanghai, where he lives now with his new wife of 10 years.
So Cai and his wife took my mom, our friend Mary, and me out for lunch when we were in Shanghai this past fall. I was relieved I wasn’t alone with them because they knew about the book, but hadn’t said anything to me about it since a Wall Street Journal writer interviewed them. I figured if I were around other people, Cai and his wife wouldn’t bring it up. But after lunch, (everyone) had walked up ahead and Cai told me with a serious face that he had something to discuss with me. My heart skipped several beats. This was it. He was going to chastise me for writing all those personal details about our marriage.
Only he didn’t. He told me about his daughter and how she wouldn’t talk to him. The gist of his story was that he was glad I hadn’t turned Jake against him like he thinks his first ex-wife did with their daughter. In the back of my mind, I knew I had probably done worse by writing the book, but didn’t mention that. To this day, I don’t know what he thinks about the book, but he and his wife were perfectly nice to me in Shanghai last fall and if they’re upset about it, they haven’t shown it!

Bonus Points: Susan’s nightstand is an avalanche of books that she reads to her kids, including the Harry Potter series and a photo book of Hong Kong neon signs that she read months ago and never put away. Her best bet for incredible Chinese food in Chicago is at Shanghai Terrace at the Peninsula Hotel. “The food is very fresh and great care is taken in the presentation. For one of Jake’s birthdays, we went there for Peking duck. It was served in slices on little pancakes, in a duck wonton soup, and in duck fried rice. The whole thing was a masterpiece.”

Dive into Susan’s blog and life here, purchase her incredible book here, and follow her on Twitter @Susan_BK.

OH! And I saved the best for last. If you belong to a book club and would like to read Good Chinese Wife and have Susan join your discussion (in person or via Skype!) contact her here (seriously, how freaking cool is that?).

***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. The photos above include the author with her mother in Hong Kong 20 years ago, with author Sonali Dev, and with her kids in Chicago. I thank Susan for sharing so candidly and shining a truly luminous light on some tough-to-talk-about topics.