A couple months back I recall the idea of a dog park floating around town. There’s just something about that notion that connotes joy: it’s a gathering place to meet new friends and, overall, it’s a cherry on top of the stellar parks already existing in our town.
At the time, I also accepted that the dog park would not be a great fit for my 10-year-old Boston Terrier, Theo. His energy level was subdued and we always knew that he preferred humans to other dogs. However, I still welcomed the dog park idea because pets connect us in wonderful ways- and how great to have a meeting place for those connections to occur?
My dog has endured many milestones since we adopted him in 2010. Theo started out as a city pup where he often enjoyed long walks in the South Loop down Michigan Avenue and being near the Lake. He easily welcomed the addition of two kids to the mix, following them happily wherever they went.
When we moved to Glencoe, I was astonished at how active the pet owners were. In Chicago, dog walking is mandatory given the lack of yards. In the suburbs, where yards are plentiful, people still leashed up their pets and took to the sidewalks. It was oddly comforting- it made me feel like I didn’t have to give up every part of my urban lifestyle just because my geography had changed.
So I happily joined the unofficial active dog-walking club. Perhaps you saw us over the years. For a good chunk of time I rolled deep with a red stroller, a kid on a scooter, and a leashed black-and-white dog. When my babies became big kids, our walks became just me and Theo. A morning walk, a bus stop pick-up, a family stroll after dinner…these walks were our treasured time for nature and introspection.
I’m sharing these special memories because this week presented something unexpected: the sudden passing of my beloved Theo. As you might imagine, my family and I are absolutely devastated. My children have lost their best friend. My husband and I have lost our treasured companion. The joyful light in our home has dimmed dark.
Yesterday, I took a walk. By myself. The same, long neighborhood route my Theo had loved for so many years. Everywhere I looked there were dogs. Dogs riding in cars, dogs lazing around yards, and dogs passing by in the street with their owners. Big dogs, mini ones, furry ones.
Maybe there will be a dog park here some day. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I will love another dog the way I loved Theo. In the mean time, I will continue my routine walks alone and remember a special time. If I see you with your pet and give you a tiny smile, just know you are helping me heal. You are helping me celebrate what once was.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve called my dad in a panic: either the basement flooded, my car was smoking, the pregnancy test said POSITIVE (this was years ago; not pregnant now), I forgot the name of our favorite mechanic, or I was just needing to feel a sense of calm in the world. My dad has always had an answer to my most impossible moments.
Watching Fitz become a Dad has been extraordinary. He has sewn up a beloved stuffed animal, read books in silly voices, changed thousands of middle-of-the-night diapers, walked fussy infants around restaurants, and despite having a sensitive stomach for anything medical, he watched both of our babies come into the world. He coached soccer. He took Gus to her first gymnastics class. Throughout all of this, he was patient, genuine, and interested.
And my two dads…Tom and Jerry. Who would’ve thought that in marrying Fitz, our fathers would become best pals?! They work together, have breakfast together, go to The Masters together…they even have the exact same birthday: Nov. 8th, 1947. In watching these dads become grandparents, I saw them show up to the bus stop, drop in on baseball games, host putting/chipping contests, babysit in a pinch (even overnight), dole out lollipops, and talk in earnest to these little beings, pointing out all the ways in which this world is magnificent. Throughout all of this, they were patient, genuine, and interested.
I cry readily thinking about these great men. I call on them at the very best and very worst times. I love them fiercely, even more so knowing that I’m not an easy person to love. 🙂 And they still show up. They still answer every phone call. They still ask, “What can I do to help?”
By just being who they are, they have allowed me to grow and get through the toughest, darkest parts of life. To Fitz, and to Tom and Jerry, you are everything good. You are patient, genuine, and interested. I love you for it all.
I have distinct memories of childhood centered around a basketball hoop. We had one in our driveway for nearly 20 years and it was the nucleus of entertainment. It was where I learned to dribble a ball, outshoot my brother in a game of ‘HORSE,’ and it was where I went to de-stress and cure boredom.
Basketball was blissful competition for me and my siblings and we wasted away the summer hours playing the sport. We were sweaty, happy, and giddy. We didn’t want the fun to end, didn’t want to think about dinner, bath time, or anything logical that would take away the fun of the moment.
When I moved to Glencoe, there was a wish list for what features my home would have, but near the top of that list was a driveway that could accommodate a basketball hoop. I bought one a few months ago for my son’s birthday but cold weather and relentless rain did not permit installation until now. The waiting not only enhanced the excitement for this new childhood chapter, but it made the reveal all that more meaningful.
While my son was at school, a team rallied together to plot the correct hoop installation, the proper height, and to pore over every detail with careful attention. Despite rain showers earlier that morning, the weather eased into a very comfortable seventy-five degree day. The sun literally shone on our efforts.
My husband snuck home early from work and the whole family waited eagerly at the bus stop for my son. When he arrived, he didn’t seem too surprised that we were all there, more so just pleased with the very nice day in front of him.
My husband and I exchanged nervous, giddy glances at one another as we walked down the street. Suddenly, I was reliving every moment of the past seven years: our move to this town with a newborn baby, our urban-to-suburban adjustments, our bewilderment at just how quiet everything was. Here we were, on the cusp of what we had hoped for, a dream that was just about to come true.
Our feet reached the end of the driveway. I turned toward my son. “Do you notice anything different about the house?”
Long seconds passed. Then he whooped with joy, tossing his backpack and paper airplane to us as he raced toward the hoop, eager to grab a basketball and get to work.It was a gold medal parenting moment, one that I won’t soon forget.
The late afternoon was spent dribbling, shooting, and chasing basketballs all over the driveway. We were sweaty, happy, and giddy. We didn’t want the fun to end, didn’t want to think about dinner, bath time, or anything logical that would take away the fun of the moment. It was a perfect slice of Americana; a recognition that everything old was new again.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.