Tim Parrish, SCSU professor, writes not one but TWO fabulous books!

Tim Parrish works at Southern Connecticut State University in the MFA program, helping turn regular folks into writers. He’s published books before–but never two in the space of just a few months. But both his novel and his memoir came out at the end of last year–and both are amazing.

As the reviewer Eric Miles Williamson, judge of the 2012 George Garrett fiction contest, put it: “Mr. Parrish’s The Jumper is a novel so shockingly good that readers will abandon their favorite authors and rush to read all his work.” Clearly, he’s come a long way from his first effort in second grade, “Trouble for Timothy Turkey.”

Want to hear him speak? Here are some upcoming events:

* Thursday, March 6th, 7:30, Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, with Sari Botton.

* Wednesday,  April 23rd, 7:30, University of New Haven.

You can visit him at http://www.tparrishauthor.com.

We are so lucky to have him in New Haven, and to welcome him to Books New Haven, talking about BOTH of his books.

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Tell us about your new book.

Amazingly, I have two new books out, which is what can happen after a 13-year drought between books; shopping a novel through a not-so-competent agent; taking that novel out of circulation; working seven years on a memoir; finishing the memoir; getting it accepted; submitting the novel to a contest and winning that contest so that the books come out at virtually the same time. Which, of course, isn’t about the books so much as the labyrinth of the publishing world.

image          The book that’s getting the lion’s share of attention is the memoir, although I like my novel too, and I don’t always say that about my writing. The memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, is about my upbringing in a racist, Southern Baptist environment during the sixties, then getting terrorized by some sociopaths in the seventies, spiraling into racist violence myself, and getting turned around after some really good people, both black and white, intervened. It’s also a slice of new South, alternative history, depicting, rather than reviling, scared working-class white people during desegregation at a time when their narrow world felt threatened. I think only by really looking at the roots of racism and looking at racists as the complex people they are, and I was, can we fully understand it. At its heart, the book is really a rough coming-of-age story in the midst lots of confusion, turmoil and ugly behavior.

The novel, The Jumper, attempts to combine a lot of genres by being a story of The Jumperstrange family drama, eccentric love, racial identity, crime, and legal intrigue. It starts with an illiterate man, who thinks he’s an orphan, getting a telegram that his roommate has to read to him. The telegram is from his father, who asks him to come to Baton Rouge from Houston because he’s sick. It turns out that the father has ulterior motives connected to a class-action suit and the father’s problems with gambling. Then, once in Baton Rouge, the main character, Jimmy Strawhorn, meets a woman on the existential run herself, and they become involved in an odd romance that includes the impulse to jump from high places. And believe it or not, all that doesn’t give away too much.

 

How did you first know that you wanted to write these stories? What were the factors that engaged you from the beginning?

The novel came out of my experience teaching a thirty-something-year-old man how to read back in the eighties, and the story he told me about why he was illiterate and how the state of Louisiana had done him wrong. I won’t tell his entire story, some of which informs my novel and would give away the plot, but his story stayed with me. I think my first impulse was to investigate a rather remarkable tale of mysterious lineage, but then I became fascinated with imagining myself into the psyche and world of a person who can’t read at all and seeing how that person navigates the material world and his own shame and sense of outsiderness. The story kind of took off and quickly complicated and I found myself writing a book with a lot of plot, three different point-of-view characters on the margins of society, and story lines from three different decades. I never expected to write sort of a rip-roarer.

The memoir is the only book I’ve ever felt absolutely compelled to write. It started after 9-11 when I saw Americans get scared and allow the bullies and “crusaders” in the Bush administration to lead us to war in Iraq, which in my childhood church was Babylon,  a hotbed of “Moslem paganism” and the potential starting point for the much-sought-after apocalypse. What seemed to be driving the nation was the same beliefs I had as a kid and teenager, in particular the belief that the way to be safe was to attack someone else, usually someone with darker skin. As soon as I realized the similarities between my youth and the present, old emotions–shame, guilt, disgust, anger–began percolating in me, and I knew I had to tell my story for myself if for nobody else.

How did you find writing memoir to be different from writing fiction? How was it similar?

Different because of having to dredge so many personal emotions and shape seventeen years of my life into a narrative while feeling constricted by not being able to go into other people’s points-of-view or create any scene I wanted. Similar because I still mainly dramatized as I do when writing fiction and because even in memoir I was creating characters, including myself.

Did these books come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle them to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up?

There’s always wrestling. Nothing I write comes easily. I did give up on the novel for a while as I mentioned before, but it kept nagging at me and a couple of  good friends also kept encouraging me to take another look at it. My greatest assets as a writer are my work ethic and my doggedness, a.k.a. obsessiveness, and that’s why I ultimately did not give up. I worked on the novel for three years, put it away, then hugely revised it three times in a year as I was working through the final  revisions of the memoir. By the way, I don’t recommend working full out on two books while having a full-time job, but I’m glad I did it because that intensity very much informs the novel.

The memoir was, frankly, hell to write. It started with a focus on masculinity and was kind of all over the place. I went through three different rounds of submitting it to friends, agents, and editors with massive re-conceptions of the book between each round. I think the nature of the subject matter scared off some people, and I was very frustrated and depressed when I was going into the sixth year of working on it without an agent or a publisher. But I knew I had to stick with it, and I’m glad I did because the responses to the book have been amazingly personal and positive.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

A pantser? Nice. That sounds like I just gave somebody a wedgie.

I guess I’m  somewhere in between pantser and, what, formal dresser? My characters always tell me who they are, at least to a point, while I’m writing, and the story has to bend to fit them. But often I’ve largely imagined them and the story enough beforehand, as well as taken enough notes, to have some sort of template or schematic. So, it’s a combination of knowing and discovering and then applying craft to give the narrative a shape that suits both story and character.

You’ve obviously written characters who are close to or are someone you know, so have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

All the time. And someone has not only been furious but threatened me with a lawsuit for my story “Exterminator” in my collection Red Stick Men. That was the most extreme, but writing a memoir made me struggle constantly with what to put in and what to leave out and how I could be fair and honest in depicting real people or composites of real people and still honestly tell the whole story. I think I do the best I can to be fair to people, even completely fictional people, following what my thesis director, Allen Wier, told me: “You have to love all your characters, especially the ones you hate.”

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I don’t procrastinate so much as worry and amp up my anxiety until I’m out of sorts and just have to sit down and hack away. I don’t know about favorite mode, but my prevalent mode of both procrastination and life is obsessing. I’m obsessing about these answers right now.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

So many things. I’m lucky to be a writer, in spite of the difficulties writers face. Mainly, what’s made me happy is being able to live in my imagination and take on the challenge of bringing the world in my head to life on the page. And, of course, having readers. People have said remarkable things to me, including how my work has altered how they see themselves and their lives. I mean, I’ve been told that the memoir has made someone understand their father’s and brother’s anger, have heard family and racial stories people have never told anyone before, and been literally embraced by people who feel my story has allowed them some sort of freedom and honesty to speak about race and masculinity.

I never imagined I would do anything that could have that effect.

 What do you tell people who want to be writers?

I tell them they either are or they aren’t, and if they are, they have to commit to the hard work and isolation of it. I also tell them that being a writer is sort of like having a virus. If you have it, you can’t not write. And if you try not to write, you feel worse and worse, like you didn’t take your medicine. Sometimes people ask me how they can tell if they’re writers or not, and I tell them to list everything they could be doing besides writing–making love, reading a book, going for a run–and then see if the choice they would make is to sit alone and write something down, then sit down with that same work again and again. That cuts the mustard right there.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

Inspiration is a tricky word because it implies some dynamic creative impulse, when I find that to rarely be the case. For me, I just get to a point where I have to write or I’m miserable in the world. The way I get back into something if I’ve been away for a while is to immerse myself in it as much as I can within the demands of life. When I do that, all the elements of a piece start to come back. I’m sure part of the reason for that is because I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s almost like muscle memory, but that’s the pay-off for the work. Basically, it’s always the work that addresses the problems.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’d be a school teacher, like I am at Southern Connecticut State, and like I have been for thirty years. That or a bobsled driver.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I think I knew in high school when an English teacher named Fred Shirley turned me on to the possibilities of writing and to the transport of reading literature. That said, my first written story was in second grade. “Trouble for Timothy Turkey.” It was a pretty high-falutin deconstruction of the feel-good myth of the first Thanksgiving. All my friends and I were animals that the pilgrims and native Americans wanted to put in their stomachs. My best friends made it out; the not-so-best, well, CHOMP!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jedah Mayberry looks back at his childhood in Connecticut

SONY DSCJEDAH MAYBERRY is an emerging fiction writer, born in New York, raised in southeastern CT, which was the backdrop for his fiction debut released in March 2013 by River Grove Books. He was a top ten finalist for the 2013 Best New Author Award sponsored by the National Black Book Festival. He also garnered honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s April 2012 Family Matters Short Story Contest. He currently resides with his wife and teenage daughters in Austin, TX.7_JMberry cover

“The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle” is his debut novel. It tells the story of the Hopkins family, from irascible patriarch Alonzo “Grandpa Tuke” Tooker on down to altruistic Dottie, dissatisfied Chester, and their sons Langston and Trajan—who are no typical residents of the Thames River Valley town of Preston, Connecticut. This is perhaps most true of Langston, a boy whose peers declare him to be the “King of Preston Plains Middle School”: a vibrant young man dedicated to his dream of competing in Olympic-level Tae Kwon Do, as well as to his growing passion for his beautiful classmate Angelica Chu. Yet when a terrible accident brings Langston’s Olympic dreams to an abrupt close, Trajan Hopkins, the family’s youngest son, must learn to cope alone with the coming trials of adult life: his slowly changing relationship with self-destructing childhood friends, his initiation into the world of women at the hands of a former teacher, and his growing awareness of the risky world outside his family’s circle within the shadow of a Haitian drug lord’s operation and the often-threatening local police who watch over it. Jedah Mayberry’s The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle marks the debut of a striking new voice in American fiction: intelligent, richly cadenced, slyly funny, and deeply thoughtful about what it means to be a son, a father, and a man.

We’re so pleased to have him here on Books New Haven, talking about his book.

Hi, Jedah. Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

A story about brothers has been brewing inside me for some time now. I’ve always liked the idea of a younger brother drafting behind his older brother, working to fit his shadow.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

I attempted to put something together awhile back, but the story ultimately fell flat. There are countless lessons for an older brother to pass down to a younger brother, insights that the older of the two is still grappling to fully comprehend. I find honesty in that kind of exchange. One is not so far removed from the place the other is in life to relate to his concerns; meanwhile he’s still contending with related concerns – school, friends, family, women/girls. I’ve lifted a few short stories from the original manuscript, but have since put it to bed recognizing that it was beginning to come off as overly preachy. The Unheralded King provided a fresh start plus I learned a ton from that early failed attempt enabling me to approach the storyline from a less heavy-handed perspective.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

I like to say that I write inside-out. I take some tiny kernel of the story to examine in relative isolation, mold it in place. I work a couple three pieces at a time until the ends of the narrative just begin to touch. From there, I write the story out, end-to-end, fast and rough. Get the story on the page. Then I cycle back and fill in additional detail, tying together any loose ends. I continue this loop, stacking details in relative isolation then knitting together the resulting molehills, until a mountain begins to take shape. (As for mechanics, I generally write on whatever device is close at hand, my cellphone most often. I eventually transfer the content to a more structured document but resort to my phone whenever the creative juices start to flow. I can accomplish in a focused fifteen minutes what could take hours if I were forced to sit down at a particular place/time and write. I would venture a guess that a quarter if not more of the book was captured originally on my cellphone.)

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

I start out with a general idea of where I want to take the story, a few potential paths forward at each turn though the conclusion usually remains elusive through to the very end. Midway through KoPPM, I resorted to use of a spreadsheet with automated color coding to map character interactions. Not so much to manage the plot progression, but to ensure that every section of the story serves a purpose, that the pieces fit to create an appropriate level of tension, advance the story in some way. The result resembles a map of some as yet uncharted continent with characters coming and going top-to-bottom along the left margin as the storyline progresses in time from left-to-right. It’s a neat little byproduct that came out along the way to completing a full manuscript. See the plot trace embedded below. Boxes outlined in bold highlight which characters are in conflict in a given subsection.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I still have a day job. As a result, I don’t have structured writing time. I write as the mood strikes. Perhaps I’m lucky in that way. Still, there are times when it just isn’t flowing. I set the work aside at that point and wait for it to come back to me. Proofreading/editing is another matter. Once the manuscript has reached that stage, I’m usually on someone else’s timetable. I’ll put in whatever time is needed to turn the manuscript back to the editor as quickly as possible. The story is largely laid out by then. However, I find the interchange with another thinking being invaluable in making the story better, knitting those ties a little tighter, clarifying, shifting perspective ever so slightly to add new color, new light to a scene. When all else fails, I slip on my headphones. A little music always helps.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I read something to a live audience as part of a Black History month celebration (some ten-plus years before I managed to get anything published). It was a piece from my first attempt at the brother story. I was amazed to see how the story moved people, the bits they found funny or touching or heartbreaking. Being able to connect with an audience in that way is the first sense I got of where this writing thing might lead.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I’d probably teach. Something math or science related to draw on skills associated with my day job and definitely younger students, still full of wonder. I would try to relate what I know on terms they can digest. Similar to what I do with my writing. We tread on some dicey turf in KoPPM with divorce and betrayal and infidelity. I sought to make the subject matter more accessible, to   adults as well as younger readers, presented largely through the eyes of an adolescent.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process?

I keep a running log of things that I call “bits”. I consult my bits file regularly to see if something will fit a new piece I’m working. But, I feel like I’ve developed a good filter (again with the help of the editors) to strike out things that don’t belong. The toughest thing I’ve found is accepting that not everyone is going to relate to everything you write. Any attempt to reach the whole world as your audience will likely result in reaching no one. I read anything I can get my hands on. Some of it fails to move me, either in genre or subject matter. But I’m quick to praise good writing even if I can’t relate to the storyline. I’ll quickly put down anything that panders to the least common denominator in us as readers, fails to surprise me in any way, to provoke some thought on my part.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

My sister-in-law has proven my most reliable proofreader. She’s close enough to be persuaded to commit the time to give it a careful read, but not sympathetic like a blood relative to pull any punches. She probably saw two or three versions of the manuscript before it reached the final round of edits. She remarked on how much it had advanced during that time, partially based on deficiencies she pointed out in early drafts.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

I think of a writer as a blender with a heavy sponge placed at its base. We consume loads of scenery, circumstances, experience. Some our own, some lifted from people we’ve encountered. The trick is to blend it in a way that it’s not recognizable as your own life story yet remains plausible, pulling bits and pieces from true-to-life events. The sponge is meant to hold back anything not suited for outside consumption. Those events might shape the writer’s outlook on family, parents, marriage, life whether or not they make it undisguised into the manuscript.

Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

My protagonist’s parents break up in KoPPM. I don’t believe I could have written that piece as openly had my father still been living. I don’t know that he would have been furious. He may even have appreciated the honesty. Still, I would have shaded the story differently to spare his feelings, diminishing its worth.

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

I force myself to get up, otherwise sleep will not come. Plus, I’ve lost a scene or two in the past to the next sequence of dreaming. I make sure to write things down so that I won’t forget them come morning time.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I usually find myself procrastinating during those shifts where molehills need to become mountains. I fixate on something I believe is especially well written. I’ve learned to use one piece to make another piece jealous. I work to bring it to the level of the first so the story can proceed. It’s also been my experience that some of the greatest advances come once I have something in hand to share with someone else. I push to get to this points, put on my thick skin to absorb any feedback then ratchet up the creativity to address any concerns that arise. I take satisfaction in being able to incorporate their suggestions while staying true to my voice/writing style. There were a couple of really nice descriptive passages that arose from a simple request from the editor to “show me more”, to help her see Connecticut and later Princeton.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

My wife refused to read the book before the publishing process was completed. She read it along with the masses and claims to have loved it. She had some questions regarding things she feared might be autobiographical. But she truly enjoyed the read. Seeing those individual reactions is probably the most gratifying, no matter how many copies ultimately sell. Knowing that someone related to the story, got a kick out of it is what puts a smile on my face.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

Just write. Forget where it might lead, but work on craft. Take a workshop or two. Use the feedback you receive to gauge where you are in your ability to relate a completed thought to potential readers. Then go back to working on craft. Use that early feedback, offered in the relative comfort of a workshop setting, to bolster your confidence through the countless rejections we all receive. Every once in a great while, one of those rejections will include the tiniest bit of constructive feedback. Use that too in making your way forward. Above all else, keep writing. It just might lead someplace.

Solving teenage angst AND saving the world: Children of the Noah

Sometimes it’s not enough to figure out how to navigate through high school, crushes, grades and perhaps a little acne. Sometimes you might have to save the earth from an apocalypse at the same time.

Children of the Noah: The Barren Earth

Children of the Noah: The Barren Earth

That’s the problem of the characters in The Children of the Noah: Barren Earth, a novel written by our youngest-ever published author, Evan DeCarlo, of Branford. DeCarlo is a college student, and he wrote this novel during that delicate transition from high school to college in Manhattan, knocking out at least 2,000 words a day. (Which proves that the rest of us who whine about not having time to write should just be quiet about it.)

Here is the delightful Evan, to tell us just how he did it, what it all means, and what comes next.

Evan DeCarlo

Evan DeCarlo

Welcome, Evan, to Books New Haven. Tell us about your book,Children of the Noah- Book 1: The Barren Earth. 

What do most fourteen year old boys have to worry about? Baseball tryouts? Girls? That Algebra final? And then there’s Franklin Freeman, who’s just been tasked with preventing the apocalypse by any means necessary. His only companions on this impossible mission? Try an amnesiac cyborg from the future, an insect obsessed nerd, a tomboy from down the block, and a malfunctioning time machine that could take them all to who knows what year. By no choice of his own, Franklin Freeman is sucked into the greatest and most bizarre adventure of a lifetime, one in which he’ll travel across time and space from his little home in southern Connecticut, meet a dystopian tribe made up of the last humans on earth, do battle with a race of monsters living just under the planet’s surface, and – most daunting of all – try not to make a total fool of himself in front of the girl he’s been hopelessly crushing on all along! And he thought it was going to be a relaxing summer break…

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

It seemed at first like the story would only be a very short one. It was my intention to write no more than twenty or pages about a couple of boys who go fishing by day and stargazing when the sun goes down; a simple piece about the joys and freedoms of summer in Connecticut. Then, as I grew fonder of and more attached to the characters with each passing day, it became increasingly apparent to me that I would not be willing to let them go after a mere twenty pages, nor would I be content to limit their adventures by the constraints of the real world. My favorite stories, after all, are often fantastical in nature.  Children of the Noah- Book I: The Barren Earth became not just a story about two boys dealing with problems like girls and social anxiety, but a story about a group of friends saving the world and struggling with all their usual teenage problems at the same time.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

Initially, the book came in spurts, few and far between. I’d write a few pages, get stuck, and then give up. But after a few weeks (or months in some unfortunate cases) I’d always pick it back up again. I was too hopeful for the characters to ever let them go entirely. And so the story was written in this clunky sort of way from December of 2011 to July of 2012. When I graduated from high school and began to attend college in Manhattan, however, the massive transition from quiet Connecticut to big noisy NYC jumpstarted something in my brain. Suddenly, I needed the characters more than I ever had, to help me cope, to remind me of home. They were on a journey and so was I. After I realized as much, I began writing 2,000 words a day (except on Sundays). I haven’t stopped or given up again since then.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

I’m a college student. Some people say that, being in college, you can only choose two of three options: a social life, good grades, or sanity. As things stand, I have a novel in progress on top of those three options out of which I can only select two. A tricky situation. I’d like to think I can balance all four, but some people might say my “sanity” is questionable. I would agree with those people. In any case, I only ever sit down to write once my homework (and my socializing) is completed. When I do sit down to write, however, I don’t stop till I’ve banged out at least 2,000 words. Then I can go to sleep. Sweet, neglected sleep. Believe it or not, I write everyday.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

The entire trilogy is, at this point, outlined in a very basic way (with Book Two’s rough draft nearing completion). But it is only a very rough outline. I know where I’m going, but not precisely how I aim to get there. It’s like planning a trip. I’d like to end up in England, for example, but to get there I can fly, take a boat, or even swim!

When did you first know you were a writer?

I still don’t know that for certain.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I would love to make animations, cartoons and comics, but I can’t draw for the life of me. So I make comics without the pictures, AKA books.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

My least favorite part of the writing process is probably when I feel like everything I write is garbage and that I’m really much too young to be writing in the first place. I get stuck or end up writing a lot of fluff because I can’t think of anything important to say. It’s terrible. But it’s temporary.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

The manuscript passes through some trusted hands before it ever makes its way to an editor. My parents, my grandmothers, my illustrator, the list goes on. They critique, I modify, remove, or add, and then it all starts over again. A vicious cycle, but an extremely useful one.

Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?

Joey Jensen, one of the central characters in The Barren Earth, is a photorealistic portrait of one of my very best friends. I didn’t need to tell him as much, he just figured it out when he read the novel; that’s how alike the two are. My friend didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he had ideas and suggestions!

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

I do all of my writing in the middle of the night. I never rest anyway.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

Ever hear of the website Reddit.com? The ultimate procrastination tool. Otherwise I’ll read books, but I don’t like to identify reading as procrastination. Reading the stories of others is, perhaps, the most helpful method I have to improve my own writing.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

Honestly, seeing the stories illustrated made me giddier than it should have. I guess I like connecting with people through my books, and seeing someone connect on that extremely visceral level by actually rendering the stories in a visual medium really did the trick for me.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

Write. I know an awful lot of “writers” in NYC who rarely, if ever, put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). Just write till something sticks. I can’t say much more than that. Writing and reading in America are privileges and, thankfully, rights that everyone is entitled to, regardless of class, race, or gender. We’re very lucky in this country. So write! And read, too! Especially my book!

Afoot in Connecticut: Eric Lehman urges us to get outdoors

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Afoot in Connecticut was a labor of love, a chance to show everyone how I fell in love with our state. I love writing about food and wine, and I enjoy writing history, but I came to love Connecticut first through walking the trails and discovering the natural world. So clearly this book is much closer to my heart.

One of the most common questions I get is – why does someone who grew up in Pennsylvania love Connecticut so much? Well, now I get to tell the story of how that happened, by walking the paths and trails of the forests, farms, and beaches. The natural world here is so enthralling and dense that I couldn’t help it. We are actually one of the most forested states in the country, but no one thinks of that when they think about Connecticut. Why? Maybe because we have suburbs and we have strip malls. But think about those same suburban areas in, say, New Jersey.

Afoot in Connecticut Cover

We also have a great trail system, both “blue” trails through the forests, and “green” multi-use trails for biking, walking, and more. Being such a small state, all these trails are close together and almost (almost!) completely connected to each other. With just a little road walking, you could literally walk around the state without stopping, camping or staying at bed and breakfasts. That’s a phenomenon that is popular in Europe, but due to the space in America never really caught on here, at least not since the 1800s. I think that’s a great opportunity to sell our state as a place for “walking tours,” and bring in a few tourists. Of course, then I’ll have to deal with more traffic on the trails I used to walk alone, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

So, Afoot in Connecticut is book about walking, about natural history, and about finding home. Those three things are intimately connected in my eyes, and I hope I got that across. I have written six books about Connecticut, with three more coming out in the next couple years. I don’t think I’ll stop any time soon. This is a beautiful state with beautiful people. I hope it inspires other people to get out of their cars and take to the trails, because that is the best way, some would say the only way, to know a place. And I think that knowing and understanding where you live is an important part of knowing yourself.

Hamden author Louise Rozett is making good in L.A. and has a new book!

 Louise Rozett is the author of Confessions of an Angry Girl and Confessions of an Almost-Girlfriend. She lives in Los Angeles with her fierce protector, a giant Bernese mountain dog named Lester, and is a proud graduate of Hamden High School. Visit Louiserozett.com for more. Here’s her page for the new book:


Also, she will be participating in an online panel called “Humor Me!” with Paul Rudnick and Don Calame as part of the School Library Journal’s Summerteen 2013 program on 7/24 at 4:15 pm. (www.slj.com/summerteen/program/)

almost girlfriend

Tell us about your new book.

I’m so excited about Confessions of an Almost-Girlfriend, which is the sequel to Confessions of an Angry Girl. The main character, Rose, is growing up—fast. She’s a sophomore now, and there’s a big difference between freshman and sophomore year of high school. The issues she has to deal with are even more intense this time around. As are her feelings for the mysterious and frustrating Jamie Forta.

Where did the germ of the story come from?

I was intrigued by the fact that a lot of the people around Rose seemed have a clearer idea of who they were and what they wanted to do than Rose did. I wanted to explore what it’s like to be lost in high school when it feels like everyone around you knows what they’re doing, and to see how Rose would dig her way out of that. And when she did dig her way out of that, how her newfound confidence affected her decisions—particularly with regard to Jamie.

Did this book come to you easily?

In some ways, the book did come easily to me, because it’s about the beginnings of Rose’s journey as a singer, which was something I could relate to based on my own experience. I remember what it felt like to realize that there was something I could do—something that other people thought I was good at it—and how that made me feel. So in some ways, I feel like my journey is really linked to Rose’s, which made the book easier to write than I expected. However, there are things that happen to the characters in this book that I really didn’t want to accept, and I fought against it, tooth and nail. But the voices in my head won out in the end—I had to let the story go the way it wanted to go.

What are the big issues that Rose had to deal with in this book?

 

There’s a lot going on for Rose. She’s coping with depression as a result of the loss of her dad, and feelings of inadequacy based on what she perceives as the successes that her friends are having. She’s also trying to figure out how to handle desire, and the havoc that that seems to be wreaking in her life. And there’s a new character in this installment of the series—a pissed-off gay student who is doing everything he can not to be a victim of the homophobic athlete culture in their school—who really challenges Rose in a number of ways. She is once again trying to figure out what it means to stand up for what is right, and she’s getting an education from a number of different sources, some of them not-so-pleasant.

How much of you is there in Rose?

Probably more than I would like to admit! I definitely had my share of crushes on the brooding, mysterious types at Hamden High, and I struggled to stay true to myself in the face of those intense feelings. The question Rose is trying to answer is, how do you hold on to yourself—your values, your beliefs, your boundaries—when you’re feeling desire and romantic love for the first time? And that was a question that I never quite found the answer to until I was much older. But in Confessions of an Almost-Girlfriend, Rose starts to realize that the key is to have your own goals and passions that are separate from the person you’re crazy about, and to pursue them with the same ardor and devotion you use to pursue love. It’s a pretty major realization for her, as it was for me, once I finally had it!

Another thing that Rose and I have in common is that we were both in productions of Anything Goes in high school. Rose dips her toe in the musical theatre world in high school as an homage to what was probably the most important part of my high school experience—discovering my love of theatre, and learning the art of discipline within creativity from mentors like Joe Juliano and Julian Schlusberg.

What are you working on right now?

 

I’m currently in Los Angeles, writing the pilot for the Confessions series. It was originally a half-hour format, and now I’m working with my manager to change it to an hour-long format, to make it more suitable for places like ABC Family and the CW. It’s a really fun, strange process—it’s like writing the Confessions books all over again, but in a parallel universe, where everything is shifted by at least a few degrees, and some of the characters are completely different from who they were in the books. It’s weird, but good.

Will there be another installment of the Confessions series?

 

I certainly hope so. I’m if lucky, I’ll get to write both junior and senior year. I need to know what happens to Rose, and she won’t tell me until I start writing the next book. She keeps her cards pretty close, I have to say.

 

Lucy Burdette/Roberta Isleib cooks up a mystery series to die for

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We here at Books New Haven LOVE the work of Roberta Isleib, a mystery writer who’s given us several intriguing series–along with some midnights when we simply could not turn out the light and go to sleep, for fear of not knowing what was going to happen next.

And we’re delighted that she’s launching her new book, TOPPED CHEF, at R. J. Julia Booksellers at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 8.

Isleib’s first mystery series included 5 books featuring Cassie Burdette, an aspiring golf professional. Then, her Advice Column series featured Rebecca Butterman, a fictional psychologist who lived in Guilford with a private practice in New Haven. And now, writing as Lucy Burdette, she’s writing the Key West food critic mystery series. (Being a food critic can be dangerous work, you know!)

Isleib’s books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. She is a past-president of Sisters in Crime, a national organization founded to support women crime fiction writers. The Florida Book Review has said “in a crowded cozy market, Lucy Burdette’s Key West Food Critic series stands out among its peers.”

roberta isleib

Tell us about your new book:

TOPPED CHEF (written as Lucy Burdette) is the third installment in my Key West food critic mystery series. The books feature Hayley Snow, an aspiring food critic and amateur sleuth living in America’s southernmost island paradise.

In TOPPED CHEF, Hayley is tapped as a judge on a reality TV cooking show. Stakes are high because the winner is slated to become the next cooking superstar. When another judge turns up murdered, Hayley must figure out who’s taking the contest too seriously before she becomes the next victim.

What kinds of research do you have to do for this series?

I have to do a lot of eating, of course. 🙂

Besides that, writing without actually seeing the scene of the crime has gotten harder. An important part of my process is visiting the setting, either before or while developing the story. When I see what’s there, the ideas start to flood in.

For example, as I’m walking and biking around Key West, I notice that homeless people are everywhere, including perched on the stone walls around Mallory Square watching the performers and the tourists. After all, if you had to spend your nights outdoors, you might choose the tropics too. And I think about how they blend into the scenery, but probably notice all kinds of things that visitors wouldn’t see. And so Turtle, the homeless guy, becomes a character. One cool night, after the crowds have thinned down at the Old Town Harbor, he notices two men arguing. When a man is found hung in a sailboat’s rigging later, he doesn’t connect the dots. Or maybe he does, but he would never voluntarily go to the police with this information. But Hayley might worm it out of him. Or a bad guy might realize he knows more than he should and bad things ensue.

And then there are names and characters given to me that I can’t refuse. For instance, last year I offered an auction item to benefit the Waterfront Playhouse–naming rights to a character in TOPPED CHEF. The man who won the auction sent me a photo and bio of the character he wanted me to include–Randy Thompson, an actual drag queen who performs at the Aqua bar on Duval Street as Victoria. I didn’t have the heart to explain that I’d offered naming rights, not character development rights. So I took the real Randy to lunch to chat about the psychology of drag queens and watched him (her) perform a few times, and expanded the character from those points. And then I decided what the heck, and threw Peter Shapiro, the man who’d bought the character, into the mix too.

What’s next for you and Lucy?
I’ve just signed a contract for the next two books in the Key West series; MURDER WITH GANACHE is scheduled for a February 2014 release. I’m delighted because I love writing these books!

Don’t forget: Isleib/Burdette will appear at RJ Julia’s Booksellers on May 8 at 7 pm to launch TOPPED CHEF. Call 203-245-3959 to reserve a seat.

Matt Debenham writes short stories for people who think they hate short stories–and then fall in love with them

Matt DebenhamMatt Debenham of Westport is the author of the story collection The Book of Right and Wrong, published in 2010 by the Ohio State University Press, having won the 2009 OSU Press Prize for Fiction. In 2007 (nothing happened in 2008) he was awarded a fiction fellowship by the Connecticut Council on Culture and Tourism, and was Peter Taylor Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His stories have been published in The Battered Suitcase, Roanoke Review, The Pinch, Painted Bride Quarterly, Dogwood, and North Atlantic Review, and have been reprinted in Weston Magazine. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a BA from Fitchburg State College. (Author photo by Lisa Jane Persky.)

The Book of Right and Wrong

His stories are said to be for people who think they don’t like short stories. At once heartbreaking and hilarious, the eleven stories in The Book of Right and Wrong capture their characters at the defining moments of their lives. A mother finds herself defending her son’s biggest bully from a tormentor of his own; a young man watches as his cape-wearing former high-school classmate proves himself more adept at making friends; a social worker gambles everything on expediting an adoption—and causes unforeseen consequences for every person in her life; a boy standing in for Jimmy Carter in his elementary school’s mock-election inadvertently starts a bloody playground war; an ex-con single father finds himself on the inside of his town’s social circle, with no clue as to how the game is played.

Matt will be reading from his book at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, at Best Video, 1842 Whitney Ave. in Hamden. He joins JoeAnn Hart, of Massachusetts, author of the novel Float.

Welcome, Matt. Tell us about your new collection.

My collection is called The Book of Right and Wrong. It won the 2009 Ohio State University Press Prize for Fiction*, and was published in 2010. It’s a nice, short book featuring eleven stories. The publishing tagline is “stories for people who think they hate short stories.” Five of them are related, so there’s also a little thread running through the book.

(*I usually have to tell people this was a national prize, because otherwise they think it’s some sort of alumni book award.)

Are there stories in there that called to you more strenuously than others?

“Called to you strenuously.” I like that phrase! Yes. The last piece, “Kate the Destroyer,” started out with me trying to write about an incident that I had when I was a kid. I was really stuck, and then I had the idea to write from the mother’s perspective. That just shook the whole thing loose, and I ended up writing a completely different story than what I’d intended, yet it also better encapsulated what I’d wanted to get across about the mother in the first place. That one, as soon as I made that little jump in perspective, really kind of flew out of me in one night. (The first draft did, anyway. There are always many other drafts!)

Oh the other hand, “Failure to Thrive” had started years earlier as a story about a woman with two sons, one a meth addict and one a cop, vying for control of their mother’s house. I could never get it right, so I left it alone. Then, when I was getting ready to send the book to OSU Press for consideration, I realized what I wanted to do with the story. So I rewrote it for what must’ve been the 12th time and added it to the collection the day before the deadline. And it’s the story that most seems to grab people. If someone emails me or tweets me about my book, that almost-lost story is the one they most reference.

As a novelist, I feel that years pass while I’m working on just one plot. It’s unimaginable to me to have so many plots to untangle and figure out. Do they come to you one at a time, or are you often working on different ones at once?

Yes! By which I mean yes to both, at one time or another. Sometimes I’ll have a few stories going, sometimes it’s only one. There’s a magical thing that happens where I forget, every damn time, what makes a really good story for me – which is, there’s a question I HAVE to find the answer to. For example, I get an image of a guy telling his son to do a terrible thing on a playground. Now I HAVE to know how that came about. Those are the stories that eventually see the light of day. There are other stories that I’ll spend weeks on (or far worse), only to realize too late that, um, there was no fascination or question for me, just a premise I thought was cool. I may never learn that premises, by themselves, are not my friends.

Also, I spent way too long writing a novel. By the end, it was impressively big, and I hated everything about it, especially the characters. It was, go figure, a very premise-heavy book. You really need to love your characters and find them endlessly entertaining and fascinating. One day soon I’ll go back to that novel and rewrite it, but I’m going to need to go in there with a sledgehammer and maybe some dynamite.

Any recurring characters or character types in your stories? Or specific themes you feel drawn to?

I keep going back to a character named Miles LaPine, along with members of his family. They’re in those five connected stories in the book, and I’ve since released an independent story called “Challenger” that also features Miles. He’s kind of a combo platter of my own most awkward/earnest aspects, along with a couple of troubled nerds I knew as a kid. Themewise, I like exploring the gulf between a misguided and/or ill-equipped person’s best intentions and whatever reality they’re just not capable of seeing. That gulf is big enough to accommodate a lot of tragedy and comedy, so it’s a good place to play.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).

Hoo boy. My process is one of fits and starts. I usually start really strong, writing out a first scene or two, just getting to know who and what I’m writing about. Then I back off for a bit, and I do some thinking. As in: Okay, you know who you’re writing about, now where’s it going? Which used to scare me – why am I just thinking?! — but now I understand this is writing, every bit as much as typing words on a screen. Then I usually start rewriting from scratch. Once I have a finished first draft, I put it aside for a while. When I go back to it, it no longer feels personal, so I have free license to go in and really mess with it. That’s where I’ll change genders, timelines, characters’ objectives, etc. This is usually a multi-draft process.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

I think something in-between? I usually have either an ending image or a climactic image, and I work toward that: How did we get here? Why are these people doing this? My stuff is pretty plot-oriented, so when I have my incident and my people figured out and I’ve done a bit of writing, then I do start sketching out a sequence of events and escalations. I like twists. The “gut-punch,” as my wife calls it.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can  bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

Coffee’s good for this. I follow the advice of Ron Carlson, who’s a writer everyone should read. In his book Ron Carlson Writes A Story, he tells you: Do not get up. Stay seated. Ignore the urge to get a drink or do some chore, and instead force yourself to sit there. A few minutes after that is usually when the words will start coming. It’s a little like breaking the will of a captive spy. Your brain finally goes, “Ugh, fine. HERE.” I feel that for a lot of writers, half the job is tricking yourself into doing things.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I came to it pretty late. I know a lot of writers say they knew when they were kids, but while I always liked to write and get reactions to my writing, I didn’t think seriously about fiction until I was in my twenties and well into a public relations career. So: 25? 26?

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I teach as well, in independent workshops as well as for the writing program at Western CT State. I love teaching and would gladly do only that for a living. (IF I could no longer write, that is.) Otherwise, I’d be a good man in a book or video store.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

I really do like all of it. I used to love first drafts, because I viewed that as the “creation” phase, and everything else was the dirty work. But it’s all creation, and it’s all editing. It’s not a linear process for me. Rather, it’s like a busy kitchen, where some people are prepping raw ingredients and others are grilling and plating. (I may have been hungry while answering these.)

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

I like a little messiness, a little weirdness in my stuff. So when I revise, I make sure my words are good – am I finding the one word to do the work of a paragraph? Do my sentences vary in length and intensity, creating a kind of musical flow, etc.? But what I most work on in revision is getting the moments right. Cutting out the extra crap, while leaving in some of those ragged edges. Oh, and I always read aloud. Every draft. This is crucial.

As far as outside readers go, I have two trusted readers. I show them my stuff either when I think I’m done and I know they’ll have smart suggestions, or when I’m stuck and I can’t see my way out of the hole. I’m actually interested in finding a good writers’ group near me. I think that’d be really helpful, both in terms of having careful eyes on my stuff and in terms of having a regular deadline.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

Great question! I’m torn, because I’m driven to read interviews with authors who interest me, yet I’m disappointed when I find out a work I liked was drawn almost entirely from the author’s own experiences. Which is completely unfair and hypocritical of me! I think it’s human nature to want to know these things about authors. And I think there’s always something of the author in the work, whether it’s near-memoir or whether the work reflects some nagging fascination of theirs. When I do get those questions, I’m nice about it, because I completely understand where they’re coming from, and because I certainly can’t claim that there’s no “me” in the book.

Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?

I do! I read the AV Club way too much, or I’ll often find myself on AllMusic.com, reading reviews of a band’s entire discography. Or I’ll think, “Beverly Hills Buntz!” and then I’ll be on Wikipedia, looking up the production history of the failed show about a minor Hill Street Blues character. Then there’s Twitter….

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

A lot of writing for me is problem-solving. How do I get from point A to point D without it feeling contrived? Why WOULD she do that? How can I structure this so that when the big moment comes it feels like a gut-punch? I worked in marketing and communications for a long time, and that was always my favorite part of that job. So this act of realizing the implausible makes me happy. Feeling like I got at a feeling or moment that I haven’t seen done that way before makes me really happy. Externally, I love when someone tells me they were so shaken by a story they had to put the book down. I’ve been lucky enough to hear that a few times, and I think it’s a positive! And I hope I never stop getting a charge out of saying “my book.”

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them why not? I’m teaching a morning workshop in Westport right now for people who’ve never written before. And these six people have gotten to the point where they’re all producing genuinely good work. I’ve yet to meet the person who can’t write, even a little bit, with some direction and encouragement. And I don’t view this as some exclusive club. Can everyone be a Jennifer Egan or a Toni Morrison? Probably not, but I’m always shocked, pleasantly so, when I see what people are capable of doing.

How could two books be more different? Lisa Winkler’s success story

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Lisa Winkler has not one, but TWO books recently out on the market. And they couldn’t be more different. The first is a nonfiction story of one young man’s daring journey, and the second is a collection of essays from women bloggers who share their innermost thoughts and posts with the rest of us.

Here at Books New Haven, we’re always ready to celebrate books by local authors, and Lisa was born and raised in Killingworth, where her father was a poultry farmer and the entire family – Lisa’s mother, two sisters and brother – worked on the farm. After graduating from Vassar College, Lisa wanted to be a journalist. She worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant and the Danbury News-Times, and then married and moved to London. She’s been a teacher and a writer, and is the mother of three children. And now that she’s also a grandmohter, she writes a blog at www.cyclingrandma.wordpress.com.

Welcome, Lisa, to Books New Haven.

tangerine tangocowboy book by lisa

Tell us about your new books.

Tangerine Tango: Women Writers Share Slices of Life is an anthology of short essays by women writers. Most of the writers I met through blogging and I invited them to submit essays, without giving them any theme. I received submissions that span the entire citrus spectrum, from sour to sweet. There are colorful slices of life: some sad, some nostalgic, and some humorous, about parents and parenting, childhood, food, farewell, jobs and journeys.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

After publishing my first book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America, people asked me what my next book was about. I didn’t have one! Though I was looking for ideas. When I hit my one-year anniversary for my blog, Cyclingrandma, in April 2012, I thought it would be fun to put my favorite posts into a book. But that didn’t seem enough. So I invited several writers, mostly other bloggers I’ve befriended through blogging, to join the project. Along the way, a couple other writers contributed too.

Was the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job? Or is it
something quite outside your field that called to you?

My first book, On the Trial of the Ancestors, tells the story of Miles Dean, a New Jersey teacher, who rode his horse from New York to California to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to US history.

I met Miles Dean while working as an educational consultant in Newark and
believed Dean’s mission and message would make a compelling story. It’s a story that speaks to animal lovers, horsemen and horsewomen, armchair travelers, and with educators, parents and young people who are part of the African American community or connected with it. It’s available via my website: www.lisakwinkler.com, on Amazon, and in other book stores.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

As a teacher, I’ve witnessed how young people know little of history. In urban areas,
youth learn about slavery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a few more facts
during Black History Month in February. Yet they have little if any connection with
these historical figures. When I began my own reading after meeting Miles, I became
fascinated with these people whose contributions to the development of the US are
largely unknown. Most adults haven’t heard of these people. American history needs to
include all races and genders to truly demonstrate who built this nation, their struggles
and sacrifices and stories.  A cross country journey in itself is a story. From my research, I couldn’t find any other story of of other modern-day African Americans who have ridden a horse across the country with this purpose in mind. I loved the idea of this young boy
growing up watching western movies and television shows and dreaming that he too
could become a cowboy.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

On the Trail of the Ancestors went through many drafts. It began as a first person
narrative and then I changed it to third person. After trying to find an agent and not being able to find out, I thought I should let it go. But something made me continue and I decided to self-publish the book. I felt it’s a great story that had to be told.

For Tangerine Tango, I really had a lot of fun collecting the essays and working with the
writers. Some were a bit more resistant to editing than others, but it all worked out.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?
With any writing, you have to be passionate and committed to the process. With non-
fiction, I think you have to truly become obsessed with the subject to create a book. It’s
not like fiction—you can’t make it up! That said, I also believe it can happen—just don’t give up! It takes tons of patience, fortitude and sometimes luck to get published. With self-publishing there are many options to get your work out, but it’s a very tough (and can be expensive) road. Believing in your story is paramount. If you have passion for it, others will too. Also, there’s no “quick fix.” While an occasional book might sell hundreds of copies the first week, thousands the first month and so on, most don’t. I believe marketing really becomes a personal adventure: why would someone want to read my book? I view it as my journey: one sale, one reader, one book at a time. If you care about the book, you have to put effort into marketing it.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I ordered books from libraries and bookstores and read on the Internet too. I didn’t have
any trouble obtaining the resources. I reached out to several of the people Miles met and
conducted a few telephone interviews that helped my writing.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?
For the first book, I truly believed in the story. I was (and still am) mesmerized by the
journey that Miles Dean took, and the history he brought to life in his travels.
With Tangerine Tango, it was just a fun project and has been a lovely gift book. The
proceeds are going to Huntington’s Disease.

What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

The books have been well received and of course appeal to very different audiences. I’m
trying to get On the Trail of the Ancestors into schools. I’ve written a cross-disciplinary
Educator’s Guide that is free to download from my website. I taught these lessons to students when I worked in Newark and they were well received by students and staff.

What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?

At the moment, I’m not planning anything. I’m always looking for the next idea and
might do another anthology later this year.

The “real” Frank Sinatra from the guy who followed him for 60 years

Sinatra and Me

Sinatra and Me

Okay, not many people were allowed inside Frank Sinatra’s inner circle. But Tony Consiglio–of Sally’s Apizza fame–was a boyhood friend of Sinatra’s who remained his friend and confidant for over sixty years. One reason Sinatra valued Tony’s friendship is that he could be trusted: Sinatra nicknamed him “the Clam” because Tony never spoke to reporters or biographers about the singer. From the early days when Sinatra was trying to establish himself as a singer to the mid-1960s, Tony worked with Sinatra and was there to share in the highs and lows of Sinatra’s life and career. Tony was with Sinatra during his “bobby-soxer” megastar days in the 1940s, and he remained loyal to Sinatra during the lean years of the early 1950s, when “the Voice” was struggling with a crumbling singing and acting career as well as his tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner. Tony also had a front row seat to Sinatra’s comeback in the 1950s, starting with his Academy Award winning role in From Here to Eternity and a string of now-classic hit recordings. Tony’s friendship with Sinatra allowed him to rub elbows with the Hollywood elite, including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, and many others. It also brought him close to the political world of the early 1960s, when Sinatra campaigned for John F. Kennedy and then helped plan the Kennedy inauguration. Tony was even at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, Massachusetts, when the election results came in. Sinatra and Me will shed new light on the real Frank Sinatra from the man who knew him better than anyone.

And who better to tell Tony Consiglio’s story than Franz Douskey, who has been published in over 200 publications including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Nation?  Douskey’s fourth book, West of Midnight, reached number 24 on the Amazon Best-Seller list in 2011 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

SINATRA AND ME: THE VERY GOOD YEARS is the result of eight years of interviews and travels with Tony Consiglio who traveled and lived with Frank Sinatra from 1942 until Frank’s first retirement. The book is Tony’s memoirs of the Sinatra years, as well as never before published photos and letters.

To hear Franz Douskey talk about how he convinced Tony “The Clam” Consiglio to open up about Frank Sinatra, listen to this podcast. http://www.tantor.com/share/FranzDouskey_interview_final.mp3

And come to see Franz Douskey and hear a reading from the book at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 13 at the Gateway Community College Library, New Haven, second floor.

Welcome to Books New Haven, Franz. Tell us about your book.

The focus of the book is Tony Consiglio, who co-founded Sally’s Apizza in 1938 with his mother and his brother Salvatore, then traveled with Sinatra, worked with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, worked on JFK’s campaign for president in 1960,  and the Inaugural Ball in January 1961, and was a regular visitor at the White House. On occasion he brought Judith Exner, who was having  simultaneous affairs with JFK and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Tony was friends with with Pierre Salinger, Lou Gehrig, Muhammad Ali, Regis Philbin , Emeril LaGasse, Frank Sinatra’s mother, father, first wife and their three children, Nancy, Jr., Frank, Jr., and Tina.  Every story in the book is a first-hand account by a man who seemed to be everywhere and had the photos to support the stories.

What is your writing process?

I don’t have a writing process because I don’t do one kind of writing.  Early on I did travel writing to support my desire to travel.  Another aspect was a series of interviews with sports figures, such as Willie Pep, Bud Harrelson, Smoky Joe Wood, etc. Also published lots of short stories and some poetry.  When I’m working I’m in a place away from home where only a few people know where to find me.  That is essential.

Was the research for the book difficult?

The research was time consuming and entailed much travel, many phone calls and plenty of dead ends.  What I couldn’t verify didn’t go into the book.

What was the best part of writing this book? What did you enjoy the most?

The best part of working on the book was spending lots of time with Tony.  We visited Frank, Jr., Nancy Jr., we lectured at colleges, visited Emeril numerous times, and even wrote segments for Emeril Live! on the Food Network.  Tony was brilliant, and so much damned fun.  We had a great time together.  Two New Haven bums on the road together.

Did you come across any surprises in researching this book?

There were numerous surprises along the way, too many to mention.  Our early agents wanted us to put in large sections about Frank and the mob, Frank and Marilyn; you know, the usual stuff.  Tony wanted to tell the stories behind the music, behind the night life and the crazy stunts that Dean, Frank, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jack E Leonard and other pals would play on each other.  Also, there were stories Tony didn’t want in the book.  He had promised Frank that there were some stories that he would take to the grave, and he did.

How did you first know you were a writer?

I still have my doubts.  I don’t think of myself as a writer.  I’m just a guy who has had some very amazing experiences, so I have a lot to draw on instead of my imagination.

What have you been working on since the book came out?

Since the book has been published, I’ve been traveling, doing a lot of interviews.  One day there was a “virtual radio tour” and I did 24 interviews starting at 7:23 a.m. and ending at 7:45 that night.  Most of the interviews were live, and some were taped.  Oddly, for a person who likes to be alone, I like doing the interviews and the book signings.  The three that stand out are the Book Party at Sally’s Restaurant that was jammed.  Ruthie, Bobby  and Ricky went all out.  They were amazing.  Tony’s widow, Mary and their two sons, Anthony and Christopher were there and that was very important. But no Tony.  I really regret that Tony didn’t make it long enough to see the book published.

Another fine event was at R J Julia, let’s say the best bookstore in the USA.  We took the tour bus because we had a few friends aboard and it’s a great way to eat and relax while traveling to readings.  I thought there might be ten or twelve people at R J Julia but there were a lot of people, chairs set up in the aisles, and after I told a few stories from the book, people lined up and it took a long time to get all the books signed.  Was my hand tired? Never.  I enjoyed meeting people and listening to their stories about Frank Sinatra and music, in general.  The third best stop was to Imus In The Morning.  Very surprising.  I’m an unknown.  But I got a call and several emails from the producer.  Then Bernard send a great email telling me not to worry and be myself.  Well, I am usually myself, and I had a great time with Imus, Rob Bartlett and Tony Powell.  I had to be there very early.  I hate hassles.  The thought of finding a parking space at Union Station, then the train being on time, then wrangling over a cab contained too many “ifs.”  Just one thing going wrong could screw up the interview.   So, I called my favorite limo service and that was it.  Andrew came to the house in the dark, my wife Sarah and Tantor Vice President John Molish got in, no worries and we got there on time.  Beautiful.  There is no doubt about it, I may not be getting richer in my old age, but I’m certainly cutting down on things that can go wrong.

What’s next?

There are four books done and in line for publishing.  Tantor has rights of first refusal.  One book deals with Memphis, Tennessee, its music and musical icons, some of whom I knew and a few I still know.  There’s a huge book on the history of one year: 1968.  As mentioned those books are done, but I tend to never be finished with a book until it’s in print.  And there is one very intriguing project just being put together.

The Black Russian–a true story of a black American’s amazing adventures

The Black Russian

The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov, of Hamden, grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, he decided that he’d learned enough about the natural world but didn’t understand himself or other people. His solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in his getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, he moved to Yale University in 1986, where he continues to teach courses on Russian literature and culture.

He is the author of a new book out this month, a book that is garnering plenty of advance praise. Booklist, in a starred review, called the book “magnetizing and unforgettable.” And Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer prize, said it was “a spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable.

We are thrilled here at Books New Haven to welcome Vladimir Alexandrov to our pages, where he has graciously told us about the process of writing and researching this fascinating book about a character who was very real but whom most of us have never heard about.

Vladimir Alexandrov will be giving talks throughout the country. For more information about his interview schedule, click here for the events page of his website.

And now, Vladimir himself:

Tell us about THE BLACK RUSSIAN.

This is a biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872-1928), the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a millionaire impresario in pre-Revolutionary Moscow and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople. Although famous during his lifetime, he is now almost completely forgotten.

How did you come across the original story of Thomas, and when did you know that you were going to write his story?

Seven years ago, while preparing to teach a graduate seminar at Yale on Russian émigré culture between the world wars, I was reading the memoirs of Alexander Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution, when I came to a remark that made me stop. Vertinsky described how he landed in Constantinople in 1920, which was the first stage on the bitter road to exile for many Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and then began to perform in an entertainment garden that belonged, as he put it (I translate from his Russian), “to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous ‘Maxim’ in Moscow.”

I remember that I was so surprised that I put the book down. I had never heard of this  “Tomas,” and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been famous for owning an entertainment venue of some sort in pre-Revolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable. People of African origin were always very rare in Imperial Russia; in fact, the best-known one, Abram Hannibal, lived in the 18th century (and is well known because he was the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great national writer). The well-documented visits by such prominent black Americans as the writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, or the actor and singer Paul Robeson, did not take place until the Soviet era years later.

Who was this “Fyodor Tomas” and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of owning what sounded like a theater? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why, if Vertinsky said that he was “famous,” had he been forgotten?

I started digging through Yale’s vast library, but after considerable effort came up with only a half-dozen brief and contradictory references to this black man. However, I was fortunate in having a year-long sabbatical ahead of me, and dedicated it entirely to a hunt for information through a labyrinth of archives and libraries in five countries.

What I found far exceeded my expectations.

But I didn’t know that I’d actually be able to write Thomas’s biography until I reached a  tipping point in my research—finding two dossiers about him in the National Archives in College Park, MD, after the archivists there had given up and told me that what I was looking for had probably been destroyed. These dossiers led me to sources about Thomas’s youth in Mississippi, and to archives in France and elsewhere.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

How a person refused to accept limitations imposed on him by others, and how he repeatedly reinvented himself in exotic settings far from home. How a black American could find acceptance in tsarist Russia at a time when Jim Crow was on the rise in the United States. How, in the end, the long arm of American racism did manage to reach Thomas in distant Constantinople after he had survived wars and revolution in Russia.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

Searching for information about Thomas was fascinating because it was a detective-like hunt that took me to foreign countries. The process was also addictive because every time I found some nugget of information, the thrill of it made me want to re-experience that thrill again. I recall moments in various archives when I held a folder of documents in my hands that might contain information (I didn’t know for sure, but I was following a lead)—and savored the moment before opening the folder.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

To make it easier to get started in the morning, I don’t stop work the previous evening until I’ve briefly sketched the next paragraphs in the narrative, or in the argument, that I’m fashioning. Rereading that on the following morning helps me re-saturate myself with the ideas, words, and phrases that filled me when I stopped, and functions as a kind of ski jump into the future passage.

If I’m writing a narrative, I put together a detailed chronology that is several hundred pages long, consisting of the events that are my focus, as well as whatever I am correlating them with from history. This linear “story” can then be rearranged into the book’s “plot,” or the actual sequence of events in the final narrative, which will frequently differ from the “story” (which can be useful to do for effect). But if I’m writing an analysis of literary works, or making a literary theoretical argument, I use hundreds of index cards that I sort into little stacks by category, and arrange on a large dining room table, in as big a grid as necessary. Then I shuffle, reshuffle, and rearrange the cards and stacks until the sequence works.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I searched everywhere I could think of, and often followed what seemed to be promising leads that turned out to be dead ends. For example, I asked or hired people to check archives for me in places as far flung as Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Ankara; and I was prepared to go there myself if it turned out that they had materials related to my quest (they didn’t). But by being as thorough as I could—by weaving my research net as finely as possible, and by casting it as widely and deeply as possible—I was able to enhance my own “luck” and found a lot of information.

Your book reads like a novel, and tells a story that most people never knew existed. How was that process of weaving together the facts to make a story?

It’s very gratifying to hear that readers find the narrative compelling, which was/is a very important goal for me.The abstract principles of building interest and tension are well known; but achieving this successfully in practice is difficult. It’s of course essential to suggest that something important is coming, and then to withhold the details to make the reader want to find out—in short, to create curiosity. It’s also essential to give the reader a sense of the people or person you’re writing about in a way that will make the reader care. This is also something that is easy to set as a goal, but hard to achieve. I also wanted to understand the kinds of cultural and historical forces that buffeted Thomas and that he had to overcome, struggle with, or escape. For example, I was able to explain why he chose to apply for citizenship in Russia in 1914 by looking at the reactions of Russians to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. It was thus very important for me to grasp the timing of certain large-scale events through which Thomas lived.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

That I was able to bring back to public memory one of the most remarkable black Americans in history. And more broadly, that I was able to tell the story of a man who reinvented himself repeatedly in most unlikely locales in order to become himself as fully as possible.

Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?

All the time. For example, just being able to find Thomas’s grandson in Paris was a surprise and an adventure. And so was discovering that much of what he believed he knew about his grandfather was sheer invention (probably by the grandson’s father, i.e., Thomas’s oldest son, who was born in Moscow). Another example of a surprise was when I went to the French Diplomatic archives in Nantes, hoping to find information about Thomas in Constantinople, and found a cache of letters from a lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to get Thomas to pay royalties for the French music that was played in his Moscow establishments. The letters showed how cunning Thomas was as a businessman who wanted to protect his interests (and how he ran circles around the lawyer).

When did you first know you were a writer?

“Publish or perish” has been the mantra of academics forever, so I’ve been writing ever since graduate school. However, what I tried to do in The Black Russian differs greatly from the kind of writing I did in my academic books and articles. I could no longer assume that my audience would be other academics with an a priori interest in what I wanted to say (if they were in the same field as me and wanted to “keep up” with the scholarly  literature in it). Now, I would be vying with all sorts of books trying to capture the general-interest reader’s attention. Trying to write in a way that would appeal to a general reader was a challenge, but an exciting and compelling one (even when I despaired that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off).