Tag Archives: Bookmagnet’s Best Books of May 2013

Interview with Kent Wascom, Author of The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press; 432 pages; $25).

In elegant, lucid prose, fiction newcomer Kent Wascom brings the frontier, in all its violence and disorder, to stunning life in The Blood of Heaven.  Wascom follows Angel Woolsack, from his early life as the son of an itinerant preacher to the bordellos of Natchez and the barrooms of New Orleans to the bayous of Louisiana where Angel meets schemers and dreamers.  Rich with detail and characterizations, The Blood of Heaven revisits an early America where fortunes and men were made and great risks were taken.

Wascom is not yet 30, but he infuses his story with a wisdom, awareness, and clarity well beyond his years.   As Angel and others carve out a rough-hewn existence in early nineteenth century America, we  see them seizing their place and even plotting to overthrow a sovereign government.  Through it all, Angel’s hold on us never wavers but intensifies.  The Blood of Heaven proves Wascom is a trailblazer whose brilliance is not a one-off but a true and rooted fact.


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Kent, for letting me ask you these questions.   I was entranced by The Blood of Heaven and particularly loved how you capture the spirit and wildness of the frontier. Did you always want to be a novelist?

Kent Wascom

Kent Wascom

Kent Wascom: Well, I really appreciate the kind words, Jaime. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. And, yes, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories when I was in elementary school, and finished my first novel—historical fiction, oddly enough, about Prohibition—at age twelve. My parents were incredibly tolerant of this strange kid who sat in his room pecking away at an old IBM Selectric.


JB: You were twelve going on thirty, but it paid off.  How would you describe The Blood of Heaven?


KW: Religiosity, love, revolution, and the birth of the American empire.


JB: What was the impetus behind your story?


KW: The voice of Angel Woolsack, the furious cadence of his speech and the viciousness of his perceptions.


JB: How did you decide on the title?


KW: I’m awful with titles. The title of the first draft was “The Kings of the Cannibal Islands”, but by the third draft the thematic element of that song had been mostly dispensed with, and it remained untitled until I wrote the last pages.


JB: When did you begin work on the novel and how long did it take to write?


KW: I began the book, after trying it out as a short story and novella, the summer of 2009, in my first year at Florida State. It took around two and a half years, maybe closer to three, to complete.

JB: While reading your story, two things struck me: 1) that The Blood of Heaven is your debut; and 2) that you aren’t even 30.  Havethe blood of heaven you written any short stories?  And how is it that your writing is so wise and astute?

KW: You’re too kind. Any wisdom in the book is the result of osmosis or at best a sort of unconscious ventriloquism. As for short stories, I’ve written quite a few, but only one I felt was worthwhile. (The one that won the Tennessee Williams prize) I love the form, love the masters like [Barry] Hannah, [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Amy] Hempel, [Julio] Cortazar, and [Isaak] Babel, but I don’t think I have the control or quality of perception necessary to be a worthwhile writer of short stories. When ideas come, they’re always for novels, or at the least novellas. I need space to roam, I suppose.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Blood of Heaven?  Did anything you learn surprise you?

KW: The research process, because I was either a full-time student of teacher throughout, was catch-as-catch-can. And, because discovering the story of West Florida and the Kempers was such a surprise, I was continually amazed—even at the simple facts of daily life at that time, the tenuousness of the frontier people’s existence both in terms of safety and livelihood and their national status.

JB: Did you find anything in your investigation that you’d like to revisit someday, perhaps for a future story?

KW: More than I can say. That Samuel Kemper led a force of Americans into Texas and Mexico during the 1811 Gutierrez/Magee expedition, where they fought alongside Mexican nationals against the Spanish colonial army. It fascinates me to no end, this idea that ethnic boundaries were of little consequence at that moment in time, only to become very important several decades later.

In my research of Cincinnati and the Ohio River area I found a travelogue by a British traveler who was making a trip from there and down the Mississippi in order to collect Native American artifacts. His descriptions of how the settlers desecrated the burial and worship mounds which dot the waterways and forests of the region still have a hold to my imagination, and moreover that some of the artifacts were described in such wonderfully [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez-esque terms. There was a green, polished stone about the size of a platter which, if you kissed it, would cause you to levitate. This confluence of Enlightenment ideals and the fantastic seems ripe.


JB: Sounds like such lyrical and beautiful language.  Do you have a favorite character in The Blood of Heaven?  If so, who and why?

KW: Red Kate. I like the combination of threat and desire, of this woman who loves but could also kill you in a flash. I felt so much for her that she’s the only character unfortunate enough to encounter Angel who manages to escape, spiritually and physically. Not, of course, intact.

JB: Is Angel Woolsack based on a real person?  How did his character come about?


KW: Many of his actions in West Florida are based on those of the third Kemper brother, Nathan, who did not die as he does in my book. In my research I found that Nathan, lesser known than his two older brothers, was actually the one doing much of the rabble-rousing. I liked the idea that regardless of what he did, he would be overshadowed.

But he was never to be Nathan. Better, I thought, that he should be an outsider, that his position with the brothers should be precarious. I did have something of a physical model for Angel, at least late in life.

Early in the writing of the book, I stumbled on a picture of the man who ceremonially fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter, inaugurating the Civil War. http://www.old-picture.com/defining-moments/pictures/Edmund-Ruffin.jpg I looked at him and thought, there’s Angel. Of course I reduced him by and eye and arm.


JB: What, in your view, can the period in which you set your novel teach us about American history and about ourselves?

KW: I think the turn of the 19th century offers a profound coign of vantage for understanding ourselves as a country that has been in a continual state of flux from the moment of its inception. The very idea of a “national character” is as mutable (or permeable for that matter) as our borders and the capricious regard in which we hold the borders of others. Moreover, the period was the brooding ground for our great national conflict, which continues to this day, between Enlightenment principles and the savage convictions of violence, avarice, and religious fanaticism.


JB: Would this story have worked as well, or at all, if set in a different time and place?

KW: The characters are such products of their time, truly turn of the century people—with one foot in the 18th and the other in the 19th—that they could not be transplanted. However, their circumstances, the intrigues and revolutionary acts of extra-national acquisition (an over-fancy way of saying filibustering) in which they participate have occurred throughout the history of the country, so in a way I do believe the story would work as well if it were set at the time of Philip Nolan, or William Walker, or Sam Zemurray.

JB: How different were earlier versions of the novel compared with the final copy?


KW: Radically. The first draft combined Reuben and Samuel, only featured Red Kate in a minor fashion, continued the story through 1814, and was almost completely thrown out.


JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Blood of Heaven?

KW: Living with the voice of Angel. Having the crazed, calloused perspective of a 19th century slaver rattling around in my head even after leaving the desk.


JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing your story?

The author signing copies of his book

The author signing copies of his book


KW: I certainly learned the foibles, the tell-tale tics and tremors, of my technique. Nothing will give you a better idea of your weaknesses as a writer than repeated readings of your work. I hope I’ve absorbed some of that learning and can avoid a few miscues and wrong turns as I work on the next book.


JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?


KW: Read, fiddle about in the outdoors (fishing, hiking, etc.), the occasional human contact.


JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?


KW: There are so many, and it’s really a jackdaw’s nest-style collection. Of course, the Southern America pantheon, which I (after Carlos Fuentes, who stands high in my regard) consider paired with the Latin American: [William] Faulkner, [Flannery] O’Connor, [Barry] Hannah, [Harry] Crews, [Cormac] McCarthy, [Shelby S.] Foote, [Larry] Brown; [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Juan] Ruflo, [Julio] Cortazar, [Mario] Vargas Llosa, [Eduardo] Galeano, [Jose] Donoso. My more recent but no less verdant loves: Hilary Mantel, whose backlog I’m rationing, William T. Vollmann, for his historical work and philosophy. For pure linguistic pleasure, learning the beat and pulse of a sentence, I adore William H. Gass and John Hawkes. Above all, perhaps, is Yukio Mishima, whose unflinching eye, salience to horror, and the achievement of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, has been immeasurable influence.


JB: What was your publication process like?


KW: Magical, really. I finished the final draft of the book on the same day my friend and mentor Bob Shacochis finished his. A first sign of cosmic promise. Within a few weeks Bob had passed the manuscript on to interested editors at Scribner and Grove. A week or so later, Bob told me that Grove editor Elisabeth Schmitz was hosting a dinner at the AWP conference in Chicago, and that I should go. “But,” he said, “I don’t think they want the book. They haven’t said a word about it, and these sorts of silences don’t bode well, my boy. But go, make some connections, and maybe they’ll take the next one.” So, for the week leading up to the conference Bob runs me down with talk of Grove’s disinterest, leaving me haggard and depressed by the evening of the dinner.

Unbeknownst to me, the folks at Grove had read the book in three days and had been screaming at Bob to let me know that they wanted it. Meanwhile, all I hear is “They really don’t seem to want the book. Tough luck, kiddo.” So the evening of the dinner arrives, and I’m standing outside this pizza place with Bob when a cab pulls up and out steps Elisabeth Schmitz. As she approaches, Bob takes me aside and says, “Okay, there is something I’ve been keeping from you. I’m sorry to say that, at this time, Grove / Atlantic is NOT prepared to offer you a one book contract.”

I am near collapse when Elisabeth winsomely says, “Because we want to offer you a TWO book contract.” I burst into tears, grab Elizabeth and spin her round, and proceed to collapse into a laughing, bawling wreck out there on the sidewalk. Utterly glorious.

JB: That IS glorious and rather wonderful.  Do you have any advice for anyone working on a first novel?

KW: For those embarking on their first: Let no National Novel Writing Months fool you, the act of writing a novel is arduous and long, and the world, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, is pitiless to your goal. Your efforts should be limited to survival (financial, emotional—though neither of these are guaranteed) and not only finishing the book, but making it the best that it can be. (In short, revise until you’ve got the words on the page memorized.) Give primacy to nothing else.

There’s a great quote from Harry Crews that goes something like, “The world doesn’t want you to write a book. The world wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably every day.” Do your best to avoid that world, though you will lose a chance of friends on your way.


JB: Your writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier and even Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

KW: You can only bow your head at such things and try to shake them off.  It’s such a lovely compliment, to be associated in a small way with the pillars of world letters. But these comparisons are like beauties with razor-blades for teeth; they appear gorgeous but can just as easily leave you in shreds. If you look at some of [Cormac] McCarthy’s early reviews, he gets absolutely savaged with the [William] Faulkner comparison.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Blood of Heaven?


KW: Enjoyment. It may seem strange to say that about such a harrowing book, but I enjoy dark and harrowing books, and I hope it finds an audience of such people—while also shaking up the worlds of some cloistered others. Intellectually, once it’s in the reader’s hands my desires are off the table; they take from it what they will.


JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?



KW:  I’d better get it out of the way that The Blood of Heaven is the first volume of a planned sextet, dealing with the history of the Gulf coast and later its interchanges with the Caribbean (The Golden Circle, if you will), from the Louisiana Purchase to Katrina and the oil spill. From birth to apocalypse. Secessia, the novel I’m currently working on, is about the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War and features as perspective characters, among others, Angel Woolsack’s son and wife (both mentioned in the prologue), as well as the infamous General Benjamin Butler. I hasten to add that the sextet is a lifetime project—I can only hope that I’ll be lucky enough to have a kindly publisher who will keep printing them as they come—and will be interrupted by unrelated projects.

JB: Wow, I am in awe and will eagerly await Secessia.  Thanks, Kent, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!


KW: Thank you so much, Jaime. It was a pleasure.


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Filed under author interviews, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading

Book Review: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Little, Brown and Company; 320 pages; $25.99).

amity and sorrowA raging inferno destroys the compound of a fundamentalist polygamous cult and directs the leader’s first wife, Aramanth, to flee with her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow.  One is a reluctant passenger, while the other watches “for the end of the world.”  In the backseat of the car, their hands “are hot and close together” with “a strip of white fabric” looped “between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist.”  Aramanth is “taking them from their home and all they know, and they have no idea how they will ever get her to turn around and take them back.”

Peggy Riley’s absorbing and gripping debut, Amity & Sorrow, may be fictional, but the plot reads like something straight from the headlines.  Riley mixes the personal with the political and the individual with the communal in her unflinching and thereby stunning portrayal of a family escaping a deranged cult leader and father and his dangerous religion.

“All the world prepares for the end of time,” “Father” preached to his flock of wives and children on December 31, 1999.  “You can feel it, like a sickness,” he cried and lamented that the world was “coming apart at the seams.”  Though the world did not end on that date,  Father was not upset but secure in the knowledge that the end was closing in.

Riley ably and chillingly illuminates the appeal of a utopian society like the one Father attempted and failed to create.  In riveting detail, the author describes how wife after wife, fifty in all, came to the compound and married Father.  Some worried about terrorism; others sought something larger than themselves.  A few wanted to start new lives.  None intrigued more, though, than Riley’s “thirty-ninth wife, the daughter of Waco,” who left the Branch Davidians after the Waco firestorm only to seek solace in the arms of a new prophet.  These transfixing passages turn the cult’s followers into real people with hopes, dreams, and everything to lose.

A deep sense of loss permeates Amity & Sorrow.  Out of all Riley’s main characters, it is Sorrow who feels the most unmoored as she is desperate to return to the compound.  She enjoyed her position as the cult’s oracle, but now her status is lost to her forever.  Her greatest wish, to be her father’s fifty-first wife, will never come true.  Still, Sorrow holds fast to her father’s teachings, no matter how unrealistic they seem or how ignorant they make her appear.

In contrast to her sister, and in accordance with her name, Amity does her best to promote harmony, whether in the compound or on the run.  On the farm where the family enjoys a brief respite, Amity makes friends with Dust, a teenage farmhand, and finds comfort in the pages of The Grapes of Wrath.  Despite her efforts to fit it, Amity seeks a sign from God and believes her hands can heal a television, “turning snow into pictures,” by moving the rabbit ears.

Aramanth does not miss what you might expect.  Instead of longing for her husband, Aramanth yearns for the companionship of her sister wives, women she grew to love.  She is increasingly drawn to Bradley, a farmer, who is nothing like her husband.  The longer Aramanth spends away from the compound, the clearer things seem to her about Father and about her daughters.

Amity & Sorrow is filled with vivid and intoxicating passages of prose, especially when Riley writes about spinning.   “…Women were

Peggy Riley

Peggy Riley

spinning like hoops, like wheels.  Women spun in solo orbits, lost in chanting, lost in prayer, then they spun together in a wide circle that swung around the room, around the altar.”  When they “spun, they could forget patrol cars, forget that they were being watched and judged.”  When the women spun, “they only thought of how the heavens turned above them and how God cupped them all in His wide, white hand.”  The bereavement Amity feels is palpable and powerful to the reader when she begins menstruating and no one spins her as they did Sorrow.

I was glued to Riley’s compelling tale.  The opening, when two sisters are tied together at the wrist, literally forces you to keep reading.  You feel tethered to the sisters yourself, already, even on the first page.  Riley seizes your attention and never lets go in her riveting and timely debut.  Amity & Sorrow is hotter than brimstone and will leave you reeling.


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction

Spotlight on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I’m about to begin reading what many consider to be THE book of the month.  Some even say this is THE NOVEL of the year.  I don’t know about that yet, but we’ll see.


About the Book:

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.

   In his brilliant, haunting novel, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya, where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
   For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

About the Author:



Anthony Marra grew up in Washington, DC, and has lived and studied in Russia. His story “Chechnya” won First Place in Narrative’s Spring 2009 Story Contest and received both a Pushcart Prize and the Narrative Prize in 2010. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and in 2013 Marra received the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award. His debut novel is entitled A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Random House, 2013). Marra is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

There is no doubt that the war-torn country of Chechnya has been in the news of late and I think that might mean even more readers for Marra.  Readers are comparing A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to two of my favorite novels: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife.  I am excited about Marra’s debut.


Filed under books, fiction, historical fiction, Lemuria Books, literary fiction

Book Review: Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).

is this tomorrow

            Fear of communism and nuclear war permeated the psyches of millions of Americans in the 1950s.  Public and private concerns were heightened by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he proclaimed that hundreds of Communists had infiltrated the United States government.  Many writers and entertainers were accused of sympathizing with Communists and thus were blacklisted.  His accusations were later disproved, but that did not stop his fervor from spreading.

In her tenth and best novel, Is This Tomorrow, expert storyteller Caroline Leavitt capitalizes on these anxieties.  “You can’t trust these Communists,” one of Leavitt’s minor characters maintains.  “They couldn’t tell the truth if they wanted to….You kids think it’s funny, but any second a missile could come down on us,” he insists.  “And we wouldn’t even see it or be prepared.  One minute we’re here talking in this nice neighborhood, and two seconds later, boom, we’re ash.”  In his eyes, the Russians “hide explosives” and could be anywhere, even in his own neighborhood, “and we wouldn’t even know it.”

The era in which Leavitt sets her story is perfect for her setting.  Father Knows Best gently reminds American kids who is boss in the household.  Echoes of “just wait until your father gets home” are heard all across the United States as the mother keeps house and raises the children and the father brings home the bacon.  Doors are left unlocked.  Sunday is the Lord’s day.  The post-war economy is booming, and so is the birthrate.  Everything seems idyllic, but appearances often deceive, as we all know.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is at its frostiest with no signs of thaw.  Nuclear annihilation is a real and daily threat as school kids are taught to duck and cover and worried fathers build bomb shelters.  New phrases such as Red Scare and Yellow Menace become part of the everyday lexicon.  Americans view those who are different, who do not conform, who look different, who sound different, and who worship differently with contempt.  Anyone deemed not like everyone else was considered deviant.

Life seems peachy for Americans, but ugliness and fear lurk just under the surface.  This juxtaposition is at the heart of Leavitt’s taut, atmospheric, and humane tale.  Blending a coming-of-age saga with history and mystery, Leavitt creates a tense and suspenseful atmosphere when a neighborhood boy goes missing.

Is This Tomorrow is told from three different and varied perspectives: Ava, divorcee, working mother, and the head of the only Jewish family on the block; Lewis, her son; and Rose, her son’s best friend and sister to Jimmy, the youth who vanishes.  Although Jimmy is not a narrator, his disappearance looms over the novel; his presence and his absence are powerfully palpable.

Because Ava is different from the other neighborhood parents, she is suspect.  Ava locks her doors when all the other doors are unlocked; she works when the rest of the mothers do not have jobs outside the home.  She does not dress like the other mothers and she has had a string of boyfriends. The neighbors see her as a floozy.  These things do not necessarily damn her, though.  Other parents believe she may have had an inappropriate relationship with her son’s best friend.  Ava denies it but admits she knew Jimmy had a crush on her.  He was at Ava’s the day he went missing.

Jimmy’s disappearance profoundly changes the lives of all of Leavitt’s main characters.  Jimmy’s departure leaves Ava, Lewis, and Rose stuck and unable to go forward.  The calendar turns and they grow older, but they are still stuck in the moment Jimmy faded away forever.  They have too many loose ends in their lives, and the burning desire to know what happened drives them.

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rose, Jimmy’s sister, becomes a teacher but never forgets her family tragedy as she desperately pleads with the principal to put a fence around the playground so school kids will not wander off.  Lewis withdraws from his mother and searches for his father, who once wanted custody of Lewis but has since vanished himself.  Ava feels alone and bakes pies that she sells to a local restaurant but has never forgotten Jimmy and the day he seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Leavitt hooks you in the first chapter when young Jimmy goes missing and does not let you go until the very last page.  I was riveted.  Leavitt provides readers with timely and weighty issues such as missing children, difference, and paranoia.

With expert pacing, the author takes her time revealing secrets.  This master storyteller is meticulous and wise as she teases out every detail but still keeps you guessing.  Is This Tomorrow is atmospheric and taut and has everything you could ever want in a book: compelling, fully realized characters; an intense, dramatic, and compelling plot; and the perfect, evocative setting.  Everything comes together superbly in Leavitt’s skilled hands.

The title is taken from a propaganda comic book that came out in 1947 and warned of the dangers of a Communist takeover.  An estimated four million Americans purchased the educational comic, no doubt contributing to the fear and paranoia of the 1950s.  In Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt brings this era to life and illustrates how fear of the unknown and fear of difference transformed a country, a community, and a people.  Although her book is set primarily in a time very different from our own age, Is This Tomorrow is a cautionary tale for us in the Twenty-First Century.









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Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery

Interview with Caroline Leavitt, Author of Is This Tomorrow

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Caroline, for letting me ask you these questions.  I devoured Is This Tomorrow  in one sitting and loved the tense, suspenseful atmosphere you create.  I know this novel is very personal to you.  What was your inspiration for Is This Tomorrow?

Caroline Leavitt: I grew up in the 60s and my family was the only Jewish family on a Christian block. I grew up hearing, “You killed Christ,” and “Where are your horns?” and in third grade, I was even given a test on Jesus and the apostles in public school! But there was another family that was even more outcast—a divorced woman with two kids. She had a lot of boyfriends, she was sultry, and she was therefore, suspect. I was friends with her daughter who kept telling me that the family she babysat for was going to adopt her and I kept telling her that was impossible.

But it actually happened. Her mother gave her up, she left with this family, and shortly afterwards, the woman and her son just vanished. I was haunted by that.  I wanted to write about what it feels like to be an outsider in a closed community, and I also wanted to write about the 1950s, when everything was supposed to be perfect and everyone was supposed to be the same, and anyone who was not, was somehow punished.

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

CL: I did! I was a sickly little girl with asthma who spent a lot of time in the library or at home when other kids were playing.  I wanted to validate my experiences and I could do that by writing about them. Plus I loved creating these whole worlds!

JB: Please describe Is This Tomorrow using ten words or less.
CL: Tense. Paranoia. Yearning. Fear. Suspicion. Love. Mothers/sons. Fathers/ sons.

JB: Is This Tomorrow is your tenth novel.  How was writing this book different from writing your first or second book?  Does it come easier?

CL: It never gets easier. There’s a famous John Irving quote (I love John Irving) where he says if you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, that you have no authority to tell your story, and that everything is about to fall apart instantly, than you are not writing hard enough. You are supposed to feel sick with nerves and terror! And I think he’s right.

Every book is something brand new and it is always hard, filled with terror, filled with joy, and monumentally difficult and wonderful. It’s different than writing my first because I know to expect these states so I don’t panic over them as much anymore!

JB: I often hear that writing a book and then seeing it on shelves is like being pregnant and giving birth. Is it like that for you?
CL: I would say no, because for me being pregnant was pure bliss. I loved all of it, from the morning sickness on down to the labor pains. And giving birth was just a day out of the whole 9 months. To me writing a book is more like running a marathon with a stone in your shoe and blisters on your feet, and every once in a while someone hands you a band-aid and some cold water.

JB: Your family moved to the suburbs of Waltham, Massachusetts, in the 1960s.  Yours was the only Jewish family in a predominantly Christian neighborhood.  How were you seen as “different”?  Did you feel like an outsider?
CL: I was a total outsider. I wasn’t just Jewish, I was also sickly with asthma, and I was really smart in a town where only 10 percent of the high school went on to college and being smart was viewed with suspicion. (Many people thought that smart people were Communists.) One of the ways I got through it was looking to the future. I knew I would get out of Waltham, that I’d go to college, that I’d be a writer.

is this tomorrow

JB: Which character’s voice did you hear first while mulling this story in your head?

CL: Ava.  I heard and felt Ava’s pain in struggling to make a home for her son, to avoid her ex-husband getting custody, to get to work on time, and to deal with the adoration of her son’s best friend all at once!

JB: Why did you set your story in the 1950s and 1960s?

CL: Because it’s such a fascinating time for me. The suburbs in the 1950s were supposed to be the American dream! There was money in the bank, cars in the garages, women had all these modern conveniences, yet the undercurrent was that everyone was terrified of the atom bomb and of a Communist takeover. There were all sorts of pamphlets written about how to spot a Communist (beware of multi-syllabic words!) and how to survive an atom bomb (Wipe your feet before you come in the house to get rid of excess radiation.) Women were second class citizens and people were very, very paranoid about anyone even remotely different. The 60s was on the cusp of change, but even in the early sixties, it was still pretty unsettling a time.

JB: Is Ava loosely based on your own mother?


CL: Not really. Though when Ava marches up to the school to complain that Lewis has a test about the apostles—that was my mom!

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Is This Tomorrow?

CL: When I had to write what happened to Jimmy and why. I felt such despair. I wanted to skirt over it, but I knew that I couldn’t, and it haunted me for weeks.

JB: Did you discover anything new about yourself in the midst of writing Is This Tomorrow?

CL: I discovered a new compassion for the people who had made my life difficult when I was young. In creating fully realized characters, I began to understand that they had their own issues and problems and they were doing what they felt they had to do. And I began to realize that writing about my childhood in Waltham was actually liberating. I could look at it through a much more compassionate lens.

JB: How were earlier versions of the story different from the final copy?

CL: The earlier versions were not fully formed. Around the 6th draft, I realized part of the book was a meditation about mothers and sons, and letting go. Around the 8th draft, I began to see that there was a love story forming and so I worked really hard on that. And around the 20th draft, I knew what exactly had happened to Jimmy and why.

JB: Do you have lots of different ideas for future stories in your head at one time?  If so, how do you decide which idea to pursue, what to keep for later, and what to discard?

CL: I do. If it haunts me over six months, I know it’s a keeper. I have a folder called NEW NOVELS and I throw in ideas. Some of them are things I’ve been wanting to write for years and years, but I just haven’t figured out how yet.  To me, it’s all in the timing. Some ideas are like wine. They just have to be aged a bit for me to realize what the real story is and why it’s important to me.

JB: You are also an avid reader, reviewer, and blogger.  How has blogging changed book marketing and publicity?

CL: Blogging is fantastic! I started blogging because I thought that was what writers were supposed to be doing, but then I was also reviewing books for People, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe, and there were often books I loved that I couldn’t place, or I couldn’t pitch because I was friends with the writer (that’s considered unethical). So I figured what I could do was conduct interviews with writers. That way I could give them press and I could have fun and learn something about writers I admire!  There are fewer and fewer newspapers and book review sections, and blogging takes up the slack beautifully.

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

CL: I’m a movieholic. I love independent films (I was actually a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab this year), but I will see anything that moves on the screen, which means a lot of times friends refuse to go with me because of my choices. I also read all the time and I love prowling NYC, and going from museums to shops to restaurants to parks.

JB: Any hidden talents we don’t know about?

CL: Well, I was the proud owner of a gorgeous tortoise for 20 years. I used to walk him in Central Park. I wrote about him for NYT Modern Love. Before I got married, my tortoise was my litmus test for boyfriends. If a man would eat dinner while the tortoise was on the table, then he was a keeper.

JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

CL: John Irving, The Ciderhouse Rules, The World According to Garp

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isobelle
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Anything by the Brontes!

And of course all my writer friends’ books. If it is on my blog, chances are I adore it.

JB: There are so many great books that come out each month (even each week).  How do you decide which books to read and review for your blog?
CL: I’m a great scout. I sometimes hear about books by seeing a post on FB or twitter. Sometimes writers or publicists will write to me about a book, or sometimes authors will suggest other books that I might like.

JB: What advice do you have for anyone working on a first novel?

CL: Don’t. Give. Up. See if any part of your novel in progress might work as an excerpt. (Check out Poets & Writers, a great resource for that.) Try to build community with other writers so you have a support system in place. Always help other writers. It’s good karma and that also helps you build community.  Attend conferences so you know editors and agents.
Also, do not write for the market. Do not write for a reader. You will kill your art. The way to reach others is to write for yourself, to dig deep. That is what will make your work universal and true.

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?

CL: I get up at 7 to see my son off to school, then I hit my desk and stay there until lunch. My husband works at home, too, and we have lunch together. Sometimes we take off and go see a movie! But then we are back at our desks until dinner. After dinner is what I call clean-up time, where I handle all the odds and ends I have to do. But we have a rule. No working after ten. And we stay up until one, so we can decompress and have a life!

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Is This Tomorrow?

CL: That fitting in, especially in a closed community, is not always what you want or need to do. That you can find your own community and it may not look anything like what you thought it would, but it can still nourish and support you. That paranoia can destroy lives. That love and hope can save them.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?outdoorshot12-03
CL: I just sold a proposal for my next novel, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD to Algonquin, which I now have to write. It should be out 2015. It’s set in the waning days of the 1960s and the early 70s when all the peace and love movement began to turn ugly, and it centers around a young girl who runs off with her older high school teacher to a back-to- the- land Utopia, which turns unexpectedly tragic.

JB: Thank you, Caroline, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

CL: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!



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Filed under author interviews, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery

Book Review: Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian

Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).


           I have never felt fiercely protective of a character before, but the urge to shield Lucy, the main speaker in Julie Sarkissian’s quirky, unique, and weirdly beautiful debut, Dear Lucy, overtook me. And there’s a good reason why: Lucy is developmentally delayed and has issues with behavior and language yet she is filled with determination and love. Lucy is limited, yes, but she looks at the world with wonder and sees it as full of possibility. Lucy is extraordinary and she certainly becomes special to us as her eyes are open to the beauty around her.

“It is time to get the eggs. Time for my best thing,” Lucy says. “I get the eggs for our breakfast. They are alive. When you eat something that is alive you take the life for yourself. You can’t think of it as taking life from another thing, you think of it as giving life to yourself.” This sentiment comes from Lucy’s friend, Samantha. “Samantha knows” because “there is something growing inside of her too.” Samantha, a pregnant teenager, is also one of the narrators in Dear Lucy. She does not want her baby; instead, she plans on giving the child up for adoption.

Sarkissian sets Dear Lucy on an isolated and rather mysterious farm. The setting makes the story dark and desolate and allows a sense of menace to loom over the entire novel. Mister and Missus, owners of the farm, only add to the story’s doom-and-gloom environment. Missus functions as Sarkissian’s third and final narrator.

The author could have told her tale solely from Lucy’s perspective, but then we would not have so many different windows and perceptions of the story, making Dear Lucy richer and more satisfying. Sarkissian writes each narrator in Dear Lucy with vulnerability, though some characters are more defenseless than others. Weakness is sometimes overt, like with Lucy and Samantha; other times, helplessness can be hidden, as it is with Missus, who feels inadequate for not giving her husband a son.

Dear Lucy gives up its secrets slowly yet pleasingly, building mystery and suspense. Especially when Sarkissian reveals the reason why Lucy is on the farm. Lucy gets a thought into her head and cannot let it go. Because she is so single-minded, she can be willful and even prone to violence. Her impulses rule her, leading me to wonder if perhaps her hypothalamus is to blame for her behavior. Lucy’s mother could not handle her daughter any longer and put her in the care of Mister and Missus.

Lucy believes her stay on the farm is temporary and believes her Mum mum will return for her, as she promised. She must listen to Mister and Missus always so they will allow her to stay on the farm, where “Mum mum will know where to find” her. Lucy takes this literally and is loath to even get in a car or go on foot off the farm. She longs for her mother and yearns to be called “Dear Lucy” as Mum mum wraps Lucy in her arms protectively and lovingly.

The farm becomes a haven of sorts for Lucy as she waits for Mum mum. She develops an attachment to Samantha and to the chickens from whom she collects the eggs. Lucy is so happy when Samantha gives birth and decides to keep the son she delivers, but her world comes crashing down when Samantha’s baby is taken from her. Samantha begs Lucy for help.

Lucy then sets out on an adventure like no other, a journey that takes her farther away from the farm than she has ever been. She worries Mum mum will not be able to find her again, but Lucy presses on. She is not alone on her mission. Jennifer, a talking chicken, accompanies her and tells Lucy what to do. Jennifer is everything that Lucy is not: tough, smart, mature, and wise. For me, the chicken was a part of Lucy’s psyche that appeared right when she needed it the most.

Dear Lucy is told in three distinctive and gorgeous voices. Sarkissian’s imagination, originality, and amazing talent captivated me and would not let me go. Eerie and atmospheric, Dear Lucy reads like southern gothic, unsettling and intriguing and at the same time urging the reader and Lucy onward.

julie sarkissian



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction, mystery

Book Review: Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 336 pages; $24).

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots

Fourteen year old Lorca listens intently to a conversation between her mother, Nancy, and her Aunt Lou.  “What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten?” her aunt asks.  “Masgouf,” Nancy answers, “from an Iraqi restaurant that’s closed now.”  Nancy proclaims masgouf, the national dish of Iraq, “heaven.”

In Jessica Soffer’s lush, flavorful debut, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, food evokes memories of what is lost and of what can never be again. Like masgouf, for instance, or “carp, typically from the Euphrates or Tigris, pulled out of the water, grilled on the banks and prepared with lemon and tamarind and tomatoes.”  However, Islamic leaders placed a fatwah on the fish because of all the dead bodies in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  As Soffer laments, “Baghdad is not what it once was. All the Jews are gone. Their experience of eating masgouf as they once did is very much over.”

In Soffer’s skilled hands, recipes and food become symbols in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.  Lorca, starved for her mother’s affection, calls her mother a “cold war” and an “enigma, fickle, unknowable, like a giant fish.”  Nancy is not like most mothers; instead, she only loves Lorca in “fits and spurts,” “warm in flickers and then very cold.”

Only one thing makes Nancy, a chef, happy, and that is food.  Lorca prepares a myriad of dishes in hopes of garnering her mother’s attention.  Nothing works.  When Lorca was 6, she burned her hands while making a birthday cake for her mother.  Lorca imagines “that if my mother had just taken out the ice pack, tucked it into a towel, and held me on her lap, rocking me, whispering in my hair, cooling my fingers, things would have been different.”  But Nancy did none of those things.

Lorca’s yearning for her mother is only lessened through acts of self-harm.  So she does them again and again and again.  Her urge to injure herself is “constant…like a band of moths stuck between the screen and the window” but in her “chest instead.”  Lorca welcomes the sweet agony of pain.  Caught in a dangerous downward spiral, Lorca has been suspended from school for self-cutting when Soffer opens the story.

The masgouf gives Lorca renewed hope.  If she can learn how to prepare masgouf, then perhaps the dish will bring her and her mother closer together.  “Bukra fil mish mish,” (“Tomorrow, apricots may bloom”) she hopes.  Her mother’s wistful recollection of the masgouf compels Lorca to seek out the husband and wife who once owned the Iraqi restaurant.

It is here that Soffer introduces her other main character, Victoria.  Like Lorca, Victoria is hungry for companionship.  She is a widowed Jew from Iraq, whose husband, Joseph, recently passed away.  Joseph’s death left a hole in Victoria’s heart; she grieves for him and also for the daughter they gave up for adoption many years ago.  Victoria agrees to teach Lorca, an almost-orphan, cooking lessons.  Before long, recipes and food bridge the gap between their different generations and different cultures.  Both characters strongly believe that they share a deeper connection.

Soffer tells her tale in the alternating voices of Lorca and Victoria, incredibly well-drawn and vivid narrators.  But Soffer knows the best dishes come from a mix of ingredients so she changes it up a bit by incorporating Joseph’s point of view.  Joseph’s voice provides a new and unexpected window into the story and into the characters.  Soffer further amazes by creating interesting minor characters and subplots that further enhance the novel.  One of the strengths of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is the way Soffer effectively puts us into the heads of her main characters.

Food is supposed to provide sustenance and sometimes comfort.  But the body craves things other than nutrients.  We all need love, attention, and companionship.  There is such longing within the pages of Soffer’s story—longing for affection, for the past, for a different present, and for a future that can never be again.  Like food, life can be sweet and sometimes life can be sour.  Sometimes you burn the meatloaf or the shakrlama and sometimes it comes out perfect.  Sometimes we have to make do with the ingredients at hand.

Writing is part of Soffer’s family history. Her grandfather was a scribe in Baghdad, her father was a sculptor and painter, and Soffer is a novelist.  Interestingly, “Soffer,” means “scribe” in Arabic.  Soffer is a born and gifted storyteller whose debut is good enough to eat.

Jessica Soffer


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction