What was the last book that you read that you’d now recommend?
Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson. It’s about a woman who’s experienced trauma in her family and is now working as a lawyer in a psychiatric hospital but dreams of being a writer. Johnson has such a gift at inhabiting her characters’ mindset. I mean, look at this sentence: “Most writing sessions were embarrassment-filled terror pits loud with rude voices, hurling accusations.” I shudder, and highly recommend.
Have you read any classics lately that you were reading for the first time?
I read Kindred by Octavia Butler last summer and was blown away. For this year’s beach trip, I’m bringing Parable of the Sower. I know that was a lot of folks’ start-of-the-pandemic read, but I was too busy re-reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder then, looking for tips on how to stretch out foodstuffs during a lockdown.
Do you re-read books? And if yes, what was your last re-read?
I don’t re-read that often, because I always feel so woefully behind with my TBR pile. Having said that, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice many times and will probably re-read Persuasion soon just to keep up with the discourse about the Netflix adaptation. The House of Mirth is another one that’s lodged in my heart and I’ll definitely come back to it.
What are your go-to genres?
Literary fiction is my jam. I’m also reading more YA graphic novels because of my daughter. Heartstopper made me swoon with happiness.
What is your favorite childhood book?
When I was a kid I loved anything by Judy Blume (but especially Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) and the Anne of Green Gables series, and I feel like that describes my sensibility—soapy, awkward, all up in my head; your classic late bloomer—to a tee.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
Do you bookmark or dogear your page in a book?
Bookmark or receipt if I have one handy, book flap if I don’t. The older get, the less I can bear to wrinkle the pages deliberately.
What is your ideal reading setting?
In bed, with the dog curled up next to me. I also love it when my daughter wants to read with or next to me (I wrote about that here), but that’s a bit of an uphill battle right now. She’s 11 going on 35.
Tell us about your favorite indie bookstore?
I’ve been visiting Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for years. Now that I live here, I go all the time. I love how many of the books have personal recommendations from the staff attached to them, and I enjoy the readings there, too. Epilogue, also in Chapel Hill, is terrific, too. They have the most pleasing spread of books—in rainbow order—I’ve ever seen AND they sell churros! In Brooklyn, where I used to live, our go-to indie was Books Are Magic. In the children’s section, there’s an octagonal hidey hole that my daughter loved to commandeer, sometimes with our dog in tow.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I was a latch-key kid who watched a ridiculous amount of television, and soap operas, in particular, had a grip on my imagination. The core characters of All My Children feel like kin to me. In high school, I started reading Soap Opera Digest (seriously) and my favorite section was a sidebar where they’d feature a powerful storyline that week and interview one of the show’s writers about it. I used to write in my journal not about my own interpersonal dramas of which I, a bookish introvert, had few, but about, say, doomed lovers Tad and Dixie and where I felt their story tending, hoping the writers had the same vision for them that I did. In college, I regularly missed lectures in my pre-med classes because I wanted to watch that week’s cliffhanger in the dorm lounge. For a long time, I thought my interest in those shows was a (possibly negative) distraction in my life. It wasn’t until I took my first creative writing class in my junior year that I realized that storytelling (not molecular biology) was the thing that lit my brain on fire and soaps had been my earliest awakening to that.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve always wanted to go to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Someone please invite me to give a reading there!
Where do you get most of your writing and editing done?
Since moving to North Carolina, I do most of my writing and editing at my desk in the guest room. Back in our small apartment in Brooklyn, I wrote either on my lap—stretched out on the bed or couch—or at writing space for women and non-binary writers called Powderkeg, which, alas, has closed. That place and that community of writers was a godsend!
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me. When I was younger, I was in the writing-is-torture camp. I used to procrastinate a lot and let the dread build and build. I still procrastinate sometimes, but I’ve learned to hold onto the knowledge that writing is fun, truly, and I feel better when I do it. Writing a book is such an incremental process that it can be discouraging when you’re starting out and nothing that’s coming out matches up with your aspirations yet. On the other hand, if you keep writing a little bit at a time, as often as you can, one day you’ll actually have a finished draft, which is so cool! I’m never happier than when I’m in the middle of a draft and I know where I want to go, and I just have to get there.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Too many to count! I turn 49 next week, and I’ve been writing since I was 19, so that’s 30 years of rejections and abandoned projects and one debut novel!
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I’ve had to read a few just to make sure my online profiles are working correctly across the various platforms (Amazon, Goodreads, where does it end?), but I don’t plan to make a habit of it. Of course, my eye always drifts to the bad reviews. Some are easier to dismiss—if you came to The Work Wife hoping for a thriller, no wonder you’re disappointed! Other bad reviews help me remember in my bones something I already know intellectually: no single book can please everyone. Good reviews are wonderful, obviously, but I have a hard time taking a compliment, so I tend to forget them right away.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
As difficult as it is, be patient. Writing takes time. Building a life takes time. Doing both simultaneously is sometimes impossible. It doesn’t matter if you never make those “5 under” lists. Just keep going.
When you’re not reading or writing, what are you doing?
Either spending time with my family, entertaining the dog, or doing life homework (cooking, cleaning, paying bills). In the evening, when I refuse to do any more, I like to veg out on the couch and watch TV.
What are your three favorite things right now?
My garden. The swivel chair by the window. The radio. In Brooklyn I got out of the habit of listening since I commuted by subway (where I mostly read) and on foot, and when I was home I was usually after some peace and quiet. Now that I drive again, I remember that how fun it is when a bop comes on the radio.
Your favorite travel destination and why?
I went to Greece on my honeymoon and would love to go back. So many more islands to explore and that blue, blue sea to look out on.
What’s your favorite meal and go-to drink order?
I will eat any fish taco, any time. And my go-to drink is a gin and tonic with lime.
What six people, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?
Toni Morrison. Agnes Nixon. Prince. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. And then my friends Mira and Matthew so we could process it together afterward (and also because they’re curious people and a real good time).
If a movie was made of your life, what genre would it be, who would play you?
It would be some sort of farce starring Diane Keaton, but could I get the Nancy Meyers treatment on the interiors?
What’s the last TV show or movie you watched that was really good?
I really enjoyed Hacks, a show on HBO Max whose themes are similar to those in my novel The Work Wife, and wrote about it here. It’s about Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers-esque comedian whose Vegas act is getting stale, and Ava, the young comedy writer she hires to punch up her jokes. Deborah has a retinue of employees who work for her in her home, something that felt familiar to me as a former personal assistant—though my bosses were normal types who thankfully never hurled any crystals at me!
You have to sing karaoke; what song do you pick?
I’m that friend who will come early to karaoke and sing “9 to 5” badly as an ice-breaker. Later, when I’m warmed up, I’ll sing moody songs from the 70s like “Best of My Love” and “Silver Springs.”
If you were being taken to a deserted island and could only bring one book, what would it be?
Pride and Prejudice. Clearly.