Literary Ashland Events for October

Thursday October 8, 7 pm Chris Scolfield, author of The Shark Curtain, will be reading at the Schneider Museum of Art.

Saturday, October 10, Southern Oregon Willamette Writers will host author Bill Sullivan for a morning lecture on writing for a living and an afternoon workshop on beating writer’s block.

Wednesday, October 14, Southern Oregon University will host the writer and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva at 7pm in SOU’s Music Recital Hall.

Thursday, October 15, at 5:30 PM in the Hannon Library Meese Room, Harry Fuller of the Klamath Bird Observatory will speak on Birds and Climate Change: The Canary in the Coal Mine.

Monday, October 19, Chautauqua Poets and Writers will feature Kwame Dawes at Ashland High School Mountain Avenue Theatre, at 7:30 pm.

Friday, October 23, Friday Wine and Words at Weisinger’s Winery at 6 pm, will feature M J Daspit, reading from her book The Little Red Book of Holiday Homicides.

Friday, October 23, on Literary Ashland Radio/KSKQ, Michael Niemann will interview James Phillips about his book Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience.

Friday, October 30, 7:30-9:00 Oregon Poet Laureate Peter Sears will give a public reading at the Ashland Public Library.

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An Interview with Tod Davies, author of The Lizard Princess

photo by Alex Cox

TOD DAVIES is the author of two cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered and three tales in The History of Arcadia series: Snotty Saves the Day, Lily the Silent, and the just-released The Lizard Princess.

Tod Davies is also the editor/publisher of Exterminating Angel Press and Exterminating Angel Magazine. She lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their two dogs, Gray and Pearl, in the alpine valley of Colestin, Oregon.

Tod Davies is a proud member of the Southern Oregon Literary Alliance, and you can meet her at the Ashland Book and Author Festival, October 3 at the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University.

EB: I really enjoyed The Lizard Princess—and all of the Arcadia tales. But the three books in the Arcadia series seem to have very different audiences.

TD: Sheer illusion, Ed. Well, yes, they’re meant to LOOK like that. First a children’s book, Snotty Saves the Day, though with footnotes that make you think, “Wait a minute maybe there’s more here than meets the eye.” And then a YA novel, Lily the Silent, complete with teenage love story and romantic illustrations. And now the “literary” novel, The Lizard Princess. But really, in my head, the audience is the intelligent fifteen year old in all of us. I was that fifteen year old. At sixty, I am STILL that fifteen year old. By which I mean, the reader who wants to know answers to the great questions: “Who am I? What are we doing here? What should we do? What should I do?” The History of Arcadia books are meant, among other things, to be a genre questioning series. What if we grouped books by their values, by what issues they wrestle with, rather than artificially by age? I personally get more out of Madeleine L’Engle’s “children’s” books, and Ursula LeGuin’s “young adult” books than out of most contemporary literary “adult” fiction. Not all thank goodness. But an awful lot of it.

EB: What’s the attraction of fantasy and fairy tales to you as a writer? And do you think it’s the same attraction for readers?

TD: Fantasy and fairy tales express desire for answers to just the questions above, don’t they? They deal with issues of good and evil; they do not pretend, as we do too often in the modern world, that good and evil are ‘relative’ concepts, ideas that don’t really exist in the ‘real’ world. They get in and dig up our true desires as human beings, the wonderfully irrational ones as well as the tidily rational. They are a door to further truths about ourselves not necessarily accessible in the accepted discourse. And I think all serious readers hunger for those truths of imagination. I know I do.

Further—really great fantasy writing is about imagining a better world here and now. Tolkien. LeGuin. Octavia Butler. Imagining what may not be working here, and fantasizing about what would work better. What would satisfy desire. What would make us a better world.

I loved what a writer for Bitch magazine called this kind of writing: “Visionary Fiction.” That’s what I like to think I write. My husband always wanted to know why on earth I was writing fantasy, then, after reading Lily the Silent, he said, “I understand now. You’re using fantasy to engage with what you think is wrong with our world…and what could be right.” I got up at the dinner table and kissed him when I heard that. It’s more than that, of course. But that’s not a bad place to start.

EB: The stories and relationships are wonderfully complex. How do you keep it all straight? I feel like I need a genealogical chart.

Young Princess Sophy (art by Mike Madrid)

TD: I know, I know. Mike Madrid, who designs and illustrates the books, keeps wanting to make one—but we can’t just yet, since there are some surprises still to come in who parented who, in who is related to who and in what way. It’s a whole world out there that rushed in on me, and all these relationships just keep tumbling out. No lie. When I say in the books that the other world sends them to me, and is trying to communicate with our own, I’m really not kidding. All these people are alive. And moving around. Falling in love. Having children. Making choices. All these stories…it makes my head spin. I can only pray I manage to simplify enough so that the reader isn’t confused. Yikes.

Much of your recent work has been about food narratives and fairy tales. Are these interests related in some way? I wonder if food writing is a kind of fantasy or if fairy tales are a kind of ethnography. What do you think?

TD: Oh, definitely, definitely. All of the above. But even more: my food writing comes from exactly the same place as the fairy tales. The place that says: what do we really want? What really makes us happy as human beings? How can we work on making ourselves and our loved ones happier, and then, after that, the people around us? How can one individual finding out who they are and what they truly desire lead to greater good, greater happiness, for a wider group of people?

Of course food is the way you can meditate on these questions THREE TIMES A DAY. And at least once a day through wine! And all day…and all night…through imagination. Through Fairy Tales, or, even better, as Maria Tatar renamed them, Wonder Tales.

EB: I’ve been reading lately about the history of the Grimms’ fairy tales. The Grimms wrote that “Wherever the tales still exist, they continue to live in such a way that nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude. People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way. And they take pleasure in them without having any reason. This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous.” Would you agree?

TD: How awful to disagree with two men I admire so completely. I do sort of agree that “nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude” (except—ahem!—maybe the Grimm brothers and a few generations of critics). But I can’t agree that people love them without reason, because they are ‘habitual’. It seems to me you have to ask why they became habitual in the first place! My feeling is they are part of the warp and woof of life, and loved for that reason. The custom of storytelling is so marvelous because it opens a door to the great depths beneath the surface of our every day existence…our cultural consciousness, as it were. This domain is where needs, desires, deep feelings that have been pushed aside in our framing of the present culture still pulse with life. Storytelling—properly done—opens the door to these, in the form of symbols that can be taken in by us, personifying vaguely felt truths, playing with our present beliefs, and perhaps finally taking solid form as a new idea we may not have been ready for until the time it is most needed. And Goddess knows, we need some of those new ideas now.

Who are your inspirations as a fantasist?

TD: Ursula K. LeGuin is just it for me, for all sorts of reasons. Her imaginings always come from the position of the true Wonder Tale: what if? What if things were different? What if we knew what truly matters? Her images pack human desires and possibilities into images it’s almost impossible not to love. J.R.R. Tolkien, for the same reason. C.S. Lewis.

I’ll tell you an odd story. I was in a hospital in Headington, which is a suburb of Oxford, in England, having an operation. And as I went under the anesthesia, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, wearing 1950’s business suits, walked across the hospital floor and bent benevolently over me, reassuring me that all would be well. I woke up after and told the doctors they needed to patent that formula! But here’s the very weird thing: years later I found out that both Tolkien and Lewis had lived walking distance from that hospital in the ‘50s. Isn’t that odd? No wonder I trust the truths of imagination!

EB: The illustrations add a lot to the story for me. How do you decide on the proper amount of illustration to go along with a story? How much is too much or not enough?

TD: The illustrations for both The Lizard Princess and for Lily the Silent are by EAP creative director Mike Madrid, and the best thing I can ever do is trust his taste and his inspiration. He always seems to have a total grasp of what I’m tearing my hair out trying to express. It never ceases to astonish me how intuitively he plans the illustrations to go with the text.

That said, I don’t want you to think there are no disagreements. Where would creative activity be without disagreements? But when it comes to the illustrations—both the number and the type—if there’s a major disagreement, the illustrator wins. I think that’s fair!

EB: On a totally different note, which Arcadian characters are your favorites? I have to admit a certain fascination with Devindra Vale and Aspern Grayling.

TD: Oh, gosh, I love them all. Sophia, of course, is my not-so-secret favorite. And Leef, her lemur. I love writing Livia, because she’s so thoroughly out front about what she thinks, and it’s not necessarily for the good of the world, those thoughts. Along with you, I love Devindra: she’s so rationally brilliant and femininely wise at the same time. And speaking of Aspern Grayling, I … well, we’ll have to see what comes next with Aspern and Arcadia.

EB: What’s next in The History of Arcadia Series? I’m hoping there is more in store for us.

Aspern Graying (art by Mike Madrid)

TD: Aha! I have to tell now! The next book is written by Aspern Grayling, my endlessly charming and self-regarding villain. It’s his Report to Megalopolis, an NSA style dossier of facts about Arcadia, for the use of the Megalopolitan Council of Four (which pays for the report with a generous grant for which Aspern is properly grateful, of course). As people inadvertently do, he’ll tell his own story as he tells his version of Arcadia’s.

After that, we’ve got planned a Megalopolis/Arcadia cookbook. One side filled with recipes from Megalopolis (calories counted! measurements made clear to the nth degree!), then you flip it over, and there is a cookbook from Arcadia. That will be major fun for me, and maybe make it a little more plain what food and fantasy have in common. After all, they both nourish us, the one feeding the body, and the other the soul.

Both, by the way, going very well with a glass of wine!

Thanks for talking with us.

TD: Thank YOU, Literary Ashland. And now, what about that glass of wine you promised me?

EB: On the way.

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An Interview with Chris Scofield

Chris Scofeld is a writer, teacher, world traveler, and cellist living in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband and two goldfish. She is a former special education, art, and preschool teacher who grew up in Portland and has lived in Cambridge, MA, and Puerto Angel, Oaxaca (Mexico).

Chris Scofeld has worked with Ursula K. Le Guin and Tom Spanbauer and she writes Young Adult, Literary and Adult Fiction. Scolfeld is being recognized this October by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association as one of ten new Northwest novelists. You can visit her website at

Chris Scofeld will read at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland on October 8 at 7 pm and at Tsunami Books in Eugene in November (together with authors Melissa Hart and Miriam Gershow). She will also be featured on a panel on young adult novels and identity at Wordstock this year.

We sat down to talk about her debut novel, The Shark Curtain, which features a startlingly original hero–Lily Asher.

EB: I just finished The Shark Curtain and really enjoyed the book. How did this story–and this novel– come about?

CS: Thanks, I’m pleased you liked it. I worked on SHARK, on and off, for years; I wrote short stories and started other novels when I wasn’t working on it . . . How did it come about? Inspiration, for me anyway, is two-thirds daydream, one-third memoir. After a while, your stories have lives of their own and SHARK was particularly tenacious. As for its heroine Lily, I’ve known her for so long time now, I don’t remember how we met.

EB: Lily Asher has an active imagination. Is that they key to surviving adolescence—or life for that matter?

CS: Lily has a hyperactive imagination but something else is going on too. Something bigger than her, something possibly “supernatural” for lack of a better word. In the past her visions and behaviors might have labeled her as possessed or even a witch. These days, she’d more likely be labeled autistic or schizophrenic.

Lily lives in and out of her skin. Throw adolescence into the mix, and it’s even more difficult to predict what she’ll do next. Despite her love for her family, her growing desire to be accepted at “the watering hole,” and her need to be free of the visions and behaviors that isolate her as much as give her comfort, Lily knows how painfully different she is. Thankfully she’s an artist and her art (stories, illustrations, shoeboxes) is a tool, a conduit, a way to hold on to her sanity as well as her uniqueness. While the end of the book is hopeful, it’s also troubling—she realizes she will always be an outsider and it’s clear the visions will do what they damn well want with her. She thinks she’s finally run off SOG (Son of God) but what about the writing on her frosty window? What happens when you’re ready to cut the crazy lose, but the crazy isn’t done with you yet? There’s lots going on in The Shark Curtain. I hope the readers will see beyond a weird kid acting weird.

EB: Are there autobiographical elements here? Are you Lily Asher?

CS: SHARK is as close as I’ll get to writing a memoir.

EB: You’ve set the story in the 1960s. I’m curious about that choice…

CS: I was 17 when I graduated from high school in 1969, so I know what the culture was for a teenager back then. I also thought setting Lily’s intimate struggles against such a big canvas of change, gave The Shark Curtain more depth. Lily struggles to be honest with herself and her family, just as the demonstrators and the disenfranchised struggled for truth and transparency in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

EB: Can you tell our readers a bit about the title?

CS: It’s a metaphor that runs throughout the book. The reader is introduced to it in the first chapter when Lily watches scuba diver Mike Nelson (the fictional hero of the popular 50s-60s TV show “Sea Hunt”) confront a shark under water. The “shark curtain” is where the blurred water (along with its possible danger) finally becomes clear. It’s where the unknown and reality meet, where reality finally asserts itself.

EB: I was a young adult in the 1960s so the period details were a particular fascination for me: Sea Hunt, The Name Game song, Hai Karate, My Favorite Martian, Bonanza, and much more…. How did you research all that?

CS: I didn’t research the details , I remembered most of them. I was a TV baby and spent a lot of time soaking it up—from Edie Adams to the 1968 Democratic Convention. Up until my adolescent pot consumption got in the way anyway. Of course, when I wasn’t absolutely sure about something I googled it. Even so, one of my editors early on found a mistake. Basically I trusted myself on most of it. Writing is all about learning to trust yourself. AND your unconscious.

EB: Why did you choose the young adult genre?

CS: I didn’t. My literary agent didn’t pitch it as YA either, it was my publisher’s idea. Akashic Books wanted The Shark Curtain but they wanted it for their YA Black Sheep catalog. Akashic, along with editor JL Powers, got me excited about YA.

I’m not a YA reader but I’m becoming one. There’s wild, rich, genre-stretching stuff being written for YA readers these days, by some very talented writers too—established YA writers as well as popular adult fiction writers like Neil Gaiman and Sherman Alexie. Of course YA isn’t new: Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, JR Tolkien even Ursula le Guin wrote for “mature youth” long before that.

There are also beautifully written YA novels with an international, social justice focus—fiction and nonfiction books about young people caught up in war or racism or poverty, books with heart that are realistic but hopeful. The book blog is a great resource for both YA and children’s books like that.

My novel The Shark Curtain is considered YA-Crossover but the majority of my readers, and those attending my readings, are adults. That’s GREAT of course but I’d love to get teenage feedback on SHARK too.

EB: I’m an adult, more or less, but The Shark Curtain took me back. Did you also have adult readers in mind?

CS: Absolutely. Not only because it’s set in the 60s, but because of some of the questions SHARK poses. I don’t understand why some books with younger narrators are considered adult while others aren’t. Why were Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time both marketed as adult fiction and The Shark Curtain wasn’t? All three books have teenage narrators and the stories are told in first person. All three books deal with serious matters—death, family, forgiveness, identity.

Of course those distinctions are made by people who know the business better than me.

EB: What’s next for you?

CS: It was suggested that I write (another) YA novel, which I am. It’s very different from SHARK. I’ve also been making notes on a contemporary western (adult) ghost story I started a while back. I’d like to finish an (adult) murder mystery I started too. All three projects—the new YA novel, the ghost story and the mystery are fun departures from being inside Lily’s head. I’ve never attempted a ghost story or mystery before—it’ll be a challenge to see if I can pull them off!

EB: You also are a short story writer. What the difference for you between novel writing and short story writing? Does one have certain advantages over the other?

CS: Big questions. Most of my short stories average between 15-23 pages so they’re not very short, and the longer ones are still in progress so, again, “short” is a relative term. I always write more than I need (backgrounds of characters etc) so novels are probably my natural strength. My Dangerous Writer mentor Tom Spanbauer once said to me, “I bet you’ve never had writers block have you? “ No, I never have. Knock on wood—writing is a mysterious compulsion and I don’t want to queer anything.

As a reader I love the focus of a short story, the way the author drop-kicks you into another world where every word and action counts, yet you don’t necessarily know what’s going on. If it’s well-written you’re quickly sucked in, you believe, you’re transported. Writing a short story is like being inside a stretched skin, a drum maybe. The walls are right there, there’s only so far you can go, but there’s so much music between here and there. Know what I mean? It’s all about control.

A touching, well-crafted short story is a beautiful thing. But then so is a touching well-crafted novel. They’re just different animals.

EB: What are you reading right now?

CS: I hope to start either The Buried Giant by Kazuo Isaguro, or The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber tonight. New novels by two of my favorite writers. Lucky me!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CS: Thank YOU.

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An Interview with Gary DePaul

Gary A. DePaul has a Ph.D. and Ed.M. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Educational Organization and Leadership and completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has two decades of experience as a manager and scholar of management, has worked as a manager in fortune 500 companies, and consults with organizations to improve leadership practices. He is a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) and a CPT application reviewer and presents at such associations as the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

He recently published Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership: A Guide for Inspiring Creativity, Innovation, and Engagement.

EB: How did you get interested in leadership? And what motivated to write Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership?

GD: For most of my academic and professional career, I only had a casual interest in leadership. Even when I studied Situational Leadership® II and Servant Leadership, I hadn’t developed a strong interest. It wasn’t until I listened to James C Hunter’s The Servant Leadership Training Course audiobook that I realized that leadership is something bigger and more important than what I traditionally had been taught. Within a few months of listening to this audiobook, I started discovering new themes in leadership that radically differs from tradition themes. The more I learned, the more passionate I became about the research and discovery of what is involved in serious leadership thinking and practice.

EB: What did you discover in the course of the research?

GD: In the past thirty years, leadership has radically evolved from what we traditionally think of leadership. I contrast the difference by labeling the older way as traditional leadership and the new way as 21st Century Leadership. I identified 13 traditional leadership assumptions that can cause more harm than good. I also identified seven leadership principles, 26 new beliefs, and nine distinct best practices. Here’s some of what’s new:

    • 21st Century Leadership emphasizes interactions between leading and collaboration while de-emphasizing roles such as leader and follower.
    • Management involves accomplishing goals through others. That’s not what leadership is about. Leadership is about helping others mature their mental and moral qualities, capabilities, and behaviors. This is a fancy way to say that leadership is about building character.
    • Leadership is action that focuses on others and not yourself.
    • The practice of leadership is bi-directional. By helping others build character, you inadvertently build your own character.
    • Everyone can practice leadership regardless of role.
    • Sharing your own mistakes builds your credibility and helps others trust you more.
    • Leadership doesn’t reside in one person or one role. Fully evolved teams consist of everyone practicing leadership and collaboration.
    • Teams and organizations that are fully practicing leadership effectively are more productive and work in environments that promote safety, engagement, creativity, and innovation.

EB: What are the implications of this new thinking for large organizations?

GD: Several organizations provide leadership development for managers and executives. Not only do these programs exclude individual contributors, they tend to be more about management and traditional leadership. If organizations want to earnestly develop leadership within their ranks, they need to rethink who should receive leadership training, the training content, and how training is delivered.

In addition, those in charge of diversity initiatives and the strategy portfolio should leverage the principles, beliefs, and practices to improve their outcomes. Just as important, owners of diversity, strategy, and training should harmonize how they leverage leadership. Doing so greatly improves positive results.

EB: You introduce a series of metaphors: being a detective, doctor, guide, and gardener. What was your idea?

GD: At a glance, readers can gain insight into what’s involved in the nine best practices of leadership. At the very least, I want to stimulate curiosity so readers would explore why I chose a particular practice title.

Here’s an example of how I title one of the practices: In Develop Like Scouts, readers discover that this practice involves “scouting” for new ideas and talent. Think of a baseball or football scout. Teams need to search outside their team to find insightful methods, techniques, and resources that promote development and improve productivity. Sometimes, this is achieved by recruiting new talent to the team – talent that brings new ways of thinking about how the team works.

EB: Who is the audience for Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership?

GD: The audience is anyone who wants to improve their leadership capabilities. Everyone can apply these leadership practices in their role, so the audience isn’t limited to managers and executives.

Another audience are researchers and scholars. In the book, there’s a wealth of sources to support researchers’ valuable work and their achievement in advancing the leadership field. In the book, I have about 80 quotations, more than 150 table notes, more than 400 endnotes, and more than 135 bibliography references, so there’s plenty for researchers and scholars to leverage.

EB: How is leadership different from management?

GD: If you survey 100 leadership experts, they’ll agree that there’s a difference between leadership and management. Ask them to explain the difference, most will have difficulty doing so.

Here’s the short and simple answer (I’ll blog about the long version in the next month or so):

Management serves three functions: Set goals, design, and monitor. This happens at three organizational levels:

    • Organization
    • Process (typically includes project management)
    • People

You could have executives managing the overall organization, process managers, project managers, and people managers. These management roles are formally assigned to employees by human resources (HR).

In contrast, leadership is something that HR cannot assign. Although you might hear some describe senior executives as having leadership roles, that’s inaccurate. Many executives fail to practice leadership regardless of having a leadership label. Everyone can practice leadership (or not) regardless of role or career level.

Leadership involves a set of practices that you apply to any process or action that is assigned to a specific role. For example, CEOs create and maintain the vision statement of a company. That’s a management task. Therefore, creating a vision statement can be accomplished with or without practicing leadership. A CEO not practicing leadership might create a vision statement during a retreat with his or her direct reports. That really isn’t how leadership is practice at the CEO level. However, a CEO that practices leadership might incorporate the input from employees at all organizational levels and leverage employees to refine, improve, and own the vision statement.

Here’s another way to think about this: Managers of people hire, fire, promote, demote, “micromanage,” conduct annual reviews, and increase/decrease pay (just a few managerial tasks). Leadership has to do with how you perform these tasks. How a manager acts when reviewing someone’s performance differs substantially depending if the manager practices leadership or not.

EB: What makes a good leader, or a great one?

GD: People who are good at leadership study leadership principles, beliefs, and practices and then attempt to apply leadership to their role. People great at leadership do the same. However, they also collect feedback (direct and anonymous) about how well they practice leadership. They then create one to two objectives to improve their leadership practices based on their feedback.
Those good at leadership casually and infrequently study leadership. Those great at leadership continuously strive to learn how they can improve and regularly set objectives for improving their leadership practices.

EB: You also talk about continual growth for leaders. Why is that important?

GD: Here are three reasons why continual growth is important:

    1. Arrested development. People tend to develop skills until they are satisfied. Once satisfied, they discontinue to develop. The challenge of leadership is that most people stop developing their leadership capabilities too soon and are, at best, partially successful at practicing leadership. Leadership is so complex, you would need a lifetime to really master the practices. However, mastering a few can substantially make a positive difference. Continue to improve and your impact will be extraordinary!
    2. Old habits. Anyone who studies habit theory knows that old habits never disappear fully. People can easily regress to old habits without realizing it. This includes practicing leadership. Anyone can slip back to using coercion or traditional leadership practices that are easier than practicing 21st Century Leadership.
    3. Evolution. In the past 30 years, the leadership field has radically changed and continues to evolve. I’m excited about the developments in the next couple of decades, and if you’re serious about practicing effective leadership, you’ll want to keep current with what’s developing in the leadership field. Doing so might make a substantial difference in how you effectively serve others.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

GD: Thank you for this opportunity.

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An Interview with Alicia von Stamwitz

Alicia von Stamwitz is an award-winning freelance author and editor with the religious press. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Sun, America, The United Church Observer, and St. Anthony Messenger. Among others she has interviewed Jean Vanier, Winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize, the Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister, Quaker activist Parker Palmer, art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, and essayist Kathleen Norris. In cooperation with the Vatican, she recently she compiled and edited two books of the writing of Pope Francis: THE SPIRIT OF SAINT FRANCIS: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis and THE BLESSING OF FAMILY: Inspiring Words From Pope Francis.

Alicia Von Stamwitz was born in Havana, Cuba, and now lives in Missouri with her family. You can follow her on Twitter at other visit her website to learn more.

EB: Tell us about the first book you worked on with the Vatican Publishing House: THE SPIRIT OF SAINT FRANCIS: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis. How did this project come about?

AVS: As you may know, after his March 2013 election Jorge Bergoglio chose the name “Francis” in honor of one of the most beloved figures in Christendom, Francis of Assisi. Within the first year of his papacy, many books were published on the pope’s life and words, but none focused on the intersection of the pope’s message vis-à-vis his chosen namesake. So one morning I decided to phone the Vatican to pitch the idea. I’d met the Vatican Publishing House editors several times at conferences, but I wasn’t sure if they’d remember me or whether they were the right people to talk to about this proposal. Still, I told them I was working with a Franciscan publisher in the U.S. and that we wanted to publish a compilation of the pope’s words on Franciscan themes like simplicity, joy, love for creation, the poor, peace, and so on. I thought we would have to jump through a million hoops to get permission to do this, but they liked the idea and said yes right away.

EB: It must be daunting to be the editor for Pope Francis, or any pope. Were you at all nervous about this project?

AVS: Not nervous, exactly. I’d say I was anxious to get this word-portrait right. On the micro level, the more closely I looked at the official Vatican texts of his writings and speeches—reviewing something like half a million words—the more often I saw that writers quoting the pope sometimes ignored the context or misinterpreted his words. Often, I could trace the problem to a poor translation. So I checked and rechecked the context of every quote, and I often went back to the original Spanish or Italian texts when the English text appeared to have an omission or error. I was very careful, and it helped to know that Vatican editors would review every word of the final manuscript—that was one of the terms of our agreement. On the macro level, I was anxious to reflect as accurately as possible Pope Francis’ core message and unique spiritual “accent.”

EB: You had to arrange and select the readings. What was your plan? How did you arrange items so that the whole collection would have a larger impact than the parts?

AVS: I began by reading practically everything Pope Francis has said or written since his election, which took me several months. It was overwhelming at first, but it was also fun once I started to recognize patterns and recurring highlights in his speeches and writings. I clipped the most compelling quotes and began arranging them on the floor of my office, color-coding the strips of papers and index cards thematically: blue for quotes on war and peace, orange for quotes on love and forgiveness, green for quotes on the environment, etc. I had no idea when I started if I’d end up with 5 chapters or 15. But as I selected and grouped what I thought were the best quotes—including a lot of his off-the-cuff remarks, which can be particularly revealing—an organic order began to suggest itself. Then I paired these piles with the primary themes associated with the life and legacy of Francis of Assisi. I ended up with 10 chapters that both trace the spiritual path and mirror the pope’s keynote: A real encounter with the Divine (chapters 1-3) leads to personal transformation (4-6) and positive action that makes the world a better place (7-10).

EB: Can you tell us a little bit about the second book, THE BLESSING OF FAMILY: Inspiring Words From Pope Francis?

AVS: This, too, is a compilation. I didn’t pitch this one to the Vatican; they came up with the idea and asked me if I’d like to do it in advance of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this September. The process was the same, but it was not as intense because by this time I had a better grasp of the pope’s body of writings and speeches. This book gathers his nuggets on love, marriage, raising children, and caring for elderly parents. He obviously gets the struggles many modern couples and families face, so it’s not all pious stuff. For example, he says, “I always give this advice to newlyweds: ‘Argue as much as you like. If the plates fly, let them! But never end the day without making peace! Never!’ ” He also talks a lot about the importance of cherishing and caring for frail and sick family members, probably because he had first-hand experience with that. His own mother was paralyzed after giving birth to her fifth child, so twelve-year-old Jorge stepped up to help run the household.

EB: How did you settle into a career as a religion writer/editor?

AVS: By default. I tried teaching, twice, and I enjoyed working with kids but as an introvert I found it draining to be “on” all day. Fortunately, a friend recommended me for a bilingual editorial and sales position at a Catholic publishing house, and I knew shortly after taking the job that publishing would be a better fit. My employers, the Redemptorists, a religious order of priests and brothers, were incredibly supportive and generous: they helped me get a full scholarship to return to college and study journalism, and they set me up with a home office when I had my first child. By then, I was writing short articles for the house magazine and learning how to edit book-length works.

EB: Outside of Francis, who are your favorite authors?

AVS: Ach, an impossible question! But here are a handful that spring to mind, old favorites and new: Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield, Jim Shepard, Salvatore Scibona, Scott Russell Sanders, Brian Doyle, Bruce Lawrie, Naomi Shihab Nye, Wendell Berry. (I have links to some of my favorite short essays, articles and poems on my website under the “Notebook” tab.)

EB: Thanks for chatting with us.

AVS: Thank you!

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What to watch for in Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee’s new (!?) book Go Set a Watchman has got a lot in it—a lot to like, some things to be annoyed about, and plenty to ponder.

What’s to like? Relevance. There’s never a bad time for a conversation about race and class in America (though as my friend Lisa Sandlin posted, it’s too bad this book didn’t come out in 1962). The issues raised seem particularly timely in light of the confederate flag, videotaped police violence and the strange case of Rachel Dolezal, to name just a few. Lee provides insight into the motives and thinking of the polite racists like Atticus, Hank Clinton, Alexandra, and maybe Scout herself. She walks us through a thought piece about the race and class with relevance far beyond the South.

The period writing is still solid and there were some nice ironic touches as well, some of them unintentional, as when Scout is grateful for her Aunt Alexandra for taking care of the aging, arthritic Atticus.

What’s to not like? Atticus, of course. It’s like growing up and discovering that the people you admired as a child are not the men and women you thought they were. But that’s Lee’s point. And I wish there had been more exploration of Henry Clinton, whose membership in the Citizen’s Council seems driven by his own tenuous social status.

Also to not like: as the novel progresses there was too much didactic exposition wrapped in too many dramatic confrontations—with just about everyone: Calpurnia, Alexandra, Hank, Atticus, Uncle Jack (who is a bit of a contrivance).

What else is to not like: the lack of context. Someone–Lee, her lawyer, the publisher, some literature professor somewhere should have been asked to provide an epilogue to the book with the backstory of its publishing and discussing the choices made by Lee and her editors. This is all the more necessary given the questions about the book’s provenance and whether it was a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird or a sequel or a bit of both. (I’m leaning to the view that it was a sequel, because our knowledge of the characters–especially the now-dead Jem and missing Dill–seem to be too much taken for granted. But that could be editing. Which is why we need some notes! What was Lee doing for all those years?)

What’s to ponder? Everything. Why does Atticus sometimes wear two watches? What’s the symbolism of young Scout’s misplaced falsies? The train versus the plane? What’s the role of nostalgia (ours, Lee’s, the characters’) in all of this? Was Atticus’s racism already present in To Kill a Mockingbird? (I think so.) What are Calpurnia’s company manners—why does she “drop her verbs in the presence of guests”? And why do the Cunninghams and Coninghams worry about their names so?

What an exciting time, I would think, to be a high school English teacher. And a good time to reread To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Reading in the summer after college

You’ve graduated from college with an English major. The summer is ahead of you. What do you read now that your are in charge of the reading list. I asked some 2015 Southern Oregon University grads what they are reading this summer:

Tim Molony is reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris (philosophy) and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (Fiction).

Shiloh Harrelson is listening to The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri and narrated by Grover Gardner and is reading 100 Years of Solitude and the manuscript for After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go? by Claire Bidwell Smith.

River Marie Hardy is reading The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

Jason Trujillo is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Before They are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, and The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum and listening to Jurassic Park on audio book.

Alyssa McPartland
is going to read The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Rio Picollo is reading Fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Foucault’s Pendulum (“cus I’m pretentious”) The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker and Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky and is rereading the The Sandman series by Neil Gainman

Adrienne Baudry is reading The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, Flowers for Algernon, and Great Expectations and some “junk food” fiction.

Aaryn Exparza is reading The Sociology of Education (for the MAT program) and Love: A Misadventure by Lang Leav.

Angelica Crimmins is reading Important comics by Dina Kelberman, A New Language for Falling Out of Love by Meghan Privitello, Pippi Magazine and this beast:

photo by Angelica Crimmins

Patrick Arthur is reading If How-To’s Were Enough We Would All Be Skinny, Rich, And Happy! by Brian Klemmer (“It’s a goofy title but a good read.”)

Amanda Murphy is reading Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, and Why Sex Matters by Bobbie S. Low.

Colin Cardwell is reading The Count of Monte Cristo.

Alexandria Russell is reading The Rift by Andrea Cremer.

Moses Hardin is reading Ten Great Mysteries of Edgar Allan Poe.

Elizabeth Leydsman is reading A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and rereading Jurassic Park with her husband.

Enjoy your quiz-free summer reading.

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An Interview with Louisa Burns-Bisogno and Saundra Shohen

Louisa Burns-Bisogno is an award-winning screenwriter, director, author, and international media consultant with over 100 on-screen credits including My Body, My Child and Bridge to Silence. She has written stories and scripts for popular American daytime series and received a Writers Guild of America East Award for Outstanding Achievement. She is an adjunct professor of playwriting, screenwriting and webisode development at Western Connecticut State University.

Saundra Shohen was administrator of the Emergency Department at Roosevelt Hospital. She also she served as Vice-President of Program Development and Media Relations for PRISM International. She was on the New York City Mayor’s Task Force on Rape and was a judge for the Emmy Awards for programs addressing teenage suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism. She has written radio scripts for the Voice of America focused on health issues and has edited many books for other authors.

Burns-Bisogno and Shohen recently published a novel based on the events of December 8, 1980. We talked with them about The Night John Lennon Died: …so did John Doe

EB: I really enjoyed your novel, The Night John Lennon Died … so did John Doe. I understand it’s based in part on your own experience on the night that John Lennon was shot. Can you tell our readers a bit more?

SS: Since I was the Administrator of the ER at Roosevelt Hospital on December 8th, 1980 and was part of the ER team on call when John Lennon was brought in, the events of that night are as clear to me today as they were 35 years ago. The last chapter (The Death of John Lennon) in my book, EMERGENCY! (published by St. Martin’s Press) is the ‘jumping off’ point for The Night John Lennon Died…so did John Doe. Everything in our novel about John Lennon which transpired that night reflects my actual remembrance and experiences. However, our character Annie is spending her first shift in the chaos of that night. I was already a seasoned ER Administrator. I managed many breaking news stories of famous people brought into our ER for myriad reasons. So everything you read about the events of that moment in history in the Roosevelt Hospital ER are, in fact, entangled with my own history of that night.

EB: What prompted you to develop this novel?

SS: When I told my friend and co-author Louisa about a man who was in the trauma room next to John’s, had no I.D. and died within minutes of Lennon being pronounced, she was intrigued. We decided to write our book based on that unidentified patient, what his story would be and interweave it with the tragic murder of John Lennon.

EB: How fictional is the character of Annie Rolling? I have a new appreciation for the job of Hospital Administrators.

SS: Everything about Annie is fictional with some caveats. As is often true with authors’ work, there are moments and moods and circumstances that Louisa and I drew from our own histories. However, the clarification of those moments remains with us. The reader gets to experience Annie as her own beautiful, complex, strong, and sometimes over-the-top woman.

As far as Hospital Administrators, they do keep the cogs in the wheels oiled. Without policies and procedures, without budgets, without job descriptions, without meeting federal standards, the doctors and nurses and other personnel would not be able to do their jobs. Serving the public, and especially caring for people in times of medical needs, is a serious mandate. The Emergency Department (often referred to as the ER) is by far the most dynamic setting for 24/7 challenges.

EB: I was especially struck by the historical detail on the period and by the understanding of sign language and deaf culture. What sort of research did you have to do on these topics?

SS: Since I lived and worked in New York City and in the Roosevelt Hospital environs, the neighborhood supermarket, pharmacy, bank, diner, church, dry cleaners, Lincoln Center, Juilliard, the Dakota and more, were part of my daily experience. That made it easy.

However, it was Louisa who visited and did extensive research on the church – an important “character” in our novel. And she will tell you more about her fabulous attention to detail with everything from flight schedules to origins of last names to the history of Saint Paul the Apostle Church.

Major and integral ingredients in the fabric of the entire book are deaf culture and sign language. One of the most beloved characters is, in fact, deaf. Louisa, who has extraordinary knowledge of and history with this culture made the complete story come alive with her descriptive writing not only of narrative, but also capturing the unique dialogue of the deaf. I continue to be inspired by Louisa’s brilliance in how she brings to life the humanity and challenges of the deaf community.

LBB: Although the novel is pure fiction … it is fact. The story came alive because it was inspired by real people, so the situations were credible. Saundra’s experiences at Roosevelt Hospital were the springboard. The John Doe who died in the room next to John Lennon triggered my memory of a suspicious death I witnessed. While I could not generate a police investigation, I used my memory of this vulnerable cancer victim, an eighty year-old deaf man, to develop the main plot.

My brother was deaf and his family also deaf. When he was a young professional, opportunities were closed to the handicapped. The deaf club in our mystery provides a window into their community. The hearing impaired were undervalued in the past, but they had their dreams. They worked together to have as full lives as possible.

Most of the story is placed within seventeen blocks of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to Central Park. New York is extremely rich in culture–a fantastic stage to play out a story. I wanted to bring the reader to Artie and Annie’s neighborhood, hence the choice of specific locations including Juilliard and St. Paul the Apostle Church.

EB: You managed to not only keep the story moving briskly but also to create suspense by giving Annie plenty of problems to solve. Do you plot all these out in advance or did the story tell itself to you?

SS: Initially, we had many conversations about structure. From the start we determined that seven sections reflecting seven days, beginning with December 8, 1980 was the way to go. Short chapters within each part made for easy transition from scene to scene. We were clear on where the story would begin, and just as clear as to how the novel would end. Louisa, highly skilled in plot development, will tell you about the rest.

LBB: Mysteries usually begin with the crime. In our novel there were two murders at the outset. Lennon’s was solved the moment the police arrived at the scene of the crime and Mark David Chapman surrendered and was arrested. John Doe’s murder is known to the reader but not to the characters. When Annie sees the corpse’s hands and realizes he signed “murder” with his dying breath, she tries to get the authorities to investigate. She fails. So she is determined to solve the mystery herself.

After deciding on the structure—seven days—I plotted what would happen each day to move the story forward. Each day Annie discovers new information and clues about John Doe and the amazing deaf world.

There was also the need to incorporate critical backstory and weave in Annie’s personal relationships, especially with her daughter Rosie. When Rosie is attacked in her own home, Annie risks everything to solve the crime.

EB: Annie is quite an intriguing character, with a complicated backstory, family and love life, and a challenging job. Do you have any plans for a sequel?

LBB: Annie has many mysteries to solve. Her curiosity, courage, commitment and career make sequels a natural way to proceed. Indeed, her story has already appeared as a pilot script. It was chosen by the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for a stage reading at HBO. Six subsequent episodes complete the tv/cable series proposal. Currently we are polishing the feature film script based on our novel. Whether on the page or the big or little screen, Annie and her entourage are intriguing and have lots of stories to tell.

EB: What is it about hospitals and medicine that lend themselves to drama?

SS: Most of us have needed a hospital and/or ER at some point for ourselves or a relative or friend. The ER is a setting in which the drama of life and death are played out 24/7. I call it controlled chaos. The ‘cast of characters’ is endless…
physicians, physician assistants, nurses, nurses aides, clerks, housekeepers, social workers, security guards, patient reps, paramedics, x-ray techs, administrators. And let’s not forget the patients!

EB: What was the co-authoring process like for the two of you?

SS: Louisa and I spent more than two years writing and re-writing … thinking, talking, questioning, researching, contemplating, deciding, changing, laughing, growing to love our characters, crying with them when they were in pain, encouraging them as they found their way, worried for them when they went “over the edge.”

We also got to name various characters after beloved people in our lives. And in one case, for me, we named Malvina Ristorante for my mother, whose name was Malvina.

Most important for me was the constant inspiration I received as the result of Louisa’s brilliant storytelling.

LBB: I would not have completed this book without Saundra’s encouragement and input. We complemented each other. My strength is plot and dialogue. Saundra knows the world that Annie lives in…technically and emotionally. She is gifted in words.

After writing the first draft of a chapter, I’d pass it on to Saundra. She would give me extensive notes. We’d discuss details from our own points of view and expertise. Sometimes we’d disagree. Solutions came after animated discussion. The book benefitted greatly because of our yin and yang.

EB: What is your favorite book of all time and why?

SS: The Good Earth was published three years before I was born. It is by far my favorite book of all time. Set in various locales in China, I could almost smell the scent of the earth which sustained the characters–this as a result of author Pearl S. Buck’s extraordinary storytelling.

The Good Wife, Dallas and Downton Abby cannot compare with Buck’s dramatic challenges which her fully-developed characters experience. Issues of alcoholism, adultery and murder are woven into the universal societal behaviors in 1920’s China. Through flood and famine the generations survive and even flourish.

I was one year old when Pearl S. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for this timeless novel. It remains, for me, a thrilling reading adventure.

You can visit the website for The Night John Lennon Died … so did John Doe here.

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An Interview with Ellie Alexander

Ellie Alexander is a Pacific Northwest writer who loves testing pastry recipes. Her work (as Kate Dyer-Seeley) has appeared in The Columbian, The Vancouver Voice, Seattle Backpacker, Portland Family Magazine, and Climbing Magazine.

EB: How did you decide to set Meet Your Baker in Ashland, with an Oregon Shakespeare Festival subplot?

AE: My family and I used to come to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival growing up. It’s such an idyllic setting. One of the things that I find unique about it as a setting is that there are almost two towns within Ashland. Visitors travel from all over the globe to catch a production at OSF, but then when the theater is dark for the season Ashland becomes a small town again. I think that makes for a very rich setting—there are always new characters rolling in to shake things up, or to kill off.

Shakespeare sets the ultimate stage for drama. I enjoy weaving in quotes from the bard and details about the history of the theater. And Ashland has so much more to offer from its gorgeous parks and hiking trails, to its thriving art community, surrounding wineries, farms, the Rogue River, Mt. Ashland. I could go on and on.

EB: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

AE: My degree is in speech therapy. I worked in an early invention program for years before shifting my focus to writing full time. In college I minored in creative writing, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I wrote a lot of horrible first drafts that ended up in the recycling and I read everything that I could get my hands on from literary fiction to sci-fi to non-fiction and historical fiction. In hindsight that time was invaluable to me.

Aspiring writers often ask me for advice and the first thing I tell them is to read. You can’t be a writer in my opinion if you’re not a reader first.

I freelanced for a while before taking the plunge into writing fiction. I wrote for a variety of magazines and newspapers. That experience helped strengthen my writing. I worked with editors who gave me feedback and suggestions to tighten my story. I had to meet deadlines, and finesse a story arch. My speech therapy background also come into play. When I’m writing dialog I will go to a coffee shop or a park and take extensive notes on how people are talking—all the nuances of their speech—just like I used to when I was working in the field. I hope that it makes the dialog in my books very believable.

EB: Did you grow up in Ashland? Is part of the book at all autobiographical? Are you Jules Capshaw? Are you a baker? Was your father a Shakespeare buff?

AE: I grew up in Vancouver, Washington. I came to Ashland frequently with my family and on school field trips. Yes, my dad is a Shakespeare buff. He taught high school honors English and introduced me to Shakespeare at a young age. One summer my parents threw a Midsummer Night’s Eve party, where everyone came in Elizabethan costumes and were assigned roles. I was Peaseblossom. I spent weeks making a fairy dress with my mom. My dad spent weeks crafting an authentic menu. In addition to his literary knowledge he’s an incredible cook. In fact a number of his recipes appear in the books, like his recipe for Chocolate Hazelnut Torte.

My mom got me hooked on mysteries at a young age. We would walk to the local library each week and I would return with a stack of books to devour. She was also an amazing baker. There would always be homemade pies, cookies, and cakes waiting for my brother, sister and me when we got home from school. Many of her recipes are in the books as well, like her Raspberry Danish.

Like Jules I love to bake. After I hit my word count, I’ll spend time testing recipes in my kitchen. Food is such a love language and I think she and I both show our love for friends and family through food. However she’s a trained pastry chef. I’m not. She’s also much more romantic than me.

She has just returned home to Ashland after spending the last ten years working as a pastry chef on a cruise ship. She’s left her husband on the ship and is coming home to mend her broken heart. I love writing Jules. She’s a romantic—blame it on the name—but despite the fact that her heart has been broken she’s not broken. I think that’s an important distinction.

EB: How has Ashland changed?

AE: It’s changed over the years, but the core downtown plaza still feels much the same to me. That’s a good thing. When I was working on Meet Your Baker, I interviewed a number of business owners and they talked about the ebb and flow of tourists in town. Longstanding businesses do well and can weather the off season, but many small business owners shared that some of their friends and colleagues have opened businesses at the start of the season with no plan for the slower winter months and have ended up having to close their doors.

I appreciate that downtown is still predominately small businesses. There’s so much gentrification that’s happening in the Pacific Northwest, and it would break my heart to see that happen in Ashland.

EB: Meet Your Baker is a cozy mystery. What’s the attraction of that genre to you as a writer, and in your opinion, to readers?

AE: I got hooked on cozies mysteries with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. One summer in early high school I read all of Agatha Christie’s books. Cozy mysteries are escapism at its best. They take readers on a quest to figure out whodunit, with a dash of romance and plenty of page-turning twists. They’re typically light reads without gratuitous violence, featuring amateur sleuths who stumble into solving a mystery while going about their everyday lives. The reader has the same opportunity as the sleuth to solve the puzzle. I think that’s one of the reasons the genre continues to be so popular. Even though cozy mysteries are lighter reads they’re still cerebral. You have to use your brain to piece all of the clues together. That’s my favorite part of writing mysteries—I want to keep the reader guessing all the way up until the very end.

I also read them like travelogues. I’m a sucker for anything set in the English countryside. That’s my goal in writing this series—to give readers at taste (pun intended) of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve received email from readers all over the country who’ve had said they can’t wait to visit Ashland now that they’ve read the book. That’s the best compliment I could ever receive.

EB: Meet Your Baker is the first in the series and the next is coming out this very soon. What happens in A Batter of Life and Death?

AE: In A Batter of Life and Death Jules is going to be competing in a television bake-off, Take the Cake. The Pastry Channel is in town to film the popular competition that pits top chefs against each other in a culinary challenge. She’s a bit camera shy, but the top prize is $25,000 and Torte is in desperate need of new ovens so she agrees to compete. Just as she starts to feel more comfortable in the spotlight, one of her fellow contestants is discovered buried in buttercream. Of course Jules is on the case and in the mix for murder!

I’m so excited about this next installment. Readers are going to get to know Jules and the team at Torte a little better and there are some delicious recipes that I can’t wait to share.

EB: You are a full-time writer. What’s your writing life like? Any tips for aspiring writers?

AE: I do my best work in the early morning hours. I write a minimum of 2,000 words every day. That structure works for me. Then in the afternoon I get outside and go for a walk or hike, or spend time in the kitchen testing new recipes.

Before I start writing I sketch out the story. I know exactly what every character is hiding and lying about, what red herrings I’m going to use to throw readers off the scent of the killer, and who the killer is. After I’ve made my initial sketch I write a thirty page outline. From there I start working on the first draft. I don’t do any editing as I write. Instead I keep notebooks next to my laptop to jot down things that I need to change or come back to. Once I have a complete first draft I print out a copy and set it away for a few weeks or more. I find that having some distance helps tremendously. After I’ve taken a break from it I’ll go back over it and incorporate all the notes I made along the way. It usually takes me at least two or three more drafts before it’s ready to send to my editor.

As far as advice goes—read! I know I already said it, but it’s worth repeating. And write daily. I think new writers sometimes believe that they have to wait for the muse to strike. I used to think that too when I wrote all those terrible first drafts, but what I’ve realized is that the discipline of sitting down and writing every day makes you a better writer. Or at least able to hit word count. Set a daily writing goal. Writing is like any muscle in your body. If you don’t use it, it’s not going to get any stronger.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AE: Thanks so much for having me!

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An Interview with Mary Norris

photo by Josef Astor

Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978. She has written for The Talk of the Town and for on a wide range of topics and recently published Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton).

Originally from Cleveland, she now lives in New York.

EB: I really enjoyed Between You & Me and loved the way you were able to bring drama not just to the work of copy editing but to the English language itself. All my copyeditor friends are reading it. What prompted you to write the book?

MN: That’s so nice! Thank you. The original impetus for the book was a blog post defending New Yorker commas that I was asked to write for The New Yorker’s Web site. I’d been writing for decades, and this post, In Defense of Nutty Commas, got the largest readership I ever had. So I wrote about other facets of New Yorker style (the diaeresis, doubled consonants), and about pencils, and the response was such that it occurred to me that there might be some interest in a book on the subject. The subject itself—language, really—had never drawn me before, but, with some thirty years of copy-editing experience, I found I had a lot to say and that I held strong opinions.

EB: It occurs to me that you must have had to be extra careful proofing the book. Did you worry about that at all?

MN: Oh, yeah. The publisher provided a copyeditor, I read the proofs three times, my boss at the magazine read the proofs, a production editor read them, and still mistakes snuck in. In retrospect, I wish I had hired a fact checker.

EB: Copyeditors are a special breed. What sort of person is attracted to the work? And do you find yourself editing things in your time off? I know one copyeditor who mentally rewrites billboards.

MN: There is no denying that attention to detail is an asset in a copy editor. So I would say that it attracts fussbudgets and neatniks. But, beyond being detail-oriented, a copy editor is someone who loves words and has a good facility with them, whether it’s for foreign languages or crossword puzzles. Some can’t turn it off and mark the mistakes in everything they read. I have learned to let go. It’s not that I don’t notice mistakes or odd choices in punctuation—I just don’t correct them.

EB: You talk about some of the great reference books that copyeditors use. Do you have a top three?

MN: Are you counting dictionaries? Because that’s the top reference: the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, or the online version of the unabridged dictionary, which is available by subscription. (There’s a free one, too, but it has ads.) For basic grammar and typography, Words Into Type has everything you need. And if you want to go deep into the usage wars, Garner’s Modern American Usage will keep you occupied. It’s more accessible (and American) than Fowler’s.

EB: And what do you read for fun?

MN: Fowler’s! Seriously, I can’t stop buying usage guides. I like things that are funny—one of my favorite books is John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I liked Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. The best writers have a deep vein of humor running through everything they write. Ian Frazier is funny, and so is John McPhee. I like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote about travel in Greece and Eastern Europe—I find him transporting. I have a huge collection of books about the sea and about ancient Greece that I am saving to read in retirement.

EB: You seem to have a very sensible attitude about the flexibility and fluidity of language. Do copyeditors get a bad rap among the general public?

MN: Yes, there are some rigid types, some who are very literal-minded (I am like that myself—it’s an occupational hazard). I have friends who are copyeditors manquées or wannabe copyeditors, and they cannot resist pointing out my mistakes. It is not an endearing trait, and I have made an effort not to cultivate it. If I am flexible, it’s largely because I’m a writer myself, and I try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.

EB: I have to say I loved the discussion of the hyphen, which has always been a favorite punctuation symbol of mine. Do you have a favorite punctuation mark?

MN: I’m glad you liked the hyphen chapter. I was surprised, in the end, to feel that it is the heart of the book—maybe because compounding depends more on judgment than on rules. I like the dash myself. It’s versatile—you can write a whole sentence within a sentence if you set it off in dashes—and eloquent, and it works well in informal prose—letters, e-mails. The ellipsis is growing on me . . .

EB: What’s up with The New Yorker and colons, by the way? I often see them where I might expect a semicolon.

MN: That’s something I’m not aware of—or wasn’t until you pointed it out. I think there are too many semicolons in The New Yorker. There certainly are instances where I vacillate between a semicolon and a colon, but I think if I wasn’t sure I’d use the semicolon. Either one could be replaced by a dash!

EB: If there was one thing you could change about the English language, what would it be?

MN: I think I’d go back to thou and thee. Wouldn’t that be nice, to have a special word to use in a tender relationship? When I speak Italian (which I don’t do very well), I never use the formal “you”—I address everyone in the familiar. Italians are very nice about it.

EB: Any advice for today’s English majors who aspire to copyediting?

MN: I would say pay attention to the details in everything you read, just to see how various publishers do things. Stay flexible—if you get a job in Canada or in the United Kingdom, you’re going to have to accept their conventions. You don’t need to be dogmatic about a house style outside the house. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. And try to keep the big picture in mind. I say this because I have been warped by years of copy editing and have a habit of focussing on the details without being able to discern the larger pattern.

EB: Finally, any predictions about the longevity of the diaeresis?

MN: It’s lasted this long! I would say that when the current generation of copy editors passes away—the baby boomers—the diaeresis will melt into the past, and nobody will even notice that it’s gone.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MN: My pleasure. Thank you!

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