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 newyorker.com 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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An Interview with Jennifer Margulis

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a former Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, is an award-winning travel, culture, and parenting writer. Her work has appeared in many of the nation’s most respected and credible publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Smithsonian Magazine.

Her book, Your Baby, Your Way, was just published in paperback. We checked in with her this week to find out more.

EB: Scribner recently released the paperback version of your book: Your Baby, Your Way. I can’t help but notice the new title. It’s no longer The Business of Baby. Why the title change? Are you aiming for new audiences?

JM: The publisher’s marketing team decided to change the title to give the book a fresh and more accessible feel. About 4 million babies are born every year in the United States, so we wanted to appeal more to first-time moms and dads.


EB: What else is different in the paperback?

JM: It has a completely different introduction, which is friendlier and more mom-to-mom than in the hard cover version. The content is also revised and the research is updated. You may have noticed, too, that the baby on the cover is turned vertical instead of horizontal. Same baby, different orientation. The thought on that was to make the book more appealing and less daunting.

EB: I know that your book has evoked strong feelings. Were you surprised?

JM: One Cornell University trained M.D. contacted me through my website to say she bought 14 copies of the book and that she was making it required reading for all her pregnant patients. I’ve also had moms tell me it was the best book they’ve ever read. Then there are the naysayers on the book’s Amazon page. One reviewer hated it so much his suggestion was to shred it and use it in the hamster cage. So, yes, the book has evoked very strong reactions!

I present information about the overuse of C-sections and the harms of the birth dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine. Readers who had C-sections they really did not need seem to have one of two responses: kill the messenger (me) and trash the book or feel totally empowered by having their eyes opened to a maternity system that puts profits over people and find the support they need to have a gentler, more evidence-based birth the next time.

EB: Getting the word out about books takes a lot of effort. What did you find was the most successful author-marketing tool?

JM: Good question. I’ve worked hard to build social media platforms. Your Baby, Your Way’s Facebook page has about 6,700 likes on it. I have over 750 followers on Pinterest, and strong networks on LinkedIn and Facebook. (Your students and colleagues are welcome to connect with me, by the way.) But what is the best way to translate those numbers into actual book sales? I don’t market my book to my readers and followers because marketing makes me cringe (and my book is about why we should not be trying to sell new moms and dads things but rather be educating them about best practices for healthy outcomes.)—but I do provide them with excellent content on-line and hope their interest will lead them to read the book.

Market researchers say being on NPR is a great way to sell books, as is being mentioned by popular bloggers, especially when they recommend your books. When a popular L.A. blogger did this interview with me, we saw a mighty spike in book sales. I am often invited to speak at conferences and we’ve sold out of books at this one and this one (the profits benefited the conference organizers, not me), so public speaking is very effective too. Word-of-mouth is also tremendously important. If you like a book, recommend it to a friend or write about it on Facebook and chances are your friends will want read it. Here are 7 ways to best support a friend who has just published a book.

EB: You’ve got a new project started. Can you tell us about that?

JM: I’m teaming up with one of the country’s foremost pediatricians to write a book that will revolutionize children’s health in America. We’ve had a very exciting couple of weeks when the book attracted a lot of attention among New York publishers. I’m not at liberty to reveal the details but I will be soon. Check back with me in a couple of weeks!

EB: What is your writing schedule like? You always seem busy, with interesting projects.

JM: I have an office with a treadmill desk so I am always standing and often walking (s-l-o-w-l-y) as I work. My best writing time is in the morning. The earlier I get started, the more productive I am during the day. I like to work from 8:30 to noon, take a break for lunch, and then put in two hours in the afternoon if my brain is still working.

EB: Any advice for aspiring non-fiction writers out there?

JM: We could spend the next hour talking about this, Ed, but here are three pieces of my best advice to get non-fiction writers started: 1) Read like a writer. If you want to be writing for newspapers, pitch the ones you read every day, since you are their audience and know what their readers are looking for. If you want to write books, read as much as you can and analyze the ones you like to figure out why you like them and what the authors are doing right. Then emulate them in your own work. 2) Be professional. Take writing seriously and be businesslike in all your dealings. Don’t ever write for free. Always meet your deadlines. Address editors you do not know formally. Dress up. Don’t wear jeans and a T-shirt to interview a source. 3) Join ASJA and attend their annual conference in New York City. You have to apply to get in and you need to have clips, so this can be a good goal for the aspiring writer.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JM: Always a pleasure.

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Grad School: An Interview with Matt Kent

Matt Kent is a 2014 graduate of Southern Oregon University; he is studying higher education administration at Old Dominion University and is the Assistant Hall Director for the Virginia and Ireland Houses at ODU.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are you reading?

MK: I am in a Higher Education/Student Affairs Master’s program; the focus of my graduate studies is on practical experience and therefore we are required to complete several internships and maintain a graduate assistantship outside of the program while working on our classes. The classes I take have a focus on student development and politics, trends, and issues in higher education. Most of my classes are a blend of the psychology, sociology, and education disciplines. I take classes like Contemporary Issues in Higher Education, The Contemporary College Student and Diversity, and Student Development theory. Much of what I read comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education and then academic journals in the education and psychology fields.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

MK: As far as the master’s program, it is designed so each student is currently working in the field they intend to work in post-graduation. For example, I want to work in Residence Life and Housing, and I have a graduate assistantship as an Assistant Hall Director as well as a summer internship at Sonoma State University as a Summer Area Coordinator. The program puts a heavy emphasis on students having opportunities to apply what they learn in real world situations to prepare them for those first full-time staff and administrative roles. As a graduate of Southern Oregon University’s English department, I feel that I was extremely prepared for the writing intensive work that I am asked to do as a graduate student.

EB: What is the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

MK: The most challenging part of graduate school would be balancing the actual coursework with the job and the internships, all of which is required. It’s very easy to put more of your time and attention into your graduate assistantship and completely let school slide. Much of the assignments consist of reading 10-50 pages of academic writing or working on a group project outside of class, and so it is easy to let these assignments pile up. Staying motivated and engaged can be challenging.

One of the most rewarding parts is interactions with other students and faculty in your program. Every member of my cohort is extremely passionate about students, student affairs, or higher education as a whole and that shared passion is really exciting. We spend a significant portion of class-time discussing various issues and policies and being a part of that discussion is extremely rewarding. Another aspect of my program that I find extremely rewarding is the real-world student affairs experience that I get through my experiences in my assistantship and in my internships.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

MK: My personal focus has been on gaining the skills and knowledge I need to work in and make change in student affairs. I have spent a great deal of time learning and applying student development theory through my courses and assistantships. In addition, I have done some research and presentation-work on First Generation Students and their adjustment to college. Grad school has really helped me to widen my focus and expose me to a variety of different issues.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

MK: DON’T DO IT!—Just kidding. My advice would be to understand what you are looking to gain out of that experience, understand what you need in a school and graduate program to be successful, and to be prepared for feelings of intense burn-out. I remember while I was in my last year of undergrad, my classmates would talk about how tired we were, how ready we were to be done, and then jokingly compare how long we had experienced “Senior-itis.” That feeling of burnout only intensifies in graduate school; it’s less of getting out and it will go away, and more understanding how you need to motivate yourself while doing the work and the studying. And choose a program that is cohort based—your peers will be your best support network.

EB: What’s next for you?

MK: I am currently finishing my first year of grad school—I will graduate in May of 2016. I’ll be looking for a full-time hall director position, ideally on the West Coast.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MK: My pleasure! Congratulations Class of 2015!

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Grad School: An Interview with Brystan Strong

Brystan Strong is 2013 graduate of Southern Oregon University; She works at the Jackson County Library Services and is completing a Masters in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are/were you reading?

BS: My graduate program is a distance learning program, so it takes place completely online. It is a combination of email and forum discussions, video lectures, and video conferencing for live presentations. I am currently going for my MLIS (Masters in Library and Information Science) with a focus on Public Librarianship and more specifically Teen/YA programming. Most of what I am reading is academic articles from journals such as Youth Library Journal, ALA (American Library Association) and a lot of teen/tween lit. Although the majority of the classes I take revolve around teen/YA programming, I’ve also taken courses in history, database building, cataloging, and library management.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

BS: I’ve always known that I wanted to work with teens outside of a traditional school environment, but now I am looking at other environments even outside of a traditional library setting. I’m looking at careers in Juvenile Detention Centers, or youth centers.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

BS: The most challenging part is definitely the fact that it is online. I don’t know what my classmates look like, what my teachers look like, and there isn’t a specific time that I have to go to class so I have to be very on top of my game and my time management. Also, completing group projects when everyone in your group is in a different time zone is very difficult. However, overcoming these obstacles, hearing praise from teachers, finishing projects are all very rewarding.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

BS: When I was getting my undergrad, I was focused on how what I was learning, what I was doing, could help make me a better person. The question was “how can this make me, a better me?” In graduate school it has shifted to “how can what I am learning here help me to help other people?”

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

BS: Be confident. I notice that at this point in my education, my professors expect me to act like I am already a professional in this field. I have to write with a lot more academic confidence, and own whatever I say. There isn’t much room to be wishy-washy. Be confident in what you know, be confident that you can learn what you need to know, and be confident in what you produce.

EB: What’s next for you?

BS: Right now I am working 2 jobs and going to school full-time. Thankfully, one of my jobs is in a library, so my goal right now is to be able to get out of retail, whether that is by getting a second library job or increasing my hours at my current library job. I also want to continue my research into alternative youth library programs.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

BS: You’re welcome

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Grad School: An Interview with Zeke Hudson

Zeke Hudson is completing his MFA in creative writing with a specialization in poetry at Boise State University. He is a 2011 graduate of Southern Oregon University.

EB: What was your graduate program like? What courses did you take and what sorts of things were you reading?

ZH: I’m trying to think of the best way to answer this hydra-headed question. I just finished a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing (poetry) at Boise State University. But here’s the thing: there is currently no standard set of requirements for a creative writing MFA.

If you want to go down the MFA path, you’ll come across a few different options. First, there are low- and full-residency programs. At the low residency programs, you do most of your work from home, and then you can fly or drive to wherever your campus is–maybe across the country?–once per semester to work in person with your professors and cohort. At full residency programs, you physically attend classes like normal.

Second, there are academic and studio programs. Academic programs require significant coursework, usually in the English department, and are essentially a Master of Arts in English with an extra year’s worth of courses devoted to craft. Studio programs require little (if any) work outside of workshops and other craft-related courses.

Third, program lengths vary. The shortest MFAs can be completed in a year, whereas the longest can take four. Most programs take two or three.

Fourth, different programs take different approaches to workshops and craft instruction. The most traditional programs tend to give prompts for writing, while the more progressive schools rarely ever give prompts, allowing students to find or better hone their own styles.

In the end, I went for a three-year, full residency, academic MFA with almost no prompts. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I keep in contact with hundreds of other MFA students around the country, and from what I can tell, I’m more satisfied with what Boise State has offered than almost anyone else. The cohort here is small, allowing only two or three students per year, so things generally don’t turn clique-ish and everyone has plenty of time to respond to each other’s work.

What I read at Boise State largely depended on the classes I took. Most workshop classes assign a book of poetry per week with the occasional essay thrown in. Writing, editing, and responding to classmates’ work comprises the majority of work in those courses. Literature courses tend to have more substantial reading loads of a book per week plus several articles or chapters of theory and criticism. My favorite courses were the mandatory Form & Theory seminars which were populated almost exclusively by poetry MFA students. Because it would be ridiculous to expect graduate students to read manuals about how to write poems (e.g. “this is how to effectively enjamb a line,” or “have you considered using an em dash?”), our Form & Theory reading was by far the most challenging. Beyond a few books of poetry, we spent most of our effort working through philosophy and literary criticism centered around a few common poetic themes (i.e. death, love, beauty), which led us to perennial academic all-stars such as Aristotle, Longinus, Burke, Kant, Hegel, Derrida, Gadamer, and so on.

The point is, poetry and criticism were built into the course requirements, but everyone’s welcome to take as many literature courses as they desire to get a taste of Gothic, Victorian, or Renaissance literature. I don’t know why you’d want to pick those over any of the other great offerings, but I guess some people are into those sorts of things.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

ZH: I still hope to teach, though my heart isn’t set on it. And that’s a good thing in this job market. However, what I found most surprising is that I have very little desire to research or teach literature exclusively. I figure literature doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so the most engaging courses were the ones with a significant theoretical, historical, or cultural component.

I’ll apply for PhDs next year, and when I do, I’ll be applying in the field of American Studies instead of English, literature, or writing.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

ZH: It’s hard to pick a most rewarding thing. Above all, I’d say the most rewarding part was defending my thesis and hearing my thesis referred to as my “book.” I’m leaving school with most of a book! Having a ready manuscript is the first real step toward a life as a writer, right? Now I have one.

The most challenging this was uh. Well, probably a tie. Time management was difficult. Remember that old triangular graphic that says “College: sleep, homework, social life. Pick two”? A graphic for graduate school would be a far more complex polygon–maybe an octagon–with things like sleep, homework, social life, teaching/class preparation, grading, attending important program functions, etc,. but then the instructions would still be like, “pick two, and expect to cry about it.”

Not whine. Cry. Real, legit tears.

But you get used to it.

The other challenging thing was teaching. At Boise State, MFA students teach as many as two courses per semester (1/2 teaching load), and we teach three different classes. As with almost every school, graduate teaching fellows are given only a couple weeks of instruction about how and what to teach. And it’s not so much that we get instruction so much as we get tossed into the deep in and are told to swim. And bored, judgmental little 18-year-olds are the sharks infesting the pool. Learning how to teach while developing lesson plans, coursework, and syllabi is probably the hardest thing to do in the first year.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

ZH: My focus? You mean like what did I study? Poetry.

I’m not sure how much grad school changed me. At least, I don’t think that most of the changes I’ve made are a direct cause of my coursework or studies. I remember when I first applied to grad school, before even hearing back from schools, I decided that it was time to be responsible. I started dressing better, cooking more elaborate meals, cleaning more often, and being generally more responsible. Basically, I decided that it was time to be an adult.

But grad school? It definitely taught me how to more effectively budget my time.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

ZH: Oh man. Yeah. I have so much advice. I know this has already been long-winded, but this is probably the realest part.

You have to want to be there. You have to love what you’re doing. Believe me, if your heart isn’t in it, you’ll never make it. It’s a lot of work–much more than a full time undergraduate course load, and a little bit more than an undergraduate course overload. Factor in teaching and it can be brutal (until you figure out how to manage your time). If you’re going to school for something in the humanities, you can’t count on your degree leading to a job, so learning should be its own reward.

Really research the schools you want to apply to. I cannot emphasize this enough. You should be at least a little bit familiar with the faculty, the course offerings, and the academic climate. Definitely talk to students who are currently attending programs you’re looking into. Remember, it’s important to know that you’ll get along with your professors and peers.

Don’t apply to a school only because of its name or reputation. Don’t mortgage your happiness for academic success. Find a place where you’ll be a good fit. From what I’ve seen, people who are unhappy with their programs but who try to stick it out because they think it’ll be worth it or impressive almost always drop out.

Depending on your degree, you might be in a place for anywhere from two to seven years. Make sure the school is in a location that you’d be happy to call home for a good while. You have to actually live there, you know.

Especially if you have a small cohort, try not to sleep with anyone in your program.

Pack light. Call your parents. Eat your vegetables.

EB: What’s next for you?

ZH: I need a little breather. I’m taking a year off to send out poems and my manuscript, plus my friend and I are starting a literary journal, and I’ve begun writing for a sports blog, so I’ll be keeping my hands in the literary world.

After my break, the plan is to apply for an American Studies PhD. I’ve already done most of the research, plus I have a draft of my writing sample and statement of purpose, and most of my letters of recommendation have been written. No last minute stuff for me!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

ZH: Thank you!

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