Author to Author: The “Unconventional Love Story” Interview, Part Two

Today’s post by Colleen Oakley and Kristin Harmel | @ColleenOakley @KristinHarmel

We’re thrilled to round out our author-to-author interview today as Colleen Oakley shares a bit about her debut novel, BEFORE I GO. And many thanks to Kristin Harmel for the thoughtful, fascinating questions. If you missed part one of this interview you can read it here.

Unconventional Love Story Collage

Kristin: Wow. Just wow. I can’t believe this incredible novel is actually your debut! I know you have quite a journalism track record – former editor-in-chief of Women’s Health & Fitness, senior editor at Marie Claire, lots of freelancing, etc. – but fiction is a different beast. Yet you seemed to hit every note, and your storytelling rhythm was just perfect. How did you manage to craft such a wonderful novel right out of the gate, and what made you decide to tackle the heavy subject of terminal cancer?

Colleen: Um… excuse me while I finish blushing! It’s terrifying to have anyone read your novel, but especially someone who is an accomplished author like yourself, so I’m thrilled that you liked it. Let’s see… to answer your question — I didn’t craft a wonderful novel right out of the gate! I crafted a mediocre novel that never sold. I cried, and drank a lot of tequila, and THEN I wrote this novel. It was hard at the time, getting those rejections for my first novel, but now I’m so glad it happened this way. That first novel was practice —practice that I desperately needed before tackling this novel, and yes, the heavy subject of terminal cancer.

Kristin: It makes absolute sense to me that someone whose body is betraying her the way Daisy’s is would want to have control over some aspect of her final months. I found it really interesting that the main thing she seizes on is the idea of finding her husband, Jack, a new wife, which makes for quite a bittersweet story. What made you decide to make this the focus of her energy?

Colleen: About six years ago, I interviewed a young woman who was dying of terminal cancer. We were about the same age (late 20s at the time) and we were both newlyweds, so I instantly connected with her, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after we chatted on the phone. I wondered what I would do in her position, but interestingly — and perhaps exactly because I was a newlywed — my thoughts kept coming back to my husband Fred and what he would do if I died. Would he remarry? What would she be like? What would I want her to be like? The idea snowballed from there — what if a young woman who was dying decided to pick who her husband remarried; someone who would love him and be there for him after she was gone? It intrigued me from the get-go, but I also knew it was kind of an outlandish prospect. And because of that, I knew I needed to create a character and background where that conclusion would not only be plausible, but utterly believable. Enter Daisy! She’s kind of a control freak in her own right — a list-maker, caretaker and cross-every-T kind of person. So when she gets her tragic diagnosis — something she can’t control — it makes sense that she would get hyper-focused on one thing she thinks she may be able to have some control over — and that’s choosing who would be there for her husband after she’s gone.

Kristin: I’ve discovered over the years that without intending to, I often tackle issues or questions in my own life each time I write a novel. Did BEFORE I GO help you to tackle any internal questions? Or did it change your perspective on life in any way? In other words, what did your main character’s beautiful journey teach you?

Colleen: This is such a great question, because yes!, when I realized writing this novel was kind of a catharsis for me, I was shocked. I went into this book thinking I’d write an unorthodox— and somewhat funny— love story about a dying woman trying to find her husband a new wife. But when I was done, I realized that it was really about a dying woman coming to terms with her mortality — and that I had been working through my own fear of death. To resort to a cliché: Life is short. And you have to really make the most of each moment, especially with the ones you love, because none of us really know how much time we have left. Daisy doesn’t come to that conclusion until it’s almost too late. But writing her story really drove that point home for me. I’m not all Pollyanna now — I still get impatient with my kids for taking 10 minutes to tie their shoes, or annoyed with my husband for not putting the clothes in the dryer like I asked — but I think I also relish tiny moments more: a snuggle with my son during reading time, my daughter’s infectious giggle, waking up next to my husband every morning. Perspective. That’s what writing this novel gave me— and I’m grateful for it.

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Before I Go“An impressive feat…an immensely entertaining, moving and believable read” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), this debut novel in the bestselling tradition of P.S. I Love You revolves around a young woman with breast cancer who undertakes a mission to find a new wife for her husband before she passes away.

Twenty-seven-year-old Daisy already beat breast cancer three years ago. How can this be happening to her again?

On the eve of what was supposed to be a triumphant “Cancerversary” with her husband Jack to celebrate three years of being cancer-free, Daisy suffers a devastating blow: her doctor tells her that the cancer is back, but this time it’s an aggressive stage four diagnosis. She may have as few as four months left to live. Death is a frightening prospect—but not because she’s afraid for herself. She’s terrified of what will happen to her brilliant but otherwise charmingly helpless husband when she’s no longer there to take care of him. It’s this fear that keeps her up at night, until she stumbles on the solution: she has to find him another wife.

With a singular determination, Daisy scouts local parks and coffee shops and online dating sites looking for Jack’s perfect match. But the further she gets on her quest, the more she questions the sanity of her plan. As the thought of her husband with another woman becomes all too real, Daisy’s forced to decide what’s more important in the short amount of time she has left: her husband’s happiness—or her own?

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Author to Author: The “Unconventional Love Story” Interviews, Part One

 

Today’s post by Colleen Oakley and Kristin Harmel | @ColleenOakley @KristinHarmel

The timing of this author-to-author interview couldn’t be better since I (Ariel) had the great privilege of meeting debut author Colleen Oakley this last weekend at an event in Atlanta, Georgia (scroll to the end of this post for a photo). We, along with Greer Macallister, one of the She Reads Books of Winter authors, participated in a discussion and book signing at Foxtale Book Shoppe and it was an absolute delight. I can personally attest to the fact that Colleen and Greer are both brilliant writers and charming women. Having met Colleen, a master of the unconventional love story, I am even more enchanted by her interview with Kristin Harmel, author of THE LIFE INTENDED. We’ll return on Thursday with the second part in this series and will see how Colleen does in the hot seat. Until then, enjoy!

Unconventional Love Story Collage

Colleen: Some of my favorite books explore the idea of the path not taken— The Post Birthday WorldThe Time of My Life and now The Life Intended! Are you someone that’s always wondered what your life would be like if only you’d done this or that one thing never happened? Also (sorry, two-part question!) what grabbed me immediately were the dream sequences. Don’t we all have those dreams that we don’t want to wake up from? I could actually feel Kate’s anguish at waking up in her real life. Has that happened to you, and dare I ask what you were dreaming about? :)

Kristin: Well, let me just begin by saying how flattered I am by your kind words! As you know, I adored your book, so I’m especially touched to hear that from an author I like so much.

As for your questions, despite the fact that I wrote a book about a woman who spends a lot of time looking back, I don’t think I play the “what if” game with the past very often. I think often about important decisions I’ve made, but it’s mainly so that I can (hopefully) make better decisions in the future. I know that I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I’d venture to say that we all probably have, but since I have yet to encounter a real time machine (although I admit I loved the indie movie Primer, which is about just that), I think the best way to rectify past mistakes is to atone for them and learn from them, so that I can do better in the future. I suppose I do think about things that were out of my control. I lost a very dear friend in a car accident in 2003, for example, and I think from time to time about what would have been if he had lived. He died at the age of 24; today, he’d be 35. It’s such a tragedy when lives are cut short, and it’s hard not to think about how life would have been different in that regard. But I think living in the past is a bit dangerous; if you do so too frequently, it becomes difficult to move on to your future.

As for your question about dreams, I’m clearly outing myself as a weirdo, but most of my vivid dreams are of the couldn’t-possibly-happen-in-real-life variety. I spend an awful lot of time single-handedly triumphing over bad guys while I’m asleep. Basically, I’m an action hero waiting to happen – at least in my own head. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with that!

Colleen: One of the things that I love about novel writing, is choosing topics that I don’t know much about and having to immerse myself in new worlds and learn about different walks of life. Did you know a lot about music therapy and/or the Deaf community when you started writing this book or were those things that always interested you? How did you go about your research? And what’s the most surprising thing you learned?

Kristin: You are so right, and it was fascinating to see how expertly you did just that in BEFORE I GO. No, I didn’t know much at all about music therapy or the Deaf community when I set out to write THE LIFE INTENDED. Believe it or not – and I suppose I should have mentioned this in the previous question since you asked about dreams – I woke up one morning a couple years ago with most of the plot of THE LIFE INTENDED already in my head. That has never happened to me before – not even close – but music therapy and hearing difficulties were already there as integral parts of the story. Then, I had to work backwards. I bought books on ASL and watched dozens of videos to get a feel for it, and I even hired a sign language expert (who was kind enough to donate a lot of his time too) to make sure I was getting things right. (You can see him signing some phrases from the book at this link, actually!) I also spoke at length with a good friend of my husband’s (now a good friend of mine too!) whose awesome son Jack has cochlear implants, as well as my longtime friend Kari’s husband, who is hard of hearing. My friend Pam’s son is also hard of hearing and was kind enough to donate his time for a chat too. For the scenes that included signing, I had an ASL expert review them. My research process with music therapy was similar; I had the help of a wonderful music therapist in New York who was very, very generous with her time and expertise, and I also bought and read a few textbooks and case study books about music therapy. The most surprising thing I learned is probably something that a lot of others already know: that there’s a big difference between deaf (with a lowercase d) and Deaf (with an uppercase D). The first term is broader and refers to the actual condition of not being able to hear. The second refers to the Deaf community, a group of people with a shared culture and shared language. I also hadn’t realized that there are many people in the Deaf community who don’t believe that hard of hearing children should necessarily receive cochlear implants. It was interesting to read all about that, and to tweak the plot accordingly.

Colleen: OK, this may be a selfish question, but you’re such a successful novelist and I have to ask — on behalf of myself and other debut authors, what advice do you have for those just starting out in this business? Or, sticking with the theme of your book — if you could go back and give your-just-starting-out-self three pieces of advice, what would they be?

Kristin: Well, first of all, Colleen, let me just say that you’re doing just fine! But to answer your question, I think I would say to relax and enjoy the ride. I was basically a bundle of nerves for my first few book releases, and I think that in trying to micromanage everything, I lost out on a lot of the enjoyment of being a debut novelist. Every book is special, but there’s nothing quite like having your first novel published, because it’s the book that’s been living inside of you for a long time, just waiting to get out. So yes, answer all the questions that come your way, set up book signings, etc. But HAVE FUN. Revel in what you’ve accomplished. And really listen to the kind words people will say to you.

That said, my second piece of advice would be to take the criticism in stride. I still have my feelings hurt by critical reviews, especially those in which I can tell the reviewer has completely misunderstood something I was trying to say. Some of them even get very personal – and at times, flat-out mean. But for me, at least, learning to accept the critical words as well as the kind ones was sort of a lesson in – as Rick Nelson would have said – “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” And I don’t mean you should be writing for yourself, of course. I just mean that as long as you are proud of what you’ve done, you should feel good about it. Some people will love your book; some will hate it. And that’s okay. That’s life. And I think that realizing that in the context of my writing has made me a better person in other areas of my life.

My third piece of advice would be to not let the first book defeat your second effort. And what I mean by that is that a lot of writers struggle with the second novel, because they’re scared. I know that was the case with me. My first novel (which came out in 2006) was the book that I’d been wanting to write for ages. So I wrote it, and then there came a paralyzing moment of, “What now?” It took me a long time to find my footing with my second novel, and honestly, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself and wrote a book that wasn’t as good as the first. I was terrified of failing, and I think it showed in the writing. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to take another stab at things – with 2008’s The Art of French Kissing (not a how-to manual, FYI!) – but I’m still not particularly proud of that second novel. So learn from my mistake: Don’t pressure yourself. You found a publisher for your first novel because you’re good at what you do. Remember that, and have confidence in your ability to write a knockout book the second time around too!

* * *

The Life IntendedFrom the author of the international bestseller The Sweetness of Forgetting, named one of the Best Books of Summer 2012 by Marie Claire magazine, comes a captivating novel about the struggle to overcome the past when our memories refuse to be forgotten.

In this richly told story where Sliding Doors meets P.S. I Love You, Kristin Harmel weaves a heart-wrenching tale that asks: what does it take to move forward in life without forgetting the past?

After her husband’s sudden death over ten years ago, Kate Waithman never expected to be lucky enough to find another love of her life. But now she’s planning her second walk down the aisle to a perfectly nice man. So why isn’t she more excited?

At first, Kate blames her lack of sleep on stress. But when she starts seeing Patrick, her late husband, in her dreams, she begins to wonder if she’s really ready to move on. Is Patrick trying to tell her something? Attempting to navigate between dreams and reality, Kate must uncover her husband’s hidden message. Her quest leads her to a sign language class and into the New York City foster system, where she finds rewards greater than she could have imagined.

And, as promised, here is my favorite picture from this weekend’s event. Left to right: me, Colleen Oakley, one of our lovely attendees, and Greer Macallister. If you get the chance to see these ladies while they’re out and about on book tour, don’t miss it. But even better, pick up a copy of BEFORE I GO or THE MAGICIAN’S LIE.

Foxtale Pic

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When History Comes To Life: Hazel Gaynor on A Memory of Violets

Today’s post by Hazel Gaynor | @HazelGaynor

Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor

It was sometime in 2010 when I first started to scribble notes and ideas for a novel based around the lives of London’s flower sellers at the turn of the century. I’d loved Pygmalion and My Fair Lady since my teens, and wanted to find the real Eliza Doolittles – young women who sold flowers and watercress on the streets of Victorian and Edwardian-era London.

During my research, I was surprised to discover that many of the youngest flower sellers were orphaned, blind or physically disabled in some way. I also discovered the work of Victorian philanthropist, John Groom, who gave these young girls and women a home at his ‘crippleage’ where he taught them how to make artificial flowers. Their work became widely known in London, and eventually led to their involvement in the very first Queen Alexandra Rose Day in June 1912.

Through further reading, I discovered Henry Mayhew’s incredible record of social observation, London Labour & The London Poor in which he records detailed interviews with London’s street sellers. Discovering these lost voices from the past was a novelist’s dream, but it was Mayhew’s interview with two orphaned watercress sellers that especially resonated with me. I knew immediately that I had found my story and that I wanted to combine the idea of two little sisters with the work of John Groom and his Flower Homes.

Having blended fact and fiction in my debut novel, THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME (set around the sinking of RMS Titanic), I naturally approached A MEMORY OF VIOLETS in a similar way, retelling the story of London’s flower girls through my fictional interpretation of actual events. Of particular help was my time at the London Metropolitan Archives, where I gathered a vast amount of information about Groom’s Flower Homes in London and his ‘Flower Village’ orphanage in Clacton on the South coast. From detailed newspaper reports, photographs, business ledgers, personal letters and other fascinating items from the period, I developed a real sense of these young girls and women and what it meant to them to have been given this opportunity to improve their circumstances in life. I also got a real sense of the family bond that existed between these girls and women in the homes they shared. For many, it was the first time they had experienced any sort of family life. From this, I developed the novel’s theme of family relationships – particularly the relationship between sisters.

One of my favourite aspects of writing is in creating memorable characters, and I loved developing my principal cast: the young flower-seller sisters, Florrie and Rosie; Marguerite Ingram, who enjoys a life of privilege, and Tilly Harper, the young woman who arrives in London to work at the Flower Homes and who ultimately connects all the threads of the story as it reaches its emotional conclusion.

I’m very excited to publish A MEMORY OF VIOLETS, and look forward to sharing this forgotten and fascinating piece of history with a modern audience.

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MemoryVioletPB c (2)The author of the USA Today and New York Times bestselling novel The Girl Who Came Home has once again created an unforgettable historical novel. Step into the world of Victorian London, where the wealth and poverty exist side by side. This is the story of two long-lost sisters, whose lives take different paths, and the young woman who will be transformed by their experiences.

In 1912, twenty-year-old Tilly Harper leaves the peace and beauty of her native Lake District for London, to become assistant housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls. For years, the home has cared for London’s flower girls—orphaned and crippled children living on the grimy streets and selling posies of violets and watercress to survive.

Soon after she arrives, Tilly discovers a diary written by an orphan named Florrie—a young Irish flower girl who died of a broken heart after she and her sister, Rosie, were separated. Moved by Florrie’s pain and all she endured in her brief life, Tilly sets out to discover what happened to Rosie. But the search will not be easy. Full of twists and surprises, it leads the caring and determined young woman into unexpected places, including the depths of her own heart.

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Five Books About Fascinating Historical Women

Today’s post by yours truly | @ArielLawhon

The Girls of Atomic CityThe Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII by Denise Kiernan

Denise Kiernan’s fascinating and meticulously researched new book proves that if you want to get at the heart of any historic event, go ask the women who were there. In The Girls of Atomic City she tells the stories of women, now in their eighties and nineties, who worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on The Manhattan Project without their knowledge. Unthinkable? Apparently not. Many of these women were recent high school graduates. Some of them were put to work enriching uranium. Others showed up every day to use blowtorches and Geiger counters. None of them knew the reality of their jobs until nuclear bombs began dropping overseas. In this sharp, compelling narrative Kiernan examines the courage of young women so eager to help with the war effort that they boarded trains from all over the country and went to work jobs that they could never ask questions about. But she also investigates the science itself, often troubling, but always astonishing in scope and achievement. As it turns out, the girls of atomic city, played no small part in winning WWII.

Liar Temptress Soldier SpyLiar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott

A socialite. A widow. An abolitionist. And a soldier. These women fought on different sides of the Civil War and were compelled by different motives but they all had one thing in common: their involvement was very much forbidden. Whether wielding their skills in the bedroom or on the battlefield, in the parlor or by post, each of them risked everything for their cause. Abbott’s impeccable research and narrative skill turns the bloodiest war in America’s history into an intimate page-turner. Gripping. Eloquent. Accessible. It reads like a novel but packs the punch of a stout biography. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy illuminates one of the hidden corners of history and reveals that women should never be underestimated.

 

The Romanov SistersThe Romanov Sisters: The Lost lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

Like every good fairy tale this one is dark and twisted and ultimately tragic. In The Romanov Sisters, Helen Rappaport uses letters, diary entries, and exhaustive research to recreate the lives of the four grand duchesses of Imperial Russia, young women who are often idealized but rarely understood. Theirs was a world ruled by politics and turmoil yet often trivialized by fame and privilege. Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were the young, beautiful celebrities of their day but they were also the innocent victims of a revolution they could no more understand than control. Rappaport’s scholarship and passion for The Romanov’s is on full display in this book. She brings their world to life and returns the voices of four young women whose lives ended so violently in a basement at Ekaterinburg.

Joan of ArcJoan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison

Joan of Arc has fascinated great minds such as Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Voltaire, and George Bernard Shaw. And no wonder. What other peasant girl has gone down in history as the woman who rallied the entire French nation against British invaders? In Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured Kathryn Harrison tries her hand at answering some of the more fascinating questions about the Maid of Orleans. Was she a saint? Or a heretic? Divinely inspired? Or demon possessed? What were the voices in her mind that drove her passion? Whatever else she may have been, Joan of Arc was a polarizing leader, a woman of faith, a martyr, a legend, and one of the most compelling heroines in human history. And Kathryn Harrison is at her best in the telling of this tale.

Careless PeopleCareless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell

One of the more stunning questions asked about F. Scott Fitzgerald lately is this: what if the inspiration for The Great Gatsby was ripped from the headlines? It’s not a thing we tend to think of our literary forefathers doing. But in Sarah Churchwell’s new book, Careless People, she chronicles Scott and Zelda’s glamorous life in New York City during the autumn of 1922 alongside a scandalous double murder that consumed the headlines for years. Careless People is a double narrative exploring not only the high-flying lives of the Fitzgeralds, but also the lurid deaths of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall. Reading this stunning book, one can’t help but see how the seed for Gatsby could have been germinated within such dark soil.

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Author to Author: The Midwife Interviews, Part Two

Today’s post by Patricia Harman and Sally Hepworth | @Sally Hepworth

We’re delighted to be back today with the second in a two part interview series between Patricia Harman and Sally Hepworth. Both of these wonderful authors have new books that feature midwives and they agreed to interview one another about this fascinating and challenging subject. If you missed the first part in our series you can read it here. Up today, Sally Hepworth interviews Patricia Harman about THE RELUCTANT MIDWIFE.

Midwife Collage

Sally: Your bio says that you’ve been a midwife for over thirty years. How did you decide to become an author?

Patricia: I didn’t exactly decide to be an author. Here’s how it happened. It was the year my husband (OB/Gyn, Tom Harman) and I gave up Obstetrics because of the expense of medical liability insurance in the United States. After 30 years of delivering babies this was a lost to the community, and to us, but we soldiered on doing surgery, gynecology and well woman care.

Two things happened that year that, inadvertently, started my writing career. First, I was going through menopause and couldn’t sleep and second, because I wasn’t delivering babies, I had more time to listen to my patients and I found that women were revealing to me so much more about their lives. Not every woman, of course, but several each day, told me incredible stories about their lives.

I would leave the exam room in awe and because of my insomnia, I found myself thinking of the patients at night. Finally, I just got up and started writing their stories down. Eventually those tales became the basis of my first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown. And in the end, the book was written to honor the courage of the ordinary woman.

Sally: Do you use your own experiences as a midwife to inform your writing?  

Patricia: Yes. Almost every birth in the novel is something I’ve experienced or something a midwife friend has told me about. I’ve delivered over 1000 babies in homes, in the hospital birthing rooms and in tertiary medical centers, so I have a lot of stories to tell.

I think the details and the richness of my writing comes from that. There’s something about birth that imprints in your mind. That’s probably why readers tell me they sometimes forget that the protagonist, Becky Myers, isn’t an actual person writing in her actual 1935 journal.

Sally:  Since The Reluctant Midwife is a historical novel, set during the Great Depression, did you have to do a lot of research to write the book?  Do you have a background in American History?

Patricia: I do not have a background in American History, nor did I realize how much research was going to be involved when I set the story in the past. Fortunately, most of the detailed research could be done online. Sometimes it was a simple as asking Google, “What was the price of bread in the 1930s?” Sometimes, it took hours. I would spend whole days reading first person accounts of surviving forest fires or living in a CCC camp.

Sally: Midwifery has recently become a popular subject in books. Why do you think people are so interested in midwives?

Patricia: The Midwife is a fascinating character because she walks the razor’s edge between life and death. Ninety percent of deliveries are low risk and need no intervention, but at every delivery, the midwife must guard both mother and child. Their lives are in her hands.

Many people know that birth is a miracle and would like to witness it, but few are willing to shoulder the responsibility of being the one in charge. It takes courage. Midwives are warriors with observant minds and gentle hands.

Sally: How does the popularity of midwifery in current literature affect women’s perceptions of childbirth in the United States?  

Patricia: In the last few years, there’s been a minor explosion in books in the US about midwives, from memoirs to contemporary novels, mysteries, romances, historical fiction and even kid’s books. Not all of them are great works of art, but they do have interesting protagonists.

Only a few years ago, the only people reading books about midwives were midwives themselves, doulas, childbirth educators and pregnant or nursing mothers. The general public still thought of the midwife as a little old lady who delivered babies in log cabins in the pioneer days. Now, women know that the midwife is a modern health care provider and they seek her out.

Sally: What about the current BBC series, Call The Midwife, set in London in the 1950s? Has it had a cultural impact in the United States?

Patricia: I think so. Frequently when I meet someone and tell him or her I’m a midwife, the first thing they say is “Oh! Have you seen that show…Call The Midwife? What do you think of it?”

“Love it.” I say. “Wouldn’t miss is for the world.” (Between you and me, I study the birth scenes to see if they’re realistic and you know what? They are!)

* * *

The Reluctant MidwifeThe USA Today bestselling author of The Midwife of Hope River returns with a heartfelt sequel, a novel teeming with life and full of humor and warmth, one that celebrates the human spirit.

The Great Depression has hit West Virginia hard. Men are out of work; women struggle to feed hungry children. Luckily, Nurse Becky Myers has returned to care for them. While she can handle most situations, Becky is still uneasy helping women deliver their babies. For these mothers-to-be, she relies on an experienced midwife, her dear friend Patience Murphy.

Though she is happy to be back in Hope River, time and experience have tempered Becky’s cheerfulness-as tragedy has destroyed the vibrant spirit of her former employer Dr Isaac Blum, who has accompanied her. Patience too has changed. Married and expecting a baby herself, she is relying on Becky to keep the mothers of Hope River safe.

But becoming a midwife and ushering precious new life into the world is not Becky’s only challenge. Her skills and courage will be tested when a calamitous forest fire blazes through a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. And she must find a way to bring Isaac back to life and rediscover the hope they both need to go on.

Full of humor and compassion, The Reluctant Midwife is a moving tribute to the power of optimism and love to overcome the most trying circumstances and times, and is sure to please fans of the poignantCall the Midwife series.

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On Writing And Motherhood

Today’s post by Menna Van Praag | @MennaVanPraag

Menna Van Praag is the author of THE DRESS SHOP OF DREAMS, one of our Books of Winter. We love this honest look into what it really means to be an author and a mother.

Menna Van Praag

Menna Van Praag

Before my son was born I’d often write for ten hours a day. When I was deep in a book, it’d be more like fifteen. I would go to sleep thinking about my characters, dream about them, and wake in the morning and run back to my computer to be with them again. If that sounds a little obsessive, it was. Fortunately, my husband also worked very long hours, so he didn’t feel neglected and we always found brief moments of time to be together and reconnect.

My obsessive writing habits meant I was nervous about becoming a mother, scared that I’d be a neglectful mom who always had her head in imaginary worlds.

Happily, when I became a mom, not only were my worst fears not realized, but I also discovered something wonderful that I hadn’t expected at all. Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy transition at first. Oscar had chronic colic for the first four months and, for the first eighteen months, rarely for more than a few hours at a time. Fortunately, my husband was very supportive and did more than his fair share of pacing the floorboards with our crying baby.

Once Oscar began sleeping, life regained a more normal rhythm and I was able to write while he slept in my lap. As he grew, I still found pockets of time during the day to be with my new characters – for the book that would become The Dress Shop of Dreams – and, interestingly, I gradually found that I was becoming a different kind of writer. I no longer either needed to spend endless hours in my imaginary world. I began writing more efficiently. I didn’t procrastinate. I didn’t spend hours gazing out of the window or surfing the net. There’s nothing to focus the mind quite like a sleeping baby who might wake at any moment. And, curiously, I found that the quality of my writing was improving under these new circumstances. Hope Street went through twenty-six full edits. Dress Shop only needed half a dozen minor ones.

Nowadays, with my son in nursery, I not only write but also teach a few creative writing classes. Most of my students have full-time jobs and many of them wish they could have endless, uninterrupted days in which to write their novels. I tell them that I used to long for that myself (I waitressed for nearly a decade before first getting published) but then I give them the good news: that having a full life and only a little time to write could actually be better than having too much time. The mind tends to wander when it has no boundaries and many people find that they create nothing when they have limitless time to create everything. It’s too intimidating. Or they get lost in research or endless plot twists. I certainly used to. But having very little time focuses the mind and, surprisingly, often results in better writing and, certainly, a more balanced life.

* * *

 

the dress shop of dreamsFor fans of Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, and Adriana Trigiani, The Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires.

Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. Cora’s studious, unromantic eye has overlooked Walt, the shy bookseller who has been in love with her forever. Determined not to allow Cora to miss her chance at happiness, Etta sews a tiny stitch into Walt’s collar, hoping to give him the courage to confess his feelings to Cora. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry. After Walt is spurred into action, Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

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Author to Author: The Midwife Interviews, Part One

Today’s post by Patricia Harman and Sally Hepworth | @Sally Hepworth

A little known fact about me (Ariel): if I hadn’t become a writer I would have been a midwife. I suspect this has much to do with the fact that my mother had six children, all of them delivered by midwives, most of them at home, and that I spent a lot of time in midwifery clinics with her as a pre-teen. I have tremendous respect for these women and I am endlessly fascinated by the act of childbirth and the skill and empathy with which they bring children into the world. Apart from the births of my own children (and I suppose my own if you want to be technical) I witnessed the birth of one sister and two nephews–all of them delivered by midwives. So when we discovered these two new novels that revolve around the lives of midwives, we tracked the authors down and asked them to interview one another. Up first, Patricia Harman interview Sally Hepworth about THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES. Enjoy!

Midwife Collage

Patricia: Tell me a little about your inspiration for this book.

Sally: Well, I suppose the fact that I was pregnant at the time had something to do with it!

The truth is, during the first few months of my pregnancy, I battled terrible morning sickness, and I spent a lot of time curled up in bed with a book. I read Chis Bohjalian’s MIDWIVES and Ami Mackay’s THE BIRTH HOUSE in quick succession and immediately went looking for another book about birth! Specifically, I wanted to read a generational saga about midwives—to show how midwifery has evolved over the generations—but I couldn’t seem to find one. And, as you probably know, there’s a saying among writers, “Write the book you want to read.” That’s what I did!

Patricia: In THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES you show the differing opinions about the “right” way to give birth, even among the midwives. Neva, the youngest midwife, enjoys the ‘safety net’ of delivering in a birthing center attached to a hospital; her mother, Grace, is a staunch advocate of home-births; and her grandmother, Floss, now a retired midwife, believes the birthing environment is important only insofar as that it reflects the mother’s needs and wants. These views are not central to the plot (although we do see some development in the midwives’ views over the course of the book) so why include them?

Sally: I thought it was impossible to write a book about modern midwives without including this particular debate, because, in my experience, there is a lot of debate over the “right” way to give birth—even among those in the profession. It was also a good point of conflict, particularly between Neva and Grace, and in novels, conflict is king! The idea of right and wrong also tied in with my novel’s theme, but as you’ve asked about that below, more about that later…

Patricia: You mentioned you were pregnant while you wrote this novel. To what extent did this influence the writing of this book?

Sally: My pregnancy influenced the writing a huge amount! Apart from it being the catalyst for the book itself, it also helped me create the structure (the three points of view). From the moment I found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I knew it was going to be a book about a mother and daughter (the character of Floss, the grandmother, was added later when I began to research and found myself captivated by stories of 1950s midwifery). Also, writing Neva’s character (who is pregnant) while being pregnant myself, allowed me to breathe the feelings of joy, love, and utter terror of carrying a human being around inside your body, into her character.

(Oh, and my pregnancy also influenced the writing of this book in that I often fell asleep at my laptop while writing it …)

Patricia: THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES has a number of birth scenes – some quite dramatic and with unexpected complications! As you are not a midwife yourself, how did you prepare to write this novel? What research did you do?

Sally: I did an enormous amount of research as I prepared to write this book. I knew I wanted my birth scenes to be authentic (and yes, dramatic) so I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on—novels, memoirs, medical books. I also watched footage of practically every high-risk birth YouTube had to offer (which was a little nerve racking for my husband, who burst into the study a few times when he heard a crying, panting woman in the final throes of labor—don’t forget I was pregnant at the time!). On top of this, I subscribed to online communities and forums where I was able to ask questions about midwifery and birth and I touched base with several home-birth midwives and midwives alliance groups. I am also lucky to have an aunt who is a midwife and she was able to make suggestions and verify things for me.

Patricia: How does midwifery influence the theme of your novel?

Sally: As you mentioned above, there is a lot of debate throughout the book about the “right” and “wrong” way to give birth. This idea of right and wrong also ties in with what is at the heart of the novel: family. Unfortunately, there is still a commonly held belief that there is a “right” and “wrong” kind of family. Or at least a “good” and “better” type. But these days, there are so many different kinds of families—blended, adoptive, single-parent, same-sex parents, communities of singles. And, just as there is no right way to give birth, there is no right way to be a family. Ultimately, what I hope the reader walks away with is a realization that families are not about DNA…they’re about love.

Patricia: Midwifery has become increasingly talked about lately, perhaps in part due to the popular TV series Call the Midwife. Why do you think people are so fascinated by birth?

Sally: Yes, that’s a good question. I suppose it’s because birth is relevant to so many people—because so many people have (or want) children. And most people would agree that it is a beautiful thing to create a life. But I also think part of the appeal is that birth can also be a little scary and there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong. People love to be a little scared in fiction as it is a safe place to experience fear—and hopefully, come out the other side unscathed.

* * *

Secrets of Midwives 2“With empathy and keen insight, Sally Hepworth delivers a page-turning novel about the complex, lovely, and even heartbreaking relationships between mothers and daughters.—Emily Giffin

Three generations of women.

Secrets in the present and from the past.

A captivating tale of life, loss, and love…

Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy—including the identity of the baby’s father— hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. The more Grace prods, the tighter Neva holds to her story, and the more the lifelong differences between private, quiet Neva and open, gregarious Grace strain their relationship. For Floss, Neva’s grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva’s situation thrusts her back sixty years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s—one which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all. As Neva’s pregnancy progresses and speculation makes it harder and harder to conceal the truth, Floss wonders if hiding her own truth is ultimately more harmful than telling it. Will these women reveal their secrets and deal with the inevitable consequences? Or are some secrets best kept hidden?

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The Frustrated Creative

Today’s post by Kim Wright | @Kim_Wright_W

Kim Wright is the author of LOVE IN MID AIR and THE UNEXPECTED WALTZ (a She Reads summer selection and now available in paperback).  Her next book is THE CANTERBURY SISTERS, which will be released by Simon and Schuster in May.

Kim Wright

Kim Wright

I first realized I was a frustrated creative when I started hosting ridiculously over-themed birthday parties for my kids. Cowboys, astronauts, ballerinas, secret agents, dinosaurs – you name it, I baked a cake in the shape of it. The craziness peaked at my son’s fourth birthday pirate party, when I soaked five hundred pennies in vinegar to make them shiny and then tossed them in the sandbox so the kids could dig for “buried treasure.” We were still finding them when Jordan went off to college.

Needless to say, about 99.99% of my efforts were lost on the kids. Even more needless to say, it didn’t matter because I wasn’t really doing it for the kids. I was a frustrated creative. But our society considers art worthwhile only if 1) it’s for the sake of someone else, like children, church or a charity 2) you’re very good, darn near expert, at your chosen craft or 3) you make money at it.

Especially 3.

Eventually I became a novelist whose friends were almost exclusively other writers, and I might’ve forgotten those dark years of being a frustrated creative if I hadn’t been asked to lead a workshop on “Finding Your Passion.” We took turns meeting in the participant’s homes, which were all huge and gorgeous, complete with pictures on the mantle of skiing in Moritz, diving in St. Croix and shopping in Paris. But these women also decorated, redecorated, went on collecting binges which were promptly followed by decluttering purges, and served snacks so elaborate they were like banquets. Their seemingly enviable lives couldn’t protect them from creative frustration.

Here’s the deal. No matter what their age or stage of life, women need to be creative for its own sake. To learn that creativity is more about the verb than the noun, more about the process than the product. In the beginning you might 1) feel selfish for taking the time 2) be very bad, darn near appalling, at your chosen craft and 3) spending money rather than making it. But creativity still matters. It still counts. Without it, even the fullest of lives still feel like something’s missing.

As my writing career daily seems less like a miracle and more like a job, I know I have to keep coming up with ways to knock myself out of my comfortable box. Each week I go on what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist Way, calls “Artist Dates.” Like going to fabric stores and buying any cloth that calls my name, even if I don’t know what to do with it, or trying a new restaurant every month, sometimes parting my hair on the “wrong” side and making up new lyrics to existing songs. If anybody asks me why I say “I’m on an artist date with my frustrated creative.”

Silly? Yep. But not nearly as silly as soaking five hundred pennies in vinegar and burying them in a sandbox.

* * *

the_unexpected_waltz_TP_final_cover“Kim Wright’s charming novel, The Unexpected Waltz, chronicles one woman’s second chance at happiness and an opportunity to find her authentic self. The writing is pitch perfect—this is a winner!” (Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author of The Matchmaker)

From the author of the “sharply written and emotionally accessible” (Kirkus Reviews) debut Love in Mid Air comes this moving novel about a middle-aged woman who regains her balance in life. Kelly Wilder becomes recently widowed from a much older, wealthy man with whom she spent her married life doing charity work, building a lovely home, and, as she says, “pretending to be a whole lot more conservative and stupid and nicer than I really am.”

Now, with too much time and money on her hands, Kelly has absolutely no idea what happens next. So on a whim she signs up for a ballroom dancing class, and slowly, step by high-heeled step, begins to rebuild her life with the help of friends old and new: Nik, a young Russian dance teacher who sees the artistic potential she left behind; Carolina, a woman in hospice, anxious to experience a whole lifetime in a few months; and Elyse, Kelly’s girlhood best friend who knows all of her past secrets—including the truth about the man who long ago broke Kelly’s heart.

In the vein of Jennifer Weiner’s novels, The Unexpected Waltz is a deeply felt story about moving on after loss and finding a new walk—or dance—of life through the power of second chances.

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A Bad Match: In Real Life And In Ficiton

Today’s post by author Sophie Hannah | @SophieHannahCB1

Today’s guest, author Sophie Hannah, shares the story of a friend’s troubled marriage and how it echoes the fictional marriage in her new novel, THE CARRIER.

Sophie Hannah, photo credit Roderick Field

Sophie Hannah, photo credit Roderick Field

Everyone who’s attended a wedding is familiar with the question: ‘If anybody present knows of any reason why this man and woman should not be joined in matrimony, please declare it now.’ It’s the cue for us wedding guests to ignore any and all misgivings that don’t directly involve a mad, purple-faced wife concealed in the attic, and, yes, I do blame Jane Eyre for our communal inability to recognize any danger that isn’t a rampant pyromaniac in a lacy nightgown.

I was a witness at a male friend’s wedding five years ago.  When it came to that part of the ceremony, I shamefully said nothing, because, after all, no one was locked in an attic.  Silently, I was screaming, ‘Nooo! Don’t marry her!’  After the ceremony, we went to a local hotel for lunch and a swim.  It was a small wedding party: five of us in total.  Once we’d left the pool, it became apparent to the three witnesses that the bride and groom had disappeared.  I assumed they’d snuck off to canoodle, but when they reappeared, the groom, my friend, had obviously been crying.  Later, I asked him what was wrong.  ‘She screamed at me and called me a motherf***er,’ he said, sounding baffled.  ‘She regrets marrying me, doesn’t want to have kids with me and thinks we’re a bad match.  I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.’  He shrugged miserably.

‘Didn’t you ask?’ I said.

‘Yep, but…I still don’t understand,’ he admitted.  ‘I suggested going for a walk after our swim, and she told me to go on my own because she was exhausted and needed to sleep for a bit.  So I went, but apparently I should have known she didn’t really want to sleep.  What she really wanted was for me not to go for a walk.’

‘So…she expected you to guess her preferences, then punished you for guessing incorrectly?’

It was a question I eventually stopped asking.  The answer was distressingly obvious: punishing him for being neither perfect nor psychic was her hobby.  Once, in a pub, she savaged him because he’d ordered a pudding that wasn’t the one she wanted, although minutes earlier she’d insisted she didn’t want anything.  Another time she publicly berated him for buying her an art book.  ‘He bought it because he thought it was interesting,’ she snapped.  ‘Whenever he buys me presents, they’re things he wants that I have no interest in.’  (It turned out that she wasn’t interested in anything apart from her work, which she obsessed over for nearly twenty hours a day, ignoring him while he cooked her dinner every night, alone in their kitchen.)  ‘Next time a charity comes collecting, I’m giving that stupid book to them!’ she threatened.

Once, while he was at the top of a ladder trimming tree branches, she took exception to his method and started to shake the ladder, and he very nearly fell from a considerable height.  She occasionally hit him, punched him, pushed him, told him she wouldn’t care at all if he slept with other women.  Eventually – luckily for my friend – she judged him so disappointing that she ended the relationship.  He was gutted, as we so often are when the compassionless dullard we’ve erroneously set up home with finally liberates us, and trudges off to ruin someone else’s life; it’s so easy to think that the unhappiness that is presently ours is the happiest we’re ever likely to be.  ‘I’ve spent the last few months wishing you’d die in a car accident,’ she told him, ‘so that we wouldn’t have to go through this break-up.’  She was considerate like that.

If I could turn back the clock, I’d speak up in response to the registrar’s Jane Eyre question.  ‘This wedding shouldn’t happen, because if it does then one day this woman will force my friend to dress up as a hobbit and attend a fancy dress party,’ I would say – and save my friend a great deal of hobbit humiliation as well as five years of misery.

* * *

THE CARRIERThe latest in Sophie Hannah’s internationally bestselling Zailer & Waterhouse series, named byThe Sunday Times as one of the 50 Best Thrillers of the Last Five Years

When Gaby’s plane is delayed, she’s forced to share a hotel room with a stranger: Lauren, who is terrified of her. But why is she scared of Gaby in particular? Lauren won’t explain. Instead, she blurts out something about an innocent man going to prison for murder. Gaby soon suspects that Lauren’s presence on her flight isn’t a coincidence, because the murder victim is Francine Breary, the wife of the only man Gaby has ever truly loved.

Tim Breary has confessed. He’s even provided the police with evidence. The only thing he hasn’t given them is a motive. He claims to have no idea why he murdered his wife…

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The Accidental Historical Fiction Writer

Today’s post by debut novelist, Greer MacAllister | @TheLadyGreer

Our guest this morning is Greer MacAllister, one of our featured authors in The Books of Winter series. Her post today is of special interest to me (Ariel) since historical fiction has always been the genre I gravitate to. I hope you enjoy and that you run out and grab your own copy of THE MAGICIAN’S LIE. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Greer MacAllister

Greer MacAllister

I’ve heard many writers claim that they’re not in charge of their characters. “I thought my protagonist was going to do X, but she insisted on doing Y!” they say. “I wanted her to zig, but she zagged!” I’ve had dozens of these conversations over the years – it’s clear that many authors feel like their characters are really the ones calling the shots.

With me, it turned out to be the novel’s time period that unexpectedly ran the show.

I’d written several novels before, you see. All contemporary, all set more or less in the here and now. And then I got this odd, out-of-nowhere inspiration: why do you always see a male magician cutting a woman in half, and never the other way around? Why isn’t it ever a female magician cutting her male assistant in half? So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician.

But I had a choice to make. There are magicians, and there are magicians. Did I want this woman to be a modern, contemporary woman, maybe with a Vegas stage show and a TV special? Or did I want to set the story in a time when magic shows were more widespread, when they’d be part of an evening’s entertainment for the average citizen? In that case, it would be possible for a controversial show to truly cause a sensation. I did some preliminary research to find a time when it would be unusual but not impossible for a woman to take to the Vaudeville stage as an illusionist, and anchored the story on a real-life event where a real-life female magician took the stage for a dangerous illusion called the Bullet Catch at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

The Magician's LieIn January 1897.

And so I found myself, more or less by accident, writing historical fiction.

I didn’t know anything about 1897 off the top of my head. Would there have been electric lights? What would such a woman wear? How would she get around? How much did the streetcar cost? There were streetcars, right? Maybe?

I learned on the job. I started writing, and researched along the way. The action of the book started in the mid-1880s and continued through 1905. As a contemporary fiction writer I’d been fast, but as a historical fiction writer, I was agonizingly slow. The research took over, halting the writing for long periods, when I couldn’t get through a scene without stopping to gather information. Had sequins been invented yet? Telephones existed, but would a small town police station have one, and if so, what would its ring sound like? What crops would a farmer grow in East Tennessee?

Over the five years that it took me to write THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, I learned how to balance research and writing. I lost some of the immediacy (and certainly the speed!) of writing contemporary fiction, but I gained something I absolutely treasure – the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world. Choosing the right details and working them into the text gently, softly, as if there were no other way – I grew to love the challenge, and to me, that’s where historical fiction really shines.

Opening paragraph of THE MAGICIAN’S LIE:

Waterloo, Iowa

July 23, 1905

Six o’clock in the evening

Tonight, I will do the impossible. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true. I will show them worlds that never existed, events that never happened. I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world.

 

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