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Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

anxious-people-frederick-backman-book-review-jeanne-blasbergAnxious People by Fredrik Backman

With an equal measure of humor and philosophy, Backman’s latest work examines the intricacies of family and home and the anxiety we feel over getting it right. The novel’s structure engaged me from the very beginning with its omniscient voice moving two steps forward and then one step backward, telling what the novel was about in a way that was delightfully unreliable. And as the dots connected and puzzle pieces began to fit together, the experience of this novel was as much an intellectual exercise as a dive into the neuroses of its many delightful characters. I was struck by Backman’s ability to develop all eight characters in a hostage situation so masterfully. The book goes beyond story telling and is a plea for compassion in this crazy world. It will have you laughing at our foibles and universal oddities, its observations are really spot on. I listened to the audio version of Anxious People and the narrator did an incredible job of giving each speaking character a voice of their own. I highly recommend this book!

 

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Back on Campus – School Stories

back on campusYou’ve probably seen all the photos on Facebook and Instagram – it’s graduation season and I can’t believe how my friends’ children are growing up! Graduations mark a big accomplishment for students as well as parents. Whether its high school or college, it is monumental to have crossed this major finish line.

Our middle son graduated from college on Memorial Day Weekend. It was a wonderful weekend that brought our family together to honor him and all his hard work. There were ceremonies and cocktails and dinners, but what I most appreciated was being on campus.

A campus is an island whether its remotely located or embedded in a town. It’s a self-contained world with traditions and a culture and rules of its own. It is self-governing and is populated by a revolving door of young adults. It has its common spaces and its hiding places. It has its own rhythm with quiet mornings and raucous late nights.

As a parent, walking onto a campus, or into a dorm or classroom building, feels like sneaking – dare I say trespassing after all the tuition we’ve laid out! But we aren’t supposed to be there, when we visit we are voyeurs to a special place and time that is no longer ours. And our children, who have license to occupy the space, might do so with the mindset of a traveler on an extended journey. They will be moving on, after all. So, it becomes a first home away from home, an experiment in living alone.

Aah if the walls could talk. The campus has seen growth and love and dissent and resistance. The campus has seen victory and protest. The campus has seen homesickness and nostalgia. The campus has witnessed trepidation and pride.

Maybe that is why, in addition to the romance of an actual green quadrangle surrounded by ivy-laden brick buildings, I have always loved the campus novel. What do you think of this line up:

I devoured all these books. A writing teacher had me watch “The Sterile Cuckoo,” starring a very young Liza Manelli and filmed on the Hamilton College campus. There are the more main stream hits: Love Story, Animal House, and Harry Potter but I think I’ve made a point – drama or comedy, literary fiction, or a trashy delve into Restless Virgins, lots of people find the campus entertaining. There is something primal about a world unto its own – it’s a microcosm of society, with all sorts of “Lord of the Flies” possibilities.

I am working on the final revisions of my novel, The Nine, which is also set on a boarding school campus. When I wrote EDEN, I hadn’t been aware that there was a whole genre around the “saying-goodbye-to-the-family-summer-home” story line. I am well aware, however, there is a long history of great campus novels. They have been a mainstay of American literature since before Holden Caulfield bolted for New York City. Campuses are filled with intrigue and mystery and the adults in charge of them are managing conflict and staving off scandal. It’s ripe, people. It’s ripe.

I would love to hear what your favorite campus novels are and why!!

the-nine-playlist

The Nine

Very excited that my second novel, The Nine, will be released by She Writes Press in August 2019. Attached is a Spotify playlist to get you in the frame of mind.

how much of this

How Much of This Is Autobiographical?

This is the question I receive most often when visiting with book clubs and readers. Haven’t you noticed how books or movies “based on a true story” seem to hold so much appeal? People really want to know what “really happened.” Well, I try not to disappoint.  The answer is that EDEN was inspired by events in my life and the lives of women I have known and loved. The key word being inspired, with one small exception, the characters in EDEN are not representative of any real people. (That small exception being Mary Thaw, the Pittsburgh coal fortune heiress who owned the Italianate villa on the hill and harbored residents during the 1938 hurricane.)

I recently attended a breakfast with writer Steve Almond. It was a gathering of several authors and we got onto the topic of “writing what you know.”   I asked Steve to help me reconcile that advice with what I had also been told at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat last April, that inexperienced writers are present in their work, whereas evolved writers are invisible in their writing, creating characters who  differ greatly from them as human beings. I’m still in the “write what you know” camp. I describe EDEN as a collage of experiences, a sort of cubist painting or kaleidoscope of what I’ve witnessed, all the while an exploration of themes that are best achieved in fiction.

I am in EDEN. I am that ten-year-old girl who counted out the months between her parents’ wedding date and her birth. But that doesn’t mean I’m Sarah. I invested my characters with my own emotional memory. I fictionalized and expanded on other circumstances in my family, other unplanned pregnancies to be specific, but the key word is fictionalized. If the book reads with a ring of truth, it is because I tried to capture the emotional aftermath I witnessed, while never having really known exactly how things came to be.

My second novel, The Nine, (August 2019, She Write Press) has a main character with whom I can closely relate. She is the hyper vigilant mother of a teenage boy. I can already foresee the connection readers are going to make, but I am not her!! Hannah is much more surprising than I could ever be! It is true that I was inspired to write The Nine after my family went through some traumatizing events. The process of writing helped me let go of my personal situation and see what happened as something universal: the mother-son bond (a topic that has been written about for eons), and trust, and betrayal. These are themes I want to explore while developing my plot around a compelling boarding school setting. As I wrote draft after draft and revised my work, the characters developed lives of their own. Again, their reactions and emotions are ones I have invested them with. So at the core of who these people are, there is something of me, my worldview, my heart. I am a fifty-two year old woman with a wealth of experience, and that is the well from which I source everything. So the answer is yes, of course, it is all autobiographical. I scratch my head at any writer who says otherwise.

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Gratitude and Reflections for a New Year

Before I look forward to 2018’s resolutions, I need to say thank you to 2017.

There hasn’t been a year in which I’ve felt such gratification. Yes, my first novel, EDEN, was published, but that occasion became the catalyst for something much bigger. I often dubbed my book tour a friendship tour because it became an excuse to connect with old friends and make many new ones. Coming out from under my rock of solitary writing, I re-connected with people. I have never felt so supported, not just by friends and family, but by a higher source of creative energy. Whereas my schedule had always felt overbooked and conflicted in the past, author events fell into place almost magically and people appeared along the path at steady intervals to open doors. Approaching each day with an attitude of “yes”, I surfed a wave of generosity, and it was a life-changer.

In 2017, I was the beneficiary of so much kindness, from authors who blurbed my novel to readers who hosted book parties and book club events, to relatives who went out of their way to be supportive. These gestures have permanently changed me. I have always considered myself a “giver”, but from now on I will always say yes when it comes to supporting a friend or another artist, a friend’s favorite cause, or a person trying something new. There is an abundance of love in the world and I am excited to add to it.

Now for doing it better in 2018…..

Even writers with established practices have to make a conscious decision to show up every day. I’ve played around with which structure works best for me and I seem to have the most energy in the morning. But I’ve recently added something new from the “The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron, writing long hand morning pages followed by an affirmation before diving into novel revisions.

Morning Pages are intended to serve as a place for unloading the clutter that’s often at the forefront of one’s mind. Whether a writer is aware of it or not, clutter often prevents creativity energy and great ideas from revealing themselves. I typically meditate in the morning with the hopes of accomplishing the same “cleanse”, but for the next month I am going to experiment with both meditation and morning pages. I will need to rise a little earlier in the New Year in order to find time for my ever-lengthening morning routine!

And that leads me to the most important resolution of all! Going to bed earlier….. I am such a disciplined person, but staying up late is a big weakness. Getting up an hour earlier every day could lead to so much….. Here we go!

thinking

Thinking about Adam, Eve, and the Garden

As I’ve traveled from place to place over the past seven months talking about EDEN, it has been revelatory that many readers do not connect my novel with the metaphor of the Garden of Eden. I would have thought the book’s title would be the first giveaway. This is less a commentary about people’s comfort with biblical references, than a testament to the fact that Eden has become a common term in our society’s vernacular. It stands on its own, independent from the Bible as a synonym for paradise.

In late October, I attended the Boston Book Festival as both a presenter and an interested member of the audience. My husband and I attended a fascinating discussion with Stephen Greenblatt, author of the recent book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. In his wonderful and scholarly book, Greenblatt examines the story through history’s eyes: from the point of view of scholars, and artists, and poets and questions what it is about the story of the Garden of Eden that proves it to be “so durable, so widespread, and so insistently, [and] hauntingly real.” From examinations of Durer’s art to Milton’s most famous work, it is a sensational book, which I recommend highly.

The story of Adam and Eve certainly shaped society’s concept of marriage: A man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh…. an ideal concept at that. The story goes on to provide imagery for what is good and what is evil. It gives us the first documentation of  sin. It provides fodder for the characterization of women as manipulative and conniving, and for men as laborers and providers. I would challenge someone to come up with a story that is as impactful as this one on how society defines our most fundamental relationships.

Its structure is ingrained in us, an archetype. There is a man and a woman. They are placed in a paradise. There is temptation. They want more. There is a decline and an expulsion. They go on.

I recently read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, one of those books that is referred to time and again by writing teachers, while Greenblatt sat on my bedside table, and grinned at the reference to Sid and Charity’s Vermont utopia as ‘Eden’ – and of course this ‘Eden’ doesn’t last. The grand home in my novel is also named “Eden,” but in a tongue-in-cheek manner meant to foreshadow pitfalls on the horizon. I can’t help shaking my head when coming across locales dubbed “Eden” – Bar Harbour, Maine was originally named Eden, for example. Many people seem to want to memorialize paradise, possibly forgetting the second half of the story.

Instead of place, I like to think of Eden as the state of innocence one experiences in childhood; an innocence that inevitably disappears once the complications of adolescence and adulthood take hold. The Adam and Eve creation story is compelling for all it evokes around the relationships between man and woman, but its early setting, that moment of perfection is what strikes me. It is a moment with a special place in the recesses of our collective memory.

friendship tour

A Friendship Tour, Thanks to a Book

Promoting a book is almost as hard as writing one. Especially the first time, especially for an indie author without access to the big marketing machines behind books published by the big five.

In anticipation of my May 2 pub date, sometime last winter, I began scheduling a book tour that would stretch throughout the summer months and touch a variety of New England summer communities. EDEN has universal themes and a storyline that stretches well beyond the typical “summer read” genre, but because it is set in a New England summer enclave and the meat of the drama occurs over the Fourth of July weekend, my promotion strategy was to hit the New England coastline during the summer months.

Now, this might have seemed logical and obvious during the dreary months of March and April, but now that I am in the midst of summer, and my tour, I have had many personal realizations. Never before would I have imagined being happy about not being in Watch Hill 100% of the time. Like some of the characters in EDEN, I’ve been loathe in summers past to ever leave my bubble. My children came home and filled the house with activity and I nurtured and nested and enjoyed our routine, our “special place.”  In summers past, in fact, I have declined many invitations to visit friends because of all the engagements at home.

I’m reminded of the years I spent converting to Judaism. One of the steps in the process that my rabbi prescribed was making a trip to Israel. I was fine with the other dozen requirements, but how could he expect me to go to Israel?  It’s far, it would be expensive, and in reality I thought it seemed a little bit scary. Fast forward to the weekend of my final conversion step – on Friday afternoon I immersed at the mikvah, and on Saturday morning I made my first aliyah. Then on Sunday evening I received a call from the captain of the US Maccabiah squash team asking if I would represent the US at the games in Tel Aviv that summer. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance, brought my family and enjoyed my time in Israel immensely.

Similarly,  the unintended benefit of promoting EDEN is that it’s gotten me out of town. I’m visiting  beautiful places and friends in their beautiful places, their “Edens.” Between 2009 and 2012 our family lived in Switzerland where we traveled extensively. Not only to other countries, but we’d often get in the car and just drive to small towns in Germany or France. We would wander, maybe following a map, maybe inspired by an article or suggestion, but we’d usually get lost or totally miss the place suggested in the guide book and end up finding our own destination. I loved it. And I vowed to continue that spirit of wanderlust when I returned to the states. There were, I reasoned, so many beautiful places in my own country, even in New England, that I’d never seen. Well, easier said than done.

For example, I have skied a lot in Maine, but had never visited its beautiful coastline during the summer. I had spent the early summers of my marriage on the Cape, but in recent years had written it off as too crowded. There was always something, some reason I couldn’t leave Watch Hill in the summer – Martha’s Vineyard? Nantucket? The Hamptons?  New Jersey? Good for you, but not for me….

So this summer, I’m leaving my comfort zone and seeing more of our beautiful coastline, and islands! But more importantly,  I’m seeing friends and making new friends, sharing stories and laughing. I’m receiving the wonderful generosity and support of the people in my life. They are attending my readings and hosting events for me in their homes. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined during the planning stages. People have been asking me if  it’s exhausting, and the answer is “no”: this trip is just the charge I needed.

Marnye Young

An Interview with Narrator, Marnye Young

Jeannie: How did you get into narrating?

Marnye: I am an actor who was trying to figure out a way to spend more time with my twin toddlers and a friend of mine who has done very well for herself in the audiobook business told me I would be perfect for it and that was it. I produced my first few books on my own and then I got so much work that I teamed up with a few producers and continue to work with them.

Jeannie: Where do you work?

Marnye: I work in the studio I built at the back of my house.

 

Jeannie: How many hours do you put in for a 10 hour produced work?

Marnye: It depends. I read the text and take notes on character accents, plot points, ideas for vocal silhouettes, etc, so perhaps about 13 hours to do that and then if I am producing it I need about two hours for every hour I narrate to edit proof and master. If I hire a producer than it takes me about 11 or so hours to narrate a ten-hour book and then my producers work their magic 🙂

 

Jeannie: What are your favorite kinds of books to narrate?

Marnye: I love, love mysteries! I also love historical fiction–that was my second major in College and the curiosity and fascination with history has stayed with me, and of course fantasy. (I get to play in an extremely different world than the one we are in today.)

 

Jeannie: What are the most challenging sections to narrate?

Marnye: Highly emotional scenes: sometimes you need a bunch of takes to get to the best one.

 

Jeannie: How do you take special care of your voice?

Marnye: I don’t. I’m too busy narrating. Lol! No seriously hydration, hydration, hydration, and a lot of throat coats tea.

 

Jeannie: What is the most interesting thing about narrating?

Marnye: I think what people may not realize is that narration really is acting. I get to step into many people’s shoes from all walks of life and live their lives, their failures and their triumphs, shed tears and laugh out loud. I breathe with the characters–as the characters. It is thrilling.

 

I so enjoyed working with Marnye. You can learn more about Marnye’s work here.

book trailer

The Making of a Book Trailer

I have learned so much in the process of promoting EDEN. Since it was published by an indie press, I have been on the frontline marketing it. I’ve learned about soliciting bookstores, organizing events, and seeking publicity from any number of channels. One of the most important assets for all of those endeavors is a media kit. Even better is an electronic media kit, one that includes video trailers and hyper-links to reviews and big media hits. Multi-media can add texture when pitching a book – whether it be audible, or visual, these are the things that stoke the imagination of agents.  Digital magazines were also delighted to have access to my video in order to enliven spots about EDEN.

But when I first heard of video trailers for books, I was dubious. However I did have an inkling that if I was able to capture the misty, melancholy, mood of a foggy morning on the beach, then I could convey something about EDEN in a way that a two sentence log line never would. (BTW did I mention learning about a two-sentence logline?)

In order to bring EDEN to life on screen, I reached out to Anna Chesire Levitan, founder of 5th Street East, to produce a series of video clips. The shots were filmed over three days in early May, on location in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and it was great fun to work along side the film crew, witnessing EDEN take visual shape, choosing which lines I would read for the voice overs (turning my laundry room into a sound studio), and learning how everything really is better in slow motion! Plus, we got lucky with the weather, as the sun was trapped behind low hanging clouds most of the time. The fog really did add to the film’s emotional richness and spoke of the confused and lonely state my main character found herself in. Lucky for me, local redheaded talent was abundant!

The final products took several weeks to put together, but I was able to share two videos with guests at my launch parties, which was a fun way to get people in the mood before reading. Now that the EDEN book tour has begun, the whole series of videos is rolling out on social media.

“Hurricane” – Eden by Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg from Jeanne Blasberg on Vimeo.

Summer Reading & Literary Calisthenics

 

In EDEN, Rachel has a habit of doing literary calisthenics every summer morning. Her book of choice is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. She’s memorized passages and her paperback is so tattered the pages are on the verge of becoming unglued from their spine. In EDEN, bookshelves are stuffed with favorite novels and lots of books are read, from Sarah’s favorite E.B. White to Thomas’s favorite Tom Clancy.

Summer is traditionally a time for reading. We can thank the habits instilled in us by school systems that handed out reading lists every June with the expectation that those books held the key to success for the coming year and the understanding that, come September, there might be a test….

Reading in bed in the morning has got to be one of life’s greatest indulgences, a luxury I admit to lavishing upon myself every once in a while, especially in the summer. However, I don’t reach for Melville. I have a stack of new titles at my bedside. But there are a couple of books that are perpetually there, because this is when I’m deep into revisions. One of those books on craft is STORY by Robert McKee. Its subtitle is “Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting”, but don’t let that fool you. STORY is not for screenwriters alone, but for storytellers of all genres.

STORY is written so clearly and breaks down the tenets of any successful narrative. It serves as a reference book, yet includes many wonderful examples and anecdotes. It is great the first time then serves as an important refresher.

For a writer, reading as much as possible is an important part of the work. So in addition to books on craft, I have re-read several classics during past summers including East of Eden, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and Jane Eyre. I’m not sure what classic is in store for me this summer. It’s usually a spontaneous decision! If you have any suggestions, please pass them along.