If you like a story that rips your heart out over and over, grab a box of tissues and a copy of The Last Letter. Special ops officer, Beckett, grew up in foster care and went into the armed services to run away from his difficult, transient life. His best friend was killed in action but before he died, he wrote a last letter, asking Beckett to take care of his sister, Ella if anything happened to him. She had been married and pregnant at 17, her husband left her to raise twins on her own. One of the twins was very sick and needed treatment, and without her beloved brother, she really could use some support. Will Beckett leave the military to follow up on his buddy’s last request?
The book is a back and forth exchange of letters, where we not only learn the day to day happenings and the past leading up to it, but also the deep feelings, insecurities, hopes and dreams of Ella and Beckett. Through the eyes of a military family, Yarros has mastered the tugging of heartstrings and created complete characters who fight their own demons and exercise restraint, while at the same time explore love and loss, worry and hope, with physical chemistry that rivals 50 Shades of Grey at times. Life’s mix of emotions is experienced in this sorrow-filled, yet beautiful love story. One day at the beach or on a plane with this book is all you need to become immersed, absorbed and drained! Add The Last Letter to your list for a quick and emotional read. Don’t forget the tissues!
Rebecca Yarros is a hopeless romantic and a lover of all things coffee, chocolate, and Paleo. She is the author of the Flight & Glory series, including Full Measures, the award-winning Eyes Turned Skyward, Beyond What is Given, and Hallowed Ground. Her new Renegade Series features Wilder and the upcoming Nova, and is sure to keep your heart pounding. She loves military heroes, and has been blissfully married to hers for fourteen years.
When she’s not writing, she’s tying hockey skates for her four sons, sneaking in some guitar time, or watching brat-pack movies with her two daughters. She lives in Colorado with the hottest Apache pilot ever, their rambunctious gaggle of kids, an English bulldog who is more stubborn than sweet, and a bunny named General Fluffy Pants who torments the aforementioned bulldog. They recently adopted their youngest daughter from the foster system, and Rebecca is passionate about helping others do the same.(less)
Having grown up and currently living in a small town in suburbia, where over time, modest houses are knocked down and replaced by mansions, trees are removed so yards can have more sunlight, and neighbors have disputes over fences, branches, mailboxes and plowing, I have witnessed communities caught up in grievances surrounding property lines, barking dogs and early morning leaf blowing. Author Julie Langsdorf creates Willard Park, a small town outside of Washington DC where amidst the community craziness we meet well meaning, imperfect characters living their lives to the best of their abilities. Those of us living in suburban areas outside of cities will relate to this slice of life, entertaining debut, White Elephant where neighborly tensions run high and add to the stress of everyday life, tired marriages and over exposed mortgages.
In this satirical debut that is a slightly exaggerated reality and consistently humorous, we are given a peak into suburbia and all the secrets. Julie Langsdorf digs deep to uncover the real people in the neighborhood, their lack of communication and honestly with themselves and each other, their insecurities and private affairs along with their hopes and ideas of what it means to achieve the American Dream. White Elephant is an enjoyable snapshot of Anytown, USA where crazy things happen and it’s just another day!
Q & A with Julie Langsdorf
Q: How did you come up with the idea to write a book about neighborhood tension stemming from the presence of a big new house, nicknamed the White Elephant?
A: I was inspired to write the book in 2005, when a series of articles in The Washington Post and other D.C. publications detailed the chaos that was going on in some of the area’s older, established communities. People were moving into these towns and tearing down the older houses and building new, often enormous houses, much to the older residents’ chagrin. Neighbors were egging one another, yelling at each other in the street, and suing each other. It was such a big, juicy mess I couldn’t resist writing about it.
Q: Did you grow up in suburbia and are any of the characters based on people you know?
A: I grew up in a small town that bears some similarities to the fictional town of Willard Park. There’s a children’s library and houses that range from gracious Victorians to 1960’s split levels. The only character who is based on someone is Terrance, Ted’s twin brother, who is modeled after my own brother, Kenny—one of the sweetest people I know.
Q: Willard Park seemed familiar to me and I am sure to many who read White Elephant. Do you think people living in many suburban towns experience similar disagreements?
A: I think it’s a widespread problem. I’ve heard from people all over the country who say it feels like their neighborhood! We all have different ideas about the American Dream; sometimes it’s hard to reconcile those concepts within a community.
Q: As I was reading I was thinking the characters belong in a soap opera and then again, this small town outside of DC is an example of so many upper middle class towns…from the dispute over the trees and new houses, to the intimacy issues and infidelity, pot smoking, truancy, illness, wannabe artists, small business owners, coffee shops, town festivals, and even a community theater performance of Annie Get Your Gun…it all rings true and seems like a microcosm of the country today! So many things happen yet the story keeps moving forward smoothly as if all the craziness is just the norm. The satirical storytelling with a window into peoples’ lives was a joy to read. Where did you get all your ideas?
A: Thank you for saying that it’s a microcosm of what’s going on today! It really feels that way to me. Willard Park is dealing with the intense stratification we are all confronting these days. It’s so hard for people to see the ‘other side,’ and we are at risk of vilifying those who have a different perspective. There is a lot of craziness in this book, but I’m not sure it’s that much crazier than things that are going on in real life! I love the way community theater pulls a town together. There’s something so sweet about townspeople singing and practicing lines together just for the joy of it; it’s an interesting contrast to the divisiveness they are all feeling. My daughter was in Annie Get Your Gun when she was a child, so I picked that one. It’s such a wonderfully over-the-top show. I never really know where my ideas come from; I like to give my mind plenty of space to wander so oddball ideas can surface when they are ready to.
Q: You portrayed this slice of life humorously and with great insight. There are plenty of secrets between neighbors, friends and family members and open communication is minimal. Most of the characters do bad things but they all have their reasons and although I felt frustrated at times, I forgave them. True feelings are revealed and obstacles are faced, all the while everyone is on their solo journey, searching for their own happiness. Things get so messy and the characters are deeply intertwined…how did you organize the web of neighborhood relationships…did you draw it out on paper first or did you just write and it grew together?
A: Yes, communication is an enormous problem in the book—not just among those who dislike each other, but even among those who love one another. I think it’s a problem in real life as well. I hope readers will feel they understand why the characters make the choices they do even if they disagree with them, and will feel that they are all human, despite their flaws. I don’t map it out, but I did carefully track each character’s journey toward the end of the writing process to make sure everyone’s story hangs together with the characters with whom they interact.
Q: Was there anything in the story that didn’t make the final cut?
A: I cut Nina, the realtor, as a narrator. She was a fun character to write, but in the end I didn’t think her voice added enough to the story.
Q: How long did it take you to write White Elephant and what are you working on now?
A: I wrote White Elephant in about three years, between 2005 and 2008. A long time ago now! When I finished it, the bottom fell out of the market, so it wasn’t the book’s time—but things have come full circle in recent years. I recently finished another suburban comedy set in a different kind of Maryland town. It, too, is told from multiple points of view, and is very topical. I can’t reveal any more about it just yet, but I will as soon as I am able to!
Q: What three books have you read lately that you recommend? And what is on your nightstand to read next?
A: I loved Daisy Jones and The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which I listened to as an audiobook; I highly, highly recommend readers experience it in that way. I also highly recommend Angie Kim’s debut novel Miracle Creek, which will be published this Tuesday. It’s a courtroom drama you do not want to miss. I’m currently reading Oksana Behave!, by Maria Kuznetsova, which is a complete delight. She has such a fresh, fun voice. Next up is Mandy Berman’s Perennials.
I enjoyed and recommend White Elephant. For another humorous book that gives you a behind the scenes look – this time in politics and journalism in the newsroom, check out Amanda Wakes Up by Alisyn Camerota.
Julie Langsdorf has received four fiction grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and her short stories have appeared in several literary magazines. White Elephant, her debut novel, was named a new book to watch for and an editors’ choice by The New York Times, a book not to miss by USA Today, a highly anticipated debut novel by The LA Times, a best new book by Southern Living Magazine and Real Simple, and a Library Journal best debut.
Becoming is an engaging memoir from a tall, bright, black girl from Chicago who grew up in a traditional home with loving family and the opportunity for education. Where her life led is remarkable and Michelle Obama tells us about her youth, her relationship, marriage and daughters along with her thoughts and opinions about being a black woman, wife and mother in the White House. As the First Lady, she had worthwhile major initiatives surrounding children’s health, military families and education and she provides readers with an insider’s look and insight into her time in Washington DC.
Becoming is not just about becoming FLOTUS, it is about Michelle Obama’s personal growth based on choices she made and ones that were made for her due to circumstances – choices about her career, whether or not she got married and had children and how she created and honored her family values, made an impact on people and participated in causes she cared about, utilizing her new found power and visibility to help the people in our country become healthier, more ambitious and hopeful. She wasn’t just the president’s wife; Michelle Obama was a refreshing force with strong morals and an effective agenda for positive change in the White House, while providing stability for her children and husband as he took on the biggest job in our country.
One of Michelle Obama’s major initiatives while in the White House was the Let’s Movecampaign with the goal to reduce childhood obesity and encourage a healthier lifestyle. She worked with her Executive Director, Sam Kass, who at the time was President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition, and together they created the first major vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden.
A role model for women and girls, Michelle Obama took on the job of First Lady and conducted herself in the public eye with grace and effectiveness and deserves admiration and accolades. I highly recommend this book, regardless of your politics, as it gives you a unique understanding of the Obama family, the challenges members of the black community and all women face, and the endless possibilities for making positive change in your immediate world and the world at large. I loved it and hear the audio version is fantastic!
About the Author:
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the wife of the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American First Lady of the United States.
She was born and grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. After completing her formal education, she returned to Chicago and accepted a position with the law firm Sidley Austin, and subsequently worked as part of the staff of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and for the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Michelle Obama is the sister of Craig Robinson, men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University. She met Barack Obama when he joined Sidley Austin. After his election to the U.S. Senate, the Obama family continued to live on Chicago’s South Side, choosing to remain there rather than moving to Washington, D.C.
So your book group is a little lax and needs some shaping up, but you are not quite sure what to do. The meeting dates keep changing and the endless emails to reschedule are cluttering your inbox.When you finally do meet, all anyone cares about is the food and wine and half the people haven’t even read the book.Finally, when one person recalls the purpose of the get-together and announces how it is getting late, and maybe you should talk about the book, the momentum shift to intelligent discussion feels like a chore and the book conversation is forced, aimless and short.From someone who has been in many book clubs over the years, I would like to offer you some advice.
Assign a leader…someone needs to be in charge.
The leader of the book group is responsible for communications; she should ask the group for book suggestions, evaluate the responses and choose the winning book.Ask the group for volunteers to host, assign the host, agree on the date with the host and communicate to the members, the host, the date and the book.The host can then reach out to the group asking what they would like to bring and letting them know the address and where to park.The leader of the group does the administrative job to keep the group moving forward.
Pick a date…and stick with it.
The sweet spot for book group meetings is every 6 to 8 weeks.This gives slower readers a chance to finish in time and everyone has the chance to plan their schedule.Not everyone will be able to make every date so consistency is helpful.If you can plan the year’s meetings ahead of time this could work too.I am in one group that provides all meeting dates and book titles at the beginning of the school year.Everyone is invited to bring their lunch, cookies are served, a moderator is brought in to help the leader lead discussion, and there is no nonsense.This group’s focus is more serious, similar to a class due to the learning and enrichment, and the set schedule, in depth content discussion and book choices reflect those values. This orderly routine works well for this group.
These books generate good conversation.
Choose the right book…it must satisfy the needs of the group.
All members should suggest several books they want to read and most likely there will be some overlap. The book chosen should meet the needs of the group.Does your group like to read mainstream, popular fiction that focuses on relationships? Mysteries? Historical fiction?One of my book groups chooses well known titles (Reese Witherspoon and Oprah picks) and we have had smart discussions.We have read An American Marriage, Little Fires Everywhere, and most recently we discussed Educated and The Great Alone together, as there is so much to compare and contrast.Another group I am in read Song of a Captive Bird, a fictional account of a real Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, and most recently, Asymmetry, a debut written in three parts about love, luck, life and art, and both of those discussions were informative and educational. With Asymmetry, so much learning occurred and hidden meaning was revealed at our round table discussion in a Japanese restaurant’s Tatami room one evening…we continued talking about that book for days!My advice is to choose a book you can sink your teeth into and do some extra research on the topic, author, time period or characters.
Size doesn’t matter…agreement on the format does.
Contrary to much publicized book club advice, it is possible to have a successful book group with as many as two dozen people, or even just a few people.As long as your group has some structure and everyone is respectful and willing to follow the format, great fun can be had.Smaller groups have an easier time agreeing on a date, finding a place to meet and everyone has more of a chance to speak out.On the other hand, one of my groups has over 20 members and most of these women have been reading together for 20 years.For them, the meal on book club night is important as many of them enjoy hosting a dinner party, so we always enjoy a beautiful meal and wine for an hour or so before we get down to business. We tend to have more emails back and forth about the date, but if everyone can’t make it, that is ok. We still enjoy thoughtful discussion.
Regardless of size, it is important to have a moderator. The moderator should come to the meeting with discussion questions that usually can be found online; some local libraries will provide them if you put in a request. The moderator can kick off the meeting with a short summary of the book to get everyone on the same page and then can use the questions to stimulate conversation. She is in charge of keeping it civilized! If nobody takes the lead, too many people try to talk at once and the group tends to break up into smaller side conversations.
My book group meeting Martha Hall Kelly, author of The Lilac Girls, after a speaking engagement.
Go the extra mile…there is added value to be had.
This is where you can make your meetings interesting, and everyone can bring something to the party.This is what I do. Once the book is picked, I like to follow the author on social media.This gives me the opportunity to connect and ask questions.Most authors are excited to hear what you think about their book and I always leave a review on Goodreads and Amazon.This helps them with their rankings and can impact sales so why not help an author out!They also could be willing to visit your book club or Skype with your group and that can be really exciting and different.
FaceTiming with Fiona Davis, author of The Masterpiece.
One of my book groups FaceTimed with author Fiona Davis when we discussed her third novel, The Masterpiece.In addition to the book and the writing process we talked about artists that were named in her book, actors who we would want to play her characters if the book were made into a movie, along with the architecture and special floors and rooms of 1920s Grand Central Terminal.We also had photos one of our members took of places in the current Grand Central Terminal which enriched our discussion and made it oh so much fun!
My book group meeting with Heather Frimmer, author of Bedside Manners.
A different group I am in welcomed author of Bedside Manners, Dr. Heather Frimmer to join us and talk about her mother-daughter medical fiction debut. As a radiologist, she talked to us about the realities of breast cancer and how her medical knowledge helped her write an authentic book.
And of course, Google is a wonderful thing…I always research the author and the book, and if I am the moderator, I download discussion questions.When I moderate a group I like to read a short summary of the book to get everyone in the right frame of mind. Everyone can find something interesting to contribute; it is nice to show a video or pictures (someone showed photos of locations in Spain when we discussed Dan Brown’s Origin), read an interview (I read a transcript of a conversation between author Tara Westover and Bill Gates when discussing Educated), and in another group one of our members referred to her copy of Alice in Wonderland when we examined the writing of Lisa Halliday (at our Asymmetry discussion). There are so many author interviews on youtube and author websites to share. Another fun thing to do is to choose a book where you and your group are able to go hear the author speak at a local library or bookstore. If you can, connect with the author on social media and ask to meet for a drink with your book group after the event.
Controversial themes and unusual settings make for interesting discussion.
If you want to get together with friends, drink wine and have fun after reading the same book, that can be easy to do.If you want your book club to be a little more intellectually stimulating, everyone needs to be in agreement and effort must be put in.Follow my 5 tips for keeping your book group on track, and you should have some success.I am enjoying each of my many book groups for different reasons, but most of all, I am happy to connect with friends over books and learn something new.
Assign a leader…someone needs to be in charge.
Pick a date…and stick with it.
Choose the right book…it must satisfy the needs of the group.
Size doesn’t matter…agreement on the format does. (Assign a moderator!)
Go the extra mile…there is added value to be had.
Let me know what your book club is reading and if you need a suggestion, please ask!
I haven’t read a lot of short stories and when the publisher asked me to take a look at We Love Anderson Cooper I was happy to do so…the title made me smile and when the book arrived I was increasingly motivated by the great looking cover!
A teenage boy coming out publicly at his Bar Mitzvah, a cat playing favorites during the Christmas/Hanukah holiday season, the relief of a called off wedding, and the power of a couch…so wonderful getting to know the varied characters and becoming absorbed in their emotional journeys in such a short time.
I really loved all the stories and was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with author R.L. Maizes about this new short story collection, her writing process and more.
Q & A with R.L. Maizes
Q: From a reader’s point of view, each of your stories in this wonderful collection stand on its own and is unrelated, with different characters and situations. Every main character seems to have a problem or obstacle they face and tackle during the short time we are with them and I became invested in each and every one! Are any of these short stories in We Love Anderson Cooper linked or connected to each other in any way?
Thanks so much for the kind words about the collection. What connects the stories in We Love Anderson Cooper is that the main characters are outsiders. For example, in the story “Tattoo,” a tattoo artist is shunned because of his unusual appearance. In “Collections,” a woman is excluded from her wealthy partner’s upper crust world because of her race and class. In “No Shortage of Birds,” a young girl becomes alienated from her mother and her friends when her father dies. Being outsiders creates challenges for these characters that they try to overcome in the stories.
Q: Did you write each story with the others in mind? Are there other stories that didn’t make the cut? Did you always plan on putting these together in a collection?
I wrote the stories over a ten-year period. The pain we all feel at being excluded and our tremendous desire to belong was one of my preoccupations, but I wasn’t thinking of writing a collection during that entire time. Many stories I wrote didn’t make the cut.
Q: How long did writing each story take? Have any of them been published on their own prior to this book?
With the exception of one very short one, I spent more than a year writing and revising each of them. Some took many years. A number of the stories were published in magazines before being included in the book. One aired on National Public Radio. Another was dramatized in a production of Stories on Stage.
Q: From a writing standpoint, how do you gage timing, know how much to reveal in such a short time and do you have to do any work developing the characters or the story arc before the story is written or does it just all come together as you write?
I’m what’s known as a pantser, which means I develop the stories as I write them (“fly by the seat of my pants”) rather than plotting them out beforehand. The stories end up needing more revision this way, but it’s the only way I know how to write.
Figuring out when to reveal information is one of the great challenges of fiction writing, and each story has its own needs in that regard. In “Ghost Dogs,” for example, the last story in the collection, I intentionally hold back important information until the middle of the story. While in another story, I reveal the end of the story first, allowing the suspense to arise from how the ending comes about.
Q: What is the editing process like for a short story – do you generally write too much and have to cut, or too little and have to expand?
Both! I have to write too much to discover what the story is really about. Once I know, I cut to the heart of the story. The challenge of the form is compression. At the same time, when I want to go deeper into a character or to slow down a scene for dramatic purposes, I expand parts of the story.
Q: Would you ever consider expanding any of these stories into a book?
I’m writing a novel now called “Other People’s Pets.” The main character is an animal empath who drops out of veterinary school to become a burglar. Her father’s been arrested and she’s desperate to earn enough to pay his attorney’s fees. It has some similarities with the collection. The main character is an outsider and the book features animals. But it’s not an expansion of any of the stories. I don’t plan to expand any of the stories in the collection because each one feels complete to me as it is.
Q: How do you get your ideas for your writing?
Stories are everywhere. A news report might trigger an idea for a story. Something that happened to an acquaintance might be the genesis of a story. I might observe something odd in my neighborhood. But the finished stories are always greatly changed from what initially sparked them.
Q: Are you going on book tour?
It’s a little too soon to know. I’ll be reading at bookstores in Colorado where I live. But I’m not sure where else I’ll tour.
Q: What are three books you recently read and would recommend?
I loved Rebecca Makkai’s recent novel, The Great Believers, and her story collection, Music for Wartime. Mad Boy by Nick Arvin is a wonderful book, funny and tender. It’s currently a finalist for a Colorado Book Award. I’m a big fan of Steve Yarbrough’s novels because of the compassion he has for his characters. The Unmade World, which came out this past year, was fantastic. I thought Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend was great. Naturally because of the dog. But also because the structure of that book was marvelous. I guess that’s more than three.
Q: What is on your nightstand to read next?
I’m looking forward to reading Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise and was lucky enough to pick up an advance reading copy at a conference I recently attended. I’m also about to begin Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut story collection, Sabrina & Corina.
Thank you to R.L. Maizes for answering some questions! If you feel like an outsider, you are not alone. Easy to read, engaging and thought provoking, every step of the way, I highly recommend pre-ordering a copy of We Love Anderson Cooper today – book will be available in July.
R.L. Maizes’s short story collection, WE LOVE ANDERSON COOPER, will be published by Celadon Books (Macmillan) in July 2019, with a novel to follow. The stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Maizes’s essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Maizes currently lives in Boulder, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.
In Another Time by Jillian Cantor is a wonderful historical fiction novel with deep characters who love books, music and each other.
In 1930s Berlin, Max, a German bookshop owner sees Hanna playing what she loves most, the violin. He is enchanted and in an attempt to get her attention, he brings her what he loves most, a book. After his dedicated pursuit, he wins her over, and the relationship between the two blossoms. German life during the rise of Hitler is not easy and to make matters worse, because Max is not a Jew, Hanna’s family is not supportive. Then Max has an unexplained disappearance which causes Hanna to be worried, angry and confused. She steps back from their relationship for a time, but the love between them is powerful and eventually it draws them back together.
Antisemitism is increasing in Germany and although Hanna, so focused on her violin playing, does not take much notice, Max worries about her and his Jewish friends. Hitler and the Nazis are taking over, panic is starting to set in and his longtime Jewish neighbors are in terrible danger. When Max sees them in distress he reaches out to offer help. Max has a huge secret that he believes can save those in danger, but when his beloved Hanna is looking the Nazis in the eyes, can he bring her to safety?
In 1946 Hanna finds herself in an open field with her less than pristine violin and no memory of the recent past. Hitler is dead, the train station has been bombed, she has no idea what happened to Max, and she has lost her memory of the last 10 years of her life. Hanna’s sister comes to get her and bring her back to her home in London where she searches for opportunities to play her trusted violin in an orchestra. Her love for music and Max are the only things she remembers and without him she focuses on playing violin to bring peace and joy to her life, and to give her a purpose. Will Hanna and Max cross paths again? In Another Time is a heartbreaking story of love, and survival in difficult times, and the ability to learn the truth.
I enjoy narration by two characters alternating chapters as it is easy to read and it compels me to read just one more chapter, and then just one more, always wanting to know what is going to happen next…Jillian Cantor created interesting characters and I get immersed in her writing with the World War ll setting, appreciative for the research involved in historical fiction. I adored The Lost Letter published 2017, and I highly recommend In Another Time too!
In Another Time is the story of Max, a German bookshop owner, and Hanna, a Jewish violin prodigy, who fall in love in the 1930s outside of Berlin as Hitler is rising to power. Max narrates the story in the 1930s, before the war, and Hanna narrates beginning in 1946, after the war, when she wakes up in a field with only her violin, no memory of the past ten years, and no idea what happened to Max. Max’s story moves through the 1930s as Hanna’s moves through the 1940s and 50s. I wanted it to be a love story between Max and Hanna but also a love song to books and music in our most trying times.
When I learned about Max’s huge secret, the special closet door in his bookshop, it first made me think of the novel Exit West where Mohsin Hamid wrote about doors people went through to get to other countries. He mostly used it as a metaphor for immigration, allowing him not to have to focus on the physical journey. In In Another Time, I was unprepared for the magical time travel that happened in the closet but was pleasantly surprised. Unexplainable, supernatural elements like this are not often used in historical fiction. How did you come up with the idea?
I really wanted to explore the question of what made people leave, or not leave, Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the lead up to WWII. I spoke with a Holocaust survivor who’d been a young Jewish girl in Berlin at the time. She said her parents refused to leave, saying it was their country too. They were Germans too. So I thought a lot about what it means to love your country, and feel allegiance to your country even if terrible things start happening. And how hard it would’ve been to fathom how horrible everything would eventually get if you were living there in those years. The question I set out to answer before I even sat down to write the book was, what if you had every way and means possible to leave, even a magical escape, would you still want to stay?
I just accepted the magic and immersed myself in the lives of the wonderful characters, Hanna and Max. Did you ever consider explaining more of the details regarding time traveling through the closet? How did you decide what to explain and what to leave unsaid?
I definitely don’t see this a science fiction novel in any way, even though time travel does play a small role, like you said. So I never wanted to get bogged down in the details of how it worked. And Max is a bookshop owner, a reader, not a scientist, so I didn’t believe as a character he would get bogged down in these details either. My goal was to explain enough to make the plot and Max’s actions make sense, but not too much where the book became more science fiction than historical fiction.
Your novel has Max’s story and Hanna’s story each from their own perspective. Did you write them alternating chapters like we read them, or did you create each character’s narrative separately?
I wrote them exactly in the order that you read them, as they appear in the book now, alternating chapters. It did get a little confusing, and at a certain point as I was drafting (about 100 pages in) I stopped, and made a giant chart on the wall of my office to keep track of where each character was in each year, how old each was, etc.! But I felt I needed to write the book the way it would eventually read so I could get the pacing and the story arc right in the first draft. When I went back and revised, however, I did pull each story out and revise each one separately to make sure it was all coherent and made sense in order.
All the chapters are narrated by Max or Hanna except for one. Why did Elsa have her own chapter?
Elsa is married to Max’s best friend, Johann, and she has a small but important role in the novel. The chapter she narrates allowed me to give the reader information that neither Max nor Hanna could’ve known.
What are you reading now (if you even have time) and what do you recommend?
I’m reading a lot of research for the next novel I’m writing right now! But I have a giant to-read pile sitting on my desk that I plan to get to once I finish drafting my next book: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff, The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer, Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce, and The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer, just to name a few. One upcoming historical novel that I got to read early, and that I highly recommend, is The Flight Girls by Noelle Salazar. It’s out in July – look out for it!
If you would like to hear some orchestra music, here is a clip from my teenage son’s most recent concert with the NORWALK YOUTH SYMPHONY .
According to Google: Listening to music can help reduce stress according to many studies. It can help relieve a person from anxiety, depression, and other emotional and mental problems. Music is also capable of eliminating physical exhaustion as it allows the body and mind to relax.
Jillian Cantor has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from The University of Arizona. She is the USA Today bestselling author of THE LOST LETTER, THE HOURS COUNT, MARGOT, and, most recently, IN ANOTHER TIME, which is a March 2019 Indie Next pick. Her work has been translated into 10 languages, and has been featured as a Library Reads pick, and in People Magazine, O the Oprah Magazine, Glamour, and PopSugar among others. Born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Jillian currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.
What could be better than living on sprawling beautiful property in the country, healthy food being served to you, fresh air and exercise, massages and pampering, and a generous, life changing paycheck, while all your needs are being met? The catch…you must stay on the premises and be separated from your family and friends for nine months while you are pregnant with a baby that doesn’t belong to you.
In this stunning debut novel, The Farm, female-centric and slightly dystopian (will be appealing to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale), author Joanne Ramos creates Golden Oaks, a secluded, country club atmosphere in Hudson Valley, NY where mostly foreign women are bearing children for elite clients who are not able to get pregnant or who choose not to.
Jane, a young, single Filipina mom with an infant, no husband and no secure place to live, decides to leave her own baby with her cousin, Ate, and take a job at Golden Oaks, where she will make enough money to better her life. She is chosen to be a Host, living in a luxury house in the middle of the countryside where her only job is to rest and keep the baby inside her healthy. Nine months is a long time to be separated from your family and as time goes on, Jane starts to question the value of that big paycheck versus her sacrifices associated with being away. She is worried about her young daughter and her cousin, and is unsure the money alone is an adequate tradeoff for the painful separation and the missing of milestones.
Joanne Ramos takes a look at class status; what poor women will give up to ultimately improve their lives, and what wealthy women give up to avoid inconvenience. How much is worth sacrificing for the American Dream? This is a thought provoking, emotionally charged novel I highly recommend! PREORDER TODAY– available May 7, 2019.
The Farm is part of the Bedside Reading program where books are placed on the nightstand at 5 star, luxury and boutique hotels.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for a novel centered on a surrogacy farm and do you know anyone that ever worked at one?
A. When I finally dared to commit to writing a book, a childhood dream I’d deferred for decades, I was already forty. Certain ideas had obsessed me for much of my life but finding a way into them—finding the right story to contain them and, also, allow them room to breathe—was difficult. I spent well over a year writing short stories, flash-fiction pieces and “first chapters” of stillborn novels. It was an exercise in persistence and, also, faith. Then one day, when reading my husband’s Wall Street Journal, I happened upon a snippet of an article about a surrogacy facility in India. The what ifs began swirling in my mind almost immediately, and The Farm began to take shape.
Q: In this country do you see Filipina women experiencing economic and social challenges and in general struggling more than white women? And if so, in what way?
A. I don’t think you can really generalize in this way. I know Filipinas who struggle and those who lead cushy lives, and the same goes for white women. I think new immigrants to this country—and they come in all races and colors—do face challenges that ensconced Americans do not. I think domestic workers occupy a strange netherworld where they work in the intimacy of someone’s home and are often hailed as “part of the family”—but of course, they aren’t. That’s a difficult line to balance every day, and by and large, domestic workers don’t enjoy the protections that other workers in this country do. And of course, racism exists—here and everywhere.
Q: In The Farm we see women of different social classes and even in the same class using each other to get ahead. With the #MeToo movement, it generally seems as if most women are outwardly supporting all women across dividing lines. Do you think the situation in your novel is closer to reality? Do you believe women stand by their children first, then other women second?
A. Women, like men, have conflicting needs, desires and loyalties which they try their best to balance. Sometimes they need to compromise; some compromises are betrayals, depending on which side you sit on. Even within the #MeToo movement you see divisions—women who feel #MeToo has gone too far, women who feel it has not gone far enough, women who can relate and women who can’t, women who are changing their minds because of it.
Q: The influence men have on the women in The Farm seems nonexistent. Why did you decide not to include men in the storyline?
A. I didn’t exclude men from The Farm consciously. The book started with Jane and Ate. Their voices came first. All the caregivers I happen to know well are women, and almost all of them are raising their children on their own—the fathers are absent. So, in this way, Jane and Ate’s stories reflect the reality I know. Of course, the Hosts are women, and it made sense to me that the person running Golden Oaks would be a woman. The decision was not one made “on-high”, but an organic development.
Q: Female inequality is a subject that is underlying throughout your novel. But the women considered to be the lowest on the totem pole also have the greatest power, the ability to bear a child. You could have gone a different way in the novel, giving the pregnant women the upper hand. Why choose to create a world that diminishes the unique and valuable aspect of womanhood?
A. I don’t think that motherhood or pregnancy is diminished in The Farm at all! In fact, they are central to the book. The reality is, though, that the power dynamics of the world are not built around motherhood and pregnancy. In fact, for most of history, and in many parts of the world still, the opposite is true.
Q: How long did it take you to write this novel?
A. If you count the year and a half when I wrote in the dark, trying unsuccessfully to find a way “into” the themes that mattered to me, it took around five years. Once I came upon the idea of setting the action in a luxury surrogacy facility, the book took three and a half years to write and edit.
Q: What are you working on now?
A. I have some seedlings of ideas for a second book, but nothing coherent enough to discuss.
Q: What are the last three great books you read and what is on your night stand now?
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
Essential Essays, Adrienne Rich
Hold Still, Sally Mann
On my nightstand: Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss; Citizen: an American Lyric, Claudia Rankine; The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli; Saltwater, Jessica Andrews
Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a BA from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she wrote for The Economist as a staff writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children. The Farm is her first novel.
If you missed this one in hardcover, now is the time to grab a copy in paperback! True to all the hype, Amor Towles has written a masterpiece. I loved the premise of a Russian aristocrat being under house arrest for life in a fancy hotel due to a controversial poem he supposedly had written when he was younger. A Gentleman In Moscowis the story of Count Alexander Rostov, and his life in the Metropol Hotel, from the 1920s on. Friendship, connection, loyalty and the ultimate pursuit of how to live, are beautifully explored with Towles’s skillful storytelling; while the elegant aristocrat creates a life for himself inside the hotel, 30 crucial years of Russian history were happening in the outside world.
I was late to the party in taking on this rather large book, but when I recently learned it took place in a hotel I was intrigued. Initially Thurston Hall at George Washington University (a former hotel turned dorm) came to mind, and then I thought of Zach and Cody (of Disney Channel fame 2005-2008) and their suite life in the Tipton Hotel in Boston. In A Gentleman In Moscow, Alexander Rostov was not allowed to leave the premises of the fancy hotel across from the Kremlin, but lucky for him there was a restaurant and bar, seamstress and lots of rooms to discover and explore. The elements of glamour softened the blow of being incarcerated and unable to go outside, yet in my mind I questioned whether Rostov’s sentence was really a punishment or was it protection from the harsh realities of Russia outside the Metropol doors during that time. The pace of the book was on the slower side, not the kind of story you read in a day but rather the kind you savor and reread as you go, as one might do when there is nothing else to tend to and no place to go. It meandered around the Metropol with wonderful stories, descriptions and character exploration. I felt as if I were actually wandering around the different rooms and stairwells and experiencing life in the elegant Russian hotel myself. I enjoyed how the Rostov found a way to continually learn, grow and enjoy his life, develop many relationships, and dress, eat and live well, all under a strict, watchful eye and government punishment. A Gentleman in Moscow was a beautiful combination of a fictional, highly imaginative story paired with important Russian history… and a unexpected surprise at the end! I highly recommend!
CBS This Morning’s correspondent, Elizabeth Palmer visits the Metropol Hotel with Amor Towles and you can plan a stay there too!
Born and raised in the Boston area, Amor Towles graduated from Yale College and received an MA in English from Stanford University. Having worked as an investment professional in Manhattan for over twenty years, he now devotes himself fulltime to writing. His first novel, Rules of Civility, published in 2011, was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback and was ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best books of 2011. The book was optioned by Lionsgate to be made into a feature film and its French translation received the 2012 Prix Fitzgerald. His second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, published in 2016, was also a New York Times bestseller and was ranked as one of the best books of 2016 by the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the St. Louis Dispatch, and NPR. Both novels have been translated into over fifteen languages.
Mr. Towles, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children, is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950’s jazz, 1970’s cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, obsolete accessories, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers.