Category Archives: Meet the Writer

Meet the Writer: Olivia Kate Cerrone

Meet the Writer: Olivia Kate Cerrone

I want to thank Olivia Kate Cerrone for stopping by! Olivia maintains a website where you can learn more about her writing and information about her new book, The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017). If you like what you see, follow Olivia on Facebook or Twitter!

Do you know someone who would like to be featured at Grab the Lapels? Send her my way so she can participate in the Meet the Writer feature!

Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Olivia Kate Cerrone: My parents always read to me as a child and that definitely sparked my love for stories, the places books could take you in your imagination. I began writing fiction from a very early age, producing “novels” and short stories with handmade drawings to accompany. The sense of wonder and possibility of storytelling has never left me.

GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

OKC: I never thought of creative writing as a hobby. Even as a kid, I wanted to become an author and publish books. Of course, I had no idea at the time as to how very difficult that journey would be, but I had the drive and the passion to keep trying, even after years of rejection and disappointment. Throughout my life, I have always (and continue) to seek opportunities to develop creatively, be it through a workshop, a writing conference or an MFA degree. I enjoy being in a workshop with other writers. I am very lucky to have a group of talented prose writers with whom I meet with on a regular basis in Boston, MA. Growth is continuous, and you have to stay humble and resist arrogance or complacency in order to keep getting better. Real growth takes time. I hope that I am a much better writer in five or ten years than where I am now.

Cerrone Author Photo

GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

OKC: Honestly, I am seldom ever happy with my writing, especially the first draft of anything, so I revise constantly. Perhaps even a bit obsessively. A piece goes through many different drafts and often past the eyes of a trusted editor before I send it out into the world for possible publication. Sometimes, if I’m really struggling, I have to just let a manuscript sit for a while, and go work on another project or just take a breather from writing altogether and read, read, read. Often, I find that poetry helps me connect to language and ideas in fresh ways, and that actually helps me find a way back into my own fiction if I’m blocked.

GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?

OKC: Ideas usually comes to me in fragments — snatches of dialogue or a phrase of description that are later explored and built into a scene or the narrative in some way. Sometimes, as was the case with The Hunger Saint, I will come across a piece of history or an experience that haunts me and demands to be told. When I first learned about the carusi, for instance, I was shocked by how little had been written about them, especially when children as young as six years old were sent by their families to work in the sulfur mines of rural Sicily. That disturbed me enough to produce The Hunger Saint. Research also figures a great deal in my creative process. Getting the details right, even in fiction, is very important to me. I like to “sketch out” the outline of a plot, especially with short stories, as it tends to help me keep focused on what needs to be told, instead of trying to cram an entire world of information in ten or fifteen pages. But with larger projects like novels and novellas, you can’t exactly know where you are going at every point along the way or the story itself might feel stilted. You have to trust the process, be patient and keep trying with each draft.


GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

OKC: I spend a lot more time on revision now than I used to. Perhaps that comes with maturity and patience. Revision is so crucial, especially with a larger manuscript. There are certain things you simply can’t develop until the third or fourth draft. I have learned the hard way over the years that rushing through the development of a story just for the sake of having it published is never a good thing. My prose also tends to be a lot more socially conscious now than it was when I was younger. I believe that literature should engage readers in larger questions about human rights, especially in these challenging and uncertain times. Stories have such great potential to raise awareness and spread compassion over complex and difficult issues throughout our society.

GTL: What are your current writing projects?

OKC: Right now, I am working on DISPLACED, a novel set in Boston absorbed with themes of identity, family, immigration issues, intergenerational trauma, and deportation. The book questions what it means to be an American in a time fraught with so much tension and upheaval. I am also working on a few short stories and essays that speak to various political and humanitarian concerns.

Do you know someone who would like to be featured at Grab the Lapels? Send her my way so she can participate in the Meet the Writer feature!

Meet the Writer: Tess Makovesky

Meet the Writer: Tess Makovesky

I want to thank Tess Makovesky for stopping by Grab the Lapels to discuss her writer life! Tess maintains a website where you can learn more about her writing and a blog to update readers on her life and work. If you like what you see, follow Tess on Facebook or Twitter!

Do you know someone who would like to be featured at Grab the Lapels? Send her my way so she can participate in the Meet the Writer feature!

Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Tess Makovesky: I wrote my first story, about a mouse having an adventure, aged five, and promptly announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer. They laughed indulgently, but actually it awoke a quiet but life-long passion and I really meant it. Sadly, it didn’t happen for many years as I had to go out to work to support myself, but I used to daydream about being a writer even while I was doing the chores or getting the bus to work.

Then two things happened which changed my life. The first was an injury at work which left me with a permanent disability in my right hand. It makes typing at 60 words-per-minute just about impossible and since I was a secretary at the time, you can imagine the result! Luckily, the second change was meeting my long-suffering Other Half, who has supported me ever since and given me the wonderful opportunity to practice and develop my writing.


GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

TM: My writing has developed out of all recognition. When I first started, I was still in “essay-writing” mode and found it hard to use colourful, creative language, and to write anything other than brief, concise reports. My early attempts at writing featured long waffly novels because I didn’t realise there were any other forms. Then a local writers’ group introduced me to the concept of the short story, and suddenly something clicked. I could write creatively, but still be concise.

Since then I’ve written hundreds of short stories and been lucky enough to have many of them published. (There’s an example, called ‘The Floor’s the Limit,’ available to read free in Out of the Gutter Online here). More recently, I’ve realized that if I string a number of “short stories” together, in the form of separate but thematically-linked chapters, then I can develop longer pieces of work without giving up on my trade-mark snappy style. This is the format I chose for my newly-published novella Raise the Blade, which features sections from the point of view of seven or eight different characters. None of them seem to be linked at first, but gradually you realise that there is a link – and that link is a psychopathic serial killer.

I’ve also taken a journey through various genres, starting with my first love of gritty crime, moving on to romance and erotica (under a different pen name) and finally coming full circle back to darkly humorous noir. The romance/erotica was less successful for me because I kept trying to include dark, gritty aspects that I’m not sure the readers appreciated! I’m much happier with the grim reality of crime, which lets me explore character motivations and psychology to my heart’s content.

GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

TM: Well, for starters I get very grumpy. Like many creative people I have an unstoppable urge to give birth to my ideas, and if anything interrupts that process then watch out! It can also make me quite depressed – something I suspect a lot of writers are prone to.

If I’ve already written something but I’m still not happy with it, it nags me like an aching tooth. I know it’s not right; I know the character wouldn’t say something like that, or act in that particular way; or I know that the language I’ve used is clumsy or formulaic. At that point I either sit and stare at the screen in complete frustration for hours, or walk away and leave it to fester for a while. If I’m lucky, a solution suggests itself and I can get going again – although sometimes that process can take days, weeks, or even months.

GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?

TM: I’m a real “pantser” (flying by the seat of my pants) in that I tend to do little or no advance planning. I get an idea, a title, a first line, and a general idea of the direction/ending I want to head towards, and then I just plunge in. It can lead to disaster, but I find that too much additional plotting, planning and note-making sucks all my creative energy and I have nothing left to actually write the book!

I almost always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and muddling through until I reach what I’m happy with as the end. However, if my characters take over and run off with the plot, I do sometimes go back and add extra sections, paragraphs, or even whole chapters earlier on.

Being something of a perfectionist I used to edit as I went along, but realized that it was slowing me down, and sometimes meant I didn’t finish a piece because I got bogged down in depressing minutiae. Now I tend to write fast, first, and go back and edit later. Sometimes it leads me to think “what the hell was I thinking?” but mostly it seems to work!

GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

TM: When I first started writing I hand-wrote everything, painfully thanks to my wrist injury, and then typed it up when I was reasonably happy with it. Over time the keyboard took over more and more, and now I type everything straight onto the screen, and will only resort to pen and paper if I need to fiddle with a brief section that’s fighting back. Or to sort out something that requires mathematics, since my grasp of numbers is terrible! In Raise the Blade there’s a complex structure where each character discovers the body of the victim before them, and I simply could not keep track of that at all! In the end I had to make a list of exactly who had found whom, and where; otherwise, I’d have ended up in a complete muddle.


GTL: Do you have a relationship with book bloggers? Why or why not? If yes, what is it like?

TM: I think book bloggers are wonderful! But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Heh, seriously, I think bloggers and writers often have a great symbiotic relationship where writers provide the source material, and bloggers help to introduce it to the reading public.

Done well, it benefits both. The bloggers develop their own supportive group of readers and gain access to a far greater range of reading material than they might if they were just shopping at their local book store. And the writers get a conduit between themselves and new readers, who might never otherwise come across their work.

However, as a note of caution, it can sometimes go wrong. I know of cases where bloggers and/or reviewers in general have made damningly negative comments about books, sometimes factually incorrect, which have gone on to blight a writer’s entire career. I’m not for one moment suggesting that bloggers should gush about every book they read, as that would be both dishonest and dull! But I do think it’s important for the relationship to be mutually supportive. Without bloggers, authors wouldn’t have as many readers, but without authors, bloggers wouldn’t have as many books.

Meet the Writer: Janice Lee #writerslife #authorinterview @diddioz

Meet the Writer: Janice Lee #writerslife #authorinterview @diddioz

I want to thank author, blogger, editor, and do-it-all Janice Lee for answering my questions. Check out her books and follow her on Twitter! I have a review of her 2013 novel, Damnation, in queue to be published Friday!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I went through different phases: teacher, archaeologist (a la Indiana Jones), zoologist, doctor, spy, writer.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

PE in high school. It was so hierarchical and was just asking to create tiers of “winners” and “losers.” Mostly I just chilled with my friends and we pretended we were too cool to care.

What was the first blog post you ever wrote about?

I’ve never had a proper blog. Just my website and various articles around the web. Probably the earliest “blog” I kept up most regularly (though only for a short while) was for my web design company, and the post had to do with what went into building a good website.

Do you think blogging is meant for the blogger, the readers, or both? Why?

Definitely both. It’s cathartic, in a way, for the writer. The Poetics of Spaces series I’m working on right now at Entropy, for example, is really memoir and confession disguised as personal essay. And I’ve had several readers email or message me thanking me for various articles in the series, which is always really gratifying to be able to connect with people in that way.

Are you reading anything right now?

Many things simultaneously but also in between things. I just finished The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu. About to begin Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action by Ira Jaffe.

Do you habitually follow any blogs?

I’m one of those people who feel the need to say informed and connected, so I actually follow almost 100 different blogs that I get in a feed, in all topics: literature, art, culture, film, science, technology, web design, etc. I mostly just skim the headlines each morning and focus more on a few. My favorite site right now is Entropy, not only because I’m an editor there, but because there’s really some rad stuff happening there.

Meet the Writer: Margot Kinberg #crime #authorinterview

Meet the Writer: Margot Kinberg #crime #authorinterview

Thanks so much to writer, blogger — and friend to book reviewers like me! — Margot Kinberg for stopping by Grab the Lapels and sharing her writing life with us. You can connect with Margot on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. And, of course, you should follow her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.picture1-of-margot-kinberg

GRAB THE LAPELS: What kind of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

MARGOT KINBERG:  I write crime fiction. Now, of course, that’s a very broad genre with several sub-genres. So, to narrow it down, I write traditional-style crime fiction in a contemporary context. My Joel Williams novels, for instance, are whodunits that take place mostly on a modern university campus. In that way, my work’s been influenced by some of the Golden Age/classic crime writers such as Agatha Christie.

You ask an interesting question about what sort of writing I would like to do more of than I do now. I’d actually like to try my hand at literary fiction. There are so many directions that literary fiction can take, and so many possibilities for character development and context — a great deal to explore.  I’ve written a few stories (mercifully, nothing published), but I haven’t done a novel. That’s one of those things I hope to try at some point. First, though, I want to hone my writing skills, and keep improving at what I do.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

MK: I always enjoyed writing. I’ve liked writing stories since I was in grade school. As I recall, the first story I wrote that I really felt proud of was when I was eleven years old. My English teacher’s support of that story really helped me see myself as a writer.

I started writing novels because I had a story in my mind that wanted to be told. With encouragement from my husband and daughter, I gathered my somewhat scattered thoughts about what the story would be like, and they became my first novel, Publish or Perish. I’ve not looked back since.


GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

MK: I love that question, because it reminds me that we should always be growing and developing as writers. One way in which I’ve developed is that I’m experimenting with different sorts of crime writing. One of the novels I’m working on, for instance, isn’t a traditional-style crime novel, such as the novels I’ve done for my series. It’s actually quite different, and I’m enjoying trying something new.

As I’ve been writing, I’ve also seen myself taking a few more risks. Some of my stories, for instance, are darker than I’ve done before, which I think helps me explore that side of human nature. I’ve tried a couple of different settings, too, and found that interesting. All of that has happened as the result of working on flash fiction. It’s really an effective way to develop as a writer, to discipline oneself, and to try new things.

I’m also finding that I’ve become better at character development as I’ve done it more. The more real characters are, the better readers can identify with them. And the more I develop my characters, the better I can identify with them. This helps me (at least I hope!) to create richer stories.


GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

MK: Well, I come from a background in academia, and my first professional writing was non-fiction. That’s made me a more concise, less narrative sort of writer. In fact, I’ve had to learn to flesh out my fiction, so that readers can engage more with my stories. So I suppose you could say that academia has impacted my writing style and focus.

But it’s also impacted my writing in the sense of my setting. My Joel Williams novels, as I mentioned, are set mostly in a university environment. So I’ve been able to use my experience in higher education to set the scene and context.

GTL: Does your writing include any research?

MK: Oh, I always research when I write. To me, research is absolutely essential to a believable story. Readers want to feel that what they read is authentic, even if they know it’s fiction. So it’s important to me to ‘do the homework’ to make sure that mine is.  When I research, I look online, I talk to people, I sometimes go places, and of course I read. A lot.

The type of research I do depends on the sort of story I’m writing. For instance, for one novel, I researched video surveillance at retail stores. For another, I researched police jurisdiction at federally-owned national parks. And for another, I spent quite a lot of time looking at street maps. It all depends on what I’m writing.

I should say, too, that I’ve been very fortunate in my research. Experts I speak to are always happy to help, and very accommodating when I pepper them with questions. And with today’s technology, it’s really easy to find out almost anything I want to know, just by going on line and being thoughtful about which sites I trust.

GTL: What are your current writing projects?

MK:  I’m pleased to say that my third Joel Williams novel, Past Tense, is available for Kindle pre-order right here. The paperback version is coming soon, too. The book goes on sale on 1st November.  So I’m doing things to get ready for that.

past tense.jpg

I’m also working on a few other writing projects. I’m planning revisions for my fourth Joel Williams novel; hopefully that one will be ready some time next year. I’m also writing a standalone novel — a crime novel that’s not the sort of whodunit I’ve written in the past. I’m only about 30 pages into it, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. But even so, I’m pleased to say that it’s taking an interesting shape. This one was inspired by a short piece of flash fiction I wrote, called “Early One Morning.” The characters stayed with me, and wanted me to tell their stories. Who was I to deny them? There are other little things I’m working on, too, but those are the main projects.

Meet the Writer: Liz Dexter #business #HowTo #SelfEmployed #WritersLife

Meet the Writer: Liz Dexter #business #HowTo #SelfEmployed #WritersLife

I want to thank Liz Dexter for answering my questions about her experiences as a professional self-published writer and editor who created her own brand. She writes books that help other people understand self-employment, business, social media networking, and other topics.

Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Liz Dexter: I’ve always been something of a writer. In fact, I thought in my youth that I was going to be a fiction writer, and when I left school was probably “person most likely to” do so. However, I slowly discovered that I’m not creative in that way.

As I went through various jobs, I was involved in technical writing: manuals, training documents, marketing materials, articles, presentations, etc., and this was something I enjoyed doing. So, I developed an interest and specialism in non-fiction / informational / technical writing, as opposed to academic or creative writing.

I started writing books, specifically, because I wanted to share information and help people. My first book was on a health issue that I had that I’d been able to resolve without drugs. I was passionate about sharing how I’d done that with other people, and my confidence with my writing allowed me to do that quite fluently.

Once I’d experimented with How I Conquered High Cholesterol with Diet and Exercise, I was confident to write my first business book, again with the aim of helping people, but also knowing that I have the ability to write clearly and helpfully, in an accessible and friendly style that both supports people through the processes I was talking about and differentiates my writing from that of other business books.

GTL: What kind of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

LD: I do non-fiction / informational / how-to writing that is low on jargon and accessible, aimed at helping people like me who are not traditional entrepreneurs to start and run their own businesses. I aim to be clear, thorough and transparent, and to be approachable and gently humorous. I put a lot of effort into making sure I share everything in detail as far as I can (leaving out identifying details of clients, of course), because I loathe with a passion those books that only take you so far and then expect you to buy an expensive course to finish learning!

I wish at the moment I could do more academic writing, but I am doing some independent study, too, along with a full-time job, training to run a marathon and working on my books. I long to set aside time for academic writing, but it necessarily comes at the bottom of the priority list!

I do also need to do some more of my standard book writing, as I have two new books forming at the moment (one specifically for editors and a longer-form book on transcription as a career, as The Quick Guide to Your Career in Transcription is my most popular).


GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

LD: I would say that it hasn’t particularly, except that it did give me the confidence to know I write well and fairly fluently. Working with academic clients in my editing business helped a great deal with the structure of my own academic work, and working with non-native English speakers has helped me to refine my general writing style to be clear and simple.

Working on essays, etc., helped me to develop my method of writing, which is to let everything mull in my head, then write out a structure from beginning to end (I prefer this to mind-maps, which I can’t get my head around), type headings into a document and start writing under whichever heading feels appropriate at the time. I still use this method now.

I think my education in academia helped me to feel that I had a right to write books, that I could write and could take my place in helping to educate others (outside academia), if that makes sense?

GTL: It does make sense! In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

LD: All of the writing I’ve done in various jobs and then my blog writing has worked me towards being able to write my books. While writing very serious and standard prose and instructions helped me to be structured and organised in my presentation, I developed my voice in my blog: slightly self-deprecating, humorous, supportive, and light on the jargon. My reviewers have commented positively in the main on my voice and style; I’m glad of this.

Dealing with words and writing every day in my day job has allowed me to think about how to put things across and see good and bad examples of all kinds of writing. This has been extremely useful for me. It also helps me, hopefully, to write well.

One interesting turnaround is that my writing has also shaped my editing work — I have learned an awful lot, through being edited, about what it feels like to have an editor, and how I might refine my editing work in order to make the experience as easy and comfortable as possible for my own clients. That was an unexpected side effect!

GTL: What is your writing process like?

LD: I have to say that I don’t do a huge amount of revision. When I write new material, I tend to mull and mull over my work, letting it swirl around in my head, then put it down pretty well complete. Having said that, a lot of the content in my books is based, however loosely, on my blog posts, so that gives me a writing process which is like a revision — or adaptation — process. I learned early on that you can’t just stick a load of blog posts in one big document and think of that as an actual book; there’s lots of fiddling around and adjusting to do.

For my next two books, I’ll be adapting a general book I wrote on starting and running a business for editors, as I have had so many people approach me asking me to mentor them, and that’s something I just don’t have the time or energy for. So I’m adapting the book and pulling it back to the editing career in particular (which is quite ironic, since originally I worked really hard to make sure it was relevant to all freelance careers!). When I put together my larger guide to transcription as a career, I’ll be basing it on that book and my transcription book, plus blog posts I’ve written on the topic since I published the book. It will be a work of synthesis and editing almost more than writing, although new bits will come in for the introductions, etc.

I want to say here that I’m extremely clear in my book descriptions, high up in the text, when a book is similar to a previous or other one I’ve put out, so people don’t feel ripped off by buying similar content twice!

As for the actual process, it’s processed in Word, using blocks of time I set aside for it when I can!

GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

LD: I have always had to fit writing into the time I have, since writing manuals, training materials, etc. so that’s not a problem, and early on in my freelance career, I offered website content writing and other such services, so I’m pretty good at just sitting down and writing: I don’t have the luxury of being able to wait for inspiration to strike!

I added an editor into the process when I started writing my books, so that’s a new stage and a new round of revisions to take into account in the process itself. It makes for a better book, but I do find I pause before I go through the editor’s revisions!

Liz 2015Liz Dexter (who publishes her books under her maiden name, Liz Broomfield) is an editor, proofreader, localiser and transcriber who has been working in the field since 2009. When she went full-time self-employed in 2012 at the age of 40, she found there were no books addressing the subject, so she wrote her own and carried on writing accessible, approachable how-to business books from there, which she has published herself, using a professional editor and cover designer. Outside work and writing, Liz reads obsessively and is a keen runner and volunteer in athletics. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook!


Meet the Writer: Rosalie Morales Kearns #AuthorInterview @RMoralesKearns #WritersLife

Meet the Writer: Rosalie Morales Kearns #AuthorInterview @RMoralesKearns #WritersLife

I want to thank Rosalie Morales Kearns for answering my questions. Kearns is the started a small feminist press called Shade Mountain Press. Recently, I’ve been featuring a few of her writers, but I wanted to see what Kearns had to say as a writer herself, rather than publisher! You can follow Kearns on Twitter. Shade Mountain Press can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

GRAB THE LAPELS: What would you like readers to know about your collection, Virgins and Tricksters?

ROSALIE MORALES KEARNS: I would say that a lot of the stories are very joyful, though not, I hope, in a naïve or simplistic way. There’s an underlying theme of human connection, bonds that form between people who may seem to have little in common.

Using the magic realist mode in some of the stories allowed me to play around with techniques I might not otherwise have tried. In “Devil Take the Hindmost” I tried to capture a character’s sensation that time is fluid, that different moments are occurring at the same time. Another story, “Taínos at Large,” is narrated by a chorus, the ancestral spirits of the main character, and of course those spirits are outside time also, though they’re observing their descendant who exists in ordinary time. I’m interested in conveying altered states and ecstatic experiences — which are nonlinear — in a narrative form, which has to be linear in the sense that it consists of one sentence after another.

I had fun with the settings of the stories, also. One takes place on a fictional Caribbean island. In another story there’s a conference room where all the gods and goddesses are having a meeting to complain about Yahweh.

There’s also a story cycle called “The Wives,” consisting of “The Pirate’s Wife,” “The Revolutionary’s Wife,” “The Priest’s Wife,” and finally “God’s Wife.” The main characters, the wives, are seekers; in the stories I’ve tried to capture them in the midst of their seeking.


GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

RMK: For me, writing and reading were connected. Love and stories were intertwined. When I was little, my dad would read to us kids every evening. There’s a photo of me at age three or so, sitting on the sofa with my teddy bear on my lap, reading to him from a book of fairy tales (in the photo, you can clearly see that the book is upside-down). The message I’d internalized was that a loved one told you stories, and then you told stories to another loved one.

The first short story I can recall writing was at age seven. All I remember is that it was funny, and involved talking pigs. I stood in front of my second-grade class and read it out loud, and basked in my classmates’ applause. We writers hardly ever get that kind of instant gratification.

GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

RMK: I wrote a lot during grade school. In fifth grade I wrote a radio play, which the principal allowed us to perform on the public address system. It was a mystery story, in which a student is found dead and the prime suspects are our teachers. In eighth grade in our U.S. history class, my friends and I were upset about the fate of the abolitionist John Brown, so we wrote a play in which he’s rescued from the gallows. My friend Toni, playing Catwoman (a superhero in our eyes), crouched on the top of a wardrobe and then leapt down onto a desk where Brown was about to be hanged. Luckily she was agile enough to pull it off, otherwise she, John Brown, and I (the executioner) would have crashed to the floor. Our teacher kept grumbling, “That’s NOT how it happened.”

I didn’t write much during high school, and not at all in college. It wasn’t till my mid-twenties that I started writing again, though I had very little time and energy for it. Plus I was sapped by self-doubt. I kept telling myself I didn’t know what I was doing: Who are you to write a novel? What do you know about it?

Even now, every so often, I have to remind myself that I know how to tell a story. We humans have a storytelling instinct. We need to learn how to stop second-guessing ourselves.

I’ve also learned to appreciate the pre-writing phase, when I’m just getting inklings of the story, when I dream characters, dream scenes, while washing dishes or listening to music or staring into space. That’s how I get to know the characters, discover new things about them. I can’t just consciously decide on a character’s traits; I have to intuit them gradually over time.

Kearns photo for Grab the Lapels

GTL: Does your writing include any research? If so, why/why not, and can you talk about why you made that choice.

RMK: In a way, the research comes first. The more I read about a topic for my own personal interest, the more it finds its way into my fiction. Then, as I’m sketching out notes or delving into the first draft, I do more targeted research to find specific facts that I realize the story needs.

I have a novel I’m seeking a publisher for right now, whose main character is a female Roman Catholic priest. I don’t know that I would have even thought of the subject if I hadn’t already done a lot of reading about feminist history, feminist spirituality, theology, Christian mysticism, the history of Christianity, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by religion, and I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. But I still did a lot more research, especially for details: the daily missal, the catechism, the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours.

The novel I’m drafting now takes place against the backdrop of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. I would never have started the novel if I didn’t already have some familiarity with Russian culture, language, and history, but I’ve needed to do a whole lot more reading. What’s fun is that I would think up situations or scenes and then wonder, But did this really happen? And then I would read a memoir or a history and find out, yes, the cavalry was still relevant during the civil war; yes, the secret police were infiltrating the Russian Orthodox Church, etc.

GTL:  What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?

RMK: I like both. Doing the first draft, when I’m dreaming the scenes for the first time, emotions are really raw, and if bad things are happening to the characters, I’m right there with them. An example is the Russia novel I mentioned above. The basic plot is: good people suffer a lot, then die young in horrible circumstances. A couple of years ago I used the NaNoWriMo as a motivation to make some progress on a VERY rough first draft. Each evening I would work on more scenes, with my cat Puff curled up next to me, and every so often I would reach out and bury my hand in her long, silky fur, to remind myself that there’s still goodness in this world.

The revision process creates a different sort of urgency. You have some distance from that first draft, so it’s a chance to pay more attention to craft in a calmer state of mind. But at the same time I worry that I won’t do justice to what I’m imagining, that I might not be able to make the words do what I want them to.

GTL: Are you reading anything right now?

RMK: I’ve just finished Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox and now want to read everything she’s ever written. And I’ve spent the past year or so reading all kinds of books about Russian history and culture. One of my favorites is a gorgeously illustrated book titled Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales, by Sibelan Forrester, including fairy tales and very interesting essays.

I’m also doing a lot of reading in my capacity as founder of a small feminist publishing house, Shade Mountain Press. We’re in the midst of a submissions call, for novel manuscripts by African-American women (deadline is September 1; details are here).

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Meet the Writer: Robin Parks #AuthorInterview @ShadeMountainPr #food

Meet the Writer: Robin Parks #AuthorInterview @ShadeMountainPr #food

I want to thank Robin Parks for answering my questions. Her short story collection, Egg Heaven, published by Shade Mountain Press, is set mostly in diners and eateries in Southern California and explores the folks who people those places. Parks is also the Managing Editor at Referential Magazine.  Learn more at her website.

Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your book, Egg Heaven?

Robin Parks: There is a lot of food in it to make up for the sorrow. Plus, if you’ve never been to a Southern California beach, these stories will take you there; also, to the great California desert where a Jewish diner gathers dust and tumbleweeds. Sorry, yucky food there. Ketchup packets. That stuff.

egg heaven

GTL: What was the hardest part of writing your book?

RP: Like any other writer, I wanted my words to always, always cast a loving light on my characters. With short stories, every single sentence holds the character it its hands, offers the character up to the reader: “Hi, love me!” Mostly this is so easy. But sometimes…not so much. Dread sets in, you know? Have I made my characters less than they are? Not proven them as deep and subtle and strong as they really are? Oy.

GTL: What are your current writing projects?

RP: My current writing project is Managing Editor for my husband as he drafts his memoir. You won’t believe how beautiful his writing is!

GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

RP: This is like asking about the first time you had a good time in bed. It really is! Hmmm. There were a few good times leading up to this one, but this one lasted a looooong time and I remember it vividly. I had the story “Home On the Range” in my head — at least the main characters, whom I found while wandering around a thrift store in Long Beach, California. But when I knew I was ready to begin writing the story, I walked fast in my neighborhood every morning composing that First Sentence in my head. It was soooooo much fun. Sooooo exhilarating. Like touching someone beautiful for the first time, only again and again in different spots, for the first time. I just kept walking and starting over, walking and starting over.

Ummm, I have to admit I ended up with not my best First Sentence ever, but maybe it wasn’t really the First Sentence I was so awash in. Maybe instead it was that I knew — knew! — that First Sentence was going to lead to something good. I was embarking on a good story. I’m sure most writers feel this rush, that something good is going to come of this impulse: the girl, the sky, the spot of blue, what he muttered…. Why else would we go on?

robin parks

GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

RP: Alive? Okay, too dark. But truly there is a reason there is so much food in my stories. I grew up in households where there just wasn’t anything to eat. I write about it in “Thanksgiving,” an essay in The MacGuffin. So yes, let me give a reader something to eat, or something to fill that soul longing empty grasping hunger. Love? A moment of love. A moment of love will save anyone’s life.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?  

RP: Shade Mountain Press (listen up, women!).

Special Note: Robin Parks’s publisher, Shade Mountain Press, is now accepting submissions from African American women until September 1, 2016. If you, or anyone you know, is interested, please head to the guidelines page!

Meet the Writer: Jen Michalski #AuthorInterview @MichalskiJen @QFPress

Meet the Writer: Jen Michalski #AuthorInterview @MichalskiJen @QFPress

Thanks so much to Jen Michalski for answering my questions! I have known Jen for many years now: she published one of my stories in her webzine, JMWW; she took me on as a book reviewer after I pointed out a typo in someone else’s book review (I still do this); we organized a virtual book tour together; and I love her writer-friendship dearly! Jen’s books are amazing regardless of how I feel about her. I mean, she wanted to be an elephant when she grew up, and that’s the best ❤

Grab the Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your book, The Summer She Was Under Water, which was released this week?

Jen Michalski: The Summer She Was Under Water is actually two books that somehow found their way together — a story about an estranged, blue-collar family that spends a weekend together at their old cabin by the Susquehanna River in Northeastern Maryland and nested inside it, a magical realistic novella about a pregnant man. They weave together toward a big reveal at the end — the mystery of the pregnant man’s fertility and the secrets that the family has buried.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?

JM: Never throw anything anyway! This is actually the second novel (the other was The Tide King) I’ve written in which I’ve united what I thought were two separate projects. They may have been separated by a few years, or a few months, and at first glance, they didn’t seem to have anything in common, at least on the surface. But then they made sense, in weird ways, and I combined them. Writing can be a long game, and whereas you think you might be working on separate stories for years, they just might be pieces of a bigger puzzle. I’ve learned to trust what comes out on the page, even if it doesn’t make sense to me at the time of writing it.

GTL: What is was writing process like?

JM: I think I’m a better starter than reviser. I don’t have a set writing routine and am mostly fueled by bursts of inspiration. I don’t like to go back and look at any of it while I’m working, just ride along with the momentum of the story. Sometimes if I begin to pick at a novel or story before I’ve finished what I think is the first draft, it begins to fall apart, and I’ve lost the impulse that inspired me to write it.

That’s not to say there isn’t a nice feeling, during that final revision, being satisfied with the whole of what you’ve done and giving it a final polish. But, by then, you’re separated from the work, more in first-reader mode, and nothing beats being in the throes of a story, living it in your head simultaneously while living your life. It’s kind of like having an affair, writing a book. You’re investing a lot of emotional energy into the story and especially the characters, trying to delineate their motivations, get into their heads, and make them fully realized. And I think the writers who do that well really love people, really care about psychology and circumstance and what drives us as humans. Nothing frustrates me more than cardboard characters, and I admit that colors my impression of the writer as a person!

jen michalski

GTL: Your last novel, The Tide King, was a book I gushed over. You’ve since published a short story collection (From Here), but novels are surely different. How has your writing process evolved since The Tide King?

JM: I’m not sure. Since I wrote The Summer She Was Under Water before The Tide King, it’s easier for me to see how I evolved from Summer to The Tide King — for one thing, I felt more comfortable with taking on scope. The Tide King spans several hundred years over several countries; in Summer, the events take place over a long weekend. And the latter is sort of my default mode when writing: very domestic set pieces with limited time frames, almost like plays. After The Tide King, I became more comfortable taking more risks, writing about places and people with whom I didn’t have much in common, doing the research and trusting the conceit I’ve built around the characters. Letting the characters age, finding their arc.

I also have discovered that I enjoy writing novels more than short stories. Short stories are like a fling to me — a one-night stand. They feel good, but they are what they are. You’re not going to get married and have kids with them. Novels are more like long-term relationships, something you invest in, as a reader and writer. I don’t find myself reading or writing a lot of short fiction anymore, although I think they’re a good springboard to writing novels.

The Tide King Michalski

GTL: What do you think reader reactions to The Summer She Was Under Water will be?

JM: As someone who knows me, I’m sure you know I never take the easy way out! I don’t consciously plan to be controversial, or write about taboo subjects, but I always write about what interests me, or what I don’t understand, in an attempt to find out where other people are coming from. And I wanted to explore in The Summer She Was Under Water the roles into which we morph when the traditional family structure falls apart — not be judgmental, or to take a stand one way or another, but to just understand other people. Writers should always be putting themselves in other people’s shoes; I don’t see how you can grow as a writer (or a person) if you don’t. Even though the book takes place during the summer, it’s not a “beach” read. And people will probably really like it or not very much at all. But for me, if the reader has a strong reaction, even if it’s negative, I know I’ve done my job.

GTL: What was the hardest part of writing The Summer She Was Under Water?

JM: The sex scenes. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean!

Meet the Writer: Yi Shun Lai #AuthorInterview @gooddirt @ShadeMountainPr

Meet the Writer: Yi Shun Lai #AuthorInterview @gooddirt @ShadeMountainPr

I want to thank Yi Shun Lai for answering my questions. I’ve been reaching out to presses that focus on publishing women, and Shade Mountain Press was the first place I contacted to find more women who want to participate in my Meet the Writer feature. It’s a little something I can do when I don’t have enough time to read as much as I would like, but still want to promote writers who are women. I’m so glad I did, as the authors have been warm, responsive, and kind. And Yi Shun Lai has also been terribly funny! This made my day:


Follow her on Twitter! Lai is a woman of many talents and I demand you look at some of her watercolors, which are delightful and heartwarming. Check back at Grab the Lapels soon (after the #20BooksofSummer challenge is over) to read my review of her novel! (I can’t wait!).

GRAB THE LAPELS: What would you like readers to know about your new book, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu?

Yi Shun Lai: The book offers a comedic take on the 1.5-generation American experience, but as readers and reviewers point out, it resonates with anyone who’s tried to bridge two cultures or tried to find his or her own way in life. If that sounds broad, all the better. College professors are teaching it in classes that range from critical thinking to cultural studies and creative writing, so that’s an indicator, too. And the two or three book clubs I’ve visited that’ve read it comprise entirely, um, non-immigrants.

Really, it’s an American story that goes untold, far too often. And, equally often, immigrant stories are wrongly assumed to be inaccessible to anyone except immigrants. I hope this book is a tiny shift in the right direction.

marty wu

GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?

YSL: Oh, so, so much. I’ll try to be pithy, with the caveat that this is not all of what I learned:

  1. When you’re writing your first novel, it’s tempting to spill all the beans. You know, engage everything you know; everything you’ve learned. Use all the literary tricks! Recap all the funny little incidents and occasions you’ve collected and thought up! Find places for all the secondary characters you want! Yeah, don’t do that. It’s not efficient, and much of what you’ve thought up or learned won’t serve the narrative you’re working on right now. Pick and choose. Or, sure, write ‘em all in. And then edit most of them out. The stuff on the cutting-room floor will find room in other works you write later.
  2. Along those lines: Truth is stranger than fiction. You risk tipping the scales of verisimilitude if you don’t choose the right truths to tell, and in the right fashion, too. (For “right,” read “right for the story and character”).
  3. My friend Roz Ray said, “Writing is a solitary sport; publishing is a team endeavor.” I mostly agree with her, but there are parts of writing that are very much team endeavors. For a few instances: When you are too close to your work. When you cannot see the plot hole for all the rigamarole you’ve woven around it in an effort to sound smart or well read or lyrical or whatever. When you forgot that your character needs to suffer in order to make the plot move forward. That stuff.
  4. Your protagonist must protag. This sounds utterly obvious. But when you have been living with someone forever, or however long it takes you to write your novel, you do not want them to work hard. This results in lack of protagging. (I stole this phrase from my friend John Brantingham, a writer and professor of writing. I’m reasonably sure it’s not a real word, but it totally exists in my head). Some might differ, but I find it good to just remind myself every once in awhile that your main character could cause the messes s/he encounters over the narrative, as opposed to just… you know, falling into them.
Yi Shun Lai

Photo from Lai’s website. Image by

GTL:  In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

YSL: Well, most of my writing life has been outside of academia. In fact, I’ve heard parts of my writing career denigrated as being “not real writing.” I got my start in magazine writing and then moved on to copywriting. I firmly believe these kinds of writing are real writing. And furthermore, they paid my bills for a very long time. Further furthermore, I really, really enjoyed that kind of writing, and still do. (I wrote for catalogs, from the J. Peterman catalog to a plus-size lingerie retailer. Those experiences are very much jewels in my writing life).

I think my broad writing experience has influenced the way I write very heavily. I tend to be brief, and I tend to write short (copy for the Peterman catalog averaged 100 words per item description. You had to pack a lot into those hundred words). In my reading, I read British mysteries and (some) thrillers for joy, and I read some literary fiction and narrative nonfiction for sheer pleasure, and YA and middle-grade for the same reason. I aspire equally to the page-turners and the way that YA and middle-grade books elucidate even the most basic of emotions — everything feels new in a YA or middle-grade read.

So my reading, perhaps, has a heavier hand in my writing than my actual writing career does. I find aspiration does much of the heavy lifting in the creative fields, doesn’t it?

GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

YSL: I have heard tell that my narrator is frantic. I make no excuses for her. And she has an inveterate potty-mouth. In two languages, sometimes. Sorry.

GTL: What was the first story you ever wrote about?

YSL: It was a second-person narrative in the horror/spec-fic vein. And I wrote it in pencil, but we had to turn it in in pen, so some part of my twisted little logic suggested it’d be easier for me to trace every letter as opposed to just writing the thing all over again in pen, so I did that. Yeah.

I haven’t revisited horror since then. I think that was… 7th grade.

No! I’m wrong. The very first thing I ever wrote about was a play about Hello Kitty, written with my cousin Rachel. I can’t remember when. And then later there was a collaborative piece of fiction about my high-school debate team. Hunh. I wonder if that has legs as a YA novel. Hey-o! You read it here first.

GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

YSL: I wanted to be a magazine editor. Yes, really: When I was seven I was paging through Vogue and I thought it’d be so cool to be on the masthead. I still remember the glossy paper; the heavy pages; the utter joyful surprise at seeing all those people’s names in that neat, centered column.

It turns out, I’m not very organized and I’m also not very good at the journalistic truth, so off to fiction I went.

Does this choice influence my writing? Hm. Not so much. I regretted, for a while, not making it to the top of the masthead. But then I moved on. And now I edit nonfiction at a literary journal, anyway, so… that’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it? [Cue brainfart.]

Special Note: Yi Shun Lai’s publisher, Shade Mountain Press, is now accepting submissions from African American women until September 1, 2016. If you, or anyone you know, is interested, please head to the guidelines page!

Meet the Writer: Vanessa Garcia #AuthorInterview @vanessathekrane @ShadeMountainPr

Meet the Writer: Vanessa Garcia #AuthorInterview @vanessathekrane @ShadeMountainPr

I want to thank author and artist Vanessa Garcia for answering my questions. Garcia is happy to interact with readers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Also, you can learn more about her multimedia interests at her website.

Grab The Lapels: What would you like readers to know about your book, White Light?

Vanessa Garcia: White Light is a book about a visual artist, a young woman, who is about to make it in the art world when her father suddenly dies. It’s a book about grappling with loss and creation at the same time.

It’s also a book very close to my heart. I wrote it after my own father’s death. And, what’s more, I worked very hard to keep certain creative, artistic elements in the book. For instance, the later chapters of the book are divided by color. Literally splashes of color. Some publishing houses refused to take this on because of the cost of printing. I was lucky enough to find a wonderful editor (Rosalie Morales Kearns at Shade Mountain Press), who found real value in those chapter openings and, like me, thought they were integral to the book.

Vanessa Garcia_White Light CoverFINAL

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

VG: I feel like I’ve always written. The first writing experience I remember vividly was one in which I was about ten, maybe a little younger. I was at my grandparent’s house. I got hungry for fast food and asked my grandfather whether we should have McDonalds or Burger King. He responded by saying: “that is the question.” Then he brought out Hamlet, and taught me the “to be or not to be” speech. He told me that in order to figure out what we wanted we’d have to write a poem about it. I wish I still had it. It was called “McDonalds or Burger King? That is the Question.” I’m pretty sure we decided on Burger King, because there were so many kings in Shakespeare. Ha!

Then I had another really eye-opening experience, while reading Reinaldo Arenas and James Salter. I was sixteen or so. I remember I thought: Woah! You can do that with writing? You have to have guts to write, and you can explode language. It did something to me, reading those two writers so young.

GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

VG: I think the moment I really became a writer, even though I was writing long before, was in my twenties, when I decided to create a writing regimen. I decided I would wake up every single day to write at 6am and write through until 9am. I did that, and that’s where White Light came from. I have other novels I wrote before that, and short stories, poems, etc, and plays, in fits and starts, but true discipline came with White Light, and it made all the difference in my writing life. And, in my life as a writer. It made it sustainable, it made it not only my vocation, but also my work.

GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

VG: White Light has many layers to it. It’s also really fun to look at because of the images embedded in the book, the literal color. It’s a book about visual art, and loss, and mourning, and life; about the immigrant experience, the children of immigrants, and relationships, family, and love. It’s, for me, about coming into oneself. Something that has really surprised me is the wide variety of readers it has moved. It has found a home among women, AND men. Much of the fan-mail I get about the book comes from men, who love it! This is so surprising in a wonderful way to me because, for such a long time, editors told me that only women would read my book. Not so. The audience is far and wide, and people really like to talk about the book, which is something I really enjoy engaging in. I love when readers point to things not even I had seen. Sometimes the unconscious mind works in mysterious ways and the readers pick it up. Readers are really smart. I’m totally happy talking with book clubs, I think it’s great fun.

For Fiction Page

GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

VG: I think we live in the culture of the MFA, so it’s difficult to say academia hasn’t had an effect. I also have a PhD in Creative Nonfiction — there’s also that long conversation I had with academia. I would say that there are still people that consider scholars and creative writers as world’s apart. That is a mistake in the 21st century. I was guilty of that early in my life. I worked for another writer that came from a world in which writers didn’t get an MA, they just wrote, and that was okay (he belonged to another generation). But soon the MFA became the Parisian Café for writers in the late 20th and early 21st century, and very few people that did not submit to a program got published. For good or bad. That part is very complicated…

I will say that I also come from a world in which you could read an essay from Borges and then read his labyrinthine fiction, and that was totally okay. You didn’t have to separate those worlds like one was the plague to touch. Aka: There’s no need to divide the two. Creative writers bring a great deal to analysis, academia, and vice versa. Creatives are essential, in fact.

GTL: Does your writing include any research? If so, why/why not, and can you talk about why you made that choice.

VG: Sometimes I research and sometimes I don’t. When I write nonfiction, and longform journalism, and journalism in general, there’s research, research everywhere, and in depth. Lots of it. You have to get the facts right, even if the language makes the story feel like fiction or narrative. It still has to be true. Absolutely true. As for fiction, that becomes trickier. It depends. With White Light I did very little research because I knew the world of art well. I’m also a painter. Still, I remember doing some background work on artists. Sometimes in order to world build, however, you have to stop researching, in order to make your fictive worlds work, and paradoxically, more true.

Special Note: Vanessa Garcia’s publisher, Shade Mountain Press, is now accepting submissions from African American women until September 1, 2016. If you, or anyone you know, is interested, please head to the guidelines page!