Carrie La Seur on The Home Place: “I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate”

Carrie La Seur  The Home Place ad

In a year distinguished by outstanding debut novels, Carrie La Seur has written one that stakes its own claim to the distinctive territory known as the literary suspense novel. I was pulled in on the first page of The Home Place and the story had me riveted until the last page. I was equally impressed by the quality of the writing and the multi-layered plot. There is a great deal going on in The Home Place but it never feels overloaded or heavy-handed. The many characters and conflicts, the murder mystery, the love story, and the threat posed by coal mining to the ranchers’ way of life in southeastern Montana are all handled so expertly that one would never suspect that this is La Seur’s first novel. And she wrote it while working full time as an attorney and raising children. You can read my review here


You have such an interesting and impressive background. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, public interest lawyer, and now author. Having grown up in Billings, what made you decide to head east to a small, private liberal arts school? Did you experience culture shock moving from Montana to Philadelphia, or had you been yearning for city life for so long that you adapted easily? Did you plan to become a lawyer while at Bryn Mawr or did that come later?

I got good scholarship support to go to Bryn Mawr, but it was a huge culture shock for me. I went there because I wanted to see the world. We could barely afford it. I typed all my papers in the computer center, worked in the dining halls, walked dogs, etc. By the time I graduated, I had an idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, because I wanted to have the tools to represent people I had grown up with who had never gotten a fair shake.

When did you start writing? Was it always a part of your life or is it a more recent development?

Writing has always been my primary form of self-expression. I kept journals for many years and still dip into one now and then. When I was a kid, I’d write plays and have my friends and little brother act them out. I’ve tried a few writing classes, but they always took the joy out of it. The moment writing ceases to be a joy, I get up and walk away. Without that, there’s no point.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you, both as a writer and as a reader? (I always assume they’re not necessarily the same, as one can love some writers but not be inspired to write like them.)

This book began as a little project I gave myself to tell something like the homecoming story Anne Tyler told in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, but for myself, with characters and problems that interested me. But I’ve never thought in terms of wanting to write like someone. Every word is derivative in some way, but you’ve got to mean it as your own or why write it?

I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history, and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen, or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.

Obviously, there are some similarities between Alma Terrebonne and you, in terms of where she was raised and educated and her career choice. How did you decide which autobiographical aspects to use in The Home Place? Did you start out writing a memoir and it turned into a novel because it gave you more freedom and allowed you to include more than your personal experiences? A few authors have told me this is how their novel began (e.g., Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave).

There are settings and characters that are very familiar to me, and of course themes that I wanted to explore, but the story really isn’t very autobiographical. It was certainly never a memoir. If anything, I used details from my own life to emphasize the fact that my fictional characters aren’t as improbable as they might seem.

The Home Place is a character study and the story of a family dealing with a tragedy amid a web of complex relationship dynamics. The writing is often lyrical and there is a palpable sense of place. These are all characteristics of literary fiction. Yet it is a murder mystery set against the rural drug culture and complicated by the environmental issues posed by Big Coal trying to expand mining in Montana. What were the challenges of writing a “literary thriller”? How did the plot evolve?

Alma needed a compelling reason to come home, and something to keep her in Montana long enough to deal with what she left behind. That required an urgent event right away. Once I decided what that event was, much of the rest fell into place – as much as you can say that about a novel that easily went through a dozen rewrites. Mostly I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate.

Do you view The Home Place as a sort of “belated coming-of-age” story? I’ve read several novels in the last few years in which characters who have been away from home for a long time feel the pull of “home” (both family and place) and experience a transformation in acknowledging this connection.

There are definitely elements of the bildungsroman here, especially considering how long it took me to write it.

As you wrote The Home Place, did you picture certain actors playing each role? Or when it was finished and existed outside of you? It’s a very cinematic read, and I found myself doing that as I read. Are there any plans for a movie?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about that until you asked. I wasn’t picturing famous faces.

It’s probably not the greatest commercial choice, but if they left it up to me I’d go for Noomi Rapace – who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies – for Alma. She kicked ass, and Alma has more than a little fight in her to get where she is. The accent might be a challenge, so then Rooney Mara.

For Ray, I love Evan Adams, but he might be a little old for the role. For Vicky, Taryn Manning, “Pennsatucky” from Orange Is the New Black. Maddie: Betty White. Helen: Someone like Debbie Reynolds or even Sally Field. Pete: Channing Tatum, all the way. Walt is Woody Harrelson or Nick Nolte in hairy, crazy mode. Chance: Nobody too pretty. I never said he was handsome. Someone like a young Hugh Laurie.

No movie deal yet.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in a particular place? What five things do you need in order to write?

I write whenever I get a chance. Much of The Home Place was written on the couch after the kids went to bed. The only 5 things I need are 5 minutes of peace and quiet, and sometimes that’s all I get.

What has surprised you about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, both good and bad?

It’s all surprised me. I knew nothing. I was stunned to find an agent and ecstatic to sell my book. The whole thing is still hard to believe.

Fun Questions

If I were a car, I would be… a bicycle. A really fast one.

If I were a city, I would be… Melbourne, Australia.

If I were a pet, I would be… a horse.

If I were a product from the Home Shopping Channel, I would be… ? (I don’t have cable.)

If I were a TV show, I would be… Firefly.

If I were sushi, I would be… unagi.

If I were a movie, I would be… The Thomas Crowne Affair.

If I were a fairy tale character, I would be… the witch.

If I were a Disney character, I would be… Quasimodo.

If I were an actor, I would be… broke.

If I were a sound, I would be… the song of the western meadowlark.

If I were a beverage, I would be… Laphroaig.

If I were a year, I would be… next year.

Dog or cat person? Dog.

Beatles or Stones? Stones.

Dylan or Springsteen? Springsteen.

Half-full or half-empty? Leaving glasses of water sitting around is just asking for trouble.

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THE HOME PLACE blends literary fiction and a suspenseful mystery into a seamless tapestry


The Home Place

by Carrie La Seur

William Morrow — July 29, 2014

$25.99, 304 pages

No matter how hard we try to escape it, our past is with us. We may succeed in fooling ourselves and others for a certain length of time, but the past has a way of sneaking up on us and tapping on our shoulder. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The same axiom holds true for family and place, the two inescapable, powerful sources that shape us inexorably.

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s school outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. While Alma and Vicky had remained in contact, their relationship was fraught with drama. Vicky began a downward spiral after the car accident, despite adapting fairly well to her prosthetic leg. Although she had been taken in by older brother Walt and his wife Helen, by her early 20’s she was a mother to Brittany and was using drugs, bouncing from one job to another, and relying on number two brother Pete and her sympathetic grandparents to help her with finances and child care.

Alma returns home warily but with the sense of obligation and honor that has always served her well. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business. Did Vicky simply slip on black ice while taking a drug-addled walk at 3 a.m., or did someone have a motive to kill her?

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma’s heart is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billings: “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Walt, a grumbling grizzly of a man, hides in his garage workshop and has little to say to Alma, his wife Helen (in a wheelchair due to worsening multiple sclerosis), or anyone else. Pete, with whom Alma has a good rapport, owns a high-end coffee shop with his partner Shep. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property. And Alma is surprised to find her high school boyfriend is also back in Montana running the family ranch after finishing his education at Stanford.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. The characters are people we care about (or, in the case of the less admirable ones, at least wonder about), the plot is complex and emotionally resonant without sliding into melodrama, and La Seur’s writing is graceful and evocative.

In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced. In that sense, it reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of last year, M.L. Stedman’s impressive debut, The Light Between Oceans. La Seur has already made a name for herself with this sure-handed and cinematic story. She spent nearly a decade writing it while working as an attorney in Billings, and the time and effort shows on every page. Highly recommended!

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Guest blogger Lisa Gornick on being read to: The Pleasures and Perils of Audiobooks


Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G, 2013), which will be published in paperback on September 2, and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin Books, 2002). She holds a B.A. from Princeton, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia.

I’ve never been in a book group  — I’ve always preferred to read what is idiosyncratically imperative to me — but a few years ago, I joined a group with three other writers in which we read like mechanics with an eye to how the book is put together: structure, point of view, passage of time, unfolding of plot. For our last book, one of the group members suggested The Goldfinch. I was knee-deep in a draft of my new novel and, as the date approached, I still had a terrifying 700 pages to read. As a solution, I decided to download the Audible version, something — Luddite, physical book reader that I am — I’d never done before.

Within minutes,  I was hooked. The narrator, who my eleven year old recognized as David Pittu, reader of the wildly popular children’s 39 Clues series, is an astoundingly good actor. I fell in love with Pittu’s interpretations of potty-mouth Boris and twangy Xandra and adenoidal Andy, took to walking everywhere so I could justify more time listening, and then took to listening while reading!

Of course, Donna Tartt has to be credited for creating these characters and some of the best dialogue I’ve read (or maybe should say heard) — but without the child-like pleasure of being read to and the child-like state of mind that put me in (by an actor, skilled at reading to children), I might have resonated more strongly with some of the novel’s critics who’ve objected to the sloppiness (see Francine Prose’s powerful critique) and the fairy tale quality of the story.  Not under Pittu’s spell, I would have been more bothered by the novel’s murky philosophical underpinnings that rest on the answer to the question: If a building is burning and you have to choose between saving the cat and the Rembrandt, what would you do?

Bereft after finishing The Goldfinch­­ — more, I have to admit, because I missed being read to during dish washing and teeth brushing than because I missed Theo Decker — I downloaded Nicole Kidman narrating To the Lighthouse. I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms. Kidman  (especially after seeing her post-Botox face), but I loved her brave performance in the movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s tour de force, The Hours. Well, Ms. Kidman, it turns out, is a sensitive and subtle reader — I felt as though I were seeing the brutal fractured beauty of life through Woolf’s eyes —  and apparently has been an ardent one since childhood when her parchment skin forced her to stay indoors with Dostoevsky rather than going to the Australian beach.

Oh, no, what to do after this was over? Out of order, but still the obvious choice: Mrs. Dalloway. By now, I understood that who narrates is key — and when I went to purchase my Audible version, it occurred to me to sample a few of the readers. Sorry, Annette Bening. Though I loved you in The Kids are All Right and American Beauty, you are not my Clarissa. But the wonderful British actress, Juliet Stevenson: What a lark! What a plunge! as Clarissa might say.

What’s next? I seem to be on a classics jag, so I think it will be Middlemarch, which I haven’t revisited since college. But, I’m going to read it to myself. Delicious as being read to is, it’s not the same as being alone with a book. There are reasons why children begin reading to themselves — including that they want to experience a book without an adult’s intervening interpretation. No matter the listener’s age, no matter how extraordinary the narrator, he or she intrudes on the private exchange between writer and audience, a sacred space, all the more so in our times when solitude requires conscious effort.

Turning The Goldfinch over to David Pittu to read to me was a short cut — not just with respect to my time, but also with respect to the work of reading: imagining bodies and how they resonate through voices, interpreting punctuation and where the stresses and pauses for breath lie, viscerally absorbing the density of print on a page and the presence or absence of white space. Listening to someone else read a book aloud means letting someone else do a good chunk of that work and, as is so often the case with short cuts, it is the short-cut taker who ultimately loses: fails to develop or atrophies. The truth is, after only a month’s foray into listening to books, I can sense my reading muscle slackening.

Juliet Stevenson reads — in 36 hours — Middlemarch.  Oh, I am tempted.  What a lark!  But as Clarissa would say, No! No! No!

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What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer? Part 2

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. So I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

  1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?
  2. What are you currently reading?
  3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the responses that follow, each of which includes books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Part 1 of this feature was posted on July 20, 2014 and can be found here


Katie Crouch   Abroad

Katie Crouch, author of Abroad

Recently Read: The Blindfold  by Siri Hustvedt. This legendary writer’s first book. In this novel-in-stories, Iris Vegan is an impoverished graduate student in New York. I love how having no money is met with fear and utter despair here, which is such a very real phenomenon. So many times in novels characters say they’re broke, but being a woman alone with no money in New York invokes a special sort of peril. The book has some wonderful twists, during one of which Iris cross dresses, and another when she has a brush with madness. She also falls completely for the wrong man. It’s a truly wonderful psychological thriller.

Reading now: The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma. It’s about a young adopted Chinese woman in the U.S. who returns to her homeland to research her family, and how that choice reverberates throughout her life and her current fractured clan. The writing is out of this world.

Going to read: The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai. I’ve heard great things about this one. Plus it’s spooky, and I love spook. Great writing? An English manor house? Twisted characters? I’m sold.

[My review of Abroad is coming soon.]

Kimberly Elkins   What is Visible

Kimberly Elkins, author of What is Visible

What I read recently that impressed me: David Samuel Levinson recently published a stunning novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, that really knocked my socks off.  The book manages the nearly impossible feat of being a page-turner while still embracing literary writing of the highest order.  The novel is populated by unforgettable characters, and the secrets abound and rebound.  Trust me, you want to read this one!

What I’m currently reading: I am, in general, often afraid of poetry–modern poetry, anyway–afraid that it will make me feel stupid for not understanding its obscure tropes and labyrinthine metaphorical conceits, and so when I find a poet whose work stirs me in ways that I both can and cannot understand, and yet is still accessible, then I am smitten.  Rita Mae Reese’s The Alphabet Conspiracy is such a book. Reese uses dictionary entries as the jumping-off point to uncover, and to rediscover, messages of the soul encoded in language, and the results are gorgeously engrossing.

What’s up next on my reading list: I’m eager to read Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Marie Celeste, another historical novel based on real people and events:  the Marie Celeste, a ship which vanished in 1872, and the storm stirred up by young Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about it.  Martin’s Property is one of the finest, most stirring novels I’ve ever read, and was key to showing me what historical fiction could be at its best.  There’s nothing like learning from a master, page by page, line by line.

Siobhan Fallon   You-Know-When-the-Men-Are-Gone

Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone

Was recently impressed by: Anything and everything by Valerie Trueblood. She is a master. We ought to all know her name; she belongs on that lofty shelf with Annie Proulx and Grace Paley. Her stories are wide sweeping worlds, everything captured in a handful of pages, and they astound. They also inspire; I always want to write, and write something completely different and new, as soon as I finish one of her stories. My favorite collection is Marry or Burn, but her latest, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, is also great.

Reading now: Right now I am reading Lily King’s Euphoria for the second time, and I very rarely reread a book when there are so many out there on my ‘list’ to get to. But Euphoria is everything I wish I could put in the novel I am currently working on— a tortured love affair combined with the examination of human behavior and how cultures clash. Euphoria is also filled with beautiful, insightful writing and electric tension. King is terrific.

Up next: Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen, just released. Rebecca’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, came out around the same time as my collection of stories, and we became fast friends thanks to social media and a panel (and shared hotel room!) at the 2011 AWP in Washington, DC. She’s an all-round lovely and magnificently talented woman. If you’ll excuse me, I am going to open up her new book right now…

[My review of You Know When the Men Are Gone is here.]

Patry Francis

Patry Francis, author of The Orphans of Race Point

I was afraid I might not have time to do much reading while I was promoting my novel [The Orphans of Race Point], but the opposite has proven true. Every time I do an author talk or a reading at a bookstore, I discover another book or two or three that I simply must have.

Recently, I’ve been telling everyone I know about The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, Long Man by Amy Greene, and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Though they are very different, they all have strong protagonists — and a lot of heart.

My current read is The Blessings by Elisa Juska. It was recommended to me by two friends who recently heard her speak here on the Cape and did not disappoint.

Booksellers have convinced me I must not miss: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra or Daphne Kolotay’s Russian Winter. Those are up next for me.

[My review of The Orphans of Race Point is coming soon.]

 mira-jacob   Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m reading The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Next up are Ted Thompson’s The Land of Steady Habits and Marie Helene Bertino’s 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas!

 Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal

Recent: Robin Black’s Life Drawing. Suspenseful, gorgeously lyrical portrait of a couple whose marriage, shadowed by an old affair, is painfully tested again. I love it especially for lines like this: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Current: An advance copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I haven’t read Gilead, which this follows, but I’m an ardent lover of Housekeeping, and this seems nearly as beautiful and intimate. She has a lovely fluid way of looping back and forth through time, creating layer upon narrative layer.

Next: Maybe Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny. Or Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. Or the new Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words.

[My review of Rainey Royal is coming soon.]


Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House

I just read Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, which is not just beautiful but important, the kind of book that teaches us empathy.

I’m reading Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody, which is a bit like The Westing Game for adults. (That’s a high compliment. It’s so fun that I’m shirking all nonessential duty to read.)

I was blown away in the bookstore by the first page of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I’d heard it was amazing, but I wasn’t prepared to be knocked clear across the bookstore.

[My review of The Hundred-Year House is coming soon.]

 Virginia Pye   River of Dust

Virginia Pye, author of River of Dust

I just finished Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek.

Right now I’m reading Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (all 900 pages) in an ongoing way as research for my next novel. I’m also reading The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe and Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long. I tend to read more than one novel at once.

I’m looking forward to reading Bret Anthony Johnson’s Remember Me Like This and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

The research book by Spence — a history of modern China — is like ballast. The rest is for pleasure and to see what’s being written well right now. There are so many more books I’m not mentioning! These are just the ones of the moment.

I also always have an Audible book on my iPod for when I’m out walking the dog or on long car rides. Right now, I’m entering the magical, fully-fleshed out world of Bleak House, where I expect I’ll be for months. Kind of a treat to hear those wonderful British accents and to enjoy Dickens’ humor and impeccable language. The man could write.

[My review of River of Dust is here.]

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg, author of Home Leave

I just finished Celeste Ng’s book, Everything I Never Told You, which I found intricately plotted and deftly written. I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance (5)”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You.

I’m currently reading The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell and The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, and I plan on reading California by Edan Lepucki and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

[My review of Home Leave is here.]

Tomi L. Wiley

Tomi L. Wiley

I just finished Bloodroot by Amy Greene, and before that Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (in between some John Greene, but he’s not a woman). I just bought Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House two days ago – excited to read it. Up next is either Elizabeth Gilbert [The Signature of All Things] or Abroad by Katie Crouch. Reeeeeeally looking forward to the new Tana French.

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Guest blogger Patry Francis: My first bookstore

Patry Francis

Patry Francis is a three time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and has twice been the recipient of a fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her latest book, The Orphans of Race Point, was published by Harper Perennial on May 6 to strongly positive reviews by critics and readers alike. It was chosen as a featured  alternate selection in the Late Spring cycle of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Book of the Month Club, and Mystery Guild. The Boston Globe chose The Orphans of Race Point as a “Summer Read” recommended for those who like Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and is the July book club pick for MomAdviceHer first novel, The Liar’s Diary, has been translated into seven languages and was optioned for film. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.         

Usually, when I give an author talk, I start by describing the bookstore I used to visit every Saturday from the time I was about fourteen. Initially, it seemed like a somewhat arbitrary way to begin, but one of the great truths that writing reveals is that every time we open a notebook or a new document, the subconscious reveals obsessions and truths we never knew we possessed, and they are rarely arbitrary. Every revision, or in this case retelling, makes that more clear.

But back to that bookstore. In a city of a hundred thousand, it was the only one we had and it sold used books. My father said it was a front for a local bookie, which may have explained the disarray I encountered when I walked down the cement steps to the basement level where it was housed, and the air of preoccupation exuded by the proprietor. He chain smoked while he talked on the phone, allowing what was often his sole customer the run of the place. The disorganized stacks of paperbacks that cluttered the aisles and lined the musty bookshelves might have turned others away, but I entered the store in the spirit of an excavator, and never left without a great find.

When I first found myself talking about a place I hadn’t consciously remembered in decades, I focused on its seedy location and how I’d once been frightened by a man drinking from a paper bag under a bridge along the route. “What are you looking for down here, little girl?” he asked as he lunged toward me. I can still remember the fear I felt as I ran away. However, his question has also remained.

Did I know myself what drove me to walk under that bridge every Saturday, with a couple of dollars in my pocket? That bookstore, I told my audiences, was what had made me a writer.

However, as I continued to repeat the story in the various libraries and bookstores that were kind enough to have me, I saw something more clearly than the face of the man who had frightened me under the bridge. I saw the tattered covers of several books I’d discovered there, the price marked in the corner in heavy black ink:

Franny and Zooey with its no-frills white cover: 35 cents. That led me to the library where I discovered the rest of Salinger’s work.

A musty, waterstained copy of Les Miserables: 10 cents. It is still among my favorite novels.

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was unmarked, and when I asked the price, the owner flipped through the pages. “Hell, it’s poetry,” he said, pushing it at me. “If you want to read that crap, you can have it.” I still do.

I spent a dollar on an almost new copy of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Though I don’t remember much of it now, there are a dozen mentions in my adolescent journals about how it changed my life.

I wasn’t sure what Man’s Search for Meaning was about, but I knew I needed it. The slim mass market paperback was in less than pristine condition, so I haggled with the owner over the price.  Though he was usually willing to negotiate, this time he set his cigarette down in the ashtray and leaned over the counter. “Priced as marked,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want it, put it back on the shelf–right where you found it, too.” As if the store had a some secret order, after all.

The pages of that book are yellow now and marked with underlinings in various inks that mark different stages in my life, but I still have that one, too. Even the price on the cover remains: 75 cents.

I had probably told the story of my first bookstore a dozen times before I realized why it had returned to me now, and what it had to do with my novel. Clearly, I had been drawn to certain themes and questions all my life. The adolescent angst Salinger depicts so well, the rage against abandonment in Plath, the belief that our essential goodness can triumph even in the worst situations which I found both in Hugo and Frankel, all show up in The Orphans of Race Point.

I rarely write autobiographical fiction, but there is a reason we are drawn repeatedly to the same thematic landscapes, whether they’re drawn directly from experience or not. Like much of the creative process, it often remains one of the mysteries of the unconscious–at least for me. But every time I relive the walk to my first bookstore, and walk down the stairs to the subterranean room where a literary excavator unearthed so much of herself, I get a little closer.

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THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI wins 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

Helene Wecker  Golem and Jinni

Helene Wecker has been named the winner of the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for her debut, The Golem and the Jinni (published in May 2013). Wecker’s captivating supernatural novel was chosen over two other outstanding first novels, Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon (Simon and Schuster) and Fort Starlight by Claudia Zuluaga (Engine Books). [Read my review and interview.]

The Golem and the Jinni was selected from over 110 debut novel submissions, following a year-long reading period by a group of volunteer readers and a panel of judges. A group of twelve semi-finalists was announced on May 13, with the three finalists announced on May 28.

The prize includes a $5,000 cash award and participation in a three-day First Novelist Festival at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in the fall. The date of the awards ceremony remains to be determined.

The most recent winners include Ramona Ausubel in 2013 for No One is Here Except All of Us and Justin Torres in 2012 for We the Animals.

Yoon’s novel won the 2014 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award on June 9 (in a crowded field including Matt Bell, Jennifer duBois, Anthony Marra, and Chinelo Okparanta).

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LIFE DRAWING a suspenseful examination of a marriage after betrayal

Life Drawing  Robin Black by Marion Ettlinger

Life Drawing

By Robin Black

Random House; July 15, 2014

$25.00, 241 pages

“There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.”

Life Drawing is a ticking time bomb of a book that tells the story of a couple in their late-40s  trying to rebuild their marriage after a betrayal. Augusta (Gus) and Owen Edelman are a painter and novelist, respectively, who have moved to a farmhouse in the countryside west of Philadelphia to work on stabilizing their relationship without the distractions or stresses of life in the city.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that Gus had an affair with the father of one of her art students before breaking it off and confessing everything to Owen. From the start, we are curious to learn why Gus cheated on Owen, and why he chose to stay with Gus and change their living situation to one where they are alone in their farmhouse bubble, which arguably would only increase the pressure. Gus is, not surprisingly, wracked with guilt and is extremely solicitous of Owen’s emotional and artistic needs as she attempts to patch up the ongoing work that is their marriage.

Gus explains the nature of their relationship at this time: “It is a kind of solitude that continues even when Owen is standing beside me. It is a solitude that includes him. We are apart from the rest of the world. We are invisible to it. We have become by this time a single being, a being that argues with itself from time to time — as a knee may ache, as a tired back might refuse to cooperate, so you say, Oh for God’s sake, could you stop being so difficult; but you are saying it to a part of yourself.”

In the three years they have lived in the country, Gus and Owen have settled into a routine, both personal and creative. Gus works on her paintings, while Owen battles a long-term case of writer’s block. The remodeled barn serves as his writing studio, where he is not to be disturbed as he wrestles with his work. Their relationship ebbs and flows as they slowly and carefully try to re-establish their trust and love.

They are surprised when Alison Hemmings, a charming and attractive British woman of about their age, rents the long-empty house just over a small hill from the Edelmans’ farmhouse. She is shattered from her ex-husband’s physical and emotional abuse and is seeking a refuge for the summer to pick up the pieces and work on her own amateur paintings. Allison is warm and friendly, but it quickly becomes clear that, as with any third party to a relationship, her presence is a catalyst that will alter the delicate chemistry between Gus and Owen. Before long, Alison’s daughter Nora, a recent college graduate who is equally attractive and outgoing, comes to visit for the Labor Day weekend.

Complications ensue, and Life Drawing becomes both an intensely examined character study and something of a suspense novel.

Black uses the triangle of Owen, Gus, and Alison to examine marriage, motherhood versus remaining childless, and the place of artistic expression in creating personal and marital contentment. She is a remarkably astute observer of domestic life and its complications, both apparent and hidden. We live inside Gus’s head for the few months during which the story takes place, as she tries to win back Owen’s trust (it’s clear that he still loves her deeply), build a close friendship with Alison to reduce her sense of emotional and physical isolation, and manage her own web of emotions — guilt, regret, love, desire — and artistic challenges.

The last of these is explored through Gus’s latest project, a series of paintings depicting local boys who were killed in World War I; the soldiers are relaxing in various spots in the Edelman farmhouse, appearing to be halfway between life and death. While Gus is a gifted painter of settings and exquisite inanimate details, she has always struggled with figures, incorporating people into her scenes in a way that satisfies her. If she is to achieve her artistic goal with these paintings, it appears she will need a class in Life Drawing. The analogy to her personal life is clear.

Black brilliantly depicts the couple’s complicated dance around their marital and artistic problems. Her elegant sentences, polished language, and insight into the subtleties of expectation and communication in a marriage create a hovering cloud of foreboding. We are told in the opening sentences that something heartbreaking has happened, and Black holds us spellbound as she takes us back in time so we can see how it came to pass. Yet I suspect that most readers will still be surprised by how the story of Gus and Owen, and Alison and Nora, ultimately plays out.

Marriage, friendship, and parenthood are fraught with challenges and pitfalls, yet they are the experiences that give our lives meaning. With Life Drawing, Robin Black shows us that these relationships are our true life’s work and, potentially, our greatest creative achievements.

Photo of Robin Black by Marion Ettlinger


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