The Story Behind the Story: Author Lisa Gornick on the varied inspirations for her novel TINDERBOX

Lisa Gornick’s multi-faceted psychological study of a Manhattan family who takes in a troubled nanny from Amazonian Peru, Tinderbox, will be published in paperback by Picador on Sept. 2. 

Tinderbox received “Four out of Four Stars” from People magazine, which proclaimed it “perfect for book clubs.”  Christina Baker Kline, author of the New York Times bestseller Orphan Train, described the novel perfectly when she said, “Tinderbox is a brilliant gem of a novel: a page-turner that reminds us that, while we are never without the weight of our past, we also choose how we carry it. Lisa Gornick mines her characters’ hidden histories and ignites our interests from page one. Absolutely riveting.” 

[See my review here and my interview with Gornick here. You might also enjoy Gornick's essay on the pleasures and perils of audiobooks.] 

Gornick 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. 

This essay on the writing of Tinderbox is also being published in the September issue of The American Psychoanalyst magazine, published quarterly by the American Psychoanalytic Association, and is reprinted here with permission. 


 Tinderbox paperback   lisa_gornick

Patients arrive with a presenting story behind which usually lies another more complicated and darker one, but novelists often work in reverse, beginning with fragments of material — stories heard, places visited, preoccupations — from which a more elegant narrative is shaped.  While clinicians frequently struggle with whether to write about their clinical work and, if so, how to safeguard patient confidentiality and the therapeutic process itself, for the writer of imaginative work, the ethical conundrums are more easily resolved: the emotional heart of a situation can be retained while transforming everything else, largely liberating  the writer from the conflict between the desire for self-expression and the fear (with its obverse wish) of hurting others or exposing something that feels too private.  As Freud observes in “Creative Writers and Day Dreaming,” the “essential ars poetica”, in fact, requires the transformation of private fantasies and daydreams into something new.   Without it, the work has the sticky feeling of something too near to the writer, lacking the distance that differentiates writer from narrator and lifts a situation onto a more luminous plane.

Every writer, like every analyst, works differently; the work with each book, as with each patient, proceeds differently; and the account of how that work evolved has versions that can be shared and versions that cannot.   Here’s what I can share of how my second novel, Tinderbox, came together…


Element One: Nanny

Gornick nanny photo

Many years ago, I heard the story of a nanny who developed a powerful longing to be mothered herself by the mother of the child for whom she cared.  She unraveled, creating a Gordian knot for the family as they simultaneously attempted to help her and began to fear her.  Stripping away biographical details of both nanny and family, I was left with the dynamic of what happened between them, which became the kernel of Tinderbox.


Element Two: Fitzcarraldo


For several decades now, I’ve been fascinated with Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, a chilling study of monomaniacal grandiosity, played out against the primordial verdant landscape of sky-high trees and foaming waterfalls surrounding the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru.  Based on the true story of Isaias Fermin Fitzcarrald, Herzog’s protagonist is hell-bent on building an opera house in Iquitos, using funds he believes he can obtain by pushing a ship over a mountain to reach untapped rubber trees — and he’s willing to sacrifice everything, including the lives of the Indian men he employs, in the service of his ambition.   In a disturbing example of life imitating art, documentary filmmaker Les Blank in Burden of Dreams tells the story of the parallel process between Herzog, who insanely insisted on filming an actual boat dragged by an army of 700 Amazonian Indians in a dangerous pulley operation over an actual hill, and his protagonist.

The nanny, now the fictive Eva, herself burdened by dreams, needed a home, and so it came to pass that I placed her in contemporary Iquitos, which I at first read and then later saw is now the largest landlocked city in the world, accessible only by air or water, no roads able to penetrate the surrounding jungle and mountains.  Eva has never heard about Herzog or Fitzcarraldo — the only movie she saw as a child was The Sound of Music — but novelists have the privilege of outfitting our characters with our own preoccupations, and so Adam — the father-hungry, sexually-confused, acrophobic, claustrophobic, equinophobic, screenwriter parent of the child Eva will care for when she comes to New York — inherited my fascination with Herzog’s film.


Element Three: Essaouira


And the mother of the child, who is she?  A brusque Moroccan-Jewish dermatologist, Rachida, who came to the States to escape the dying Jewish community in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morococo where her parents still live.

Why Essaouira?  Because novels are rapacious; they love puzzles and paradoxes, and the delicate blue and white city, where I once followed a procession of crimson-robed blind musicians along the wind-swept ramparts and learned that the population 150 years before had been half Jewish, seems like a mysterious dream.


Element Four: The Jews of Iquitos


In sessions, we are alert to the door that when gently pushed will open to something new.  Writing a novel, too, entails discoveries: uncanny resonances, seeds planted that only later bloom.  Such was the case when I stumbled upon a reference to the Jewish community of Iquitos.  A Jewish community in a land-locked city in the middle of the jungle?

From Fitzcarraldo, I knew about the Amazonian rubber boom, but I now learned that many of the rubber traders had been Moroccan-Jewish men, often still in their teens, fleeing limited opportunities at home.  Beginning at Manaus, Brazil, they established outposts in cities along the Amazon, making their way over decades to the then village of Iquitos, where they fathered children with local Indian women and created businesses with names such as Casa Cohen and Casa Khan, whose buildings still stand more than a century later.

When the rubber boom went bust at the beginning of the 20th century, the Moroccan men picked up and went home, leaving their offspring and common-law wives behind.  Now, a century later, some of these descendants are seeking to reclaim their Jewish identity.

And so Eva came to have a Moroccan-Jewish great-great-grandfather who was a rubber trader from Rabat, and my characters — Rachida from the mellah of Essouira and Eva, from the Peruvian Amazon — whom I’d thought of as disconnected, might, it seemed, have shared roots.


Element Five: Fire and the Tragedy of Good Intentions


During the summer of 2000, I witnessed wildfires in Montana and Idaho: the peaks of the Crazy Mountains shrouded in smoke, flames reaching the banks of the Salmon River, animals seeking refuge in the water, smokejumpers headed into the blaze.  Forest fires, I was told, are usually caused by lightning strikes and are part of the natural cycle of forest regeneration.  They enrich the soil and clear the underbrush, which when overgrown can ignite larger trees.   The Smokey Bear policy increased the risk of catastrophic out-of-control fires by leaving intact the tinder that small fires would have eliminated — a tragedy of good intentions, a dynamic we’ve all experienced when attempts to spare someone from smaller doses of pain lay a path to greater pain.

Tinderbox opens with precisely this situation.  When Myra, a therapist (but not an analyst!), learns that her son and his family are moving back to New York for a year, she responds with a mother’s heart, inviting them to share her brownstone and hiring Eva to help with the housework and her grandchild.  Later, when Eva begins to tell Myra her story in a manner that feels uncomfortably like a patient’s recounting, Myra feels caught between knowing she should avoid a dual relationship with her housekeeper and grandchild’s nanny and the reality that Eva, having failed to show up for the appointments Myra has made for her with other therapists, has decided to tell her story only to Myra.  To fire Eva when she is unraveling feels like kicking a dog when it’s down, but not to fire her begins to feel like a dangerous situation.

Myra does what any of us might do in such a situation.  She visits her elderly, now retired, former analyst to consult about Eva:

“I don’t want her to tell me any more, not today, not any day.”

Dreis sips her tea and nibbles on one of the shortbread cookies the housekeeper has brought into the library.

“Of course you don’t.  We can’t have our maids or our sisters or our neighbors as patients.  It is too exhausting for us.  There is no time off.  If we can’t attend to our own fantasies for some hours of the day, we burn out.  Besides, it is dangerous.”

“How so?”

“The transference is out of control.  The girl wants you to really be her mother.  There is no play in the work, no as if.”

“I haven’t thought of it as a treatment.  I’ve thought of it as a lonely, troubled girl unburdening herself to an older person.”

“Myra. You know better.  She sits in your patient chair.  She tells you the things that people only tell their therapists.”

“She sits eight, nine minutes at a time.”

“My dear.  All a patient needs sometimes is three minutes.  Think of everything that is done in the last minutes of a session.  For some patients, the entire treatment occurs in those few minutes.  But here, you don’t have a patient.  You have a girl who sees you all day long.  She wants to be at your feet, to suckle your breast without end.  She wants you to be the mother she lost too young.”

Concerned about how sprawling my novel had become, I was comforted to read Salman Rushdie on “mongrelisation”:  “Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.”  Melange and hotchpotch are not too different from the way we understand the transformation of the day’s residues into something new: a dream image.  For the patient in an analysis, the newness doubles when the dream is brought into the session and through the analytic work becomes again something new.  And so too for the novel.  It has only to be “good enough” to allow the story that ends up on the page to be sufficiently free of the story behind it so that space remains for readers to engage with the text in their own personal and creative way — for newness to reverberate as readers make the book their own.


Photo Credits

Author Photo by Sigrid Estrada

Element One: Nanny photo by Sophie Finkelstein

Element Two: Fitzcarraldo, public domain

Element Three: Essaouira,

Element Four: Iquitos photo by Lisa Gornick

Element Five: Fire,


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STATION ELEVEN’s humanity and sensitivity elevate post-apocalyptic premise to literary fiction

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes   Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Knopf, Sept. 9, 2014

$24.95, 352 pages

In this spellbinding novel of a post-apocalyptic world, St. John Mandel ponders whether art can save us — or at least help us to maintain our humanity long enough to start rebuilding our world.

Station Eleven begins with the death of famous actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear on a winter night in Toronto. Paparazzo journalist-turned-EMT Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and attempts to save Leander, to no avail. Watching from behind a post onstage is eight-year-old child actress Kirstin Raymonde.

Later that night, Chaudhary receives a phone call from his friend, an ER doctor at a Toronto hospital, telling him the so-called Georgian Flu (from the former Soviet Republic) appears to have reached Canada and is worse than anyone expected. He advises Chaudhary to get out of Toronto immediately but not via the airport, since that is where the flu entered the country.

Since he has nowhere to go and no way to get there, Chaudhary heads for his disabled brother Frank’s highrise apartment, which he stocks with food and sundries to ride out the coming epidemic. In short order — dramatically and plausibly rendered by St. John Mandel — millions perish and the city goes dark. Chaudhary eventually decides to risk heading out for safer territory to the south.

The novel then begins its many shifts in time and place, moving back in time to examine Arthur Leander’s life, from his childhood on a small island off the British Columbia coast to his three marriages. We meet his first wife, Miranda, a younger woman from his home island who is a budding artist-writer working on a futuristic graphic novel entitled “Station Eleven.” Before long, stunning actress Elizabeth Colton entices the self-absorbed Leander and becomes his second wife, with whom Leander has their only child, Tyler. We are also introduced to Leander’s long-time best friend, Clark Thompson.

The novel then moves forward 20 years, after the flu has wiped out most of humanity, at least as far as the survivors along the west coast of Michigan know. Living in small groups, people carve out a brutal living in former towns and isolated outposts.

Moving among these locations is the Traveling Symphony, former members of the symphony combined with an acting troupe. Using scrapped pickup trucks and other vehicles in a modern version of stagecoaches (one emblazoned with the phrase “Survival is insufficient” from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) to cross the frontier, they plod along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, giving alternating performances of classical music and two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The TS community includes Kirstin Raymonde, the child actress who was onstage with Arthur Leander the night he died. This group of artists appears to be the most democratic and socially cohesive group of survivors. Will their art be enough to salvage and maintain their humanity and bring it back to the feral people they encounter? Interestingly, Raymonde has one of only two copies ever produced of “Station Eleven,” which Arthur Leander had given her to read during her time backstage.

Conflict ensues when members of the TS are confronted by a ruthless religious cult led by a young man called The Prophet. Who are they and where did they come from? Who is this “prophet”? What do they want?

We learn that the only significant group of survivors in the area has been living at the Severn City airport down the coast. People who have been there speak in awestruck terms of the Museum of Civilization there.  Who are these people and why did they end up at the airport? How have they managed to create a stable society for 20 years?

Three characters from earlier in the book are among the Severn City group; how did they come to be in a medium-sized city in Michigan when all flights were grounded to stop the spread of the Georgian flu? As in our world, people are connected in countless unseen and unknown ways.

The interactions of the many characters across generations and borders provides a look into human nature, before and after the apocalyptic pandemic, and poses thought-provoking questions about how we choose to live individually and as a society, what it all adds up to, and whether we would make similar choices if we had to start over.

Station Eleven is a riveting read from start to finish. St. John Mandel’s vision of the nightmarish “end of the world” is frightening without being gory, as well as generally plausible, though some may quibble with the world she imagines (some readers and reviewers have commented that survivors would almost certainly manage to get society back on the grid in less than 20 years). Her insight into the characters is impressive; these moving character studies add noticeably to what might otherwise seem like just a genre novel. There is a deep thoughtfulness and measured tone to her writing that keeps Station Eleven from becoming a melodrama.  The result is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of humanity brought to its knees, humbled, and then slowly able to begin creating a new world, in which they can see glimmers of light on the horizon.

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Novel-in-stories OUT OF PEEL TREE brings Appalachian diaspora to life with memorable prose-poetry

Out of Peel Tree   Laura Long

Out of Peel Tree

By Laura Long

Vandalia Press/WVU Press, 2014

$16.99, 148 pages

Fans of fiction set in Appalachia or similar rocky, rural environments will take quiet pleasure in Laura Long’s novel in stories, Out of Peel Tree. Long, who has published two collections of poetry, Imagine a Door and The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems, brings a compassionate heart and a remarkable set of senses to her debut novel.

Out of Peel Tree follows one working class family in West Virginia over three generations as they struggle to find their individual paths, make marriages work, raise children, and make sense of a confusing, uncooperative world. Long vividly depicts the lives of the seven main characters: matriarch Essie, her daughters Eva and Darlene, Eva’s children, Billie and Hector, and Darlene’s children, Corina and Joshua. Long’s narrative moves back and forth in time and among characters, creating a fragmented but compelling narrative that slowly comes together into a richly textured mosaic of distinctly American lives.

While Long breaks no new ground in characters or plot, each story has a specific sense of place and a narrative voice both direct and sensitive. Over the three sections (Postcards, Childhoods, and Roads), the fourteen stories cover the entire spectrum of moods, from desperate and determined to poignant and resigned, and a wide range of locations, from Peel Tree, a speck of a town, to Atlanta and Austin, where some of the younger characters attempt to build new lives.

Long is particularly adept at capturing the world through children’s eyes, as when she describes the young lives of the two sets of siblings. In “Who’s in the Kitchen with Dinah?” a very young Billie describes her father returning home. “’Hello, sweetie,’ my father said. His voice was low and calm, the voice a tree would have.” Later in the story, when her Uncle Ray comes by to babysit Billie and her little brother Hector, she observes, “As he stood up, I realized Uncle Ray was like other adults. He wanted to boss me around and put me somewhere out of his way.”

Billie comes to the realization that her parents’ impending divorce and the unpredictable changes to come are a malign force that she sense but can’t understand. “I knew what was under my bed but didn’t know how to explain it to anyone: there was a darkness deeper and blacker than in the corners of the room or in the trees outside, blacker than the shiny, horribly big spider I had once seen. That darkness was always there, waiting, even in the daytime. Now I felt it seeping up and covering me. I needed a hat with a flashlight. Maybe it would keep me safe.”

But much of the pleasure in reading Out of Peel Tree comes from Long’s inspired use of telling details and her ability to immerse the reader in sensory images. In one of the early stories, “What to Keep, What to Toss,” Corina, from the third generation, is caught in a frustrating relationship with Ruben when she discovers a secret from Ruben’s past.

“Corina clenched her fists and paced. She concentrated on not opening the fridge, taking out its packages and stabbing them to redirect her anger. When she got really mad – about twice a year – she took packages out of the fridge and stabbed them. She favored cream cheese and chicken breasts. She also brought home single servings of grape jelly from the restaurant. She lined them up on the table and smashed them with her fist. They popped and spewed purple sugar.” A pair of lovers wakes up in the morning and the man observes “the curl of her legs around him in the morning, pretzel of love.’

The narrator, describing Corina, writes, “Her childhood was long over, but sometimes, like now, scenes passed through her mind like the cars of an unscheduled train.”

In “No Souvenirs,” a restless Corina considers taking a bus to Texas. In the middle of the night, she walks to the nearby park and stretches out under an oak tree. “I press my face hard into the earth’s damp warmth, and its rich smell promises that anything is possible. Yes, I answer. And what part of anything is for me?”

In the title story, 60-year-old Essie visits an old friend in Florida to distract herself from her husband’s recent death. As she lay on her bed, “wonder[ing] if the voices of her mother and husband would return,” she dreamed. “Slowly and without grief, the train whistle called out, one by one, the names of the dead. The enormous night opened its mouth and let the train run along its teeth.”

In the closing story, “Heavy Mirror,” Corina touches the fingertips of Billie’s “fuzzy-headed baby. His eyes soak up light, dreamy as a lake at dawn. Overhead, hemlocks whisper that I, too, will be buried here. Torn clouds slide fast across the blue sky and ask, what does it matter? I wave and drive off with a map where everything connects under fading coffee stains.”

Long also displays a droll sense of humor. In “Parole,” Ruben tells a previous lover, “You must be from California. You think you can make yourself up as you go along.”

In the same story, another character leaves her husband and stops in Las Vegas on the way to Mexico. “Where I come from,” she says, “everybody commits suicide by the age of twenty-nine. Then they walk around for fifty more years.”

In “Before Bliss Minimum,” Corina’s younger brother, Joshua, explains that “the mines had shut down all over the state, and a lot of people worked odd jobs. That should be in the fact books, he thought. ‘West Virginia, Main Industries: 1. Coal, 2. Odd jobs.’”

Although the frequent shifts among characters and time frames can occasionally result in momentary confusion, requiring one to back up mentally in order to recall who is who and where one is in the overall narrative, Out of Peel Tree overcomes these small matters with its flesh-and-blood characters, universal conflicts, and evocative writing.

Laura Long has written a small novel with a big heart.

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THE OTHER SIDE: a powerful portrait of rape and recovery

lacy-johnson   the-other-side

The Other Side: a memoir

By Lacy M. Johnson

Tin House; July 15, 2014

$15.95, 219 pages

In a time when the issue of violence against women has once again become part of the common conversation, with Republican politicians and pundits expressing dismaying lack of knowledge and sensitivity about rape and women’s sexuality, Lacy Johnson’s new memoir, The Other Side, is a blast of reality therapy, a potent dose of The Truth.

On July 5, 2000, when Lacy Johnson was a 21-year-old college student, she was kidnapped and raped by the man she had recently broken up with. The Suspect, as she calls him, had planned his revenge carefully, renting a basement apartment and soundproofing a bedroom in order to torture the young woman who had grown tired of his physical abuse and dared to leave him. Although The Suspect had chained her with U-bolts to a primitive, handmade chair  in the room with blue Styrofoam walls, Johnson managed to escape when he left briefly and drove herself to the police station.

While The Other Side starts with her escape and the beginning of the police investigation, the bulk of the book concerns the events leading up to that summer day 14 years ago and her attempt to recover and rebuild her shattered psyche.

How did she come to fall in love with, and eventually live with, a sociopath? Perhaps because he was her Spanish teacher at the local university, a graduate student and TA who was “twice the age of his students, at least.” Later, a professor in the Spanish department will describe him as “erratic and disorganized as a scholar, but affable, a gifted, erratic dilettante.” Such a man could well be appealing to a certain type of  young woman. Johnson makes clear that, like many otherwise intelligent young people, she made many poor decisions.

Johnson discusses her sexual and romantic past and her erratic lifestyle without sugar coating events or offering any apologies. She does not claim to be an innocent, inexperienced young woman. But the point, of course, is that none of this is at all relevant to the crimes committed against her. Johnson was not “asking for it.” As we observe The Suspect and learn more about him, we see clearly that his abuse of Johnson both during and after their relationship is about wielding power ruthlessly.

While the story she tells is, sadly, hardly unique, it is the manner of her telling that makes The Other Side one of the most riveting reads you are likely to experience this year. Johnson assumes the coolly removed voice of a detective or journalist in telling much of her story. She refers to those involved as The Female Officer, The Detective, My Good Friend, My Handsome Friend (the man she was dating at the time of her abduction), and My Older Sister. After she breaks up with The Spanish Teacher, he becomes The Man I Used to Live With and, later, The Suspect. She alternates between an objective, almost hard-boiled retelling of the case involving The Suspect and The Victim, and a brutally honest personal narrative that will have you spellbound, holding your breath for pages at a time. This is a book best devoured in a single sitting, if you can handle the intensity.

What follows the kidnapping and rape are a frustrating series of events. The Suspect returns to the apartment before the police arrive and finds Johnson gone, withdraws a large amount of cash from an ATM, and flees to Mexico. This is just the start of his journey to avoid arrest. As the local police captain says six days after the crime, when the case has expanded to involve an international pursuit, “He’s a very intelligent individual who is scaring me.”

Johnson writes beautifully and with a philosophical bent about the aftermath of that July day. She is confronted by a range of emotional and physical responses, some of which make sense and some of which perplex even her educated, introspective mind, but she copes as best she can. The story of her attempts to overcome the experience and transform herself into someone not defined by it is difficult to read yet gripping nonetheless.

Her psychological state in the weeks and months following her rape is well captured in this description of her visit to a psychiatrist. “The Psychiatrist tells me to take the blue pill for depression and anxiety and the white pill for lack of appetite. The yellow pill is for forgetting: it puts me to sleep so long without dreaming I forget to wake up. I forget what my name is. I forget where I live.

“I know it’s the blue pill that makes all the feeling go away because I start taking it first. And by feeling, I mean feel-like: I do not feel like getting out of bed. Or like getting dressed, or drinking water, or eating food. I can’t keep food down anyway. I do not feel like puking my guts out so I do not eat. I do not feel like going to work. Or like walking alone from my car, across the parking lot, now or ever again. The editor at the literary magazine where I am an intern calls and wants to know where the banner ad is and I say I’m sorry; I’m a little behind on that. I’ve had some personal issues lately. The editor says, Your issues are not my issues. Get it done today. Maybe he thinks I am faking it. Am I faking it? I do not feel like asking this question. Or like being awake. I do not feel like watching television or reading a book. I do not feel like watching the sun come through the blinds. I would rather feel nothing all day.”

She also discusses the self-conscious existence of the female. “That image, of the self, does not belong equally to everyone. As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance: how do I look as I rise from the bed, and while I walk through the store buying groceries, and while I run with a dog in the park? From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, and in this role – as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed – I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.”

Johnson reclaims herself, in part, by telling her story – to herself and to others. She reminds us of the many facets of a story. Is there a story at all, just one story? “There’s the story I have, and the story he has, and there is a story the police have in Evidence. There’s the story the journalist wrote for the paper. There’s the story The Female Officer filed in her report; her story is not my story. There’s the story he must have told his mother when he called her on the phone; there’s the story she must have told herself. There’s the story you’ll have after you put down this book. It’s an endless network of stories. This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning. And I want to mean something so badly.”

Later, “in graduate school I begin trying, in earnest, to write. I write about anything but The Man I Used to Live With…but it always comes back to him, to all that happened…. It’s the only thing that pulls me out of bed: these poems that lie and misdirect, that circle and circle all the things I can’t say out loud. Each day I begin writing, I think, This is it. Today is the day. As if typing anything other than that unthinkable thing were a kind of breaking free. Each day, as I’m sitting at my computer, watching the words accumulate on the page, I feel elated, euphoric. Look at how far I’ve come, I think. How far these words can carry me.”

Near the end of The Other Side, Johnson writes, “I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. Sometimes I think there is no entirely true story I could tell. Because there are some things I just don’t know, and other things I just can’t say. Which is not a failure of memory but of language.”

The Other Side is anything but a failure. The fact of Lacy Johnson’s telling and the manner of her telling it constitute a triumph over others’ attempts to control her life and the stories she tells herself and us. The Other Side is a viscerally powerful, gorgeously written memoir about rape and recovery that readers will not soon forget – in part because they are likely to read about it being nominated for, and winning, much-deserved literary awards in the coming year.

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Guest blogger Paulette Livers: How Not to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.

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The Hundred-Year House offers absorbing hybrid of family saga, literary mystery, examination of creative life

The Hundred-Year House   Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House

By Rebecca Makkai

Viking, July 10, 2014

$26.95, 335 pages

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest. When he learns that several file cabinets containing Laurelfield Arts Colony records are locked up in the attic, Doug becomes a man obsessed. His biography has stalled early in the research stage and he fervently believes the documentation needed to break his writer’s block and lead to a groundbreaking biography will be found in those file cabinets. But Gracie won’t let him or anyone else near the attic.

Doug and Zee soon find themselves disturbed by the huge portrait of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, hanging in the dining room. Violet’s spirit permeates Laurelfield, and not because she and her husband were the estate’s original residents starting in 1900 or because she was involved with the opening of the arts colony. Violet committed suicide somewhere on the property, but no one will say where or how. What is known is that Augustus Devohr, of the aristocratic but cursed Toronto Devohrs, had the lakeside estate built for Violet in 1900.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug. The plot is complicated, with many characters living at or orbiting around Laurelfield in each era.

The Hundred-Year House shows us that the history of both people and a place are not always what we expect and in some cases can never truly be known. This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place. The story of Laurelfield the family estate and Laurelfield Arts Colony is even more compelling and provocative than you can imagine. When you finish the Prologue (set in 1900) on page 335, you will be tempted to turn to Part I (1999) and start all over again, looking for all the clues and insights you missed the first time through.

I enjoyed The Hundred-Year House from beginning to end (or should I say from the end to the beginning?), and it stands as one of my favorite books of 2014.



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Fall Fiction Preview: An Embarrassment of Riches

Fall is only a month away, and that means arguably the best season of the year for fiction. I’ve selected 15 upcoming releases to share with the enthusiastic and open-minded readers of this blog. I’m sure you’ll find a least a few books to add to your fall reading list.

Nayomi Munaweera   Munaweera -- Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Nayomi Munaweera – Island of a Thousand Mirrors (St. Martin’s, Sept. 2)

Sounding reminiscent of Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane, Meenaweera’s debut novel captures life in Sri Lanka before and during the island’s civil war, as it follows the Sinhala family of Yasodhara and their interactions with Tamil people. Although Yasodhara escapes to Los Angeles, her relationship with a Tamil girl pulls her back to Sri Lanka.

Dylan-Landis   Rainey-Royal

Dylan Landis – Rainey Royal (Soho Press, Sept. 9)

Rainey Royal explores the unusual life of the 14-year-old title character, who lives in 1970s Greenwich Village with her jazz musician father. Fourteen narratives provide readers with a kaleidoscopic view of this independent, feisty, yet still innocent young woman’s coming of age.

Emily St. John Mandel by Dese'Rae L. Stage   StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven (Knopf, Sept. 9)

The much-talked about upcoming novel from Emily St. John Mandel combines several ideas into one riveting read. Set in the near future after a devastating flu has wiped out 99% of the population, Station Eleven is part dystopian adventure, part character study, and part social commentary on the way we live now. It is also beautifully written and elegiac without being utterly depressing. I could not put it down.

Eimear McBride   A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Eimear McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House Press, Sept. 9)

McBride’s debut has taken the UK literary scene by storm in 2014, winning the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, and the 2013 Goldsmith’s Prize. Girl is the story of the haunted life of a young Irish girl whose brother suffered from a brain tumor as a child and has remained the center of their mother’s attention. Helen Fraser, chair of the Bailey’s judges, described the book as “an amazing and ambitious first novel that impressed the judges with its inventiveness and energy.  This is an extraordinary new voice – this novel will move and astonish the reader.”

Margaret Atwood 2   Atwood -- Stone Mattress

Margaret Atwood – Stone Mattress: Stories (Nan A. Talese, Sept. 16)

Canada’s grand dame of the novel follows up her MaddAddam trilogy with her first collection of stories in nearly a decade. Unlike her dystopian trilogy, these nine probing stories take place in the present and the past. Like fellow Canadian Alice Munro, Atwood writes stories in which novels appear to be compressed.

Sarah Waters   the paying guests - sarah waters

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Riverhead, Sept. 16)

In the depressed, disillusioned post-WWI years, a war widow and her daughter are forced to take in lodgers. The young couple they take on proceeds to change their lives. Waters is a master of literary historical suspense (Fingersmith, The Night Watch, The Little Stranger).

Merritt Tierce   Love Me Back

Merritt Tierce – Love Me Back (Doubleday, Sept. 16)

Tierce was named to the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year based on early readings of this debut novel about a Dallas waitress and her relentless downward spiral. Tierce fearlessly examines the decadent, self-destructive life of this young single mother in ferocious prose. Descriptions of the book sound like the writing of Jamie Quatro (I Want to Show You More, 2013).

Alix Christie   gutenberg's apprentice

Alix Christie – Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper Collins, Sept. 23)

This debut novel tells the world-changing story of Gutenberg and the first printing press in the form of a story that alternates between a compelling read and a history lesson.

Hilary Mantel   Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher & Other Stories (Henry Holt & Co., Sept. 30)

Perhaps no other writer has received more acclaim in the past five years than Mantel has for her reconception of the historical novel in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize. Here she presents a short story collection to tide readers over while she completes the Thomas Cromwell trilogy (due next year).

Marilynne-Robinson   Lila

Marilynne Robinson – Lila (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Oct. 7)

Robinson’s new novel is something of a sequel to Gilead. Lila trades her hardscrabble life on the run for respectability as a minister’s wife. But her past remains to haunt her and her marriage. Can Lila make the transition to a normal life? Is that even what she really wants?

Jane_Smiley   Some Luck

Jane Smiley – Some Luck (Knopf, Oct. 7) The irrepressibly versatile Smiley – like Marilynne Robinson in Lila — returns to Iowa, the location of her best novels (A Thousand Acres, Moo) to tell the story of the Langdon family across three decades in the 20th century. Some Luck, the first book in a planned trilogy, takes readers through the 1920’s, one chapter per year.

Jessica Anderson   Tirra Lirra by the River

Jessica Anderson – Tirra Lirra by the River (Melville House, Oct. 7)

This reissue of an Australian classic originally published in 1984 places the reader in the head of 70-year-old Aussie Nora Porteous when she returns to Brisbane after nearly a lifetime away, spent first in Sydney and then, for many years, in London. This 144-page novella won the Miles Franklin Award, the highest literary honor in Australia (which Anderson also won for The Impersonators in 1990). She died in 2010 at age 94.

Kathleen Winter   Freedom in American Songs

Kathleen Winter – The Freedom in American Songs: Stories (Biblioasis, Oct. 21)

Winter is a well-known Canadian writer whose novel, Annabel (2010), was #1 in Canada and was nominated for the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction), the IMPAC Dublin Award, and three major prizes at home. These stories feature eccentric characters living idiosyncratic lives.

Judy Chicurel   if-i-knew-you-were-going-to-be-this-beautiful-i-never-would-have-let-you-go-by-judy-chicurel

Judy Chicurel – If I Knew You Were This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go (Putnam, Oct. 30)

Set in 1972, this collection of linked stories is a coming of age story of both a young woman, Katie, and the working class beach town in which she has spent her 18 years. Katie and her friends face a changing world in which class, war, and relationships often confound them. Chicurel captures the time and place in pungent prose that demands to be read aloud.

Miriam Toews   all-my-puny-sorrows

Miriam Toews – All My Puny Sorrows (McSweeney’s, Nov. 6)

Toews is another well-regarded Canadian novelist. Her sixth novel is the story of two drastically different sisters who were raised in a Mennonite family. Despite one’s success and one’s struggles, they remain close. In fact, Sorrows finds the sister with the messy life trying to prevent her famous and wealthy sister from killing herself.


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