Psychotherapist Lisa Gornick’s LOUISA MEETS BEAR is a complex and memorable novel-in-stories

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick -- Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Picador: July 12, 2016

320 pages, $16.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

Guest blogger Lisa Gornick: Is my book a novel?

Louisa Meets Bear by Lisa Gornick

By Lisa Gornick

This essay was originally published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux as part of their Work in Progress website and is published here with their permission. http://www.fsgworkinprogress.com/2015/06/is-my-book-a-novel/

“A novel?” a friend emailed after reading an early review of what I’d thought was my collection of linked stories. A week later, a second review also called the book a novel. I wondered, Is my book a novel?

These distinctions—story collection, linked stories, novel—are, of course, semantic: we can call a shopping list a poem, or a compendium of paragraph vignettes a story collection, or an unbroken stream of words a novel. And, indeed, when I’d first talked about my book, I had described it as a “novel in fragments” in that I hoped readers would read front to back, following a thread that tied the stories together to the end. Still, the book no more matches the traditional templates for a novel than do tofu cubes for breakfast or glazed cucumbers for dessert.

Every book has a story behind a story, and it is the one behind Louisa Meets Bear that might explain why the book is a novel for some readers. When I was first thinking about putting together a collection, I reread the ten individual pieces more or less in the order in which I’d written them over two decades. Within this group, there were two linked sets: a long story (some might call it a novella) with a shorter story that zooms in on something elided in the longer piece, and two stories that connect as a straightforward chronological sequence.

Although the two sets of linked stories shared no characters, I was struck by how they seemed to come out of the same world, like one of those blocks of Indian restaurants, each with their own name and signage, rumored to have a single basement kitchen. In fact, this sense of a shared world extended across all of the stories—as if the characters were cousins or ex-lovers or childhood friends. What would happen, I wondered, if I made this actually the case?

Using the long story (or maybe it’s a novella) with its four central characters as the hub, I took a fresh look at the characters in the other stories. What if the girl who runs out of a Venice trattoria is the child of the girl who gets pregnant by the husband her professor pushed on her? What if the man with the leather bomber jacket becomes the banker who tells the bereaved children’s book writer about the Guatemalan kids who’d called him Jesus con un camion? What if the woman who drives her pickup from Prince Edward Island to Manhattan in search of her estranged son is the sister of the boy who loses his girlfriend to the man in the bomber jacket?

Creating the connections was exhilarating, like I was in the midst of a labyrinthine conspiracy– the challenge to not go overboard, as in a comic thriller where the girl at the coat check is the hired assassin and the guy driving the taxi blows up the tunnel. Then came the hard work. My editor described the book as a jigsaw puzzle, but in truth only some of the pieces initially fit together. At a recent panel on historical fiction, an author talked about how the key question for her is whether two people could have been in the same place at the same time. For me, the question was slightly different: If Event A happened at X time, then when must Event B have occurred—and would that make narrative sense? If the pregnant girl listens to her brother’s outrage about Kent State, then how old is the girl who flees the trattoria in Venice? If the children’s book writer meets Jesus con un camion when trees and lampposts are tied with yellow ribbons, then when was he driving thatcamion? For the pieces to fit together, corners had to be whittled off and new bits added to map events and places onto one chronology—an exercise that came to good use when my assiduous copy editor presented me with his own accounting sheet of facts, such as “There were no home pregnancy tests in 1975; Author, please fix date.”

Along the way, though, something quite wonderful happened. It was akin to a visit to a friend’s childhood home during which you finally understand why your friend lines up all the salad dressings in the refrigerator with labels facing out and flees any man who treats her well. As the stories took their places, I could see my characters and my themes through a wider lens. Now I knew who the girl seduced by the man in the bomber jacket ultimately marries and why she gives up her unwanted poems for baking cakes. I understood the impact of a brother’s gift of his share of an inheritance on the woman who takes her pickup to Manhattan. A drug dealer husband changed from a Puerto Rican man to a guy who claimed he’d grown up on Park Avenue and sung backup for Joni Mitchell, and Jesus con un camion gained a feminist superstar mother who wrote about the Eurocentrism of the condemnation of clitorectomies. Only the last story in the book was written with the connections in place, and it was only then that the trajectories of many of my characters became clear.

Beyond these plotting and thematic issues, there was another, more elusive level, I came to see, in which the stories were of a piece. The underlying voice had grown up alongside me, moving from the young adulthood in which I wrote the earliest stories to the deep middle-age of the later ones. To my surprise, there wasn’t straight-forward development such that the earlier writing felt like embarrassing juvenilia. Yes, I cringed rereading some of the stories written decades ago, and was relieved to have an opportunity to revise them with the greater technical control and altered taste I have now. Yes, I saw the change of sensibilities between my earlier and later narrators, and was thankful to get rid of some of the most egregiously sophomoric views of the earlier work. But the younger writing had an underlying exuberance and freedom that had morphed into a more contemplative bent in the later stories. And in some of the early work, there was a surprising prescience—as in the story of the woman estranged from her son, written long before I was a mother—in which my characters knew more than I consciously understood then about the heartbreak of letting children go.

So, Is my book a novel? The stories still stand alone, but together they make a larger story with characters who start out on one path and end up on another, and themes that unfold from beginning to end. It’s a book that happened as much as was written—and it’s not one I can imagine happening again in my lifetime.. Reader, you decide.

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Lisa Gornick is the author of the recently released Louisa Meets Bear (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as well as two earlier novels: Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin). Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Agni, The New York TimesPrairie Schooner, and Slate, and have received many honors including Distinguished Story by the Best American Short Stories anthology. She holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

LOUISA MEETS BEAR is an impressive novel-in-stories that follows family and friends across 25 years and two continents

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G: June 9, 2015

304 pages, $26.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

Lisa Gornick on the pleasures — and perils — of audiobooks

Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Lisa Gornick is the author of Louisa Meets Bear (just published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux on June 9), Tinderbox (hardcover SCB/FS&G 2013, paperback Picador 2014), and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin Books, 2002). She holds a B.A. from Princeton and 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. She lives with her husband and two sons on New York City’s Upper West Side. This is a re-post of an essay originally written for Read Her Like an Open Book in July 2014. 

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!

24 Authors’ Favorite Books of 2014 (updated 1/4/15)

To wrap up 2014 in a suitable fashion, I asked several writers to share their favorite book of 2014 written by a woman. You’ll want to have your To Be Read list handy so you can jot some additional titles down. Although this completely random selection of writers did not generate a consensus choice, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Robin Black’s Life Drawing, and Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal came up a few times. Active links will take you to my reviews or the author’s guest essays written for Read Her Like an Open Book (RHLAOB). The contributors and I would love to hear your thoughts on their choices — as well as your personal favorites — so we encourage you to leave a comment below. And may 2015 be your best year of reading yet!

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

Three books by women come to mind as great favorites of the year: All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, about a young Vietnamese boy, his pet bear and his little sister, severely deformed  by Agent Orange. Moving and funny and surprising all the way through. Also, Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, a tense and honest book about a woman soldier newly home from war. And a book of short stories about the Philippines in World War Two called The Caprices by Sabina Murray.

Helen Benedict is a novelist and journalist, best known for her writing on injustice and the Iraq War. She is the author of six novels, including Sand Queen (Soho Press, 2011) and The Edge of Eden (Soho Press, 2009). The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2010) and Benedict’s other writings on women at war inspired the award-winning 2012 documentary, The Invisible War. Benedict has been a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism since 1986.  She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Ragdale Foundation, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy, and the Freedom Forum.

 

Robin Black by Deborah BoardmanPhoto by Deborah Boardman

Robin Black

I have had an incredible reading year. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and the Old Filth trilogy by Jane Gardam were both new to me and both – in very different ways – gave me a three book immersion that will stay with me always. But my “you should read this and may not have heard of it yet” choice is An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore, the story of an Amish woman who is taken on a perilous journey from Lancaster County heading to a perhaps illusory Idaho composed of dreams of expansion and seclusion, both. The story is based on Moore’s family history and it’s a powerful, intimate look at a culture into which “foreigners” can rarely glimpse. And for nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim, takes us into an elite “university” in North Korea – speaking of cultures many of us can’t glimpse. It’s informative for sure, and also heartbreaking.

Robin Black is the author of the acclaimed short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) and the novel Life Drawing (2014), which was chosen as the favorite book of 2014 by Beth Kephart and Dylan Landis (see below). Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “On Learning to Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book for Their Wives,” was the second-most read post in 2014. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives outside Philadelphia.

 

 2013-07-10-JessicaBlau

Jessica Anya Blau

I was thrilled when I discovered that Dylan Landis’s new book, Rainey Royal, was all about my favorite Landis character, Rainey, a girl who makes some unforgettable cameo appearances in Landis’s first book, the collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This.  In Rainey Royal we follow the title character from age 14 to 26—the years when she is navigating a profoundly messed-up adolescence while experimenting with her tremendous powers of beauty, talent and youth. Rainey is infinitely alluring and sometimes startlingly dreadful. She’s a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew intimately.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of the bestselling novels The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). In May 2014, she was one of the first authors to contribute an essay to RHLAOB, “My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s.”  She grew up in Santa Barbara, California but lives in Baltimore and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.

 

Kim Church

Kim Church

2014 has been an amazing year for books. I can’t single out a favorite, but I’d like to mention a couple that surprised and delighted me:

The Game We Play, a debut story collection by Susan Hope Lanier (Curbside Splendor). Lanier, a photographer, writes with an eye for close-up, using the smallest objects to talismanic effect. These are growing-up stories about characters trying to form themselves when everything around them is deformed. The game conceit that unifies the collection (most obvious in the final story, “At Bat”) is a nod to Lanier’s love of baseball, which she calls “the perfect game because it is complex in its simplicity. There is drama in every pitch if you watch closely enough.” The same could be said of these stories—minutely observed, deceptively simple, emotionally complex.

Are we allowed to mention books by men? If so, I recommend All I Have in This World by Michael Parker (Algonquin), about a couple of down-on-their-luck strangers who go in together on a used Buick Electra. I love the mesmerizing rhythm of Parker’s sentences. And I’m a sucker for stories about unlikely friendships.

Kim Church is the author of Byrd, which was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books and long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Kim earned her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her J.D. degree from UNC School of Law. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in ShenandoahMississippi ReviewPainted Bride Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere.

 

 pamela erens by miriam berkleyPhoto by Miriam Berkley

Pamela Erens

I was taken with so many books published this past year. In fiction, these included An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Life Drawing by Robin Black, The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, Orion’s Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Danceland by Jennifer Pieroni, Life In, Life Out by Avital Gad-Cykman, and Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. In nonfiction: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, The Other Side by Lacey M. Johnson, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, On Immunity by Eula Biss, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.

But if I had to pick the one 2014 book that I have been returning to the most in my thoughts and in conversation, it would be The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The final long essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” knocked me out. It’s an exploration of representations of and beliefs about and the experience of female suffering, and the bottom line is that Jamison made me see her subject anew. She advanced the conversation, so to speak, and it seems to me that books yet to be written are going to be shaped by hers. I want to add that I think that something of the same is true for Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

In 2015, I plan to get to at least two 2014 works in my to-read pile that I know will engage me: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, a follow-up to her powerful 2011 collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan trilogy.

Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was published by Tin House Books in August 2013. It was a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune
Editors’ Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. In April 2014, Tin House Books reissued Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times,Vogue, Elle, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and The Millions. For many years Pamela was an editor at Glamour magazine.

 

 lisa_gornick

Lisa Gornick

My shout out goes to an elegant piece of long-form journalism and literary criticism by Kathryn Schulz, “The Story That Tore Through the Trees,” published in the September 9th issue of New York Magazine.

Schulz masterfully weaves together an account of how Norman Maclean, a retired University of Chicago literature professor, began at 73 what would become his posthumously published and wildly influential Young Men and Fire about the tragic Mann Gulch conflagration; the stories of the thirteen smokejumpers who died in the fire and the three who survived; an examination of the split-second decision of the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge, to light a match and fight the looming flames by encircling himself with those of his own making; and her analysis of how Maclean mythologized the events of that day in a way that  spoke to American themes of conquest and purification, but evaded the fundamental ecology of fire.

“To love a book,” Schulz writes, “is to acknowledge the power of stories to move us; but we should also acknowledge that not every story moves us in the right direction.” Schulz’s story, though, does move us in the right direction. Both an intellectually muscular piece of writing, encompassing science and cultural history, and a classic story of men in battle — the kind of writing usually associated with male writers like John McPhee — her essay lays bare the impact of romanticized notions of masculinity on our views of nature and on policy making. I was inspired that it was written by a woman.

http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/mann-gulch-norman-maclean-2014-9/index5.html

Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador), a novel which touches on the history of the early smokejumpers. Her collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, will be published in June, also with Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Gornick wrote a fascinating essay for RHLAOB about the sources of inspiration behind Tinderbox

 

Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington

My favorite book of the year is Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading – carefully, deliberately and slowly. How does she make this a wonderful read? A master herself, Prose breaks down the process into words, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, character, dialogue, gesture, with brilliant examples culled from hundreds of books. Unlike James Woods’ How Fiction Works, which cites 81 books, only 8 by  women, Prose is much more democratic. Her final chapter, “Reading for Courage,” is worth the price of the book alone.

Laura Harrington spent 25 years writing for the theatre, and in 2008 she received The Kleban Award, given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” She took time off to write her first novel, Alice Bliss, which explores the impact of the Iraq War on the home front through the eyes of a young girl whose father is halfway around the world. Harrington contributed a powerful essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War,” to Read Her Like an Open Book in March 2014. 

 

 Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart

This is an impossible task. I thought 2014 was an exquisite year of work by writers taking broad and beautiful risks.

For compression and the elegance of the time it portrays, Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/12/dear-thiefsamantha-harvey-reflections.html

For a fascinating perspective on a desperately unwinding woman, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/08/nobody-is-ever-missingcatherine-lacey.html

For a book richly steeped in the twin geographies of movable time and malleable possibility, Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/02/wonderlandstacey-derasmo-reflections.html

For a beautifully paced story about the private wants that are rarely spoken, Robin Black’s Life Drawing:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/life-drawingrobin-black-reflections.html

For a harrowing and brave and deliciously odd story of a woman who is trying to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation:

http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/2014/07/dept-of-speculation-jenny.html

And for a timeless, genre-less autobiography in poetic prose, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

Beth Kephart is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham/Penguin, 2013), Small Damages (Philomel Books, 2012), and Going Over (Chronicle Books, 2014), a YA novel set in Berlin during 1983. Chronicle will publish One Thing Stolen, set in Florence in April 2015. Kephart maintains a blog, Beth Kephart Books, and reviews books for the Chicago Tribune. Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “Urgency. Please.” last August was one of the most-read posts of the year. 

 

 Dylan-Landis

Dylan Landis

Life Drawing, by Robin Black, contains one of the keenest, most distilled passages about marriage I’ve read: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” All of Life Drawing is penetrating, disturbing and, at a couple of points, shocking. It’s the story of friendship and betrayal, told from the point of view of an artist, Gus, whose marriage to a struggling writer, Owen, is shadowed by her past affair. The writing is beautiful, the plot is taut, and the voice is both intimate and wise.

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the linked story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a Newsday Ten Best book.

 

 caroline leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. It’s a raw, gutsy portrait of a dangerous upbringing and of a young woman finding her place in the world. It’s also unlike anything I’ve read before.  Plus, the language is gorgeous.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and seven other novels. Her many essays, stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. Her next novel, Cruel Beautiful World, will be published by Algonquin in 2015. Her guest essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “My Life in Lawsuits,” was one of the top 5 posts in 2014. 

 

 Lisa Lenzo

Lisa Lenzo

From the minute I began reading Making Callaloo in Detroit, I felt as if Lolita Hernandez had taken me by the hand and the rich cadences of her Caribbean characters were leading me with their voices. After I finished the second story, I thought I knew what the next stories would be all about, and I was perfectly pleased to follow Hernandez further, down similar roads. But then the third story took me into a wholly different zone—an auto factory in Detroit– and I realized that Lolita Hernandez has more than one type of story to tell me. So if you want to smile as well as be surprised, pick up Making Callaloo in Detroit, open to its first page, and let this wonderfully talented writer lead you into her spicily seasoned, often sensual, sometimes gritty, and always rewarding realms.

Lisa Lenzo is the author of Strange Love (2014), a novel-in-stories published by Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. Lenzo’s first collection of stories, Within the Lighted City (1997), was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press.”Strays,” from Strange Love, won the 2013 short story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review. Lenzo contributed an essay for RHLAOB on turning real life into fiction. 

 

Paulette Livers

Paulette Livers

First impulse answer: Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s follow-up to Gilead and Home. I stopped and made myself scour through all the other wonderful books I read this year to be sure I wasn’t reflexively going to an author I adore. But Lila gave me everything I want. Compelling voice, deep interiority that manages to remain mysterious—sometimes even to the narrator herself, which is the best kind of mystery. Robinson’s mastery of the craft never falters, something the reader only discerns when she is forced to leave the vivid and continuous dream that is first-rate fiction, and attend to life around her.

Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize 2014 and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and Chicago Writers Association’s Fiction Book of the Year. Her work appears in Southwest Review, The Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, and elsewhere, and can be heard at the audio-journal Bound Off. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Livers lives in Chicago. Livers contributed a powerful piece to RHLAOB, “How NOT to Write a Political Novel,” earlier this year. 

 

 Laura Long

Laura Long

I was enchanted by the boldness and precision of The Drum Tower, a novel by Farnoosh Moshiri about a family in Iran at the cusp of the 1979 revolution. At the center of this lyrical, psychologically astute novel are Talkhoon, a young woman confined to the Drum Tower basement, and her violent uncle, Assad. Moshiri reveals the madness of a revolution and of individuals, and a search for knowledge that includes the mythic bird Simorgh. This is the fourth novel by Moshiri, who fled Iran and lived in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India before relocating to the U.S.

Laura Long is the author of the novel-in-stories, Out of Peel Tree (West Virginia University Press/Vandalia, 2014) and two collections of poetry. She is the Geraldine Lyon Owen Professor of English at Lynchburg College in Virginia. She earned her BA in English/Creative Writing from Oberlin College, MAs in Anthropology/Folklore and English/Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.

 

Rebecca Makkai 2013

Rebecca Makkai
While I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about my favorite novels of the year, I haven’t had much chance to gush about two strange and miraculous debut story collections: The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, by Heather A. Slomski, and A Different Bed Every Time, by Jac Jemc. Slomski’s work reminds me of Etgar Keret — surreal and even fablelike — until it doesn’t. Her final story, “Before the Story Ends,” while slightly experimental in point of view, is realist and devastating, a counterbalance to everything earlier. Jemc’s experimentalism is often more verbal; I sometimes feel like she’s getting fresh with the English language in the backseat of a car. And her characters are hungry, desperate, illogical people. But this works, and the stories work. I kind of want to set these two collections up on a date. They’d have gloriously weird children.
Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House (Viking/Penguin, July 2014), is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Makkai’s short fiction was selected for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House (her story “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” is featured in the Winter 2014-15 issue), Ploughshares, and New England Review. Her first story collection, Music for Wartime, will appear in July 2015. She teaches at Lake Forest College and in Sierra Nevada College‘s MFA program, and runs StoryStudio Chicago‘s Novel-in-a-Year workshop.

 

lydia netzer

Lydia Netzer

My favorite book written by a woman and published in 2014 was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott. She writes so brilliantly about female spies in the Civil War, from the battlefield to the bedroom, I was completely caught up in the story of these four women. Learned a lot, laughed, gasped — this book was captivating.

Lydia Netzer is the author of two novels that are almost as smart, quick-witted, and quirky as she is. Shine Shine Shine, about astronauts, autism, marriage, and the struggle to be normal, was named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2012. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (2014) is about two close friends who decided to raise their son and daughter together and then separate them with the intention of having them fall in love and marry as adults. 

 

Ann_Packer_2008

Ann Packer

Angela Pneuman’s gorgeous coming-of-age novel Lay It On My Heart knocked me sideways.  Charmaine Peake is the 13-year-old daughter of a self-proclaimed prophet in a small Kentucky town. When her father suffers a breakdown, Charmaine and her mother, the hilariously and yet compassionately drawn Phoebe, have to take up residence in a trailer and navigate the intimacy forced on them by their new circumstances. (And you thought your mother had poor boundaries.) At the same time, Charmaine starts junior high, one of a handful of church kids in a large secular community. One of my favorite scenes occurs toward the end of the book, when Charmaine has an encounter with an older teenage boy who has been tormenting her on the school bus. It’s an unforgettable interlude: dirty, funny, and excruciating in the best way. By turns darkly comical and deeply moving, this intense and beautiful novel is cause for celebration and also no surprise to readers familiar with Pneuman’s stellar first book, the short story collection Home Remedies. Angela Pneuman is one of our best.

Ann Packer attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two national bestsellers, the novels Songs Without Words (2007) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002), which won a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Swim Back to Me (2011), a novella and five short stories. Her next novel, The Children’s Crusade, will be published by Scribner on April 7.

 

 steph-post

Steph Post

My favorite book written by a woman in 2014 is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Munaweera has been compared to Michael Ondaatje, but her work–lyrical, fearless and unrelenting–has set Munaweera onto a pedestal of her own. Her unflinching tale of women warriors, survivors, and refugees of the Sri Lankan civil war is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. Quite simply, Island of a Thousand Mirrors took my breath away.

Steph Post is a novelist (A Tree Born Crooked, Sept. 2014), short story writer, editor, reader, teacher and dog lover. Her essay for RHLAOB, “Writing Under Fire,” was published in November. She lives in Florida. 

 

 Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye

Euphoria, by Lily King, is a cleverly constructed novel about a love triangle between three brilliant characters, each an anthropologist in New Guinea, competing in intellectual prowess and love. The woman scientist in the mix is based on extensive research about the great Margaret Mead, who readers may recall from old textbooks. But nothing about Nell is musty or dull—in my opinion, she’s more vibrant and distinct in mind and body than any female character in recent fiction. [King’s essay for RHLAOB about her creative process, “Pencil and Paper,” was her first-ever contribution to a blog and one of the highlights of the year.]

Virginia Pye’s second novel will be published by Unbridled Books in Fall 2015. It is set in North China in 1937, twenty-five years after her first novel, River of Dust, took place there, and tells the story of an American missionary widow and her teenage son as they try to escape the escalating war with Japan and the dramatic rise of Communism. She wrote for RHLAOB about the writer’s ever-expanding skill set in “Hawking My Wares.” 

 

 robinson_roxana with book cover

Roxana Robinson

My nomination is Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her Naples trilogy. The novels begin in impoverished post-war Naples, in a community infested by the Camorra. The author calls herself Elena Ferrante, but doesn’t make public appearances, and so has created a mystery around herself. But whoever she  is, this writer is brilliant, savage and relentless. In her trilogy starting in Naples in the  1950s, she traces the deep lines of connection between crime and family, violence and children, deception and women, and shows the devastating consequences of corruption. Interestingly, because of this writer’s refusal to appear in public, rumors have sprung up about her real identity. The claim is made that she’s a man. Really? Why would you say that? Because she’s so good? Because it’s impossible to imagine a woman writing so well and so candidly about something so savage? Honestly, I can’t see any reason for these rumors except misogyny.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta (2013), Cost (2008), and Sweetwater (2003); three collections of short stories, including A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2007); and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1987). Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s Magazine, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, BookForumBest American Short StoriesTin House, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and is the current president of the Authors Guild.

 

Leora Skolkin-Smith

Leora Skolkin-Smith

My favorite book this year was Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day. Profound in both form and content, this overlooked novel deserves center stage.

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the novels Hystera (2011) and Edges (2005), which was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Paley’s own imprint at Glad Day books. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Hemingway Award by Paley. Skolkin-Smith was raised in New York and Israel and earned her BA and MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.

 

lee-upton-april-2010-closeup

Lee Upton

One of my favorite books released in 2014 is The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (NYRB Classic) by the Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001), best known as the author and illustrator of children’s books featuring charmingly blob-like creatures called Moomins.  The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first full-scale English translation of Jansson’s stories for adults, bringing together work written over the course of twenty-five years.  Often these fully original, beautiful stories are about the small changes that transform a life from the inside, changes that may be imperceptible to others and baffling to the person experiencing those changes.  Jansson tends to write about artists—sculptors, cartoonists, illustrators—who reveal an obsessive dedication to precision, a dedication much like, apparently, the author’s own.  Many of her characters love silence and solitude.  Sometimes they encounter animals, and those encounters, closely observed without sentimentality, elicit admiration for the animals’ feral qualities. (Her animals tend to bite.)  In “The Monkey,” a pet monkey acts out a sculptor’s own urges.  When the monkey, off her leash, scales a tree in winter, the sculptor’s observations make for a keen portrait of artistic ambition:  “You poor little bastard.  You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Jansson frequently asks questions.  Here’s a sampling, plucked from the slowly whirling weather systems of several stories:  “What is it that’s happened to me?” “What shall we drink to?”  “What are you angry about?”  “What is it that’s wrong?” “What do you want?” “What’s life about?”  The funny thing about these limpid, bracing, fierce, and yet welcoming stories: they create the sensation of our being enclosed and alone in a quiet place. Distractions melt away and we may begin, like Jansson, to think about fundamental things.

Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. Her sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottlesrecipient of the Open Book Award, is forthcoming this year from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  A professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College, she is the author of thirteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island, and a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy.  Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.

 

Laura-van-den-Berg

Laura van den Berg

[If I had to pick] a favorite, I’d say All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a brilliant examination of death and sisterhood and survival.

Laura van den Berg earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG in February 2015. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 

 

 

Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White

My favorite 2014 book by a woman was Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Because her previous novels, Gilead and Home, both claim a spot on my Favorites of All Time list, I anticipated this new novel with barely-contained glee. So, it’s no surprise that I loved it. Perhaps Lila is more narrow in scope than the others and in fact, I spent the first section wondering if readers who were new to the series would love it as much as I was. The main character, Lila, is the same who appears in those previous novels and this new one focuses on her version of the story we already know. But then I stopped wondering, and became captivated by Robinson’s evocative writing and Lila’s world. Robinson is a master of the subtle, a soft-focus spotlight on the frailties and wonders of human feeling, and a creator of one of the most beloved characters I’ve ever known, John Ames. The unlikely love story between this elderly minister and the guarded Lila will squeeze your heart into a pulpy mess. In a good way.

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published in June 2014 by Authonomy, an imprint of HarperCollins. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she earned an MA from DePaul University. White wrote an essay for RHLAOB about the novel that changed her life, Lolita, last May. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, four children, and two badly trained dogs.

 

 Joan_Wickersham

Joan Wickersham

I’ve admired the novels of Deirdre Madden for years. Her latest, Time Present and Time Past, is proof that a novel of ideas doesn’t need to be ponderous — it’s a deft, brilliantly economical meditation on memory and the limits of knowledge, and it is also a deeply sympathetic, charming, subtly shaded family portrait.

Joan Wickersham is the author of the memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Mariner, 2009) and the short story collection The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story (Knopf, 2012). Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe. Wickersham has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

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

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

bim_0137-essaouira-harbor

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

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

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

elkbath

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, http://www.bitrot.de/pictures/bim_0137-essaouira-harbor.jpg

Element Four: Iquitos photo by Lisa Gornick

Element Five: Fire, http://www.wildlandfire.com/pics/fire4/elkbath.jpg

 

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

lisa_gornick

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!