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The Hope of Rachel Louise Snyder

Often we would prefer to ignore the darker natures of our souls where hidden bias and self-delusion exist. But it is just these places that journalist, professor, and now novelist, Rachel Louise Snyder focuses on in her work.

“I write about struggle and survival because that is where the hope is,” she said at the Peninsula Parlour earlier this month. We gathered at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto to discuss her debut novel, What We’ve Lost Is Nothing. Rachel shared that for her, ”Writing about the darker issues allows me to initiate a discussion about the two opposing forces in human nature. As a journalist, I have covered natural disasters and without fail I have seen on the one side people acting in treacherous and self-interested ways and on the other, people who believed we are all in this together and doing everything they can for complete strangers. At it’s heart, I wanted my novel to address these issues.”

And boy does it.

Contained in the twenty-four hours after a mass neighborhood burglary, her novel shows that tragedy will alter us no matter how hard we try to imagine we are unaffected. As one of the key characters, Michael, says, “I believe now is one of those moments where life really tests you.”

In some ways the novel is a parable of September 11th, in some ways it is a commentary on issues of race relations, and in some it is a discussion of human nature. What We’ve Lost is Nothing asks, “In the face of the unimaginable, how will you respond?”

“I am basically an optimist and believe that good triumphs,” Rachel shared. “At least, that is what I hope.”

Our conversation reminded me of that wonderful poem by Theodore Roethke:

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

May your better nature shine in all that you do. I look forward to seeing you at the next Peninsula Parlour.

The Grace of Harriet Chessman

Harriet Chessman at the Peninsula Parlour

Some books speak to us because of the depth of characters, others the complex and rich narrative. Harriet Chessman’s latest novel resonates because of its quietude. Reading The Beauty of Ordinary Things is to immerse oneself in an extended prose poem, the gift of a silent walk on a snowy day. Earlier this week, Harriet joined me in the beautiful Atherton home of Marie Vought for a night to remember.

First, we honored Lynda Steele, who will soon be retiring after twenty-five years as Executive Director of Abilities United. Since 2012, the Peninsula Parlour has been a proud partner of AU. Together with our devoted attendees, we have donated nearly $5,000 to support their work. It was a moment to remember.

Then, we got down to the business of the novel and the gifts and challenges of being a writer. Harriet shared that this novel was her most personal. “It is an homage to those who overcome challenges and find grace in their lives…I wish for grace in my every day,” she said.

Harriet explained one of the lead characters, Benny, a returning Vietnam Vet, “is so much like me, sometimes I can not distinguish between us.” The other main character, a monastic nun names Sister Clare, is modeled after one of Harriet’s closest friends. “I wanted to write a story that honors the beauty of nuns and the choices they are forced to make in choosing the monastic life.”

“Writers are much like nuns. We give a vow of poverty, we must have faith the words will come, and our experience is solitary, often prayerful,” Harriet told the packed room. “I write with the hope that someone is listening.”

But unlike many modern books, her work is quiet and offers a respite from the noise of everyday life. When asked why he might chose to stay in this world, her character Benny writes to Sister Clare:

It doesn’t have to be something big or dramatic. It just has to be what it is. And you could say it isn’t that such things are especially amazing to look at. They can be totally ordinary. It isn’t beauty only. It’s something more.” 

This is the beauty of ordinary things.

 

Gold Star Moms Make The Night

April Smith at the Peninsula Parlour

Having the privilege to interview outstanding authors in front of a live audience is deeply rewarding, but sometimes it isn’t just the author that makes the night special (although, of course, the authors are always compelling). Sometimes it is the readers themselves who make all of the difference. Last night was just such a night.

April Smith, best selling author of the FBI agent Ana Gray series, joined us at Books, Inc. Palo Alto to discuss her first foray into literary fiction. Her novel, A Star for Mrs. Blake, is based on history and tells the story of five mothers whose sons died fighting in World War I.  These mothers, and thousands like them, were invited at the behest of the U.S. government to take an all expense paid pilgrimage to the burial sites of their fallen sons.

Mothers whose children have died fighting on behalf of our country are called Gold Star Mothers. Last night, a group of them came to the Peninsula Parlour. Karen Meredith, proud mom of 1st Lt. Ken Ballard who died in Iraq, shared her experience as a modern day Gold Star Mother. Lance Corporal Travis Layfield’s mother, Dianne Layfield, invited us to visit her son’s Story of Service site to learn more about him.

They came to hear April talk about how she was inspired to write her novel. “It was thirty years in the making,”  she told us. She’d come across the diary of a young soldier, Lt. John Hammond, who was charged with escorting the World War I Gold Star Mothers on a pilgrimage to France. She saw inspiration in this little known history and felt compelled to tell the story.

“I wanted every detail right,” she shared when asked about her research. “I visited every location in the novel and spent hours upon hours in archives unearthing the truth of these pilgrimages.”

But it was her deft handling of grief that the modern day Gold Star Mothers applauded. “You said what we still can’t say,” one told us. “Now others might just understand.”

I urge you to add A Star for Mrs. Blake to your reading list. If not for the strong character development and page turning prose, then for the history upon which it is written. A history we are still living with today.

Gold Star Mother’s Tattoo in honor of Lance Corporal Travis Layfield

 

 

 

Holiday Reading

I was driving home this evening listening to yet another top ten list for 2013. Music, people, movies. We are all busy assessing and weighing in. When it comes to books though, very few seem to agree. Maureen Corrigan offered a great list on NPR which included a number of female authors and the New York Times list included many women as well (surprise).

We asked some of our favorite Peninsula Parlour authors to give us their top ten. We didn’t limit it to 2013 and we didn’t tell them it had to be their favorites. We just wanted advice on what to read by a warm fire or on a beach somewhere. Here is what they shared:

 

Meg Waite Clayton (author of The Wednesday Sisters). 

“My ten, off the top of my head (and assuming you don’t want us to list each other’s books;

if you don’t mind that, let me know!) – split between pretty new and oldies but goodies.”

Meg Waite Clayton

1.     The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

2.    We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

3.    The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

4.    What Changes Everything by Masha Hamilton

5.    The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

6.    The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

7.    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (so much better than the movie!)

8.    Inventing the Abbots and Other Stories by Sue Miller

9.    Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

10.   To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 Cornelia Nixon (author of Jarretsville

 “For my ten books, here’s the current list I just taught in Fiction Since 1960, plus one bonus.”

Cornelia Nixon

1.     Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

2.    Cathedral by Raymond Carver, CATHEDRAL

3.    One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

4.    The Known World by Edward P. Jones

5.    Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahari

6.    Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

7.    The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

8.    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

9.    Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

10.   Old School by Tobias Wolff

 

 Ann Packer (author of Swim Back To Me)

“Totally random list of ten books I love.”

Ann Packer

 

1.     Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

2.    Into the Great Wide Open by Kevin Canty

3.    Dale Loves Sophie to Death by Robb Forman Dew

4.    The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

5.    The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison

6.    Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

7.    The Risk Pool by Richard Russo

8.    Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

9.    Her First American by Lore Segal

10.   The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert

 

Ellen Sussman (author of The Paradise Guest House

Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman

“My ten favorite books.”

1.   Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

2.   Arcadia by Lauren Groff

3.   The Fault in our Stars by John Green

4.   Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

5.   The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

6.   Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

7.   The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

8.   Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

9.   A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

10. Room by Emma Donoghue

 

 

Lalita Tademy (author of Red River

“Not sure how to go about a Top 10, so I made my own rules:

1, Read for the first time (although not necessarily first published) in the last 2 years;

2. Female author; 

3. Loved it.”

Lalita Tademy

 

1.     AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Adichie

2.    The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

3.    The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

4.    Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

5.    The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

6.    Room by Emma Donohue

7.    Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

8.    The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

9.    The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

10.   Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt”

 

Lisen Stromberg (Host, Peninsula Parlour) 

“I couldn’t resist adding a list of my own. Call it ‘Host’s Prerogative.’ My Rules:

1. Read it in the past few years;

2. Wasn’t on a previous list;

3. Made me think.”

Lisen Stromberg

  

1.     The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

2.    Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

3.    Disgrace By J. M Coetze

4.    The Gathering by Anne Enright

5.    Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides

6.    None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer

7.    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

8.    Sula by Toni Morrison

9.    The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

10.   Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

 

 

 

 

Litquake Palo Alto: A Huge Success

Recently, the Peninsula Parlour extended its “campus” to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto where Litquake was hosting its second annual literary event. Just think, PP on steroids without the fog. There were many fantastic speakers, panels, and, of course, lots of books for sale.  Dan Handler, Andrew Sean Greer, Jane Smiley, Ellen Sussman, Ann Packer, Gail Tsukiyama, and many other luminary authors were there. It was fun to hobnob with the literati.

Litquake Emerging Authors Panel

I was privileged to moderate a panel on emerging authors. Litquake Founder, Jane Ganahl and I decided to invite female writers who are “emerging” into writing as a second career to be our guest authors. Tracy Guzeman whose debut novel, The Gravity of Birds, was published at the beginning of August joined us. As did Nina Schuyler whose second novel, The Translator, was published in July. She says she is “re-emerging” given her last novel was published in 2004 and then “life got in the way.” Finally, Amy Franklin-Willis, whose novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee just came out in paperback, also joined us.

I shared a quote from James Woods’ in an article he wrote for the New Yorker. He pondered if great writers can be good family members:

Perhaps the story teller is especially ill suited for a happy family life. For even as the fiction writer tells humae stories about behavior and motive and family relations–what one might think of as a sympathetic skill–so he or she is also a little like the proverbial choirboy at the funeral: coldly observing, carefully pillaging, rearranging,impersonating, and re-voicing the very material that constitutes “family.”

Our panelists whole-heartedly disagreed. Family, how ever you define it, is the juice that helps the writing flow. “We are better writers because of our “other commitments” was the general consensus. How then, does she do it all?

Nina regaled us with her discipline. Mother of two, juggler of five different free-lance jobs, wife, friend, and the model for “how does she do it all,” Nina explained that she is up at 5:00 am, keeps to a daily page commitment, and has the power to say no to email/Facebook/Twitter/ and all other digital distractions. This passion to her craft has enabled her to stay true to writing career. That and the occasional chocolate reward.

Tracy recounted how she juggles her marketing/event planning career with her writing. Given the cycle of event planning with her clients, she is able to balance a six months on/six months off work life allowing her to dive in deep to her writing life.

Amy says, “We all need a good wife.” Luckily, she has one. As the primary bread-winner, Amy has been able to squeeze in writing between her full-time job and duties raising the couple’s three daughters largely because of her great partner (and great kids). “It’s a team effort. I can’t imagine doing this alone,” she told us.

The room was packed, the air-conditioning overworked, and still the audience was bright and lively. More than half the room was filled with aspiring “second career” novelists. The best advice our panelists’ gave? Don’t give up! 

Some other tips?

1) Consider using Freedom to shut down that pesky digital world and give yourself focus. It’s called “productivity software” for a reason.

2) www.750words.org is a great way to track your daily progress.

3) Scrivener  is software that allows you to organize your manuscript. Best used from the start of a project.

What’s up next for the Peninsula Parlour?

As you know, we’ve partnered with Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and will be hosting a full schedule there this fall. Here is our line up of interviews:

On September 17th, I’ll be interviewing debut author, Anthony Marra, at Books, Inc. The event is free and open to the public.  Sign up here. And if you’d like to buy his book in advance, you can do so here.

On October 15th, the prolific writer, Dennis McFarland, and I will be in conversation. His newest book, Nostalgia, will be published on October 1. Sign ups coming soon.

On November 19th, Nina Schuyler will be joining me for an in-depth conversation about her novel, The Translation. We’ll be taking about how our words can ever really be understood, and even then, only in context.

Come join the conversation.

Lalita Tademy Reminds Us It’s About Perseverance

Lalita explains the hard work of writing

She didn’t know what she was going to do with the rest of her life when she quit her high powered job as VP/General Manager at Sun Microsystems, but Lalita Tademy knew it was time for something else. That something else turned out to be not one, but two best selling novels based on her ancestors who lived in slavery and then freedom along two rivers in Louisiana.

“Those first few days and months after the rigor of the corporate world were disorienting,” Lalita said. “But soon, I immersed myself in the history of my family.” She visited the area around Cane River where her mother’s people were from. She learned about her great grandmother Emily who loved to dance and about Emily’s mother Philomene whose savvy spirit helped secure a better life for her children. But it was when she discovered the bill of sale for $800 of her great, great, great, great grandmother Elizabeth that she knew she “had to tell their stories.”

To find the voices of her ancestors she kept diaries for each one. She imagined their daily lives, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the challenges they faced. On her wall, Lalita had a spread sheet that detailed the price of cotton, the weather, the politics of the periods in which her characters lived. “I pieced together their lives from documents and stories and then I made up the rest,” Lalita told us.

“The tough issues are where the good stories are,” Lalita said

Her imagination, routed so deeply in research, resulted in Cane River, a novel that offers an alternative to the slave narrative. “This is more than a story about my family in slavery, it is a story about mothers and daughters and what we women do to take care of our own,” Lalita said. She is too modest to admit it, but her work has been praised by academics as changing our understanding of what women experienced in slavery, a “herstory” to the rest of us.

It has also given many readers insight into the volatile issue of the preference for fairer skin. Lalita’s great grandmother, Emily, was well known for favoring her ligher skin children, extended family, and friends. “I couldn’t understand why Emily was ‘color-struck’, but in writing this novel, I came to have great compassion for the challenges she and all of my relatives faced.” In Cane River, Lalita writes of her ancestors,

“Five generations under one roof, all women, in an unbroken sequence, starting with [Elisabeth] and descending down to Angelite. From coffee, to cocoa, to cream, to milk, to lily. A conscious and not-so-conscious bleaching of the line.”

Her second novel, Red River, moved the reader from the matriarchal line to the patriarchal. Her father’s family can trace their roots back to the river Nile in Africa where a free man whose last name was Ta Te Me came to this country to find his fortune and soon became enslaved. Lalita tells the story of the Colfax Massacre (more commonly known as the Colfax riot – revealing how language reflects perspective) where over one hundred newly freed slaves are slaughter by a collection of white men who were  the precursors to the Ku Klux Klan.

She did as much extensive research for her second novel as she did her first. “You think once you’ve written a novel that now you know how to do it. But, each time is a new experience and offers new challenges and opportunities,” Lalita shared with us.

She also shared that her first novel required thirteen drafts and was rejected by fourteen agents. Her perseverance was inspired by her belief that to honor her family, she must tell their stories. Her second novel? Again, draft after draft. “You have to let go of your adorables when you write,” Lalita explained. “You can love a section, a scene, even a character, but if it doesn’t serve the story, it has to go.”

Lalita graciously signed books for us

Ellen Sussman Explains Why Writing About Sex Is Just Not That Easy

It is not surprising New York Times best selling author, Ellen Sussman, is hilarious. Her prose can make you “pee in your pants” as one Peninsula Parlour attendee shared last night. But what is not so obvious is her thoughtful approach to writing into subjects that are in the deeper recesses of our hearts. Her first novel, On A Night Like This, deals with cancer and the lingering consequences of rape. Her latest novel, French Lessons, might seem a light romp, but is weighted with issues of aging and loss and the search for deep, meaningful connection.

Ellen Sussman Entertains Us

“I’d like to think of myself as a literary writer, but my publisher is damn happy to see my work has commercial appeal as well,” Ellen told us.

Her writing certainly does. The balance between more challenging topics and the more accessible is one of Ellen’s great strengths. Another strength is her courage to write about sex.

“Most authors shy away from the topic. It is hard to write about sex and intimacy without sounding either lascivious or cliched. There just aren’t that many good ways to describe sex in the English language. But we humans are sexual beings and to gloss over it or deny it is to miss an essential part of what it means to be human.”

She has tackled taboo subjects before having authored a non-fiction book called, The Encyclopedia of Dirty Words, and edited, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, but it is love that is the underlying theme across all that she writes.

“Love in all of its shapes and sizes is what fuels my writing: passionate love, romantic love, the love between mother and daughter, the surprisingly enduring love of a long marriage. These are what inspire me,” said Ellen.

Ellen Signs Books

 

Donia Bijan Charms Us

Donia Bijan Charms the Audience

Some immigrant stories focus on the political, others the social, but, as former chef, Donia Bijan, explained to a standing room crowd at the Peninsula Parlour, it was the emotional that moved her when she sat down to write her memoir, Mama’s Homesick Pie.

I didn’t intend to write a story about Iran per se. I wrote the story of my mother. She came to this country as an exile and managed to make as much as she could of the experience. I remain in awe of all she gave up and her continued focus on moving forward. My mother was not a complainer,” Donia told us.

She was, however, one of the key reasons Donia and her family could not return to Iran when the 1979n revolution forever changed the course of history. Donia’s parents were highly regarded in the medical community. Her father, a physician, and her mother, a nurse, co-founded a hospital for women with a focus on labor and delivery. When her mother wasn’t running the hospital, caring for patients, raising her children, or cooking exquisite meals, she was actively engaged in politics. She was an elected oficial representing an impoverished area of Iran. Her attitudes towards advocating for women was of particular concern to the growing conservative government.

When the family went on their annual summer holiday to Malta the Iran government was overthrown and Donia, her sisters, and their parents were forever exiled. And what does Donia remember of her home country?

“My mother’s cooking,” she said. “Each memory is infused with a taste. This is my mother’s legacy.”

After her mother’s death, it was the idea of sharing a sense of her homeland that inspired Donia to write the memoir. It does not take the classical form in that not alone is there narrative, but each chapter ends with one of her mother’s recipes.

Treats at the Peninsula Parlour

“I wanted to convey the graciousness that is at the heart of being Persian,” said Donia. “When you come to our homes, we treat you as though you are the most special of guests. This means, we must feed you. It is the essence of who we are. It just made sense to include the recipes. They were the best way to convey our cultural values and a close link to my mother.”

For those of us who attended, we certainly didn’t complain when Donia brought cookies from one of the recipes in the memoir. She proved to be even gracious as a guest.

Maria Murnane Dazzles Us

Peninsula Parlour

Maria Murnane at the Peninsula Parlour

Maria Murnane joined Lisen Stromberg in conversation at the Peninsula Parlour on January 4, 2012.

These days, it isn’t about the fancy book contract or the five city book tour, it’s about tenacity. First time author, Maria Murnane, learned this first hand. Dozens of publishers considered her book, Perfect on Paper, but none would take the novel on. Many told her there just wasn’t a market for it.

Mmm…tell that to the thousands of readers who were able to purchase it on Amazon after Maria finally self-published the novel in 2010. It skyrocketed to #2 on Amazon’s best sellers list and has since won numerous awards.

Maria shared with us the myriad of ways she worked to sell her book from creating a greeting card line called Honey Notes (a key part of the storyline), to going store-to-store in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood asking them to consider selling it.. Her secret weapon? Her father who gave up his retirement to become a one man PR rep. He called, emailed, and generally hounded book groups, book stores, and anyone else he could think of who might just be a distribution channel for his beloved daughter’s novel.

Now, Maria is one of the first authors in Amazon’s own imprint, AmazonEncore. Her latest book, It’s A Waverly Life, takes off where that last one left protagonist Waverly Bryson. Waverly has been called the American Bridget Jones and many of her escapades come from Maria’s own life. She told the group, “Many of the events actually happened to me or my friends. I spend more time laughing at the ridiculous things that have happened and it just seemed to make sense that Waverly should experience them.”

Maria Murnane Talks About Her First Novel

When asked if she would recommend sel-publishing, Maria was fully enthusiastic. “We all want that big book contract, but in truth, sell publishing gives the author more control and, at the end of the day, more money in their pocket. I would encourage any first time author to go for it. What is holding you back?”

Yes, what is?

 

Richard Banks at the Peninsula Parlour

Richard Banks at the Peninsula Parlour

Richard Banks at the Peninsula Parlour

Richard Banks spoke in conversation with Lisen Stromberg at the Peninsula Parlour in November, 2011.

Ralph Richard Banks is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He teaches and writes about family law, employment discrimination law, and race and the law.  His writings have appeared in a wide range of popular and scholarly publications, including the Stanford Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

 Is Marriage for White People? is his first book. Since its publication he has appeared on: Nightline, CNN, Fox News, select NBC Affiliates, The book itself has been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, the Atlantic, Essence and many other places. Not quite the fire storm that Amy Chao’s Tiger Mama book but close.

He spoke in conversation with Lisen Stromberg at the Peninsula Parlour in November, 2011.

“There is a marriage gap between the races,” he explained. “Specifically, 70% of black women are unmarried while only 45% of white women are. However, the trends we see in black marriages are now flowing over into the white community. It may well be the canary in the coal mine for all marriages if things don’t change.”