Writer’s Life: Ellen Umansky

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First, some high praise garnered by Brooklyn-based author Ellen Umansky’s debut novel, The Fortunate Ones.

“The Fortunate Ones” is a subtle, emotionally layered novel about the ways art and other objects of beauty can make tangible the invisible, undocumented moments in our lives, the portion of experience that exists without an audience but must be preserved if we are to remain whole. —The New York Times Book Review 

Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first. — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Now that you have hopefully clicked the link above to buy it, I’ll reveal that Ellen and I were good buddies in our Santa Monica middle school. Our paths diverged, but not too widely, as we both attended Penn, and recently reunited for a reunion author panel called “Words with Friends.” I could not be more proud of her, more excited to read her novel, or more pleased to introduce you. Meet Ellen Umanksy:

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

My immediate response to this question is a pragmatic one: I have so much less time to work than before I had children, but I’m a better, more disciplined writer now. I’m less precious about my writing; as a parent, you can’t afford to be. You simply have to get your words down on paper and take it from there.

My mother, who passed away a year ago, was my role model in all kinds of ways, large and small. She was sick for several years, but she rarely complained. She was a cheerful and warm person, almost relentlessly so, and because of that, it was easy to overlook her persistence and resilience. She pushed through some seriously painful months — years, actually — during which she continued to work, travel, spend time with her family, her grandchildren in particular. I think of her determination all the time, and try to apply that to my own work and life.

Where do you write? What do you love about it? (or I suppose, what don’t you love…)

I write anywhere I can, but often I’m at my desk in our house in Brooklyn; that’s where I am right now. A big window to my left overlooks a parking lot, but affords a slice of trees too—a light-filled urban view. There’s something I love about working in my house alone. There’s usually so much chatter and noise, questions being asked of me—mom, where are my gym clothes? Mom, I can’t find my [insert random toy here]—but then they leave for school and it’s suddenly, blessedly quiet again. For the next five hours, the space belongs only to me. When I’m stuck in my work, I find it useful to get up and take care of a mundane, household task. I might have no idea where I’m going plot-wise in a story, but emptying a dishwasher? That I can do.

I’m also a member of the Brooklyn Writers Space, a collective workspace where I’ll often decamp in the late afternoons or if I’m working on a weekend. When my kids were young, that space was a lifesaver. I know a number of other writers who also belong, and it’s nice to run into them and chat and be reminded of that camaraderie. Writing can be such lonely business, and that fellowship, wherever you find it, is essential.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Get it down on paper. You can always revise. And revise. And revise.

Who inspires you?

So many people: My mother; a big, ever-changing mix of writers, Grace Paley, Wilkie Collins, Elena Ferrante, Jane Austen, and Lore Segal; my daughters; my husband, too. He’s a psychiatrist and a voracious reader, my secret weapon. He’s insightful about character and human relationships, doesn’t get caught up in questions of craft, and is one of the funniest people I know.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

My grandmother, who passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 101, was born in Russia before the Russian Revolution, and fled that country as a young girl in 1921, crossing into Poland illegally and waiting with her family for close to two years before they could come to America. I remember my grandmother talking about that stressful time, living in Lemburg, Poland, and how her parents would go every day to the offices of the HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was helping them with their visas and so much more. Last month, I went to a rally at the foot of Manhattan, in view of the Statue of Liberty, to protest Trump’s ban against immigrants and refugees. The rally was organized by HIAS, the same group that helped my grandmother’s family so long ago. I am both inspired and heartened by their work and appalled that we need them so badly today.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I devoured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah a few years ago, and read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun this winter. I don’t know what took me so long to turn to it. It’s a tour de force, told from different points of views during the Biafran war of independence in 1960’s Nigeria, something I knew little about. But just as compelling, it’s a story rich in character that focuses on a pair of sisters, twins, what sets them apart and what brings them together.

Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is also a favorite of mine. It opens at Harvard in the ’60’s when two men from vastly different backgrounds meet and become friends. But college is just the starting point for this sweeping, deeply emotional story that crosses decades and continents. It’s a such rich and compulsive read; I’m friends with Joanna Hershon and witnessed her writing the book and I still don’t quite understand how she did it.


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Follow Ellen on Facebook and Twitter and EllenUmansky.com


The Fortunate Ones, Synopsis:

“One very special work of art–a Chaim Soutine painting–will connect the lives and fates of two different women, generations apart, in this enthralling and transporting debut novel that moves from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.

It is 1939 in Vienna, and as the specter of war darkens Europe, Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a kindertransport, and send her to live with strangers in England.

Six years later, the war finally over, a grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. Alone in London, devastated, she cannot help but try to search out one piece of her childhood: the Chaim Soutine painting her mother had cherished.

Many years later, the painting finds its way to America. In modern-day Los Angeles, Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. Newly single and unsure of her path, she also carries a burden of guilt that cannot be displaced. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie threw a party at her father’s house with unexpected but far-reaching consequences. The Soutine painting that she loved and had provided lasting comfort to her after her own mother had died was stolen, and has never been recovered.

This painting will bring Lizzie and Rose together and ignite an unexpected friendship, eventually revealing long-held secrets that hold painful truths. Spanning decades and unfolding in crystalline, atmospheric prose, The Fortunate Ones is a haunting story of longing, devastation, and forgiveness, and a deep examination of the bonds and desires that map our private histories.”

Writer’s Life: Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

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Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke are best friends who write bestselling books together. How wonderful is that? (I confess I have to suppress some jealousy over the fun they must be having together.) Their latest novel, THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY, debuts April 26, and asks: “If you could repeat one year of your life, what would you do differently?” They manage to capture the human yearning, regret, humor and optimism, all in one “uniquely magical and deeply real” novel. Meet Liz and Lisa:

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer or to life in general?

Liz: I’ve learned that sometimes bad things happen for a reason—you may not be able to have perspective at the time, but later you’ll see that it led you down the path you were meant to be on. It’s important not to let regret rule your life.

Lisa: Parenting is like one long ride on a rollercoaster. I’ve learned that there are ups and downs, steep climbs and long easy plateaus. And being a writer is exactly the same thing. Not to say I’m an expert by any means. I’m a “WIP” (work in progress) in both areas.

Where do you write? What do you love about it?

Liz: I write in my office, which I recently remodeled. (I have doors on it, finally!) Anyway, it’s eclectic and romantic and I feel so thankful it’s all mine.

Lisa: I have a loft that you get to by pushing on a “secret” door in the wall. (My five-year-old daughter just found out about it six months ago!) I climb a ladder and I’m at the highest point in our home, looking out several windows. I love the solitude. I love the secrecy. I love the way I have it decorated, with all of my favorite things. I love that it’s mine, all mine!

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Liz: Make sure to fail forward in life. (Meaning: learn from your mistakes and take feedback to get better!)

Lisa: Let it go! (This is something I’m constantly working on!)

Who inspires you?

Liz: My mom inspires me to always help people and be kind.

Lisa: My daughter. She’s at that age where she’s constantly discovering. Looking around her and realizing there’s a huge world out there and wanting to know what’s in it. I love that she notices the beauty around her. That she is never in a rush. That she lives in the moment.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

Liz: I recently read I’ll See You in Paris by Michelle Gable—a charming story set in England and Paris. A must read!

Lisa: I just read The Passenger by Lisa Lutz and Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica. Both were excellent thrillers that had me frantically turning the pages so I could find out what happened next! And I’m currently reading Luck, Love and Lemon Pie by Amy E. Reichert. It’s absolutely delicious. Pun intended!


Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke have been best friends for over twenty years and are the co-authors of the forthcoming THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY, out April 26th, as well as THE STATUS OF ALL THINGS and YOUR PERFECT LIFE. You can keep up with their writing antics at @lisandliz on Instagram. And for upcoming book events, go to Lizandlisa.com.

The Year We Turned Forty on Amazon and Indiebound

Enter the “Pre-Order” THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY contest to win 50 books!

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Writer’s Life: Lisa Scottoline

 

Lisa Scottoline--Credit April NarbyWhat I love most about the Writer’s Life interview series is the chance to glean wisdom from so many different writers. Today, Lisa Scottoline, New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels (whose current release, MOST WANTED, hit the shelves April 12) offers one of the best nuggets of parenting-cum-writing advice I’ve read yet: Be yourself. Meet Lisa:

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer? 

I was very close to both my mother and my father and they were wonderful parents. I truly think that the thing I learned from them that helps me as a writer is “Be yourself.” There is simply no better way to explain what voice is, in my opinion.

It’s a good thing to tell new writers because there is so much self-doubt in the beginning, and, truly, it never goes away completely. Writers often doubt if what they’re saying is different or original, or if their ideas are good enough, or if their characters are fresh. If you are being yourself when you write, or being your character, then the voice will be authentic, true, and original – and will also be compelling. There are only a few stories in the world. We probably all know the quote that there are only two plots: a stranger comes to town, and a man goes on a quest. But though there are very few stories, there is an unlimited number of stories told by you.  Or your character.  And so “Be yourself” is simply the best thing you can ever be in life and in writing.

Where do you write? What do you love about it? 

I write in my home. I love my house so much, especially because my five dogs and three cats are always around, which is like bringing a little nature and unpredictability into every situation. I have a sunroom I like to write in in the warmer months, and I just moved into it today because it’s spring. There’s a cherry tree right outside the window, and it’s very quiet because it overlooks my backyard. With the sun flowing inside, I feel like the luckiest writer in the world.

If you had a motto, what would it be?  

It would be “Be yourself,” for the reason I said above. But if I’m going to suggest a second motto, it would be “Just do it.” I borrowed that phrase from Nike when for so many years I was nervous about trying to become a writer and I had a lot of self-doubt and insecurity.  One day I just got so disgusted with doubting myself, I said to myself, “Just do it.” Writing is very behavioral, in that you have to sit down every day and settle those negative feelings inside, and just do it. I have a writing quota that I meet every day and I write seven days a week. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best way for me to write and to actually finish a draft, then I get to edit. And there will be a time when I’m writing and I come to an especially hard passage or plot point and I actually still say to myself, “Just do it!”

Who inspires you? 

I feel inspired by every book I read, because I see the interesting task that a writer has assigned himself or herself, and how he or she has gone about executing that idea. I’m proud of anybody who starts and finishes a novel, whether it gets published or not!

What charity or community service are you passionate about? Why?

I really love animals. I’m a vegetarian and I am very passionate about animal welfare. I wish we treated animals better in the world, not only dogs and cats, but aquatic animals and the like. I abhor factory farming, which is a disgrace. Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, nobody would eat meat. I think he is absolutely right. The more you know about animals, the more you understand yourself in relation to nature. I hope someday we will overcome our natural tendency to subjugate and kill such sentient and intelligent beings.


Thanks to Lisa and St. Martin’s Press for offering one copy of MOST WANTED for a giveaway! To enter, visit my Facebook page and click on “Giveaway” tab.


LISA SCOTTOLINE is a New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award-winning author of twenty-two novels. She has 30 million copies of her books in print in the United States, and she has been published in thirty-five countries. She has served as the president of Mystery Writers of America, and her thrillers have been optioned for television and film. She also writes a weekly humor column with her daughter, Francesca Serritella, for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and those critically acclaimed stories have been adapted into a series of memoirs, the first of which is entitled, Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog. She lives in the Philadelphia area with an array of disobedient pets. Visit scottoline.com for more info.

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“Beautiful, Hopeful, Gorgeous…” OMG!

It is with humble gratitude (and a helluva a lot of glee!) that I share a review by my fellow novelist, Lorraine Devon Wilke. Check her out, too!

What a beautiful, heartrending, ultimately hopeful story this is! I absolutely loved this book by Laura Nicole Diamond; it is gorgeously written, deeply felt, and set with such detail of character, plot, and emotion that a narrative about motherhood, loss, and the meaning of life becomes a true page-turner.

Told from the point of view of Sarah, a former attorney and married mother of two boys who has lost her six-week-old daughter to crib death, we follow her tumultuous trajectory through grief, self-examination, and a fascination with, and compulsion to help, a young homeless mother she stumbles upon in downtown Los Angeles. Distanced from her husband by a mix of his work demands and her own emotional turmoil, Sarah finds herself so drawn to the young woman that she takes some dubious risks, and makes some questionable choices, that not only cause her to question her own motives, but put her marriage and the life she’s attempted to rebuild in serious jeopardy. How she struggles to resolve each layer and nuance of this tsunami of issues becomes the churning center of Shelter Us.

As a native of Los Angeles, I particularly enjoyed the specificity of her “place,” picturing each turn of the road and image up ahead! As a mother, I reveled in her absolutely spot-on descriptions of the many elements of “mother love,” that powerful emotional world of indescribable, passionate love and never-ending need and frustration. Her illuminations on loss and grief will, no doubt, resonate deeply with anyone who’s lost someone they loved, particularly a young child to unexpected death. In fact, every element of this story rang true and deep, with its resolution built on compassion, forgiveness, and love the most salient of its themes.

A deeply satisfying read that I heartily recommend, I will be sure to follow this writer to whatever is next.