Savor Every Sweetness; It’s About to Get Nasty

Waiting in line yesterday at a coffee joint in my small-town Los Angeles suburban village,  I scanned newspaper headlines, and was drawn to the most catastrophic: the likely nomination of the Exxon Mobil CEO — a man with as much diplomatic experience as I (then again, maybe he didn’t spend a semester in Spain) —  as America’s Secretary of State. I wanted to shout FORGIVE US THOMAS JEFFERSON! Instead I emitted a muted groan, shook my head, and looked up to see a friend and her little girl at a table in the corner. My friend was reading the same newspaper. I walked over to them, touched her shoulder, and she looked up, aghast. We cupped our hands to our foreheads. Can this be for real?

Seeking solace, we turned to her daughter, a pre-schooler carefully sipping spoonfuls of oatmeal drowned in whole milk. We let our talk turn to baking gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies, and adopting puppies, and wondering when she’ll get a dog. We talked of things that might suck the poison out of our blood; emergency triage for the soul.

We are just two of the the millions of Americans horrified by each new designated Cabinet nominee and the damage they will do to our country — to our natural resources, to our economy, to our rights — and who are pulled by a primal desire to look away. To bury and busy ourselves in cookies and sweet singing and this little girl enjoying her oatmeal in her rainbow-striped sweater, yellow floral dress, and red and white striped tights. Maybe here in this village, in this coffee shop, in this protected affluence, we who don’t depend on the minimum wage, who can buy water flown in from Fiji if the tap turns bad, who might avoid the initial arrows of hate, have the luxury to look away.

But we can’t. I’m sorry, folks, we can’t look away forever. The world is counting on us.

So let’s get R&R, let’s bake cookies and build gingerbread houses and celebrate Bar Mitzvahs, but let’s remember they are not for hiding in, but for restoring us for the fight.

My friend asked as we parted, “Is your sign still up?” I smiled and said, “Yes. It is bathed and sparkling in holiday lights.” It is adorned for the duration.

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(In case you missed it, my lawn sign got the attention of a neighbor who opined in the local weekly paper that it was “silly” of me to keep it up. Thing was, I had just taken it down. After reading the paper, I had no choice but to restore it, lest anyone think I’d been cowed by the unsigned comment. Here it stands. I still think it’s pretty.)

Carolyn See: The Audacity of Creativity, Generosity, and Persistence

For a moment, I want to put aside all news related to grand-scale pain and death, and reflect on one single candle blown out yesterday, not by terrorism or war or weapon, but by cancer.

I want to pay tribute to author, teacher, inspirer, Carolyn See.

Thirty years ago I read her novel Golden Days. I was so young, I didn’t know anything about her, didn’t know that she was the queen of Literature of California, or even that she lived near my town. I knew only that her descriptions — like how it felt to drive on lazy, meandering Sunset Boulevard — would embed in my brain until they became my own world view.

Twenty years later, I was a mother of two young boys, timidly daring to spend free time writing, though not brave enough to call myself a writer. I came across another book of hers, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers

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Carolyn See helped me believe in my idea to write, edit and publish my first book. Her words helped me squash the inner voice that said I was an impostor, wannabe, dilettante. She spoke directly to me, and every other would-be writer hanging onto her advice, saying: Go For It. Cultivate Your Own Literary Life. She invited us in, but advised us that we’d have to push the door open and walk through by our own efforts. It wouldn’t be opened for us.

She commanded two essential ingredients: Write 1,000 words, and one charming note, five days a week. (Her daughter, novelist Lisa See, in the anthology What My Mother Gave Me, described this lesson as her mother’s gift to her.)

The thousand words a day I understood. But that “charming note” seemed so awkward. Who would I write? What would I say? “Hi, I really liked your book. Have a nice day.” How would that help me make a literary life?

I decided to trust her, and tried it. Once. Ten years ago, I wrote a note to Carolyn See herself. (I imagine she got a lot of those from people like me who couldn’t think of who else to write a note to.) I wouldn’t have remembered writing this note, but it turns out I never sent it. It appeared on my desk last week, unaddressed, except for her name.

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I opened it this morning after reading of her passing.

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I took her message to heart, and through years of writing, rewriting, abandoning, returning, and committing to the end goal, I became an author. In the words on the book jacket, “Carolyn See is not only a wonderful writer — she’s a wonderful writer who wants you to be a wonderful writer as well.” The audacity of generosity.

Dear Lisa, and dear Clara, your mother surely gave you many gifts, but I wanted to publicly thank her for the gift she gave me – allowing me to believe that the writing life was open to me, and so many others, simply if we wanted it.

We cannot always know where our inspiration or role models will come from, or to know what piece of advice will stick with us and make the difference years later. In a world whose grand trends can some days fill me with despair, I find solace today in zooming in, on focusing on one creative, original, and generous life lived.

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: Seré Prince Halverson

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Seré Prince Halverson is the internationally bestselling author of The Underside of Joy and All the Winters After, which was released yesterday! She is a sensitive observer of the beauty and frailty of the human condition, and her novels are infused with humanity, compassion, and love. In the brief meeting we had last Fall, I got the distinct sense, in the midst of the bookish hoopla going on around her, that she was infused with a calm, steady wisdom. Having four grown kids may do that. I’m pleased to introduce you to Seré Prince Halverson.

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

Trust the process. (My children are grown now, so allow me this benefit of hindsight.) Like most parents, I had my share of self-doubt, the realization that I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, there were those shiny moments when I knew, with renewed certainty, that I had this down, that no one else could so expertly raise these particular children into adulthood without the benefit of my vast understanding, humor, and intuition. Ha. But soon things would fall apart again—on the drive home from practice or at the dinner table. We’ve all been there. Still, we keep showing up, trying to do our best, trying to listen, learning as we go, mostly learning from the kids we’re attempting to teach.

All this can be said for my characters too. I keep showing up, writing through the self-doubt, listening, trusting that when it’s time to let them go, they’re going to somehow find their way in the world.

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

We live in a house that’s surrounded by trees but fortunately still gets a lot of sun. I write in a small room that was an open loft before it was finished off with sloping wood-lined walls and lots of angles. It’s like a starving artist’s garret, but more comfortable. (My husband is a great cook so there’s no starving going on here.) One of the windows looks out over our living room and to the trees-and-sky view beyond. I have a cozy daybed, a desk, an old upholstered chair, lots of books, and my dog and cat for company. What do I love about it? Everything. But it’s a little too comfortable. Recently I moved my mini trampoline in to encourage me to get up and move more.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

My motto, like life, is always changing. Right now it’s: Get Up and Move More.

Who inspires you?

I’m lucky; I’m surrounded by people who inspire me in different ways: my husband, my kids, my family and friends, other writers and artists. Small and big acts of courage, kindness, vision, honesty, generosity, and tenacity all inspire me to try to be better. My dog, Stuart, inspires me to greet each morning with more tail-wagging enthusiasm. I’m working on that—but only after coffee.

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

I recently read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton—a tender sword through my soul. Everyone should read it, and apparently everyone is. I just started The Story of a New Name, the second book in the addictive Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series. So good.

Recommending for book clubs: Three wonderful books that just came out in paperback: Pieces of My Mother, a memoir by Melissa Cistaro; The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy; and A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison. And I devoured The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, which is available in March. [Ed. note: And who will be interviewed here in March.]

Recommending for writers: Because You Have To by Joan Frank; Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memorists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature edited by Meredith Maran; The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop by Steven Koch

On the top of my towering to-read pile: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa; The Spirit of Grace by Terry Thomas; A Paper Son by Jason Buchholz; Shelter Us by Laura Nicole Diamond (I’ve heard this one is exceptionally good). [Editor’s note: Isn’t she sweet?]


Seré Prince Halverson is the international bestselling author of The Underside of Joy (2012) and All the Winters After (February 2016)—novels that explore nature, grief, forgiveness, and the intimate layers of family. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages. She and her husband have four grown children and live in Northern California in a house in the woods. www.sereprincehalverson.com and www.whomovedmybuddha.blogspot.com.

All the Winters After on Amazon and Indiebound

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Kachemak Winkel never intended to return to Caboose, Alaska, after his family died in a plane crash twenty years earlier. When he finally musters the courage to face the abandoned homestead where he grew up, he’s surprised to find a mysterious young Russian woman hiding from her own troubled past. Nadia has kept the house exactly the same–a haunting museum of life before the crash. And she’s lived there, afraid and utterly isolated, for a decade. Set in the majestic yet dangerous natural beauty of Alaska, All the Winters After is the story of two bound souls trying to free themselves, searching for family and forgiveness.

Writer’s Life: Julia Claiborne Johnson

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When you meet Julia Claiborne Johnson (and I really hope you do), you will be instantly charmed. She is authentic, humble, and though she hates speaking in public, she pulls you in with her humor and vulnerability in a way that makes her unforgettable. The same can be said of her debut novel, BE FRANK WITH ME, which launches today.  If you are fortunate enough to attend a book event, please go. You’ll make her so happy, and you’ll be smiling all the way home, too. Meet Julia:

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

What I have learned from parenting is that I know nothing, though I thought I knew everything. I mean, once you’ve been a kid, you think you understand exactly what it must be like to raise one. So I was an idiotically confident parent in my twenties, when I didn’t actually have any children. Flash forward to my forties, and having kids, and feeling absolutely incompetent when it came to raising them. That’s why there’s an older mother and a younger woman helping her temporarily parent the kid in my book. They’re the two versions of me as a parent, the idealist and the exhausted.

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

My very favorite place to work in my house is our guest room. There’s a guest in it more often than there isn’t, but when it’s empty, man oh man, my whole family fights over it. For one thing, it has the most comfortable bed in the house. That’s my husband’s favorite place to work. For me, I like the desks. There are two of them—a big one where I can spread out papers, and a little one where I can put my computer. I sit at the little desk and look out my window at the fountain in our garden where the birds come to drink and bathe. I love it there. It’s also very tidy, because it’s the guest room, and all the furniture is nice, because it’s the guest room. It has its own bathroom. Sometimes I pretend it’s my studio apartment, and I live in it all alone, in Manhattan. I realize all this is crazy since there would be no birdbath outside my studio apartment in New York since when I was young and living by myself I always lived in some dangerous not-Manhattan neighborhood of New York and cried every night when I came home from work because I lived by myself and was sure I always would. No birds, no birdbaths, just stray cats fighting in the yard all night and waking me up so I could cry some more. That thing Fitzgerald said was right: “In the real dark heart of the soul it’s always three o’clock in the morning.”

If you had a motto, what would it be?

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” The thing I’m going to have engraved on my gravestone is “I had a coupon.”

Who inspires you?

You know who inspires me? This is a horrible thing to say, but it’s all the bullies and the popular mean girls in grade school, who laughed at me for being clumsy and chubby, for having to eat food that was different from everybody else in school (allergies) and who picked me last for every team and never invited me to slumber parties. I’ll show them! Clearly, in my heart I’m still nine years old. Some scars don’t heal, I guess.

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

I just read The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee. Guess what it’s about? Expatriates in Hong Kong. It was fascinating. Then I went back and read her first novel, The Piano Teacher. Also terrific. My favorite book on earth is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. I also love I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. And one of the best and most helpful books for me as a writer was the biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. I learned so much from that.

Julia Claiborne Johnson worked at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines before marrying and moving to Los Angeles, where she lives with her comedy-writer husband and their two children. Connect with Julia on  Facebook and Twitter. See her Book video  or read an excerpt from Be Frank With Me.

BE FRANK WITH ME on Amazon or Indiebound  

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Coming Tomorrow…the Writer’s Life Interviews.

Think of this post as the soft opening before the Grand Opening of a new series on this blog, Writer’s Life Interviews. Tomorrow, you’ll meet author Julia Claiborne Johnson, whose debut novel BE FRANK WITH ME is launching to excellent reviews. Julia is the perfect author to kick off this series, as her novel tells the story of a unique child, Frank; his overwhelmed, reclusive author mother; and the idealistic young assistant who enters the fray to help them both.

I’m so excited for this new series of Writer’s Life interviews. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that my children turned me into a writer; motherhood was my muse. So I love to hear how writers blend their personal and writing lives, to peer into their creative processes, and to get to know them outside of their books.

I’ll ask everyone these questions, and they can answer as many as they want:

1. What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
2. Where do you write? What do you love about it?
3. If you had a motto, what would it be?
4. Who inspires you?
5. What charity or community service are you passionate about these days?
6. What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I hope you’ll enjoy meeting new authors, or getting to know “old favorites” in a different way. For me, preparing the interviews have already paid unexpected dividends in the form of parenting wisdom and great book recommendations.

See you tomorrow with Julia Claiborne Johnson!

– Laura

P.S. What burning question do you have that you’d like me to pose?