Thursday, December 6, 2018

Holidays

This week I have been blessed with some of the best reviews of my career for my new book, Kitchen Yarns: Notes in Love, Life and Food. It has been picked as People Magazine Book of the Week, Amazon Best December Book in both memoir and cookbooks, Washington Post top ten, Real Simple December Book, and even more! Just shows how food—eating it, cooking it, writing about it—is love and comfort. I hope you like the book, and that the recipes make you and your loved ones happy.

But with all this joy comes a sadness over missing my mom. I’ve been plowing ahead all year, getting done all the things that need to get done, working hard to keep grief in check. But the holidays always kind of keep us from sticking to that plan, don’t they? So it’s lots of pj time, knitting, reading, and keeping people I love close for me these days. Gobbling up Jane Gardham novels. Knitting hats like crazy. And binge watching The Great British Baking Show. Whatever brings comfort, right? I hope you are all doing the same, taking care of yourself during this happy sad time of year.

To celebrate my birthday my husband, kids, and cousins are spending the weekend in NYC: To Kill A Movkingbird, King Kong, Andy Warhol at the Whitney, Sam’s play Sources of Light Other Than the Sun, dinner at The Beatrice Inn and brunch at Untitled, birthday cake and lots of love. 💕 Even when sadness strikes, I remind myself I’m one lucky girl.

Tonight I’m making Gogo’s sauce and meatballs for dinner. Food. It keeps us close. Cook something that makes you smile. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Gracie Belle Books

I am so proud of Gracie Belle Books, my new imprint at Akashic Books dedicated to publishing beautifully written, unflinchingly honest books about grief. Our debut book is NOW YOU SEE THE SKY by Catharine Murray, a memoir about the life and death of her young son. But really, like all good memoirs, it’s about so much more: love, family, faith, hope, and the power of the human spirit. Tonight I will be with Catharine at Books on the Square in Providence at 7PM. I hope if you are nearby that you’ll join us there. You can buy NOW YOU SEE THE SKY at your favorite independent bookstore or Barnes and Noble, or order it here:
https://www.amazon.com/Now-You-See-Catharine-Murray/dp/1617756660/ref=nodl_

For many years writing students have Come to me for help with their memoirs about grief over the loss of their child, spouse, parents, sibling, or friends.  I have nurtured and read so many gorgeous stories that explore this part of the human condition: the loss of someone precious to you. In so many ways these stories are everyone’s story, as inevitably we all experience deep grief. However I found that even those Raiders who got an agent or put the manuscript in and editor’s hands, were told there was no market for books like this; or that people wouldn’t read them because the story was too sad; or there were already enough grief books out there.  I know, as you probably know, that there could never be enough books about this enormous human emotion. Every year – – no! Every day! Dash – There are more people beginning their own grief journey. And the more books that we can put in their hands the more we come together to help each other navigate grief.

 Catharine had been a student of mine long ago at a writers conference in Maine. Even then I was struck by the beauty of her writing and the depth and breath of her sorrow. It took Catharine years to finally turn the pages that I first read into the gorgeous memoir that became now you see the sky. I was so honored when she asked me to read the manuscript as an outside reader for her MFA thesis.  When I finish the book I put it down, moved and impressed but also frustrated because I knew that this beautiful book would most likely not find a home. I was so tired of having gifted writer is unable to place they’re beautiful books.

And so I took a risk. I emailed Johnny Temple at a Akashic books and basically told him what I’ve written here. Would he consider an imprint that published these important, necessary books? I know Johnny and I know that he has a generous heart and an open mind. I hit SEND and held my breath. To my utter delight, Johnny immediately said yes. And Gracie Belle Books was born.

 As many of you know, I lost my own five-year-old daughter Grace in 2002. I resisted writing my own memoir about my grief but as time passed I began to write essays that explored an illuminated my own journey. Eventually those essays were knit together to become my book comfort: a journey through grief. My own brave publisher, WW Norton, and my wonderful editor Jill Bialosky took a risk on that book and on me. Now I have the opportunity to do the same, giving voice to writers who can articulate this most human emotion and leave the reader spellbound, wiser, empathetic, and hopeful.

The imprint is named for my Gracie. The logo is a drawing of little wire rimmed glasses like she wore. I’m so happy to honor her in this way, by bringing more stories into the world that will help us all on this path called life. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Amtrak musings

I’m on my weekly trip on Amtrak from Penn Station in NYC to Providence. It’s always more fun when my fabulous husband is with me, but alas this week he is off to San Diego for a conference. I’ve had the great joy these past few years of enjoying the company and the love of a wonderful guy. When we travel together we play cards, read to each other and read separately, even enjoy eating and drinking similar things. On Amtrak that’s Dunkin Donuts dark roast and bagels that we complain about for being under toasted. Alone like today, I always work until New Haven and then put on the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast and listen while I knit. It’s a quiet few hours with just me and my thoughts.

My brain and heart have been working overtime these few weeks. I finally have all the photo albums from my 25 years of marriage and family life, and have begun the heartbreaking and laborious process of scanning them and sending them to the cloud, wherever that is. Yes, many of these make me smile. I’ve had fun texting pictures to cousins and friends when they appear, holding Sam or Grace or celebrating some holiday. But seeing my beautiful Grace—her steady gaze, her sly smile, her joy—slays me. As do the pictures of my parents, vibrant and alive,doting on my kids and on me. The pictures of the year and a half when it was just Sam and me reminded me of the wonderful family I have and all the people I can still call friends. They reminded me too of how the bond was formed between him and me in those days. So many pictures of us asleep together, traveling together, laughing together. I’ve been struck by how the pictures taken in Grace’s first year fill me with an unexpected sadness. Here is my young family, having fun and celebrating together. I peer at those faces, at my own happy face, at the draft Victorian  we called home. I was so happy in that life then, and it shows. Yet much of it was an illusion; this has been a difficult part of moving on. I’m only in 1997 still—so many pictures, so many years—and I know there are more unexpected feelings to come as I turn these dry discolored pages and send my loved ones and my past to that cloud.

But today I turn my attention to my present. This slouchy hat I’m knitting with sock yarn. This book I’m reading to blurb. The student papers to read and comment on. The manuscripts to consider for Gracie Belle Books (and oh! What a successful launch for NOW YOU SEE THE SKY by Catharine Murray, our debut book!). My own novel and the research that it requires (I’m still that girl who loves a library). The books I’m reading and almost finished—the new Tana French and Jane Gardham’s FLIGHT OF THE MAIDENS—and wondering which to read next. Thanksgiving planning: menus, shopping lists, writing names on the seashells I collected on Sanibel Island. Tonight’s dinner for Annabelle and me: roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green veggie. I’ll roast the carcass overnight with leeks and carrots and wake to a rich stock for tomorrow’s tortellini soup (Michael taught me this trick for stock, and the recipe is in KITCHEN YARNS: NOTES ON LOVE, LIFE, AND FOOD, my new book coming December 5).

Almost at New Haven. Time to pick up my needles. I hope you are knitting something lovely and reading something you can’t put down. I hope you can look forward to thanksgiving with love and joy. I hope that if you are or were lonely, devalued, emotionally mistreated, ignored or betrayed, you can find the strength to believe in yourself, to look back with some happiness at what was good. I hope you find the love of a good person, who adores you and treasures you; and that you find the great pleasure of doing the same. Oh! This life can be hard! But remind yourself how absolutely wonderful it can be too. For that, I’m grateful. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Stuff

And I mean stuff. The things we surround ourselves with. The small statues of a man and a woman from Uzbekistan and Sicily and Peru (yes, I’m obsessed with these renditions of couples), the yarn (guilty), the oddly heart shaped stone or bit of blue sea glass; the photos; the letters and birthday cards. And so much more.

This week I am clearing out my mother’s house. I can’t tell you how many personal essays by students I’ve read about this very thing over the years. It’s a place most of us ultimately go. A heart wrenching sad horrible place.

I hate doing it. But I think once you’ve had to look through your daughter’s stuff after she died, and decide what to keep and what to give away, you are almost numb to this task, because nothing can be worse than looking through her kindergarten papers and odd drawings and hidden candy.

To add to this emotional gumbo, I’m also finally able to copy photos from my family photo albums—the 25 years of having and raising my children, traveling with them from Japan to Peru to Cambodia and beyond, first days of school and Halloween’s, and so much more. For reasons too ugly to write about here, these have been kept from me. I made these albums with such love and care that the condition they’re in—dry, faded, stuck forever to the page—shocked me. But despite the fact they’ve been kept from me, seeing these photos again reminded me how happy I was with my little family, how I loved watching Sam and Grace play with a garden hose (so much so that it takes up three pages of an album) and dressing up for Halloween and walking on Rhode Island’s beautiful beaches. And so much more.

I will say that the pain of divorce can make you forget how once you felt so blessed.

I will say that the pain of losing my mother only reminds me how blessed I was for my own parents.

Someday my kids will be doing what I’m doing this week. They will look at my little Uzbek couple and think how weird I was. They will probably give them away. But I hope as they do they also remember what a fearless traveler I was, how I took them by their little hands and brought them around the world, how I played games and cooked and listened to them. This is what matters more than stuff. And as I look at all of Gogo’s things, I remember her, my mom, wise and honest and vulnerable and big hearted and funny and a great card player. Not one thing I’ve had to decide whether to keep or discard is as important as that.

Some of you are reading this and you are going through the same thing. Hold fast to the memories. The stuff isn’t as important. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Books Books Books

Remember that I promised to tell you all the things I’m excited about? Let me start with the launch book for my new imprint, Gracie Belle Books. We are publishing 1-2 books a year on grief, and on November 6 our very first one, NOW YOU SEE THE SKY, by Catharine Murray makes its debut. If you live near Portland Maine you can go to her reading on November 7 at Print Bookstore. Check out Catharine’s website for all of her events, but Rhode Islanders can come to Books on the Square on November 15 to hear me in conversation with her about her gorgeous memoir.

Another book that has me all excited is THE AFTERLIFE OF KENZABURO TSURUDA by my former student and dear pal Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo. Sadly, Beth died too young and a gaggle if her friends worked to bring her novel to the world. I am so proud to be among them. On November 1 at 7PM, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Elizabeth Searle and I will be at An Unlikely Story in Plainfield MA to read from and discuss Beth’s novel. Please join us if you can. And if you can’t, please read this beautiful book.

I’m also jumping for joy that we have dates for my Spannocchia Writers Conference in beautiful Tuscany. I will be under the Tuscan sun with Andre Dubus lll, Stewart O’Nan, my fabulous husband Michael Ruhlman, and almost definitely Laura Lippman. Join us August 16-23, 2019! For info email Henry at spannocchiawritersworkshop@gmail.com

Thrilled to that bookreporter.com is offering this giveaway for my new book, KITCHEN YARNS: NOTES ON LIFE, LOVE, AND FOOD. Pub date is December 6 but it’s available for pre-order now. Or maybe you’ll get one here?
https://www.facebook.com/747721838/posts/10156481429976839/

Finally, not a book thing but I can’t stop knitting slouchy hats with sock yarn! Perfect train knitting as I travel the northeast corridor every week! 

What is a low residency MFA program?

I have so many exciting things going on I’m about to burst! I’ll tell you all about them in a separate post. Here I want to talk about The Newport MFA, a low residency program on the gorgeous Salve Regina University campus in Newport RI that I founded and Co direct with the talented poet Jen McClanaghan. Lots of people don’t know about the wonders of a low res program, so here’s everything you need to know about ours!

THE NEWPORT MFA FACT SHEET:

Our vibrant low-residency program confers an MFA in creative writing in one of the world's most beautiful settings. Newport, Rhode Island is a vacationland steeped in cultural and literary history - home to novelists and to novels by Henry James, Thornton Wilder and Edith Wharton.
The Newport MFA immerses students in the creative life through an intensive study of the craft of writing guided by dedicated faculty. Residencies consist of daily workshops, craft lectures, manuscript consultations, and keynote readings, initiating students into the writing life as well as the business of publishing and editing. Students spend the months between residencies writing and reflecting in an individualized mentorship with eminent writers.
Our program is dedicated to the rigor of graduate study, to providing outstanding guides and mentors in the field, and to balancing the solitude of writing with a dynamic community experience. Students may choose to specialize in fiction, historical fiction, poetry or nonfiction.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LOW RESIDENCY PROGRAM AND A STANDARD MFA?
A standard MFA program requires students to live on or near the university for 2-3 years and to attend workshops, classes and lectures every week for two semesters a year.
A low residency MFA program requires students to attend two week-long campus residencies a year. During that week—one in January and one in June--students attend workshops, classes, craft talks, and readings. In between residencies, students work one-on-one with a faculty member by sending monthly packets of creative work and reading annotations via email or standard mail. 
In the third semester, students continue writing creatively while also writing a critical thesis under the mentorship of a faculty member. The fourth semester is devoted to creative work—finishing that novel or memoir, the poetry or short story or essay collection. During the final and fifth semester residency, graduating students give a craft talk and a reading from their work.
The benefits of a low residency MFA program are many. A student gets to have a writing community without needing to move from home or work while still enjoying a rigorous, creative environment during the residencies. During the non-residency semesters, students get the opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty while during the residencies they attend faculty run workshops with their peers. In addition, students meet and interact with guest writers, editors, and agents during the residencies. With the responsibilities of family, work, and life demands, a low residency MFA program allows students to get their MFA without changing their lives.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE NEWPORT MFA FROM OTHER LOW RESIDENCY MFAS?
The Newport MFA is held on the campus of beautiful Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. Salve Regina’s eighty acre campus is made up of seven Gilded Age estates, including Ochre Court, a fifty room mansion where we hold our opening night reception. The campus is bordered on one side by the famous Cliff Walk, a 3.5 mile path overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The Newport MFA gives students the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate beautiful, historic Newport, Rhode Island. Founded in 1639—under the governorship of famous traitor Benedict Arnold—by the turn of the twentieth century, Newport became the summer residence for some of the wealthiest families in the United States, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. Edith Wharton famously described the social scene in Newport in her 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence“Ah, good conversation,” Wharton wrote of Newport, “there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.” We couldn’t agree more! Jackie Kennedy grew up on Hammersmith Farm, where in 1953 the wedding reception for her marriage to John F. Kennedy was held. 
During the June residency, students and faculty take an afternoon sailing trip together to enjoy the summer sunshine and to see Newport from the water, as thousands do every year. In January, we tour the beautiful mansions that line Bellevue Avenue, to understand and experience Newport’s history. 
In addition to our breathtaking, historical setting, The Newport MFA is unique because of our faculty and guest writers. 
The director, Ann Hood, is the author of the best selling novels The Knitting Circle, The Obituary Writer, and The Book That Matters Most; the memoir, Comfort: A journey Through Grief, which was named one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008; and has received two Pushcart prizes, two Best American Food Writing Awards, a Best American Travel Writing Award, and A Best American Spiritual Writing Award.
Hood and Program Director, the poet Jen McClanaghan who is the winner of the 2009 Georgetown Review Prize, author of the poetry collection River Legs, and Salve Regina University writer-in-residence, are at the residencies with our students and faculty, which includes Charles Coe, Alden Jones, Edgar Kunz, Allen Kurzweil, Bernadette Murphy, Taylor Polites, and Tim Weed.
Guest faculty includes Alice Hoffman, Andre DubusIII, Dani Shapiro, Sheila Weller, and Major Jackson, among others.
WHAT’S THIS ABOUT HAVANA?
Our optional Havana Residency in January is a one-of-a-kind experience. Along with regular workshops and craft talks, students actively engage with Cuban writers and artists, explore off the beaten track historical and cultural sites, and visit Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia.
The Newport MFA: a perfect combination of creativity, history, beauty, and inspiration, which is all yours to have. Just call or email us for more information or to get an application. Remember, we have new classes beginning every June and January!
Phone: (800) 637-0002
Email: admissions.salve.edu

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

On Revision

Today I hit send on my new novel. For the fourth time. Each time I thought I had written a lovely, moving, compelling story and each time my agent told me “Not yet.”  Here’s the thing. She’s always right. When you are so close to the story, it’s hard to see its flaws, where it falters, what it still needs. This time I did a major overhaul. I added two other POVs. I changed the ending. Completely. I did what Joseph Conrad suggests: re vision. To see the story anew. It may still be not quite right, but with each revision it gets closer. I hope. Dare I say like life itself? We keep tweaking and revising as we go, sometimes doing a major overhaul. And sometimes life does the revision for us. I spent a lot of time today thinking and writing, and much of that thinking and writing was trying to articulate my life revisions. At sixty, I completely changed my life. For the better. My mom told me one day as I cried at her kitchen table: You're not going to be cute forever, you know! What are you waiting for?
I was terrified and exhilarated stepping into a new life, setting up a new home with Annabelle, changing my life completely. Major overhaul. Who would have thought that I would find true love and embark on an exciting revision with someone who loves everything I do—reading, cooking, eating, traveling, playing cards, talking about literature. The list is long. But then life did a big revision by taking Gogo. The weight of this loss sends me to bed, or to pick up my knitting needles. The taking apart of her house, our family’s home for over a hundred thirty years, saddens and depletes me. But then Annabelle and I curl up together and binge watch The Gilmore Girls, her head in my lap. Or my husband makes me dinner and tells me to just sit and knit. Or I see Sam walking down a NYC street toward me and get wrapped in one of his amazing Sam hugs. Or I stay in bed with my computer on my lap and two cats on my feet. I don’t know if my latest revisions on this novel are right yet. I only know you keep at it, cutting and changing and adding new POV. You just keep at it.