Bring It On Home: A Review


Mark Blake’s Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin and Beyond - The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager tells the life story of Led Zeppelin’s manager of Peter Grant, a man who lived a life that has become part myth and legend. Throughout, Blake tells stories such as Grant holding a promoter out the window by his ankles to get the money owed, but we never quite know if the stories told are in fact true. 

Peter Grant was born to a single mother and grew into a physical giant, and by his early twenties was acting as a bouncer at some of London’s clubs. He started working as a promoter and manager, and used his physical size to his advantage, often scaring club owners who tried to underpay the bands hired. Eventually, Grant started working with acts such as the Everly Brothers and Gene Vincent. Grant really learned the job while managing Vincent, who was known for tantrums and drunken rages which Grant had to diffuse. When Grant started working with the Yardbirds, he developed an affinity for Jimmy Page and realized the guitarist’s true talent, and decided to hitch his carriage to the young rising star. The two became great friends and confidantes.

Led Zeppelin was Jimmy Page’s band, and Grant managed the band on that principle. He negotiated deals with the record companies that gave Led Zeppelin total artistic control of the music production and album covers. These deals were unheard of at the time. In an even more brazen move, once Led Zeppelin quickly became a hot band, Grant demanded the band get a 90/10 split from ticket sales compared to the standard 60/40 split. Grant also played hardball, insisting the band be paid in cash before their shows, and he and his crew were often carrying around satchels with tens of thousands of dollars on them. He often had the band wait at the hotel until he was given the satchels with cash. Only after they were paid, would they hop in the limos to the venue.

Some people have referred to Peter Grant as the fifth member of the band. His work behind the scenes gave Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham the chance to develop and shine while he sheltered them from any distractions or legal troubles. Grant is said to be one of the last managers to have served the band first. Early on, he decided the band would not do TV appearances which helped foster their mystique. At times, Grant played up his reputation as a tough guy, and the rumors of his exploits to get his bands paid grew over time until many in the music business feared him. Images of Grant in the Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same reinforced this stereotype. How many of these stories were true, or grew through exaggeration through the years, is left unsaid. 

Success brought the band many temptations - including cocaine and heroin - and Grant and the crew did more than their fair share of coke. Drunken nights at the hotels with the best booze, the finest drugs and beautiful young women became common, and then a problem. When John Bonham died after a night of heavy drinking, the band was shattered and decided they could not to go on. Peter Grant was particularly fond of Bonham, and blamed himself for not being with the band that night when he possibly could have changed the tragic night. Blake also takes us into the creation of Swan Song Records, which Led Zeppelin started to produce other bands, most notably Bad Company. But when the music ended for Zeppelin, the money flow also slowed, and Grant became a recluse in his mansion, quietly removing himself from the music scene for years. Friends and family discuss the complicated man, and how he often regretted the hard ball tactics he used as a young man in the music business. In the end, months before his death, Grant received honors from the music industry. 

I’m a fan of Led Zeppelin but didn’t know the details behind the band, so I found Bring It On Home an interesting look at backstage lives of the band, and more importantly, how this man and his and strived to balance the art and business of music.

Burning Down The Haus: A Review


Tim Mohr’s Burning Down The Haus provides an unflinching glimpse into the punk rebellion of 1980s East Germany, and it is glorious.

From the first line, where Mohr documents the first punk as a fifteen year old girl in East Berlin, he details how kids first started recording punk songs heard on West Berlin radio stations, and soon started reading smuggled articles and photos about the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and other first generation bands. 

Due to the repressive state of East Germany, where the government breathed down the neck of its citizens in all aspects of life, the punk ethos flourished quickly amongst disaffected youth as a “fuck you!” Within months, East German punks started their own bands, practicing in basements and attics of abandoned buildings, squatting in spaces long unused.

Mohr has interviewed many of the punks and punk sympathizers from this era, giving the reader an inside look at the thoughts and actions of the band members and activists. He documents a punk singer named Chaos:

Now he had the band. This was something Chaos wanted to do, something he had to do. He had always felt hemmed in when he got angry, unable to run, unable to escape the rage and creeping dread. Now he could burn all of that out of his system. Give him a mic and he could channel that incandescent rage into a laser, leaving scorched earth around him, and at least a brief calm inside him. (pg 51)

The state responded harshly, at first harassing kids with mohawks and leather jackets in an effort to stamp down the movement. It didn’t work. The punks found unlikely allies in some of the churches, which offered safe spaces for meetings and shows, despite mounting pressure from the authorities. This is a world where the Stazi worked to flip members of the punk community into informants. Police regularly raided and ransacked band member’s apartments in an effort to find lyrics to songs that could be used to prosecute bands. Several punks were sentenced to prison for singing lyrics that criticized the government.

Despite being harassed, beaten and jailed by police, the punk ethos proved resilient, and Mohr captures the movement beautifully throughout the book, such as with this passage. 

Being a punk was completely different. Every fiber of your being was a dissenting opinion, an open affront to the system, a break from the future planned for you and everyone else, you were protest incarnate, twenty-four seven. (pg 98)

While people in the community may have thought the punks were strange, seeing neighborhood kids return from Stazi and police interrogations with bruises on their faces, they sympathized with the kids.

As punk music grew throughout East Germany like flowers in the dustbin, the youth began networking amongst themselves and became activists, often joining with churches and other peace activists.

It wasn’t just a case of punks shouting that the world was fucked. There was something constructive happening, too, with all the events, the squatted spaces, the network of contacts – the punks were finding free space and beginning to create an alternative reality, their own reality, their own world. ( pg 133)

The strength of Mohr’s book are in the detailed lives of the punks themselves. In addition to interviews, Mohr has combed through government files kept on bands and punks who were constantly under surveillance. He also documents funny moments such when a punk, wanted by authorities, dressed in drag to attend his father’s funeral. Mohr’s storytelling is very cinematic, and I could see this story be made into an amazing independent film.

Burning Down The Haus is a fascinating read about resistance in a repressive state run country, and definitely worth your time.

Starting with Goodbye: Lisa Romeo on Writing

Lisa Romeo's newly released memoir “Starting with Goodbye,” is about rediscovering “her enigmatic father after his death.” She first started exploring her relationship with her father through writing a series of essays, before turning her writing into a memoir. Lisa has also been published in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, among many others.  I first met Lisa Romeo at the HippoCamp Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, where she has led energetic workshops that renew the writers’ spirits. My own father passed away when I was twenty years old, so I’m fascinated with the idea of how a parent lives on through the memory of their children. I wanted to ask Lisa about the process of writing her insightful memoir.

Jim: Your dad was generous with his children and others, but he wasn't overly talkative. You write about how he'd ask the same few questions during a phone call before handing the phone to your mom. How did writing the memoir help you understand your father?

Lisa: When I used to try to talk to my father when he was alive, it seemed to take a long time and a lot of patience for him to loosen up in conversations that were serious. On the surface, he was a very friendly person, interested in others, easy to laugh with. But if you wanted to have a deeper conversation, that took time and frankly, I was impatient with him, rarely sitting still long enough. His first instinct seemed to be to deflect attention from himself and lighten the situation, and my first instinct is to get right to the point. We were mismatched as discussion partners.

After he was gone however, I got more curious about his small talk, and the ways in which he communicated by staying quiet. When I was writing about the grief process and what was going through my mind, I felt able to figure him out for the first time, to appreciate his communication style for what it was—not a way to push others away, but a way to assure himself that his counsel was valued enough in an exchange to offer his deepest thoughts and guidance and be taken seriously. Once I understood that, I had many “conversations” with him, or I should say, with his absent presence.

Jim: Your memoir started as a series of essays. Can you tell us about the moment you thought these could/should be a memoir? Was that a flash where you realized it was inevitable or did the thought strike doubt and fear at first?

Lisa: After I’d published a half-dozen or so essays on various aspects of this experience, and still kept writing more, I envisioned a collection of linked essays. By the time I had 13 pieces, I pulled them together, wrote a few more essays, and began to think of it as a book. Alas, others didn’t agree! I got very similar feedback from various people I trusted – a few publishers, a couple of beta readers, a mentor, and a book coach – along the lines of, “These are lovely individually but not as a book.” The advice was that it would work better as a more traditional narrative memoir.

I put off acting on that for a few years. An essayist at heart, I wasn’t ready to abandon the form (and I also worried it would take years). Finally, I realized that even if it never sold, I had to take the plunge and transform the essays into memoir, if only for the experience of doing so, to grow and develop as a writer and see what happened. As it turned out, the process was more fun than I anticipated, and took only four months. Breaking down those essays, having the choice to delete and move things around, opened up many new possibilities. The essays became kindling, not mandatory blocks, freeing me in many ways.

Jim: Towards the end of the book you state that if an unexamined life isn't worth living, you believe that an unexamined grief is a bigger loss. I love that sentiment. We live in a culture where people don't want to examine the inevitable death and loss. How has examining your grief changed your perspective on life?

Lisa: It’s had an unexpectedly calming effect, in the sense that death, grief, and end-of-life now seem much more normal to me, more of a regular part of life, which is how I think it should be. Unfortunately, in our culture those things are so often taboo to think and talk about. In some ways I’ve given myself permission to engage with these natural aspects of our human condition, and that has made them somewhat less scary. Aside from personal, selfish ramifications, I hope too that this experience has made me more able to talk with others about their death, grief, and end-of-life experiences, to be more compassionate and open minded; to listen more deeply.

Jim: Has your family read the memoir yet? If so, how did they react?

Lisa: Unless there are major issues I’m unclear about, I’m not the sort of writer who typically shares my work with others until publication. It’s my story and I tend not to want to hear others’ memories. I did ask my husband and older son to read the manuscript late in the process, and they had some helpful thoughts on final revisions. Where I was writing about my parents’ lives before I was born, I read some passages over the phone to my brother, and had my sister read some pages because they’re 8 and 12 years older than I am. As for reactions, I don’t know: I specifically didn’t ask if anyone “liked” what they read because I didn’t want to get caught up in making revisions to gain approval.

Jim: Your HippoCamp Class on Submission Strategy was motivation for us writers who don't stay on top of submitting our work. What's your one bit of advice for staying on top of the submission game?

Lisa: Regularity. Keep at it, a little bit here, a little bit there. Keep the pipeline filled. There’s no sense in having completed, polished (short) work biding time in your computer because you are wary about the outcome. That’s like rejecting yourself before you’ve even given an editor a chance to reject—or accept!

Jim: Thanks Lisa!

Read more about Lisa Romeo at her website. You can order Starting with Goodbye on IndieBound or Amazon.

Nomadland: A Review


In Nomadland, Jessica Bruder explores a rag tag group of roving campers who live day-to-day, finding short-term, menial labor at places such as RV parks and Amazon fulfillment centers. Many have lost their homes and/or their retirement nest eggs in the 2008 housing debacle and have scraped enough money to purchase rusty RVs, retro-fitted cargo vans, or other homes on wheels. They have either decided or been forced to discard America’s consumer culture, and they seek to live off the grid and under the radar. This is an unsettling but fascinating read that raises questions about America's future.

The most dystopian sections of this nonfiction book are those that detail the backbreaking labor of the “workampers” inside the Amazon fulfillments centers. Many of these laborers are in their sixties, some in their seventies. The pace and pressure inside these centers often leads to exhaustion and injuries. Bruder took a position in one such center but didn’t last very long, and the stories from inside these centers read like they are taking place in prisons or work camps.

Many of these "vandwellers" are people who have realized they can’t afford retirement in their homes and have decided to live on four wheels. They often find their inspiration in John Steinbeck's writing, In fact, many of these travelers share dog-eared copies of Steinbeck's book, "Travels with Charley," and publish their own personal travel blogs. They keep in touch through Facebook groups, coordinating loose knit tribes that often gather for short periods of time in southwest communities with names such as Slab City, where they learn how to live frugally and help each other in this underground economy.

One of those featured in the book is Bob Wells, who “suggests vandwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order. Whether or not they chose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”

Bruder stumbled onto this Vonnegut quote which vandwellers share -

….Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.

In the end, Bruder's travels with this American sub-culture leads her to ask the basic question: “What parts of this life are you willing to give up, so you can keep on living?”

I’d classify Nomadland as dystopian nonfiction. I hate to suggest you should order the book from Amazon, so I’ll recommend you pick it up from your local library or independent bookstore.

Pennsylvania Scrapple: Amy Strauss On Writing


For those of us who live in southeastern Pennsylvania, certain foods have achieved celebrity status, and chief among them is scrapple. Just the name rolls off the mouth watering tongue. Say it with me. Scrapple! Scrapple! Scrapple! Don’t think too much about the origin of the word.

Last year, I ran into my foodie writer friend Amy Strauss and was excited to hear she was writing a book about this delicacy. I can’t think of anyone better to tackle this project, as Amy has always been proud of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and has been a Philadelphia based food and drink writer and editor for over a decade. She has been published in  Main Line Today magazine, Town Dish, Beer Scene, Drink Philly, and more.

Pennsylvania Scrapple: A Delectable History was published on October 9th, 2017. I wanted to ask Amy a few questions about what it was like to write a biography of this regionally iconic breakfast meat.

Jim: What's the best way to explain scrapple to someone who is unaware of this delicacy and has never savored the blissful taste?

Amy: First, it must be said, scrapple is not something you need to overthink. It’s delicious—that’s all you need to know! If you have opened your hungry soul to pork of any kind (bacon, anyone?), it’s time you gave scrapple a chance. It’s the king of breakfast meats! It hosts a textural playground unlike any other when sizzled in a skillet, wrapped in a crunchy coating and hidden with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth interior.

But, if you really want an education, here I go: like sausage, Scrapple is the culmination of multiple pig parts that are ground, melded together with flours and spices, and baked into loaves. It’s pork flavor is rich and delicious, and the concept itself is regionally specific to Pennsylvania. Our settlers invented it—and it’s managed to stick around through all these years! It’s sustained farm families through their hard working days. It was one of America's first nose-to-tail products way before whole-animal cooking was “cool.” It is whole food, real food and if you grip up a hunk in a supermarket, you'll actually be able to understand what’s in the ingredient statement. (Take that, hot dogs.)

Now, are you hungry for a slice?

Jim: Ha! Yes! When you first told me you were writing a scrapple book, it struck me as the perfect Amy Strauss project. How did writing this book come about?


Amy: It warms my PA Dutch heart to hear that “scrapple” and “Amy Strauss” has become somewhat synonymous. The project itself can be attributed to the greatness that is Twitter. Since writing about food for the last decade, I’ve been active in taking on assignments where I can dig into my heritage and the stick-to-your-ribs dishes associated with it. Of course, when publishing a new piece, I like to share it socially—and I recommend everyone to do so because you never know who is watching! Uhem, perhaps someone looking for the someone to write a scrapple book!

In short, Arcadia Publishing and their American Palate series had been exploring Philadelphia-area writers to lock into a scrapple book deal, and I just so happen to be the one they asked. Contracts, deadlines, edits, and several months later, we have ourselves pages and pages celebrating the porky delight. I wish I came up with the idea first—but I feel lucky enough to have been granted the exciting opportunity.

Jim: You obviously knew a lot about scrapple before this project? Is there a certain piece of scrapple history, or maybe a certain scrapple recipe, that you unearthed that blew you away while writing this book?

Amy: I've always had a great respect for the utilitarian nature of scrapple. As a meat bred from the desire to utilize the "leftover" scraps from a day's butchering, it gets a bad rep. But, if you think about it, it was the farmhouse way to prolong your animals and feed your hardworking families. Not to mention, the end result has stuck around for centuries and it's pretty damn spectacular.

One of the coolest things I discovered, as I sat piles deep in old Pennsylvania-German books at the Free Library of Philadelphia, was that the actual composition of scrapple was impacted greatly by the crops that grow readily in our dear Keystone State. The success of the Native Americans farming the corn crop contributed to German settlers finding it easily accessible in variations like cornmeal, which when combined with ground meat and other flour (buckwheat) and spices available, created a "meat loaf" unlike any other. When you appreciate how our ancestors lived and the craftiness that went into their cooking, it's exciting to see how far we've come—especially from so little.

Flipping the page, I found it simply very cool to explore how differently chefs now weave scrapple onto their menus. Made with duck, chicken, goat, mushrooms, etc.—it's everywhere and more delicious than ever!

Pennsylvania Scrapple: A Delectable History is available now at local book shops and on Amazon. Also – Amy Strauss will be appearing at the Scrapple Spectacular brunch and book signing at Grain in Kennett Square on Sunday, October 15th. Click HERE to see more about the event. Check our Amy's website by clicking HERE.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: Jason Fagone On Writing

Jason Fagone’s new book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, tells the remarkable story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a Quaker poet who taught herself to be a codebreaker. She was married to William Friedman, considered the godfather of the NSA. She first started solving codes to break up liquor and heroin rings back in the 1920s and became briefly famous after testifying against gangsters of the era, but then faded from public view. Over three years, Jason dug into US and UK archives archives and discovered that Elizebeth trained and led a group of codebreakers for the FBI that “wrecked the Nazi spy rings.” J. Edgar Hoover never gave Elizebeth and the team the appropriate recognition and their work was classified for years, until now.

I met Jason when he came out to West Chester Story Slam in 2015 with Chris McDougall, and Jason has become one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter (@jfagone). Jason is also the author of a book about competitive eating, appropriately titled Horsemen of the Esophagus. He has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others. I also just realized he has an occasional podcast called Kill Fee, which I have just subscribed to.

I wanted to ask Jason about how he came to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Jim: How did you first hear about Elizabeth Smith Friedman?

Jason: In 2014, after the Edward Snowden story broke, I started reading about the NSA. I didn't know much about the NSA or where it came from, and whenever you read about the history of the NSA, you come across the name William Friedman -- he's considered to be the godfather of the agency, the one who started it all, 100 years ago, during World War I. He was a talented biology professor who abandoned that career to become a codebreaker. And in reading about William, I saw that his wife, Elizebeth, was also a codebreaker -- two codebreakers, married to each other! I thought that was unusual and interesting, and I wanted to know more, particularly about Elizebeth, but I couldn't find a biography of her. So I started digging.

Jim: Can you recall the key moment when you realized you had the material for a book?

Jason: I knew within hours of reading Elizebeth's letters for the first time. Before she died in 1980, she donated 22 boxes of personal files to a private library in Lexington, Virginia, the George C. Marshall Foundation, and any researcher can walk into the library there and request to see her files, and that's what I did. And I realized pretty quickly that I was looking at pieces of an incredible and untold American story. She left behind thousands of documents about her fight against smugglers and gangsters during the 1920s and 1930s, including her original code worksheets written in pencil. She left her earliest love letters to William during World War I, some of which were written in snippets of code and cipher.

I ended up staying at the library for about two weeks and going through all 22 boxes in a systematic way. By the end, I just thought, holy shit, I have to try to tell this tale, to do justice to what's here. I knew it was a story about America's first great woman codebreaker, a pioneer who was famous in her day but is now forgotten. But because Elizebeth was so crucial to the history and evolution of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, it was also a story about the birth and growth of American intelligence itself.

Jim: What’s a piece of advice you can give to nonfiction writers? Perhaps something you learned while researching and writing this book?

Jason: Sometimes the things you don't find are just as important as the things you do. There was a gap in Elizebeth's archive, a hole where World War II was supposed to be. I couldn't find any documents from 1939 to 1945. The rest of her life was so well documented, but not the war period, so, I had to wonder, what was she doing in World War Two? And that question launched me on a search to locate her war files, which I ultimately found in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and which made it possible for me to tell that part of her story -- she spent the war hunting Nazis. Particularly, Nazi spies.

Jim: Thanks Jason!

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is available at your local bookstore and is also on Amazon.

On Writing: Terry Heyman on her McSweeney's Obsession

Over the course of the past year, my friend Terry Heyman and I have grown obsessed with submitting stories to McSweeney's Internet Tendency. We occasionally shared story ideas and drafts before revising and submitting, and of course, piling up a series of rejections. Some of my rejected titles included "An Open Letter to Those Who Share Political Articles from Non-Credible News Sources" and "The Hardy Boys - The Mystery of the Golden Shower."

About a month ago, Terry "broke the code" and had a piece called "The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah" accepted. I'm not sure who was more excited - Terry or me! I wanted to ask her about the experience and the persistence in submitting stories.

Jim: Why an obsession with McSweeney's?

Terry: I’m a huge McSweeney’s fan and I love their point of view. It’s one of the sites I visit daily. I would write posts with them in mind, imagining that getting accepted would feel like being asked to eat lunch at the cool table in middle school. Now you know something about my standing in seventh grade.

Jim: What were some of your rejected McSweeney's submission titles?

Terry: “LIST: Things I Say to My Husband While He Watches the NBA Playoffs”

“An Open Letter to the Proud Mother of an Honor Student”

“The Case for Cheating on My Husband with Dr. Phil”

“Poll: Donald Trump Will Take Office as the Least Popular President Since Stacey Finkelstein was Elected Student Body President of Ogden Elementary School Almost Four Decades Ago.”

There have been quite a few.

Jim: You researched the editor, tell me what you learned?

Terry: One day I was surfing literary websites and I came across an interview with Chris Monks, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Unfortunately, he didn’t give away any secrets to getting published on the site. However, before reading the interview I had this notion that the editors were hipsters living in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but Chris seemed like an average middle-aged guy living a normal life. I also learned he had received a ton of rejections himself before finally getting on McSweeney’s. Learning those things made it easier to keep trying. The site didn’t feel as intimidating.

Jim: Persistence pays off. What kept you going?

Terry: When I first started sending out my work, I’d get mopey after each rejection. Rejections are unavoidable but it’s still hard. So I tried to focus less on the rejections and more on the accomplishment of simply creating another piece and sending it out. I still got rejected but I could see my progress—my writing was getting stronger. With each piece I was moving closer toward my goal.

Also, I have this compelling desire to contribute to “the conversation.” When I read about something unethical, harmful, or plain silly, it makes me rant, “This is crazy!” I go on about it to anyone who’ll listen. It could be about politics, celebrity, or relationships. The challenge lies in making my rants as entertaining as possible so someone will publish them.

Jim: Can you tell me a little about how you came to write the Kushner Haggadah and why that topic?

Terry: Like many people, I’ve been frustrated and frightened by this administration. But as a fellow Jew, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump fascinate me on a certain level. Jewish scholars have summed up the Torah’s lessons as, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So it’s hard for me to reconcile how two orthodox observant Jews can support policies that discriminate against others’ religions, given the Jews’ own history of discrimination in the world. Of course, religious hypocrisy is nothing new but I wondered what must Passover be like at the Kushner household? How do they rationalize denying healthcare to millions and putting corporate interests above clean air and water, among other things? Ivanka and Jared aren’t just the family of the President, they’re key advisors. So I imagined a perverse Passover Haggadah they’d use to justify their beliefs.

Jim: Do you have any advice to someone trying to write humor pieces?

Terry: About two years ago, I made a goal to get published somewhere else besides my own blog. I’d attend writing workshops and critique groups and while helpful, my work wasn’t growing. Then last summer I attended the HippoCamp Nonfiction Writer’s Conference in Lancaster and met an extremely funny and talented writer named Allison K. Williams. Allison was also a writing coach and I asked her to take a look at some of my rejected humor pieces. Right away she told me my pieces were too wordy and too nice. I didn’t need to explain the jokes to the reader, and if I was going to mock someone, then really mock them—don’t hold back. It sounds simple but once she said it, it was like a light bulb went off. Almost immediately, I felt my work get sharper, although it still took a few more attempts before I got published. For me, hiring a professional for an objective critique was money well spent. Friends may not be comfortable telling you harsh truths about your writing nor recognize them. 

Jim: The post has been shared over 56,000 times. Were you surprised by the response?

Terry: Shocked! Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this popular. It’s been amazing to read the comments on social media from strangers who enjoyed it and read it at their Seders. The flip side is that I’ve been trolled. It was really unsettling to have a stranger tell me I’m a horrible mother and anti-Semitic for writing the piece. Unfortunately, I think it’s unavoidable these days when political writing gets this wide exposure. There will always be those who see a different point of view as threatening. But I’m not focusing on the hate mail. I’m focusing on the folks who have shared the Haggadah with friends and even sent it to my Rabbi without knowing she’s my Rabbi!

Jim: What are you working on now?

Terry: I’m working on another satirical piece, this time aimed at celebrity culture and women’s bodies. Stay tuned. . .

Terry Heyman can be found on Twitter at @TerryHeyman and she occasionally blogs at Greetings From Insanity. Terry and I are facilitating a Storytelling Workshop at HippoCamp 2017, which will be September 6-8 in Lancaster, PA. Allison K. Williams is also facilitating a HippoCamp Workshop.


Review: Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

In the biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, author Brad Gooch provides a deep dive into the life and mind of one of America's greatest short story writers. O'Connor's grotesque tales astounded and often confused the public when they debuted in the fifties. She was noted for her fierce wit, biting humor, and her often naive characters who were doomed with violent endings. Gooch does a thorough job of detailing O'connor's Catholic faith, her fight with Lupus, and the relationships that inspired her large than life stories.

The opening chapters lay the basic facts of O'Connor's early life in Savannah and Atlanta, but the story really picks up as we follow Flannery through her stint at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where she really started seriously honing her craft while working on her first novel Wise Blood and started making connections with other fledgling writers of the period.

After her time at Iowa, Flannery was accepted to Yaddo, the artist colony in upstate New York, where she crossed path with diverse writers such as Patricia Highsmith and the poet Robert Lowell. (Little is said about her thoughts on Highsmith, but it's amusing to think of the two women sharing meals at the retreat during their six week overlap.) As a conservative Catholic, Flannery was not too pleased with the carousing, drinking and marijuana use that often took place, denoting that at Yaddo, "the help was morally superior to the guests." 

In 1952, while in her late twenties, O'Connor was diagnosed with Lupus and returned home to her mother's farm Andalusia, where she surrounded herself with peacocks and wrote with a fierce discipline even as the disease slowly enveloped her daily life. In later years, she walked with a cane but still mustered the strength to visit colleges for speaking engagements, and even made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France to bathe in the "miraculous waters."

Gooch provides insights to the inspiration for her stories, such as her longstanding friendship with a textbook salesman, which was based on their intellectual discussions on faith and wound up with one simple kiss, before he moved away and married. She turned her relationship with the salesman into one of her classic stories, Good Country People, where a Bible salesman (spoiler alert) does the unspeakable. Of her writing process, Flannery noted, "I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten to twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realized that this was inevitable."

What I found particularly insightful was learning more about Flannery's perspective on writing these colorful grotesque parables which have become a staple of Southern writing. "O'Connor said that modern writers must often tell "perverse "stories to "shock a morally blind world. "To the hard of hearing you shout," she said, "and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." 

The residents of Milledgeville gave Flannery mixed reviews. While excited to have a local celebrity, some locals feared they'd wind up in one of her stories. Throughout, we come to understand the relationship between Flannery and her mother Regina, who was supportive of her daughter though apparently flummoxed at her stories. She once asked Flannery's editor, "Mister Giroux, can't you get Flannery to write about nice people?" Giroux had to stifle his laughter when he realized the mother was serious and realized that Flannery sat frowning across the table. Still, Flannery and her mother attended mass religiously every day, and her mother cared for the writer in her final years. A friend noted later in a journal, "I'm convinced that she used Regina in some way as part of her worship. Regina was her cross. She was Regina's cross. It worked." 

Flannery's Catholic faith did not hold her back from issuing statements of bold humor. Flannery quipped often one of my favorites being, as Gooch describes, "When asked about Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Flannery replied, 'It's a wonderful children's book.'"

Flannery comes to life throughout this compelling biography, and I learned much about her insights in writing bold Catholic stories with perverse characters who struggle in their daily lives. Her balance of writing about morals and faith may best be summed up with her proclamation of a favorite Southern City, when she said, "If I had to live in a city, I think I would prefer New Orleans to any other - both Southern and Catholic and with indications that the Devil's existence is freely recognized." 

If you haven't read Flannery O'Connor, I recommend reading her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, before reading the biography Flannery. If you choose the biography first, I'm sure you'll be reading Flannery's fiction afterwards.



Review: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint is the funniest book I've ever read, and possibly the filthiest. My biggest regret is that I didn't read it earlier in life, but who was going to recommend this Jewish tale of masturbatory escapades to an Irish Catholic kid?

The central character, Alexander Portnoy, reviews his wretched Jewish life to his therapist - his masturbatory teen years, his love/hate relationship with his mother with all it's Oedipal complications, his disdain for his whining father, and his myriad of graphic affairs with "shiksas." Roth's use of language while describing Portnoy's sexual escapades makes the scenes hilarious. The scene where Portnoy is trying to pleasure himself while his mother knocks on the bathroom door and tells him not to flush the toilet because she wants to see his number two (she believes he is eating too many french fries after school) is downright brilliant. And, when I told a friend I was reading this novel, he replied, "have you read about the liver?" with a laugh. This novel is surely not for everyone, but if you enjoy dirty, humorous depictions of the human condition, read Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.

Review: Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss


Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss is a mildly interesting memoir about how one faction of the Stroh family watched their fortunes dissolve. Frances Stroh's father worked at the family's Detroit brewery, which over the course of five generations had grown tremendously, providing the extended family with valuable dividends. Unfortunately, the family run business faltered after a series of poor business decisions such as purchasing smaller breweries and failing to see the rise of the light beer in the eighties. Unfortunately for the reader, the details of their declining family finances are once removed from this story.  

Stroh's memoir focuses on the relationships she had with her father and brothers. While people in the Detroit area saw the Stroh family as privileged and respectable, this memoir gives a glimpse of the turmoil within. Frances' father was a collector of guitars, guns, and other memorabilia, and much of what he spent his money on turned out not to have any real value. After her parents divorce, her father eventually meets and marries a woman who Frances recalls smoking cigarettes with while in high school, and the family finances fall into further trouble. Frances also explores her relationship with her brother Charlie, who dealt with drug and alcohol issues throughout his life.

You can read more about Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss on Amazon.


Review: The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix by Nathan Hill is seriously funny. The novel follows a son's attempt to learn about his mother's hidden past - a journey which leads him to realize his mother, and his grandfather, both harbored secrets about mistakes they'd made early in their lives. While the novel follows the son Samuel's quest, Hill also takes us back to his mother's early years so we can view her accidental happenings from 1968, when she was caught up in the Chicago protests.

Hill's prose is laugh out loud funny throughout the novel, though his descriptions can be a little long-winded. He really writes his character's into absurd predicaments in which they can't always extricate themselves. The cast of characters from modern times, a college student in Samuel's class and a fellow video gamer, were great vehicles for espousing satirical commentary on modern day society.

The chapters reflecting the sixties counter-culture and his mother's entanglements with a conning high school classmate before her brief escape to Chicago, showed a world where things aren't always what we think they are. At times, I cringed for the young mother who was obviously being taken for a ride at times, yet I empathized with her also.

I enjoyed how the novel bounced around. Some of the connections between characters didn't always work for me, but I was having fun so I stuck with it. Nathan Hill writes with an uncanny sense of humor, particularly about characters inflicted with such modern day ills such as video game addiction, narcissism and consumerism.

If you like laugh out loud funny in your novels, I recommend The Nix by Nathan Hill.

On Writing: Matty Dalrymple's Rock Paper Scissors

After writing two novels in the Ann Kinnear Suspense series, Matty Dalrymple has just written a paranormal thriller called Rock Paper Scissors. Kirkus Review noted, "Dalrymple has written a fast-paced, complex thriller that can keep a reader engaged and off-kilter until its foreboding conclusion." The new novel was published on March 3 and Matty is holding a launch party at Kildare's in West Chester, PA on Friday, March 3rd, 2017 at 5pm.

Jim: What was your inspiration for writing Rock Paper Scissors?

Matty: I've always been fascinated with the idea of how someone who has an extraordinary ability deals with that in the context of the ordinary world. In the Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels, The Sense of Death and The Sense of Reckoning, that extraordinary ability is the ability to sense spirits. What would it be like to be on a dinner date and have the spirit of a dead person hovering over your date's shoulder? What if other people learned about your ability and thought you were crazy or a liar, or, maybe more difficult, wanted you to be able to connect them with a dead person in a way that was beyond your ability? I get a lot of reviews of the Ann Kinnear novels along the lines of, "I usually don't like paranormal novels, but I really liked this one," because the story isn't really about Ann's spirit-sensing skill--it's about how that affects Ann's life.

I pursued that same theme in Rock Paper Scissors. Lizzy Ballard is a little girl, and later a young woman, who has the ability to cause strokes in other people when she's angry. That ability has tragic consequences, and the story is in part about how she deals with those consequences. That ability is also of interest to people who want to turn it to their own nefarious ends, so that's where the "thriller" part of the story comes in.

Jim: How was writing this thriller different than writing your mystery series? 

Matty: I always like to alert readers that the Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels are not mysteries in the "whodunit" sense. In The Sense of Death, you know right away who committed the crime and the story is focused on why he did it and whether he will get away with it--and how Ann's ability leads her to become involved, unknowingly, with a killer. In The Sense of Reckoning, the story is about whether Ann will be able to avert a crime whose nature is implied but not made explicit until the very end.

I bill Rock Paper Scissors as a "thriller" because it is a little more action-oriented than the Ann Kinnear novels, but all of them include aspects of psychological suspense, and deal with people's influences and motivations.

Jim: This blurb caught my attention. "Not since Carrie have we seen a character excite such fear in those forced to learn her terrible secret the hard way." Robert Blake Whitehill, Award-winning screenwriter and author of The Ben Blackshaw Series. Being compared to Stephen King is high praise. My question is this - Is Rock Paper Scissors as gory as Carrie? 

Matty: Of course, I love any comparison to Stephen King, but Rock Paper Scissors is NOT the gore-fest that Carrie is. One way in which Rock Paper Scissors differs from Carrie is that Carrie is a story of extremes--Carrie's mother is abusive, her fellow students are unusually cruel, and the trick they play on Carrie that triggers the final showdown is particularly hateful.

I feel that Rock Paper Scissors is a bit more subtle--the "good guys" are doing their best, even if their best efforts sometimes bring about undesired consequences, and even the "bad guys'" motivations are, I hope, understandable even if the reader can't condone them. The Stephen King novels I love most are the more recent ones, like 11/22/63, where he has toned down the gore and violence and focused on the plot and the characters. I believe Rock Paper Scissors will appeal to that same audience.

Jim: People also should know you host a writing podcast where you discuss the craft of writing and publishing. (Thanks for having me as a guest!) Who will you be interviewing in upcoming episodes? 

Matty: Yes, that's The Indy Author Podcast, and it's available on iTunes and Stitcher. In the next episode I'll be talking with Brandywine Valley Writers Group member Tony Conaway about the craft and business of short stories--what skills does a short story writer need that might differ from those a novel writer needs, and what are the available outlets for short stories? Some of my past episodes have been on screenwriting, with Robert Blake Whitehill; publishing image-intensive books, with Andy Schön; and creativity and motivation, with Alexandra Amor. And, of course, you and I got to talk about how Story Slam came about, and the importance of storytelling in fiction!

Jim: You have a book launch at Kildare's on Friday, March 3rd. Any other book events coming up?

Matty: Because all my books, and especially The Sense of Death and Rock Paper Scissors are set in the Philadelphia area, I'm focusing on local events On April 1, I’ll be at Wellington Square Books in Exton from 10am-12pm signing copies of my books. On April 9, I will be appearing with three other thriller authors—R. G. Belsky, Jane Gorman, and Scott Pruden—at Kennett Square Brewing Company, where they will be pairing our books with one of their beers and a local cheese. On April 30, I'll be appearing at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. And on June10, I'll be on an author panel at my alma mater, Dickinson College. If people would like to be informed of events, I recommend they sign up for my email newsletter at, or follow me on Facebook.

Jim: Good luck with your book launch and thanks for answering my questions.

Matty: Thanks Jim!

Check out Matty's books on Amazon or learn more about Matty's writing and podcast at

On Writing: David Eric Tomlinson's The Midnight Man

David Eric Tomlinson's debut novel, The Midnight Man, centers around the brutal murder of a basketball player in Oklahoma and those involved in both the victim's life and the murderer's life. The story contains a diverse and vibrant cast; a Choctaw Indian who is a public defender, an African-American nurse, a white real estate developer, his wife, and his paralyzed brother.  David weaved in real life events from the mid-90's to capture the time period as the characters face their own "disappointments, hopes, and fears." 

I first interviewed David in 2011, shortly after he started pursuing writing full time. That interview can be found here. I was thrilled to see David's novel debut and wanted to follow up to learn what's transpired in the past five years and the process that led to publication. 

Jim: Congratulations on the novel David! So what was your first inspiration for The Midnight Man? Were you working on this when we last chatted in 2011? 

David: I was working on the book then. I spent about five years drafting the many versions of THE MIDNIGHT MAN, and 2011 was right in the middle of that time.

My first inspiration for the story came when I was running on the treadmill, at home. I was looking out the window, daydreaming about this book I wanted to write, my first, and suddenly an image came to mind: someone running along the railroad tracks bisecting downtown Oklahoma City.

I'd been wanting to tackle something ambitious - a big novel about the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building - but didn't know where to start. This character running along the railroad tracks wound up being my main protagonist, the Choctaw Indian public defenderDean Goodnight. I had pages of notes already, but no entry into the story itself. Everything grew from that image of Dean running. What was he running from, and why? Answering those questions got the ball rolling.

Jim: When we last talked, you were experimenting with "old school" writing, using a typewriter. You had also dropped Facebook and it looks like you may have now dropped Twitter. How much did you use the typewriter in the end, was it more of an inspiration than a long-term tool? What was your process and how do you practice your daily discipline? 

David: My process is basically to wake up, take my kids to school, and then spend several hours writing. If things are going well, I'm working on my laptop or computer. If not, I'll switch to the typewriter, or write longhand in a notebook, just to jolt my brain into a different state. More often than not, this causes something to fall out onto the page. After that, I'll read for awhile, then walk to the gym. It's during this walk that some magical eureka moment will often solve the intractable problem I've been wrestling with all morning. In the afternoons, I do some editing or, if I have it, consulting work (for actual money), before setting out into Dallas traffic to chauffer the kids all over the metroplex: basketball or ballet or volleyball or summer camp, whatever the season requires.

For me at least, social media is destructive to the kind of contemplative state of mind that writing requires. At the same time I quit Facebook, I gave up my iPhone, so I've been using an old-school flip-phone for six or seven years. This is a source of endless amusement to my daughters, friends, and family members. I'm that guy in Starbucks who is sitting there, drinking coffee, perhaps reading, and not looking at his phone, like a psychopath.

For a long time I was using Twitter, but after the election I gave that up, too. I watched a fascist tangerine with attention deficit disorder use Twitter as a vehicle to the presidency, which permanently ruined the allure.

Jim: There's no doubt social media has become more distracting than ever in the past few months. You're living in Texas now, but I see you did grow up in Oklahoma. Were you living in Oklahoma when the bombing occurred? 

David: I had taken a year off from college and was living there in 1993 and 1994. But by 1995 I was back in California. My dad, though, was working in Oklahoma City at the time. The day of the bombing, he was parking his car, nine blocks away, when the explosion occurred. Fortunately, he was three levels underground, and thought the bomb was an earthquake. Others weren't so lucky.

Jim: I enjoyed your opening scene of the Globetrotters basketball game with Curt Gowdy announcing. Had Gowdy announced such a game? 

David: Gowdy was in Oklahoma, announcing sports, for a time. It's sort of where he got his start. But I don't think he ever announced a goodwill game between Oklahoma A&M and the Harlem Globetrotters - at least not that I found in my research. That scene was entirely fictional, and there to set up the major themes running throughout the novel, race being one of the most important. But also the relationship between Ben and his big brother Cecil, and the way sports often transcends, if only momentarily, even the most stubborn political divides.

Jim: Do you have any insights on the process to publication? Once your novel was accepted, did you have many revisions and how hands on was your editor? 

David: I feel incredibly lucky to have found an agent and a traditional book deal, coming from outside the MFA system. The process was incredibly difficult and, at times, disheartening. That being said, I believed 100% in the manuscript I was querying, which made it easier to persevere through the rejections most of us receive on the road to publication.

The first thing I'd say is to have a perfect, polished manuscript. To do that, you need to read every day, write every day ... and identify a mentor. I found an experienced editor, Alan Rinzler, who read my work and offered the necessary critical input it required. Before querying, I'd rewritten THE MIDNIGHT MAN four times, over a period of five years, so the manuscript was pretty tight. But after signing with my agent, Eleanor Jackson, she had me rewrite it once more. Every time I revised, the book got better. So, based upon the advice of the publishing professionals you encounter along the way, be willing to revise, revise, revise. 

We had several near misses at the big publishing houses - editors who liked this story but then had to defend it in the all-important editorial meeting. Two editors wanted to make an offer on THE MIDNIGHT MAN, but were overruled in editorial, both times because of my lack of platform. So the second piece of advice I would give is to network with other authors - at writing conferences, at local readings, at your MFA program, etc. And not the cheesy, paper-thin social media networking that so many of us do. Instead, cultivate real, lasting friendships with authors who will be willing to read and blurb your work. It can tip the scales in your favor when a publisher is deciding whether to make an offer.

Finally, don't be afraid to promote yourself. I put together an aggressive marketing plan, cold-called authors to get cover blurbs, and eventually my agent found an editor who believes in THE MIDNIGHT MAN as much as I do - Ben LeRoy, at Tyrus Books, which was just acquired by Simon & Schuster. By the time the book deal was signed, the manuscript required very little editorial - a thorough copy edit and we were ready to go.

Jim: Great advice for all those writing and looking to publish. One last question, how has is felt in the months since publication? Have you jumped right back into writing? What are you working on? 

David: Things have been going well! This is my first novel, so I'm new to all of this.

This first month has been exciting. We had a great review in The Dallas Morning News. It came out on the eve of the book launch party, and the reading here was packed. The bookstore, The Wild Detectives, sold through all of the books. 

I've also been to San Diego, where I read at Jim Ruland's irreverent reading series "Vermin on the Mount", and to Minneapolis, where I read to a total of three people. I took them out for burgers and beer to discuss the book, as it seemed more appropriate than addressing rows of empty chairs. I'm focusing the rest of my tour in Texas and Oklahoma, a few appearances and book festivals throughout the year, all within driving distance from Dallas.

If I go a few days without writing, I begin to get cranky and tense, which I guess is a good sign, because it keeps me working. I'm about two hundred pages into a new novel, which I've been working on for over a year. It's about a veteran who runs an experimental suicide hotline for other veterans.

Jim: Thanks David! 

David: Thank you so much Jim for taking the time to interview me! It has been a pleasure.

David Eric Tomlinson's The Midnight Man can be found on Amazon or at your local bookshop. Learn more about David at


Richard Yates Biography is Honestly Tragic

A Tragic Honesty” started off slow, but about a third of the way in, once Richard Yates sets out on his writing career, the biography soared with detailed accounts of his life that often sad, sometimes funny, and always insightful.

The author Richard Yates wrote nine books, most notably the American classic “Revolutionary Road,” but also the well received novel “Easter Parade” and the exceptional short story collection, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.”

Yates suffered for his work until the end. Even though “Revolutionary Road” is now considered a classic, sales were poor upon its initial release. Yates often subsisted on advances for his next book, and when the money ran out, as it often did, he was forced to take jobs teaching or writing PR copy, screenplays, or speeches. Through his life, which consisted of two marriages and several other romances, Yates consistently consumed vast amounts of alcohol and struggled with frequent mental health issues.

The writer's life held some amazing twists and turns. At the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1962, the drunken Yates climbed onto the roof and loudly proclaimed he was the Messiah. Aghast conference attendees watched as he was led away in a straightjacket. A year later, the novelist William Styron was asked to recommend a speechwriter for US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Styron recommended Yates for the job, and when Styron called Yates about the position, Yates replied, “I don’t even know if I like the fucking Kennedys.” Yates got the job, and four months in, after the security clearance research revealed his recent hospitalization, Bobby Kennedy personally questioned Yates about his mental issues but agreed to keep him on as a writer.

Yates also spent time in Los Angeles writing screenplays for Roger Corman and John Frankenheimer. Yates bounced around the country throughout his life; Iowa, Kansas, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Alabama, all in attempts to pay his child support and rent while carving out time to write his next novel. He was also physically ill throughout his life. Yates was a chronic smoker - and throughout the biography, his fellow writers and family recalled his constant coughing fits and how his lips were continually dry from the combination of ant-depressants and alcohol.

The biography is filled with anecdotes about his unruly behavior while drinking and pursuing women, but there are also stories about how desperate his friends were to get him the help he sorely needed. At one point, friends tried to admit Yates into a mental facility. After the administrator realized Yates had no money for the stay, the administrator claimed they had no beds open and wouldn’t accept any more patients. Exasperated, the friend pushed a wheelchair with the sedated Yates down the hall and, when nobody was looking, abandoned the writer in a janitor’s closet.

All through the years, the legacy of "Revolutionary Road" continued to grow amongst those in the literary community. While Yates was never as commercially successful as many of his peers, his writing found a cult following amongst the next generation of writers. Yates was well accepted among many famous writers, most notably Styron and Andres Dubus.

The research that went into this biography is amazing. Much of Yates' life made its way into his writings, and the biographer notes which characters were inspired by family members and friends and often gets their reaction to the realization they had been written about.

As he grew older, Yates doubled down on his writing. He lived in squalor above a Boston pub and focused on cranking out novels and short stories. Blake Bailey's writing is detailed and easy to read. I definitely recommend "A Tragic Honesty" and would also suggest reading "Revolutionary Road," "The Easter Parade," and "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness."

Storytelling: Jennifer Marshall of This is my Brave

Jennifer Marshall is the co-founder of This is My Brave, a national storytelling series dedicated to discussing mental illness. Jennifer was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder in 2006 at the age of 26, and was hospitalized four times in five years. Writing about her life with a mental illness has helped her healing process, and This is My Brave's mission is "to end the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing personal stories of individuals overcoming mental illness" through storytelling and other art forms. You can read her blog Bipolar Mom Life or follow her on Twitter at @Bipolarmomlife. She lives outside of Washington DC with her husband and two children.

Jim: I love the idea of This is My Brave. Can you tell us a little about how your personal journey with Bipolar Disorder led to the the creation of this event?

Jennifer: This Is My Brave was born from my personal experience of opening up about my bipolar illness on a public platform. After going through four psychiatric hospitalizations for manic episodes - two during the years I was having children - I wanted to make something good come from the pain and suffering I had endured. When my second child was almost one, I started writing a blog I titled Bipolar Mom Life. I wanted other young women to find my story when they typed in "bipolar" and "mom." I wanted them to know that they weren't alone, that they could get well, and that they could make their dreams of having a family come true if they put the right plan in place. I wanted them to learn from my story and find hope.

But I wrote anonymously at first. My parents and husband were worried about stigma. I was more interested in allowing people to really connect with my story, and knowing my name was part of that, I thought. My mom warned that other mothers at my kids' schools may not want their kids to play with mine if they know I have bipolar. My dad was concerned about future employment. They asked my purpose in putting my story out there. I told them I wanted to help people and if just one person was inspired to not give up because they read my blog, then I will have succeeded. Their combined pressure for me to remain anonymous remained strong, so I kept writing under a pen name.

In 2013 I attended a memoir writer's conference in Seattle (Cheryl Strayed was the keynote - love her!) and was deeply moved by all the people I met who were so open about their lives and their writing. It was at that conference when I received a call from an editor of a website I had recently written a piece for. She loved it and wanted me to write more for them, and they'd pay me. I was thrilled and decided I was ready to stop hiding. When I got home from the conference my first piece for went live with my name on it and my disclosure of my bipolar illness. The piece ran also on the homepage of and I received an outpouring of support from people online and in person thanking me for sharing my story. In return many opened up and shared theirs. I felt a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders, like I could finally be myself to everyone. Bipolar isn't all of who I am, but it is a part of me and it's something I have to manage every day. I needed to be able to let that part of me out.

Months later I had the idea to launch a theater production. I wanted to give other people a platform - similar to the one I had when I opened up - to stand up and share their story of overcoming mental illness through poetry, original music and essays. I met a woman who would become my co-Founder, Anne Marie Ames, as together we shared a mutual passion for doing something to end the stigma. We launched a Kickstarter and raised over $10k in 31 days to fund our first show.

Jim: I thought the analogy of "coming out" that you used in your essay at the debut event was excellent. Has it been a challenge to find storytellers and artists willing to openly discuss their mental illness?

Jennifer: Yes and no, but for the most part, no. The reason I say yes is that we always have folks who sign up for auditions and then cancel at the last minute or don't show up. I think the fact that it does take a certain amount of bravery to put yourself out there and allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to share your story so openly. Especially when it comes to mental illness because there are so many elements of the various conditions which are not understood. But the more we share, the more people have the opportunity to learn and the more we're able to break down the stigma surrounding common conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD and more which many people suffer from in silence.

Jim: As an event organizer, I know it is hard to choose just one, but has there been one particular story told at This Is My Brave that you think captures the project?

Jennifer: The diversity of stories, viewpoints and creativity is what makes This Is My Brave what it is: a platform for individuals to share their stories of overcoming mental illness. But if I had to point to just one story, I'd have to say Danielle Fiorello from our New York City production this past October captured it all. The feeling of vulnerability when she first started out at the podium, her unbelievable story of why she is here today, and the beauty and inspirational message of her artistic talent as a singer/songwriter. She brought down the house in NYC as the last cast member to perform that day, and she continuously reminds me what an extraordinary experience it was to be in the show, a familiar echo among our This Is My Brave alumni.

Jim: Wow! Thanks for sharing Danielle's story. And thanks for the interview! I look forward to seeing you again this year at HippoCamp Writers Conference.

Jennifer: Thanks Jim. Looking forward to August! 

If you would like to learn more about upcoming events or just want to watch more stories, check out This is My Brave.

On Writing: Matthew Kabik

Matthew Kabik is the founding editor of Third Point Press, an online literary journal that debuted in early 2015. Matt and his team strive to insure that some of the stories featured in each edition of the journal are from each of the “three points,” specifically, writers in Lancaster, York, and Harrisburg, PA. Matt describes his own writing as “PA Gothic,” and he has been published in several journals, and has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. I met Matt in January of 2015, and have been intrigued by his social media posts where he occasionally wrestles with the existential questions all writers face; questions such as: Does a writer’s work matter? Does anyone care about my voice? Is writing worth it? Matt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. You should follow him on Twitter at @mlkabik.

Jim: Let’s get right into it. Does a writer’s work matter?

Matt: I think a writer's work absolutely matters, yes, but it depends on who's asking that question, and who they are asking it to. I think that if you hone that question a bit, you can get widely different answers, and to me the answer depends entirely on that.

If you asked, for instance, if a white CIS male's writing mattered, I would say maybe. Maybe even no. Reason being that it seems that group of people, myself included, doesn't really have to try terribly hard to be published. That voice is a dime a dozen, and so often shared and commented on that I can't really care if I ever read another white CIS guy's writing.

That's not to say that there aren't great writers out there who fit that profile. There are. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands, but I think it's also true that there are others who can tell just as good a story and are pushed out because of how easy it is for a white man's writing to be put in the front.

If you asked if a person of color's writing mattered, I'd say probably, maybe even yes. If you asked the same about a woman's writing or a refugee's writing or almost anyone who wasn't so typically part of the canon, I'd lean much harder towards yes. Reason being that if we're going to get the same quality of stories from everyone, we might as well get it from some of the people who, traditionally, have not had the chance or audience to tell it.

I'm making big generalizations here, of course, which I have to do with such a broad question, but I think it's part of the formula that stopped me from writing fiction: over-saturation of white, straight privilege + the idea that I should be aware of that privilege and not try to take advantage of it + a personal belief that one should write to be read = a writer's block that's lasted for almost a year, now.

I guess another way of looking at it is whether my writing matters, which knowing full well the impostor syndrome we all have, and knowing I'm my own worst critic, I'd say no. No, my own writing isn't really changing the world nor is bringing about any sort of meaning to people outside of a very small sphere, so no. Nope.

Jim: Can you talk a little about how Third Point Press pushes for diversity? Are you happy with the diversity of submissions?

Matt: We have tried a few ways, and I don't know how successful they are. The first thing we did was make our submissions anonymous to our readers and editors (only I would know the names and bios of who submitted). We did that for an issue with the thought that in not knowing names, we would only choose the best.

Well, that's some limited thinking, we discovered. You can't push for diversity and be passive about it. So while our readers are still reading submissions blind, our editors now have access. We are working on ways to ask diverse groups to submit, and trying to create a safe space for people to submit. It's not quite soliciting from diverse voices, but more so about making sure we're not seen as yet another publication that leans towards the all white, all male side of the publishing world.

So far we've done well. At my last count we had more female (female based on name, not on self-definition) submissions, and we've published folks from backgrounds that aren't ours. It makes for some great pieces that lend themselves to ideas that I haven't ever come across, or perspectives that are only shown through one lens.

We're considering asking submitters to include any personal information they'd like to share during the submission process--not so much to choose one person over another based on background, but so that we have a better idea of who we're publishing--and making sure that we aren't only publishing a single group over anyone else. I know that can sometimes strike people as wrong, but it shouldn't. We're not aiming to not publish anyone, but we do want to see who we are publishing in each issue, and how well we're doing at crawling outside of ourselves and our own cultures. We want to have a place for everyone to be seen.

Jim: I love the “We Need Diverse Books” movement. I’m not optimistic the big publishers will do much, but I hope the diversity discussion spurs on a new DIY movement. We’re fortunate to be in a time where publishing online and on-demand is an opportunity for marginalized writers. Do you have thoughts on where this is heading?

Matt: I think you're right in being excited but wary that big publishers will be slow to catch on (big organizations are always slow on things like that). I am sometimes scared of how loose publishing seems to be - in that the gatekeepers, and in this case I mean people who separate good work from everyone publishing everything -  are easily able to be ignored, but it's also kind of exciting that we can ignore them. So I waffle: I like that more people are able to publish more stuff, but I'm scared that if everyone publishes everything, it'll become so hard to read the really outstanding work. That might be an unrealistic concern, though, so I don't stay up at night worrying about it.

I agree that on demand and DIY helps marginalized writers, but just as anything else, it doesn't guarantee that marginalized writers will be read or promoted. Again, it comes down to passive v. active effort. It's great that we can get folks published (or they can publish themselves),but it's only through active engagement that we'll be able to get more marginalized voices to the eyes of readers. Publishing on demand and self-publishing are only as good as the marketing and promotion behind them.

Jim: Agreed. So let’s circle back to your writing. At one point this year you mentioned you were taking a hiatus. Are you writing at all these days?

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Johnsen   

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Johnsen


Matt: Up until last night around 11pm, I would have told you I hadn't written since April of this year. However my mom got me a mechanical keyboard that feels and looks like a typewriter, and that kinda begged for me to try at least something.

But yes, I've taken a hiatus and maintained that hiatus in my writing group/creative work for almost a full year. I wrote one flash story in that time period that was picked up by NANO Fiction, but nothing else--ideas or otherwise--came to me. It's a weird feeling and a weird place to be, and I don't quite know the cause or the reason it's hanging around for so long.

What I will say is that it's kinda liberating. There was such an emphasis on production in my MFA and such an overall push for writers to always write that stepping away from it felt a bit like getting away from a thankless job. I enjoy the break. I enjoy not caring about whether I'm producing anything. It's nice to have that stress go away.

Jim: Can you recall the moment where you first thought, “I want to be a writer.” Were you influenced by a specific work or author? Related: What writers have inspired you the most?

Matt: I wrote since I was very young--poems in elementary school and middle school, and short stories in high school. I think decided I wanted to pursue writing sometime around my sophomore year of college, or at least pursue it seriously. Before that point it was just a way to be withdrawn and longing towards those I thought attractive and a great way to impress other thick-frame glassed students.

I think Kerouac really made me fall in love with writing, which is funny considering that I don't know if I could stand him, now. I bet it was a mix of reading stuff outside of the high school canon and the escapism of someone who was able to document a life outside of those walls.

The writers that inspire me the most now are Laura van den Berg, Lydia Peelle, Chealsea Laine Wells, Kelly Link. So many others I'm probably forgetting. Really I read lots of short stories in different online mags and what-not, and sometimes it can be just a single story from an author I never read that stops me in my tracks.

Jim: We started this interview on a serious note but let’s end talking about something fun - the Adult Spelling Bee Fundraiser. I had so much fun participating this year. For those who haven’t heard of it, can you tell us how it started and how you use the funds?

Matt: It started with Erin Dorney and Tyler Barton, who created the adult spelling bee to help fund The Triangle (which was interested in literary events in Lancaster and beyond). When Third Point Press was only an idea, they allowed me to tag along and get some of the funds from that first spelling bee to help get set-up.

Essentially it's just a fundraiser that's supposed to be very fun. We don't take it very seriously and, if everything goes right, the people participating aren't taking it seriously either. We use the funds to pay contributors for as long as we can, pay for submission tools like Submittable, and for upkeep of the website. It's certainly not enough to cover all of that (most of Third Point Press is funded by me, directly), but it does offset expenses and gives the staff a reason to have some fun.

Jim: Thanks for taking time to answer interview questions!

Enjoy excellent prose, poetry, and artwork at  Third Point Press. Learn more about Matt's writing at Matchstick Circus. Follow Matt on Twitter at @mlkabik

On Writing: Kathleen Frazier

Kathleen Frazier's new memoir, Sleepwalking: The Mysterious Making and Recovery of a Somnambulist, was just released in early September. The memoir explores her dangerous and chronic sleepwalking episodes and the psychological causes behind them. Kathleen first started writing about her episodes as part of sense memory exercises she was doing at The Actor's Studio in New York City, and then wrote an essay in Psychology Today. I met Kathleen at HippoCamp 2015, where she read from the memoir. The whole room was holding their collective breath as she vividly described one dangerous sleepwalking episode.

Jim: Hi Kathleen. Can you tell us non-actors a little more about what sense memory exercises are, and how that led to your writing?

Kathleen: Sense memory exercises are part of "the method". This way of working originated with Stanislavski and The Moscow Art Theatre in Russia in a move away from declamatory acting towards a more realistic style. Members of the Group Theatre brought it to the United States. The Actors Studio, under of the direction of Lee Strasberg, was where the work really took hold.

The exercise that I used and then wrote from is called affective memory in which an actor explores a particular event in their lives using their five senses to recall, almost re-experience the details. We stay away from describing feelings in this particular exercise and yet they rise authentically in our acting. When I transcribed the work to paper the writing was both sensorily rich and the voice was very much of the age of my memory.

It was my mentor, Ellen Burstyn, who pressed me to write this way about my sleep disorders and circumstances surrounding them. She thought it would help me to recover my health by turning my experiences into art and she was right. The more I wrote, the better I felt.

Jim: At what point did you realize you had a memoir on your hands?

Kathleen: I realized it right away but I felt such shame about the sleepwalking, sleep terrors and resultant insomnia that I couldn't share the work beyond my close circle of friends and fellow artists. A few agents were courting me but I had to put the project on the shelf and turn my attention to fiction. Funnily enough, all of my protagonists are sleepwalkers!

Sadly, it wasn't until 2010 and the death of a young art designer in New York City, Tobias Wong, that I was able to find my courage and tell my story. He suffered from chronic and violent sleepwalking and sleep terrors. His death was ruled a suicide but it most probably occurred in a sleepwalking state. I wrote an essay about my experiences and recovery that got published in Psychology Today. It caught the attention of Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyons Literary Agency. We began working together and she sold my book to Skyhorse Press.

Jim: How many years did your sleepwalking episodes run for?

Kathleen: From adolescence until the age of 30 when I had a severe accident that brought me into recovery – which is not uncommon. All told over 20 years. It's a long time without good shut eye. I was exhausted all the time which affected every aspect of my life, most especially my work and personal relationships.

Jim: I saw you recently read from your memoir at This Is My Brave, the live storytelling event which focuses on mental illness and is produced by our mutual friend Jennifer Marshall. How was the event?

Kathleen: It was a wonderful storytelling event with a packed and very enthusiastic audience at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse. We performers either lived with mental illness ourselves or love someone who lives with mental illness. It was a stigma-busting show. I have family members with schizophrenia, alcoholism, PTSD, and most of us in my family have suffered with sleep disorders of one kind or another. One in four Americans have mental illness and the show proved to me, once again that community cures. Participating also pressed me to realize that, in addition to being an advocate for mental health, I am a sleep activist – an advocate for healthy sleep as a basic human right.

Jim: Which do you prefer - acting or writing?

Kathleen: This is a tough one, Jim! It's like making me choose between my children! I love acting and I feel it really saved my life when I was a young woman. Coming together with kindred spirits to bring stories alive on the stage and screen is magical. Yet, with writing I don't have to wait to be cast in order to create. I love becoming immersed in whatever story I'm making effort to bring to life on the page. As you know, my writing sprang from my acting, and I love to read my work aloud in front of an audience – it really informs my writing – so for me they are very intertwined. The funny thing is, since my memoir came out I've been getting the itch to act again. More will be revealed, as my father used to say.

Jim: You mentioned earlier that you write fiction. Just wondering - what's your next project?

Kathleen: I haven't yet decided where to turn my attention next in regards to my writing. I have an idea for another nonfiction – also to do with sleep – much more to do with my recovery, which would include collaborating with a series of specialists. Or I might return to my historical fiction which has also been calling my name... Selkie Girl is inspired by my paternal grandmother who came from Ireland to America at the turn of the last century. The protagonist, Molly, is a young girl of 15 whose mother apparently committed suicide on the day she was born by walking into the sea. She was a single mother and ostracized by her small village in Ireland. The orphaned girl becomes ostracized also. One dear older villager, a midwife and healer, comforts Molly when she is 7 by telling her that her mother did not commit suicide but was in fact a selkie who had found her seal skin and therefore had to leave her, she had to go back into the ocean. The Celtic selkie story usually follows a female seal who sheds her skin. She is a shapeshifter and takes on the human form of a beautiful woman. She suns herself on the rocks by the sea. A man sees her, falls in love and steals her skin. She then must go with him. He hides her sealskin and she is his prisoner really until the day she finds her skin somehow at which point she must follow her true nature and return to the ocean. The daughter turns out to be, of course, a sleepwalker. It's the way she processes her trauma. I hope the story is, in turns, both magical and psychologically provocative.

Thanks for asking that question, Jim. In answering it I think it's become pretty apparent which project holds the greater piece of my heart.

Jim: Thanks so much Kathleen. Good luck with the writing and acting!

Kathleen: Thanks Jim!

Learn more about Kathleen Frazier on her website and pick up her book Sleepwaker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist on AMAZON. 

On Writing: Donna Talarico of HippoCampus Magazine

Donna Talarico is a writer, an editor, and the founder/publisher of HippoCampus Magazine, an online journal dedicated to "memorable creative non-fiction." This summer, she has been working on the first ever HippoCamp, a three day writers' conference in Lancaster, PA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. I first met Donna at Lancaster Story Slam, where she occasionally tells stories, and wanted to learn more about her writing, and current projects. Jim: What do you love about the creative non-fiction genre?

Donna: I love true stories. I love getting to know people. Don't get me wrong: I also love imagined worlds and people and storylines. But there is something ifferent about reading a story when you know it's true. Writers are sharing moments, often deep, dark and troublesome--and that rawness and honesty really brings reader and writer closer together. CNF writers are letting people in--and that is brave. Of course there is lighter nonfiction as well (not every memoir is about revealing some deep secret or getting through a rough time), and reading about those everyday moments, those stories too strange to be true, are kind of like sitting around with old childhood or college friends recounting the time we "couldn't believe this happened to so-and-so." I enjoy writing nonfiction for these same reasons. It's just, well, real!

Jim: Was their a certain piece of creative non-fiction that first hooked you?

Donna: In college, as a communications major at Wilkes University, we took a senior research methods course and I think this is where my love of personal stories began. We did an oral history project, and we also read a few ethnographies. So it was more on the journalism end, but my love of nonfiction just grew from there. One book in particular from that class, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women by Elliot Liebow, got me hooked on learning more about 'everyday' people, and it also inspired the desire to tell other people's stories -- which I did for many years as a features writer. On the memoir side, it was Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. That book is what made me want to write a memoir.

Jim: You've been writing a memoir "Door to Door," about the trials of constantly moving and dealing with stepfathers during your childhood. What's the status of the project?

Donna: The first draft was my MA thesis. Then I polished it as my MFA final project. After working on it---on and off--for a solid three years throughout graduate school, I let it take a break. I queried agents, and was thrilled to get interest in my story and requests for partial manuscripts. However, with no bites after sending the first few chapters, I realized the story might not be there yet. So I workshopped parts of it the past few years and received some great help from my local writing group. After letting it simmer for a bit, I'm ready to dive into revisions later this summer. My MA mentor, Beverly Donofrio, wrote her book during grad school too -- but it did not come out until years and years later (Riding in Cars with Boys.) From Bev, I learned that I needed more reflection time on my life--not the draft, but my actual life--to see what my story really meant, what it was trying to do. And I think I know now. But it took time to go deeper.

I should add that I got reunited with a "character"-one more pivotal than I thought-- in the book which changed my perspective (in a very good way). It will be a better story because I let it sit. It will be a better story because I grew as a person and continued living that life I was writing about. (I put character in quotes back there because, well, the people in my book are real, and that's something to get used to--to just think of them as character so you can be more objective.)

Jim: Can you describe what makes a submission to HippoCampus stand out in a crowd?

Donna: I've got to feel something. Or laugh. Or both. If I get chills, if I get misty-eyed, if I get angry at or fall in love with a character, if I want to go research a place or topic covered in the essay or memoir excerpt, if I'm still thinking about it the next day. We publish such a range of material that there isn't really a set "HippoCampus story" but we know it when we see it. We're publishing true stories by real people so we want our readers to care about the writer, the situation. It has to matter to the greater audience, not just the writer.

Jim: HippoCampus Magazine is coming up on five years. How has the magazine evolved?

Donna: Wow. That's such a good question. We've grown by leaps and bounds in submissions, readership and the amount we publish each month, but we've really stayed consistent with our product so there hasn't been a big evolution from that standpoint, but there has been amazing growth. The conference and other live events and some new complementary initiatives will help us evolve into new spaces and places. ven though a lit mag is a labor of love, I treat it like a business, not as a hobby or a "side project" so that has helped shape our direction.

Jim: I'm looking forward to HippoCamp 2015, especially hearing Lee Gutkind and Jane Friedman speak. I know this is the first HippoCamp you have coordinated. What are you most excited about?

Donna: I'm most excited about bringing an online publication to life, and about bringing a set of people together, most of whom don't know one another, to one place to learn and share with one another. And leave knowing new people and new things. Right now this idea, these plans, they all exist in our heads and on paper -- but they will soon come alive, and that is exciting. To see an idea come to life.

Click on the links to learn more. Read about Donna Talarico's writing at her website. Read HippoCampus Magazine or check out the speakers and the schedule for HippoCamp 2015, being held in downtown Lancaster from August 7-9.

On Writing, Preservation, and Andy Wyeth: Catherine Quillman

Catherine Quillman is the author of several books covering regional culture, including 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, which showcases painters and sculptors. More recently, Catherine co-authored (with Sarah Wesley) Walking the East End: A Historic African-American Community in West Chester, PA. Catherine spent several years covering the arts and culture scene for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is known for advocating for the preservation of historic structures in West Chester. In addition, Catherine is an artist herself. She had a piece of artwork recently featured on the cover of Philadelphia Stories. I’ve known Catherine for a few years but wanted to learn more about her roots, her interests, and her upcoming projects.

Jim: Your books, whether 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, or Walking Uptown (which you co-wrote with Sarah Wesley), or Between the Brandywines are about the local area. Did you grow up in or near West Chester? If not, where are you from?

Catherine: Ironically, considering I write about local history, I'm from the planned city of Columbia, Maryland. When I think about it, I must have been history-minded back then because I saved the poster from the city's first anniversary - it's a very 1960s design and was silk screened by hand! I remember I pulled the poster out of a trash can and biked home with it at the age of 7 or so. It's now hanging in my laundry room. (May be I should sell it on eBay!)

Jim: Walking the East End, your first walking tour book, is a fascinating look at the East End, the historical African-American neighborhood in West Chester. How did you and Sarah come to collaborate on this project?

Catherine: I met Sarah when she worked as a receptionist at the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) and I covered art/history with the Inquirer. Remarkably, this was way back in 1995. She had just finished a walking tour of the same area. The artist Mark Cole drew illustrations but the booklet was never published. Fast forward to 2010 and I was looking for a short project to do. I remained friends with Sarah and knew that she didn't like leaving her East End booklet languishing in the proverbial drawer.

Fortunately, we had an added incentive because I was able to get a grant from the Leeway Foundation. The writing of that grant made me realize that Sarah had a lot of material but the draft wasn’t yet focused on the East End as the birthplace of Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rob Lukens, the president of CCHS, later came up with the idea of having a book signing on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on D.C. which Rustin famously planned ( and introduced Martin Luther King's "I have A Dream" speech.)

Jim: What's something about the Chester County Art Scene that you think would surprise most people?

Catherine: Well, if you are only vaguely aware that there is an art tradition known as the Brandywine Art Tradition, you might be surprised about the number of professional artists here. I could have written a book titled 150 Artists of the Brandywine Valley and still had more artists to spare! You might also be surprised to know that "nontraditional" artists now outnumber the artists who paint traditional watercolor or oil landscapes. The Brandywine Tradition, dating back to the late 1800s, is a realist based movement, in case you wondered.

Jim: I understand you interviewed Andrew Wyeth a few times. Can you tell us about a memorable moment from one of those meetings?

Catherine: Well, first off, any encounter with Wyeth was memorable! You may remember that he painted his model Helga in secret for 15 years and then became America’s best-known reclusive artist. He just hated answering the same question over and over again: did he have an affair with Helga? That became known as “THE question.”

I remember my editor at the time thought I should pull a “Barbara Walters and ask THE question in an off-hand way, as we were walking the grounds of Wyeth’s property and looking, for example, at the millrace. I doubted that I could arrange that – it was hard enough getting an interview – and sure enough I was glad that I even got a chance to speak to him alone, at his house in Chadds Ford.

Alone is the operative word because Wyeth actually greeted me at the door himself (I was expecting a maid) and sat down next to me on a loveseat. He may have wanted to be near the two tape recorders I had running on the coffee table, but still it was a little disconcerting since he had a way of studying your face when you were asking him questions (truly a portrait artist).

Years later, I discovered that I wasn’t alone with Wyeth that day. His biographer Richard Meryman, said he was there that day, sitting in the kitchen. He joked that he was jealous since I was allowed to use a tape recorder whereas he was first banned from using one.

A few years before Wyeth died in 2009, I traveled all the way to Maine on a magazine assignment and he changed his mind about the interview. Or rather, he wanted me to “come back another time” or wouldn’t’ I prefer to interview “his son” meaning Jamie Wyeth? I think he was just tired because this was after his two-city retrospective. Anyway, we were suppose to meet in a restaurant, which is a terrible place for an interview but I suppose he didn’t want me taking a rowboat out to his private island.

I remember that the magazine piece was about a collection of Helga drawings that were being sold, and I carried a stash of copies so that I could show them to Wyeth and he could have a visual reminder. The restaurant was a tucked-away old tavern so it seemed like I was going to make some sort of spy top-secret exchange - the drawings for Wyeth’s memories. It’s a shame he canceled - it would have been fun telling him that. He enjoyed the idea of secret encounters!

Jim: What's your next project?

Catherine: I like to have several projects going at once, mainly because the creative, personal ones take longer with no immediate income. Also, my business, Quillman Publications, gets various commissions. Most recently, I was commissioned to write an illustrated history of "Johnstown," the historic Italian-American section of Downingtown ( and home of the annual frog dinner for those in the know!) Also, I'm finishing a book on an antique ice tool museum on the edge of West Chester. (It was closed in the winter; go figure as they say.)

I'm also helping an 80-something artist with the third edition of his watercolor book, A Watercolor How-to : Tips and Techniques My Instructor Never Taught me. As its title suggests, it's a fun book! You can see it on my web site too (

My long-term projects include a children’s book on a 19th century tavern and a YA (young adult) novel on the poorhouse. I know - every writer has a children’s book idea - but I continually get help from the Highlights Foundation. You may recall the name from the Highlights magazine everyone read in the dentist’s office but the foundation now includes a publishing house and workshop retreat place at their headquarters in Honesdale, PA.

I attended a workshop last summer and literally a pair of bears and their cubs showed up the morning the New York literary agents arrived! The bears hung out in the word garden -- which had words like “Inspire” and “Creativity” written on stones you could re-arrange like those little word magnets you used to see on people’s refrigerators.

Anyway, I highly recommend the Highlights Foundation if you are interested in children’s books. It’s like joining a long-term support system once you attend your first workshop.

Jim: You are known for being an advocate for the preservation of historical buildings in the borough of West Chester. How did your passion for preservation begin?

Catherine: I think I became “known” in an official way in 2013, when I received a “preservation service award” from the West Chester Downtown Foundation, mainly for documenting the East End.

As for the “beginning,” Inquirer policy probably would have prevented me from speaking out at borough meetings (even though I’m a resident), but I have been thinking about preservation at least since I covered West Chester’s Bicentennial in 1999.

In the last few years, I have drawn more and more on my research (including vintage postcards) in my preservation efforts. In fact, I joke that people must see me as the “100 year-old woman” because I seem to know so much about the historic streetscape and the former uses of buildings.

I call it my occupational hazard as the de facto town historian - I know how many architecturally important buildings we have lost. Sadly, it’s been a lot and makes me think of the expression “demolition is forever.” I’ve read old newspaper accounts of events like the demolition of the Market Street train depot and the Warner Theater, and I see the same story again and again. There’s always a line that the building is “an eyesore” and the borough needs blank-blank for what we now call a “revitalization” project. In a recent Main Line Today magazine story, a friend and fellow historian had the perfect quote. It was “some say you can’t save everything. But if you start with that position, you won’t save anything.”

Lately I’ve heard a new line and it’s related to what I call the “Super-Size-Me” trend of small towns. They say that West Chester has already changed dramatically and we need new buildings to accommodate more people. So I think my “passion” is really a sense of urgency on my part.

Without mentioning specific projects, I think we have lost the idea of adaptive reuse – it’s either razing the building and maybe saving the façade. At many borough meetings, I feel I’m in a “the Emperor has no clothes” scenario because only a few people consider the historic streetscape. I should clarify: With the exception of Market Street (designed originally for a market house), West Chester was built to have small-scale streetscapes and through the decades, developers have retained that for the most part. Today, when a change is made, the new structure dominates - it looks urban, massive or like a soundstage for My Fair Lady to me. Hopefully, the borough’s new comprehensive plan will serve as some kind of protection for the historic character of the borough’s downtown areas and we’ll have more zoning “overlays,” as they call them, to control growth.

Jim: Thanks Catherine!

Catherine's books can be purchased at AMAZON. To learn more about Catherine's work, and to see a photo of her with Andrew Wyeth, click here.

On Writing: Interview with Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith's latest book is a simple and beautiful collection of essays called Communion. His stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals, and his work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing. I first met Curtis at Rosemont Writers Retreat and have become enamored by his beautiful prose, and his quiet dedication to the craft of writing. Curtis is a graduate of Kutztown University (Woot!) and lives in Hershey, PA with his wife and son.

Jim: There is so much I enjoyed about your essay collection Communion. The pieces are so quiet and personal. Did you set out to write an essay collection or was it only after submitting pieces that you realized you had this running theme?

Curtis: I didn’t set out to write a whole collection—that said, I tend to write in cycles, and most of the book was written in a span of about two years. This is my second essay collection, and I’ve discovered a different voice and tone in my nonfiction—and it’s a voice that’s seeped into my fiction as well. So I believe the style and tone provides a sense of unity.

The main running theme I imagined was observing my son leaving the self-centered awareness of a child and entering a more complex, scarier world of adulthood, a place where he realizes he isn’t the center of things and that the world can be filled with forces both wonderful and frightening. And this witnessing allows me to explore my own fears and joys through the lens he’s offered.

Jim: The book cover evokes Catholic traditions but the essays are really about Communion in a larger sense, how grace fills our lives in small, often ordinary moments. Are there any essayists or perhaps other writers who you think inspired you to write about this topic?

Curtis: I can’t say there were in particular—but I think there’s a lot of literary writing that deals with grace—with the communion of one’s awareness and the greater world that surrounds us. That said, I’d say in terms of tone and mood, I’d like to think my work lands within the realm of Joan Didion. I appreciate her work’s sharp images and the sense of passionate restraint.

I tend to write in streaks—I’ll write stories for six or so months, then return to a novel, then to essays. It’s just the way my mind seems to work—and the back-and-forth allows me to return to projects with a different perspective. When I’m in an essay writing mode, I find myself reading a lot of poetry. I enjoy the sparseness and beauty of poetry, the way so much is said with such economy. I’m no poet, but I hope that vibe finds its way into my work.

Jim: Being a father is one of life's greatest joys and you capture it beautifully. Has your son read the essays yet? If so, what does he think?

Curtis: He’s read sections—but not the whole thing. He’s OK with it—at least for now. I’m careful to tell my story—not his. I always want to respect him and his journey. I do my best to be as honest and truthful as possible when commenting on the things he’s said and done. I hope when he’s older he’ll see it the same way.

Jim: I read an interview in the Triangle where you discussed retirement from teaching. Is that coming soon or were you speaking about something farther on the horizon?

Curtis: I’m retiring this year. I graduated in 82 and started teaching right away. For the past 33 years I’ve been with the same district just outside Harrisburg. It’s been a good journey—and I’m incredibly thankful for all I’ve been able to do here. Turning 55 and having 30-plus years helps with the equations that impact one’s retirement. I’m going to do some adjunct work—I’m looking forward to that. I’m excited to start a new chapter—but I will also miss the work that has helped define me all these years.

Jim: You attended Kutztown University just a few years before I went there. What do you most vividly recall about your time at K-Town? And did you have an English or writing professor who inspired you?

Curtis: I grew up in the Philly area, so Kutztown, with its farmlands and buggies, was a bit of a shock, but I had a great time there. I played a lot of Frisbee, and I spent a lot of evenings in the library—kind of a weird combo, when I think of it. I was a special ed major, so I didn’t have too many English courses—but one of my freshman classes was with Harry Humes, who is a really wonderful and widely published poet. I’ve followed his career—he deserves some wider recognition.

Jim: Nice! One of the transcendent moments in my life was when Harry Humes entered on the first day of Creative Writing Class and read a Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" I really enjoyed Communion and I know the Brandywine Valley Writers Group is looking forward to having you chat about the craft of writing. Thanks again!

Curtis: Thanks Jim.

You can order a copy of Curtis Smith's essay collection Communion directly from AMAZON.