Magic Meets Humanity, Resilience Meets Reality – Chloe Benjamin Tackles the Ultimate Life Question: How We Handle Mortality

Chloe Benjamin’s magically poignant new novel, The Immortalists, hits the shelves everywhere January 2018! The rising new literary star stopped in at The Navi Review to discuss all things bookish and — dare I say it? — existentialist. Read here as the author we’d all love to know, of the novel we can’t wait to snag, leaves a little piece of herself here for her readers.

 

Question # 1

You’ve described your life in eight words as: “Lakes, books, coffee, crafting, friends, stories, quiet, home.” Can you describe for us a typical day in your life, and how your writing and writing success has changed (or not changed) that eight-word formula for you?

I’m very impressed you found that S&S questionnaire! Happily, a typical day in my life hasn’t changed very much, although I’m now a full time writer (while I wrote my first book, I worked in social services). I live in Madison, WI, where I did my MFA, which is far from the publishing epicenter in New York City. While I used to worry I might miss opportunities by being so far away, I’ve realized that having a quieter, more removed life is a good fit for me. I love to fly into New York, but it’s better for my work to have a few degrees of separation from the hubbub and pressure. Most days, I try to write from 9am to 12 or 1pm and use afternoons for emails, media and other business-y things. Working out, going to yoga, spending cozy evenings with friends, and knitting (a lot!) keep me balanced.

 

Question #2

Your debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, explores similar themes as The Immortalists. Going by a description comparable in its probing questions—“Human beings are more productive than ever before, but they’re also unhappier. They feel oppressed by the limits of their lives: the boredom, the repetition, the fatigue. What if you could use your sleep to do more—to receive all of the traditional regenerative benefits while problem-solving, healing, even experiencing alternate worlds? Wouldn’t you be capable of extraordinary things?” –your novels explore the idea of “what if” and the oppression that life’s limits press upon us. What do you want to say the loudest as you explore these themes; what do you want to ensure that your readers get out of these novels once they’ve turned that final page?

I’m drawn to big, existential questions: the tension between life’s limits and possibilities, the tension between knowledge and uncertainty, and so on. I think we all cope with these curiosities, to some degree, so I hope that my novels offer readers the chance to sit with and explore them. With The Immortalists in particular, and its focus on mortality, I hope it offers solace and companionship for those who also struggle with uncertainty, anxiety and loss—as well as the question of how to live fully.

 

Question #3

The world you created in The Immortalists is so complete, from the description of magic tricks to the inner workings of experimental science, it’s obvious that you did a lot of research to get the details just right. What can you tell us about your research process for this novel? 

Both of my novels have taken quite a bit of research, but The Immortalists definitely takes the cake! Each of its four sections required a deep dive into a different character, time period, profession and subculture, from the Castro’s early gay community to the world of professional magicians. To keep myself from becoming overwhelmed, I focused on these sections one at a time, though I sometimes had to jump forward and research the next character because of their role in the previous character’s section (for instance, I had to understand Klara’s passion for magic while writing the preceding section, Simon’s). My research process included a wide variety of materials, from nonfiction and memoirs to documentaries, archival footage, interviews and travel.

 

Question #4

In The Immortalists, magic plays a big factor in the story line and becomes a metaphor throughout, which becomes the novel’s namesake. What is your own personal experience with magic, and how did you know it was the perfect fit for Klara?

I didn’t have any experience with the world of magic prior to writing the book, but like Klara, I do have a curiosity about the edges of reality—or, put differently, how much of reality seems inexplicable, how it can be mindbogglingly strange and hard to pin down. When I thought of the name for Klara’s act, I knew it was the perfect title for the novel, as all of the characters chafe against mortality in different ways. I see religion, science and magic—all belief systems that offer ways of coping with these questions—as more related than they might seem on the surface.

 

Question #5

Readers who know and follow you will be able to tell that you put a lot of yourself into The Immortalists, such as your love of science and medicine and your personal experience with both San Francisco and New York, where you went to school. What other nuggets of yourself or your past can be found within the pages of this novel?

I grew up with San Francisco and gay parents, and I was a ballet dancer for about fifteen years—so even though I’m not a gay man, I probably share the most DNA with Simon’s section. On the other hand, I identify with Klara’s passion and ambition, and with Varya’s tendency toward anxiety and control. I’m probably least similar to Daniel, though I have a soft spot for him, and his section is set near Poughkeepsie, NY, where I went to college.

 

Question #6

As an MFA holder and writing instructor, I’m sure you’ve run across so many different forms and genres of writing. What forms or genres of writing have you not yet experimented with yourself, and would you like to ever try writing in those forms? What makes those so different from the writing you do now?

I think of my writing as being pretty traditional literary fiction: character-driven, with an attention to language—though I love a good story and am always trying to improve my use of plot! There’s a bit of a speculative or magical realist element to my work, and I admire writers who write more fully within those traditions. I’m fascinated by outer space and have a wild dream of writing a novel set on a space station, but I have no experience writing sci-fi and the research for that kind of project feels even more intimidating than what I did for The Immortalists!

 

Question #7

Which of your short stories or review articles (previously or soon-to-be published) was the hardest to write or conceptualize, and what was that experience like for you?

The hardest one to write was one that hasn’t yet been published, as I’ve been keeping it under my hat until I feel brave enough to share it. It’s about my own history of anxiety, especially as it relates to loss and the body.

 

Question #8

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing, whether in school or since being published?

Ooh, strangest? I once got a three-star review that said something like, “Was gonna be a two; got a little better.”

 

Question #9

The road from drafting a novel on your laptop to having it published by a major publisher can be just as long and grueling a process as it is exciting and self-verifying. What is your most memorable experience with your editorial team thus far? Have there been any situations where you do did not agree with their edits, and, if so, how did you deal with this?

I’d like to think I’m both open to feedback—that’s why you have an editor, after all!—and firm in my vision for my work. When my agent sent the book to publishers and I spoke with the editors who were interested, I was lucky to find someone who shared my vision but could also improve on it. I have to say that the publishing process has been incredibly smooth and positive. My editor and I are very simpatico, and if one of us feels strongly, the other typically understands and cedes to them.

 

Question #10

All of your readers are dying to know: what projects are you looking forward to working on next?

I’m working on another novel, though I’ve had to set it aside entirely in the past few weeks, as publicity ramps up for The Immortalists. I’ll be on tour throughout January (feel free to link to the tour schedule on my website!), but after I come back and sleep for a thousand hours, I’m excited to get back to it.

 

Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public!

There are more ways for bloggers, reviewers and readers to connect with authors these days, but I imagine that presents challenges when it comes to offering unbiased coverage. How do you juggle connecting with authors and writing honest reviews?

To answer Chloe’s question (other reviewers and bloggers, feel free to join in!): That’s a really great question. For me, writing reviews is about honesty, exploration and being 100% myself. I think—and I hope!—that that’s why my readers keep reading and following. I appreciate every author who takes the time from their busy lives to interact with me and the readers, while at the same time I think it’s important to give a fair review that is genuinely how I feel about the book. (Ironically, the only 1* review I’ve ever written is my most famous, with nearly 700 likes on Goodreads and counting—people love a good takedown.) Of the authors so far who are participating in this series (2 of which are not yet posted) I’ve given two 3* reviews, a 4* review and two 5* reviews. I’m just as excited to interview a 1* star-reviewed author as I am to interview a 5*-reviewed author, because it allows all readers to get to know that writer and their work—AND it allows me to ask questions that may clear up sour points in their novel for me.

Writing is an objective art. I don’t only write reviews; I’ve just completed my own novel and I’m working on a short story collection. I know that criticism can sting but that it can also add a new and dynamic POV that others had not thought to explore before. Being able to straddle that line allows me to juggle connecting with authors on a human level with writing honest reviews of their work. I would never embellish or mark down a review for likes or to get an author to work with me—BUT I do sometimes round stars up for novels that have a message I loved with a delivery I did not or some other incongruence such as that. For me, each rating is about the reading experience as a whole on an intellectual level. 🙂

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The Jekyll & Hyde & Various Sides of Writer Joy Lanzendorfer

To start the New Year of 2018 off with a BANG, if you’re looking for a dynamic writer you may not have encountered yet, look no further, for Joy Lanzendorfer is here! From short stories to blogging, photography to non-fiction articles, she shares her writing experiences with us here at The Navi Review. Oh, and don’t worry – she’s no Mr. Hyde, but you’ll love reading about her interest and experience with it!

Question # 1

You have written dozens of freelance articles for publications such as Mental Floss and The Atlantic, including many “facts you didn’t know about____” pieces. Where do you come up with the ideas for these pieces, and how do you know all of these fun facts?

I get ideas by noticing connections and asking questions. I find that when you follow your curiosity, one thing leads to another, and you end up making discoveries. For example, I became interested in Robert Louis Stevenson’s time in Napa, near where I live, because he honeymooned on a mountain that I’ve hiked before. In researching that, I learned that he stayed in a hotel in Monterey that still exists, so of course I had to visit that too. While there, I learned that he got the idea for Treasure Island from Monterey—while there, someone found Spanish coins on a beach and people speculated that pirates had put them there. I also learned how sick Stevenson was while in Monterey, and I started wondering how a man who died at age 44 from tuberculosis managed to accomplish so much in his life—he traveled much of the world and wrote a bunch of best-selling fiction. And THAT led to the discovery that he likely wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while on a cocaine binge. He was prescribed the drug and then wrote the novel in just a few days after he started taking it. Naturally I had to share all this with Mental Floss, which I did in my article 11 Strange Facts About Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (http://mentalfloss.com/article/67769/11-strange-facts-about-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde). So that’s an example of how I get ideas. Lots of curiosity, lots of research.

 

Question #2

You maintain a blog at www.ohjoy.org where you post everything from short stories to vacation photos to articles you’ve written for various publications. How has blogging helped you in your writing career, and what drives you to continue blogging?

It’s funny because I made my first website in 1996, and I’ve been online in some way since then, but it hasn’t helped my career at all until recently. I think the difference comes from building up social media, which I started doing about three years ago. Having more of a Twitter presence means that if followers are curious about me or read something I wrote, they’re more likely to go to the blog to see who I am. Sometimes that means they’ll reach out to me professionally. When I put up that I was looking for a literary agent, several agents saw it and emailed me, which never would have happened before I was on Twitter. I don’t think writers have to blog, but I do think it’s smart to have some kind of site with your bio and contact information. These days, people want to see who you are online.

Question # 3 

That would be “You’re A Good Man, Andy Hardy,” which was published in Hotel Amerika, and unfortunately isn’t online. It’s about the Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s, which starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The story is from the point of view of Betsy Booth, Judy Garland’s character, and it deals with gender inequality and traditional American ideas of what makes people “good” and “bad.” It’s the closest I’ve come to writing in the creative mode I’d ideally like to stay in, which is somewhat surreal and lyrical while still humorous. And the story gave me no hassle and came together easily, which makes me like it more.

Question #4

You seem to have a real passion for photography. Your blog features everything from nature photos to candid shots in everyday life. How did you develop your passion for photography, and how does this impact your writing?

Good question. I’ve never thought about this before. The short answer is that I’m just a creative person and I’m always making or recording or expressing something in some way. I cook and garden and sew and knit and all kinds of crap like that. I also come from a creative family. My grandfather was a photographer, my mom’s a painter, and my dad builds things out of wood, so it’s no surprise that I’m a visual thinker. Photography allows me to express my experience of a situation visually, and I like to share that experience with others. (My mom also makes oil paintings from the pictures I take, so I do a lot of it for her.) As for my writing, it’s useful to have a visual record of things I’ve experienced because I might want to describe something from it in the future.

 

Question #5

You’ve written and interviewed extensively on “The Rise of Plagiarism in Self-Publishing.” For those who haven’t read your work on this (which can be found at www.ohjoy.org), what circumstance have you personally encountered that has made you such a passionate voice about this?

I don’t think anything I’ve written has been plagiarized, although who knows? I’ve never looked. But I can’t imagine anything worse than someone taking your work and passing it off as their own, especially if it’s your creative writing. This may make me seem petty, but in school I hated when people copied me. I really couldn’t stand it if I did something original and someone else started doing it too. So I empathized with the writers in that article, especially since they had so little recourse for protecting their work.

 

Question #6

In your flash fiction such as “Murmur” and “Drought,” you pack social commentary into short reading doses. Do you find that it’s easier or more difficult to make an impact with flash fiction than with longer short stories or full-length fiction? What is your preferred medium of writing, and why?

I prefer novels. With novels, you have room to build worlds and develop characters, and the reader is more likely to go along with you. I think full-length short stories are the hardest things to write, period. They’re very finicky. They work best when the ending resonates, which means that writing them is a matter of setting out the exact components of a story—no more, no less—that lead to an earned ending that somehow equals all that came before. That’s hard to get right and it’s easy to think a short story is done when it’s not. Short-shorts are easier for me. They have to shift in some way to be a “story,” but that shift can be interpreted many ways, which means they’re more experimental. I like to experiment.

 

Question #7

What forms of writing have you not yet experimented with, and would you like to ever try writing in those forms? What makes those forms so different from the writing you do now?

I’m interested in playwriting. When I was in high school, I would go to the library, get out stacks of plays, and then read them, one after another. Because of this, the structure of a play is burned in my brain. I still read plays and keep up with current playwrights. Writing in all dialogue would come naturally to me, so maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

 

Question #8

Which of your stories is the first short story you ever had published in a literary magazine, and what was that experience like?

It was in college. It was a short story for a magazine called Straight Up!, or something silly like that. The story had to do with a glass swan, if I remember correctly. I probably have a copy up in the attic. It was a big deal to me because they paid me $80 for the story, which was the first time I was paid for something I wrote. At the time, I was debating whether or not to be a writer, and that story pushed me over toward writing, for better or worse.

 

Question #9

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

At a party recently, I ran into someone who was at a reading I gave 7-8 years ago. The story I read was about a creepy stalker with a glove fetish. Apparently my story freaked out this woman so much that she can’t look at gloves without thinking about it. She said I changed how she looks at gloves. Imagine that! It was one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

 

Question #10

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself.

 

I asked my friend what I should say here, and she reminded me of the weird things I do to myself when I’m writing. I’ll wrap myself in multiple blankets so not the slightest shift in air temperature can penetrate my skin, then I’ll put giant headphones on to block out noise, and then, if the light is bothering me, I’ll slap a sunhat on top of my head. I’ll look like a mummy with a crumpled sunhat on its head. It’s the most unsexy, silly way to write, but it helps me concentrate when I’m not distracted by bodily discomfort. It’s like putting blinders on a horse so it can concentrate on walking down the street.

 

Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public! 

 

What’s your favorite writing prompt? I like looking at the Post Secrets site for inspiration. (https://postsecret.com/)

 

To answer Joy’s question (readers, feel free to jump in and respond as well!) I tend to prefer prompts that push me outside of my comfort zone but not so far as to go completely to left field. For example, I love the prompt “Write about somebody who is COMPLETELY unlike yourself.” That’s how my short story “Kid Gloves” was written, from a prompt I was given years ago. However, if I was given a prompt like “Write about a Martian living on Mars” I’d be at a complete loss!

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: January 9th 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

“There are two major theories about how to stop aging…”
“…It sounds like you’re saying we can choose to live. Or we can choose to survive.”

Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists is a thoughtfully executed novel written in simple, yet often poetic, prose that allowed the characters’ voices at their most forceful to shine on their own past the narrative itself. More than that, it is a novel crafted around a question we all ask ourselves more often than we’d care to admit: “Is it more important to truly live or to survive? To dare to dream at our grandest or to play it safe?” And, if you knew the exact day on which you’d die, would you live your life any differently than you would without that hateful knowledge?

In their youth, the Gold siblings follow a rumor to the home of a Gypsy fortune teller who gives them the knowledge they seek: the exact dates of their deaths. These prophecies propel them forward for the rest of their lives, influencing their decisions, changing the courses of their lives and plunging the question into the forefront of their minds forever: Was the fortune teller right, and, if so, can they change the course of their own fates?

It’s an intriguing idea, we must all admit. A scary one. A downright chilling one. And the leitmotif Benjamin poses to her reader manifests itself throughout the novel with compelling force, from the exploration of God and country’s place within our existence, to what the prophecy of one’s own death does to such beliefs. Do we cling to such notions and ingrained dogmas all the way to the end, cowering under them safely like warm, childhood blankets, or using them to fortify us in our resolve and everyday decisions—or, do we slough off and away such religious and secular beliefs and become our own reason for living, our own life force, whether to our own detriment or benefit?

The Immortalists bounds along a timeline spanning five decades, trotting through the start of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco—

“You weren’t terrified?”
“No, not then…When doctors said we should be celibate, it didn’t feel like they were telling us to choose between sex and death. It felt like they were asking us to choose between death and life. And no one who worked that hard to live life authentically, to have sex authentically, was willing to give it up.”

¬–toward Las Vegas in the 80s and into the early years of this century, tackling tough questions, such as the logistics behind increasing the human lifespan—and the politics of attempting such a thing. For readers who enjoy novels of sweeping timelines, they’re sure to find a treat in Benjamin’s latest novel. The period settings weren’t quite as immersive as I’d hoped—the societal and technological differences in backdrop between the decades were noted but not submerging in a way that allowed me to really feel I was moving from decade to decade with true authenticity. However, what I did take from this book were lessons to carry with me, delivered by poignant phrasing that outshone the actual stories of the four siblings’ lives. And that resonated loudly enough to forgive such specifics.

I had an interesting relationship with this novel as I continued my reader’s affair with it. I could not relate specifically to any one of the characters in this book. I would not have been friends with any of them in real life, and I did feel that some of the plotlines were predictable. BUT, I learned a lesson from every single one of the siblings that I took with me until the end, and each of those moments of recognition were special.

What do you want?…and if [she] answered him honestly she would have said this: To go back to the beginning. She would tell her thirteen-year-old self not to visit the woman. To her twenty-five-year old self: Find Simon, forgive him…She’d tell herself she would die, she would die, they all would…She’d tell herself that what she really wanted was not to live forever, but to stop worrying…”

This is a novel with a strong core and a big heart, with a moral and a central theme to tie all the threads together. Chloe Benjamin’s second novel continued her thus-far-established trend of exploring existential questions in our everyday lives, creating a brand for her that is sure to glimmer and shine, attracting new readers from far and wide. 4 stars ****

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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**Exclusive CHLOE BENJAMIN INTERVIEW to come!!!**

Chloe  Benjamin Chloe Benjamin is the author of THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS (Atria, 2014), which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second novel, THE IMMORTALISTS, is forthcoming from Putnam. A graduate of Vassar College and the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Chloe lives with her husband in Madison, WI.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Paperback, 248 pages
Published October 3rd 2017 by Graywolf Press

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is a collection I was so excited to read I dragged a friend in to read it with me. We handed off back and forth who got to pick the next story, never going in order, and found ourselves surprisingly disappointed by each one.

In all honesty, I was drawn to what Machado was trying to do here, to what she was trying to say. But, she didn’t say it with enough force. Some of her stories, such as “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites” seemed to not amount to much more than a harsh whisper, if that, never fully realizing themselves. I wanted more–MORE from a voice that dared to tackle such bold topics as the female experience and psyche. And by “more” I don’t mean argumentative or domineering in tone; some of my favorite short stories ever crept up on me with a gentle breeze at my neck only to bowl me over in the end with words just as gentle. Machado and Her Body didn’t do that for me. In fact, what I remember most about this collection is my buddy reader’s and my disappointed-mounting-to-annoyed reaction as each story was read and discussed. For such a topic that spoke to us, we both wanted to learn something, to feel something–something.

Here’s what I will say: Carmen Maria Machado clearly has something to say, though I, myself, didn’t hear it loudly enough. I thoroughly enjoyed her use of Gothic elements–vaguely supernatural devices used to convey her thoughts, to tinge her messages in wonder. Yet, some of her works were too referential without adding enough to the conversation to warrant the blatant references (to “The Girl with the Ribbon Around her Neck” and Law & Order: SVU in particular). “The Husband Stitch” was my favorite story, because of the unique and haunting asides inserted into the narrative, but the ending failed to shock or move me, so even that story did not live up to the hype around this collection. Every story I read left me wishing there was more–not length but meat and substance, not words but voice and resonance. As we all know, fabulously original ideas must, too, be supported by the execution of them, and that I did not see impressively done here. 2.5* rounded up to ***

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Carmen Maria MachadoCarmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerGrantaAGNI, NPR, VICEBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015Best Horror of the YearYear’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. She has been the recipient of a Millay Colony for the Arts residency, the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing, the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, as well as nominated for a Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards and longlisted for a Tiptree Award. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

Hardcover, 512 pages
Published July 8th 2008 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2008)

In the summer of 1952, twenty prominent men gather at a secret meeting on Martha’s Vineyard and devise a plot to manipulate the President of the United States. Soon after, the body of one of these men is found by Eddie Wesley, Harlem’s rising literary star. When Eddie’s younger sister mysteriously disappears, Eddie and the woman he loves, Aurelia Treene, are pulled into what becomes a twenty-year search for the truth. As Eddie and Aurelia uncover layer upon layer of intrigue, their odyssey takes them from the wealthy drawing rooms of New York through the shady corners of radical politics, all the way to the Oval Office.

Stephen Carter’s novel is as complex as it is suspenseful, and with his unique ability to turn stereotypes inside out, Palace Council is certain to enthrall readers to the very last page.

Whew, this book was a lot! It was a murder mystery and whodunit, an exploration of 20 of the most tumultuous years in American 20th century history and a political thriller, not to mention a foray into Harlem’s Golden Age of influential African Americans with the money and connections most never knew existed for them in those days. There was a lot crammed within these 500+ pages, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

Stephen L. Carter is my favorite author for his ability to weave historical truth with fiction and for his portrayal of the African American community–both modern-day and historically–so accurate in its incisiveness and so taunt in his analysis of it. I’ve never encountered an author before or since who had such an accurate, compelling and thought-provoking voice about the upper echelons of black culture–the very embodiment of W.E.B. Dubois’ Talented Tenth–the subculture within a culture that so few even know exists with its own rich history, mores and societal rules. Carter displayed all of this and more within the pages of Palace Council, and that I lapped up with the enthusiasm you’d expect from one who’d gone too long without such substance.

I’ve seen Carter’s work described as being Dan Brown-like, and it’s true–they do share the element of mysteries solved through obscure literary references and the thrill of running from killers hellbent on snatching the clues the protagonist has found for themselves. But may I step in here and say that Stephen L. Carter is more wily than Dan Brown, his plots more complex in so many ways? Carter’s novels center around both the present and past of affluent African American culture, which allows his reader a basis on which to start from in every read and the thrill of seeing unexpected recurrences of previous characters in diverse stages of their lives. For example, The Emperor of Ocean Parkrevolves around the Garland family who also play a prominent part in Palace Council, set 50 years before the events in Emperor even happened. Readers who love to follow characters over the spans of their lives–who don’t just want to see them one and done in one novel–will love this as I do. This is Carter’s angle (pun intended for those who’ve read this book), rather than the Bond-like supporting female characters of Brown’s novels.

Stephen L. Carter’s novels are always decadent in setting, but Palace Council took the cake. Sweeping from Harlem to Washington D.C. to Saigon and back again, it’s the details here that filled so many pages of this novel. There are so many minute and intricate details here that make their world more solid and complete–from street names in Hong Kong to delicious elements of historic events of the 50s, 60s and 70s–that this one novel could easily be made into a multi-season TV series–and should! Yet, in the setting of one book, it was a lot to take in at once.

If it’s possible for one to drown in literary details, I must say I certainly struggled to stay afloat at times, keeping characters and their bloodlines straight amidst the historical events surrounding them–from Kent State, to the Tet Offensive, to JFK’s assassination and beyond. At times the narrative moved at too slow a pace, filled with historical filler and unnecessary scenes, both, which slowed the plot (in true literary form) rather than urging it forward. While these historical landmarks (the dates sometimes toyed with for the benefit of the characters at Carter’s admission) helped to center the players within these pages and paint a complete picture of the age they lived in, there were also so many times where historic events seemed just dumped in there. (I hesitate to say haphazardly because I doubt Carter does anything “haphazard” ever.) And, I’ll admit, the plot was sometimes muddled and muddied by Carter’s abundance of clever asides and descriptive tags galore. But Carter’s novels reside in the company between Dan Brown’s thrillers steeped in literary puzzles and Salman Rushdie’s erudition. And for that, he warrants all the praise he has garnered, and remains my favorite author to date. Palace Council earned a solid 4 stars sullied only by the editor’s inability to rein this one in a little more. (Honestly, a good 75 pages at least could have been chopped.) ****

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Stephen L. Carter Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale where he has taught since 1982. He has published seven critically acclaimed nonfiction books on topics ranging from affirmative action to religion and politics. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), was an immediate national best seller. His latest novel is New England White (Knopf, 2007). A recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Fiction, he lives near New Haven, Connecticut.

Short Story: Lost and Found

A lot of my readers and followers know that in addition to the book reviews and my full-length novel, Snakes and Ladders, I’m also writing a short story collection that goes by the following description:

A collection of enigmatic and intriguing creative narratives that delves into the female psyche in her quest for sensuality, absolution, revenge and fulfillment. A new literary aesthetic, these are the anti-fairy tale stories for the totally modern woman and the modern age, a veritable celebration of life and what it truly means to be a woman…

In this subjective industry, I value the regards and opinions of my loyal readers who know me and my writing style, so I’ve posted one of the stories in the collection here for you. My ONLY request is that, upon reading this selection, you comment. That’s it — just tell me what you think; the good, the bad and the ugly. I welcome it! Let’s think of this as that peer review creative writing class so many of us took in college. Tell me your thoughts on Lost and Found, your questions, your wishlist. If you don’t have a WordPress account and cannot comment here, please feel free to email me at navidad.thelamour@gmail.com.

As always, HAPPY READING! 🙂

This story is an original work written by Navidad Thélamour. Copyright © 2017  Navidad Thélamour. All rights reserved.

 

Lost and Found

It’d seemed like a great idea at the time, the trip to Vegas. Caro’s best friend Becca was giddy with adrenaline and a mid-year resolution to get her heart out of her vagina and live life by her own rules when she suggested it. All it’d taken for her to reach this conclusion was twenty-seven years, a couple dozen break-ups and her latest soirée with heartbreak, which ended when she “torched Tony’s shit” with a bottle of lighter fluid and a single match.

Good riddance.

It was over Becca’s rolled ciggie and Caro’s glass of Chardonnay that Becca suggested the trip. Feet flung over the edge of her friend’s couch, grungy laced boots dangling over the edge. She took a drag and exhaled it out, rolled the cig between her fingers and told Caro about the slapper she’d caught Tony shagging in their apartment. Oh well, at least it hadn’t been a total cliché: the girl was blonde, of course—wasn’t that always the case with American boys?—but at least they weren’t rolling round in the sheets. No, he’d at least had the proper decency to have the bloody slag on the floor instead. Where she belonged.

Becca tossed her head back and laughed. Caro, nursing her wine, did the same. It was moments like those when the glaring differences between them really amused Caro, when she remembered why she didn’t hang out with the girls from their Wellesley years or with the ladies from the “club” her parents belonged to, why she preferred the company of the girl who’d dropped out mid-way through semester two, content with just being out of the Commonwealth. She’d never turned back to her parents’ arms in Cambridge but had remained at Caro’s side, content to move with her to Atlanta when the big break at CNN came. Becca always had a story. She always kept it interesting.

And now that Tony was on “The List” of ex-lovers who’d wallowed in her silky accent until they realized that she wasn’t quite the Kate Middleton they’d been expecting, or those who’d simply used her as notch in the ole’ belt with the added perk of gravity-defying C cups, her wounds had been sufficiently licked—a ciggie always helped—and she was ready to move on to the next adventure. Caro shrugged and downed the rest of the glass. Why not? One could always find something to get into in Vegas, couldn’t they?

They checked into the Aria Hotel courtesy of Caro’s credit card, she in Valentino heels and smart slacks, Becca in skinnys and a t-shirt, a blonde and red-headed pair. They laughed together on the way up to their room, passing through the noisy and bustling casino floor and half-empty restaurants that the hotel boasted. At the elevators they showed their key card to the attendant to be permitted use of the steel boxes that would whisk them up to their room. They entered the double-bed room on the twenty-second floor to find a swanky view of the pool to their right and the strip straight ahead, smoldering and hazy with the shimmering that sizzled and rose off of the pavement. They’d traveled light for the occasion, each with only a duffle bag slung over her shoulders. Caro was dying for a spa treatment while Becca was anxious to see the bar scene. She’d heard there was a place on the strip where the bartenders would flash you for tips.

She was game.

They agreed, as usual, to take turns humoring each other. Becca stood at the tall sheets of glass that separated their room from the sweltering heat outside, pulled out the credit card linked to her parents’ account from her back pocket and vowed that the first round of drinks would be on her. “Fancy a nice bender, Caro?” she winked. “We’ll order something dirty. Something Southern. But, bloody hell, do change first, will you? This is vaca not finishing school, love.” Becca grabbed her baccy and flopped on her bed, rolling a cig with it while waiting for Caro to shed her old skin.

Outside, the sun shone bright white on the pavement, half-blinding them as they emerged from the smart shops round the Aria hotel peddling $300 T-shirts and $1000 jeans then walked down the strip toward the flashing PARIS sign. “Christ, Ro,” Becca grumbled, pulling her red hair up into a knotted bun. “Feels like I’m sittin’ on Satan’s lap out here, innit?” Get ready for it. It wasn’t going to let up, Caro told her. Her phone said it’d be 95 degrees even after the sun went down. They ducked into some commercialized barbeque joint off the strip – Caro was ready to get her hands dirty, literally – and Becca was ready to get out of the late-evening sun.

Guinness for one, rum and Coke for the other.

When she saw him, she didn’t recognize him.

Caro was feeling good already and Becca was enjoying her dark splash of Dublin, a basketball playoffs game playing on the screens around them. Half of the crowd was hyped up about the match-up, throwing back drinks and cheering. Most of them would only walk away with a hangover and a lot of liquid courage that was sure to get them in trouble. They sat in a wooden booth in the corner, Becca with her feet in the seat next to her friend, back against the seat, Caro with her head back against the booth, motioning for the waitress to bring her another. Pulled pork and wings were finished and pushed to the side when their eyes glimpsed each other then went on to the next thing, not registering, then floated back, seeing but still not sure of the memory.

When she felt the presence to her right, just behind her so that she only sensed it out of her peripheral, she waved her hand dismissively as she yelled over the noise around them. “Can’t you see we’re having girls’ night? I’m not in the mood to pretend you might be getting my number tonight, fella.”

“Um,” he chuckled. “That’s good to know, I guess,” he leaned in towards her ear so she could hear him. “But I thought I recognized you from somewhere. In fact, I know I did. You’re Carolyn, right? We went to TJ together.”

She stopped. The Zaya and Coke held in her mouth until she remembered to swallow when Becca tossed her a weird look and glanced back up at the guy expectantly. “Alright there, Caro seems to have lost her tongue, but I haven’t.” She extended her hand. “Becca. And you are?”

He wiped his hands awkwardly on his shirt then held out his hand. Hit her with a winning smile. “Jeff. Jefferson Kenley.”

“Jefferson Kenley.” Caro turned and gave him a good once over. Yes, he was the guy she’d noticed by the bar chatting up the stacked blonde in cowboy boots. Blondes were his type. She thought she’d seen him with a beer in his hand earlier, but now he sipped something clear, vodka perhaps. He looked completely different, she thought to herself. Had it really been so many years? But he’d grown into his boyish good looks. Harnessed them like a pro with a full beard trimmed low and dark brown hair pushed back haphazardly, messily but in a good way, she thought to herself. McDreamy style.

Back then his hair hadn’t been as dark and he was built like the baseball player he was, tall and lean. But thirty pounds of muscle had served the man well, and the beard even better. She looked up at him stupidly, dumbfounded by the past tapping her on her shoulder the way it had, until Becca waved her hand in front of her face to pull her from her daze.

“Blimey, Caro, you going to offer the man a seat or what?” Then looking back up at him, “Fancy a seat with us?”

“Um, yeah, sure.” Caro scooted over to allow him room, taking in this new face of his and trying to match it to the old one.

“So, you said something about a TJ, did you?”

“Yeah, high school. Back in Virginia. College prep kinda school. Carolyn was all into theater and all that. You know, Our Town, stuff like that. I think we met at a party or something.”

“Homecoming,” she reminded him. “Yeah, I remember. Sophomore year.” Turning to Becca, “He was on the baseball team. Sat behind me in trig.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that. Man, trig kicked my ass back then,” he laughed, finishing off his drink and sliding the glass across the table to signal he was done with it. “Dude, that was so freaking long ago.” She liked the way he said that. Casually, off-handedly. Not like a Texas stereotype.

“So, did you guys go out or something?”

Carolyn blushed a little at the memory. A thumb jerked his way. “Go out? This guy and I dated until graduation.”

*

 

They grabbed his friend Gary from the bar away from the blondes and polished off another round together before leaving. Night had fallen outside, but true to word, it was well over ninety degrees outside still. Becca pulled out a rolled ciggie and lit up; Gary bummed a light from her and they headed down the strip, a quartet of adventure-seekers, one couple walking behind the other. Jeff remarked on how good Caro looked then, embarrassed, back-pedaled that he hadn’t meant she didn’t look good before, too. Caro laughed and shrugged it off. Shoved her hands in her painted on jeans, kitten heels clicking on the pavement though the sound was drowned out by The Strip.

“You’re not too shabby yourself. Time has served you well.”

Jeff laughed back. “Time has served me a divorce and a shitload of student loan debt, dude. How about you? What’s it put on your plate?”

She told him about Wellesley –“Oh yeah, I remember you were headed there.” – then moving to Atlanta when the big break at CNN called her up on the phone. Reporter, waiting on a bigger break so she could get closer to being an anchor.

Jeff nodded to himself, the laughter and playful shoving from Becca and Gary peppering the air behind them, blending with all the other shapes, sounds and smells in the air. Break dancers breaking for tips on the corners, large crowds gathered round bobbing their heads to the beats. Women in stilettos and cabaret getups, large, feathered headdresses included, posed with tourists while lifting their heeled feet over their heads, grinning hugely. Countless restaurant patios spilled over with patrons, the music blending with that of the restaurant next to it as they walked, accents from around the world joining in to make a hum of clamor that one could get used to.

“You were always going to make it big. I always knew that. I have no doubt you’ll get there.” They continued down South Las Vegas Boulevard, lights flashing, voices shouting.

“Hey, where are we headed anyways?” Gary wanted to know. He snapped them out of that haze they’d fallen into, but Caro didn’t mind.

“Yeah, let’s decide. It’s hot out here, innit. I mean, this is completely unnatural! It’s night time for Christ’s sake!” Becca complained.

“Do you guys have anything planned for tonight, Jeff?”

“Naw, not really. Blue Man Group tomorrow but, tonight, nada.”

“Wanna just go back to our room then?” Becca threw in. “The mini-bar is weight-rigged so we won’t be touchin’ that, but we can grab some drinks at the mart and take them back if you fancy it.”

“Sounds good to me.” Gary exhaled the last of the smoke in his lungs and flicked his cigarette away. Didn’t bother to stomp it out.

“Me too,” Jeff added.

Caro shrugged. So it was a date.

 

*

Upstairs, spirited chatter was helped along and intensified by Jagerbombs and rolled tobacco. Gary pulled out a little baggie of weed from his back pocket and the party really started.

“Oh my God, Gary, you’re just walking around Vegas with that in your pocket?” Caro balked, a little scandalized. “What if someone had stopped you?”

“Uh, case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a white American. I don’t get stopped for random ID checks and pocket searches.”

“Calm down, Ro. Nothing dodgy about a little hash.” Nudging Gary, “Spark it up.”

“Shh, not in the hotel room,” Caro scolded in a hushed tone, as if her mom were down the hall like back in the old days.

“Aww, loosen up. It’s just a little harmless Mary J. I’m sure they’ve had much worse inside these walls. This is the Aria.”

So she relaxed, with visible effort, and watched as they all laughed and rolled up. Becca had it done in under a minute, a real pro, the European pastime she’d never left behind. Caro reached for the bottle of Chardonnay in the in the mini bar—her staple go-to. Jeff stopped her saying, “If you’re gonna run up a tab, at least make it worth it.” So out came the mini shot bottles, the contents of which disappeared into a juice mixer that she chugged, then fell back into his arms. Becca leaned into Gary, both propping themselves up against the bed with their legs out in front of them, the whole foursome on the floor.

“So what’s this I hear about high school?” Gary wanted to know. “He thought he recognized you at the bar and said something about prom king and queen?” He nudged Jeff and Jeff shoved him.

“Aw, don’t bring that up! God, that was so long ago.”

“Prom king and queen? Are you serious?” Becca took the spliff from Gary and took a pull on it. “You mean I’m sittin’ with real-life American prom sovereigns and no one ever said! Oh, now I must hear it. Do tell, Caro. What’s this about now?”

And so the story goes. Jeff had been a shoo-in for prom king, that much had been a given. And by the time senior year came around, the two of them had been parading about together to football games and community service events for so long that she became queen by default. It just seemed right, seemed fitting, in that high school story book sort of way. Caro cringed a little as he told the story, shrugging it off as a short and unimportant chapter in his past and nothing more. Caro, though, was a little horrified looking back on it. Really, prom queen with the baseball star? And she a blonde at that? Could she really have been more of a cliché? From prom court to CNN in beige slacks and high buns. This Caro she liked a lot more. The old Caro could be left back in those long-ago days for all she cared. He handed her another mixed drink and poured another shot in. She took it.

That night ended with Becca and Gary in bed trying unsavory acrobatics, smoke on their breath and Becca’s heart finally disconnected from the V between her legs. Caro and Jeff ended up at an all-night chapel, making out like teenagers again and ready to say, ‘I do.’

 

*

The move to Atlanta was surprisingly smooth. He still lived in the D.C. area, but the gaming company he worked for had another major office in Atlanta. Surely, he’d have to be the one to move if it was going to work. CNN wasn’t going anywhere. But he didn’t mind, and she was excited about this new Caro, the adventure seeker, the risk taker. Sin City had left its mark on her and now she too had a story to tell from there. She didn’t regret it. What were the odds? So she thrust her clothes to one side of the closet in preparation for Jeff’s next-day arrival and move-in.

“Well, I guess that’s it then; you’ve proved it, Ro. There’s someone out there for each of us after all, innit?”

Caro smiled it off. “Don’t be such a romantic, Becca. It was just a classic case of right place right time,” but she didn’t buy that any more than Becca did. Of course it was meant to be. Of course it had to be him. How else could the story have played out, and why should they have met up like that, randomly, over a thousand miles from home, if it wasn’t meant to be? She didn’t believe in ‘the one’ until she did, and that was it. She wasn’t going to let him slip away from her again. The rest could be figured out later.

 

*

That first night in bed was anti-climactic to say the least. There was no liquid courage to fuel their desires and turn their thoughts to fire. There was sobriety. Too much sobriety. When he came to bed that first night after moving in his suitcases full of jeans and t-shirts, Old Spice products and hair gels, she was attempting some seductive position she’d seen on an old episode of Sex in the City – hair pinned up in that naughty school teacher sort of way, wispy strands loose, and a $300 red negligée on. Jeff smiled and pulled his shirt off, shadows from the candles she’d lit around the room flickering across his body still impressively chiseled even ten years after high school. He crawled on top of her, jeans still on, and kissed her in that messy pubescent sort of way she now remembered used to make her stomach turn just a little. She pulled her head back and smiled up at him, pulling in a huge breath to prepare for the next kiss he’d come in for. Instead he groped her breast, squeezing it like he was testing a melon.

Caro laid there for a minute as his attention switched to the next breast. He was like a chimp just figuring out the concept of opposable thumbs. She burst into laughter at this thought, candles flickering over his face above her.

“What’s that about?”

“Nothing. Just kiss me.”

She giggled through the kiss. It reminded her of prom night under the bleachers – God, was I really such a cliché? –  her in a white-sequin number and he in a smartly fitting tuxedo. He’d pushed her against the wall in a way that turned her on only to push his tongue in her mouth in a way that made her gag and stumble back. Ten years of practice had not served him any favors in that department. Had he kissed that way at the Aria, at the chapel? Hell, she couldn’t even remember the chapel – God, how friggin’ tacky was that? I’m lucky my mom didn’t have a coronary – and even the Aria was hazy after all the drinks. All she remembered was hard rum and pineapple on her breath and marijuana in the air. Come to think of it, there had been a sloppy kiss in the elevator that’d needed both hands to wipe away. That memory faded as she unbuckled his pants and pulled them off.

“Ha, now we’re getting down to it!” He grinned down at her. “Roll over.”

“Wait, what?”

“Come on, roll over. Let me see that fine ass you’ve got on you.”

A gaped- mouth look of disbelief and a gulp were all she could muster for a moment. “My ass?”

“Yeah, let’s get this party started, babe.” He stroked himself in a way that made her skin crawl, appalled. “You know reverse cowgirl?”

“Reverse – what the hell, Jeff; just come here!” She pulled him to her and draped her arms around his neck. This was how the wedding night was supposed to go: sensually. Not with some sexual position she’d never heard of but that she suspected would end her up with scraped knees in some way. “Do it like this. There, don’t you like that?” An uncomfortable smile up at him.

“Yeah, I guess.” He continued pumping. That part was pleasurable at least. Until he paused for clarification, “But you do know reverse cowgirl, right?”

“Jesus, Jeff, shut up and make love to me! I’m not some fucking trapeze artist at the fucking Cirque du Soleil!”

And so the night ended fifteen minutes later with Caro disgustedly wiping her stomach with a wet cloth and Jeff rolling away unsatisfied with the lack of adventure the night had held.

 

*

While she’d had high hopes for even the mundane aspects of marriage, Caro soon found that even those wouldn’t stand up against real life. If she’d dreamed as a little girl that she’d be able to share literary classics with her one-day husband, those hopes were certainly dashed when Jefferson came home one day to find her curled up with a throw blanket and a Poe anthology. And not just any anthology, no. It was a first edition, leather-bound copy. The pages were gold-trimmed and it was annotated with hand-drawn artwork. It had been her grandmother’s. She eagerly patted the space next to her told him to come sit beside her, only for him to say before she’d even finished her sentence, “You actually read that dusty old thing? Come on, Ro,” he’d added with an annoying tussle of her hair, as if she were some Pee Wee baseball player who’d struck out or a dog who’d just got its first haircut. “Nobody reads those old, dead guys anymore.”

Yet, as it turns out, he was still full of clever indignities just waiting for her to stumble upon, such as the stubbed toe she’d gotten from the bowling ball—go figure, still neatly in its carrying case—that was left inconveniently on the living room floor near his gym bag and crusty gym shoes. Or, the following week, when she searched high and low for her car keys, only to find that he’d, for some reason, moved them to another room—right next to her Poe anthology, which he’d used as an ashtray for his half-rolled spliff. That, unfortunately, was the day right after she’d come home to pizza crusts and empty Bud Light bottles on the usually pristine granite kitchen counters. But it was the proximity that really made her blood boil, because he hadn’t at least had the dignity—or hell, consideration—to walk the five feet and drop them in the damned trash can.

The idea of balancing checkbooks with him gave Caro a mild case of hives. She couldn’t even bring herself to think of it once she’d found the wad of old receipts dating back two years in the backpack he carried his work laptop around in. Arlington, Dallas, Denver, San Diego—wait, was that Toronto from three years ago? That backpack was like an endless Petri dish of possible viral plagues and germs, a roadmap of his past travels and overall indicator of his personality in general. And so, she never again approached either the topic or the backpack again. Even that mundane action she’d pictured doing together, discussing bills and making notes on their communal to-do lists—wrapped in terry cloth robes with the sun shining down on the faces through the one-day bay windows she knew she’d own—had been tainted. She’d pictured a mug of cocoa in one hand—well, maybe lemonade. It was approaching summer, after all—and they’d laugh with each other about who spent the most frivolously and what they needed on their next trip to the market. Only, she knew the question would be in vain to even broach as she washed her hands for the second time, having tossed out his wad of makeshift accounting between her thumb and forefinger. The man had probably never even held a checkbook, let alone balanced one.

So, she did it alone, and he did not complain.

When Becca asked, she was tempted to spill her guts but, no, it was still the honeymoon phase, and she couldn’t disappoint her friend like that. Hell, maybe she was reading too much into it anyway. It was the honeymoon phase, and wasn’t she the only person she knew not banking with her cell phone anyway? So she focused on brushing up on the Braves’ stats and learning to cook his mom’s tuna casserole, burnt at the edges just like he liked it. She considered with the brevity of a Southern spring trying to figure out what that reverse cowgirl was all about, but in the end, decided missionary had always been surefire.

 

*

When the flings began a few months later, she turned the other cheek.

He didn’t flaunt it and she, a WASP of several generations, was content to pick her battles. So he wanted a little more zest in his taco than she was used to. According to her mom’s years of experience, it was half-way to be expected and should die down once the kids entered the picture, she’d explained, mixing the Bloody Marys with a celery stick and sliding the drink across the counter to her. Until that inevitable mid-life crisis of Corvettes and Viagra hit anyway—Lordy, did your father go through that phase!

“And you did rush into it a bit, didn’t you, dear?”

“Oh, Ma! It’s too late for that now. And besides, it’s not like I don’t know him—like you don’t know him. He’s…Jeff. I mean, I know him. He knows me. We’re fine.”

Just to be on the safe side, she did her part. Her Victoria’s Secret credit card was put to good use and Jeff seemed to notice, so life went on.

*

Becca was back to waitressing at a downtown pub, and sometimes the Kenleys went there to hang out on her shift. She was usually busy laughing it up when they came, slapping shoulders and playing up the little English girl bit because the yuppies loved it and proffered big tips (along with the occasional phone number scribbled hastily on a napkin or receipt). After a few drinks—never wine; that was forbidden when they were at the pub, Jeff always joked—Caro was ready to hoot and holler with the rest of them at the latest Falcons loss or MMA bloodbath. Well, the hollering took quite a bit of Tequila or Crown, depending on how quickly she needed to get loose, but hooting was typically manageable after only a couple. This time, Becca plopped down on her lap, head to head, ignoring the fact that she was on the clock because professionalism wasn’t really “her thing.” So, the food was delivered by another waiter.

“Here, babe, try this on for size,” Jeff nudged her, grinning sheepishly. She turned to find a penis-shaped breadstick being pressed towards her face. She turned away from it on reflex, before she realized that it was just hardened dough, and that made Becca shriek with laughter even over the raucousness around them.

“Ro, chill, it’s just bread, love!”

“Aw, leave ‘er be. She doesn’t like anything too hard around her face.”

Jeff and Becca erupted in laughter all over again, shoving each other and playing with the bread. When he kept trying to thrust the bread in her face, she angrily shoved him away with an assertive, “Grow the fuck up, will you?” just for good measure.

Becca died down just enough to come to her friend’s rescue. “Alright, alright. Enough with that, there, Jeff. She doesn’t fancy that’at all.”

But that just made him start again, louder this time, completely amused with himself like a toddler rediscovering his own toes. “Don’t you get it, babe? A cock for a cockfight? Shit’s fuckin’ genius!” He gobbled the thing down and hardly noticed Ro’s disgust.

“Jesus, and they say only fools rush in.”

But he didn’t get the old Elvis reference, and she didn’t have the stomach to explain it to him either. This hadn’t been him in high school, right? Surely, he’d been at least proximal to her own mindset, goals, temperament? He’d amused her, but he’d stimulated her too, right? Or had he? Had this been what she’d thought she was getting when she signed that piece of paper?

In retrospect, she couldn’t be sure.

*

When he walked out the door that final time, less than a full sixty days later, Caro was neither shocked nor offended. In fact, she realized after he’d gone, that she’d secretly been plotting what she could do with all of that extra closet space back in hand. She could pull her winter suits from the storage bins and have them dry cleaned and back in her closet in plastic suit protectors before the end of the week. She could lie in bed without that horrific freight train of noise barreling through the apartment from somewhere deep in Jeff’s throat. She could—

She didn’t even see the actual act of walking out or hear his mumbled explanation as he fiddled with his keys, for she was sitting in her arm chair, just her and Poe, Chardonnay in hand and an upward twitch at her lips. There was, indeed, sun hitting her face though the windows were picture not bay. And that, she decided, was fine.

Later, she’d call Becca over, uncork another bottle and gossip on whatever latest mishap Becca had found herself embroiled in—there was bound to be something. Becca would unlace her boots and let down her hair and Caro would be regaled. Lady Antebellum would play and they would croon and plan the next Las Vegas.

END

Francesca Hornak Muses on her Journey to Seven Days of Us

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 17th 2017 by Berkley Books

Hey Navi Review Friends & Followers! Seven Days of Us hits the bookstores TODAY, and Francesca Hornak has stopped by to tell us more about her journey to writing and completing her debut novel, Seven Days of Us! This witty author has crossed over from article writing to offering us her first full-length novel, and this exclusive interview celebrates her journey from intern to fashion writer, contributor for The Sunday Times to debut fiction author! From parenting to wardrobe mishaps abroad, Francesca Hornak bares it all with us!

 

Question # 1

The number and caliber of publications you’ve written for is impressive! Could you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a columnist and sought-after magazine writer? How have your personal experiences affected your desire to pursue that field, if they did?

Thank you! I’ve just always adored magazines, and still find them completely compulsive. My parents didn’t really buy them, so they held this exotic allure for me. I vividly remember, aged seven, reading a copy of Vogue that a guest had left in our house and becoming obsessed with supermodels, especially Cindy Crawford. In all the photos from that summer I’m pouting and flicking my hair around. I know this is exactly why people disapprove of the media – I’m afraid I was a textbook case!

As for how I got into writing for magazines, I wrote to all my favourite titles asking for work experience and got a few internships during my university holidays. That led to a junior job at In Style when I graduated in 2005 (it was all a bit easier then, when there was still money in print journalism!). I loved the glamour and urgency of the offices – after three years of academia that was a massive relief.

Question #2

You’ve written a slew of articles for The Sunday Times and other publications. One of my favorites was your 2016 article “The Pointlessness of Parenting Guides” that appeared in Red, where you made some very convincing arguments about “ditching” the trend of parenting guides! What was the final straw in parenting that made you so compelled to write that article?

I think the final straw was a chart in a chapter on weaning, in a book called Coping With Two (yes, I was still reading these books after my second baby…) It had one column for messy foods, and one for less messy alternatives – supposedly to help you keep your house under control. It literally went ‘grated cheese’ vs ‘sliced cheese’, ‘full cup of milk’ vs ‘half full cup of water’ etc. I know the brain numbs a bit after a baby, but still!

Question #3

Your debut fiction novel, Seven Days of Us, hits the shelves in the U.S. in mid-October! What was the most difficult aspect of switching over from article writing to being a novelist? What about that process did you find more satisfying than column writing?

The hardest thing is not being able to hold every paragraph in my head, like I can with a 500 word article. The most satisfying thing for me is pacing the story – deciding to keep the reader in suspense, shocking them with a twist, giving them something funny after a sad episode and so on. With journalism, it’s just about conveying information or opinions as smoothly and entertainingly as possible.

Question #4

Where were you when the idea for Seven Days of Us came to you, and what compelled you to really sit down and bang it out at your computer?

I was staying with my parents-in-law’s house, in the week before Christmas. My best friend, who was treating Ebola in Sierra Leone, emailed me to say she was going to have to spend 30 days in quarantine at home when she got home in January. I wrote back to say it sounded like a budget modern play where the actors just sit in one room, and then I suddenly thought that a quarantine could be a neat fictional device to intensify the standard family Christmas set up.

The thing that compelled me to get it down on paper was a positive pregnancy test. I’d already had one baby, so I knew from experience that when I had another there would be no time to write. That 9 month deadline was the best incentive I’ve ever had to stop procrastinating. Unless I want a huge family I’m going to have to find something else in future, though.

Question #5

Who was the most difficult character for you to write in Seven Days of Us? Who was the most fun to write, and why?

The hardest was probably Olivia, because I don’t have much in common with her character – she’s quite reserved, and very earnest. The most fun was Andrew, because everything irritates him, so his parts were a chance to rant.

Question #6

From my time living in England, I know that there are so many stereotypes of American mores and behavior, one of which you very hilariously pointed out in Seven Days of Us:

“Guns? Guess he is American,” she said, as if it was an embarrassing medical condition.”

What has been your most memorable experience with someone from a different cultural background or nationality from yours, and how do experiences like that help you as a writer (and on a personal level)?

When I was 18 I did a teaching programme at a primary school rural Belize, and stayed with a host family. At first I followed the advice we’d been given about dressing very modestly, but after a couple of months when it became really hot I slacked off a bit and started wearing shorts and t-shirts when I wasn’t teaching. I’d noticed that other girls in the village wore the same, and I didn’t consider that as a teacher it wasn’t appropriate – or that, as a foreigner, different standards might apply to me. One day, an older woman in the village told my host mother that I dressed like a prostitute, and that I wasn’t fit to be a teacher. I came home to find my host mother at the kitchen table in tears, saying she was ashamed to have me in the house. It was absolutely mortifying, and I really realized how naïve I’d been. I wish I could say it had helped me personally, but I’m not sure it did as it was such a confidence knock! But it did teach me (the hard way) that you shouldn’t second guess at the rules when you’re away from home, and that just because people are smiling and waving doesn’t mean they actually like you! On the plus side, those kind of excruciating life experiences are helpful when you’re writing. You don’t need to be writing about the same incident – I think I had some of that pain and alienation in mind when I wrote about Jesse shaming himself as the guest, and foreigner, in Seven Days Of Us.

Question #7

In Seven Days of Us, the father, Andrew, is a writer as well. He has several witty interactions with his editors throughout the novel that give readers a glimpse of the tug of war writers can sometimes have with their editorial teams! What is the most memorable “tug of war” you’ve ever had with one of your editors, and why was that issue so important to you?

So many! I used to be really precious, unnecessarily precious, about tiny changes. I must have been so annoying to work with (I got ridiculously stressed once because a sub-editor insisted on changing ‘his bicep’ to ‘his biceps’, which is technically correct but sounds stupid because nobody ever says ‘biceps’. I do stand by this, but my rage was disproportionate).

It wasn’t actually a style issue, but my favourite altercation with a sub editor was when I was a 25 year old fashion writer for a newspaper, and had a tiny section, literally one newsprint column wide, called ShopSpy. One day I wrote: “This week I’m loving this gigantic cocktail ring by new designer xxxx….’. But the sub-editor hyphenated ‘cocktail’, so that it in the newspaper it read like this:

SHOP SPY

This week I’m

loving this

gigantic cock-

tail ring

Haha.  It was a very awkward middle aged male sub – he went bright red when I came up to point it out to him. 

Question #8

With all of the great hype and reviews of Seven Days of Us, your readers are surely looking forward to your next works, too! Can you tell us what upcoming projects or articles you’re interested in working on?

Thanks! I’m writing a novel set around a communal garden in London. If Seven Days Of Us was about family, this is about community. 

Question #9

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

It’s not a strange compliment in itself, but I’m always surprised to hear people call it ‘warm’ or ‘heartfelt’ or ‘moving’ because to me my take on the world is quite critical. But I do cry easily, so maybe I’m soppier than I realise.

Question #10

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself!

I love anything miniature. I had an amazing dollshouse when I was a child, but an adult playing with a dollshouse is creepy so I have to make do with sample toiletries and those teeny jams you get with hotel breakfasts.

 

Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public!

Question for you and your readers:

What one thing makes you fall for a book?

 

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