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STEELE INTERVIEWS: comedian [and founder of stand-up showcase Broad Appeal] Christa Weiss


I met the very funny, smart and lovely Christa Weiss when she was performing at V to Shining V. Graphic designer by day and stand-up comic at night, Christa Weiss started Broad Appeal– a comedy showcase that consists primarily of female comics–a year ago. Broad Appeal celebrates its first anniversary at The Armory in Somerville, Mass. on Thursday, October 8, 2015.

Amy Steele: How did you get into stand-up? 

Christa Weiss: I’ve watched standup since I was a little kid and I’ve always loved writing & performing. Standup always seemed kind of inaccessible to me when I was younger because I grew up in a smaller city and had only seen it on tv. The first comedian I saw live was John Stewart in a giant ampitheater. It was amazing but actually pursing standup seemed impossible. When I moved to Boston I started going to live shows regularly at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square. Seeing comedy in intimate setting made me realize it was something I could realistically pursue. I started going to open mics and got addicted immediately.

Amy Steele: What do you like about being a comedian?



Christa Weiss: I love writing and performing and being able to say exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. I work in a creative field during the day, but my work is largely dictated by what my clients want, so it’s really nice to have full creative control. I love silliness but I also want that silliness to mean something. I love being able to combine the two. 

Also, many of my closest friends are comics and it’s nice to be surrounded by a community of like-minded weirdos. Comedy is kind of the Island of Misfit Toys or the new punk rock, depending on how optimistic you’re being. 

Amy Steele: It’s been discussed often that women aren’t funny although Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Nikki Glaser, Mindy Kaling and tons of others make it clear women are definitely funny. Still late night talk shows, stand-up and the comedy world remain dominated by men. Why? (As an entertainment/music critic I think women aren’t appreciated in many areas of entertainment though stand-up seems particularly harsh.)

Christa Weiss: Haha. People are defiantly a lot more vocal about their opinions of female comedians. (Fuck you, the Internet. Go call your Mom.) I think there are a lot of reasons. In general, if a woman wants to go into the performing arts they generally lean more towards theater or music. I think that’s mostly personal preference. On top of that there’s a lot of logistical things. Being in a male dominated environment can be very intimidating to some people. The college I went to was 75% male so that was never really an issue for me. 

I think the gap is starting to close, which is great. There are more women doing comedy than ever. However, that’s not always represented on stage or TV. I think a lot more people realize that women can be funny to more than just other women, but the entertainment industry is a business, and not one that particularly wants to take risks. If a straight white guy always brings in money, I don’t think think they see the need to change the formula. 

Amy Steele: Why did you start Broad Appeal? What has the reception been like?

Christa Weiss:
A few reasons. There are a lot of really strong female comics out there and I really want to showcase their talent. A lot of places are afraid to put more than one or two women on a show, for fear that it’ll be too….womany? Unfortunately, this means there’s less work to go around. It seems crazy to me, but you’ll almost never see a show with the acts 50% male and 50% female without someone making a big deal about it.

I thought it would be fun to do a reverse of that- book mostly women and one or two ‘token males.’ I wanted to create a female-focused show that guys would also want to go to. Sometimes all female shows have a ‘girls only vibe’ which is fine, but if you want to prove that women are funny its not a great idea to not bother inviting the part of the audience you’re trying to prove something to. 
I’m happy to say that the show has been really well received by both men and women, comics and audience members alike. I make it a point to showcase strong acts with unique points of view and none of that ‘fighting with my husband about leaving the toilet seat down’ type of thing. I get a broad (HA!) audience of cool open-minded people from many different walks of life, which is exactly what I was going for. 

Amy Steele: What can people expect at the Broad Appeal anniversary show on Thursday?

Christa Weiss: I run a showcase style show, with a female headliner. We’ve got an amazing lineup for Thursday with Bethany Van Delft, of Comedy Central and NickMom. We’ve also got Dan Crohn from Last Comic Standing as well as several fantastic comics who’ve been in some amazing festivals like the Boston Comedy Festival, WICF, The Seattle International Comedy Festival and Bridgetown. 

The Women in Comedy Festival (WICF) will be there recording the show and doing interviews with the comedians after the show. We also lightly sexually harass the male comics but they all know what they’re getting into and it’s all in good fun. Also there will be candy. The candy bowl is very important.
Amy Steele: What challenges do women in comedy face?

Christa Weiss: Comedy is hard for everyone, male and female. I think the challenges you run into as a female comic are a little different. You have to work a lot harder to get people to take you seriously. If you’re the ‘token female’ on the show you kind of represent all women, which means there’s a lot a pressure to do well. If a guy bombs, he sucked, if a woman bombs all women suck. 

Amy Steele: Which comics do admire?
Christa Weiss: Maria Bamford, Chelsea Peretti, Patton Oswalt, Mike Birbiglia, John Stewart, Sarah Silverman 

Amy Steele: What comedy specials and sitcoms would you recommend?
Christa Weiss: Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special is amazing. Instead of being filmed at a club, it’s filmed at her house and the only audience members are her parents. [AS note: directed and produced by Jordan Brady who also directed I Am Road Comic. Read my interview with Jordan Brady.] Feelin Kinda Patton by Patton Oswalt is one of the first comedy albums I got really really really into. The movie Sleepwalk With Me, directed/written/starring Mike Birgbilia is based on his storytelling and gives you some great insight on what it’s like to be a comedian. [AS: agreed. Very good.] The Sarah Sliverman Program is ridiculous and amazing and if you’re into history, Drunk History is hilarious. I’m also a big fan of animated stuff, so I love Home Movies, Bob’s Burgers and Rick and Morty. 

Broad Appeal Comedy Night One-Year Anniversary takes place Thursday, October 8, 2015 at 8pm at Arts at the Armory, Somerville.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Alex Dolan


Paramedic and firefighter Kali volunteers as part of the right-to-die movement. she helps the terminally ill die. Despite her youth, the twenty-something Kali knows what she’s doing—she’s worked 27 cases in a few years– yet her most recent case finds her flipped and handcuffed to the bed. Turns out Leland Moon, who works in law enforcement, tricked Kali into thinking he’s terminally ill and wants her help. Is it a sting? Leland needs something from Kali and it’s dark and involved and Kali might not be willing to do it but her other choice would be jail.

The Euthanist encompasses the hot button topic of euthanasia along with child abductions and abuse. Intriguing topics along with complex characters drive this dark riveting thriller. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. It’s smart, well-researched and at times amusing. All the right elements for a solid thriller.

Author Alex Dolan grew up in Boston and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He received a masters in strategic communications from Columbia University and has worked in Sub-Saharan Africa among other interesting locales. Dolan’s also a musician and recorded four albums. I recently spoke with Alex Dolan by phone.

alex dolan

Amy Steele: I volunteered on the Massachusetts Death with Dignity ballot question and I’ve worked in healthcare and elder care. Euthanasia interests me. How did you decide to write a novel about it?

Alex Dolan: My dad passed away a few years ago. He was a healthy guy and he had ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) which is a glorified staph infection that shuts down your lungs. It was so random. We didn’t have the time to prepare mentally. My dad had a living will in place. He’d already thought about this stuff. I didn’t have a living will until this happened. But I thought what happens if you get to this point and there is no quality of life? I started to do more digging and wanted to know who does this kind of work? Kevorkian pops up a lot but there are other more prominent figures who are academics. I read what they wrote. I watched documentaries. I intentionally didn’t approach people directly on this because it’s such sensitive subject matter. Where I’m normally very much a primary research kind of guy, for a lot of this I just ended up reading and watching as much as I could to find out what sort of person would gravitate toward this sort of work.

I feel like the character who came out of this, the character I wanted to create was very different and very vibrant from a lot of people I saw. She would realistically be around death all the time and wanted to be a part of it but wasn’t Grim Reaper-y. Someone young and strong. Idealistic and relatively self-assured in the work she was doing. Someone who was a realist not a Florence Nightingale or [Jack] Kevorkian. It started with what I went through with my dad but there’s the real question of who would do this. And not in a judgmental way. This kind of work that’s outside the law in almost every case. It’s like hospice care. There’s something really traumatic about being exposed to death and being willing to put yourself in the position to see someone go through it. It takes a lot of courage for someone to go through it. And you have to be willing to go to jail to bring this mercy to someone. That’s intriguing to me.

Amy Steele: Why a female protagonist and what were the challenges of writing from a female point-of-view?

Alex Dolan: My association with the death with dignity movement was with Kevorkian. He was the face of the movement for better or worse. I actually have a lot of respect for him. But to a certain degree he was this somber stoic character. I wanted to have somebody who was the exact opposite of that. I wanted people to think differently about what this work really meant. Rather than somebody who personified an angel of death, I wanted somebody younger and physically formidable, who used her body a lot and wasn’t an academic.

I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between men and women in terms of the fundamental things they want. There’s a lot more similar characteristics than differences. People want love and respect and sex and money and community and friendships. That doesn’t change if you’re a man or a woman. The primary drives that would motivate a character don’t change that much. There are some factors I get to play with by Kali being a woman and the antagonist being a man. The tension is different than if it were two women or two men. A lot of my intimate relationships have been with women—friendships or intimate relationships—I feel like I’ve gotten to know women better than guys.

Amy Steele: Kali is very strong and independent and physically you made her strong. She’s in a male-dominated career as a firefighter/paramedic. What was involved in her character development?

Alex Dolan: Part of it was me thinking I’m somebody who loves a good read and loves something that’s exciting. And I like strong characters anyway–their mind and their body. The nature of this story too; I tend to put my characters through a lot of punishment. I think I grew up reading a lot of mythology where the central hero gets beat up a lot. They learn and they grow through suffering. I wanted someone who could take that punishment, so somebody who was already strong. I gravitate toward people I think have a certain amount of inner strength.

It also resulted from research. When I thought about the kind of person who could do this kind of work, I didn’t want a doctor who’d been doing this for 30 years who was so rigid in his or her ways who wouldn’t question it. I wanted it to be somebody younger who had some medical experience but wasn’t an expert. I wanted the person to be fallible. So I thought it could be a paramedic or EMT. A lot of paramedics are also firefighters. A lot of the calls for firefighters are medical calls. That interested me. To become a firefighter you have to be in great shape. The physical aptitude test to get in is tough. I interviewed female firefighters and these are people who are really strong people. These are people who are going to crime scenes and putting themselves in danger. Things can get ugly quick. And there’s a gray area around the ambulance. What happens in the ambulance stays in the ambulance. There’s a law that an M.D. must declare a death. Many of my interviewees said there’s a saying that nobody dies in an ambulance. There’s a line being biological death when someone dies in the ambulance and legal death when a doctor calls it. Doing something outside the law but considered a mercy killing wouldn’t be outside someone’s scope of experience in that situation.

Amy Steele: You brought in several other dark themes with childhood abuse/trauma and abduction. Did that just develop or how well did you plan out your writing?

Alex Dolan: I outline a lot. I tend to derail easily so if don’t outline it’ll be easy for me to go off on a 20 page exposition. For me it’s easier to rework a story outline then to go through a draft and realize major elements aren’t working. I did know how it was going to end. I went down that path of bringing in the abduction subplot. The protagonist is doing things that some people would find questionable. I wanted to find a villain that was morally reprehensible. The details in the book are largely drawn from actual cases.

Amy Steele: The [redacted so as not to give it away] scene in chapter seven. That was gnarly.

Alex Dolan: That was a bit much. The running blades. Way before Oscar Pistorius became a killer the image of him running on those running blades was quite heroic. Cindy is an interesting character, a secondary character. I know a lot of people who’ve survived childhood trauma. I find that some people button themselves up and protect themselves and build a psychological shell so that can’t get hurt again and there are people who tap into their inner strength and whether that’s a mask or not is up to debate. They end up become driven by that [trauma]. She’s someone who feels she needs to rise above it to make up for lost time.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to bring a law enforcement official into the novel in Leland Moon?

Alex Dolan: She was breaking the law so the ultimate threat for her is somebody who can put her in jail. It took me a long time to settle on having him be a law enforcement official. I didn’t want the scene to be contrived. I researched what it took to be a veteran law enforcement official. What informed the backbone of Leland is that I watched a lot of YouTube videos and FBI agents have a superiority complex that they have to be this smart and tough to get into this branch of law enforcement. For Leland to want to do what he does in the first few chapters, you have to have a lot of guts and confidence in your ability. Someone who’s actually in the Bureau would actually think they’re that much better than the person they’re trying to catch.

Amy Steele: Have you always been interested in writing thrillers?

Alex Dolan: I don’t read a lot of genre thrillers. A lot of what attracts me is the voice. I think Joyce Carol Oates writes a mean thriller. There was a book she wrote last year called Carthage. Her stuff is totally accessible. She writes horror that’s creepier than Steven King. I tend to read a lot of literary fiction that delves into subject matter that interests me. You’re putting people in situations that are untenable situations. I also have a soft spot for horror. You’re putting someone in a horrible situation and you see what happens to that person. Thrillers can uncover the best that people have to offer. That’s when people can rise above and be the best they can be.

Amy Steele: What do you like about Kali and Leland?

Alex Dolan: I like that [Kali] is driven. She is doing what she does to ease suffering. She has her own guilt from stuff that happened as a teenager but she’s not doing this for glorification. There’s a nobility but a humility. For Leland, I like Leland’s smarts. I respect that fact that he’s working on other people’s behalf. His motivation is similar but he’s willing to throw people under the bus to do what’s right. That I don’t agree with. Kali has a mentor and she doesn’t want those people to get into physical or legal problems. I like Leland’s drive. His acumen is notable. He’s very good at what he does. His morality is a little foggier and I question his judgment sometimes.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Christopher Moore [Secondhand Souls]


Secondhand Souls By Christopher Moore.
William Morrow| August 25, 2015|352 pages |$26.99| ISBN: 978-0-061779787

In Secondhand Souls, the sequel to New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job, the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing in San Francisco. People are dying without their souls being collected. No one knows who is stealing them and why and most importantly where the souls are going. Death Merchant Charlie Asher, trapped in the body of a fourteen-inch-tall “meet” waits while his Buddhist nun girlfriend Ashley [“She was a Buddhist nun who had been given the lost scrolls of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and she could do things that no one else on earth could do, but she couldn’t do what Charlie wanted her to.”] finds him a new body to serve as host.

A diverse crew bands together to solve the mystery of the missing souls: the seven-foot-tall death merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera [“He’d peacefully taken an early retirement from the force, opened the bookstore, and set about reading books, drinking coffee, and watching the Giants on the little television in the shop. Nothing had happened at all.”]; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl [“She sighed, a tragic sigh that she didn’t get to use much anymore since she’d been forced by a brutal society to behave like a grown-up, and since she’d lost weight, most of her mopey Goth clothes didn’t fit, so she was almost never dressed for tragic sighing.”].

It’s zany and sharp with outrageous characters and a clever storyline and dark humor. I didn’t read A Dirty Job and perhaps I should’ve done. I’ll absolutely read another Christopher Moore. I’ve heard great things about Sacre Bleu.

Recently Christopher Moore took the time to answer some questions.

author Christopher Moore

author Christopher Moore

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a sequel to A Dirty Job?

Christopher Moore: My readers kept requesting it and I was at a place in my schedule where I wanted to write another book set in San Francisco, since I live there and wouldn’t have to travel for research.

Amy Steele: Do you like writing series or sequels? You have the “love series.”

Christopher Moore: I don’t mind writing them, but in a way they feel more difficult than writing a solo book because I’m so conscious of not wanting to write the same book twice.

Amy Steele: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing a sequel?

Christopher Moore: To have new things happen to the characters, give them new problems to solve and not just replicate those I created in the previous book.

Amy Steele: How did you come up with this idea about death and soul collection?

Christopher Moore: I had been caring for my dying mother, then a couple of years later, helped with the care of my wife’s mother, and I thought I had something to say about death and dying. The transfer of souls was just something I thought was goofy, although it’s based a bit in Buddhist theology.

Amy Steele: Who is your favorite character in Secondhand Souls and why?

Christopher Moore: The Yellow Fellow, a mysterious and magical gentleman who is all dressed in yellow and drives a ’49 Buick.

Amy Steele: Where did the idea come for the Squirrel People?

Christopher Moore: From the work of an artist named Monique Motil. She actually creates sculptures like the squirrel people, making them out of real animal parts and making elaborate costumes for them. I saw her creatures in a gallery when I was researching A Dirty Job and I asked her if she’d be okay with me putting them in a book, giving them personalities. She loved the idea, so I created them.

Amy Steele: How did you get into writing?

Christopher Moore: I read a lot as a kid and was pretty good at writing stories for school from the age of 12 or so, so I just pursued it, on and off, until I started making a living at it.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about being a novelist?

Christopher Moore: Being able to pick a subject or a place I’m interested in and make that my job for a couple of years. I’ve been able to do some terrific things because I chose to write books about a given place or subject.

Amy Steele: San Francisco is very much a character in your novel. How do you incorporate the city in such a seamless, intriguing manner?

Christopher Moore: It’s not hard. San Francisco, like most of the great cities of the world, has a real personality, with all the different facets of a human personality, so I just treat the city that way. I also have great affection for the city, so it’s easy to write about it.

Amy Steele: Do you come up with characters or plot first?

Christopher Moore: Sort of at the same time. A Dirty Job started with this line in a notebook about fifteen years ago. “A guy who’s a hypochondriac gets the job of being Death.” So you sort of have plot and character in that one line, or at least the start of it. Most of the books start with a similar notion. The minor characters are created because I need someone to do something or say something to make the story work.

Amy Steele: Do you write from an outline or free form it and allow characters and story development to be organic?

Christopher Moore: It depends on the story. Some of my books are based in history, and real historic events, so I have a timeline I have to work within. Sacré Bleu, my book about the French Impressionists, was that way. I had to figure where everyone was at any given time and thread the story through history, so those are pretty tightly outlined. Other books, like A Dirty Job, are way, more organic, and I’ll just have bits and pieces that will fit in somewhere. The structure will suggest itself as I go along, so I will end up with an outline for at least the last third. I don’t rewrite a lot, so I can’t afford to go down the wrong road for very long, so some planning has to be done as I work.

Amy Steele: An Instagram friend wants to know what Shakespearean play you will turn into a book next and will you write any more stories from the Bible?

Christopher Moore: I don’t know about doing anymore Bible stories, but I wanted to do a new book with Pocket. I can’t say the play, but it’s one of the comedies this time.

Amy Steele: Another friend Ashley asks if you prefer to write historically-based/literary characters or developing your own? I want to know about the challenges in writing both.

Christopher Moore: I like putting my own characters among historical characters or characters drawn from the Bible or Shakespeare. Although writing dialogue for Toulouse-Lautrec was great fun in Sacre Bleu.

Amy Steele: What’s on your nightstand to read now?

Christopher Moore: Savages by Don Winslow, World War Moo by Michael Logan, and If He Hollars, by Chester Himes.

Christopher Moore will be reading for Brookline Booksmith at the Coolidge Corner Theatre at 6pm on September 2.

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Credit: Nate Burrell

Credit: Nate Burrell

St. Louis, Missouri-based musician Beth Bombara creates Americana/folk songs with bluesy undertones and earthy vocals. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bombara played in a punk band in high school The 32-year-old singer/songwriter moved from Michigan to St. Louis in 2007 to embark on a solo music career. Her musician/producer husband Kit Hamon collaborated on her moving and diverse self-titled fifth album. The recurring themes are existentialism and travel. Quite thoughtful and provocative. She’s currently on tour and plays Club Passim in Harvard Square tonight.

I spoke with Beth Bombara during one of her days off.

Amy Steele: How’s the tour going?

Beth Bombara: It’s been a lot of fun so far.

Amy Steele: How did you get into music and singing and playing instruments?

Beth Bombara: There were always instruments around my house. We had a piano and my mom had a guitar. I was just really into music and teaching myself how to play guitar. I met some kids that wanted to start bands and it was something I always remembered doing.

Amy Steele: What do you like about being a solo artist?

Beth Bombara: I like both but I like playing with a band, in terms of having more band members to play with. In some ways it’s more fun because I don’t have to carry as much weight. I can just focus on singing more and maybe move around stage a little more. I like both. They’re just different. The band aspect there’s more collaboration. Solo. I’m rarely just playing me alone. Usually I have at least my husband playing bass with me.

Amy Steele: You moved to St. Louis in 2007. How has the music scene had an influence on your music now?

Before I moved to St. Louis I was in rock bands and went to a lot of sweaty basement shows and it was fun. I guess that can tie back into why I got into playing music in the first place. It was so fun to go see live music as a teenager. There’s a raw energy and getting to be part of that was fun. I was enamored with instruments and melody. When I moved to St. Louis, I really started experiencing music in the Americana roots music genre and even some blues. It was this perfect evolution of these things coming together. Moving to this place that roots and blues and heritage. A lot of folk coming out of the Ozark mountains. Banjo players and things like that. It definitely had a big influence. Examples of bands that played a part in my evolution after moving to St. Louis: Wilco; Uncle Tupelo; and more underground bands like The Rum Drum Ramblers (who are now a part of Pokey LaFarge’s band); and the Hooten Hallers.

Amy Steele: What makes you work well with your husband, to produce and collaborate on the album?

We have different ideas about things. We come at things from different perspectives. We might not always agree but we realize each perspective is valid. Having a certain respect enables us to use that different perspectives to find the best thing for the song.

Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?

Beth Bombara: I feel like the best songs are deceivingly simple if that makes sense. It can’t seem too forced. Simplicity makes good songs. Lyrics that are simple and a melody that is simple but also says something in a brief way .

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about some songs. What they’re about or what the writing process was like.

Amy Steele: “Promised Land”

Beth Bombara: It describes a point in life where I thought that a lot of things are unknown. It’s kinda scary when you don’t know, to plan things, to get a vision for what you’re doing. That definitely came from a place of uncertainty. Feeling this is kind of scary but we have to go into this darkness, unknown and it’s good to do with someone who supports you.

Amy Steele: “Give Me Something”

Beth Bombara: The writing of that was interesting: I did that as a writing experiment where I gave myself only a couple of days to write and record it. It’s kind of an anomaly in my songwriting. I didn’t have a specific idea. It was more stream of consciousness. It speaks to that whole cycle of getting to know somebody and feeling like you’re close and then that’s gone and navigating that.

Amy Steele: “Great the Day”

Beth Bombara: It kind of embodies my mantra. My philosophy. My life philosophy. So many things happen in life that we can’t control. We’re going to experience happiness, we’re going to experience sadness and you have to take that all with a grain of salt and support each other.

Amy Steele: “It Slips Away”

Beth Bombara: I feel like I was in the same emotional state with that song as I was when I wrote “Promised Land.” You’re on a journey and things are a little bit uncertain. Questioning yourself. Did I do the right thing? Am I headed in the right direction?

Amy Steele: What are your greatest challenges?

Beth Bombara: It’s challenging to be a singer/songwriter but not to get stuck in that box. Especially as a female singer/songwriter people have expectations about that. I’m going to show up to a gig with an acoustic guitar or a piano. And those stereotypes are hard to shake off. It’s only hard for me in my mindset. I don’t think it effects how I write songs. It’s just something I run into sometimes.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about being a musician?

Beth Bombara: I like the spontaneity. There are a lot of different areas where being a musician is spontaneous whether on stage playing a song and something happens you didn’t expect to happen. Collaborating with other musicians. I always enjoy that. Getting to meet a lot of people.

I enjoy creating songs. I think that speaks to my personality. I think I’m a maker. I like to make things. I like to garden. I like to screen-print. All these things I like to do have to do with building things. Creating something from nothing.

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petty morals

This Salem, Mass. all-girl electro-pop band with punk edginess has quickly become my new favorite local band. The shows exude energy, attitude and fun. Catchy songs with a mix of sweetness and kick-ass brashness. Female empowerment through and through.

Petty Morals are:

Taiphoon – lead vox
JC – lead vox
Chrissy V – guitar, backup vox
Ivahna Rock – bass, backup vox
LoWreck – drums
Allison Wonderland – keys

Tai Heatley [Taiphoon] answered a few questions.

Amy Steele: How did Petty Morals get together?

Taiphoon: Chrissie T (Ivahna Rock) and Lauren (LoWreck) were in a Joan Jett cover band. One day, they were listening to music at practice and a Metric Song came on. They both loved that kind of music and Lauren wanted to start a band that had that Metric sound. It was a far stretch from the punk bands they were in. They thought long and hard about how they wanted to put the band together. They knew it had to be all women. Feelers were put out and a band was formed.

Amy Steele: What makes you work well as a band?

Taiphoon: With us, there is no bickering and there’s no power struggles. From writing songs to picking out stage outfits, it’s all a big democracy.

Amy Steele: What is the best thing about being in a band?

Taiphoon: The free booze and babes. Just kidding…slightly. I enjoy creating music that makes people move. Being able to get on stage and connect with your audience. That feeling is powerful.

Amy Steele: There still aren’t many all-girl/all-female bands out there. why do you think there are fewer all-girl bands or even back-up musicians?

Taiphoon: We don’t really see it that way, probably because we tend to surround ourselves and seek out other female musicians.

Amy Steele: What all-girl bands do you admire?

Taiphoon: Of course, The Go Go’s and The Bangles. The Runaways, The Veronicas, Shonen Knife, Sleeter Kinney, The Donnas

Fun Fact: Much like Jem and The Holograms, Petty Morals has an alter ego band called GoBang. We’ve been booking shows and playing covers of The Go Go’s and The Bangles.

Amy Steele: What makes a good song?

Taiphoon: It’s gotta have a catchy hook and a great memorable lyrics. Ivahna Rock is great at coming up with perfect one-liners for our songs. She thinks of something and we write a whole song around it.

Amy Steele: Your shows are awesomely fun and high energy. How do you prepare for a gig? Any pre-show rituals?

Taiphoon: We practice and drill the sets frequently. Usually before a show, we sacrifice a virgin and do mad shots of whiskey. 😛

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I recently wrote a review of the wonderful novel The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla. It centers on a group of college friends who take a trip together 20 years after college. Much happens while they’re on holiday–births, deaths, love, scandal and affairs. It’s a topsy-turvy read. Highly recommended. Ms. Jilla worked as a journalist before writing novels. This is her second novel. Her first is a psychodrama called Exiled.

Recently Shireen Jilla answered a few questions via email.

photo by Francesco Guidicini

photo by Francesco Guidicini

Amy Steele: How did you get the idea for this novel?

Shireen Jilla: I was like a schizophrenic for years, muttering to the main characters, who wouldn’t leave my mind.

I wanted to write about a generation that didn’t all end up married with 2.4 children. By 40, some are single, divorced, gay, with children, without. To me, it is no longer clear cut.

Amy Steele: It’s your second novel. What did you do differently in writing this one than the first?

Shireen Jilla: My last novel, Exiled, was a psychological thriller set in New York. Like Rosemary’s Baby. So the plot came first. It was the very immediate story of one woman, so I decided to write it in the first person.

With Unpacking, my starting point was altogether different. I had been thinking about the six main characters for a long time. I was equally interested in each of their stories. So I eventually decided to use a ‘roving’ third person perspective inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Amy Steele: How does your work as a journalist affect your novel writing?

Shireen Jilla: It makes it easier and harder. I am used to settling down to write, but a 1,00-word newspaper feature with a clear beginning, middle and end, is ver different from facing the mountain of 100,000 words of fiction. Once I had worked out what I wanted to do with Unpacking, I wrote it very fast.

The first draft was completed in five months. I spent six weekends working from Friday through to Monday, practically without sleeping.
I am not precious about getting the scenes down and I don’t prevaricate. I think that’s because I am also a journalist.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this in the Kalahari? How did you recreate the settings?

Shireen Jilla: I tried setting it in Sardinia, but it wasn’t a remote or extreme enough to allow the characters to unravel in such a short space of time. When my brother took me on this trip of a lifetime to the Kalahari, my first ever to Africa, I realised it was the perfect setting.

I kept a diary, took hundreds of photos, some of which are on my website, bought books, and talked extensively to the guides. All the detail is accurate.

Amy Steele: As they seem to be the main characters, what do you like best about Connie, about Luke and about Sara?

Shireen Jilla: I am incredibly fond of all the characters in the book. I admire Connie’s strength, love her doubt. I was drawn to Luke because of his unspoken vulnerability. And Sara is highly intelligent and funny, but ultimately a loyal friend.

Amy Steele: Why did you pick three guys, three women?

Shireen Jilla: I wanted Unpacking to be about a group of friends, close but disparate. And I wanted it to be written from a male and female point of view. Both reasons led me to have six main characters. In a literary sense, six main characters is considered a handful. And the editor at my literary agency encouraged me to reduce them.

Amy Steele: Are you still close friends with college friends? Would you take a safari trip together?

Shireen Jilla: Yes! I would love to do it.

Amy Steele: What do like best about writing novels?

Shireen Jilla: I love the actual process. It’s probably escapism. Still, I am never happier than when I am in the middle of writing a novel.

The Art of Unpacking Your Life [Bloomsbury Reader] by Shireen Jilla is available now.

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10921649_10204715107932096_8914008219392980458_o (1)

I’ve been a Robin Black fan since the publication of her short-story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This five years ago. Her debut novel Life Drawing made my 12 Best Novels of 2014 list. Life Drawing comes out in paperback on April 14, 2015. So we discussed the novel about a marriage between an artist and a writer and its challenges when the couple moves to a house deep in the suburbs.

Amy Steele: Phenomenal novel. You examine marriage and art with this engrossing story and these layered characters. Marriage doesn’t sound promising. It sounds like too much work with only minimal rewards. Where did the idea come from?

Robin Black: Oh, I don’t know about the minimal rewards. I think that Owen and Gus have earned a role in each other’s life that is pretty glorious – bumps and imperfections at all. But having said that, I don’t think marriage is for everyone, and I recognize this definitely isn’t a very shined up view of the institution.

The idea really came from me wanting to look at a couple who don’t have kids, challenge that relationship, and then explore what would – or wouldn’t – keep them together. I’ve spent my adulthood around people with children who are always weighing splitting up with the impact of the kids – whenever tough times arise, I mean. I wanted to look at the matter of commitment without that consideration.

And I’m so glad you liked it! Thank you for saying so and for this interview.

Robin Black [photo credit:  Nina Subin]

Robin Black [photo credit: Nina Subin]

Amy Steele: What I thought would happen didn’t happen and I was shocked several times by events that occurred in Life Drawing. So it’s a completely unpredictable read. How did you develop the characters? Where did they come from?

Robin Black: I think it’s unpredictable in part because I make things up as I go along. I’ll take a strand of it: From the start I had no idea who if anyone would have an affair with whom. There were points at which I thought Alison and Owen would, points at which I thought maybe Alison and Gus would. . . So even though I certainly revised once I had all the major actions in place, I think that maybe there’s a lingering fluidity that’s the result of my not having had a set course of events in mind.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write a novel about a creative couple. A painter and a writer.

Robin Black: I am married to a lawyer, and every single artist who isn’t married to an artist wonders what it would be like. There’s always that fantasy of the shared bohemian life, the deep philosophical discussions of one’s work. . . I wanted to play with that idea a bit. And maybe it’s sour grapes on my part, but I ended up being glad I am married to a lawyer. I admit, I didn’t make the artist/artist marriage look like huge fun.

Amy Steele: This is a beautiful paragraph: “There are moments in a creative life when you understand why you do it. Those moments might last a few seconds or maybe, for some people, years. But whatever the actual time that passes, they still feel like a single moment. Fragile in the way a moment is, liable to be shattered by a breath, set apart from all the other passing time, distinct.”

Do you feel like this with writing? Is it worth the moments?

Robin Black: Yes. Absolutely. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to experience that kind of complete mesh with who I am and what I do. It’s worth all the times when it isn’t quite working so well.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to reveal the ending at the beginning and then work back to how Augusta got there? Was that always your plan?

Robin Black: It was always the idea, from the second I put that opening sentence in place. I think that it gave me a kind of goal and also relaxed me a little bit on the subject of plot. I can’t say that plot is my strength – though I’m getting better I think. And having so dramatic a fact shaping the book relaxed me in a way. I didn’t know how Owen’s death would occur, but I knew I had to get there. And that also provided a kind of intellectual challenge, like putting a puzzle together.

Amy Steele: Did you have a favorite character to write and why?

Robin Black: I suppose it’s Gus, my narrator. I love her, flaws and all. Self-delusions and all. My favorite moments of hers are when she describes her own limitations, as when she talks about not being naturally good at comforting people who are distressed, about having to relearn that every time. I see such earnestness in those admission. Like, Owen, I am prepared to forgive her a lot in exchange for that kind of hint at really trying to understand herself and improve.

Amy Steele: How important are fellowships and writing colonies to your process? Sounds lovely and idyllic.

Robin Black: I haven’t been to a writing colony in nine years, and the only other Fellowship I’ve ever had was six years ago. So I guess the answer better be “not very important.” I’m in a stage of life, my kids adults, my husband still working full time, when I have a lot of time for work, so I don’t know that I need the escapes.

I do miss the conversations though, especially with non-writers, visual artists and musicians. And I miss not having to cook dinner every night. But I have a child with special needs and even though she doesn’t live at home full-time, it’s still hard for me to plan many months out, which those all require. So I just try to be grateful for the freedoms I have.

Amy Steele: Another lovely part: “Life. It begins and begins and begins. An infinite number of times. It is all beginnings until the end comes. Sometimes we know it and sometimes we do not, but at every moment life begins again.” This sounds like it could have been the impetus for Augustus and Owen and Nora and Alison to cross paths and become involved in each other’s lives as they did.

How was the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel? What was the greatest challenge in writing the novel? What’s been the greatest reward?

Robin Black: The greatest challenge was overcoming my sense that it was somehow an entirely alien task, distinct from what I’d been doing for a decade by then. That and also being overly self-conscious about being under contract, so I was inordinately tense for years. Years!

The greatest reward, honestly, is having a piece of work of which I’m proud. Of having found a way to say some things I believe – even if in an indirect form. And I do love having creating characters. That’s like giving yourself the gift of new people in your life. Or anyway, in your imaginary life. . .

Amy Steele: Thank you Robin.

Robin Black: Thank you so much, Amy! I’m so happy to have this chance to chat.

purchase at Amazon: Life Drawing: A Novel

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night night

When she discovers her screenwriter father dead in his swimming pool, Deirdre Unger finds herself at the center of the suspicious death. It’s 1985 and old Hollywood secrets resurface. Decades ago Deirdre’s best friend killed her mom’s boyfriend and a terrible accident left Unger walking with a limp and crutch. Deirdre now lives in San Diego and runs an art gallery. She and her brother drifted apart years ago. He dropped out of school, lives at the family estate and runs a motorcycle dealership. Their mother took off to join a cultish monastic life. When Deirdre begins sorting through her father’s papers the past swings back in full force. Hallie Ephron’s newest novel Night Night Sleep Tight weaves together present day-1985 with the 60s with fierce suspense and superb details. She delves into the anachronisms of Hollywood celebrity and the fame that many want and few realize. Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills with screenwriter parents so this covers familiar territory. A New York Times bestselling author, Ephron also wrote Never Tell a Lie, Find Me and There Was an Old Woman.

Night Night Sleep Tight By Hallie Ephron.
William Morrow| March 24, 2015.|287 pages |$26.99| ISBN: 978-0-0062117632.

Hallie Ephron took the time to answer a few questions.

author Hallie Ephron; photo by Lynn Wayne

author Hallie Ephron; photo by Lynn Wayne

Amy Steele: I really enjoyed the new novel Night Night, Sleep Tight. How did you come up with the characters?

Hallie Ephron: The book is a hybrid, one part based on my own experiences growing up in Beverly Hills, and another part riffing on the Lana Turner/Johnny Stompanato murder scandal. So, for instance, Deirdre Unger’s screenwriter father (Arthur) who gets murdered in the opening chapter is inspired by my dad; Deirdre’s old friend Joelen Nichol who turns up is based on my best friend in junior high, but her situation (her mother, mother’s Latin gangster boyfriend) is, as they say, ripped form some very old headlines.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to focus on a brother-sister relationship?

Hallie Ephron: Good question. I don’t have a brother, so I guess giving Deirdre a brother freed me to make stuff up. And I’m interested in how two people who grow up in the same family end up feeling as if they grew up in alternate universes.

Amy Steele: Do you generally start with characters or a story idea?

Hallie Ephron: It’s really both. Which is why my process is so messy. As I write the story the characters shift under me.

Amy Steele: You said that you used Lana Turner’s boyfriend’s murder by her daughter as a jump-off point. What appeals to you about that case?

Hallie Ephron: It happened when I was 10 years old (Cheryl Crane was 14) and the house was around the corner from where I lived. I pored over the pictures in the paper. I identified with Cheryl, sympathized with her enormously.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about your central character Deirdre?

Hallie Ephron: She’s a survivor. She had a terrible accident that left her crippled but she hasn’t an ounce (well, maybe an ounce) of self pity. And more than anything she wants to know the truth.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this novel in 1985 and the 60s? Was it challenging to go back and forth time-wise?

Hallie Ephron: I was interested in writing about what was happening in Hollywood in the ‘60s – the studio my screenwriter parents worked at nearly went bankrupt and writers who had been on contract for decades were suddenly out on the street. I wanted the characters to be teenagers in the ‘60s, as I was, and then revisit the place twenty years later to see how it had changed. To keep myself sane, I had kept separate timelines for past and present for each of the characters. The writing itself was the easy part.

Amy Steele: What do you think is the best part of the earlier days of the entertainment industry versus today? Why do believe people like to read about it?

Hallie Ephron: So much glamour! It was before Facebook. The tabloids had barely gotten started. So it was a kinder, gentler time and the stars were protected by the studio system. So as far as the world at large was concerned, they lived a sort of fantasy existence.

Amy Steele: How did growing up in Beverly Hills with screenwriter parents influence your writing career?

Hallie Ephron: I’m a child of the movies, and though I don’t write screenplays my novels are very cinematic. When I write a scene, I imagine I’m writing from the viewpoint of a camera anchored in one of the character’s heads, but with access to that character’s thoughts and feelings and senses.

Amy Steele: How did you start writing?

Hallie Ephron: My first attempts were memoir. In fact, chunks of an early unfinished manuscript (full of lovely little episodes but no overarching story arc) found their way into Night Night, Sleep Tight. I always tell writers: Never throw anything away!

Amy Steele: Why do you like the mystery/thriller/suspense genre?

Hallie Ephron: I love reading the genre and it plays to my strengths as a writer. I’m good at creating a sense of place, building tension, and suggesting what’s going on with subtext. I love the intricacies of plotting out a mystery.

Amy Steele: What kind of research did you have to do?

Hallie Ephron: Hollywood and Beverly Hills in the 60s and 80s are so well documented – so many old pictures are found on the Internet and there are the movies that defined the styles of the times (Sandra Dee Gidget hair in the ‘60s; Jennifer Beals Flashdance hair in the ‘80s.) Between that and newspaper archives and my own memory, it was one of the easiest novels I’ve ever researched.

Amy Steele: Do you have any particular writing habits—time you write, place, outlines etc.—that you could share?

Hallie Ephron: I write every day, in my home office, on the computer, and I do create an outline though I never follow it. The outline is like training wheels that give me permission to write. As I write I revise the outline and make a feeble attempt to get ahead of myself, planning-wise. But it usually turns out to be hopeless and I constantly find myself second guessing myself and circling back. Along the way it’s a mess, but I’ve surrendered to the chaos. I’ve learned that if I keep at it long enough, eventually it comes together.

Amy Steele: Thank you so much Hallie! Tell Delia and Amy I send my regards.

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purchase at Amazon: Night Night, Sleep Tight: A Novel of Suspense


Tuesday, March 24 at 7pm
Brookline Booksmith
Launch event

Wednesday, March 25 at pm
Milton Public Library

Thursday, March 26 at 7pm
Wellesley Books

Saturday, March 28 at 2pm
Newport Public Library
Newport, RI

Tuesday, March 31 at 7:30 pm
Melrose Public Library
Melrose, Mass.

Thursday, April 2 at 7pm
Winchester, Mass.

Saturday, April 4 at 2pm
Brookline Public Library
Brookline, Mass.

Monday, April 6 at 7pm
Tufts Library
Weymouth, Mass.

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Michelle Steely Eyed

Fort Bliss, written and directed by Claudia Myers, came out in December. It’s the second feature film for Myers. She also wrote and directed Kettle of Fish starring Gina Gershon and Matthew Modine. She’s made lots short films and documentaries for the military such as ones about combat stress and PTSD and severely injured soldiers returning from Iraq and the impact to their personal lives.

Fort Bliss movingly and effectively shows the difficulties that a single mom in the military faces in balancing her career as a medic and her home life. Michelle Monaghan turns in a strong, edgy and multifaceted performance as Maggie. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and iTunes and absolutely a must-see.

After some back and forth on twitter, Claudia Myers and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago.

Amy Steele: You live in DC– outside the Hollywood scene but close enough to New York. How is that for you as a filmmaker?
[Claudia is a professor at American University so has that stability and commitment.]

Claudia Myers: Positive is that I wouldn’t have written Fort Bliss. That first assignment to work with the military with a local company. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity in another city. It sparked my interest in the military stories. I like the Wash DC film community. It’s much smaller but it’s very supportive and I receive a lot of support from American Univ.

DC is a diverse city in terms of its interest. It’s not dominated by film and it can be a positive.

writer/director Claudia Myers

writer/director Claudia Myers

Amy Steele: Do you think you can live anywhere and be an independent filmmaker?

Claudia Myers: Depends on what you want to do. If you want to work in TV or film it helps to work in NY or LA but there’s also more competition but to write and direct your own project it helps to be in places where there’s smaller film industry.

Amy Steele: You’re a professor of film at American University. What do you like about teaching? What influence does it have on your film-making?

Claudia Myers: I’ve been teaching for seven years. Being a teacher and being a filmmaker simultaneously forces me to keep thinking critically about what I do. So I feel like with every new class I learn something from my students. They challenge me to look at things differently or explain things better. It keeps me engaged and sharp and more current.


Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea to write Fort Bliss?

Claudia Myers: Working on a training film for the army at the actual Fort Bliss. Was doing a focus group with infantry soldiers and one was a single dad who had deployed twice to Iraq and I remember being surprised by that. I never thought about a soldier facing multiple deployments as a single parent. As a mother it piqued my interest. Was something I’d never thought about.

Roughly 40% of women in the military are moms. As I developed the story, I felt like telling the ultimate working mother story. As any parent trying to balance with a career they think is meaningful and important with raising a child.

There was a story to be told that hadn’t been told from a female perspective. I found it wasn’t such an unusual circumstance. I would hear “my sister is in that situation” or “I know someone just like that.” It is gratifying that it is a projection of this and interesting to get people thinking about how women are perceived.

People would connect in a way that they hadn’t thought about.


Amy Steele: Why did you make Maggie a single mom?

Claudia Myers: That was a side of the story I hadn’t seen told and a side of the story I could relate to as a mother and get a strong sense of connection. A real empathy and curiosity for women in the military balancing career and being a parent. To make an independent film there has to be a reason to do it and I hadn’t seen that story told.

Amy Steele: I didn’t think it all that unusual for a woman to serve in the military with a young child at home but I browsed a message board and people thought it strange. This was Maggie’s job. I don’t think she was trying to get away from her son at all but she liked what she did and was trying to secure a better future wasn’t she?

Claudia Myers: I’ve had some conversations with people who don’t understand that she re-enlisted and then got caught in a set of circumstance. As in life there are no right solutions and people do the best they can under the circumstances. Everyone just does the best they can. I wasn’t trying to demonize anyone or make anyone a villain.

As a filmmaker and viewer I have empathy for Maggie but she makes some questionable choices and that’s fine. We sometimes recognize ourselves in a character’s flaws. I wasn’t interested in making her perfect.
Why is it cool for a guy to go off and fight and leave his family but for a woman she’s abandoning her family, she’s a terrible mother.

Claudia Myers: Such an emotional response to the story is a good thing. It gets people to think about their feelings about these things. Things have been changing for a while. Can it ever be completely equal. I don’t know that I have an answer. That’s why I wrote the movie. I was happy when I was writing the script and I wasn’t sure how I could resolve this in a way that was honest.

Amy Steele: How long did it take from script to screen?

Claudia Myers: I got the idea about five years ago. I was intrigued by this character who was a soldier and a mother and was balancing these two sides of her life in an extreme situation. Worked on [the script] on and off for years. It took time to get funding. We had a leisurely editing process. It was good in that it was always on my mind but I wasn’t working on it constantly. The shoot itself was quick. We shot it in 21 days.

Amy Steele: By choice or necessity?

Claudia Myers: It’s never a choice. We always want more time. It was a very intense shooting schedule. It gave the whole process an energy. Everybody wanted to be there. Everyone on our team was really dedicated. That included a number of veterans on the film itself and active duty soldiers. That grounded the production. It helped creating a greater sense of authenticity. The army supported the film so we had subject matter experts. Michelle [Monaghan] was trained by a medic. The army was tremendous in their support.

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Amy Steele: Did you screen it at Fort Bliss?

Claudia Myers: It opened at Fort Bliss and in NY and LA in December.

Amy Steele: And what was the reaction?

Claudia Myers:The reaction has been very positive. Also we had a Los Angeles screening by Veterans in Film and TV [VFT]. 400 veterans at LA premiere. The film got a standing ovation. it was a special night.

Amy Steele: What kind of director are you?

Claudia Myers: I love the whole process. I love working with actors. I just have a lot of respect and admiration for the actors’ craft. I see my job as being as clear as possible about what I’m trying to achieve. What the story’s about, what I’m fundamentally getting to and I work with the various departments to help me bring the story to life. I welcome their input so it’s a real collaboration.

Amy Steele: What were the greatest challenges for this film?

Claudia Myers: So many intense or logistically different scenes on a short time frame and budget. I think that was the overall production challenge. Michelle was so committed and so passionate about the script. As preparation she did an abbreviated medic course. She was a great collaborator. I felt that she understood all the sides of this character which I wanted to bring out. She didn’t hold back and she gave an incredible performance.
The weather was another challenge. It was very hot. We shot in the desert in 100 degree weather. We felt the importance in sharing this story.

Amy Steele: I’m going to remind readers of some statistics of women filmmakers from Indie Wire, 2014:

• 29.8% of filmmakers (directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors) were female.
• Women were 16% of the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.
• Women directed 6% of the films.
• Women wrote 10% of the movies.

Amy Steele: What are the barriers facing female filmmakers today? What do you think needs to change? Is it getting better?

Claudia Myers: It is getting better. Maybe a little bit outside the studio. I think there are a lot of independent women directors/writers working. It isn’t a level playing field. There’s a lot of progress needing to be made. People can support films written and directed by women. They can seek them out and watch more of them. I think the more attention we pay it is a positive thing. I hope the trend keeps developing. It’s slower than it should be for sure.

Distributors are still trying to figure out revenues with all these distribution strategies. It’s not what it used to be. We aren’t quite at the place optimally.

In terms of female films being less lucrative, it’s demand driven. If people make a point of watching those films and more films about female protagonists. More films about women. The vast majority of mainstream films feature male protagonists. Some stories need to be told the way they need to be told. You need multi-layered complex women in film. Actresses are eager for more meaty roles.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J Mitchell [Working Stiff]

Released last year, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell is one of the most riveting, darkly humorous and moving memoirs I’ve ever read. I rated it *****/5 stars and placed it on my 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2014 list. It details the two-year medical examiner residency in New York City for Dr. Judy Melinek.

working stiff

“I was happy for the first time in nearly a year– but scared too. I had learned only what kind of doctor I did not want to be, and was convinced no hospital would take me as a new resident in any specialty now as I was damaged goods. The happiest I’d been in medial school was during the pathology rotation. The science was fascinating, the cases engaging, and the doctors seemed to have stable lives.”

Dr. Melinek started her medical examiner training two months before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It’s engrossing, detailed and macabre. Dr. Melinek wrote it with her writer husband T.J. Mitchell. The two met while undergraduate students at Harvard. There are chapters detailing poisons, accidental deaths, suicides, murders, maggots and bugs [“Stinks and Bones”] and the somber process of identifying bodies [and body parts] after 9/11.

I’ve worked in healthcare and almost changed careers to become a nurse. I’ve worked in all types of settings with patients from babies to the elderly. The medical world and pathology intrigue me. After meeting Dr. Melinek through twitter, she and her husband T.J. answered a whole bunch of questions I sent their way. And disappointingly skipped my more pressing questions about poisons and suicide.

I sent a lot of questions and said it was okay to skip some. Disappointed that questions on poison, alcoholism, suicide were skipped. also this one: you are “less comfortable with houseflies, and leery of cats.” Please explain. Also this one: description of people jumping from the World Trade Center is the only account like that I’ve read. Well done. What was the greatest challenge of DM01? How did you handle it?

Guess I’ll just have to do more googling or hope that one day I can interview Atul Gawande, M.D.

Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell

Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell

Amy Steele: I was riveted by this book. There are lots of books about medical students. Particularly first-year residents. How do you think yours stands out?

Judy Melinek: When I was in medical school I read them all – House of God by Samuel Shem, all of Perri Klass’ books, Oliver Sachs—these books inspired me as a physician and an author. They made me realize that in writing about my experiences I could keep my humanity intact, and by reflecting on the joys and tragedies, I became a better, more empathic doctor.

Working Stiff fits the doctor-memoir genre, but it stands out in some ways because of the singular experience I had in New York City during a historically turbulent period: 9/11, the anthrax attacks, the crash of American Airlines #587 in Queens. Most forensic pathologists in the United States might deal with one major terrorist threat or disaster in their lifetimes. During my fellowship year, the New York City OCME faced several. Working Stiff is also unique in that it focuses on the training of a medical examiner, instead of on celebrity deaths or who-dunnit cold cases. Since T.J. and I opened the story at the very beginning of my forensic training, we could take the reader along as I learned death investigation from Dr. Hirsch and the staff at the New York OCME.

Amy Steele: Did TJ ever NOT want to hear one of your gory days on the job?

T.J. Mitchell: No, my dilemma was worse than that. I thought I did want to hear Judy’s stories, and usually I would find her day’s cases fascinating. But every once in a while she would come out with a nightmare humdinger. The problem is, Judy wouldn’t know which stories a civilian like me would find nightmarish. And once I’ve heard it—well, you can’t unring a bell. There’s a good reason why we titled the first chapter “This Can Only End Badly.”

The other source of frustration for me in listening to Judy talk about her day at work was that she seldom delved into the things I wanted to know about. Where did this happen? What became of the perpetrators? How did the cops feel about the whole thing? Her focus is the story the body tells about the cause and manner of death, period. Plus, as we quote her telling me in the book, she’s a busy lady. She has new cases every day, and doesn’t spend time lurking around the homicide division or the DA’s office gossiping about open cases.

Still and all—I wanted to hear them. I just can’t help myself. They’re compelling, the stories my wife tells over the dinner table. I had a ball writing Working Stiff.

Amy Steele: You’re in the minority with couples where the husband stays at home with the children. So yay to feminist advances for one. What challenges do you face? How do others react?

T.J. Mitchell: Things have changed since I first started as a stay-at-home dad fifteen years ago. I used to have to explain to people what that meant. Now there are plenty of SAHDs out there—and some very talented and funny bloggers and authors have written about the job’s challenges. I found those challenges to be minor, really—or, I guess it’s more accurate to say, the unique challenges were minor. All parents face the same obstacles, and the ones I faced as a man that a woman wouldn’t face were easily overcome. Usually they had to do with persuading well-meaning older women that I really did know what I was doing, alone with a baby or three. A lot of that unsolicited advice involved hats, and whether they should be on or off, and whether they were too warm or not warm enough for the weather.

For the past ten years I’ve also been extremely fortunate to be a stay-at-home dad in the city of San Francisco. I started to notice soon after moving here that nobody ever asked me that irritating question I had to field on playgrounds and in grocery stores in Los Angeles and New York most every day: “Is it mommy’s day off?” That’s because, in San Francisco, a man with a baby or three might not have a mommy involved in the family equation. The very question would entail a faux pas. So I, as a straight man in a parenting role that reverses the normative gender expectations, am a beneficiary of the gay civil rights movement.

My biggest worry never materialized. I feared, early on, that our kids would either spend all day pining after their absent mother, or fail to bond with her in the same intimate way that kids who spend all day with mommy would. Neither of these things happened.

Amy Steele: Does seeing all you’ve seen make you extra cautious? You mention: “Wear your seat belt when you drive. Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise. Watch your weight. If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If you aren’t don’t start. Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.”

Judy Melinek: It doesn’t make us extra cautious. It makes us realistic and appropriately cautious. We subscribe to raising independent “free-range” children. We don’t stress out about giving our children the freedom to bike or walk to school alone, or take public transit across town, because we know that they are safer walking and riding the bus than they are being driven in a car. We freely discuss the effects and dangers of drugs and alcohol, and we don’t shy away from talking about death or suicide. They are entering their teen years, and open discussion with your kids about these serious topics allows them the freedom and comfort to trust you with their own struggles, or when they encounter a friend or classmate who needs help.

T.J. Mitchell: Plus, when Judy tells our kids or one of their friends, “Don’t do that! I know someone who died that way,” they listen. She has gold-standard street cred when it comes to safety.

Amy Steele: I’ll admit to you I DO NOT wear a seat belt even though six years ago I flipped my car on black ice. Right over. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I crawled out the broken window.

Judy Melinek: That is a really dangerous and bad idea. It also has financial consequences for you and your family because if you were going to get injured or killed in an accident, your injuries might be determined to be your own fault because you were not using the safety equipment as required by law. Wearing a seatbelt is a habit, and, like any habit, if you just build it into your routine, clicking it in place as soon as you get into the vehicle, then you will stop even thinking about it. Once you get used to it, if you then forget to put it on, you will see that you start to feel uncomfortable—like you are going to fly out the window even at a brief stop.

[note from Amy Steele: Of course I USED to wear a seat-belt and drove with one for years. Then I stopped using one. So being a habit or not doesn’t matter. I actually feel anxiety with the seat-belt on, like I might get stuck. I can’t even remember when I stopped wearing one.]

Amy Steele: What are the leading causes of death you see?

Judy Melinek: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and often kills people suddenly, through heart attacks and strokes. I find that it is not uncommon for folks to ignore the signs of a heart attack (chest pain, shortness of breath, arm pain) or stroke (dizziness, numbness/tingling, partial paralysis) because the pain is not that severe and they don’t actually feel all that bad. By delaying medical attention they are much more likely to die. It’s really important that all men and women over the age of 40 familiarize themselves with the symptoms of heart attack and stroke and seek immediate medical care.

Every day at the Coroner’s Office we have one or two cases of overdoses, either from prescription drugs, street drugs, or alcohol. A really common way for addicts to die is when they get out of rehab and relapse, they take the same quantity of drugs that they took in the past, but because they have lost their tolerance, they end up dead. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for rehab centers to educate them about that on discharge and provide them with reversal agents.

Amy Steele: How did you decide what stories to tell in the memoir? When writing did you have a gross-out level in mind. Some readers are clearly more squeamish than others.

T.J. Mitchell: At first I was concerned about the gross-out level, but very quickly I found that I just had to tell Judy’s story the way she lived it. If we tried to tone down the more macabre elements of that life we wouldn’t be telling the truth, and telling the truth is the first requirement of narrative nonfiction.

We decided which stories to tell based on the requirements of narrative nonfiction, too—the narrative part. We wanted to use stories that advanced the story and illustrated the science, while holding the reader’s attention. Our collaborative process served us well when it came to the more complex case studies. We worked as a team to make sure the science was solid and the storytelling was straightforward and engaging.

Amy Steele: How do you determine time of death?

Judy Melinek: Time of death is very tricky and depends more on the scene and circumstances than on hard science. We ask when the person was last seen alive and we figure out when they were found dead, and in all cases they died sometime between then. It’s not rocket science. Sure, things like body temperature, rigidity (stiffening of the body after death), lividity (pooling of blood after death) and decomposition can be used in some cases to narrow down a time interval, but none of these methods is scientifically foolproof, and all are highly dependent on the ambient temperature. It always cracks me up whenever the pathologist on CSI or Law & Order definitively says, “She died between 9 and 9:30 PM.” A half hour window? It’s more likely for me to say to the real-world cops I work with, “Based on the body temperature she likely died sometime between 9 PM and midnight, but it could be more or less, and don’t quote me on that or write it down because I don’t want to have to defend that in court.” Too wishy-washy for a TV drama, but that’s the way it is in reality.

Amy Steele: What is the strangest cause of death you found? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found when you’ve opened someone up on the table?

Judy Melinek: I always get asked those questions and I don’t know what to say. “Strange” and “weird” are relative, and while in Working Stiff I describe the piercings and tattoos that initially took me aback when I found them hidden under decedent’s clothing where the sun don’t shine, these things don’t faze me any more.

My favorite tattoo was on the buttocks of a chronic alcoholic. It said “Your Name.” I figured that he had it put there so that he could cadge drinks in bars this way:

Dead Guy: “Hi. What’s your name?”
Stranger: “Sean.”
Dead Guy: “What a coincidence! I have your name tattooed on my ass!”
Stranger (Sean): “No you don’t.”
Dead Guy: “Bet you ten bucks.”
Sean takes the bet. Dead Guy drops his drawers. He collects his money.

Amy Steele: You said: “I always will wait until I’ve removed the brain before I dissect the neck, because by then all the blood from the skull and face will have drained out leaving a clear view of the long, flat strap muscles on the front of the throat.” How did you develop your process—by doing or are you taught a specific protocol?

Judy Melinek: Training. At the New York City OCME I was given a checklist and body diagram and taught how to fill it out as I examined the body both externally and internally. The check list keeps me on task and reminds me to check all surfaces, and by following the same protocol on every single case I don’t miss anything. The checklist and diagram have changed a bit over the years, with different headings and check boxes based on the individual agency I work for, but it has a front and back outline drawing of a human body with room for me to draw in any injuries, medical devices or findings. Protocols are important in every specialty of medical practice, forensic pathology included.

Amy Steele: Besides examining dead bodies on the scene, what must MEs look for at a site?

Judy Melinek: It’s different in every case. When I get to a scene, the first thing I do—before I go in, even—is talk to the family members or witnesses, or the police officer at the scene, to hear the story or stories of what happened. How was the body found? Who found him? What is his medical history? If it’s a homicide, then generally I have to wait for the crime scene unit to photograph the scene before I can even go in.

But for all death scenes, when I do go in, I don’t go straight to the body. I look around the place: Is it clean or cluttered? Are there blood stains anywhere? Does anything look disturbed or out of place, like there was a struggle? What is the person’s lifestyle? And I open closets, medicine cabinets, look on side tables and in the trash bin. This is how I train new death scene investigators. I tell them, “You don’t want the family to find the empty pill containers and suicide note after you have already left.”

Amy Steele: You’re now a forensic pathologist. How did your ME training prepare you for your current career?

Judy Melinek: The training I went through at the New York City OCME [Office of Chief Medical Examiner] really prepared me for the basic day-to-day challenges of doing autopsies, communicating with cops and family members, and testifying in court. What it didn’t prepare me for was the working world of political pressure, internal squabbles, and petty bureaucracy. That I learned on the job when I moved on, because as fellows at the OCME we were well insulated from all that nonsense.

Today I work as a forensic pathologist at the Alameda County Sheriff Coroner’s Bureau, and I also testify as an expert witness in legal cases as an independent consultant. I find that, like in many professions, keeping in touch with colleagues in my field via e mail and professional conferences has been then best way to stay up to date and to learn how to handle the ethical and political challenges of a career in a high-profile public role.

Amy Steele: Congratulations on selling the rights to the memoir and developing a TV series. How will First Cut be similar and different from the book and similar to your own experiences?

T.J. Mitchell: The TV deal you refer to is for Working Stiff.

First Cut is something else, a work in progress right now. It’s our next book together, this time a novel. First Cut is smart forensic detective fiction, with a protagonist based loosely on Judy, and with cases taken from her own experiences—taken from, but not reproducing exactly. The story traverses the familiar territory of the noir mystery novel, but with a uniquely heightened degree of verisimilitude that derives from Judy’s real work in death investigation both inside and outside the autopsy suite. We’re collaborating again as we did in Working Stiff, and are having a lot of fun writing First Cut.

Amy Steele: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

purchase at Amazon: Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

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