Posts Tagged interview by Amy Steele
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.
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.
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.
Samantha Black is cool. She stood out for me from the first episode of Project Runway S11 and I was rooting for her. I like her personal style and the clothes she designs. She’s laid back yet edgy. Plus she’s smart and genuine. The 28-year-old Brooklyn resident and Pratt Institute graduate runs two clothing companies Sammy B Designs and Samantha Black. In 2011, Black presented her first show at New York Fashion Week [NYFW]. Solange did the music for the show, attended and sat in the front row. “I’m really excited when people want to wear my clothes and people see it,” Black told me. She’s shown at NYFW nearly every season since. Named “designer to watch” by both Essence and Ebony magazine, Black created garments for celebrities such as Kerri Hilson, Brandi, LaLa Anthony and Angela Simmons. She’s back on Project Runway: All Stars which airs Thursdays at 9 pm on Lifetime.
I spoke to Sam by phone last week.
Amy Steele: I was a really big fan of yours during your season (11) so I’m so happy to speak with you. And I just really like your style and everything.
Samantha Black: Thank you!
Amy Steele: When did you get interested in fashion design?
Samantha Black: I always liked clothes and when I was 16 someone said I should take classes in fashion design. ‘You know you like to doodle.’ So I took a pre-college fashion design course and I loved it. And ever since I thought ‘I want to be a fashion designer.’
Amy Steele: Did you go to fashion school?
Samantha Black: I went to Pratt. I got a bachelors in fine arts but my major was fashion design.
Amy Steele: What did you take away from going to a design school?
Samantha Black: It’s actually really intense. At least Pratt’s program is really intense because you still have your liberal arts program and you have your major classes. [AS note: this sounds like Berklee College of Music] So fashion classes are six hours long. Serious projects. It’s a serious, intense program. You lose half the class. Pratt puts out more entrepreneurs. That’s the path I want to take eventually.
Amy Steele: What inspires your designs?
Samantha Black: I get inspired by art, architecture. I live in New York so you see such crazy style every day. Even my personal style. I dress funky one day and preppy another day. I wanted to create a line that embodies all those things because you can dress that one girl who likes a lot of things.
Amy Steele: I was going to say who are you designing for? So she sounds eclectic.
Samantha Black: She’s definitely an eclectic woman. She’s into all different kinds of music and culture and things like that. Some people say the IT Girl’s closet has to have something from each genre and that’s kind of my line all-in-one.
Amy Steele: So Sammy B is your line?
Samantha Black: I started off with Sammy B and I also have Samantha Black. Sammy B is a little more funky and easy to wear pieces. I’ve really been pushing my Samantha Black line for the last couple of years. In 2011 I started working on the Samantha Black line.
Amy Steele: And this is all on your own.
Samantha Black: I originally started in the industry working [corporate] and I did that for about four years. When they closed my division I started working on my own line. I started working freelance too. I don’t have any investors. All the money I make I literally put into my line. It’s a hard struggle to balance the two. Sometimes I freelance and have to go to an office depending on who the client is.
Amy Steele: What is your greatest challenge as a designer?
Samantha Black: It’s the business side. I definitely don’t think from that side of my brain. I’m an artist. Over the past few years I’ve taken business classes [Macy’s Business Program] so I can really up that side of my business for it to really be something. I’m getting into programs and learning how to be a fully functioning business. To really prosper I have to do it the right way. Budgets. From the ground up. It’s more important than designing because even if you have a good design, if you can’t get it sold . . .
Amy Steele: What is a little bit of your process? Are you setting aside specific time to design? Do you carry around a sketchbook?
Samantha Black: I have three sketchbooks in my purse right now. While I’m riding the subway I use it as my sketch time to try to get some ideas. I might have swatches in my bag. I like to get a few ideas and then I like to search the market. I get inspired by my fabrics. Then I start working on patterns and things like that.
Amy Steele: Who are some designers you admire?
Samantha Black: McQueen, LAMB, Alexander Wang. I think they’re young and hip and edgy at the same time.
Amy Steele: How would you describe yourself as a designer?
Samantha Black: I think I design feminine with an eclectic edge. I try to make the designs flatter a woman’s body and be sexy and be comfortable at the same time. Easy to wear. Details. I like prints. I like patterns. My clothes are a direct representation of my personality. The way I dress, the way I design. My personality comes out in my clothes. I’m usually the loud fun one. I have a big personality. Sometimes I wonder if people can really see it on the show.
Amy Steele: It’s the editing but you can see it in your clothes. You said you’re loud but you seem very laid back. How are you under pressure?
Samantha Black: I’m very chill. I grew up with a lot of boys. I kinda grew up as a tomboy as well. I’m not really into drama at all. I could care less about it. I tell people how I feel right away so I never really talk behind someone’s back. People always know how I feel.
Amy Steele: What was your takeaway from season 11? [Season 11 was the Project Runway: Teams season]
Samantha Black: That season was a little different. A little interesting. Because things are happening so fast and you’re always so stressed out it’s hard to stay true to yourself as a designer all the time. It’s important to make something but always stay true to your vision at all times.
Amy Steele: What interested you in coming back for Project Runway All-Stars?
Samantha Black: Season 11 got a bad rap for being teams and the way it was set up. I wanted the experience of working by myself. I wanted the experience that every other season had. I didn’t make it where I wanted to in my season so it was another opportunity. This is people from seasons 10, 11 and 12 and Chris and Jay from the Bravo seasons. I kind of knew everyone’s skills and visions. It’s good knowing that.
Amy Steele: What is the best part of being on Project Runway?
Samantha Black: I love seeing people actually work. It’s a special thing to see other creatives in the same field and see how they work. In corporate fashion you’re on a computer. I’m the only one of my friends who has my own line so I don’t get to see others work. There aren’t that many of us that have our own lines. I don’t get the same out of it as everyone else does.
Past seasons were surprised by how close season 11 was. It ended up being the closest season. I think because of working in teams we had to get along. Other seasons you start off everyone to themselves. We’re a lot closer than other seasons. This season of all-stars we’re close. We are younger and newer seasons so we have a bond.
Amy Steele: Good luck with everything. It was really nice talking to you and I’ll talk to you on Twitter.
Samantha Black: Thank you. Have a great weekend.
You can follow Samantha on Twitter
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Several years ago I saw Sallie Ford and The Sound Machine (her then-band) at the Newport Folk Festival. Energetic, fun and eclectic. She’s got a cool way to combine retro with present mingling in jazz, folk, rockabilly and rock. On this new album, Slap Black, Ford’s steering away from the retro and charging forward with the altrock vibe. She also split with The Sound Machine and has a new all-girl backing band. Sallie Ford grew up in Asheville, NC always playing music. In 2006, she relocated to Portland, Ore. where she met her band The Sound Outside. Together they released three albums and an EP then parted ways in 2013.
I recently interviewed Sallie Ford via email, the worst possible way to conduct an interview because there’s an inability to connect, to ask follow-up questions or clarify one’s questions. But that’s the only choice I had. The result: some rather prickly answers.
Amy Steele: Absolutely fantastic that you have an all-girl band.
Rare these days. I did see the Retro Futura Tour
recently and Tom Bailey [Thompson Twins] had an all-girl band. I was
impressed. What effect has an all-girl band had on your music, on
Sallie Ford: I love my new band. The new effect they have on my music and touring
has nothing to do with how they are women, it’s ’cause they are awesome people and hard working!
[AS: I find this answer interesting and evasive. It’s clear women are still having issues as women in the music business. It’s rare to have an all-girl band. And I’d read that Ford intentionally formed an all-girl band. in fact here’s a quote from her publicist: “The beginning of this year Sallie fulfilled her dream of starting an all-girl rock n’ roll band and in February of 2014, the band went into the studio with producer Chris Funk to begin recording Slap Back.” ]
It worked out well that they are into being healthy on tour which I think is extremely important. We eat very well (lots of veggies and no junk food), and today we are gonna stop in
Theodore Roosevelt National park and do some hiking. Staying healthy on tour is so important, ’cause touring is an extremely difficult job. It’s very annoying to hear how most people romanticize touring. I know I’m lucky to do it and I love playing music, but I just don’t think
people have any idea how hard it is. As far as the music, it’s great to play with new musicians and learn from them.
Amy Steele: You say that this album is an “ode to all the babe
rockers.” Who do you admire and who has influenced your music over the
Sallie Ford: I have been influenced by sooo many different things over the years.
When I first started writing music, I loved Tom Waits, Regina Spektor,
Fiona Apple and more. Then, I remember I played with this band called Basemint from Tacoma,
like four years ago. They were a high energy garage rock band and I was
smitten. My guitar player at the time said “Well if you like that, you
should listen to The Sonics”. I did and discovered a bunch of other
music from the ’60s that I hadn’t heard before. So the second record I
made was more influenced by surf and garage rock. Same as the “Summer” EP I made with The Sound Outside.
The new record has lots of influences, like Skeeter Davis, The Monks,
Link Wray, T Rex, PJ Harvey, X, Heart, The breeders, The Pixies, Joan
Jett and I’m sure I’m forgetting some others.
It’s just _______ rock. Fill in the blank. It all has cross-over.
Amy Steele: Do you feel like a solo artist now with a new backing band
or as someone in a new band? What is your writing process and how does
the new band participate in songwriting?
Sallie Ford: Definitely feels like I’m in a band. [AS: yet going by your name like a solo artist would and not calling the band a band.] That’s why I’ve always gravitated
towards playing music as an art form, because it’s collaborative. This album was different ’cause we brought in Chris Funk to produce. I wrote all the lyrics, guitar chords and melodies, and the band
figured out their parts and Chris helped with the arrangements and
style of the record.
Amy Steele: Your sound was definitely retro and you can hear it on
some songs on your new album but you’ve brought in many other
elements. What made you decide to mix it up?
Sallie Ford: I will forever want to mix things up. That’s the point of creating
music. Challenging yourself to do something different and learn. I didn’t really like being stuck in the retro box either. Most bands are retro anyway, ’cause I bet a lot of their influences are from the past. I make my music, and that can be whatever I want it to be.
Amy Steele: How is your live show different from your album?
Sallie Ford: We play some of my old songs and the energy is different I guess. We
blend the old sound and the new I guess you could say.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Sallie Ford: Honest lyrics and a catchy melody
Amy Steele: Let’s talk about some songs on the new album, Slap Back. Tell me how you came up with
Sallie Ford: I’m guessing you mean lyrically? [AS: not necessarily. it’s whatever you want to tell me about the songs but it was email and I couldn’t explain that.]
Sallie Ford: Is about games people play in new relationships.
“Workin’ the Job”
Sallie Ford: Is about being funemployed.
Sallie Ford: Is about the crush I have on the state I live in.
Sallie Ford: Is a song for my best friend.
Sallie Ford: Is about lettin’ loose and partying.
purchase at Amazon: Slap Back
Sallie Ford kicks off a North American tour tomorrow, November 5, in St. Louis and will be in Boston on November 12 at Great Scott.
11.05.14 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club*
11.06.14 – Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle*
11.07.14 – Grand Rapids, MI – Pyramid Scheme*
11.08.14 – Toronto, ON – The Great Hall*
11.09.14 – Montreal, QC – La Sala Rossa**
11.11.14 – Northampton, MA – The Parlor Room*
11.12.14 – Allston, MA – Great Scott**
11.14.14 – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade**
11.15.14 – Philadelphia, PA – Milkboy**
11.16.14 – Washington, DC – Rock and Roll Hotel**
11.18.14 – Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle**
11.19.14 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In**
11.20.14 – St. Louis, MO – Off Broadway**
11.21.14 – Kansas City, MO – Record Bar**
11.23.14 – Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge*
11.24.14 – Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
11.25.14 – Boise, ID – Neurolux
12.02.14 – Arcata, CA – Humboldt Brews
12.03.14 – Felton, CA – Don Quixote’s International Music Hall
12.04.14 – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill
12.05.14 – Los Angeles, CA – Satellite Club
12.06.14 – Santa Barbara, CA – Velvet Jones
12.09.14 – Eugene, OR – Cosmic Pizza
12.10.14 – Seattle, WA – Tractor Tavern
12.11.14 – Bellingham, WA – The Wild Buffalo
12.12.14 – Vancouver, BC – Media Club
12.13.14 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
* with Crooked Fingers
** with Crooked Fingers & And The Kids
“Elodie couldn’t get what Lena told her out of her mind. Par ot her was impressed with Lena’s courage, while another part was concerned for her friend’s safety. It was no secret what the Fascist police would do to her should she get caught. Their beatings and torture were a well-known threat to everyone in the city. Many people had simply vanished after being arrested, while others were sent back to their homes severely beaten, their scars a visible reminder of who was in charge of Italy. It was reason enough to stay away. That, and the fact that Elodie could only imagine how devastated her parents would be if anything happened to her.”
Think you’ve heard all the stories about WWII. Think again. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman focuses on the Italian Resistance. Elodie, a young student and cello player, becomes involved in the Italian Resistance when artists and teachers at her school become targets for Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Her own father gets taken away and beaten while he’s questioned. Elodie starts attending clandestine meetings and carrying out missions through her music for the resistance. She plays codes through her music. She falls in love with bookseller Luca, a Resistance leader. When Luca is killed and she finds herself pregnant, Elodie escapes to the coastal town of Portofino. A widowed doctor (his wife and child died during childbirth) still in mourning and longing to care for someone takes her in and they slowly open up to each other.
“There was also something about the smell of bookshops that was strangely comforting to her. She wondered if it was the scent of ink and paper, or the perfume of binding, string, and glue. Maybe it was the scent of knowledge. Information. Thoughts and ideas. Poetry and love. All of it bound into one perfect, calm place.”
I savored this novel and learned much about the Italian resistance movement and its use of codes and the arts. The Garden of Letters truly delighted me. Choosing to have her main character, Elodie, be a music prodigy and able to contribute to the movement through something she’s passionate about propels the novel in magnificent ways. Richman writes superbly and with splendid detail. Elodie is a charming, smart, intense woman and from the start you root for her and want her to success and find her bliss.
“Elodie has something that is completely her own. Her music is the root of her sorcery. She fills the air with it. She uses every part of her body when she plays: her fingers, her arms, her neck, and her legs. He simply cannot take his eyes off her.”
The Garden of Letters
Berkley Trade [September]
Alyson graciously took the time to speak with me about the novel and her writing process.
Amy Steele: I can’t believe this is the first novel of yours I’ve read. I will remedy that soon. And finally I’m getting questions to you. Apologies again about the rescheduling. You went to Wellesley College. I went to Simmons College in Boston. I loved the experience at an all-women’s college. What did you take away from your years at Wellesley?
Alyson Richman: I loved my years at Wellesley. Because it was a woman’s college, my social and academic life was kept completely separate. This helped me to maintain a sense of focus that I might not have had if I went to a co-ed college. The intimate, yet challenging, atmosphere also enabled me to build a sense of self-confidence and to believe a career in the arts was even possible.
Amy Steele: How did you become a novelist?
Alyson Richman: Actually, I first started thinking about becoming a novelist during my senior year at Wellesley. One of my art-history professors told me that I had a particular gift for telling the story “behind the painting.” As graduation approached, I remember thinking to myself: “If I could do anything in the world, what would I do?” And I told myself that what I’d really love to do was write stories that centered around the lives of artists. I had spent a year in Kyoto as an apprentice to a Noh mask carver, where it took me over a year to carve a single mask. [AS: amazing.] I remember thinking to myself during that time, here I was a Western woman studying a traditional Japanese art form, when did the reverse occur? When did the first Japanese artists start studying Western-style art? When I asked my art-history professors upon my return, no one knew the answer. I immediately thought this would be wonderful backdrop for a novel. I then applied for a grant upon my graduation, which enabled me to research the first Japanese artists who left there at the turn-of-the-century to study painting under the French Impressionists. I began writing my first novel The Mask Carver’s Son about the son of a Japanese mask carver who forsakes his family’s artistic traditions to study in Paris under the Impressionists.
Amy Steele: You write historical fiction. What appeals to you about the genre?
Alyson Richman: I love learning about something new with each book I write. The research part is truly one of the best aspects of my career. I love traveling to the countries I’m writing about, learning about a foreign culture, the food and traditions, and observing the landscape. When writing historical fiction, I also use photo archives and, in the case of my novels that take place during WWII, I try to locate people who were alive during that time who might be able to share their stories. I learn so much from the research part, and I love weaving that into my novels so my readers learn alongside the narrative.
Amy Steele: The Garden of Letters focuses on the Italian Resistance during WWII. Where you got the initial idea for the story is interesting. How did you come up with it?
Alyson Richman: I was at a dinner party when someone shared with me a story about how her father escaped from Hungry through Italy during WWII with forged papers. When this friend’s father arrived in Portofino, German guards were scrutinizing everyone’s papers so carefully, he was sure he was going to be arrested. Suddenly, out from the crowd, a big barrel-chested Italian man cried: “Cousin, cousin, I’ve been waiting for you all week. Thank heaven’s you’ve come!” He seemed to know the German guards, and was able to whisk my friend’s father away and take him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino. When my friend’s father asked this man why he saved him, as he clearly wasn’t his cousin, the man replied: “I try and come to the port every month. I try to save the person who looks the most afraid.” When I heard that story, I immediately thought it would make an amazing beginning to a novel. I imagined the two people who meet at this port. One fleeing and in need of shelter, the other person who senses his fear. Two lives intersecting without either of them uttering a single word between them.
My novel prior to The Garden of Letters was called The Lost Wife. It took place in the Czech concentration camp, Terezin, so I knew I didn’t want to do another Holocaust novel. I began to research women in WWII Italy and learned about these female messengers who risked their lives working for the Resistance by transmitting important information during the war, many times the information was not written down, and if it was, it was done in code. I decided to make my main character a cellist, because I wanted the codes she transmits to be done through her music playing. In The Lost Wife I explored how art was used as a form of resistance during WWII. In The Garden of Letters, I focus on how music was used.
Amy Steele: Your descriptions are beautiful and you’ve done impeccable research. Can you explain your research process?
Alyson Richman: I made three trips to Italy. The first was purely a visual trip, where I visited the northern cities that the book takes place in: Verona, Mantua and Venice. I also tried to make new contacts that would be helpful for my research. I was able to connect with people who introduced me to their more elderly relatives who shared their memories of life during wartime. The second trip, I hired a translator who helped me with my interviews of messengers in the Italian Resistance, partisans who had fought in the mountains, and people who were connected somehow to the material. The third trip I went to Liguria to see the coastal villages of Portofino and San Fruttuoso, which also are settings in the book. You can actually see many of the photos from my research on my website: Alysonrichman.com
Amy Steele: You said that you’ve always added art and painting to your novels and this is the first time you’ve written about music. What drew you to make Elodie a musician?
Alyson Richman:Almost all my previous novels deal with painters. I’m the daughter of an abstract painter, who always taught me to see the world with an artistic lens. I even considered a career as an artist myself right around the time I began applying for college. But in The Garden of Letters I wanted to challenge myself with something new. I wanted to see if I could write through the eyes of a musician and explore how she might be able to use her talents to do something original and help those who are resisting German occupation.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about Elodie?
Alyson Richman: I love her memory. I love that her mind and her ability to remember everything with such razor precision is what sets her apart from her peers. When I visited Venice, I was told that Venetians have a particularly strong visual memory because they live within a labyrinth, where it’s difficult to remember all the street names but one can give directions that are grounded in a visual sight. I love connecting Elodie’s natural ability with her maternal bloodline.
Amy Steele: Were Elodie’s actions and interest in the resistance unusual for the time or were a lot of students getting involved? She risked a lot.
Alyson Richman: It’s hard to say exactly how many students were involved at the time because so much of the Resistance occurred underground and with great secrecy. There was, however, a lot of recruiting done from the university campuses amongst students who felt impassioned to fight against the looming threat of German occupation.
Amy Steele: You add in some real-life characters to the novel—Rita Rosani, Brigitte Lowenthal, Berto Zampieri and Darno Maffini. Why did you choose to do that and what were the challenges?
Alyson Richman: I decided to set the novel in Verona, Italy because years ago, on a family vacation, I saw a plaque on the outside wall of the synagogue there honoring the fallen partisan, Rita Rosani. I had never heard her name before and our guide told us that she was one of Verona’s most beloved partisans who died in battle on the Monte Comune in the nearby mountains. Little is known about this woman who was only 23 when she died, other than that she was a former school teacher who died bravely in battle and that she was Jewish. When I began researching other members in the Italian Resistance in Verona, I learned about Brigitte Lowenthal, Berto Zampieri and Darno Maffini. I love interweaving into my stories little-known historical figures. Many of these people have done incredible and heroic acts that required great risk and sacrifice and I love shedding light on them and sharing their accomplishments with my readers.
Amy Steele: What is your favorite thing about The Garden of Letters?
Alyson Richman: My favorite part of the novel is the scene in which Dalia constructs the room in Angelo’s house that contains the garden of letters. I think it’s one of the most poetic and visual chapters in the novel. I’m particularly biased about this scene because it was one of those unscripted, magical moments in writing when the characters start doing something you hadn’t planned. It sprang from an image I had of Dalia kneeling on the floor, cutting the paper, preparing the glue, and it just began to grew from there. The character literally took over and created something artistic within the pages of the novel, and I just love when that happens.
Amy Steele: Thank you SO much Alyson! I look forward to speaking again soon.
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interviews with Fuzzy in 1996 and 1999 for INSTANT magazine.
Here’s are a few excerpts from my 1996 interview with singer/guitarist Hilken Mancini:
Amy Steele: What do you think makes the band work?
Hilken Mancini: That we’re friends before anything else and it doesn’t matter much about anything. We like hanging out and writing songs together but when it comes down to it, we’re always gonna make dinner together, maybe barbecue some chicken, drink beer and not really care that much about all the bullshit. I think that being friends before anything else is a really important thing and that we care about each other. I sound all new age now . . .
Amy Steele: Do you all collaborate on all the songs together?
Hilken Mancini: It’s mostly a collaboration but it maybe starts out with Chris or me singing a melody and bringing it to the band and the then the band, meaning, Chris, Winston and I sit around and make a bridge and bring it together.
Amy Steele: Do you remember a turning point that made you want to be in a band?
Hilken Mancini: I just thought it was the coolest thing to be able to write songs and do something like that. If you were 12 years old and someone told you you were going to be traveling all around in a rock band . . . Come on! It’s something you just thought you would never do.
Amy Steele: Do you and Chris feel like you have to break stereotypes?
Hilken Mancini: Not really. I don’t think about being a girl too much. Obviously I do when I’m going on a date. But as far as being on stage, I think that we are being whatever we are and not really trying to make any statements. But I think that it’s great that I know a lot of women who are in bands and can talk about what kind of guitars they like. I think it’s kind of fun and I respect a lot of women that are playing right now.
NOTE: Hilken has been running Girls Rock Band Camp Boston for years now.
from a 1999 profile:
on lyrics, writing songs:
Chris Toppin: I don’t analyze ideas. I do it subconsciously and it’s almost like therapy. When I look back on it and think that’s what I was thinking, it’s scary.
Hilken Mancini: There is a driving sense that I want to say something or need to do this. I have to explain things to myself through songwriting. We’re coming from a more personal place than before.”
Hilken Mancini: The fact that you can write songs and share them with people is great. It’s amazing because that’s something I can do. I like going on tour and figuring out what to wear and what make-up to put on.
on album Hurray for Everything:
Chris Toppin: Hurray for Everything is a documentation of us and how we feel about each other and how we work together. It’s now more rhythm oriented. We have a better idea of what we want to hear.
on the band:
Winston Braman: We try to have a good time and hope it is infectious for the audience. We hope everybody is on the same wavelength and enjoys it. You wan that idea that ‘I want to have what they’re having’ when you see a band.
Hilken Mancini: We’re honest with each other, like friends would be instead of egos butting heads. It is not about anything but maintaining the relationship.
purchase Fuzzy at AMAZON: Electric Juices
FUZZY will be performing at WMBR Pipeline! Anniversary Show #8 at Middle East Downstairs on Friday, October 3.
Recent Berklee College of Music graduate Lilla possesses a powerhouse, enthralling voice. She blends blues/soul with gorgeous, moving results. Lovely melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Her upbeat and rather mindful impassioned album, The Awakening, is out now. Lilla self-produced the album and she recorded at several studios including Bob Marley’s studio, Tuff Gong, in Kingston, Jamaica and in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She’s a poised, sweet-tempered and fascinating woman. Fantastic spirit. Smart. Centered. In October she’s opening on some West Coast dates for Mos Def and reggae artist Hollie Cooke [daughter of the Sex Pistols’ drummer].
We sat down at Pavement Coffee recently to chat. We spoke for well over an hour and if I didn’t have to go somewhere, we could have talked for longer. Candid conversation about all sorts of subjects ranging from her Berklee education to women in music.
Amy Steele: What drew you to the soul/ R&B music?
Lilla: I can thank my mother for that. I grew up listening to all Motown. The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. a lot of Jimi Hendrix too. People associate Jimmy with rock but before that he was raised on the blues circuit. He’s definitely got a lot of soul and blues in his music. My mother always had something playing. That’s what she grew up listening to and I can see why. I appreciate the Motown music more than a lot of what’s out there.
Amy Steele: Before you came to Berklee, you played piano at a young age. Did you teach yourself to play piano?
Lilla: I grew up with a piano in my house and I used to always go and mess around on it. I tried to take lessons at age 8 or so and the teacher told my mom, ‘she doesn’t need to take lessons. She can figure it out by ear.’ Which is good to an extent but I wonder how I would’ve turned out if I had had lessons since the age of 8 versus learning to read when I got to Berklee. I never knew how to read until then. It’s definitely good to have an ear for stuff to figure it out and play it but it’s also good to be a good reader and know your music theory. I feel confident now that I know it but I didn’t know it until I studied it in school.
Amy Steele: You also sang in a choir. Is that when you realized you could sing and liked to sing?
Lilla: I thought it wasn’t until high school that I got serious about singing and knew I wanted to be a singer. Before that I was really into dance—modern, tap, ballet. Little kids have dreams that are valid but they’re also all over the place. In high school I joined a gospel choir. And that just really got me. The power of the music and all the harmonies. Strong singers. I don’t practice a particular religion but the spirit of the music moved me so much, I became really passionate about it.
Amy Steele: What did you study at Berklee?
Lilla: I went to Cal State Long Beach for two years before attending Berklee because I got a pretty good scholarship there. I planned to get all my liberal arts [requirements] out of the way and then just go take the music classes somewhere else. Berklee only accepted part of those so I almost had to start over.
I studied professional music. That was my degree. So basically you get to tailor your own degree with professional music and you get to dip into the other degrees. If you know what you want to do, know what classes you want to take and what you want to learn to do then it’s good. I took some jazz composition because I have always been in love with jazz singing and writing and composing. I took some production and engineering so I could be more self-sufficient.
Before I came to Berklee I got very frustrated working in the industry with producers and having to depend on someone else without a huge budget to entice them. Your projects get put on the back burner. Ideas get forfeited. It was something I wanted to learn. If I have a project I want to do, if I have to, I want to do it all on my own and not depend on anyone else.
I took some piano classes, a lot of jazz techniques. I thought that would help the music I wanted to play. I took a couple of songwriting classes. I got some good things from them. I took a lyric writing class which helps when you’re writing and you get stuck so they showed me ideas to get out of that. But the songwriting department wasn’t really for me. I took a cool performance class with a professor named Lawrence Watson called “Foundations of Singing with Soul.” So we did all kinds of really awesome music.
Amy Steele: How do you think studying at Berklee has helped you now?
Lilla: I feel more confident when I’m having to see a project through or having to communicate with other musicians. The thing that made me want to go to Berklee was when I had an idea in my head and wasn’t able to bring it to life. Now I feel like I’m much more confident in bringing a song in my head to the world and making it real. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. They say music is a language and the better you can communicate your ideas, the better your art will be. I really think it helped me to do that.
Amy Steele: How do you write your songs? What’s your process?
Lilla: Sometimes I’ll hear a melody or a melody with words in my head. Sometimes I hear them in dreams. Other times I’ll just be messing around on the piano and come up with a cool melody or progression and I keep playing through that and some lyrics will come. Sometimes someone will bring a composition to the table and I’ll be inspired by that. Or I’ll be on the guitar strumming some chords. It’s never one way. It’s usually the music inspires the lyrics and the melodies.
Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?
Lilla: Something that people sing along to and I’m speaking as a singer. When I say sing along to, they can hum the melody. Something that sticks it in your head. Also something people can connect with.
Amy Steele: You have a lovely voice and you have so much range in all the songs how did you develop the range that you have?
Lilla: I think I always had the range and I account that to swimming. I used to be a competitive swimmer. One of the things I would work on that we worked on while I was swimming– we would try to breathe the littlest amount possible as you can. So I would swim the length of the pool and breathe once down and back. A lot of times the way I look at being able to sing dynamically and having a good range is using your body. It is not just your voice that does this thing. you’re using your diaphragm, your abdominal muscles, your lungs to project the notes.
Part-time I teach voice lessons and everybody wants to expand their range. it is a pretty common thing to develop further range. I really work on developing these muscles around here [indicates her abdominal region]. So they’re not really singing from here [gestures to throat] they’re using their whole body. But I did study in college. Berklee makes you take voice lessons and I had some great teachers.
Amy Steele: How do you maintain your voice?
Lilla: I try to keep my cardio in good shape. It is really amazing I could show you what I show my students. When you realize how much of your body you can use, your lungs go all the way back here. When you think about singing from there it gives you so much power. I try to either swim or jog or do something to keep my cardio strong to keep that power.
Amy Steele: You hear a lot about singers losing their voice or having to drink a lot of tea. But you are using your whole abdominal and lung area.
Lilla: It takes a lot of strain off the voice– not that I’ve never gotten hoarse. but for me it is very important to not stress your voice out. There are times you are singing every day for weeks and you can’t afford to lose your voice. The things I always tell my students are: 1) warm your voice up before you sing. Your voice is a tender thing it’s like any type of muscle; 2) to maintain a healthy lifestyle not drinking or smoking a lot; and 3) rest.
Amy Steele: It seems like a lot of singers smoke.
Lilla: Even if I’m in a room with smokers, before they outlawed smoking indoors, my voice would be gone if I were playing around smokers or people were smoking. Some people sing through the smoking. Adele smokes but then she had nodes on her vocal cords and had to come off tour. Also another thing is not screaming over the band, making sure you can hear yourself over the band. A lot of time on stage it is really hard to hear. Our ears the louder things get the harder it is to hear. After a while your ears get used to it.
Amy Steele: What is different when someone sees you live?
Lilla: I would hope that live it is more dynamic. they can feel more emotion, more connection. but also I love it when you go to a live show and wow it’s just like the record or when you go and it’s wow look what they did with that. That’s so cool and it takes another dimension. I love being able to connect with people and being able to meet and talk with people after the show.
Amy Steele: Someone suggested that I do a podcast. I’d love to do something just focused on women in music.
Lilla: That’d be cool. I’ll help support that any way I can. I know tons of amazing women in music.
Amy Steele: I don’t always cover women of course but I’ve been a feminist since fifth grade and always have that feminist viewpoint. Of course there are men that are feminists. That would exclude a lot of bands if I just covered women.
Lilla: Women need the support. Even at Berklee it was 80/20: the percentage of men versus women. The amount of women in the industry it’s hard. I would love to have some women in my band. It’s the ratio of women in the industry vs. men in the industry. If you look at statistics, I’m more likely to end up with men in my band.
One of my goals is to set a good example for women and try to let them know that you can do your thing and not have to depend on other people and you also don’t have to sell your body, your soul and yourself. If that’s what you believe then it can be done. When I first started I was a little naïve. I was 19 or 20 in L.A. thinking I’m going to meet some producer and after so many people saying they’d do things and it would fall through, I realized I have to do this. No one is going to do this for me. If I want my career to happen I’m the one who has to push it.
Women go through a bit of a power struggle. I’ve even dealt with musicians who because I was younger than them and a girl would try to push me. Now I get more respect.
Amy Steele: Do you think those are the biggest challenges being a woman in the industry?
Lilla: The biggest is I think people not taking me very seriously. Or also people having ulterior motives but I’ve learned to spot those upfront. You get one chance with me. If you don’t come through and you’re not professional, I’m moving on.
Amy Steele: As a music journalist I deal with some of the same issues. It’s definitely 80/20 men to women. I get tired of hearing the opinions of 30- or 40-something white guys.
Lilla: I know. Even with managers and producers. I would love a woman manager. They’re rare. I would love someone on my management team to be a woman. They understand more.
Amy Steele: Why did you call the album The Awakening?
Lilla: One of the first songs and the one I get a reaction to most is “Wake Up.” It’s kind of the title track and the other title track is called “Sunrise.” The point of my life when I was releasing it and I was finishing school and there were a lot of changes. I was realizing a lot of things about music and the industry and the work we’re creating and putting out into the world. Music will last forever. How I want to contribute. I was doing a lot of touring and doing a lot of new age, conscious festivals. Getting into yoga and meditation. If I have a choice on how I can affect the listeners I want to have a choice. It’s the transition between the last few years and now. Growing up, maturing and seeing things through new eyes.
Amy Steele: Let’s talk about how you developed some of the songs.
That song literally wrote itself. I hit record and pretty much sang the whole song. I changed some lyrics later to make it clear about what I wanted to say. I was going through a phase where there was a lot happening. There were a lot of bombings in the Middle East and we were supposed to be out of Iraq but we weren’t. I was angry about that. It’s is this a dream or was that a dream. All these things happening. Good and bad. Positive and negative.
I wrote after I went to New Orleans which was after Katrina and I was dealing with how to find a way to musically help me. I didn’t know anything about how to get your music out there and how to get a following. So I went to New Orleans and I was shocked about what the musicians were doing despite that. Through all the darkness there was this light. This Amazing music, history, culture, vibrance. Sunrise is after the dark night there’s always going to be a sun.
When I was living in L.A. I started recording with friends who did hip hop. It was conscious hip hop talking about real things. Society and culture and things that need to be addressed. (She’s done a track with Talib Kweli!) when I was in L.A. I did a track with Daz who was one of the members of the Dog Pound, one of Snoop’s group. We did this song together. A couple years later in Portland I saw him backstage. So I was backstage with Snoop Dogg and all them and people probably thought “she’s hanging out with all these guys backstage.” Some guy started telling people rumours about me. He said I went back to their hotel. I never went to their hotel. So you can tell how this got started. He said/she said. Who cares anyway. You’re not my man. You’re a friend. If we’re leaving somewhere together we’re not going home together. It was kind of a tongue in cheek way of responding.
Memoirs I wrote with my friend Lisa who is a good friend of mine. You know when you find those people who can finish your sentences for you. The minute we started working together we wrote songs and songs and songs. Someone gave us an instrumental and one night we came up with this song. Kinda the idea of having a crush on somebody and not being able to tell him how you feel. Whether you’re afraid of rejection or you like having a crush on him because it’s simpler. Being afraid to put your feelings on the table, that’s what that’s about. And I recorded that with a sweet sweet Jamaican rhythm section.
“I Changed My Mind”
Getting to that place where you’ve given to someone and they’re not giving anything in return. And putting energy into a black hole and saying I’m going to give that energy back to myself. A lot of times when you meet someone you don’t really know how things are going to go and after awhile it becomes not a two-way street. It’s a lot about yourself. You have to be sure number one is okay or you have nothing to give. You have to be sure your dreams are met or you’ll have nothing to give away.
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purchase at Amazon: The Awakening
“A real road comic works in cities that even mapquest doesn’t know.” —Oni Perez
“I should call myself four market Norton. I’m great in Boston and Cleveland. I do good in Phillie, New Jersey.” –Jim Norton
“I’ve been living out of a suitcase for over a decade.” –Nikki Glaser
“There’s something about drunk women. They love me.” –Alonzo Bodden
Several years ago, filmmaker Jordan Brady put out the documentary I Am Comic which illuminated the realities of being a stand-up comic.After being offered an out-of-state stand-up gig, he decided to make I Am Road Comic in order to document the costs of doing a road gig. He teamed up with his friend Wayne Federman and they traveled to the site. Interspersed throughout Federman and Brady’s experience on this stand-up gig are interviews with a variety of comics about life on the road. The success of I Am Comic allowed Brady a larger pool of comedians from which to cull interviews this time around. Since making I Am Comic, Brady’s met a lot more comics and could bring different voices and representation from the comedy world to the screen in I Am Road Comic.
I spoke with Jordan Brady by phone last week. We’ve been twitter friends for a while since I watched/discovered I Am Comic. We started the conversation by talking about interviews by phone vs. Skype. I said I was hesitant to interview a band on Skype because I didn’t want anyone to see me and the delight that Jordan is, he replied: “I’ve seen your avatar, you’re a pretty woman. Why don’t you show it off.” Very sweet.
Amy Steele: After doing I Am Comic what made you decide to do I Am Road Comic?
Jordan Brady: The success of I Am Comic led comedians that book shows—there’s this new trend that comedians often book their own nights at bars especially—they brand their own show. They mistakenly thought I was an active stand-up comedian because of I Am Comic. When I was asked to do a show. At first I said “no, no, no I’m a filmmaker now.” They said, “just come and do a set.” Finally I said yes. They booked me and I said I don’t have 45 minutes. I figured it would be a great documentary.
Amy Steele: So you were a stand-up a long time ago.
Jordan Brady: 20-something years ago I stopped but I’d started as a stand-up comic when I was 18 and did the road for 14 years. Colleges. Even though I knew this would be a good story of being on the road and I would take my good friend Wayne Federman with me, I knew it wouldn’t be the crux of the documentary. The meat of it would be the newer guys like TJ Miller, Marc Maron. The people that have rose to prominence in the last five years. People like Doug Benson and Marc Maron I’ve know for 30 years but TJ Miller, Maria Bamford, Jen Kirkman I met by going to clubs and they said they loved the movie. I Am Comic paved the way for these interviews in I Am Road Comic.
Amy Steele: What was your goal in making this? What’s the difference between I Am Road Comic and I Am Comic?
Jordan Brady: Economics was the difference. I was squeezing 80 comedians into 80 minutes. This time I wanted to approach it gorilla-style, as just me and a camera. Me on the road. I had to film it and also remember my comedy material.
With I Am Road Comic I wanted to specifically point out low-level road comedians and how you have to be so cost-effective. The only thing I knew was I was going to keep a tally of the expenses. For a gig you get a couple hundred bucks per show which is decent money for a bar gig. As soon as I had to buy a plane ticket I would only break even.
Amy Steele: How did you decide who to interview and how did you get people involved?
Jordan Brady: Less people because I realized if I had less people they’d get more screen time. I wanted to get more in-depth. There were a lot of old white guys in I Am Comic and I think the world has seen its share of old white comedians. I tried to get more females and I tried to get more minorities. A comic is a comic whether they’re a man, a woman, straight, gay, black, white, Puerto Rican. I don’t delve into that.
But I wanted younger hipper guys who are more relevant. Doug Benson and Marc Maron put out a couple of podcasts every week. I wanted to talk to comedians who were more personal in their material rather than jokey jokers. I wanted comedians that were honest in their material and their comedy was based on life experiences and based in reality. Some guys are road warriors like Alonzo Bodden. I think he works 45 weeks a year. Nikki Glaser is kind of a throw-back to the old-school road comics. There are only two guys who are famous for being comedians—Louis C.K.—but it took a television show to make him famous. Jerry Seinfeld played himself on Seinfeld. But until they had a scripted vehicle on television it’s hard to make it as a comedian.
It takes a series– and of late podcasts– to put people on the map. And radio is still big in the Midwest. If I had a thesis it was how relevant was the road to being a comedian today. The fact that Seth Milstein took a bus for 16 hours to perform his first road gig—and he wanted to be in a documentary—the answer was yes.
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Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal. Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. Historical fiction. Hardcover. 337 pages.
“New Orleans was like that. A live-and-let-live attitude was ingrained into the fabric of the city; no one cared who you were or what you looked like—you had a place and everyone respected that.”
Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel focuses on several generations of women looking out for one another and learning about each other in 1964 in New Orleans. Ibby grew up in Portland, Oregon. After her father dies in an accident, her mother drops her off at her grandmother Fannie’s grand old house in New Orleans. A bit of culture shock for this girl. Ibby expects her mother to return for her but it soon becomes clear her mother never planned to return for her daughter. Ibby settles in with Fannie and her black caretakers Queenie and Dollbaby. Queenie cooks and her daughter Dollbaby cleans and sews clothes for Fannie and many others. They also watch over Fannie as she’s prone to suffering breakdowns. Ibby’s never seen black people before moving in with her grandmother and she learns to adapt to this new, diverse environment as best she can. She comes to live with Fannie in 1964 as a wide-eyed twelve-year-old and by 1972 she’s seen and experienced enormous changes and grown into a smart, confident teenager.
“Ibby put her hand on the gate to Fannie’s house and wiped the sweet from her forehead. She remembered when her mother had dropped her off for the first time. The house had seemed so ominous and uninviting. It gave her a much different feeling now, like that of an old tattered blanket: it wasn’t much to look at, but it made you feel safe just the same.”
Fannie’s bottled up her past and every so often it bubbles over and causes her to need institutional tune-ups. Her long kept secrets slowly unfold among the walls of this old mansion with its locked rooms and mysterious history. Actively involved in civil rights protests along with her brother, Dollbaby envisions a brighter future for her daughter Birdelia. Ibby grows up under the care of these women. At first she’s unsure about her living situation but grows to care deeply for all these women and their unique perspectives on life’s challenges. Told from the perspectives of Dollbaby and Ibby—an insider and outsider point-of-view, it’s a wonderful, meticulously researched novel about creating your own family and support systems wherever you end up. McNeal includes details about eccentric and curious elements that make New Orleans such a vibrant, unusual city.
McNeal grew up in New Orleans where she received degrees in marketing and journalism. She ended up working in banking, later earned her MBA and worked in advertising and as a freelance writer. After Hurricane Katrina, McNeal decided to reinvent herself and focus on something she’d always wanted to do: writer fiction. For three months, eight hours a day while her son was at school she wrote the novel’s first draft. She work-shopped the novel at literary festivals with several editors. When her agent sent out the full novel to five or six publishing houses she received offers from all of them.
I recently spoke to Laura Lane McNeal from her home in New Orleans.
Amy Steele: I read that Hurricane Katrina inspired you to write a novel. How?
Laura Lane McNeal: I had gone to a small school in New Orleans that was very art oriented. They had this shelf of books of authors who’d gone to that school. I studied journalism but I always wanted to (write a book). Life got in the way. I got married, had kids. Katrina hit and the first time in our life we had mandatory evacuation. Someone called us and said your whole house is flooded, the whole city is flooded you can’t come back to the city. We drove up to North Carolina because my parents were there in a small town. We got an email from my kids’ school that schools were closed indefinitely and enroll in school wherever you are now. We stayed up there for five months.
My life had been ripped out from under me. My husband had to return to New Orleans because he’s a lawyer and was working with the oil companies. I didn’t know where he was half the time. I’m sitting in a foreign place watching the news of what’s going on down here. There’s talk of the rebuilding the city or that you can never go back. It was a strange feeling. I decided if I was going to start my life over I was going to do what I always wanted to do and that was writing fiction. I was going to write about New Orleans as my way of preserving the city basically. Once our house was redone, I started taking writing classes at Loyola. Everyone who lives in New Orleans knows it never changed. For hundreds of years. Well now everything had changed.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to write about the 60s in New Orleans?
Laura Lane McNeal: I decided to go back to the 60s which was a changing time in the United States to capture what was there. It was kind of my love song to the city. To put it down on paper for eternity.
Amy Steele: What kind of research did you do?
Laura Lane McNeal: I researched the novel for two years and I was taking writing workshops. I’d written another book, a political thriller, and that’s how I got my agent. I decided I better hurry up and write this novel.
Amy Steele: How did you get the idea for Dollbaby?
Laura Lane McNeal: I wanted to write a classic novel. Southern gothic. Gothic meaning that there’s some kind of eerie aspect to the story. I wanted to write in third-person I wanted to write a classic novel that wasn’t vampires or Dystopian that was based on human relationships. I went back and read a lot of classics from the 30s. It started out as a story with the old house and the cuckoo grandmother and secrets in locked rooms. I don’t know how I can up with the dolls. I think I had just read PD James’ book Children of Men where these women had dolls in baby carriages because they couldn’t have children of their own.
I just picked 1964 at random because I remember the 60s were a very turbulent time. LBJ was getting ready to sign the Civil rights act. It was Freedom Summer in Mississippi. There were sit-ins at the counters and there was a lot of tension. I decided it had to incorporate everything socially that was going on at the time. That’s when I decided I was going to write from two different perspectives. From Ibby’s perspective and from Dollbaby’s or it would’ve been one-sided if I hadn’t done that. I wanted to include the five women’s different views and that’s how I chose to write from two different views.
Amy Steele: The voices of Ibby and Dollbaby sound like who you imagine them to be. How did you develop their voices?
Laura Lane McNeal: When my editor bought this book she said ‘I hate the name Dollbaby. It sounds tawdry and it’s not marketable.’ But you come down here and go to the grocery store and it’s “here’s your change baby.” Whatcha doin’ doll? It’s normal everyday life. New Orleans is 70-80% black. It’s just a way of life. When my editor came down for a conference last September when she got off the airplane the first thing someone said to her was ‘welcome to New Orleans baby.’ There are lots of different accents down here. This has always been a port city. There’s so many different cultures here—what I call a gumbo culture. It’s just all mixed up and together. After Katrina everybody wanted to talk about what it was like growing up and I listened. When I was developing the characters I was trying to incorporate all those different voices.
Queenie is the status quo, not wanting things to change. Dollbaby and her brother are fighting for change. Birdelia is expecting change. Ibby is an outsider and not knowing what to make of it. Fannie you think she doesn’t know what’s going on but she does and she does what she can. And Ibby not knowing what was going on around her and learning about it along the way. That’s why I wanted to make the character that way. New Orleans is a live and let live city.
Amy Steele: It’s really women-focused. You have all these women taking care of each other with no men around. Queenie’s husband is around but not that much.
Laura Lane McNeal: You can find family where you least expect it. Really the heroine of the novel is Queenie because of everything she undertakes and goes through. She says “you always gotta dance even when there’s no music.” Even after Katrina everyone has their joie de vivre. The French settled here around 1722 and around 1750 instead of giving over this territory to Canada they did a secret treaty with Spain. The French didn’t even know they had taken over. When the Spanish came in they tried to put a ban on all the French. Said we’re outlawing dancing but the French were screw you we’re going to dance even if there isn’t any music. The point is you have to celebrate life no matter what comes your way.
Amy Steele: What do you hope people take away from the novel about New Orleans?
Laura Lane McNeal: A lot of times when people write about New Orleans it takes over the story. I tried to stay away from the clichés. I wanted to stay away from The French Quarter. The wanted me to write about the French Quarter so that’s why I wrote that scene where Fannie takes Ibby to get the perfume. New Orleans is basically a character in itself and I didn’t want it to overshadow the story. I wanted to tell a side of the city that people didn’t know. That’s why I had it set up that way.
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purchase at Amazon: Dollbaby: A Novel
meet Laura at book reading/event:
Thursday, September 11 – 6:00 PM
San Francisco, CA
Liquake Benefit: Viva La France
Dolby Chadwick Gallery
210 Post St., Suite 205 San Francisco, CA 94108
Saturday September 13 – Noon
Baton Rouge, La
Barnes & Noble at LSU
100 Raphael Semmes, Baton Rouge, La
Tailgating Book Signing at Barnes & Noble LSU
Wednesday, September 17 – 7:00 PM
Blue Willow Bookshop
14532 Memorial Drive
Friday September 19 – 12:00-2:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Tulane University Book Store
Talk and Signing
Wednesday, September 24 – 7:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
E. Cordes Book Club
Sunday, September 28 – 4:00-6:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Juleps Party
Wednesday October 1 – 7:00 PM
Jefferson Parish Library
4747 West Napoleon, Metairie, LA
Talk and signing
Thursday, October 9 – 7:00 PM
Why There Are Words
Literary Reading Series
Saturday, October 18 – 10:00 AM-5:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Museum of Art Book Club Day in association with the Women’s National Book Association
1 Diboll Circle, New Orleans, LA (City Park)
Monday, October 20 – 7:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Tricia Hall Book Club
Tuesday, October 21 – 6:00 PM
St. Charles Parish Library in association with the Friends of the Library Author Program
Talk and Signing
Wednesday, October 22 – 7:00 PM
Annie Bloom’s Books
7834 SW Capitol Hwy, Portland OR 97219
Thursday, October 23 – 11:00 AM
Metairie Literary Guild
Saturday, November 1 – 10:00 AM-5:00 PM
Baton Rouge, LA
Louisiana Book Festival
Wednesday, November 5 – Time TBD
Stewart Clan Book Club
Friday, November 14 – 7:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Book Festival
Saturday, November 15 – 10:00 AM-5:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Book Festival
City Park, New Orleans
Wednesday, November 19 – Noon
New Orleans, LA
Margo Phelps Book Club
Saturday November 22- Sunday November 23 – Time TBA
New Orleans, LA
Pirates Alley Faulkner Society
Words & Music Festival
Thursday, December 4 – 11:00 AM
New Orleans, LA
Le Petit Salon (Private)
Monday, December 8 – 1:15 PM
New Orleans, LA
Sally Suthon Book Club
One of my favorite books of 2010 was Emily Hudson by Melissa Jones. She’s been kind enough to answer some questions.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a book based on Henry James’ relationship with his cousin?
Melissa Jones: I have always been interested in Henry James’ work – particularly his attitude to his heroines. I did already know of Minny Temple’s reputation as James’ muse, but when I read Lyndall Gordon’s biography, she came alive for me – not as a tragic sacrificial image but somebody of immense life and energy who had the misfortune to die young.
Steele: Henry James has written some strong and memorable female characters. Why do you think he was successful in writing women?
Jones: He was successful because he was a great writer. I think he was also very much in the thrall of women – but at the same time wary. The distinctive way he evokes and then punishes women in his fiction seems sinister to me and denotes a kind of obsessive/carnivorous interest.
Steele: What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
Jones: It was Minny Temple’s story – I tried not to think of it as historical fiction or I would have lost my nerve. But I have always been a tremendous fan of the nineteenth century novel: the plots are so gripping and the period was one of immense change.
Steele: How did your writing process differ from your previous works of fiction?
Jones: I read the biography and at first thought of adapting it for the screen. But then the idea began to change from a straight translation of a true story and took on its own life. The inspiration was James and Minny Temple, but the themes are both contemporary and historical, I think. Once it was established in my mind I tried to write as I had the other books.
Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing a work of historical fiction?
Jones: To avoid pastiche while feeling true. I wanted it to be believable but not overly concerned with style and of showing off research. The story was the most important thing.
Steele: What type of research did you do before writing the novel?
Jones: Having read so many nineteenth century novels (some in themselves, historical for their time) I felt I had a solid grounding in the way the world worked and how people spoke and behaved. I backed this up with online research and trips to the Cambridge University library – but a lot of that came up while I was in the process of writing. The book is a work of the imagination primarily.
Steele: Some novels of historical fiction contain too many extemporaneous details. How did you edit what to include and what not to include in order to fully develop the characters and to allow the story to move along at a reasonable pace?
Jones: I agree that ‘period detail’ can often do nothing but show the author’s knowledge: so I tried to follow the example of actual nineteenth century novels and concentrate on the story. Once the parameters were established I focused on the plot and characters and hoped that the reader would ‘see’ it as I did. No character ever sees themselves as part of history – they are just living their lives and that is what I wanted for Emily.
Steele: What do you like best about your character of Emily Hudson?
Jones: Her courage. Not only to be forthright and to battle her illness, but to learn from her mistakes.
Steele: What characteristics of Emily’s do you feel are most unique?
Jones: Her irreverence. I read Minny Temple’s letters and I think people always think the inhabitants of the past were somehow different from us and all terribly proper – she wasn’t at all. That was why she got in such trouble, obviously, but it is a very refreshing and I think moving part of Emily that she is so determined to be ‘true.’ Today it is also easy to be confined by convention.
Steele: It’s interesting that you include a close relationship between Emily and her doctor that she sees about her consumption. What interests you about TB back then?
Jones: TB was not only a brutal killer but a shameful condition – seen as a stain to those who bore it. Little was known about how it was contracted, or how to cure it, except with rest. For Emily it is a kind of hidden badge of her ‘otherness’. I am also interested in it because I think it was a huge part of the nineteenth century psyche – that terror of imminent death. (The same was true of the cholera and influenza epidemics.)
Steele: Emily is such a strong feminist for her time and nearly any time. What type of challenges would a woman like Emily have faced in upper-class England or Boston in the mid-19th century?
Jones: I think the main challenge was of self-determination without money. While that is also a great challenge today, many women can make their way in the world unimpeded by such obvious disapproval. I don’t think Emily would see herself as a feminist – she just couldn’t help but be herself, and that was also to do with her upbringing.
Steele: I liked that Emily Hudson is historical fiction but doesn’t read like a classic. How did you keep the tone contemporary while still adding plenty of historical elements to the story?
Jones: I wanted the narrative voice to be a bit more modern than the voices in the letters – that was part of the reason why I used both, so the reader could have that ‘looking over the shoulder of the heroine’ feeling. I also felt that a character rarely sees themselves as others see them so it was useful to show the letters in contrast to the scenes. I do not know really ‘how’ I did it (!)
Steele: What inspires you to write?
Jones: I am compelled to write as all writers are, I think.