Chance audiobook encounters

I was in Darien, Connecticut this spring, performing live with Penguin Random’s Dan Zitt and actor Dennis Boutsikaris, at one of the most well-appointed, enthusiastic libraries I’ve ever known. The library staff rolled out the red carpet for us, welcoming us into their community, graciously making us feel at home as we read selections from our audiobook projects and answered questions from the 100 passionate audience members/audiobook listeners.

After the performance and Q&A wrapped up, a soft-spoken, lovely woman approached me to introduce herself. Kristen Harnisch told me she was a novelist, and that she had just published the first in a trilogy of historical novels. She was excited about the possibilities of an audio edition of her novel, and I was excited about the description of her story — a international adventure romance between wine-growers from France’s Loire Valley and California’s Napa Valley.

Our short but warm conversation was the start of a very happy collaboration between Kristen and me; I recently completed the audiobook narration of her beautiful book, The Vintner’s Daughter, for Blackstone Audio. Joyful project partnerships don’t often generate from such chance encounters, but when they do — when the author, voice actor, and publisher are all equally delighted by a unique story and committed to making the project the best it can be — it is wonderfully satisfying.

Kristen and I so enjoyed working together on the audiobook and developing a friendship that we wanted to share with our blog readers some of what we appreciated about each other as women and artists. Not only that, we wanted to share copies of her audiobook with listeners who love historical novels, inspirational fiction…and wine! Two lucky winners will be randomly chosen to win a free digital download copy of The Vintner’s Daughter from Downpour.com.  Just enter via the Rafflecopter form (which follows Kristen’s interview below). You can read Kristen’s interview with me here, and for her answers to my questions, read on!

 

Tell us about The Vintner’s Daughter. 

In 1895, seventeen-year-old Sara Thibault dreams of following in her father’s footsteps as master winemaker at her family’s Loire Valley vineyard, Saint Martin. However, when Sara’s father is killed in a mudslide, her mother sells their land to a business rival whose eldest son marries Sara’s sister, Lydia. Sara’s shock quickly turns to fear when she realizes that her new brother-in-law Bastien has no real interest in the vineyard and far too much interest in her.

A violent tragedy compels the sisters to flee to America. Sara plans to eventually reclaim her family’s vineyard, but for now she must travel to California in hopes of making her own way in the winemaking world. When she encounters Bastien’s brother, Philippe—a man as committed to bringing his brother’s killer to justice as he is to building the largest vineyard in the region—they are instantly drawn to each other. But now she must make a choice: to risk discovery or to run again. Will Philippe restore Saint Martin to her family, or prosecute Sara for her crime?

The Vintner’s Daughter immerses readers and listeners in the rich vineyard culture of both the Old and New Worlds, and a spirited heroine’s fight to determine her destiny.

 

I know this book was a labor of love, and took more than a decade of research and writing. How did you keep pushing ahead, not losing momentum and drive? What compelled you to keep at it until this book was brought to life? 

This book was indeed a “labor of love”! While caring for my three young children over the last fourteen years, I took several online classes through the Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York, practiced the writing craft, and researched nineteenth-century life and winemaking in France and America.

I often grew frustrated because I didn’t have large blocks of time to sit down and write. My husband gave me the best advice. He said, “Each day, just write a little bit. Take that one paragraph, that one page, and make it the best it can be. Before you know it, you’ll hold the finished manuscript in your hands.” He was right—and once I held that manuscript in my hands, I was determined to publish it. Ten major revisions, and numerous rejections later, I finally succeeded. Why push so hard? I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and I hoped to show my children how to persevere with passion, even if you’re unsure of the outcome.

 

I’m always interested in how writers research, and, maybe even more important, how they know to stop researching. You did a tremendous amount of research about, and, I presume, actually in France and California. Did you write the novel as you were researching, or first one thing and then the other? When did you feel you had enough research to let that part of the project come to a close and just write? What was your favorite research discovery, location, or anecdote?

With this particular novel, the research and historical discoveries I made early on helped me to develop the novel’s plot. However, I strive for authenticity in every scene, so while I wrote and revised the manuscript, I continued my research. I toured historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic gravity-flow wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, enjoyed the wines! I also delved into French and California wine history books, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society.

My favorite discovery was The Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, the major trade publication of California’s wine and liquor industry in the late 1800s. This monthly publication provided me with details about the most notable vintners of the day, the science behind grape growing and winemaking, and gave me an understanding of the economic and political perils that winemakers faced in the nineteenth century. My favorite location for research is Bouchaine Vineyards, located in Carneros (southern Napa). This beautiful, sprawling vineyard continues to serve as the inspiration for the fictional Eagle’s Run vineyard, also located in the unique Carneros winemaking district.

 

What’s your writing process? As a busy mother of three, when do you make the time for your writing practice? Do you have a community of fellow writers? Are you able to take writing retreats or attend residencies to concentrate only on your work?

My writing process varies from day to day. Usually, I prepare to write a scene the night before. I’ll select a scene, and make sure I have all the research at my fingertips, so I can dive in the next morning. I don’t always write sequentially, but rather choose to write the scene that most excites me on that day—usually one with dialogue and lots of gritty conflict!

As a busy mother, I try to set aside three to five hours each day to write. Sometimes, I wake at 4am and write until the kids bounce out of bed at 6:30. Now that my youngest attends Kindergarten, it’s such a luxury to have blocks of time during the day!

I belong to the online writing community of shewrites.com, but I’ve not yet made time to participate in a writer’s retreat—although I’d love to someday! I do have a wonderful team of beta-readers who constructively critique my work, and their time and advice is so valuable to me!

 

The Vintner’s Daughter is the first of a trilogy, is that right? What’s next for Sara and Philippe? How was writing the second book different than the first? 

Yes! I’m excited to say that the sequel, The California Wife, begins right where The Vintner’s Daughter leaves off, chronicling the lives of Sara and Philippe in their quest to gain international recognition for their French and California wines. Some characters from the past, such as midwife and aspiring physician Marie Chevreau, as well as several new characters, will entertain readers. A voyage to the Paris World’s Fair captures the imagination, a new romance blossoms, and catastrophic events shake the very foundation upon which the characters have built their lives.

I wrote the first draft of the sequel in eleven months, which was a new challenge for me! The second novel begins in 1897 and ends with the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Because I’m developing the story over a longer timeframe, the novel features more interwoven storylines, and allows for a deeper exploration of the characters and their motivations. I’m revising the sequel now and it’s scheduled for release in the winter of 2015/16.

 

Have you always written? Have you always wanted to tell this particular story? Are there many more novels inside you, do you think? Once this trilogy has been written, will you continue to write? Would you write something wildly divergent, or is your passion for historical fiction?

I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, but when I visited the Loire Valley in 2000, I was struck with the desire to write this story. The inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter came to me in a flash. I was standing on the edge of a vineyard in Vouvray, France, marveling at the pristine rows of chenin blanc grapevines, the limestone caves, a whitewashed winery, and an abandoned watchman’s house. I envisioned a young woman walking between the vines, and I knew she would be the perfect heroine for the novel I’d always hoped to write.

Once I finish writing the trilogy, I plan to write a contemporary women’s novel, a young adult novel, and I’m bursting with ideas for more historical novels! I can’t wait!

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Celebrating Coco: An honest account of a most complicated character

This summer found me immersed in French — language, culture, and fashion — as I recorded one of the most challenging and captivating projects of my career. Voicing Rhonda Garelick’s Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History for HighBridge Audio demanded my most impeccable French pronunciation and lyrical story-telling, and I enjoyed every minute. While fashion has never been my particular passion, I could not help but see the world differently (and understand and appreciate couture far more) after producing the complicated narrative of one of the most complex women in world history. Coco Chanel was not often a likable character, but her razor sharp intelligence, immense talent, surprising generosity, unfailing resilience, and uncompromising personality cannot fail to intrigue listeners and readers.

Coco Chanel

In celebration of the publication of Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, HighBridge Audio is giving away one copy of the audiobook. Just comment below for your chance to be randomly selected as a winner of the remarkable story of a cultural icon. I’ll choose a winner on Tuesday, October 7th. And if you’re in New York this evening, consider attending the book launch event at The Museum of the City of New York, A Classic American Look: How New York Saved Coco Chanel, where Rhonda will be interviewed by New Yorker writer Judith Thurman. I can’t wait to meet Rhonda in person, and to celebrate this special book. 

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I wanted to learn more about Rhonda, who is impressively talented in her own right. Not only is she a very fine writer with a growing list of fascinating books, she’s a Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as the founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium at the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts. Rhonda was extremely generous with her time, answering my many questions about the inspiration for Mademoiselle, her writing process, and her own appreciation for couture. Rhonda is an inspiration. Read on!

What inspired you to write about Chanel?
 
Well several things: First, I have long studied and written about theater, and about big, ‘spectacle-people’ as I call them.  My first book, Rising Star, was about dandyism, and the dandyist movement was all about turning one’s own life into an art work. Chanel absolutely accomplished that, so I see her as a latter-day dandy, in a way.  And then, about nine years ago, I was invited to contribute an essay on Chanel for the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s catalog for their Chanel show. That started me researching her even more.
The more I studied, the more I saw that in Chanel’s case, her own ‘art work,’ her designs AND her persona, had the quality of  a contagion. We, the women of the developed world, all still bear her imprint–it is an uncanny level of influence, and one I wanted to understand better.How did you approach your research? Was there a point when you stopped researching and started writing, or did you do both simultaneously? How do you know when you know enough to write the story?

 
That’s such a good question.  My research took me all over the world. I decided I would not just research Chanel or just fashion, but instead try to weave Chanel into a larger political and cultural context. This meant studying the period she lived in and the lives of those who most influenced her.
I unearthed diaries and correspondence. I interviewed people who’d known her. I researched the films and ballets and plays she costumed, the art work of her collaborators.  I read vast amounts of European history; I studied fashion and design history; I read millions of articles. I did ‘hands-on’ research, trying on garments and jewelry, taking photos. I haunted libraries, archives, historical societies. I did research in five countries.
In addition to that, one big piece of the research involved gaining access to the very private archives of the House of Chanel in Paris.  It took me two and a half years just to be ALLOWED in. I was vetted like crazy and had to be interviewed finally in person.  Once I was in, though, they could not have been nicer to me.  The staff at the Chanel archives permitted me unfettered access over many years. I ‘commuted’ back and forth for quite a while, spending weeks at a time there, working in their offices.  I am very grateful for that.  Not only did I find wonderful materials in their archives, but I got the chance to “feel” what it is like working for this multi-billion dollar luxury goods company. I worked alongside staff members, heard them talk about their jobs and lives, and could interview them too about their own relationship to Chanel–the brand and the woman.  They all still refer to Coco Chanel as “Mademoiselle,” as if she might walk into the office at any moment.
 
As for when you know you “know enough”: You never know, exactly. But in truth, it’s not about “knowing facts” so much as it is developing a through-line, an interpretation that holds and that helps make sense of the large picture.  Once I could “see” all the vast quantities of information through the prism of my own historical and cultural interpretation, I knew I could start writing. Then, it’s a balancing act of continuing to learn and discover new information while also writing.  I have a lot of experience doing this with other books and articles I have done. My training as a scholar helps a lot here.Where did you feel most connected to Chanel? What was your favorite location in Chanel’s life? Is there anywhere you weren’t able to visit, because it was off-limits or no longer extant?

Yes, I visited a number of her haunts. I think I felt the most connected to her paging through the yellowed, dog-eared log books of the Maison Chanel from the late teens or 1920 or so–where handwritten notes in fountain pen listed the names and addresses of her staff, including her own younger sister, Antoinette (who later, tragically, committed suicide, as did Chanel’s older sister, Julia), along with the salaries paid, etc. (Antoinette earned 10% commission on sales.) I could see which models were paid more than the others (often the Russian girls, at the time, some of whom were exiled aristocracy who’d fled the Bolshevik Revolution). I could see who was fired and the reasons listed. Oh, and I also felt a weird moment of connection to her when I was allowed a private tour of her apartment and given her glasses to try on for myself. I am near-sighted, but boy, her vision must have been awful! They were so thick and heavy, and the world just went all liquid and blurry when I tried them on.Did you grow up with an awareness or and a passion for fashion in general? For Chanel in particular?

I have loved fashion since I was a toddler.  Family photos show me wearing inappropriately elaborate outfits for every occasion.  I carried a small, circular velvet pocketbook every day to kindergarten. My mother was an influence in this definitely. She loved fashion, and shopping with her was a favorite part of my childhood and teenaged years.  I think fashion functions for women much the way sports does for men: as a way to bond and talk easily.
How did you avoid the mysterious pull you described in your book — the overtaking of biographers by Chanel’s voice? Did you feel it? Was it an effort to resist?
Well, it was like the undertow in an ocean–I could feel it and had to try to resist it consciously–to dig my toes into the sand beneath the water.  Chanel had a genius for allure.  And even though I was trying to be objective, to be ‘critical’ in the best sense, the pull of the beauty of her clothes, the glamour of her life, the seductions of working amid the Maison Chanel–with its glorious scents and sights–it was a challenge! But as I often tell my students, you can enjoy the pleasures of a subject while still asking yourself *why* you feel that pleasure.  That is what I tried to do myself. And in fact, my book is precisely about how those seductive pleasures operate, and why.How did you choose what to wear when going to an interview for this book? What did you wear?

Tavia, you are perceptive! It’s impossible not to worry about that, especially when summoned for an interview with a high-level executive at the Maison Chanel. I cannot afford most haute couture. However, I love clothes and am very respectful and mindful of their power to communicate.  I have a wonderful, dark navy, fitted Lagerfeld suit (bought at a consignment store, his own line, not designed for Chanel) that I wore for some occasions at Chanel, which I hope people recognized or appreciated at some level. I have a great red Balenciaga suit (Balenciaga was one of the few fellow couturiers Chanel ever praised). I like to buy couture at consignment stores, and mix it up with pieces of all kinds–from H&M (which does tons of Chanel-like clothes),Trina Turk, Elie Tahari…I got a little thrill one day when a coat I had bought at H&M (really!) was praised by a Chanel staff member known for her unforgiving and discerning eye!
Was there anyone you were not able to interview that you would have liked to (i.e., Lagerfeld)?
I did try to interview Mr. Lagerfeld, and while I think he would have been open to it personally–he is clearly someone eloquent and interested in ideas–he is guarded quite closely by a cadre of ‘minders’ who work very hard to keep people like me (writers, journalists, scholars) from him. In the end though, for me, that’s *part* of the story, not an impediment to it. If Mr. Lagerfeld is set apart from the world and guarded like a kind of religious idol, well, that’s meaningful in its own right. And I do write about the cult-like atmosphere that reigns at Chanel Inc.
What surprised you most about Chanel? 
I think the most surprising thing about Chanel was her tragic vulnerability.  Not just in old age, or even in her sad childhood, but when she was already very famous and successful and at the top of her game.  In letters and diaries of one of her lovers, Duke Dmitri Romanov, which I had unlocked and translated by a Russian scholar, I learned that Coco was always very insecure around Dmitri, afraid he didn’t love her enough, worried about pleasing him. This was true even though she was gaining world fame and even supporting him with an allowance at the time. She was very fragile in some ways–and grew more and more defensive to cover that up.How do you feel about Chanel, after everything you learned about her? I admit that while I find her a sympathetic character, I don’t find her to be likable. What’s your feeling about her, after spending so much time with her?

No, I think I know too much to “like” Chanel. But I have compassion for her and I suppose the strongest feeling I have is one of marvelment. Her story is almost not to be believed–that someone with her background–a rural, 19th century peasant orphan, a girl, no less!–could found an empire based on her own aesthetic, an empire that lives on even decades after her death, for about a century of business and counting, that’s astounding. I have said it before: I think she remains the 20th century’s most influential woman of the Western world.

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Thank you to Rhonda for her graciousness in answering my many questions, and to HighBridge for their kindness in offering the title to a lucky listener! Remember, just leave a comment below to be entered into a random drawing for the audiobook.

Making peace with the silent dark

Perhaps the most terrifying thing I can imagine is being alone — really, truly alone, in the dark, in silence. Despite my wish to be a different person, to be serene and calm and courageous and self-actualized, I check my email constantly —  not once every ten minutes constantly, but once every minute constantly. I often feel like a hamster on a wheel in the quality of my attention, running running running, getting nowhere fast. I yearn for meaning and purpose, and I look for these outside myself — in the emails that hit my inbox with a satisfying sound cue; in the red numbered notation at the upper right corner of Facebook that alerts me to an e-human moment I can distract myself with; in the articles reporting news or entertainment updates that consume me for three or five or twenty minutes; in the flagged iPhone Twitter app that notifies me there’s a Tweet that I can fiddle with and pass along to distract other lonely, unanchored people.

There’s a Zen proverb: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” The first time I read this I laughed a little bit, but it was with some pain. I go through long periods when I meditate regularly, and then I stop, not returning to it for months. I go through periods when I do yoga  (meditation through movement) daily, and then I get out of the habit. I journal devotedly every morning and work on my writing in the evenings, until I take on so much work that I can’t possibly make time for that spiritual practice and still meet the tight deadlines for my growing list of projects, and I don’t write a word for weeks.

Since my friend Pete first introduced me to meditation when I was about 21, I’ve read books about mindfulness, meditated with others in periodic classes and workshops, listened to guided meditations at home, alone, sitting cross-legged on a bolster, hands open on my knees, returning again and again to my breath. It’s at my lowest, most broken periods that I come back to this practice, when I feel so hopeless and helpless that I recognize no distraction can save me, that my only anchor is my own, lonely, scared, insecure, uncertain breath. It’s then that I meditate with tears streaming down my cheeks, my breath halting and catching, my posture not regally straight-backed, but my shoulders hunched around my wounded heart, crumpled wads of kleenex at my side.

But I never want to do it. I don’t want to sit with my breath, in silence, with the discipline to not allow myself to be distracted. I don’t want to feel what I feel. I don’t want to be present. I want to escape myself, my fears, my insecurities, my constant struggle with faith. I don’t want to pay attention to what arises, to honestly label those thoughts  “judgment,” “resentment,” “jealousy,” “anger.” I want to ignore them and push them away,  to distract myself by playing the surface personality role that is vastly more comfortable and prettier and nicer and more acceptable — to me and to everyone else — the Tavia that is “kind,” “intelligent,” “responsible,” not the Tavia that is worried, lonely, anxious, insecure, full of heartache, indecision, fear.

What would happen if I didn’t have a choice? What if I couldn’t distract myself with my phone, with Netflix and Hulu, with surfing the internet — looking for something, anything to ground me with the connection and intimacy I crave and feel is so often out my reach? Where would I go if I had nowhere to hide?

Rebecca Alexander has nowhere to hide. Born with Usher syndrome type III, Rebecca has been slowly losing her vision and her hearing, bit by bit, for 35 years. While I habitually resist even surface-level darkness and silence, the seemingly terrifying stillness of sitting, breathing, with my eyes closed, Rebecca lives her life with encroaching darkness and silence that she cannot escape. And she has made friends with the silence, with the dark. She’s had to — or she would live in misery. Instead of being defeated by this devastating condition, she has accepted it, and allowed herself to grow and thrive, not in spite of it, but because of it. She has surrendered to the silence and darkness and used it to make friends with herself.

Rebecca is a beautiful young woman with a great smile and a firm handshake. She moves with purpose and confidence through the world, and she lives a very full life. She’s a spinning teacher, a psychotherapist, and a writer. She lives alone and has a counseling practice in New York, and she navigates this hard-edged asphalt city independently, even with diminished vision and compromised hearing. She dates, she goes to parties, she dances, she lives.

When I met her for lunch a few weeks ago, I was struck by how radiant Rebecca is, how self-assured and direct. Here’s a woman who lives in a state of being that I run from, and she’s at peace. She is no saccharine Pollyanna perfect angel; she’d tell you that herself. She swears a lot and she’s made decisions that have hurt the people she loves most and she’s struggled with things a lot of us have — eating disorders and deep insecurity and self-doubt and drinking too much and dating the wrong people or too many people. But what is amazing to me is how at home she is with herself.

Rebecca understands the fear and rage and sadness I think might consume me, were I in her shoes. “There have been, of course, times when I’ve been as furious and frustrated and heartbroken as you can imagine I would be,” she writes in her memoir, NOT FADE AWAY: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found. “I have been through times of profound sadness for the losses I have experienced, and for those yet to come.” She knows grief. She’s not denying that her condition is terrible and unfair. But because Rebecca is an optimist, because she is unwilling to surrender to the grief, to let it consume her and dictate her future, she has  found that there are gifts in the quiet dark.

“Silence seems to scare a lot of people: We live in a world that never seems to slow down or shut up,” she says, “with a mind-boggling amount of entertainment and information right at our fingertips, and, if you stop to notice it, we are rarely in total quiet. Many of us have devices that create sound to drown out unwanted noise — noise to block noise. Perhaps silence should scare me, but it doesn’t. Or maybe I’ve just accepted it and can truly appreciate its value….What does it mean when there is nothing to listen to, when there is nothing to distract yourself with? When there is nothing but you and silence?”

Rebecca has so embraced the unasked for and unexpected offerings of Usher syndrome type III that she says she devoutly practices a “religion of Silence.” “I am truly able to be with myself wherever I am,” she says, “and without distraction, I can…simply luxuriate in my silence.”

Being invited to narrate Rebecca’s memoir for Tantor was a gift to me. In this still-new life in New York, I continue to wrestle with all the things that have always scared me, no matter where I’ve been — Idaho; Seattle; Vermont; Portland, Maine. I carry myself with me wherever I go, and the parts of myself I want to escape are always right there, at the ready. I have wavered in and out of a meditation practice, a writing practice, a yoga practice in the 15 months I’ve been here. But on the page and in person, Rebecca invited me to consider, again, ever more deeply, what I might find if I don’t panic and run away from myself, but  sit with myself.

Tuesday night was my first rehearsal with The Choral Society, the choir in residence at Grace Church in Manhattan. After a bout of intense loneliness over the last many weeks, there I was, in a beautiful old church, singing Haydn’s Heiligmesse with 149 other voices. I could feel the vibration of all those voices in my chest and feet. It was a hot, muggy evening, so the doors to the practice room and the doors leading outside were open, and I could feel the cool breeze on my skin. Two large bouquets of flowers decorated tables in the entryway, and the sweet scent of lilies perfumed the air. I’d been struggling with sadness all day, feeling the distance from my family in the west and my beloveds in Maine, but I found during  rehearsal that if I stayed present in my body, if I allowed myself to notice and really feel the sensations, my experience changed. The sadness didn’t magically go away, but it didn’t consume me, either. Rather, it became only a part of my experience, one of a host of things that made up each moment. And I realized that if and when Rebecca loses the rest of her vision and her hearing, she could be in the profoundly silent dark, and still smell the sweet perfume, sense the cool air on her cheek, feel the vibration of all our voices.

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Years ago, on my bike ride to work each day in Seattle, the final crest of the trip took me down a steep hill that would level off at each traffic light, then plunge down again toward the city. When timed right, there was no need to use my brakes, and I could speed-swish through each green light from the top of the hill all the way to the bottom. I yearned each day I made the trip to yowl the whole way down, a thrilling, full body exhalation of voiced breath that would celebrate the freedom, the strength, the aliveness I felt. And I never did. Not once did I give myself permission. It’s important for me to remember that I had that opportunity — that I could have luxuriated in that cackling thrill. Would I yell at the top of my lungs, going down that hill, today? Why would I ever think to deny myself that joy?

Every Once In a While There’s an EXTRA Special Book…

and today I have the great pleasure of sharing one of these rare projects with you!

I was thrilled to be cast recently to narrate Jessica Lawson’s The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, a reimagining of the story of Mark Twain’s classic character. When I read the audition copy from Dreamscape Audio, I absolutely fell in love with Becky’s voice and Jessica’s writing. I always connect deeply with whatever material I’m narrating — one must, in order to do the very best possible job — but Becky instantly came alive for me in a way that is unique and very special. Though it would have been better for me to forget about the potential job, in case someone else booked it, Becky tumbled around in my head and heart until a few days later, word came that the project was mine! Jessica thought my voice was best for her story, and there could have been no greater gift or news.

Cover (with tagline)- The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

There are too many states between us for Jessica and me to meet for coffee, but we’ve been “talking” on social media and by email ever since. I wanted to make sure that everyone knew about this special book, so Jessica and I traded interviews on our blogs. You can read my answers to her questions here, and her musings in answer to my questions are below.

Dreamscape has generously offered to provide a copy of the audiobook for a special giveaway, and all you have to do to enter is comment on this post! Whether you’re entering for yourself or for a young listener in your life, I’m confident the story will captivate you as much as it did me. This is one you definitely don’t want to miss!

 

Jessica, tell us about The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher.

The novel is part origin story, part retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a middle grade book, which means that its main audience is for readers 8-12 (or grades 3-7). Here’s a summary:

In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.

But the theft doesn’t go as planned, and Widow Douglas ends up being unfairly accused of grave robbing as a result. So Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again, as well as fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way. That is, if that tattletale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around.

 

What inspired you to place Becky Thatcher center stage, and to tell a well-loved story from a new perspective?

One day, while I was pretending to do a thorough dusting job on my bookshelves, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer caught my eye. I hadn’t read it in years and found myself thinking about Tom and Huck and all the adventures they had together. And I thought about Becky Thatcher, the nicely-dressed, finely-coiffed young girl who represented all that was good and pure to Tom—a girl who was distraught at discovering that Tom had been “engaged” to someone else. At Becky’s age, I was more likely to start a game of let’s swipe cookies from the cabinet and make a secret hideaway under the porch than to wear dresses and play at being engaged. Being a tree-climbing, mischief-making, cops-and-robbers-playing kind of girl, I always related more to Tom and Huck than to Becky. The novel takes place during a time when things like adventure and mischief were often delegated to and expected of boys. I think part of me wanted to give Becky a chance to have a little fun as well.

 

How did you approach the creative process for your reimagined story? How much of Mark Twain’s work did you pull from, and how did you decide what you could leave out? How did you feel working on a story that originated in writing you clearly love and know well?

Tom Sawyer is a book that I loved as a girl and still love, so if I’d overthought things, I probably wouldn’t have attempted a “new” version. I would have been too intimidated. But when I started drafting, I don’t think I came from a place that said, “This will get me my first book deal!” Instead, I sank into the pleasure of exploring a world that I was familiar with, and tried to approach it in a fresh way and from a different perspective. I really didn’t think about the plot too much at first. It started with finding a voice for Becky’s character, and her words flowed from there.

The original Tom Sawyer tale takes place over a longer period of time and tends to be a bit more episodic in nature. With my own story, I kept the timeline fairly tight (about two weeks) and the plot needed to be more focused. That meant that there were a few scenes that needed to be cut because, although they touched on moments from the original tale, they didn’t add enough to the new story to warrant keeping. My agent and editor (Tina Wexler and Kristin Ostby) were both so wise in helping me shave down the story to really make it Becky’s own tale.

 

Was Becky inspired by anyone other than Mark Twain’s Becky Thatcher? Do any other literary characters or even characters from your own life contribute to this wonderful, funny, bright, tough girl?

I have a feeling that my writing is influenced by every book I’ve ever read, some providing more connection  than others. My version of Becky Thatcher was most likely influenced by my love for Junie B. Jones (of beloved author Barbara Park fame), Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables), and Mattie Ross, a character played by Hailee Steinfeld in the new version of the movie True Grit (such a great character!).

 

There’s an undercurrent of morality and consideration of ethics throughout the book that I really loved, particularly when so many young adult characters in contemporary fiction are written relying on snark and sarcasm, and given characteristics that seem to celebrate or at least make no apology for selfishness, pettiness, jealousy, and other human weaknesses. I appreciated that Becky was fallible and flawed, but she wrestled with her own sense of right and wrong, and considered her responsibility to her family and her community. Was this intentional on your part? Were you specifically setting out to counter popular fiction, to offer an alternative voice through Becky? Did it come from Mark Twain’s own impulse to consider these questions and ideas about human values? Was it based in a particular religious or spiritual quest or relationship that is dear to you?

You know, I wasn’t trying to teach any sort of lesson or preach about morality with this story, but I’m pleased that you got those things out of the narrative. I think that morality is a tricky thing that a lot of young readers think about more than we might give them credit for. Those years between ages 8 to 12 are really when our youth start to learn more about “right” and “wrong.” They form their own opinions about those things, and they see that their adult role models are not immune to doing things that don’t seem quite right. It’s a confusing thing to have a growing sense of awareness that the adults leading your world don’t always have the answers. There’s a bittersweet freedom to that stage of life, and I think Becky Thatcher experiences some of those things in the novel.

Mark Twain’s influence on my writing as a whole, and especially with this particular novel, is undeniable. His ability to bring up difficult subjects and hard themes that directly relate to society, and to do so with humor, is what makes him one of our greatest literary treasures.

 

The Actual & Truthful Adventures doesn’t shy away from addressing other difficult or complex subjects, including the loss of Becky’s brother, Jon, and Becky’s subsequent strained relationship with her mother, who grieves the death of her only son. How did you balance respecting young readers, many of whom will have experienced their own painful losses, and not giving them more than was appropriate for the age readers the book is intended to reach? (Though I’m confident your book would be a wonderful read or listen for readers of any age, not just young readers.) Was this an aspect of your writing process you had to consider carefully?

I think young readers can handle more than many adults think they can. Young readers deal with difficult issues on a daily basis, from family deaths to mental illness/depression among those close to them. We live in a world that is, in many ways, more difficult and more stressful to navigate on an emotional level than previous decades/centuries, so I wasn’t too worried about including topics and themes that were less “fun.” With this story, I think that I tried to keep the pain the mother was experiencing to Becky’s impressions, which limited the focus. Becky has found her own way to deal with the loss of her brother and while she grieves, she also finds joy and adventure in the world around her. Using her perspective was something that really allowed there to be what I hope is an authentic balance of serious issues and revelry.

 

The end of the book seems almost to leave open the possibility that we might not have seen the last of Becky. Is that true? Is this the start of a series? (Oh, please. No pressure. But really, please say yes.)

Wouldn’t that be great! The ending does leave plenty of room for Becky to have more adventures, but no, there are no plans right now to extend Becky’s story.

 

What did you read when you were Becky’s age? What do you read now? Are there young readers you’re close to that you asked for feedback?

Favorite books of my childhood (other than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) were Katie John, The Boxcar Children, All-of-a-Kind Family (extreme love for that family), The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, The Chronicles of Narnia, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Where the Red Fern Grows, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books,The Hobbit, The Sign of the Beaver, My Side of the Mountain (and its sequel), and anything by Roald Dahl (I cried as a 10-year-old when I found out that he died because there would be no more Roald Dahl books). And, of course, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Oh, and I stole (woops, I mean “borrowed”) a lot of my sisters’ Babysitter Club and Sweet Valley Twins books.

Nowadays I find myself still reading lots of middle grade fiction, both because I love it and to keep up on what’s being published. For adult books, I adore curling up with a Maeve Binchy novel or an interesting biography or nonfiction book a la The Tipping Point.

One of my critique partners teaches creative writing to girls from my target audience, and they gave me wonderful feedback on Becky Thatcher. I hope that they’ll read other work for me as well!

Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your story and your heart with readers and listeners, and for sharing these thoughts with me. I hope this is only our first collaboration. I’ll be eagerly anticipating your next project!

And now, my friends, just comment below for your chance to be awarded one of the dearest audiobooks I’ve ever worked on, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. A winner will be chosen via Random.org on Wednesday, August 6th. 

Jessica Lawson- Author Photo- Black and White (web)

Sending a little love your way — new audio releases and giveaways!

Several years ago, when I was still a newish narrator, I was offered my first paranormal title ever, an action/adventure/romance written by Jeaniene Frost. Halfway to the Grave starred Cat Crawfield, a half-vampire vampire killer, and Bones, a sassy British vampire bounty hunter. Cat was tough, snappy, and sarcastic, deadly Bones had a heart of gold and a checkered past, and the story of their relationship unfolded with plenty of mayhem, power-play, and sizzling chemistry. The book challenged me, entertained me, and helped me make my mark on the audiobook world.

Four years later, Jeaniene has become a smash-hit writer, not only penning many more volumes in the Night Huntress series, but several compelling Night Huntress World spin-offs and the wildly popular Night Prince series, featuring the beloved and feared Vlad. In fact, she’s just about to debut the first in her new NA (new adult) Broken Destiny series, starting with The Beautiful Ashes, which I’ll also be narrating.

Jeaniene and I have become pals while working together so closely over the years, and today — the publication day of three Night Huntress audiobook novellas — we want to celebrate YOU and your loyalty to her stories and our collaboration. You’ve read her books, listened to my performances, sent us fan mail, and made us feel loved every step of the way. We want to show you our gratitude for making these books such a huge success.

So here’s what we have to show our appreciation! Jeaniene and I are each giving away 10 digital download audios from the Night Huntress series — and the winner gets to choose which title!

We’re also giving away a Grand Prize to 1 winner, including digital download audios of the entire Night Huntress series, plus digital audio downloads of the newly-released Night Huntress World novellas (Reckoning, Happily Never After, and Devil To Pay.)

All winners will be chosen by Randomizer. Contest prizes are supplied by Harper Audio and Blackstone Audio (thanks, guys!), and international entries are welcome.

To enter, please follow the rules below:

1. Just comment on this blog post. 

2. Give me your name and the email address where you’d like to be contacted if you’re selected as a prize winner.

3. Due to adult content, you must be 18 years of age old or older, and/or you have the consent of your parent/guardian, so if you’re under 18, get your parent to sign off on your comment or to approve your comment with their own.

The contest starts now and ends June 30th at 11:59pm Est. Winners will be announced July 1st on Jeaniene’s and my blogs.

 BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Jeaniene and I are also going to be on Twitter for a live chat July 1st from 8pm – 9pm EST. At the end of the chat, we’ll each give away 10 more digital audio download titles from the Night Huntress series or the Night Prince series to ten new winners (and again, it’ll be the winner’s choice which title they receive). That’s a total of twenty new winners between the two of us!

To enter this giveaway, all you need to do is ask us a question during our Twitter chat with the hashtag #AudioChat. Jeaniene’s Twitter handle is @Jeaniene_Frost and mine is @Taviagilbert. Your question can be about audio books, written books, the process of writing or recording, why you should try audio books if you haven’t already, or whatever else you’d like to know. Remember, only participants in the chat will be eligible to win, so don’t be shy! At the end of the chat, the twenty winners will be randomly chosen from among those who participated.

Thanks to everyone who has been such a great supporter. We wouldn’t be here without you!

Good luck, everyone!

 

A shift in focus

I just finished narrating lovely Janice MacLeod’s memoir PARIS LETTERS for Tantor, which tells the story of Janice’s decision to save enough money to leave her job and travel for a year. Janice ended up meeting and falling in love with the lovely Christophe, and rather than tourist-ing her way through foreign lands, eventually, she put down roots, committing to Paris and to her new love, creating and embracing a new life and career.

Janice and I had a wonderful conversation this weekend by Skype. I’d contacted her to ask her how to pronounce the names of her friends and how to voice other phrases in the book that are unique to her world, but we ended up talking for an hour about writing, love, her work, my work, our future plans, and more.

Janice is preparing for another international move, this time in the company of her now-husband, Christophe. The two will leave Paris for Calgary this fall, and I’ll be checking into Janice’s blog so that I can keep up to date with her contemplations, observations, and adventures. She’ll be taking pictures and painting pictures, and as one of her newest fans, I’m eager to luxuriate in the work she creates and the window into her life she opens to others.

One of the things Janice said she’d miss is the beauty in Paris. Everything in Paris is made to be beautiful. Beauty is celebrated and prioritized. Her admiration of her adopted European home made me think of my dear Maine, where beauty is everywhere — on every tree-lined street, down each hill toward the park or the beach or the city square or the farmer’s market, where no matter the season, something sweet captures your eye and your heart.

I told Janice that I had been taking a lot of pictures in my New York neighborhood lately, and though the pictures were different than those I’d taken in Maine, I was finding just as much beauty around me in this urban landscape as in the more apparently bucolic setting of my previous home. Beauty still surrounds me, if only I will change my perspective. I can’t as often take a wide shot and find as much natural beauty; I must focus my gaze tighter, look for smaller details, in order to find something that soothes me. But there’s no shortage of scenery that brings me peace and well-being. It’s up to me to shift in harmony with my landscape, so that I don’t hold an old expectation in this new world.

I look forward to taking more pictures of my new setting here in New York, and I look forward to seeing the new setting of Janice’s life, too. In the meantime, here are some shots of the beauty that has blessed my days lately.

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Speaking of THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS . . .

I recently had the opportunity to interview the talented TaraShea Nesbit, author of THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS,  about the story and her writing process. She gives some wonderful insights into the origins of the book and her historical research of these women and their culture.

 

We Are Water Interview on Sirius XM Radio

Last fall, I was privileged to be part of an award-winning cast of actors who narrated We Are Water by Wally Lamb, an ensemble performance that subsequently received an Earphones Award from AudioFile Magazine. To promote the book, the cast was invited to a public reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn in October, and in November, we were interviewed live by Judith Regan on her Sirius XM radio show.

This flurry of press and enthusiasm for a beautiful novel was exciting, but what meant the most to me was that Wally is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, the school where I earned an MFA in creative non-fiction just a little over a year ago. It was an honor to get to know a fellow VCFA alum, especially one who represents the integrity, artistry, and devotion to craft as well as Wally does, and a great start to my new New York narrating and writing life.

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Sirius XM Radio interview with Judith Regan on November 16, 2013, with Richard Ferrone, Wally Lamb, Cynthia Darlow, Therese Plummer, and Tavia Gilbert.

Sirius XM Radio Interview with Judith Regan, Part 1

On-Air Readings on Sirius XM Radio

Sirius XM Radio Interview with Judith Regan, Part 2

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Public reading at Book Court in Brooklyn on October 26, 2013, with Robin Miles, George Guidall, Wally Lamb, Richard Ferrone, and Tavia Gilbert (back row), and Therese Plummer, Sandy Rustin, Maggi-Meg Reed, and Cynthia Darlow (front row).

Let Me Stand Alone

LET ME STAND ALONE The Journals of Rachel Corrie
Rachel Corrie, Read by Tavia Gilbert, Edward Asner • Unabridged • JUNE 2013
Blackstone Audiobooks • Trade Ed.
Blackstone Audiobooks • Library Ed.

Narrator Tavia Gilbert captures every facet of Rachel Corrie’s journey from middle school in Olympia, Washington, to her death at 23 beneath a bulldozer blade in Palestine. Rachel’s parents released this collection of their daughter’s poems and journal entries to fulfill her wish to be a published author and to let the world know her for more than her tragic death. The family’s poignant introduction is movingly presented in Edward Asner’s deep tones and measured delivery. From the adolescent’s wonder at life to the young adult’s tears of anger and frustration at the world’s injustices, Gilbert’s talented shadings of tone and intensity convey all the passion and talent of this remarkable young woman. Rachel gives us herself through her words; Tavia Gilbert gives us her voice. M.O.B. © AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine

 

Did you know that June is Audiobook Month!? You SHOULD know! Audiobooks are AWESOME!

I admit that I’d completely forgotten about this interview, until Recorded Books Tweeted a link to me this afternoon. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the conversation had been published on the Book Reporter blog, the last in their series of narrator talks in honor of “June is Audiobook Month,” the audiobook community’s annual push to bring to people’s attention the joy and delight of exceptional audiobooks.

Thank you, Book Reporter, for including me in such an esteemed group of narrators, including my friends Johnny Heller, Robert Fass, Simon Vance, and Katherine Kellgren, and thank you especially for featuring and celebrating the audiobook art form.

If you haven’t listened to an audiobook yet, then start by seeking out the performances of any of these wonderful voice actors. Johnny, Robert, Simon, and Katherine are the best in the business, and they will convert you to fervent audiobook fans immediately. In the comments below, I invite you to share what audiobooks, narrators, and series are your favorites.

Happy listening!