Archive for May, 2007

Already the best selling author in history, J.K. Rowling’s about to get a whole lot richer.

Check out this article in the London Times.


Posted: May 25, 2007 in Uncategorized


Promise Not to Tell: a Novel by Jennifer McMahon

Part ghost story, part coming of age tale, Jennifer McMahon’s Promise Not to Tell was a book I found impossible to put down. It features a dual plotline, alternating between past and present. At 41, Katie Cypher returns home to New Hope, Vermont to care for her mother who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Ghosts from her past begin to crop up after a local girl is murdered in the same way Katie’s childhood best friend was murdered 31 years before.

An interview with Jennifer McMahon:

LG: Who, or what, influenced you most in your decision to become a writer? Have you always known you wanted to write?

JM: I wrote my first story, “The Haunted Meatball,” in the third grade. My teacher loved it and talked me into attending a summer writing course, where I started keeping a journal and never really stopped. In junior high I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and thought, “Wow, I would like to be able to do that.” I wrote a few short stories, and a really bad novel in high school. By college, I saw myself as a poet, and I actually started work on an MFA in poetry after I graduated.

So I’ve always been writing and known I was a writer, I just wasn’t sure anything would ever come of it. In 2000, I finished a novel, and decided to see if I could find an agent to represent me — to my amazement, a well-respected agent loved it and took me on as a client. I quit my day job to focus on writing full time (I was also building a house, so it wasn’t quite full time). Two agents, four novels and six years later, I finally sold Promise Not to Tell to HarperCollins — it wasn’t until that happened that I really believed I was going to be an honest-to-god paid writer.

LG: What sort of writing schedule do you keep? What works for you to keep your writing on track?

JM: I stay at home with my three year old, and my partner Drea works full time, so I write when and where I can — I don’t really have a set schedule. If my daughter is contentedly playing by herself, I might get 15 or 20 minutes in. When Drea or my mom is able to watch her for an hour or two, I take full advantage! And I have learned to make very good use of what little writing time I have. I do really well with deadlines, both from editors and self imposed, and this helps me keep on track. I have a day planner that I use to make lists of everything I have to get done in a week. Each day I look at the list to see where I’m at and what’s next. I’d be lost without it.

LG: ‘Promise Not to Tell’ is a novel heavily influenced by the supernatural. What about this subject matter appealed most to you?

JM: I grew up believing in ghosts (I was totally convinced there was a spirit named Virgil living in my grandmother’s attic) and with a love of scaring people. My brother and I would have friends over for séances and stage elaborate “visitations” — ghosts on fishing line, recordings of eerie voices in closets. It worked every time, and it thrilled me to death.

When I began Promise, I had written three novels, two of which were being shopped around by an agent with very little success, and I told myself that the next book would be “the one”. We were living in cabin deep in the woods of Vermont — no electricity, phone, or running water, and a 1/4 mile hike up a steep hill. Nights were sometimes pretty scary — was that an owl? or a woman screaming? was the distant drumming a party? or a cult in search of a sacrifice? — and I had the idea that it would be a great setting for a ghost story. I started re-reading authors like Stephen King and Peter Straub, thinking about what scared me. Once I had my ghost — Del Griswold — I had to figure out how she had died. She was murdered of course. And who murdered her? Why? And so Promise evolved into a mystery too.

LG: What contemporary writers do you admire? Have you read anything lately that you’d recommend?

JM: A few writers I especially admire: Kate Atkinson, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Sarah Waters, Gillian Flynn, Denise Mina, Alice Sebold, Donna Tartt. I’ve been reading a lot of good stuff lately, so it’s hard to choose favorites. I just read Laura Lippman’s What The Dead Know and loved it. In the crime/suspense genre, The Liar’s Diary by Patry Francis was also great. I just started The Dead Father’s Club by Matt Haig, and it’s fantastic so far.

LG: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?

JM: I have a young adult book, My LaSamba Blues, coming from Dutton next summer — it’s about two misfit girls who fall in love. I’m just finishing the edits on that one. And another crime novel for adults coming from HarperCollins, also next summer (busy summer!). It begins with a woman witnessing a young girl being kidnapped by someone in a rabbit suit. That one is between titles at the moment. Editing is about to begin on that one, and I think it’s going to be great.

LG: Aside from writing, what sorts of hobbies, or pastimes, do you have? How do you spend your free time?

JM: Free….? Time….? Oh yes, I remember what that is! Let’s see, I hang out with my daughter. We go to playgroups, story time at the library, and do a lot of art projects. I read whenever I can — a wide range of stuff but lately I am loving crime fiction and mysteries. One of the many wonderful aspects of being a published writer is that I am suddenly much more aware of all the great fiction that’s coming out, and I want to read all of it! I watch movies when I get the chance and particularly love a good horror flick. I try to keep on top of the garden, but it’s not easy.

LG: Finally, as a public library employee I’m compelled to ask, what role have libraries played in your love of books and reading?

JM: Libraries (and librarians) have been a tremendous resource for me throughout my life. Growing up, I viewed the library as almost magical — I could go in, pull a book off the shelves and be instantly transported to other worlds. As an adult, libraries still carry a piece of that magic for me. Anytime I start a new venture, be it putting in a perennial garden, taking up knitting, or deciding to write a ghost story, the library is always the first stop. My daughter, who is three, has her own card, and we visit our two local libraries once or twice a week. She is so happy to be able to pick out her own books — she even likes returning them “so other kids can read them too.” It’s wonderful to see her enjoying some of that library magic already!

Photo by Paul E. Garstki
Jennifer McMahon’s Website.


Women & Children First

5233 N. Clark St.

Chicago, IL 60640

Tel: 773.769.6729

Women & Children First is one of the more fortunate indies. In danger of having to close its doors forever, they decided to fight back, opening a MySpace site and rallying to their own very worthy cause. Due to their own efforts they’ve increased sales enough to keep their doors open for now, but as with any business effort it’s crucial their sales continue on the current upward trend.

As far as bookstores go, WCF has a huge heart. Below I’ve copied information from their website highlighting how much they’ve given back to the community. They are to be commended for everything they do.

I’m featuring them today in order to help promote them as widely as possible. If you’re in the Chicago area I hope you’ll drop in and have a browse at the store. If not, you can visit their website.

From their website:

About W&CF and the Women’s Voices Fund

The Women’s Voices Fund was established in November, 2005, to help support feminist programming at Women & Children First (see Vision and Mission statements below). Contributions are most appreciated. Contributions of $50 or more are tax deductible and are processed by the Crossroads Fund. To receive a tax deduction on this level of contribution, please make checks payable to Crossroads Fund. Non-deductible contributions should be made payable to the Women’s Voices Fund. Both deductible and non-deductible contributions can also be made by Visa or Master Card. All contributions should be sent directly to Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640. They can also be processed by phone at 773-769-9299.

Women Voices Fund Vision:

The Women’s Voices Fund will ensure that events featuring women writers, fostering discussion of feminist issues and culture, and nurturing children’s delight in books will continue to play a vital role in Chicago’s intellectual, literary, and political life.

Women’s Voices Fund Mission:

The Women’s Voices Fund, a project of Women & Children First Bookstore and a grantee of the Crossroads Fund, raises money to help sustain and develop an ongoing program series focused on women’s lives, ideas, and work. Women & Children First, a unique resource in the Chicago community and the only venue to offer regular programming with such a focus, has provided the sole financial support for this series for over 25 years. Outside support through the Women’s Voices Fund is crucial to guaranteeing that a wide and diverse range of women’s voices and the best voices in children’s literature continue to be heard.

Our History and Purpose:

Women & Children First began in a modest storefront in 1979. Over the years we’ve moved twice and recently expanded in our current location into an adjoining storefront. We’re in a northside Chicago neighborhood known for its diversity, lesbian-friendliness, women-owned businesses and community spirit. Our staffers include teachers, graduate students, professional writers and storytellers, political activists, board members, and poets. Each of us is a reader, a feminist, and a bookseller. Our purpose in beginning the store 20 years ago was to promote the work of women writers and to create a place in which all women would find books reflecting their lives and interests. We strive to do this in an atmosphere in which all are respected, valued, and well-served. That is our purpose still, online as well as in the store.

We are one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country, stocking more than 30,000 books by and about women, children’s books for all ages, and the best of lesbian and gay fiction and non-fiction. Anything we don’t have in stock we can usually get in a few days’ time, even if it’s a title outside our specialty. We also carry music, videos, magazines and pride products.




The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to American (Shoemaker and Hoard) has just been released in paper; In the Sierra Madre (University of Illinois) will be released in paper in August.

LG: How did a Midwestern and transplanted Southwestern writer like you end up championing Appalachia?

JB: I shared most of the misperceptions about Appalachia—this strange world of Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith, feuding Hatfields, Deliverance, coal miners and poor folks needing to be saved by the War on Poverty—until I stumbled into the region in the 1980s, a college drop-out from UC Berkeley. Spending the summer on a farm and folk school in West Virginia, piled down with history books and novels, and lectured by miners, poets and blues musicians, I found a different Appalachia. Or Appalachias, rather. Far from being some landlocked hollow, with a singular culture, where nothing had ever changed in 200 years, the Southern Mountains emerged in our discussions as an international theater of war, a crossroads of cultures, and a real burning ground of innovations and groundbreaking movements. These buried histories—buried under so many ridiculous stereotypes—fascinated me.

It took me 20 years to return, but this vision of Appalachia remained in a lot of my conversations, as I worked as an educator, writer and journalist across the States and abroad. Funny enough, every time someone cracked a hillbilly joke or casually made a reference to inbreeding in Appalachia—which happened in the New Yorker magazine last month—I found myself saying…but, did you know? That line—Did you know, as in, Did you know that the first American newspaper dedicated solely to the abolitionist cause was not William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator but a radical newspaper that came out of the Southern Mountains in 1819, and in fact, Garrison was inspired and trained by a publisher and minister from the anti-slavery movement in Appalachia?—led to this book.

LG: As you note in your book, Appalachia has an unusually long list of caricatures and stereotypes, dating back to Sut Lovingood in the mid-19th century. Your Appalachia is full of innovators, writers, and social activists, such as early American revolutionaries and abolitionists, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, Rebecca Harding Davis, Cormac McCarthy, Pearl S. Buck and Henry Louis Gates. Have you found your readers and critics have trouble making the leap between the two extremes?

JB: It’s definitely been a challenge to get people or critics outside the region to take a second look at Appalachia. No other region has been so trivialized or maligned; while I was on tour, Neil Young did a Saturday Night Live skit called “Appalachian ER,” New York governor Eliot Spitzer lamented that upstate New York looked “like Appalachia”
(part of upstate New York is in Appalachia, by the way) and the JT Leroy “hillbilly naïf” literary hoax took place.

But this is the whole challenge of my book: It’s time for those of us outside the region to get over these stereotypes and recognize that we can’t fully understand American history—from the Revolutionary era through the abolitionist, labor, and civil rights movements, and various leaps in music and literature—until we understand Appalachian history. I’ve toured in 25 states this past year, and I’ve been dogged about touring outside the region, and the response has generally been one of surprise. In the Midwest, for example, I’ll never forget a woman rising from her seat, holding up the book in shock. She shouted: Detroit auto leader Walter Reuther came from a radical labor family from West Virginia, out of the same iron mills that produced the first important social realism fiction and literary naturalism in American literature in 1861?

LG: In some interviews, you’ve mentioned your concern in getting “regionally downsized.”

JB: A funny thing has happened: I’ve been introduced so many times as an Appalachian writer who wrote a book about Appalachia, as if only someone from the region would write or be interested in this book, when in fact, I’m an outside journalist and writer, and I approached this project as a broader work on American social history. You know, it’s hard out there for a Southern writer, in many respects, outside of the South, because they somehow remain “Southern writers” even when they have a national audience. This fascinates me: this need to pigeonhole or regionalize writers, as if their work is somehow outside the quintessential American experience.

In Chicago, for example, a literary venue asked me change my speaking gig in February to another month because it was Black History Month. They assumed Appalachia had no African American experience, or, as the sponsor told me, I had written a book “about those people down there.” Without burning a bridge, I had to quietly remind her that Black History Month was actually launched by a Black Appalachian coal miner, renowned historian Carter Woodson; that Booker T. Washington had been shaped by his experience in West Virginia, just like pioneering Black nationalist Martin Delany and contemporary African American scholar Henry Louis Gates. I spoke about the role of Nikki Giovanni in the Black Arts Movement, Bessie Smith in blues, Nina Simone in jazz, and black guitarists like Lesley Riddle in shaping country music. Where did John Henry pound those rails? And then I spoke about Rosa Park’s visit to a radical folk school in the backwoods of Tennessee, a few months before launching her historic boycott in Montgomery, and the role of Appalachians in training the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement.

I still didn’t get invited to Chicago for Black History Month. Maybe next year!

LG: Do you think your title might have kept critical readers from picking up the book or taking it seriously?

JB: The original title was Rank Strangers: The Other Appalachians, but the marketing folks wanted something sexier. The United States of Appalachia refers to a comment by Washington Irving, who suggested we changed the name of our country in 1838 to its most notable natural landmark. One marketing person told me that readers only want to read about themselves, that no one outside of Appalachia would pick up this book. But I don’t buy that level of cynicism. When Studs Terkel, my
hero, offered a blurb for the book, I was reminded of how his monumental work had taught us that stories transcend borders and the great ethnic and regional divides.

LG: You’ve actually had two books come out in the last year—the other, a travel memoir and history of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, In the Sierra Madre. How difficult has it been to juggle the two?

JB: It’s actually been a great experience, comparing the two mountain regions, exploring the incredible treasury of literature in both areas. And in the process, I think it has also helped me break out of a potentially narrow market. I’m at work on a book on India, so the ship moves on.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of travel and culture related nonfiction writing? What have you learned that you’d like to pass along to others?

JB: If Appalachia and the Sierra Madre have taught me anything it’s that there are lot of astonishing stories still waiting for us to discover, or in truth, recover. In whatever genre, the writer needs to cross borders—be they real or imaginary—to get the full story. As a historian, I’ve been deeply influenced by the work of versatile creative writers like Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner, who reminded us that the American West was a process as much as a place.

LG: Do you keep a strict writing schedule? What “habits” or “rituals”
help keep you on track?

JB: I’m raising two little boys, so my writing habits have become quite strict: I go to the office when I can, research and write like mad until the bell rings, daydream about the next chapter as I’m cooking or changing diapers or pulling weeds in the garden, and then try to write a few hours in the evening before I crash.

LG: Finally, as a public library employee I must ask, how have libraries influenced your lifelong interest in books and writing? Do you have any special memories regarding libraries playing a role in your life?

JB: It’s no exaggeration to say that a librarian in my high school is largely responsible for keeping me on track. In one of those dark and drama-filled adolescent movements, I found myself hiding out in the library, plotting my escape. I’ll never forget a librarian ambling over, dropping a book in my lap. The book—Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I laughed my head off. Within the week, she had drawn up a reading list of novels and poetry collections and magazines that served as my real education. I’ll never forget her; she became my mentor and confidant. In terms of public libraries, I still define a town’s worth on the quality of its library.

Thanks very much to Jeff Biggers for so generously granting me his time for this interview.

Jeff Biggers’ website:


Terrace, Art Institute of Chicago

– Photo by Lisa Guidarini (Canon EOS EXi)

Waterstone’s Bookshop (UK) celebrated its 25th anniversary by producing a list of the 25 contemporary writers they believe most likely to achieve enduring fame.

How exciting to be one of these people right now, eh?:

1. Jo Pratt – food stylist and writer

2. Naomi Alderman – debut novel Disobedience

3. Robyn Young – author of “Brethren Trilogy” about the Crusades

4. Gautman Malkani – author of Londonstani

5. Richard Morgan – dystopian science fiction writer, author of Altered Carbon and Market Forces

6. Louise Welsh – author of Tamburlaine Must Die

7. Jane Harris – author of The Observations

8. Nick Stone – author of noirish thriller Mr. Clarinet

9. Siobhan Dowd – author of A Swift Pure Cry

10. Jasper Fforde – author of “Thursday Next” series

11. Jon McGregor – author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

12. Peter Hobbs – author of The Short Day Dying

13. Steven Hall – author of The Raw Shark

14. Susanna Clarke – author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

15. Dominic Sandbrook – author of Never Had it So Good

16. Ben Wilson – author of The Laughter of Triumph

17. Chris Simms – author of Outside the White Lines

18. Maggie O’Farrell – author of After You’d Gone

19. Marina Lewycka – author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian

20. C.J. Sansom – author of Matthew Shardlake series

21. Julia Golding – author of The Diamond of Drury Lane

22. Helen Oyemi – author of The Icarus Girl

23. Robert McFarlane – author of Mountains of the Mind: a History of Fascination

24. Emily Gravett – children’s author who raised her first child on a bus, author of Wolves

25. Charlotte Mendelson – author of Daughters of Jerusalem

Link to full article in The Independent.


Spring Arrives: On the Terrace, The Art Institute of Chicago

– Photo by Lisa Guidarini (Canon EOS XTi)