BOOK RECOMMENDATION, AMETHYST, Book One in The Jewel Series by Emilie Vainqueur

AMETHYST is a dystopian fantasy romance serving as Book One in The Jewel Series. The book begins with “Hour Eight,” the mysterious name for a female character running from pursuers, chasing her for the jewels she’s stolen. Vainqueur makes the excellent choice to have her main character faced with the decision to either confront these pursuers or jump from the top of a building. She actually decides to jump. This lets us know up front that we’re not dealing with just any normal thief. Any person willing to do something so horrifying and with any expectation whatsoever of survival is functioning at a level of bravery that’s unimaginable to most of us. It makes us want to know much more about who this person is and why they do what they do. 

My favorite description from early in the novel: “It laid flat on my forehead like it was supposed to, covered my mouth and nose, leaving just my eyes and the shape of my figure to the darkness.” It cuts a striking image.

The mention of “Regulars” soon implies that we’re in some sort of dystopian future in which people are compartmentalized according to some forcefully necessary status bracket. This is established effectively in a break from the action and continues throughout the book.

In the Amazon description of the book, Vainqueur gives her main character a voice:

“My name is Amethyst Oh-Maya and I have a secret. I was born with the curse of Mother Nature and I have no idea why.

For years, I thought I knew who I was. The truth is, I didn’t even know half of what I was capable of. Not until the Mayhem happened. There’s a reason why people try to run me out of the city. There’s a reason why they will always hunt me. Because I’m a murderer of thousands.”

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Interview with Heather Wilde, Author of The Most Beautiful Insanity

"Drexel Waters was having sex with her from behind. The Ecstasy pill kicked in as he came, and it was Heaven. The most intense orgasm of all time. And all this despite not being able to see her, not even a shape. (The closet light didn’t work.) But there was something extra sensual about this, sex without sight, only the feel of her hips, the slightness of her waist, her pleased whimpering.” 

That's the first paragraph of Heather Wilde’'s new novel, The Most Beautiful Insanity. 

As you're already gathering, the novel can be a shock to read. It holds very little back. It’s a fictional portrait of the beautiful people and the hedonistic, turbulent way some of them choose to live. When the amoral behavior of one of the characters--a male model--leads to the accidental death of younger female model, it causes a downward spiral for him and everyone around him. The descent includes lots of sex and insanity. Wilde’s writing is Chuck Palahniuk if he had a baby with Anais Nin. So, yeah, it might not be for everyone.

Still, reviews have been great, and Wilde’s novel does also tell a story of hope and love. Even in their darkest moments, people can still feel for one another. They can still heal. Or die trying anyway.  

What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
HEATHER WILDE: When I was six years old, I wrote a letter to my mother that I was running away from home forever and she would never ever find me. Because I was at Dana’s (Laughs.)

What’s the last book that made you cry?
They Both Die at the EndThat’s really the title. Even the title is telling you what’s going to happen, and it still made me cry! Like ugly cry until my chest hurt. It was disgusting. (Laughs.)

What is your favorite part of The Most Beautiful Insanity?
(Long pause.) That’s a hard question. There’s some emotional stuff with Ophelia that I always connect with. I think every woman will. She’s complex, I think. I don’t think I’ve ever honestly written a character who was more well-meaning yet evil. That doesn’t make sense, does it? But that’s the best way to explain her. I never knew what she was going to do. It was crazy.

But you’re favorite part?
I didn’t say, did I? (Laughs.) I dodged that question bad. I don’t know. I love all of it. The sex scenes were fun to write. I’d never written anything so naughty and graphic. It was liberating. I recommend to everyone that they write dirty, filthy sex scenes! (Laughs.) It will punch-up your sex life, I promise.  

Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
My God, so many of them. I love buying books almost as much as I love reading them. Just the smell of a new book, y’know? It makes me drunk. But next on my list is Geek Love. I’ve heard it’s disturbing, which I’m down with. Always. I live to be disturbed.

That’s a line from one of your characters, I think. 
Is it? Well, I’m allowed to plagiarize myself.

Where do you write?
In bed usually. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop, you know, get my spirits “charged by a livelier atmosphere.” But nothing beats my bed. Just sitting up with my laptop in my lap, letting the ideas flow. In my pajamas.

Which book made you want to become a writer? 
Sweet Valley High.There, I said it. Shoot me. So, yes, I started out mimicking novels about pretty twin girls and their pretty boy problems. And then I learned how to actually write and found a deeper consciousness blah blah. Every writer has to start somewhere though!  

What was the hardest part to write in The Most Beautiful Insanity?
The violence. Definitely not a type of writing which comes to me naturally. I’m more about the love. Still, you almost can’t have one without the other sometimes, especially if the love is that intense. Know what I mean?

Think so. Sounds like a different interview. If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
I’d love to be taller. (Laughs.) I don’t know. I would change how I can’t spread my arms and fly around all over the place. I would change how mortal I am and never die. How’s that?

If The Most Beautiful Insanity had a movie poster tagline, it would be:
I have it memorized: “Perfect beauty, casual morality, and tragic death mix in this surreal jaunt through the underbelly of fashion…”

Wow. Seems a little long though.
That’s what she said! What?

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American Tranquility: Daniel Damiano

Please, go see “American Tranquility.” I normally try to stay objective when profiling someone, but Daniel Damiano’s one-man show is one of the more poignant gut punches an audience member could have these days in a theatre. And he does this simply on the strength of both his writing and performance. Nothing else. The stage itself is bare, save for 3 chairs and a set of bongos, each serving as the sole set piece for each character. Damiano presents the characters stage right to left, changing his posture and voice enough to help us believe we’re actually meeting four different people, but without sailing his performance over the top like most actors would. (Not that I could act wet in the shower.) 

His first character is an elderly man who laments his ever-increasing irrelevance with a sharpness that makes us laugh despite the sad agony of what he’s saying. Next is a busking immigrant, pounding the skins joyously as he recites his poetry, lyrics of wonder for the new world he’s found in America; yet underscored with hurtful confusion over why he’s not completely welcomed here. The third (and most controversial) character is a conservative talk show host, creepy enough to make Alex Jones sound like Obama. The show is finished by the character who shook me up the most somehow. He’s a Gen X’er so defeated by modern life that he moves deep into the woods and befriends a wolf--and now spends his days sarcastically explaining himself to it. 

Damiano was nice enough to stop by my apartment and let me interview him for AP. We almost live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood.  

How did you write “American Tranquility?
Well, unlike the one previous one-man show that I did (“The Hyenas Got It Down”), this one came together quite quickly. I wrote it all together in the Spring of ‘17. Smoke from the election was still very much still in the air, and still very much with me and the people around me, and it was kind of an inescapable thing. I’d wanted to write a solo show, something new for me to do as a performer because I don’t normally write for myself. But this theme of “division,” and these other themes that I always like to explore as well, such as societal disconnection, ageism, immigration, political extremism, this made it come together quickly. It wrote itself in about two months. Then we did the first workshop performance that September of ’17, then again at the Pit Loft in November, then January ’18, then at the Downton Urban Arts Festival in April of ’18 before its current run at the East Village Playhouse. I haven’t had to change much in that year, which speaks a lot to the times that we live in. And in a sad way, because some of the themes, especially with the political elements of the play, haven’t changed. There’s the character who’s a conservative talk show host who mentions Russian collusion, which is still very much in discussion now, as if it just happened. It’s almost like we’re frozen in time.

So you started writing with these same four characters in mind?
I didn’t necessarily know what four characters I would have right out of the gate. I started first writing what ended up as the last piece of “American Tranquility,” which is the monologue of this character Ronnie, who’s this middle-aged Brooklynite who now lives in the woods, and then I went backwards from there. I didn’t always know what the order would be, but I always knew that Ronnie would be last because he sort of ties things up. The one I wrote next was Morgan Ridge, who’s the radio talk show host, then Achmed, the subway poet. And so I had those three, but then I got stuck a little bit because I didn’t have a good opener. I came up with Stanley, who’s this old, retired Alabaman. Because ageism was a theme that I definitely wanted to get into and I hadn’t touched upon it yet in the piece. Once I had Stanley, then I knew I had the whole piece.

Why did you decide to have someone else direct it? 
Well, you need objectivity, especially when you’re the performer. When doing a solo show, you can just do it yourself. It’s not like this is a very high-tech project. This is as bare bones as you can get. It’s one actor, three chairs, and a set of bongos. But it’s important that you have a director that you trust and Kathy McGowan is not only a good friend of mine, but she’s a director that I emphatically trust. And she’s directed other plays of mine. I trusted her eyes and felt I needed those kinds of eyes to keep me in check and help me, especially with blocking. Just to keep it lively. And I’ll usually agree with her right away and know what she’s talking about. 

You’ve been conducting “talkbacks” at the end of some the shows. What character has been getting the strongest response?
People have been responding to different characters in different ways every night, even outside of the talkbacks. The question that I always try to bring up is, “What’s the theme of the show that connected most with you?” Maybe there will be someone who’s an immigrant who really hooks into Achmed because he has a long poem about immigration in this country and how he’s been perceived and what he’s had to contend with. And there’s people who gravitate more towards the old man if they’re an older crowd and might feel a little obsolete in a younger society, where technology is getting well ahead of us. But it’s different every night. It really is, which is nice. I had someone who I didn’t think would like the conservative talk show host character the best, but they were able to connect with that character on an artistic level, even though they didn’t think the same way as this character. They could still appreciate the artistry and just be entertained by it and still come away with things to think about. So that’s a great thing for me, when you can convey something that might be challenging to an audience and yet the audience can appreciate it. It’s not always easy. Sometimes the choir wants to be preached to.                 

What’s the main theme or message that you hope people will come away with?
Just awareness. I’m not trying to give anybody any answers. I’m not an anthropologist or a politician. But what I’m trying to put out there is what I SEE is out there. What art is, at its best, is condensed life. Life is very amorphous. We go outside and we begin our day and anything can happen, and it can be very overwhelming. Art condenses that in a creative way and can make sense of it. What I would like people to have after seeing this play is something to think about. If they’re only viewing the world through the news or through our president, hopefully this show can open up the possibilities for how things could be better. Knowledge doesn’t hurt us. It can give us a different way to frame things. I mean, New York audiences are very smart audiences, so it’s not like you’re going to tell a lot of people here these revelatory things. It’s more about the way you do it. If you do it with humor and intelligence, it can have new meaning and can inspire people. If any variation of those things can come to an audience, that’s wonderful for me.

Performances of "American Tranquility" are running

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Interview with Nelly Reifler in Brooklyn

At a post-fiction reading party, held in some artist’s loft where obtuse-shaped chairs make sitting and relaxing implausible, someone introduces me to their writing teacher: Nelly Reifler, who I recognize as one of the readers from earlier that night. She read “The Railway Nurse,” which had been published by McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Her debut collection was “See Through,” which the L.A. Times called “spring-loaded miniatures that flirt with the surreal edges of childhood and adolescence.” Nelly stands five foot-nothing, her eyes the color of shallow surf, brown hair coiling in hectic curls around her shoulders.

The next time I see her, months later, she’s hosting a reading at Barbes in Park Slope. Beyond the bar, a dim-lit room holds tables and chairs. Two of the readers are more of Nelly’s former Sarah Lawrence students—one from a summer high school program--and each is received with hard applause and hooting. However, no one seems more proud than Nelly. This is the sort of event she lives for: writers nurturing writers, collectively pledging allegiance to the power of literature. As I learn during our interview days later at a Carroll Gardens coffee shop, writing, teaching, and curating are Nelly’s way of continuing a literary education that began with her father.

What benefit do you believe a writer gets from reading their work aloud to an audience?
Some of us just really like to perform. I started out acting: I was a child actor and I acted through my teens. I was really serious about acting. I did it for years and years and I also wrote plays. So for me – even though I actually have terrible stage fright – I love reading my work. I’m okay when I get up there and then, about a page into it, I suddenly realize I’m on stage. I’ve been told people can’t tell how nervous I am.  And the occasional beta-blocker and scotch cocktail helps.  Not that I’m condoning drug use.

As writers, we generally don’t get a sense of the immediate audience that a musician gets or that an actor gets, that kind of interaction with live human beings. When you write books, there’s this strange process that happens where you’re alone in a room for a long time writing something and then it’s made into files and then it’s printed on mushed up trees or it pops up on somebody’s Kindle. It gets into people’s hands, then they’re alone in their room or on the subway reading it, having this intimate experience with your art that you are not actually part of.  So a live reading bypasses all of that stuff in the middle and you get to actually interact with your audience and pick up cues from them. Hear them laugh. Hear them gasp. Watch them get bored, which is also useful. So it’s a really nice antidote to the alienation and weirdness. 

What writer do you most look up to?
Well, my father (Samuel Reifler) is a great writer. We would write together when I was a kid. We collaborated on poems and plays all the time. My mother is a dancer, and both of my parents read to me throughout my childhood. There was never a time when I wasn’t really excited about a book. Or excited about reading. And they would read to me for hours and hours. It wasn’t like just reading a bedtime story, either. It would be several chapters of Lord of the Rings. Like, for HOURS. 

What was the writing process between you and your father? 
We would play word games. And he had an electric typewriter. I can still remember what it felt like to type on that typewriter. It had a very specific kind of modernist typeface. And he would type a line and go do something and then I would type a line and go do something. We would just leave the typewriter out.  

Geez, so it was like how could you not grow up to be a writer?
thought that I wasn’t going to be. I thought I was going to act. Then I had a charismatic biology teacher who was also a Shakespearean actress, and thought I was going to be a neurobiologist. I even had an internship at a neurobiology lab at Columbia when I was in high school.

Is that what you would be now if you had never become a writer? A neuro-biologist?

(Heavy sigh.) I don’t know. If I could be something else, I don’t know that I would be a neurobiologist. That internship taught me that I’m not cut out for the tedium of research. But I might be a doctor or a therapist. I’m excited about science. And I’m interested in people’s minds. 

How do you cope with rejection as a writer?
I think I cope with it very well. Surprisingly, because I’m a pretty sensitive person in general. But I just know how subjective aesthetics are. For one thing, I know that the writing I’m doing is not writing that everyone is going to love. And I never intended to write stories that would appeal to everyone. What people think of my work just isn’t part of the reasons I write. I am writing to communicate, certainly, of course I want people to read it and I want to connect with them in that way, through language and imagination. But because I don’t care if everybody loves it, dealing with rejection is easier. Also, I think it’s something that teaching has helped me with. Since my job is critiquing all day long, if I couldn’t take a little bit of that myself, it would be kind of hypocritical. Graduate school also helped me deal with criticism. I had great teachers and great fellow student, but some of them had no idea what I was doing. They were just coming from such a different place. School was a good place to learn how to let certain kinds of opinions go – not reject them or think that they were stupid – but just to know that they’re coming from a completely different aesthetic, a different sense of what the purpose of writing is, and that’s fine. 

So for you it doesn’t come from saying to yourself, “Screw all these people. They’re idiots.”
Oh, I would never think that. I don’t even understand how people who think like that can write truthful characters. To be a good fiction writer you have to have so much empathy for human beings, even ones that act like assholes. You have to be interested in them. You have to yearn to understand what is going on inside their hearts. 

It also helps to have a delusional sense of confidence sometimes though, right?
I probably don’t have enough of that honestly, Lee. The first version of my short story collection was rejected by fourteen publishers. It came very close with Farrar Strauss Giroux, then it was rejected at the last minute. It was really hard, but it still didn’t kill me. I remember I was on the phone with my agent at the time and she said to me, “Aren’t you going to cry? Aren’t you going to yell at me?” And I didn’t understand why she expected that.  I mean, it was a huge disappointment and it probably was a big blow to my confidence for a while. But, also, I think growing up with artist parents, there was a never a sense that fame and fortune and immediate acceptance were ever going to be part of the deal of being an artist. 

So what is something about being a writer that you find especially frustrating?
Right now, really it’s just money. (Thinks for a moment.) Yeah, that’s it. Money. 

What are some of the rewards then of being a writer?
The act of writing, when it’s going well, is still so fun. Just like when I was a kid and doing my little stories and plays with my father. That’s what I’m always looking for from writing. That pleasure. That fun. That sense of surprise and play and being totally taken aback by my own imagination, my own unconscious. Then there’s, of course, community. I have such wonderful friends who are writers, and I love reading their work and talking about it with them, hanging out and bitching or getting excited about, you know, adverbs and point of view. And having an audience, having people read my stuff in magazines and my one-so-far book. It’s really nice getting an email from someone I’ve never met and hearing that they like my work. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about writing and how did you implement it into your work?
Two things come to mind. One is something that a college writing teacher of mine, Doug Anderson, said to me. Doug told me that you’re always writing. Even when you’re walking around, even when you’re hanging out with your friends.  And it’s true. A lot of my best writing occurs while I’m taking walks or having conversations.

Are you writing now during this interview?
Yes, probably.  The other advice came from my first agent when she was helping me put together See Through to send out. She said sometimes when there’s a monster in the closet in a story, it’s actually scarier to keep the monster in the closet. You don’t need to describe the monster. In one story, there was a child protagonist looking at a very kind of afflicted, distressing-looking person, and – oh wow, they’re playing Kate Bush in here  -- anyway, my agent felt that by describing this person in vivid detail it was less disturbing than just alluding to the shocking aspects of his appearance. I pulled back from intricate, overblown descriptions of gore and weirdness. Growing up I loved books about circus freaks and I was fascinated by blood and violence but I recognize now that I don’t always have to describe a bloody open wound with maggots in it. It’s actually scarier when you let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks rather than spoon-feed them the ugliness or the darkness or the grossness. Just give them a hint of what’s there and let their own nightmares fill in the darkest parts. 

Interview with Debbie Shannon, Author of "The Fisherman," "A Crowded Loneliness, and "W.H. Auden, Poetry, and Me"

Tell me the story of how you quit your day job to become a writer full-time.
My mother passed away a few years ago. My sister and I inherited her house in my small hometown. I was living in Manhattan at the time. A cousin of mine came to visit me for the weekend a month after Mom passed. While at Sunday brunch, he noted that I was working my tail off at a job I hated just to pay for my pretty Upper East Side apartment. He suggested that I quit my job, sell my apartment, and move back to my hometown to live in Mom’s old house. The following day, my boss, who is not the nicest of people on his good days, was particularly mean that day. I was in the bathroom, tears welling in my eyes. I had that Oprah “Ah-ha” moment and started laughing. My boss had made my choice easy. I texted you (Lee) from the bathroom and asked you to get the key from my doorman, take pictures, and list my apartment that day. I soon had a buyer and gave my two weeks’ notice. In a matter of months, I was driving a U-Haul to my hometown. It’s crazy how a casual conversation over a brunch could change your life.

What have been some of the hardships that you didn’t expect?
I didn’t expect the added expense of publishing my own books. I also decided to start my own publishing company, which required more money. Then there was the cost of the editor, proofreader, book cover designer and interior designer. I can’t forget the added expense of securing the rights for photos and excerpts of W.H. Auden from Random House. All-in-all, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I really had to tighten the belt to make ends meet. 

You wrote three books at the same time. How did that work exactly?
They weren’t written at the same time. I wrote The Fisherman first as my thesis. I started writing that book in 2004, and defended it in front of my thesis committee in 2012. It went through a few more drafts before it was published. I met Catalina in 2006 and thought her story was amazing. I interviewed her 2013 and began researching and writing that that book (A Crowded Loneliness). I also knew Gladys had a great story. After The Fisherman and A Crowded Loneliness were finished, I started interviewing Gladys for W.H. Auden, Poetry, and MeThe Fisherman took 8 years, A Crowded Loneliness2 years and W.H. Auden, Poetry and Me about a year and a half to complete. They were all published at the same time. 

What was the inspiration for the novel The Fisherman?
I’ve always loved history and tend to read a lot of historical fiction. I went to Newfoundland several years ago and loved the tradition of generations of families fishing. I had originally set that book in Florida and Cuba, but while researching I found that a large number of rum runners bought their liquor in Saint Pierre et Miquelon. I loved that it was a place settled by Basque fisherman and it was a setting that was fresh and largely unfamiliar to a reader. I switched my setting to Saint Pierre et Miquelon and the book fell into place. 

For A Crowded LonelinessW.H. Auden, Poetry, and Me?
I had lived in Miami for 17 years and was very familiar with not only the Cuba culture but of Operation Peter Pan. Not many people outside Havana or Miami even know about this mass-exodus and the history behind it. When I met Catalina in New York City in 2006, she told me that she had been a Peter Pan kid. I told her that she had an amazing story to tell. She asked me to write it down. She couldn’t remember many details, so the story is a narrative or creative recounting of her experiences with a lot of historical research added.

W.H. Auden, Poetry, and Me came about as a result of my longtime friendship with Gladys who is a poet. She told me that she had taken a poetry class with W.H. Auden in 1940. Auden asked to meet with him privately to discuss her poetry. He gave her encouragement, not only as a writer but as a young woman setting out into the world. Gladys told me that that meeting was the most important thing that had ever happened to her in her life. At 100 years old, she had seen and done everything, yet that was the most important thing to her. I knew there was a story there, so I asked her if I could write it. While interviewing her, I was researching Auden’s life. I found that their lives paralleled in so many instances. That gave me the idea to develop the plot in a way that the book fluctuates between his life and hers.

You’re currently working on another book called Why Wait? A practical guide to checking off your Bucket List right now! What will be different about this book from other “Follow Your Dream” books?
A “Follow Your Dream” book is different in that it usually pertains to one particular life changing event such as obtaining your dream job. A Bucket List is slightly different in that it usually refers to a list of things you want to do, see or accomplish before you die. The two would go hand in hand, but I want to have the reader write down their Bucket List and give them ways in which they could start to check those items off now instead of waiting until they retire, lose weight or have X dollars in the bank. I want to show that a simple shift in thinking can set them on the path to fulfilling their lists. That’s something my mother wished she had done just days before her death. I guess writing this book is a way for me to help someone else achieve what my mother couldn’t. That’s the plan anyway

What immediate advice would you have for someone thinking of quitting their day job and becoming a full-time writer?
Don’t quit just yet. Make sure this is something you really, really want to do. Read a lot of books—the kind of books you want to write. Then read books about how to get your first draft written. Take a class or two. If you still feel this is the thing you want to do, first try to secure enough money to allow you to write and not worry about bills. You may find you CAN write and work at the same time. Nevertheless, writing full time isn’t for everyone. It’s a romantic notion, but the reality is that, like anything worthwhile, it takes hard work…Be an honest writer. Everyone has fears, doubts, skeletons in the cupboard. Draw from your own flaws. Dig deeply and give your character depth. Both Red Smith, the great sports writer, and Ernest Hemingway famously said of writing, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

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BOOK RECOMMENDATION: The Unwinding Cable Car by Andrew J. Brandt

  I tried twice to put this novel down, wanting to savor it since I was enjoying it so much. However, I couldn't help myself and I picke...