Charity, July 17, 2012 at 1:07 PM

Jean Hanff Korelitz on Masochism and Movies

Figuring out what you really want to do in life is hard. And then once you figure it out, making it happen is usually even harder. But you know what helps? Knowing that almost everyone who’s ever made it has been in the same boat as you. Commiseration + inspiration — such a winning combination! (P.S. That’s what my novel is all about. Did I mention it comes out in two weeks and that you should read it?)

Today’s real life commiseration + inspiration: Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of four novels, including most recently Admissionwhich is set to be released as a movie starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in 2013. (Go Jean!) But, naturally, things didn’t start off quite that rosy. In fact, when Jean was fresh out of school and applying for jobs, among those she failed to get was a position assisting the woman who is now her editor. (Twists and turnabouts — they’re not just for novels!) Read on for that story and Jean’s answers to all my questions about the early years of her career.

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
Pathetically, I only ever wanted to be one thing: a writer. Granted, within that definition, I wanted to be all kinds of writer: a poet, a novelist, a magazine writer, a book reviewer. When what you want to do has such a high failure factor, you offset that happy secure feeling of knowing exactly what you want with that terrorized feeling of knowing you’re probably not going to be able to pull it off.

What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school?
After two years of further study at Cambridge University I lived for another year in England and Ireland with my husband, Paul Muldoon, during which time I read all of Dickens and obsessed about writing a novel. (I didn’t actually attempt to write a novel until the following year, but I obsessed in preparation!) After we moved back to the States I applied for jobs in publishing (interestingly, one job I failed to get hired for was as an assistant to Deb Futter, the woman who is now my editor) and got one as assistant to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (who would later be the editor of my second novel, THE SABBATHDAY RIVER, but reject my third, THE WHITE ROSE!). I read manuscripts, wrote assessments, and watched my boss change the publishing landscape that landmark year of Tom Wolfe’s BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES and Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT.

What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it?
My mother found the apartment because we were still living overseas. It had once belonged to her exercise instructor, who taught calisthenics classes in what would become our living room. That makes it sound much bigger than it was! It was a small one bedroom on the upper east side. We lived there for two years, and the most atrocious thing about it was the superintendant, who made passes at many of the women who lived there (including me).

Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
I remember the day my first novel was accepted. I definitely felt that everything had changed – the earth was just a tiny bit differently angled. I had waited so long and worked very hard (my first published novel followed two novels that had been rejected by every publisher on the planet). It was a wonderful day.

How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?
Not gonna lie, watching fifty super-efficient people scurrying around a movie set on which your novel is being adapted for film, hearing Lily Tomlin and Tina Fey speak lines you made up in your pajamas – that feels pretty good. But it’s also accurate to say that I have never in my life been introduced to someone who recognized my name from one of my novels. None of my novels have been best sellers — most of the time they’re not even present in bookstores! I’m never going to win literary prizes – I just don’t seem to be on that track. In short, the writing world will never fail to find ways of reminding you that you haven’t made it. We are such masochists! If we didn’t love language and stories, we’d never do it.

Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
So many. My early mentor Janice Kaplan showed me that you had to work like a dog. My late cousin Helene Hanff (the author of 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD) showed me that you could work like a dog and still labor in obscurity, though the lightning of success could strike at any time). Some years ago I interviewed Rani Arbo, a musician I truly admire, for REAL SIMPLE magazine. When I asked her who she admired she said: “Anyone attempting to live a creative life, without bitterness.” Could not have said that any better.

Thanks so much to Jean for this interview! And if you’re looking for a great read — literary and page turning, with meat for your mind and your heart and some wonderfully real and surprising characters — check out Admission. I couldn’t put it down!

 

Charity, July 10, 2012 at 6:07 PM

Keli Goff on Mentors, Movies, and Magic Johnson

My novel Ten Girls to Watch is all about getting started in this world of ours. (Summary: it’s hard!) How do you know what you want to do when you’re 23? And even if you think you know, how do you get there? In today’s interview, Keli Goff, blogger, political analyst, and the author of three books, including most recently the novel the GQ Candidate, has some pretty great answers to those and other life questions. Movies and cookies are involved. Read on for the whole scoop!

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
I thought I’d probably wind up being a political speechwriter or something like that. I grew up watching my parents volunteer on political campaigns, but I never wanted to run for office. Then I saw the movie “The American President” as a teenager, and it made those behind the scenes jobs seem just as important to the political process as the politicians themselves, and to a kid they looked kind of glamorous (I know better now!) So I interned on a number of campaigns in my quest to end up like one of the characters in “The American President.”

What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? 
My first job was as a Congressional Aide to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. While she became a mentor and a friend (she actually hosted one of my book parties recently) I discovered in that job that I did not want to spend my life working in politics or government, even though I gained tremendous respect for those who do. Shortly after I started working for her 9/11 happened, and since her congressional district is in Manhattan, I spent much of my first year out of college working with people struggling with unimaginable loss. There were times when I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it through the year, emotionally speaking, but then I remembered as tough as my job was for me, it was nothing compared to what so many people I was surrounded by were coping with at the time.

Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
Absolutely! For years I had been saying I was interested in writing about the political evolution of young, black Americans of my generation, who are much more racially integrated than our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. My best friend David had a party and when I arrived he said, “there is a literary agent here. Tell him about your book.” Only the book was just an idea at the time. During the party I finally worked up the courage to corner his friend, the agent, and tell him my book idea. Unfortunately, he only handled fiction books so I had cornered him for nothing, or so I thought. He then asked me whom I had sent my book proposal to and I asked him “What’s a book proposal?” He then ended our conversation by telling me to buy the book “How to write a Book Proposal” and that was that. I was so embarrassed but a week later the book arrived in the mail with a note that said, “Keli, I hope this helps you get started.” It was from the literary agent from the party. I sent him a box of cookies to thank him and he in turn introduced me to my agent Michele, who remains my agent to this day. Moral of the story? Always be prepared and ALWAYS say thank you.

How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”?
I’ve had a couple of times where people I admire have recognized me from television and I am always caught off guard by that. I told my mother that Magic Johnson once said hello to me by name when we ran into each other, and she thought I was joking or perhaps I was confusing him with someone else—which pretty much sums up how much she thinks I’ve made it. : ) HA! But Julian Bond the civil rights legend is one of my personal heroes and was one of the first major interviews I landed for my first book. Unbeknownst to him, I actually have a famous photo of him and other civil rights activists as my screensaver (something friends told me not to mention when I interviewed him because it sounds slightly creepy : ) A couple of years after I interviewed him, I discovered he quoted something I wrote, at an event and then the next time I ran into him he introduced me as “A talented writer.” To this day I think he has no idea what that meant to me. It felt as great as winning a Pulitzer as far as I was concerned.

Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
I’ve been fortunate to have a number of wonderful mentors. Congresswoman Maloney is one of them. Arianna Huffington is another. She is such a champion of young women writers and has helped my career tremendously. She blurbed my first book after receiving a copy from my publicist even though she had no idea who I was and since then has lent support in so many other ways too. But my mom has been my biggest inspiration of all, mainly because she has never pressured me to pursue her dreams like a lot of parents do. Instead she has given me the freedom, confidence, and constant encouragement to pursue the college, jobs, boyfriends etc. that make me happy, not ones that fit some life plan she has mapped out for me. I realize now what a gift that is. They say the biggest regret before dying is living a life others expected of you. I can honestly say I haven’t done that, so NO regrets so far!

Thanks so much, Keli!

And back to the GQ Candidate for a minute — here’s a snippet about it:

Michigan governor Luke Cooper, one of the few black and—by virtue of adoption—Jewish elected officials, stuns his tight-knit friends with his decision to run for president. But could their efforts to help ultimately be his political downfall? Scandal and gossip surrounding his supporters rock his campaign, and even Luke’s wife grows wary of the spotlight when a surprise from their past inconveniently resurfaces. . . .

Sounds good, right? The paperback is on sale now!

Charity, July 03, 2012 at 6:07 PM

Sheryll Cashin on Serendipity and BS

In Ten Girls to Watch, Dawn gets a job at Charm magazine, tracking down all the women who’ve won the magazine’s “Ten Girls to Watch” contest. In real life, I had a similar job at Glamour, tracking down the past winners of the magazine’s “Top Ten College Women” contest. One of the women I was lucky enough to talk with back then was Sheryll Cashin, 1984 winner, Georgetown Law professor, author of the book The Agitator’s Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family, former Clinton White House Director for Community Development, and mother of two.

Lucky for all of us, Sheryll chatted with me again last week, and I’m delighted to report that she’s as amazing and inspiring as ever. Read on for her story and words of wisdom — she’s got some pretty great advice about both work AND love.

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college?
If you’d told me when I graduated from college I was going to end up a law professor, I just wouldn’t have believed you. I thought I wanted to be the first black senator from the state of Alabama, where I’m from. I thought I was going to go to law school, return to my home state, and run. I thought my passion was being an elected official.

What was your actual first job?
I finished law school, clerked for two years at the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, and then I went back to Alabama, like I’d planned. I practiced law in Birmingham, Alabama for a year and got involved in politics, but I realized very quickly that I didn’t like the process of what a politician has to do to get elected. I realized what I was actually passionate about was public policy and issues and helping people, but I didn’t need to be the person who ran. I also realized I was more selfish than I’d thought. My other passions are art and writing and painting. There were different parts of me I wanted to pursue and develop. To run for office, you have to be prepared to give up everything. You have to inhale it. You have to love glad-handing. You have to love the process, and I didn’t.

Clinton’s win in ’92 was really serendipitous for me. I’d worked on the Dukakis campaign when I was in law school, and when Clinton won, I called my old boss and asked if he could get me a job on Clinton’s transition team. I negotiated a leave from my law firm, and I’ve been in Washington ever since.

If the fabulous woman you are today could share some words of wisdom with your 20-something self, what would you say?
It sounds trite, it really does, but I’d just say follow your true passions and see where they lead you. I don’t think I figured out what I was put here to do until I was in my 30s. My passion in my 20s [the idea of running for office] really wasn’t mine, it was my father’s aspiration for me. It took me a while to realize I was living out his dreams, not my own dreams. I couldn’t see that when I was in my 20s.

When I was writing The Agitator’s Daughter, I found diaries I’d kept from age 6 to 26 and I found an entry — I don’t even remember writing it, but there was a line that said, “If I really had the courage I would say I wanted to be a writer.” A lot of people have passions but not the courage to pursue them. I pursued a lot of things in part out of economic fear. It’s tough, but you have to carve out time each day for your passions, even as you’re waiting tables, because you just never know when the opportunity is going to come to pursue them.

I started writing when I was six. I loved to write, and I loved to paint and draw. And now I’m 50, and I’m sitting in my office at home and one side is my writing side and the other side is my art studio.

The other thing is don’t take any BS from the guys you date! I’ll tell you, I married a really, really nice guy. A really wonderful guy. And he’s not the kind of guy I went for in my 20s. The guy you want is the guy who cherishes you. I would have saved myself a lot of headaches.

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Thanks so much to Sheryll for taking the time to talk! And if you’re looking for a moving read, The Agitator’s Daughter, her memoir about social justice, activism, and family, is a beautiful book. Take a look!

Charity, July 02, 2012 at 3:07 PM

Video: Behind the Book

Wish you knew a little more about how Ten Girls to Watch came to be? Your wishes are granted!

P.S. Don’t you just love those still shots? You know you want to hit play and find out what I’m looking so skeptical about…

Charity, June 29, 2012 at 2:06 AM

Upcoming Readings and Events

Come pick up a copy of Ten Girls to Watch and say hello. I’d love to meet you!

Wednesday, August 15, 7 p.m.
Davis County Library, Centerville Branch
45 South 400 West
Centerville, UT 84014

Thursday, August 16, 7 p.m.
The King’s English Bookshop
1511 South 1500 East
Salt Lake City, UT

Saturday, August 18, 1-3 p.m.
Barnes & Noble West Bountiful
340 South 500 West
West Bountiful, UT

Saturday, September 1, 12 p.m.
Decatur Book Festival
Decatur, GA

Monday, September 10, 11 a.m.
Barnes & Noble East Northport
4000 East Jericho Turnpike
East Northport, NY

Charity, June 18, 2012 at 6:06 PM

Rachel Bertsche on First Apartment Smells

When you’re in school, you’re in classrooms full of people. You get assigned to lab partners. You get matched up for badminton. Friends present themselves in obvious ways, like alphabetical order (hello all my S friends!) But in grown up life, making new friends can be harder, especially when you move to a new city.

In addition to the joys and woes of getting started in this world of ours, the unexpected ways we sometimes make new friends is one of the themes in my fair novel. It’s also the subject of Rachel Bertsche’s fabulous book MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. In the memoir, Rachel moves to Chicago for love, but soon realizes she has a big hole in her heart where friends should be. Over the course of a year, she sets out to change that. The book is a real charmer, and I was thrilled to chat with Rachel about how she got her start as a writer.

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college? 

I really wanted to be a magazine editor.  I read a million magazines as a kid. I read YM and Seventeen and Sassy, and eventually, after all the time I spent reading them, I realized I just really wanted to work at them too.

What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful? 

I went to school for magazine journalism, and I was lucky — my first full time real job was as an editorial assistant at O, The Oprah Magazine. I loved it. I had a great boss. It wasn’t a Devil Wears Prada situation. I answered her phones, but I didn’t have to do her kids homework or anything like that. I learned a lot from her.

One of the awesome things about that job, there were just a lot of really really smart women working there. It was a magazine with wonderful writers, and people had very very high expectations. I was able to get used to getting edited in a tough way, which I think is an important lesson for any writer.

What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it? 

Oh god, my first apartment. My first apartment had rats. And also bed bugs and also mice. It was a sixth floor walk up in the East Village. A steep sixth floor walk up. It was a decent size, but even so my room fit a double bed and that was it.  But when you’re 22 — everyone  thought it was the most fabulous apartment. My mom talked about it like it was this horrible hole, but we loved it at the time.

Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties? 

My roommate and I, when we were hung over, we’d hang comforters on the windows to block out the sun, and then we’d just lay in the apartment and watch Monk and SVU and order pizza. We had two couches, perpendicular to the TV, and we’d each take a couch and just lie there. It was so great.

That apartment was also right above a Subway sandwich shop, so there was that smell of bread baking that is sometimes really great and sometimes so disgusting. That apartment and the stairs and the Subway — all I have to do is smell it and I’m right back there.

Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?

I remember when I sold my first book, I thought “is this the moment I’m always going to look back on?” But I think the Oprah Magazine job was really it. It’s funny, I graduated in June and got the job in September, and at the time, I thought I had been looking for a job forever. I’m very very glad it all worked out.

Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?  

This is a little different, but there was a literary agent years ago who reached out to me and said she’d read some of my magazine work and thought my writing was fresh and provocative and that she’d love to talk with me about any book ideas I had. I always thought that it would be cool to write a book, but it felt like this mysterious industry. Getting that email felt like, hey, there’s an in here. She didn’t end up being my agent, but she kickstarted the idea for me, and I’m really grateful for that.

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Thanks so much, Rachel!  And check out her book, kids. I think you’ll like it.