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Sacrifices July 10, 2011

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in bestsellers, women's fiction.
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Rebecca Rasmussen

The willing surrender of something valued to a god, a person or principal is said to be the greatest act of humanity. But is it? What is the motivation behind sacrifice? Is it truly to honor the entity with respect, adoration and obedience? Or is there a hidden benefit expected by or hoped for? What about sacrifices in our daily lives—giving up those prized pleasures, hopes and dreams for the betterment of someone or something else. What right do people, principles or gods have in demanding sacrifices anyway? We’ll discuss these and other questions about sacrifice as a literary theme this week in #litchat.

Joining us as guest host of #litchat on Friday, July 12, is Rebecca Rasmussen, whose debut novel, The Bird Sisters, explores the personal sacrifices we make for those we love.

In The Bird Sisters, two spinster sisters, Milly and Twiss, live together in the Wisconsin farmhouse where they grew up. The two elderly sisters drift in and out of the present and back to that golden time of father worship and familial honor. They have no vocation to speak of, unless you count nursing injured birds back to life.  When a mother and daughter bring an injured goldfinch to “the bird sisters,” as they’re known in their farming community, it takes only an innocent slip of the tongue and the responding harsh remark to trigger the landslide of memories that drives the story to its bittersweet conclusion. Rasmussen voices the two elderly sisters with wizened simplicity and character restraint, two elements that save the story from slipping into the pool of novels about  worlds crumbling when  feet of clay are revealed.

About Rebecca Rasmussen:

I live in St. Louis, Missouri with my husband and daughter, where I teach writing and literature at Fontbonne University. In addition to writing, I’m reading some wonderful nonfiction books these days (My Life in France by Julia Child is my favorite of the bunch!) and I’m training for a half-marathon this fall. I also love to bake pies. Raspberry. Blueberry. Peach. Yum. This is only miraculous because I essentially grew up in a microwave. Because of this, I am interested in all things old and outdated. I love to think about hope chests and house dresses. Sideboards are big ones, too. At the end of the day, though, when it’s 105 outside in St. Louis, I’m pretty thankful for my thermal windows and air conditioning. Still…I’m always on the brink of trying to put up jam like my great grandmother used to do.

Follow Rebecca Rasmussen on Twitter: @thebirdsisters

Decisions and Do-Overs June 6, 2011

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in bestsellers, fiction, women's fiction.
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Ellen Meister (Hy Goldberg, Visions Photography)

A poster hung in my high school English classroom stating the obvious: “Not to decide is to decide.” At least I thought it was obvious back then. Like many teenagers, I already I knew everything. When one of the girls in my high school delayed having an abortion until she was seven months gone, she found it was too late when she went to the clinic. Her failure to decide forced the decision. She had the baby that summer and didn’t go back for her senior year. The next time I stepped into the English classroom and read the poster, I realized the obvious is often masked by its simplicity. Decisions—whether we make them consciously or they’re made when we fail to choose—live with us forever. This week in #litchat we’re discussing novels with themes of do-overs and decisions.

Ellen Meister joins us Friday, June 10, as guest host of #litchat. Her new novel, The Other Life, asks the question, “What if you could return to the road not taken?” Quinn Braverman faces that question when she discovers she can slip through a portal into a parallel life that seems only to exist when she enters. Drawn from the choice she didn’t make, it’s a life where loved ones now gone still live and speak and give answers, where the excruciating decision overshadowing her real life will simply not exist. Most compelling of all, it’s a do-over life as real as the one she leaves behind, tempting and seductive and safe. Pure escape. While Meister’s first two novels showcased her comedic talents, and The Other Life has moments of humor, its power comes from the hard choices facing Quinn, not just the struggle to stay in her authentic life, but the inevitable decision that shapes her future.

Meister is the author of two other novels, The Smart One and Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, as well as numerous short stories. In addition to writing, she served as editor for a literary magazine, runs an online mentoring group for women authors, and curates for DimeStories, a literary radio program. Ellen does public speaking about her books and other writing-related issues. She is working on her fourth novel, Farewell, Dorothy Parker.  She lives on Long Island with her husband and three children.

Follow Ellen Meister on Twitter: @EllenMeister.

Ensemble Novels March 14, 2011

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in bestsellers, commercial fiction, fiction, thrillers, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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Meg Waite Clayton

Can a novel have more than one protagonist without losing focus and continuity? This week in #litchat we’re discussing novels that feature an ensemble cast, where more than one protagonist shares the stage for the revelation of story.

Guest host on Friday, March 18, is Meg Waite Clayton, whose debut novel, The Language of Light, was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Her most recent novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells, features an ensemble cast of four strong women who bond during law school in 1979 and remain allies throughout life’s trials and triumphs.

Nicknamed “the Ms. Bradwells” during their first class at the University of Michigan Law School in 1979—when only three women had ever served full Senate terms and none had been appointed to the Court—the four reunite for a long weekend as Betts awaits Senate confirmation of her appointment to the Supreme Court. But when the Senate hearings uncover a deeply buried skeleton in the friends’ collective closet, the Ms. Bradwells retreat to a summer house on the Chesapeake Bay, where they find themselves reliving a much darker period in their past—one that stirs up secrets they’ve kept for, and from, one another, and could change their lives forever.

In addition to the acclaimed, The Language of Light, Clayton’s 2008 ensemble novel, The Wednesday Sisters, was a national bestseller. Clayton hosts the blog, 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, which features award-winning and bestselling authors sharing stories about their paths to writing and publishing. Her short stories and essays have been read on public radio and have appeared in commercial and literary magazines. She’s a graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan Law School, and lives with her family in Palo Alto, Calif.

Follow Meg Waite Clayton on Twitter: @MegWClayton

Gripping Grief August 9, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in commercial fiction, fiction, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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Topic of the Week for August 9-13, 2010

Lynne Griffin

Grief is a significant theme in many great works of literature. At the hand of a good writer, it can darken or distinguish a story much like it does to individuals in real life. Secrets don’t always die with their dead and betrayals aren’t always forgiven on a deathbed. How a person handles grief makes for powerful reading. This week in #litchat we’ll discuss novels that feature grief within the lives of their characters.

On Friday, August 13, 2010, Lynne Griffin joins us once again as guest host. Her new novel, Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster), follows the lives of mother Helen and daughter Laura in a tightly woven tapestry of love, betrayal, secrets, dysfunction and the lingering effects of grief. Letters Laura finds written to her mother from her long-dead father are key to her mother’s debilitating grief over the years. Told with grace and dignity through interwoven passages of time and point-of-view, Griffin draws on her experience as a family therapist in weaving this multi-generational family saga.

Lynne Griffin writes about family life. In addition to Sea Escape, she is the author of Life Without Summer (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), and the nonfiction parenting title, Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment, (Penguin, 2007). This is her second visit as guest host of #litchat. You can read the archive of her July 10, 2009 visit here.

Read chatscripts from Lynne Griffin’s visit to #litchat on August 13, 2010 here.

Read chatscripts from August 9 & 11, 2010, discussion of Gripping Grief here.

Follow Lynne Griffin on Twitter at @lynne_griffin.

Men in Love August 1, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in commercial fiction, fiction, historical fiction, romance, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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Topic of the Week: August 2-6, 2010

Jeffrey Stepakoff

Women don’t own the market on women’s fiction or romance. Some of the most enduring novels of love and passion have been written by men. Love Story by Erich Segal often tops lists as the greatest contemporary love story. Recent years have produced a plethora of commercially successful tales of love and loss by Nicholas Sparks. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller and The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans continually revolve through bookstores and libraries. Add classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and you have some of the most powerful love stories ever written. This week in #litchat we’ll discuss love stories written by men.

Joining us on Friday, August 6, is Jeffrey Stepakoff, author of Fireworks Over Toccoa (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s). A slim volume easily read over a beach weekend, Fireworks Over Toccoa recreates small-town life in tiny Toccoa, Georgia, in the waning years of World War II. Take a fiery southern belle married too young to a soldier still at war and a fuming war veteran of Italian descent, put them in a sultry summer setting and watch their fuses ignite against each other. Stepakoff skillfully packs cultural taboos, societal expectations, and family obligation, into a story that sizzles to the last page.

After receiving his BA in Journalism from UNC Chapel Hill, Stepakoff went on to earn an MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon. He has written for film and television, including “written by” or “story by” credits on thirty-six television episodes, has written for fourteen different series, has worked on seven primetime staffs, created and developed pilots for most tof the major studios and networks, and has producing hundreds of hours of internationally-recognized television. Stepakoff recently left Hollywood to return to his hometown of Atlanta and began writing fiction. Fireworks Over Toccoa is his first novel. Presently, he speaks around the country, teaches dramatic writing at Kennesaw State University, and is hard at work on his second novel for St. Martin’s Press.

Follow Jeffrey Stepakoff on Twitter at @JeffStepakoff

Read chatscript of Jeffrey Stepakoff visit in #litchat.

Read chatscript of Monday and Wednesday Men In Love open topic discussions.

Reinvention July 5, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in Books Are Great Gifts, chick lit, commercial fiction, fiction, women's fiction.
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July 5-9, 2010

Claire Cook (photo: Diane Dillon)

We begin as children—-sons, daughters—-and through the years we assume additional titles by natural growth—-wife, husband, teacher, doctor, etc. Other titles are thrust upon us without consent, but stick just as well: single mother, ex-thisorthat, widow, survivor. What do we do when these titles define us in ways we don’t wish to exist? We reinvent ourselves.

Claire Cook‘s latest romcom novel, Seven Year Switch, plays with the theme of reinventing oneself. The notion that every seven years you become a new person drives the theme of Seven Year Switch, but don’t expect a deep, introspective search on the part of Cook’s protagonist. Jill Murray is an entrepreneurial mother singling it with sass when she’s faced with the options of two men—-her long-lost husband come home from the Peace Corps, or a wild young inventor who aids in Jill’s reinvention of herself.

Cook is the author of seven novels, Seven Year Switch, The Wildwater Walking Club, Summer Blowout, Life’s a Beach, Multiple Choice, Ready to Fall, and Must Love Dogs. She wrote her first novel in her minivan outside her daughter’s swim practice at five in the morning. It was published when she was 45, and at 50, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the adaptation of Must Love Dogs which became a Warner Bros. movie starring Diane Lane and John Cusack.

Follow Claire Cook on Twitter: @ClaireCookBooks

Sizzling Summer Reads June 7, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in bestsellers, commercial fiction, fiction, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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Topic of the Week: June 7-11, 2009

Allison Winn Scotch

It’s almost here. Summer. The season of sunning, swimming, beaching and yes, booking it. This week we’ll discuss the season’s hottest reads, from Ian McEwan’s Solar, to The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Know any others? Join the discussion this week and tell us why your favorite recent release is a great summer read.

Joining us as guest host on Friday, June 11th, is New York Times bestselling author, Allison Winn Scotch, whose new novel The One That I Want explores the age old questions, “What if you could see into the future? Would you want to know what fate has in store?”

The One That I Want follows protagonist Tilly Farmer on a clairvoyant journey into a future that forces her to choose between her perceived path of perfection and a new and challenging course toward self-reliance and personal acceptance. It all begins when Tilly wanders into a fortune teller’s tent and meets an old childhood friend, who offers her more than just a reading. “I’m giving you the gift of clarity,” her friend says. “It’s what I always thought you needed.” And soon enough, Tilly starts seeing things: her alcoholic father relapsing, staggering out of a bar with his car keys in hand; her husband uprooting their happy, stable life, a packed U-Haul in their driveway. And even more disturbing, these visions start coming true. Suddenly Tilly’s perfect life, so meticulously mapped out, seems to be crumbling around her. And as she furiously races to keep up with – and hopefully change – her destiny, she faces the question: Which life does she want? The one she’s carefully nursed for decades, or the one she never considered possible?

Scotch is the author of two other novels with strong female protagonists, The Department of Lost and Found and The Time of My Life. If her name sounds familiar outside of these fiction titles, you may have read one of her many magazine features. She is a frequent contributor to a number of glossy print publications and now focuses on celebrity profiles. Now that she is a LitChat celebrity, it’s your turn to interview her while she guest hosts on June 11th.

Follow Allison on Twitter at @ASWinn.

Generational Crimes & Curses March 14, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, multi-cultural fiction, women's fiction.
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Topic of the Week: March 16-20, 2010

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

A fascinating theme in literature is cyclical generational bondage. Some religions refer to it as “sins of the parents visited on the offspring,” and “generational curses,” while psychologists recognize and commonly treat devastating aftermaths of this tendency of children to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Substance abuse, incest/child molestation, domestic violence and other crimes mirrored from one generation to another, are common topics of authors through the centuries. This week in #litchat we’re discussing books that feature characters struggling with generational curses and bondage.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe‘s debut novel, Thirsty, takes on this theme with a cast of cagey and sympathetic characters led by 16-year-old Klara, who leaves an abusive father in Croatia for the promise of a new life in America with a man she barely knows. Planted in Thirsty, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble steel town outside Pittsburgh, Klara soon finds her husband even more abusive than her father. Within O’Keeffe’s lyrical prose lie understated observations of 19th century social standards, such as the place of African-Americans in the post-Civil war North, alcohol abuse, and friendships between women. The heart of the story beats at the end when Klara’s daughter marries a man even more abusive than her father. With the help of the town drunk gone sober, Klara moves decisively to break the cycle of violence without resorting to the violence of her dreams.

O’Keeffe has lived in Shanghai, China since April 2006. She is a voracious reader, a happy mom, an engaging teacher who believes in “telling the best story you can… believing in your writing… and working your arse off,” a fierce advocate for the end of domestic violence, and a writer who spends as much time as possible in “writerhead.” Kristin’s work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, The Baltimore Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for almost 15 years. O’Keeffe blogs at www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com.

Read chatscript from Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s appearance in #litchat here.

Layers of Lies February 28, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in commercial fiction, women's fiction.
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Topic of the Week: March 1-5, 2010

Randy Susan Meyers

One of the earliest ethical imperatives we learn is “don’t lie.” Euphemisms like “bending the truth” suggest an end justifies the means philosophy that is prevalent–even celebrated–from the highest political offices to the lowest levels of life. Phrases like “liars never prosper” and “one lie leads to another” become nothing but platitudes once the first layer of lie is laid in a bending of truth. What are lies and how do authors use them when creating captivating characters in compelling situations?

Guest host on Friday, March 5  is Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Murder’s Daughters. Meyers spins a tale of obsession, family violence and lies that follow two sisters through years of heartbreak and denial, leading to a climax that forces the lies to the surface. More than just a story of deception within the family and the lies that grow as the years go by, The Murder’s Daughters explores how two people witnessing the same event respond and are affected so differently.

Meyers spent eight years as assistant director of Common Purpose, a batterer intervention program where she worked with both batterers and domestic violence victims. Previously, she was director for the Mission Hill Community Centers where she worked with at-risk youth. She is the co-author of the nonfiction book Couples with Children. Her short fiction has been published in Perigee, Fog City Review, and Grub Street Free Press. She currently teaches fiction-writing seminars at the Grub Street Writers’ Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

Follow Meyers on Twitter at @randysusanmeyer

Moderator during this week’s chat is Darrelyn Saloom (@ficwriter). Darrelyn is co-writing a memoir with and about Deirdre Gogarty, the 1997 WIBF Champion from Ireland. She also guest blogs for Writer’s Digest editor Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) and is a frequent contributor to #LitChat.

The Legacy of African-American Writers February 15, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, bestsellers, fiction, multi-cultural fiction, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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February 15-19, 2010

Guest post written by Virginia DeBerry, moderator of LitChat’s African-American Writers week.

Virginia DeBerry

What is African American Literature? Books written by blacks? Books written about blacks? Both? Several years ago publishers concluded that “African American Lit” was a genre, one encompassing all books written by black authors.

The first novel Donna Grant and I wrote two decades ago, Exposures, was published under the pseudonym Marie Joyce, and it had no black characters—zip, zero. The book was about a young Swedish-American heiress pursuing a career as a fashion photographer; our photo was on the back so it was no secret we were black—but what category should the novel go in?

Novels like The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, written by white authors, are largely about black characters and these books are marketed to and read by both blacks and whites, while most of us African American writers struggle to get our work to “crossover” and reach a wider audience. Other than works considered literary fiction, our novels are marketed to and read by people who look like our characters, like us. We know we have white readers because many identify themselves that way in their letters and email. But for the most part, our work rarely crosses the invisible, artificial barrier that keeps our stories separate. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie spoke eloquently about this kind of literary divide in The Danger of a Single Story at a recent TED.com conference.

Connie Briscoe joins the conversation on Friday as guest host with Virginia DeBerry as moderator. Briscoe is a NY Times bestselling author of eight novels, including SISTERS & HUSBANDS, the recently released follow-up to her 1996 debut novel, SISTERS AND LOVERS. Read more about Briscoe at http://aalbc.com/authors/connie.htm.

Most of the African American writers I know personally are women—and we write contemporary women’s fiction with characters who happen to be black. Ours are stories of struggle and triumph, loss, coping, love, life, lessons learned and not learned—subjects that affect all women. But we are labeled, marginalized by the market, before our books even make it to the shelf of your local bookstore or library. Together we have sold millions of books, but most white readers of women’s fiction have never heard of Connie Briscoe, Donna Hill, Bernice McFadden, Carleen Brice or DeBerry & Grant even though we read Jodi Piccoult, Anne Tyler, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Berg, Adrianna Trigiani and Jennifer Weiner—you get the picture.

Though I must admit to being thrilled in discovering a recent article on Savannahnow.com comparing our last novel, What Doesn’t Kill You (along with half dozen or so other women’s fiction authors) to the work of Anita Shreve. On the flip side, a few weeks ago Chicklit Club listed their Ultimate 100 reads. One novel out of one hundred was by a black writer—Terry McMillan‘s Waiting to Exhale—which was published back in 1992.

What actually comprises diversity in publishing and marketing is a conversation African American authors have been having quietly, among ourselves, for many years. This fall, Bernice McFadden’s piece on Galley Cat Seg-Book-Gation, my written in frustration Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey about the plight of mid-list black authors, the one year anniversary of Carleen Brice‘s blog Welcome White Folks, Rebecca TheBookLadysBlog on An Invitation to Dialogue on Diversity in Media after the Salon.com article about the “whitewashing” of yet another book cover, and young book bloggers like Reading in Color have shed more light on this issue—but not nearly enough. A look at the Publishers’ Weekly cover for their New Books and Trends in African American Publishing issue and the furor it sparked, speaks to the power and influence of perception.

When I first hosted LitChat in March of last year, the topic we selected was Beyond Black and White–Writing in Color. Because I had become somewhat of a LitChat regular at that point and had been a vocal part of many discussions, I was surprised to discover that during that week, attendance dropped significantly and the make up of the chatters changed dramatically—by race. Who knows who’s “lurking” in the chatroom, but usually there are only a handful of black participants who make themselves known. I never mind my minority status, never think it matters, there are very few men in attendance as well. Besides—we who are LitChat regulars are present because we share an interest in books, writing and writers. Right?

That week, however, chats were largely populated by black chatters (many not seen since); there were only a handful of non-African Americans present and accounted for. While our discussions were lively and evocative, we were once again having a conversation among ourselves, about a topic we know all too well—we were preaching to the choir. The following week LitChat returned to its regular demographics—without fanfare or comment. Did the regular LitChat folks think the subject didn’t apply them and their reading habits? Did the blacks who did drop in feel welcome because of the topic but unwelcome/uncomfortable at other times? Is race and racism still on the taboo topic list? Was everybody just busy?

Next week on LitChat let’s discuss possible reasons for this puzzling literary dichotomy, explore African American writers (note I didn’t say “literature”) more fully and see where the conversation takes us.

Virginia DeBerry is the online persona and tweeting half of the writing team of DeBerry & Grant, author of seven novels. Their latest novel, Uptown, will be published by Touchstone/Simon&Schuster in March.

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