It’s the Place and the People: interview with Alice Mattison

I first met Alice Mattison several years ago when she was part of a panel of writers doing their best to enlighten some neophyte writers (me included) on ways to improve our writing, specifically when we had plot issues. Even when we peppered her with questions she was very approachable and so are her novels. She’s written six so far, of which the latest is When We Argued All Night, described by the New York Times Book Review as ‘a fine novel of a friendship that lasts more than half a century.’When I ran into her again recently, she agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I wanted to find out, among other things, why place and multiple generations of characters are so important in her work.

GC: Your novels have a very strong sense of place. Brooklyn is often almost a character in itself. Is place an important part of your work?

AM: I picture people in context, with a background, whether they are my characters or other people’s, imaginary people or real. I need to know where everybody is and what they see out the window. The places I’ve written about most, Brooklyn and New Haven, are places where I’ve lived, cities about which I feel passionate, but I like thinking about setting in any story, and trying to sense what it would be like for my characters to live in a particular place. I’ve recently written stories set in the mountains in New England and in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

GC: If so, do you have to travel to each place, or can you write about it from research?

AM: I write about places I’ve lived in or visited. I make up houses all the time but I don’t think I’ve ever made up a city—oh, yes, I did: Boynton, Massachusetts in The Book Borrower. I don’t think I’d set anything of length in a place I’ve never been, but a couple of times I’ve used research to write briefly about someplace I don’t know.

GC: Your novels often span several generations. Can you tell us why family histories interest you?

AM: I don’t always write about several generations, but I’ve done it more than once, yes. My grandparents were immigrants to this country. I don’t know much if anything about anybody in the family before them, but they were real and important to me when I was a child—even my mother’s father, who had died before I was born, and for whom I am named. My mother’s mother couldn’t read and write, and that is feels central for me: I will always be the granddaughter of someone who couldn’t read and write. She used to dictate letters that I’d write for her. My parents stories made a time just before my birth come alive for me. When I think about people like my family—even when I am not writing autobiographically, and I’m usually not—I have to include the older generations.

GC: You include politics and historical events in your books, with a particular fondness, it seems to me, for the 30’s until today. Why those years particularly?

AM: My parents were young in the 1930s. It seems like a fascinating era that I missed. I keep trying to get back and know what it was like for them—to see through their eyes. I love photographs from the thirties. I suppose life did not take place in subtle blacks, whites, and grays, but it’s hard not to think it did.

GC: Could you tell us a little about your latest book: When We Argued All Night?

AM: When We Argued All Night is the story of the difficult friendship between two Jewish men from Brooklyn, Harold Abramovitz and Artie Saltzman, beginning in 1936 when they are 26 years old, and ending in 2004, as Artie’s daughter Brenda and her partner watch Barack Obama on TV as he gives the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. The book is about the lives of the three main characters during difficult times—the Depression, the buildup to the Second World War, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War. But even more than that, it’s about love, friendship, and the complexities of family life.

GC: Readers are always interested in the process of writing. I know you write in the afternoons, but where exactly do you write?

AM: I start in the late morning, but I rarely produce anything good until afternoon. I write in a small room on the second floor of my house. Sometimes I carry my laptop into the bedroom and write with it on my lap on top of a pillow, and occasionally I write in the attic. I leave my study when I don’t feel sufficiently alone there, when I’ve been answering too many emails and the room feels crowded with other people. Then the dog and I migrate elsewhere. It’s not logical, because I take my laptop with me and I can check email in any part of my house, but it feels helpful anyway.
GC: Do you have any writing rituals that help you get started or stay on task while you’re writing?

AM: No. I just keep going away from it and back to it until I can write something. I never stay on task. I turn away and back, away and back. It’s sometimes painful, but eventually I can write.
GC: What are you working on now?

AM: I’ve started a new novel and have also written some short stories, which are all about women at work. One was in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories collection of 2012; one is coming out in The Threepenny Review. Now and then I write an essay.

GC: You can find out more about Alice on her website  and she’s on Facebook. She also has a Facebook fan page

Fairfield Writers reprise the MFA debate

Back in November, I wrote a post about whether an MFA was worth the money it cost. recently, m,y friends at the Fairfield Writers’ blog took up the discussion again.  This was sparked by the Broadway hit play Seminar, which some of the writers had seen. It’s about a writers’ workshop…

Here’s the beginning of the post:

Save Your Money, Just Write

At different times in March, three of us in the Saturday morning writers’ group at the Library saw the hit Broadway play Seminar with its original cast, before changes were made at the beginning of April. (Jeff Goldblum has replaced Alan Rickman in the role of Leonard; Fairfield’s own Justin Long now plays Martin, the role debuted by Hamish Linklater; and Zoe Lister-Jones is Kate, following Lily Rabe.) Colleague Ian Peterkin, who is an MFA student in creative writing, offers this takeaway.—Alex McNab

When novice writers realize their passion is more than a hobby, they will invariably seek out instruction. Whether they find that instruction in an MFA program, a writer’s workshop, or autodidactically, they must take the matter of writing seriously. For those hoping to learn their craft through books, there are many sources to choose from. Stephen King has his On Writing and of course there is that old classic by William Strunk and E.B. White—The Elements of Style. If fledgling writers do not have the time or commitment for an MFA program—and sometimes even after completing one—they often attend a writers’ retreat or seminar. This brings me to Theresa Rebeck’s play, Seminar.

Read the rest of the post here:



Guest Post from Alex McNab of the Fairfield Writers’ Blog

Alex McNab has been a force for good in Fairfield’s writing circles for a number of years. The author of a novel and the leader of one of the (free) writing groups at the Fairfield Public Library, he also publishes the Fairfield Writers’ Blog. You can find it here: Recently he wrote  a blog about how he became converted to the e-reader. Read on!

One Man’s Introduction to E-Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of an abiding interest in reading and writing must be in need of an e-reader.

Otherwise, that man would be unable to read The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett (State of Wonder, Bel Canto), a delightful “Original” from the digital publisher Byliner. It was the first work he downloaded and read on the Kindle Touch his household received for Christmas. It also was his first time reading Patchett, whose style as well as substance made that maiden voyage on an e-reader memorable.

Consider the charming way she describes the aspiring writer’s dilemma:

“Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing,” Patchett writes. “We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education that has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

“But it’s right about there, the part where we sit, that things fall apart.”

Byliner defines its digital offerings as running “at lengths that allow them to be read in a single sitting.” In that space, The Getaway Car blends Patchett’s personal development as a writer with astute advice in smooth prose. Here are two other for-instances:

“Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. If I thought too much about how far I’d come or the distance I still had to cover, I’d sink.”


“Although my [first] novel [The Patron Saint of Liars] was written in three separate first-person sections, I wrote it linearly—that is to say, page two was started after page one was finished. . . .Even if you’re writing a book that jumps around in time, has ten points of view, and is chest-deep in flashbacks, do your best to write it in the order in which it will be read, because it will make the writing, and the later editing, incalculably easier.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading on the Kindle, and I certainly enjoyed paying only 99¢ each—at the time I downloaded them—for three titles about writing that are not available as printed books. Waiting (or is it still permissible to say “shelved”?) for later perusal in the e-reader are The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers and The Liar’s Companion: A Field Guide for Fiction Writers—from mystery maven Lawrence Block, whose trade paperback Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers has long been a favorite.

And for future consideration there is another Byliner Original, Sara Davidson’s Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion. What piqued my interest in it was an update Davidson wrote, which you can read at the Byliner website, answering the question, What’s the most important thing you learned about writing from Joan Didion?

“Anything can be fixed,” Didion told her. There’s more good stuff there, so follow the link above. But let me leave you with Davidson’s final thought for us fellow writers:

“It took me 30 years to have faith that this is true. Once you’ve got something on paper—anything, no matter how bad it seems—you can fix it, steadily, one word or phrase at a time. You can turn something awful into something reasonably good.”

Oh. One final note: The Fairfield Library now has a digital collection from which you can borrow eBooks and more. And at the time of this writing, at least, you can download the prequel to the opening sentence of this post, along with the rest of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, from to your Kindle for free.

Great Opportunity for Writers to Work with a New York Agent


Tessa McGovern runs a digital publishing company called eChook: She also teaches at Sarah Lawrence College on the Bronx, NY.  The guest post below will tell you how to sign up for a course led by a real live agent – with connections. Read on:
Are you still making up your mind about whether agents are necessary these days, with all the self-publishing possibilities available? If so, here’s something to consider. (If you’ve already decided that you still need an agent, scroll down).
Despite the access we all have to self-publishing, there are still gate-keepers, and there will always be. Why? Because people who run publishing companies can’t sift through hundreds (or thousands) of non-qualified, long-form manuscripts. There simply isn’t time. (This is one of the reasons that eChook focuses on short stories, essays and memoirs). Ditto for the film and video producers running production companies that are beginning to supply the silent but tsunami-like growth in demand for content created by the revolution coming imminently to your living room.
So, if you’re committed to your writing career, unless you’re a genre writer (think romance, thriller, etc) with the time and resources to execute your own writing, editing, copy-editing, design, publishing, marketing and PR, you’re going to want an agent.
More than that, you’re going to want an agent who sells to legacy publishers as well as the new digital publishers (Amazon, Open Road, Premier Digital) and let’s not forget film and video rights.
Enter Cynthia Manson, a NY agent who will be teaching “How to Get Published in Today’s Market” at Sarah Lawrence College in February 2012. It isn’t often writers get this sort of opportunity to work with an agent over a period of weeks and submit the first chapter of their project. Here’s the class description:
So you’ve written the Great American Novel, workshopped it, revised it, poured your heart and soul into it, and now you feel it’s ready to send out into the world. Now what do you do? Time to find an agent and get it published, that’s what! This class is intended to help serious writers navigate the world of publishing in today’s dynamic, changing marketplace. We will discuss how to find the right agent for your work and how to successfully submit it, whether commercial or literary. How to write effective pitch letters and queries, with an emphasis on the all important “hook.” We will examine the different publishing options available in a shifting business environment: traditional legacy publishing, small presses, packagers, self publishing, and the emergent possibilities of ebook publishing. Also, what do you do when you get a deal? Information on contacts, negotiations, the production process, marketing, promotion, and distribution. As part of this course we will read and critique each other’s query letters that include “the pitch” and the respective synopses that accompany the cover letter. At the end of the course, the instructor invites each participant to submit the first chapter of their work to her.
Cynthia Manson is a well-known and respected literary agent with a small, successful list of published authors. She graduated from Scripps College for Women with a BA in English Literature and Fine Arts. She also attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course where she was inspired by Sterling Lord and his associates. Two years later she joined the Sterling Lord Literary Agency. Mason has worked in both magazine and book publishing including Putnam, Bertelsmann and Scientific American. Currently she is launching an e-book line for Advertising Age Magazine as well as representing authors in a variety of genres.
To register for Cynthia Manson’s ‘How to Get Published in Today’s Market’ class, CLICK HERE.
For information about and registration for Tessa Smith McGovern’s classes at Sarah Lawrence College, CLICK HERE.

Guest Blog from Patrick McCord

Patrick McCordI recently asked Patrick McCord for some writing tips for those of us hoping to get our 50,00 word novel written this November. Do let me know which ones you find helpful.  I personally am fond of tip number 4. It worked for Hemingway, and it seems to be working for me. Patrick certainly has the credentials. He describes himself as a fugitive from Hollywood, where he learned that his talents were more analytical than presentational. He’s an award-winning poet, published short story author, and he has sold teleplays and a screenplay. As a college professor, he has specialized in story- and identity-cognition in film and literature.  He is currently Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of The Editing Company and is developing the Write Yourself Free(SM) Writing Manual.
The Editing Company and the Write Yourself Free(SM) workshops are housed in a 19th Century carriage house in the center of Westport, CT that features a dedicated Writers’ Room. Patrick and his partner Tish Fried  have launched The Editing Company Publishing. Their first book, Resurrecting Democracy, is available on By the way, they welcome NaNoWriMo writers who need a space to write. Contact Tish at to find out when space is available.

Writing is Play

1. Writing is a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration; inspiration is a myth.  If you have a habit of writing 4 or 5 times a week, you will finish your projects.  Just 15 minutes at a sitting will keep your story cooking on the stove of your pre-conscious imagination. But if you wait for once-a-week inspiration, you’ll find the story-stew has gone cold. Schedule your writing to create a habit and get projects finished.  Waiting for inspiration will leave you with inspired beginnings, never finished.

2. Writing is play. Free play doesn’t have rules. When you’re drafting,  spoil your inner child: give yourself permission to write absolutely anything. Write for your own pleasure or to explore. If you worry about rules, about audience or quality, you invite paralysis.  In order to get to your best drafting self, let go of all the critical nonsense about sentences or reality you think you know, and just mess around. The Jungian psychologists say, “Write the Shadow!”  What they mean is “Creativity means making a mess.” The writing doesn’t have to be good. In fact, it can be naughty, terrible, unreal, psychedelic, depraved, or, yes, poorly phrased or, gasp, unpunctuated.

3. If you want your narrative to move, align with your characters’ perceptions and goals;. Get them acting, talking, and moving; don’t worry about what they’re thinking.  Readers love to connect with a perceptually rich, motivated character.  Get your imagination into the character’s body, and let the words connect to your characters’ nervous system.  What is the sensation of wanting? That’s what drives the story!  How does what the wanting affect what the character sees? What does if feel like to be in conflict when a want is frustrated?

4. Hemingway’s Rule: stop writing when you know what happens next.  This is nifty trick and it’s hard to learn but worth it.  Recent linguistic research has shown that conversations that are left unconcluded tend to stay in mind longer than those that have closure. If you want to keep your story simmering in the back of your mind, don’t finish off all your ideas; have an image in mind of what happens next.  It’ll leave you eager to sit  down the next day and get writing instead of cleaning the house, emailing or texting, etc.

5. Don’t revise as you draft. Write in a forward direction every day; advance the plot, complicate goals, conflict! Get to the end. Re-reading what you wrote the day before and revising for “perfect sentences” is a terrible waste of time. However, when you write to the end, you get many cognitive payoffs that will speed revision— you will have taught yourself your themes, your character arc, and your style, diction, and vision will have evolved holistically.  Use each writing session to teach yourself to tell stories, not to revise pathologically.

Getting an MFA – worth the investment?

A number of writers in our Writers’ Café have MFA’s in Writing and we asked them to comment on the value they felt they’d received from their 2-year low-residency writing programs. Lisa Calderone, a Guilford resident, who did the marketing for the first ever MFA program at Fairfield U and completed the degree course herself, explained the main benefits of an MFA.

“Overall, the most important benefits were a sense of community and a thorough grounding in the craft of writing,” said Lisa. Others agreed with her when she said that having academic expectations forced her to write, even when she didn’t necessarily want to. Jane Sherman of Westport added that this course of study helped her set up a writing routine, which she still uses to ensure she writes every day.

I asked about the faculty. Our MFA graduates felt that having access to a high quality of faculty during their studies was a huge benefit. “It helped me form a network of writing contacts which I wouldn’t otherwise have had,” said Christine Shaffer of Westport, who was featured recently in Poets & Writers’ online magazine: .(Here’s her blog on Open Salon: In fact, the article (not Christine) and the list it provided of top MFA schools in the US, provoked an angry reaction from 190 writers and teachers, who claimed the list was unfair. Alison Flood, of the Guardian newspaper in London, was moved to write a whole article about it. Since she explained it much more succinctly than I could, I’m posting the link to it here: .

Back to the benefits of an MFA. With an MFA degree, you’re qualified to teach writing (while you’re waiting for your novel to hit the NYT best seller lists). For example, Lisa Calderone will be teaching an online journalism course next semester for Fairfield U. She’s also the founder and editor of Mason’s Road, the university’s literary journal. Here are their submission guidelines: . Another graduate, AJ O’Connell, is also teaching at the university level. All in all, our graduates were happy with their degrees, and the new friends and connections they made as a result of taking the course.

At our last Café, Alex McNab brought information and some suggested reading about the granddaddy of all the MFA programs, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop ( Here are a couple of books he suggested on the subject:

Mentor: a Memoir, by Tom Grimes

We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen & Glen Schaeffer

So, it’s up to you. If you need an incentive to get you writing, these graduate courses will provide you with structure, deadlines and potentially great or even famous mentors. All you need now is a little time and a credit card. If you decide you’re serious, check out this web page for masses of information to help you decide: