by  on Feb 09, 2018

How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

This particular novel’s journey started many years ago, when a short story of mine was published in The Sun. I got more fan mail from that short story than I’ve ever received for anything else, including all my books put together, probably – and the vast majority wrote to say thanks. Thanks for writing about sex, about fantasy, about isolation (even in the middle of relationship), about vulnerability in love.

I kept several of the letters, because they were so inspiring (never think writing a letter to an author doesn’t matter!) One fan wrote: “I was especially interested in the conversation between the women about sex/orgasms/fantasies and violence. I’ve never seen or heard it put together quite like that, but felt a big poof! of relief and surprise … I thought I was just very peculiar, twisted, living out some sort of painful karma in that arena!”

Another emailed: “I have never written a note like this, and I am surprised at how intimidating it is to write to a writer. But I have to because I have lived with your story “Under the Apple Tree” for several months now. . .  I want to thank you for an honest, real, and intriguing look at the life of an adult woman. I wish more talented women writers would follow your lead.”

I was so honored by such responses (as you can see—I’ve saved them all this time). That correspondence got me to thinking about doing just that—trying to continue the conversation of honest portrayals of sex in literary works. In a society that is wildly prudish on one hand, and pornographic on the other, I think we sometimes lose sight of the honest portrayal of sex and love and romance.

What are you reading right now?

One fiction and one nonfiction. The nonfiction is Rising by Elizabeth Rush – and I’m just loving it. It’s not just a book about the calamities of rising sea levels and the lost habitats and homes (although it is that)—it’s also a moving rumination on the rise of women as investigative reporters, the rise of tangible solutions, the rise of human endeavor and flexibility.

I’m also reading Great Tide Rising by Kathleen Dean Moore because a) I like to keep up with Counterpoint authors, and b) I love her nonfiction work, and c) I’m teaching with her at Fishtrap (a writing workshop in Oregon) in July.

Funny that they both have “rise” in the title. Maybe I should say I planned it that way.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

That really varies on the person. But I do point people to Counterpoint books as being the best-of-the-best of what’s being published today (and I’m not just saying that). I also tell people to get a subscription to The Sun magazine – for the same reason.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Kent Haruf was a great mentor until he passed away. His books were a huge influence on me – and I believe he’ll go down in history as one of the greats. He was a humble man and a generous mentor. Before that, Emilie Buchwald, who was the editor in chief at Milkweed Editions, was a huge and important mentor. She took me under her wing when I was just in my twenties. I write her a thank you letter from time to time, just to remind her how grateful I am. Rick Bass continues to be a great friend and mentor as well. And I have so many writing friends—and they are my community, my peeps, my literary soulmates.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

That’s a tough question! Okay, I’d say three things: an old copy of The Little Prince from my childhood, a broadside of Kent Haruf’s writing gifted to me by a friend, and an arrowhead I found as a child (which is not a book possession, but it sits next to these other things). I own nothing of value, really. My books are my most prized possession.

by  on Jan 02, 2018

How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

I didn’t really have a choice. It was knocking on my door, so to speak. I had to write it in order to start a healing process. I wrote the first draft during a 12-day residency in the Centennial Valley of Montana. I left my daughter and husband at home and brought my dog. It was very monastic. I wrote 5,000+ words a day; it was a full-body experience on every level. No part of it was hard. It poured out of me, as if the words had been waiting to land on paper my entire life. I knew it had to be bigger than my story. During the writing, I had a keen awareness of the many women out there who might be helped by the story, simply to know, “Oh, I’m not alone.”

What are you reading right now?

I’m obsessed with a book called Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman. Her work is exploding and expanding my knowledge of the body and movement. It’s what I want to focus on next. I just started the beautiful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I’m eager to read Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (Counterpoint!) and Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (same pub date as Body Full of Stars).

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

Mink River by Brian Doyle. It’s complex and what he does with language opens up so many possibilities. Reading that book gave me permission to explore (and milk) the run-on sentence and to allow the tangent, the magical, or something that doesn’t make sense but does on the deepest levels.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Terry Tempest Williams is one, for the way she approaches topics and also how she lives. I’ve met her a few times but don’t know her personally. She is sincere and heart-felt and human. The way Lidia Yuknavitch pushes boundaries inspires me. I didn’t get an MFA (on purpose) and created a scrappy and amazing sort of literary learning environment during my time in NYC working (for a stint) in publishing and being part of a writer’s group of motivated, kind, talented people. To that end, I’ve never really “studied” from a writer mentor in a classroom setting. I read and read. I crave more face-to-face contact with future writer mentors. We shall see. I think it’s both. They change over time as we grow into a new iteration of our writing. They also stay the same.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

Tony Hogland’s book of poetry Donkey Gospel is one my husband and I revere. Not sure whether he gave it to me or vice versa, but Hoagland speaks to us. We have always swapped poetry and been moved by it together. It’s part of the foundation of our togetherness. My grandmother Pat-Pat (my mom’s mom) gave me a biography of Jane Addams and her social work with Hull House in Chicago and wrote in it, “She was quite a woman. My mother took me to see her and her secretary when I was about 8 years old, but I never forgot her and you shouldn’t either. Love you.” Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, she gave me a short works collection of Willa Cather inscribed with, “My Sunflower Scholar, Cather is one of the all-time great writers so far, so far as I’m concerned.” It’s special to have my grandmother’s words. She loved literature and the intellect and obviously saw the writer/reader/activist in me before I fully saw her in myself.

by  on Oct 31, 2017


How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

Improvement started from Hurricane Sandy (which seems like a puny little storm now). When it hit New York, where I live, I heard a radio report about how elderly residents of a housing project were managing very well without electricity or gas or water; they were surprised by everyone’s worry. I began to think about self-reliance—a topic always dear to me—and the character of Kiki started to form, a woman whom very little fazes. I wanted her viewed by her much younger nice, who’s busy getting herself into trouble. Once I’d given the niece, Reyna, a boyfriend on Rikers Island, I saw the story heightening.

And I had wanted for a while to get Turkey—a complex place I’ve happily visited three times—into a story. I gave Kiki, the aunt, a youth with a Turkish husband, and I gave her a few years in the Turkish countryside so she has some third-world rural skills.

I wrote the first chapter as a story, and when I began to expand it into a novel, I saw that I wanted a fatal miscalculation of Reyna’s to lead to regrets she finds a way to respond to. I wanted to write a book with the intensity of a novel but a span like linked stories—I’m always interested in the ways an event has consequences across a widening net of people.

What are you reading right now? 

I tend to read a few things at once. I just finished Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, I’m listening to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend on audio, and I’m at the beginning of The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam (set in Sri Lanka, where I’m going in March).

I’ve always loved Dickens (my first novel got its title from him) and he’s been my comfort reading since the election. Last December, I was teaching English as a volunteer in Laos. When I gave my class of teenage novice Buddhist monks some topics for writing, one of them asked if he could instead “write about a book” he was reading. I said sure—and he wrote a scene in which an escaped prisoner in the marsh gets a terrified young boy to bring him food. It was the opening of Great Expectations! I was amazed and thrilled that he loved the book (he’d even looked up the word “wittles”), and I saw how its themes of class and ambition and intrigue made perfect sense to him.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over? 

You know, I don’t think there’s any one book I recommend to everyone. I know whom I love (see answer to the next question) but I don’t expect everyone else to love them. Is that unusual? When I taught undergraduates, I always made sure they read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” and my graduate students know I often make them read Colm Tóibín and David Malouf. I loved Hanya Yanagihara’s, Lily King’s, and Anthony Marra’s last books too.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same? 

I always say the writers who have had the most effect on me are Chekhov and Alice Munro. I read Chekhov’s stories when I was still in high school, and I was knocked out by the way he could move your sympathy into places it didn’t want to go. I don’t read him as much as I used to, but in my living room is a photo of me at Chekhov’s grave in Moscow, taken by my dear friend Jean Valentine. Alice Munro is probably a more current model for me—I go back and read her stories over when I’m stuck.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? 

I had to really think about this. It’s probably Story and Verse for Children, a mammoth textbook with blue and silver lettering on the cover, which belonged to my mother, who had taught school, and which served me through childhood. I think first she read to me from it and then I dipped into it myself. I especially liked the fairy tales (those glamorous princesses, facing darkness and evil) and the Robert Louis Stevenson poems (“My bed is like a little boat”). I always have trouble getting rid of books—they have sort of taken over my New York apartment—but this one seems more irreplaceable than the others.


by  on Sep 29, 2017

How did you come to write these essays?

They were written over a number of decades.  During the nineties, when I was living, for the most part, as a freelance writer, South Africa happened to be undergoing its miraculous change.  So, a number of pieces, like ‘Viva, Mandela!’ were either suggested to me by editors or by me to editors.  A number of the later essays were explorations of ideas or relationships that had been interesting me for a long — the relation between travel and the creative impulse, for instance, or between age and the creative impulse.  Others, like ‘Doing No Harm’, grew out of a refusal to be told how to think, feel, and teach.  I do not do well when subjected to the strictures of what passes for right-mindedness.  To my mind, it encourages the worst kind of sentimentality.

What are you reading right now? 

Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  I just finished Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.  This seems to be my time for reading books that are too heavy to hold up while lying down.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over? 

May I name a few?  V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and In A Free State (especially the novella, ‘One Out of Many’).  Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.  Diana Athill’s Stet.  George Orwell’s essays.  Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark.  On and on.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same? 

As far as flesh-and-blood mentors are concerned, I have never taken a creative writing workshop, nor had a creative writing teacher.  I’ve had some wonderful editors, and some not so wonderful.  And I have some wonderful, honest friends who have helped keep me straight, which is to say away from prancing on the page.  The chief aim is to keep oneself honest.  And, to my mind, the best way to do that — the best way to learn how to write in the first place— is by reading.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe. 

A first edition of Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World.  Brilliant, beautiful, sad, enraging.

I prize a leather-bound copy of Vanity Fair, which I received at school as a prize for ‘needlework’ .  Needlework!  I was by no means the best at it, but had been confined to bed for what felt like an age by a bout of amoebic dysentery, and so had time to do some complicated drawn thread work.


by  on Aug 31, 2017

What inspired you to write this book?

A trip to Germany with my father in April 2015 served as the catalyst for this book, but in a multitude of ways, the material contained in these pages is the culmination of a lifelong project. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I have already written for many years about my experiences of inherited grief, loss, and trauma. However, during that particular trip (which was the third time I visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp with my father—a camp in which he was a prisoner at the age of fifteen), I began to focus more intently on the historic threshold we are all currently approaching. How will the legacies of Holocaust survivors, liberators, victims, witnesses, and perpetrators be remembered when they are no longer among us in person? This questioning led me to investigate other genocides and atrocities of the 20th century (and earlier), as well as to engage in research on the emerging evidence for the complexities of inter-generational aftermath of war. I found it was urgently important to blend my personal narrative with interviews and broad-based studies that reflect a widely shared accounting of past, present, and future. How can each of us help move in the direction of healing—individually as well as collectively?

What are you reading right now? 

I’ve just finished reading a novel called Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss. We are going to be in conversation at Keplers in a few weeks, and I’ve been an admirer of all of her books for quite a while. Our themes and concerns have many parallels. I’m also starting to re-read a dystopian novel called Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing. It had a stunning effect on my imagination when I read it several years ago, and I’m curious to see how it impacts me now, especially since I’m paying so much attention to the word “survivor”—how and where the term and its meaning is continually explored.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over? 

I recommend different books to different people, depending on what they seem to be wanting to experience or to learn, but I am most likely to urge anyone and everyone to read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, because it’s a perfect masterpiece. I have come to feel somewhat similarly about The Sea by John Banville (and both are quite short, as it happens). A bigger commitment of time and attention is required for this one, but The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is a tremendously moving and elegantly crafted work. It’s as much about storytelling and memory and creativity as it is about family history and the Holocaust.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same? 

My earliest writing mentors were my professors at Stanford and at U.C. Irvine, but all of that was a very long time ago! My evolution as a writer definitely includes the discovery of inspiration from new writers all the time. And sometimes my mentors show up as ghosts — in the sense that writers no longer living can feel like the ones who teach me and guide me the most, for example Virginia Woolf (see above) and James Joyce and Rainer Maria Rilke.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe. 

I confess that I have an ever-growing collection of signed books, more than I have shelf space to accommodate. But one inscription that feels the most meaningful is on a page inside David Grossman’s exquisite novel See Under: Love, where he wrote this: “Listening to you read your poems made me feel that we are brother and sister.”

by  on Jun 07, 2017

What inspired you to write this incredible novel?

Some family history—my mother’s family were Cornish miners—but mostly the image of a woman stepping off a train and disappearing. I’d been doing historical research for a documentary on Butte, and my head was stuck in the turn of the century—the edge of the modern world, and so much of it was about to literally explode. It was a great age for reinvention, and I’ve always been annoyed by our sometimes patronizing attitude to the past, the notion that people were as bland as most obituaries. I wanted humor, and frankness, and realism in lust and romance; I wanted to have fun with my plot, and I wanted to handle the past without nostalgia, and without distance.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo—which is so oddly and beautifully joyful—and I’ve started The Songs, by Charles Elton, whose last book, Mr. Toppit, I really loved.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje. One hundred inspired, singing, surreal pages.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

I wrote my thesis on Peter Matthiessen, and knew him quite well; he’s still in the back of my head, telling me to aim (considerably) higher. And maybe different books call for different inspiration, though I’ve never tried to break down another writer’s prose or plot. When I was writing mysteries it would have been the odd combination of Dorothy Sayers and the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: humor, clarity, a lack of melodrama, plots that rang true. And I read several of Kate Atkinson’s novels during a pause in writing The Widow Nash, and marveled at the dialogue and all the spinning plates.

 What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

I don’t know why, but I’ve never really thought that way. Maybe a battered children’s book (King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, very much not Little Golden Books/Disney style), or my great-great grandfather’s notebooks, which I used in The Widow Nash. After my father’s death last year, I guess it’s become his old New Directions paperback of Lorca’s Selected Poems, which is held together by duct tape.

by  on May 03, 2017

1. What inspired you to write this incredible book?

 It was originally inspired by events in my own life, but the end result is not autobiographical. For me, writing fiction is a way of trying to understand what happens, to make sense of what seems senseless as it happens, by reimagining events and giving them a new and different kind of life. If I can take something raw and transform it into art, into something that has a kind of beauty, that’s a source of the greatest happiness to me.

I wrote three different versions of this novel, with three different sets of characters and points of view, and the third version was the easiest. Once I realized they needed to be poets (because successful poets tend to think in original ways and make up their own rules in life), and that I needed to give equal time to husband and wife in third person, the book practically wrote itself in under a year.

And I had a lot of fun writing the poems for the main characters. I sent some of them to magazines, and one was accepted for publication, but unfortunately it had to be withdrawn from use by the magazine, because the book has come out sooner than the magazine would have and they wanted first rights.

2. What are you reading right now?

 I am re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses for a reading group at University Press Books in Berkeley, following along with them though I am not in Berkeley for the next five months.

And I am devouring memoirs, since I am nearly finished writing one. I have enjoyed everything by Mary Karr, Atul Gawande, and Joan Didion. I loved A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. I read both of those twice, as well as Didion’s Where I Was From, Blue Nights, and The Year of Magical Thinking. I also really liked Trevor Noah’s enlightening Born a Crime.

The best book I have read lately, though, is a novel: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. I also loved Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See.

3. What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

James Baldwin’s book of short stories, Going to Meet the Man.

Baldwin exemplifies everything I admire in a writer: he’s thoughtful and honest, he writes beautiful sentences and paragraphs, and he confronts issues head on. The title story in that book is breathtaking. He wanted to investigate why racism is still so deep-seated in our culture, and to do that he put his head inside the lion’s mouth: he inhabits the white sheriff who beat people with a billy club when Dr. King and others led protest marches in Selma, Alabama, and shows how the man’s sexuality is hard-wired to the torturing and killing of black men.

Other books I often recommend are quite different: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (which I would vote the best novel ever written), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, and Tobias Woolf’s Old School.

For more about me as a reader, see my essay “Dolls Alive” in The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, edited by Michael Dorris and Emilie Buchwald.


 4. Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

My earliest mentors were my mother and grandmother, both of them teachers. They read “The Dollyland Star,” a newspaper I produced about my dolls, and my first short stories (like the one about “Frankie the Frog”).

In college, certain professors encouraged me, and I tried to please them, which actually held me back as a writer. My breakthrough came when I realized I should not try to write something I imagined they would like—I should write something I would like to read myself.

Later I was married to a poet for over a quarter century, and he became a major mentor for me, as my first reader and “in-house editor,” but I don’t show him my work anymore. Now I have a writing group (made up of mostly Bay Area writers) that has sometimes helped me with astute responses. Most recently, I have relied on readings by the New York agents I have worked with, editors and others at Counterpoint Press, and my current husband, who (ironically enough) was long ago the first of those professor/mentors I tried to please.

For more on the influences on me as a writer, see Clayton Childress’ Under the Cover: The Creation, Production and Reception of a Novel, which Princeton University Press will release on June 20, 2017. He is a sociologist of literature, and he used my novel Jarrettsville, my writing practices and formative history as his chief example.

5. What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

Friends recently gave me a signed copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, in which he wrote me a personal note (since I used to surf and still own a board). I’m treasuring that right now.

And long ago, my first professor/mentor (now husband) gave me a first edition of the oldest version of The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, which is probably the most valuable book I own.

And I am now reading my husband’s copy of Ulysses, which contains his wonderful teaching notes. That’s priceless to me.

by  on Apr 10, 2017

1. What inspired you to write this biography?

Sam Shepard has triumphed in so many areas – Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, great prose stylist, screenwriter of the now-classic film, Paris Texas, accomplished drummer, and he’s a hell of horseman. Add to this that he’s accomplished all this on his own terms. I felt it was time to update his life story. There hadn’t been a new bio in more than a quarter century, plus there were new letters and archival material available.

2. What are you reading right now?

The new Richard Russo collection of short stories, Trajectory, that I’m scheduled to review. Plus a cultural history of the 20th century that I can’t recall the name of. For walking the dogs I have The Brothers Karamazov on audio, read by an eccentric British man who I suspect might be drunk.

3. What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

Crime and Punishment. It’s one of those classics that so many people are afraid to tackle, and I tell them it’s not that difficult. Once you understand that each character can be known by a few different names and you get those down, you’re good to go. As for the controversial epilogue, I’m glad Dostoyevsky included it – it makes me weep like a baby every time.

4. Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Michael Lennon was Norman Mailer’s archivist, and he wrote the great biography of Mailer, A Double Life. After I reviewed it, he contacted me and said he lived just up the road a bit, suggesting we should get a beer some time. We met and I adopted him as a mentor. He’s encouraged me all along, fielded my questions and provided wise counsel in my hours of need – which were not infrequent.

5. What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

A few years ago, the owner of a bookstand near Central Park recognized a middle-aged man perusing the stacks. The owner realized it was Sam Shepard. He approached him with the only copy of a Shepard book he had on hand. Sam signed it for him. Last year, I bought it from the owner. It’s titled Angel City and Other Plays.


by  on Nov 22, 2016

The New York Times prepares for the holidays with a gift guide of their favorite books, including Natashia Deon’s Grace. See the other gift ideas here.

by  on Jul 05, 2016

Catherine Goldberg applauds Harry N. MacLean’s chilling novel The Joy of Killing for the Huffington Post. Read full review here.


by Dory Athey on Apr 18, 2016
Alan Hirsch‘s captivating new book The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!: The Incredible True Story of the Art Heist that Shocked a Nation was featured by the UK’s Express Daily. Read the full story here.
by Dory Athey on Mar 02, 2016
Liberty Hardy compiled a list of “March Books to Watch Out For” for The Sound, and included Katherine Towler‘s new book The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of of Place, Solitude, and Friendship. View the full list here.