Make me care. I dare you.

Photo by David McSpadden

Photo by David McSpadden

Over the years I’ve read and cherished many books that speak directly to my interests. A brief glance at my bookshelves reveals a few examples.


  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  • American Woman by Susan Choi
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Is This Tomorrow? by Caroline Leavitt
  • Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward


  • Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
  • The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

It was easy for these authors to woo me as a reader. They wrote about topics in which I was already intensely interested.

But the kind of literary seduction I love most is when writers, through the power of their words and ideas, force me to care about issues or stories that hold no intrinsic attraction for me.

You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it.

The novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is one example. Thomas Cromwell? Henry VIII? Meh. But her writing drew me in immediately, and I devoured all three books in the series. Other examples include the novel Doc by Mary Doria Russell, the biography Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, and pretty much anything ever written by John McPhee.

Recently I’ve encountered two nonfiction books that fall into the category of literary seductions.

My latest literary seductions

One is Home Fires by Donald Katz. (Yes, audiobook lovers, that Donald Katz – the one who founded He had a distinguished career as a writer before he got the crazy idea that people would buy audiobooks over the Internet.)

At first glance I thought: 640 pages that chronicle four decades in the life of a Jewish family in America? No thanks; I have a Jewish family of my own. But in fact the book is riveting, and illuminated much about the decades of social and political upheaval everyone my age has lived through.

Another seductive book is The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson. The fact is, I don’t care about the soil (although I like to eat – and breathe). I come from generations of apartment dwellers, and I have never gotten the hang of gardening. But Kristin’s sparkling writing and clear, persuasive case compelled me to care – and made me understand both the promise and the stakes of what she called “our great green hope.” Full disclosure: Kristin is a friend of mine. But I read and loved her first nonfiction book, Stalking the Divine, (another seducer) long before I met her.

Why are we talking about this anyway?

I started thinking about this question of books you end up loving despite yourself because of a minor controversy I’d been hearing about on Facebook and Twitter. Apparently some guy wrote an article about how attractive 42-year-old women are. Many women writers thought the article was hilarious, and not in a good way.

If you held a contest to find a topic I would pay good money NOT to read about, the question of how middle-aged men perceive 42-year-old women would be a sure winner. The only way to make me care about it less would be to fold in something about sports or the stock market.

Yet I read an essay by a writer named Julie Checkoway that was a response to the original article, and her essay was so funny, wise and beautifully written that I’m still thinking about it, days later. Her essay may not qualify as a full-fledged literary seduction, because I still have zero interest in the original article or the kerfuffle it sparked. But I am grateful that the utterly boring controversy led me to discover her as a writer.

Guilty pleasures

Have you been seduced by a book that at first appeared totally unsuitable for you? Do tell.



News from Book World

Photo: Mr. T in DC

My idea of heaven.                 Photo: Mr. T in DC

So much has been happening in the process of turning Her Own Vietnam into a real live book! Let me catch you up.

An ARC is born

Tomorrow my book will go to the printer, who will produce Advance Reader Copies or ARCS  – the semi-final version of the book. It looks almost exactly like the finished book – it has cover art, a brief description of the novel and even a couple of blurbs – and the text is laid out as it will be in the final version.

But an ARC is not a final version; it’s an uncorrected proof. It still needs tiny tweaks and corrections. So if a brainstorm hits me with a brilliant new way to end the novel, can I still revise it? Nope. The book is essentially done. Within a few days my publisher will send out the ARC to reviewers who may appreciate the book, or savage it, or – and this is the most likely scenario – ignore it.

Blurbs to the rescue

In a previous post I described the nerve-wracking process of asking well-known writers for blurbs. Well, the writer who had been so kind to me in the past was generous once again, and provided a wonderful blurb. To do so required her to lug my printed manuscript on a family vacation. I am more than grateful, and really hope the karma of her kindness will come back to her in the end.

Another author spills her writing secrets

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my writing process. Now you can get a glimpse into the writing process of another writer, Kristin Ohlson. Her third book, The Soil Will Save Us, is sparking national conversations about a cheap, innovative and practical way to combat climate change – and it’s been under our feet the whole time. Take a look here.

The Writing Process: A Blog Relay

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

Read Women 2014 by Joanna Walsh

The writer Rosalie Morales Kearns asked me to participate in a blog relay Q&A about the writing process. She is the author of Virgins and Tricksters, a collection of shimmering short stories that combine erudition and whimsy, a sly feminist wit and a sense of melancholy. Rosalie is also the founder of Shade Mountain Press, a new literary press dedicated to publishing women, which in 2014 will publish two books: Egg Heaven, a collection of haunting and lyrical short stories by Robin Parks; and my own novel, Her Own Vietnam.

Check out Rosalie’s blog to learn about her writing process and see what she’s working on now.

Writing Process Q & A

Question 1. What are you working on?

I’m putting the finishing touches on Her Own Vietnam, which will be published this fall. The novel is about a woman who served as a U.S. Army nurse in Vietnam, and decades later must confront her wartime memories and the fractures in her family life as the country prepares for the war in Iraq.

At this point, the writing is completed and the book is in the design and production process. In the next few weeks Rosalie will send Advanced Reader Copies to review outlets, and then the book will go through a final proofreading before it goes to press. I’m lucky that Shade Mountain Press invites its authors to participate in all of this, from discussing the cover design to considering different styles for the chapter headings to thinking about which publications and websites might review the book.

Question 2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Her Own Vietnam is my third novel. All explore in different ways the terrain of women’s friendships. My characters tend to be politically engaged in the world, and recognize the gravitational pull of public events on their personal lives. I bring a lesbian sensibility to the work, which means a sensitivity to women’s experiences and the struggles of all outsiders to resist the undertow of other people’s definitions of them.

Question 3. Why do you write what you do?

My writing tends to start with a question. What would happen if…? What would it feel like to…? For all three of my novels, the central question of the book has come to me while I was walking. Clearly I need to walk more often.

Question 4. How does your writing process work?

I always envy those writers who say the words just come to them, and admire the writers who outline everything beforehand. For me, writing is an act of exploration: I write to see what will happen next. I start with what I think is the beginning of the book, and keep writing, seeing an inch or two farther along the path with each writing session. I generally don’t know where I’m headed until at least halfway through the first draft. (Sadly, this is also how I drive.)

Writing a novel is a little like being in love; there’s a current of energy constantly running just beneath the surface of your daily life. For that reason, I always carry a little notebook and a pen, to jot down ideas that occur to me throughout the day. Somehow these ideas lose their potency if I type them into my phone or computer. Paper and pen still have a special kind of power for me.

Passing the baton

I’ve invited two writers to carry on the relay and answer these four questions about the writing process on their own blogs. Please look for their posts next week.

Kristin Ohlson has an impressive knack for writing compelling nonfiction about serious subjects and infusing her work with warmth, humor and drama. Her latest book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, was published this spring and is collecting wonderful reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it “an important book and a pleasure to read.” Kristin also wrote the award-winning Stalking the Divine, and co-wrote the New York Times bestseller The Kabul Beauty School. Read her blog here (click on Blog and News):

Adele Levine recently published Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life Of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She is a prolific humor writer, but this powerful memoir of her years working with American troops who lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan packs a punch along with the laughs. Read about Adele’s writing process here:

I hope you will explore the websites and work of these extraordinary writers. Remember, it’s still (and always) the year to read women!