Guest Post ~ Author of The Art Of Racing In The Rain, Garth Stein

Have I got a treat for you this happy Friday!  Author Garth Stein, of the acclaimed summer hit (and one of my new all-time favorite books; check out my review HERE) The Art Of Racing In The Rain is here with a guest post just for us.  Garth has taken time out of his extremely busy summer to talk about his book and where exactly the idea behind it came from.  You can learn more about Garth at his website,  You can also check out a website solely dedicated to his book The Art Of Racing In The Rain at  At the end of this post you will find three You-Tube videos.  The first one is the book trailer for The Art Of Racing In The Rain.  The second and third videos are interviews with Garth Stein himself. 


It’s the simplest question, to be sure:  “Where did the idea for your book come from?”  It is a question that is asked of every author, and it is one that deserves a thoughtful and thorough answer. 

But while the question is simple, the answer is usually not.  Because, yes, ideas have an ultimate source, like a long, meandering river; but, like a river, the outlet on the coast rarely reflects the spring in the mountain, thousands of miles away. 

When I am asked the question, I think of a cooking analogy.  Mirepoix.  Those of you who watch Food Network know about mirepoix.  It’s the simplest thing:  butter, onion, celery, carrots.  But when simmering these things together something magical happens.  The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  And by the time the stew is finished, there is no way to identify the individual ingredients–the ingredients have sacrificed themselves for the flavor!

And so, the beginnings of a novel….


The first idea for The Art of Racing in the Rain came more than ten years ago when I screened a film from Mongolia, “State of Dogs,” that was about the Mongolian belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a person.  I remember being struck by the beauty and simplicity of the idea, and feeling the strong sense that, some day, I would do something with it.

It was years later that I heard the poet, Billy Collins, read his poem, The Revenant, which is told by a dog who has recently been euthanized.  When I heard his extremely funny and biting poem–and the very vocal and enthusiastic response from the audience–a light bulb went off in my head:  I would tell the story of a dog reincarnating as a person, and I would tell it from the dog’s p.o.v.!

But wait.  The very first idea for my book goes even further back, I think…..

In the summer of 1986, I had the great fortune to attend the Detroit Grand Prix.  Joining a friend who had all-access passes, I remember standing behind a concrete barrier of the street course and marveling at how small, yet incredibly powerful the Formula One cars were.  So quick and so close–no more than an arm’s length away.

One driver was obviously quicker than the rest of them.  He started in the pole position and, after losing many positions due to a tire puncture, scrambled back into the lead and finished first.  I remember watching his green helmet flash by.  I remember the devoted fans in the stands waving their giant green, yellow and blue flags.  I never had the pleasure of meeting Ayrton Senna, but I did have the pleasure of watching him race…and win in glorious fashion.

And further:  I remember, as a child, sitting on the sofa in the rec room of our house with my father on a Saturday afternoon, watching racing on a black and white Zenith television, eating from a bag of sunflower seeds.  And at my feet, our faithful dog, Muggs, the Airedale to whom The Art of Racing in the Rain is dedicated.  She was hoping for the occasional dropped seed, I’m sure; but I like to think she also enjoyed watching the races with us.

And so there!  Tracing the river from the mouth to the source, we find the truth:  when I was five years old, I believed my dog understood what she saw on the television set.  That’s where it started. 

The reason I wanted to tell you this story is that there is magic in Enzo.  When I teach writing, I talk about the craft–the mechanics of writing:  plot, voice, dialog–and I talk about the art–the intangible, the magic, the inspiration, the moment where we lose ourselves in our work it is no longer ours. 

Writing The Art of Racing in the Rain was magic for me, full of joy and inspiration.  I can trace the elements of the story, but I can’t necessarily explain how all these things made Enzo complete.  That’s something that resists explaining, and demands indulgence.  Like a delicious stew, there will always be a certain mystery about it, but that mystery doesn’t detract from the flavor.  In fact, I think it makes the stew all the more memorable….

Happy manifesting,

Garth Stein


Guest Post ~ Author of Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, Judith Matloff

Author Judith Matloff is joining us at Planet Books for her first guest post ever.  Her new book, Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, went on sale on June 24, 2008, and I can’t wait to read my copy.  Below you can read a summary of the book as seen on Judith’s web site below.  You can also listen to interviews with her HERE and HERE where she talks about Home Girl.  At the end of this post is the book trailer for Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block


Summary ~ HOME GIRL – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block

After twenty years abroad as a foreign correspondent in tumultuous locales including Rwanda, Chechnya and Sudan, Judith Matloff is finally ready to put down roots and start a family. She leaves Moscow and returns to her native New York City to house hunt for the perfect spot while her Dutch husband, John, stays behind in Russia with their dog to pack up their belongings. Intoxicated by West Harlem’s cultural diversity, and, more importantly, its affordability, Judith impulsively buy a fixer upper brownstone in the area.

Little does she know what’s in store. Judith and John discover that their dream house was once a crack den and that “fixer upper” is an understatement. The building is a total wreck: The beams have been chewed to dust by termites, the staircase is separating from the wall, and the windows are smashed thanks to a recent break-in. Plus, the house – on a block crowded with throngs of brazen drug dealers – forms the bustling epicenter of the cocaine trade in the Northeast, and heavily armed police regularly appear outside their door in pursuit of the thugs and crack heads who loiter there.

Thus begins an odyssey to win over the neighbors, including Salami, the menacing addict who threatens to take over their house; MacKenzie, the literary homeless man who quotes Latin over morning coffee; Mrs. LaDuke, the salty octogenarian and neighborhood watchdog; and Miguel, the smooth lieutenant of the local drug crew, with whom the couple negotiate safe passage. It’s a far cry from utopia, but it’s a start, and they do all they can to carve out a comfortable life. And by the time they experience the birth of a son, Judith and John have even come to appreciate the neighborhood’s rough charms.

Blending her finely honed reporter’s instincts with superb storytelling, Judith Matloff has crafted a wry, reflective, and hugely entertaining memoir about community, home and real estate.


In brief, the book is about what happened when I abruptly decided to ditch a 20-year career as a foreign correspondent and move back to my native New York City.  I was tired of covering wars and wanted to start a family in peace.  However, I didn’t do my research and didn’t have much money so I bought what I thought was an incredible steal, without realizing that it lay on one of the worst drug afflicted streets on the eastern seaboard.  So much for the quiet life.  That’s only chapter two.  The rest of the book involves my attempt to make a comfortable life in this unlikely spot.  It spans several genres — humor, home improvement, urban affairs and memoir.

People invariably ask how I came to write this book.  I had authored one before, and was now underemployed and looking for a “project.”  I missed full-time work and we desperately needed money.  A couple people were amused by the tales that we told about the misadventure, and a book editor who happened upon a dinner at our house suggested turning a piece that I had written for The New York Times into something longer.  It made sense, and to make a long story short, I quickly found an agent and publisher (Random House.)

The biggest appeal of the book, to me, was writing something amusing.  Most of my journalistic work has been grim stuff about places falling apart.  The most common response I get about my articles is, “That’s depressing.”  I wanted to try a new type of writing, and to entertain people.  I didn’t know if I could pull off the humor, but wanted to give it a try.  The process was surprisingly excruciating.  Not at all fun.  I generally wrote straight and then tweaked the copy to be comical.  Then I’d ask the opinion of witty friends.  I can’t tell you how many drafts fell flat.
I knew from past experience that one had to be passionate to execute a book, and I didn’t lack for drive.  I was engaged with the material, particularly the rich characters that lived on the block.  At first I contemplated writing a novel, because I was a bit worried that the narcotics dealers might come after me if I published under my own name.  I also didn’t want to alienate any neighbors by violating their privacy.  But it seemed unnecessary to mask all this truth as fiction – all I would have done was tell the same story.  As it turns out, so far no one has shot me and the neighbors are actually thrilled to be characters. When the book came out, the main protagonists held a party – even the man from the DA’s office came.  The matriarch on the block has ordered more than a dozen copies for her assorted relatives, and one of the crack heads has asked for a signed copy.  (The other addict character keeps asking me if a movie is going to be made.  “Tell them I want Denzel Washington to play me.”)  The other day I was walking down the block and one of the streetwalkers called out, “Mami, where can I get a copy of the book?”  It’s not every day that you get good reviews from the homeless crowd.  In some ways, that is more gratifying than any review in a newspaper.

I was also worried about what my family would think.  Fortunately – whew! – they all like how they’re portrayed.  (Although my mother doesn’t like my depiction of her driving. On that we stand to differ.)  My son, Anton, who’s now seven, is thrilled to have a chapter named after him.  He likes to stand up front with me when I do readings.  Even though he barely reads Anton seems to think he co-wrote the book.  (While I was writing he’d sometimes climb on my lap and dash off some nonsense on the screen.  I get the impression that he thinks those creations were incorporated into a coherent book.)

Speaking of Anton, many people ask me if I’m nervous bringing up a child in this environment.  After all, our street was once called “Ground Zero” for the drug trade on the northeast.  The answer is: no.  When Anton was a baby he wasn’t aware of what was going on around him. Kids take things at face value without the context — he enjoyed swirling to the meringue music coming from a car without knowing that it belonged to a cocaine baron.  The neighborhood has cleaned up quite a bit so Anton is unlikely to run into narcotics dealers by the time he’s 12.

The final question of course is what comes next.  I had been thinking of a novel or a serious book on war, my journalistic specialty.  But so many strangers have written to ask about the characters that I’m tempted to write a sequel.  That, of course, depends on how everything turns out.

Bio~ Judith Matloff is the author of “Home Girl – Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block” (Random House.)  Judith Matloff was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, lastly as the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor in Moscow and Africa. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Newsweek and The Economist. She is the recipient of various awards, including a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Fulbright fellowship and the Godsell, The Monitor’s highest accolade for correspondence. Matloff teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

She still lives in West Harlem with her family and is at work on a new book.


Profile written on Women’s eNews

Guest Post ~ Author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, Jessica Anya Blau

Author, Jessica Anya Blau, has recently released her debut novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES.  It’s a coming of age story about a teen and her unconventional family.  Jessica has written a hilarious guest post for Planet Books and I am so excited to share it with you.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny and the tone of the post gets me even more excited to receive and read THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES.

Summary ~ The Summer of Naked Swim Parties:  It’s the summer of 1976 and fourteen-year-old Jamie has a list of worries: What if there’s an earthquake? What if the police come while her parents are swimming naked or, worse, smoking pot? What if her friends come over while her mother is cooking waffles wearing only cut-off shorts and an apron, her giant, almost pornographic breasts unbound and free? And, most pressing, what if someone dies? Jamie sees death everywhere: in the pool, on the backyard trampoline, and even on a blanket on the beach, where a piece of glass could break through and stab her. Indeed, there will be a tragedy that summer, although it’s one that Jamie hasn’t imagined. And by September, even though her tan is mahogany, Jamie will discover that the beach is not always a refuge, sex does not bring forth love, friendship can be as heartbreaking as romance, and her family– no matter how crazy, no matter how naked– may be her salvation after all.   

Motherhood and Celebrity Penises

One question I am often asked by readers of my novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, is, “Have your daughters read it?!”  The question is always asked in a way that demands at least one exclamation point, as the novel is full of sex. (Most of it is uncomfortable sex that does not turn out very well for the protagonist, Jamie.  In fact—I’ll digress here—one person at a reading raised his hand and asked if Jamie ever went on to have great sex!)  The novel also has mild drug use (marijuana), alcohol (beer), and lots and lots of naked swimming.  The answer to the question is that I have let my 16-year old daughter read it (she claims she loved it) and I have not let my 11-year old daughter read it (I told her she could read it when she’s fourteen).  They both seem fine with the fact that their mother wrote a book that has sex in it—they’re big readers, they’ve read about sex before.  Also, and I’m not sure this matters much, I don’t drink, or smoke, or swim naked (although I have tried all those things in the past) and so my daughters fully understand that it is not ME, their mother, who is doing the stuff in the book, it is the character.

Now, onto my thoughts about blogging: The wonderful thing about blogs is that it is not characters we are reading about, but the writers themselves.  Blogs are like public diaries, or musings—we, as readers, take what the blogger says to be true.  Also, because they are on the Internet, blogs are more easily consumed than a book that you have to borrow or purchase, then peruse (or all-out read!), to find some tidbit that might titillate you.  A blog can be pulled up in seconds, depending on your Internet connection, and read within minutes. 

When Karen asked me to blog for this site, I considered writing about a weekend I had spent with a somewhat-famous, male, sex-symbolish celebrity (we were both guests in the same home) who did a small jaunt around the house naked and then swam naked in the pool while I, fully clothed, sat on a cushy poolside lounger reading the Los Angeles Times.  The interesting thing to me about this story, is that the celebrity had a very, very, very tiny and pale penis.  It was like a flour-white thumbtack pushed into his pubic hair.  I think a tiny penis is fine, I certainly don’t care and would never criticize anyone because they have a tiny penis (I’d hate to read the blogger who got a good gander at me strolling around naked!).  What shocked me about the penis was that he seemed to have no shame in it—no worry that I would reveal to anyone the fact of his thumbtack.  How marvelous to be so comfortable with whatever you were given at birth.  How liberating to think, “This is it! Voila!  Take it or leave it!”  I envy that poorly-endowed celebrity as I would love to be so accepting of myself, so comfortable in my own skin.  Alas, I am not.  If I leave a room naked and someone else is in that room (my husband, for example) I back my way to the door so as to spare him the view of my undulating rear.
This brings me to my problem with blogging: the easy access, the eternal life on the internet.  If someone were to type into Google Jessica anya blau tiny penis would they pull up my blog?  Would my daughters be forever ashamed because their mother wrote a nonfiction posting about a weency celebrity penis?
Let’s hope not.


You can check out Harper Collins page on Jessica and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES HERE, Jessica’s personal web site HERE and her MySpace page HERE.   THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES is available in stores and on-line now.

Guest Post ~ Author of GOOD PEOPLE, Marcus Sakey

Crime Thriller novelist Marcus Sakey’s third book will be in stores this Thursday, August 14th.  GOOD PEOPLE is about a couple who ends up putting themselves deeply into terrible financial and emotional debt when they unsuccessfully go through multiple infertility treatments.  When they think that all hope is lost, they discover a large sum of money in their dead tenant’s apartment.  What happens next is far from a fairy tale ending.  A nightmare of drug dealers, cops and harrowing experiences intend to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.  Based on the great reviews GOOD PEOPLE continues to receive, I can’t wait till it arrives in my mail box and I can dig in. 

Marcus Sakey has taken time out of his busy schedule to join us here at Planet Books and answer a few questions I was curious about.  Where did he get this idea?  What is going on with him now and what does he like so much about those hectic book tours? 

First off, thanks for having me—it’s an honor to be here.  What you don’t know is that I’m not leaving…

Normally I’d just ramble on about whatever came to my head.  Luckily, Karen spared you all that by providing some questions.  If you have more, please don’t hesitate to post them here, or to email me HERE

PB: Can you tell us a little about your new novel, GOOD PEOPLE? 

Marcus: It’s about, well, good people, specifically a married couple that’s been trying to have a baby.  They haven’t had any luck, and are being crushed by debt from fertility treatments, and that’s straining their marriage and their hope.

Then their tenant, a recluse whose rent had been barely keeping them afloat, dies unexpectedly.  And in his apartment they find almost four hundred thousand dollars in cash.  It seems like the answer to a prayer, a fairy tale ending.  But as they soon discover, fairy tales never come cheap…

PB: Did you experience fertility treatment and financial woes or was it just a topic that is just too common right now that grabbed your attention? 

Marcus: I haven’t, and I really feel for those that have. 

The basis for that portion came as I was dodging starting the book.  I was just surfing, the way people don’t often do anymore.  A click here led to an article there that led to a personal page.  And somewhere along the way I came on a community site designed for people who were trying to have children. 

It was an incredibly intimate experience.

For a lot of people, having children isn’t the simple prospect it’s “supposed” to be.  For a lot of people, millions, it’s a lot more challenging.  It involves doctor visits and calendars and daily temperature readings and shots and procedures.  It can cost an enormous amount of money and be a brutal experience.

The sites I found were incredible.  Normal people posted regularly, supporting one another through this difficult process.  They wrote about their frustration and pain, about their dreams, about what the process was doing to their marriage.  They wrote about it with a simple honest that was heartbreaking.  It certainly broke mine. 

And as I read more—and I scoured these things for days—I realized that this was something I needed to write about.  It was hard, and terrible, and real. 

PB: When you write, do you have a specific process you go by like laptop..check, study…check, office hours… check?  Or is there no rhyme or reason to your ways?

Marcus: I’m reasonably organized.  If you want to write for a living, you have to treat it like a job.  I write five days a week, and I have daily word counts.

Well, that’s not perfectly true anymore.  It used to be that I wouldn’t get out of the chair without having written 1,000 words that I intended to keep.  But lately, I’ve changed it to 5,000 words a week.  Some days I just stare at the wall and hate myself.  I’ve come to realize that’s part of my process.  But I still need to make up the word count.

PB: What are you looking forward to happening when people read your book?

Marcus: First, always, is that I wrote something that keeps people up at night and makes them blow their train stops.  I think of myself as a storyteller first.

But if I was really successful, hopefully people also feel the characters and the situation linger with them, maybe even let them think about something differently. 

PB: Are you going on a book tour?  What are you looking forward to most about the experience? 

Marcus: I am.  In the weeks following the release, I’ll be in Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland.  Later in the year I’ll be hitting Atlanta, New York, Springfield, Ann Arbor, Birmingham, and probably a few other places.

I love touring, because it gives me a chance to hang out with other book people.  I hope some of your readers will drop by—it’s casual, just a chance to chat.  I’m even throwing parties in Chicago, Austin, and Portland.  Free booze!  How can you lose?

You can find my complete schedule HERE

PB: What do you like to read in your spare time?

Marcus:In a word?  Everything.  I read a lot of crime fiction, since that’s my genre, but I also read piles of literary fiction, some sci-fi, some fantasy.  I could go on all day if you let me.  I don’t know any novelists who aren’t first and foremost addicts of the written word.  That’s half the reason we write.

PB: What are you working on now?

Marcus: Well, I can’t give away too much, because I’m only halfway through it.  But I will say that my wife says it’s my best ever.  God bless her.


Thanks so much to Marcus Sakey for his great insight and I wish him great success with his latest novel, GOOD PEOPLE.  Marcus is also the author of THE BLADE ITSELF which won the 2007 Strand’s Critic Award for Best First Mystery Novel.  His second novel is AT THE CITY’S EDGE.  You can check out his website at for more information.  You can also find a list of Marcus’s favorite books on his site HERE.  Check out a great pic of Marcus and his new book GOOD PEOPLE on HERE. (This is also just a great website full of wonderful resources.)

Guest Post ~ Author of The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff

Author David Ebershoff’s new novel, The 19th Wife, will be in stores Tuesday, August 5th.  It’s a tale about prophet and leader, Brigham Young’s wife, Ann Eliza Young, who separated herself from their marriage into polygamy and her work against the polygamist lifestyle and bringing it to an end in the United States.  It is also a story of murder and polygamy in present day Utah.  
David has taken the time to talk with us here at Planet Books about what initially inspired him to write The 19th Wife and the research he did to help build the story.  Also, he touches on what is keeping him busy right now, writing his next novel as well as what books have his attention this summer.   
Photo © Edith High Sanchez
Photo © Edith High Sanchez

I first heard about the so-called 19th Wife seven years ago, when I was working with a scholar of 19th-century women’s history on a book for the Modern Library.  This scholar mentioned Ann Eliza Young to me in passing, saying she had been Brigham Young’s 19th and final wife and had left the Mormon Church in 1875 to crusade against American polygamy.  That was enough to hook me.  Who was this 19th Wife? I wondered.  And what does that even mean – to be a  19th wife?  Those questions stayed with me.  After some time, I started reading about Ann Eliza.  Almost at once I knew I wanted to write about her. She was a bold, outspoken, defiant, somewhat reckless woman raised in a society where none of those qualities were encouraged.  I wanted to understand how she had become who she was.  At the same time, I was curious about her legacy.  Although she played a role in forcing the Mormon Church to officially renounce polygamy in 1890, the story did not end there.  In remote outposts of the American southwest polygamy continued to be practiced with astonishing vigor.  I decided I should interview a few plural wives in order to understand their experiences in plural marriage.  Once I heard these stories, which reminded me in many ways of Ann Eliza’s life, I knew I had to figure out a way to connect the story of the so-called 19th Wife to that of polygamy today.  I spent almost a year reading, interviewing, and thinking, trying to conceive of a novel that could hold the various narratives I wanted to tell.  Then it all came together, and I sat down and got to work.

 A Novel

With The 19th Wife finished, I’ve turned to a new novel, one that cuts back and forth in time and plays with genre.  But I’m not going to say anything else about it, because it’s too early in the process and my vision of  it will inevitably change.

I’m spending my summer reading HG Wells.  He will be my companion as I head out on book tour.  In addition, I’ve read three books recently that are coming out soon that I absolutely love.   The first is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.  This is a book for anyone who loves poetry and literary history.  Through the lens of a remarkable friendship, Wineapple unwraps for us the secrets of Dickinson’s artistic life.  If you’ve ever been stunned by the beauty of an Dickinson poem, then you have to read White Heat.  The second book is Stray Dog Winter by David Francis, a Cold War thriller set in Moscow, 1984.  The novel is about a young, gay Australian artist who finds himself ensnared in a murky KGB plot.  I love the book because the hero, or anti-hero, is so unlikely, and because Francis couples exquisite prose with genuine page-turning suspense.   It’s a wonderful book, like a fusion of novels by Alan Furst and Edmund White.  The last book I want to mention is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.  The novel imagines the life of someone similar to Laura Bush.  It’s not a biography and it isn’t even a political book: it’s a poignant, masterful portrait of a complex, intelligent woman.  Some people have already criticized Sittenfeld for writing the book, falsely claiming it is a hatchet job on the First Lady.  But most of these critics have not read the book (it doesn’t come out until September).  When they do they will see that Sittenfeld writes with profound honesty and compassion.  The book is gentle, generous, and truthful.  Some people wonder whether the novel still has relevance in our society.  American Wife shows the vast potential of the form.  It’s an exceptional book and Sittenfeld, still so young, is one of our greatest writers.  I read American Wife two months ago and a day hasn’t passed since without my thinking of it.

You can visit David Ebershoff at his website as well as listen to an interview with the author on NPR HERE.   The 19th Wife will be available August 5th in hardcover at all bookstores and on-line stores.

Guest Post ~ Author of Schooled, Anisha Lakhani

Working on my book blog Planet Books has helped open many new doors for me in the book reviewing field.  I have had the pleasure of reading great new books and the privilege of meeting and corresponding with their authors. 

One of my most memorable and special correspondences has been with the wonderful and charming Anisha Lakhani, author of Schooled.  She has joined us for a guest post here at Planet Books.  Her debut novel will be in stores this Tuesday, August 5th, and I couldn’t be more excited for her.  I enjoyed this book very much and hope that you will too.  Anisha discusses a little bit of everything here and has surprisingly flattered me beyond words.  So without anything more from me… Anisha Lakhani.

Hello all – this is Anisha Lakhani, author of Schooled.  OMG as my students would say, what a lame-o way to start a guest post, but this is my first guest post ever (will admit I am having a terribly good time already) and have decided to relax and be myself.  Okay, I did spend Friday trying to think of clever openings and amazing tips for first time authors, but in the end have decided to stick to simple and true.

I fell in love with this blog because its author has one incredibly good-looking dog named Rocky.  Sorry if you think that’s weird, but I dedicated Schooled to my shitzu Harold Moscowitz (another lengthy blog required to explain that name) and anyone with a cool dog is a friend of mine.  Once you get past Rocky’s good looks and start navigating the site, you realize that it’s a place real book-lovers go, and that’s me.  So truly I am quite honored to be posting.

Photographed by Jim Dratfield
Photographed by Jim Dratfield

Schooled is a book that comes directly from my personal experiences.  Like Harry Potter’s cape, I use “fiction” and some healthy doses of dramatization and embellishment to keep me safe. . . after all, I live in the lion’s den: in the heart of the Upper East Side.  I was a teacher and a tutor for ten years, and left both two years ago to write full time.  If you read Schooled seriously – which I know is difficult to do after encountering the faux-mitzvah bash at Cipriani 42nd street – you’ll see that I have some strong feelings about what I think is, at base, wrong with education in certain schools across the country.  But if you take Schooled to the beach and it makes you laugh, then I’m equally happy. Someone on Amazon reviewed my book as “fluff,” and I was like, “I’ve always had a predilection for marshmallows.”  And using “like” non-stop is a disease I caught while teaching and sadly, it like conquered me.

I’m currently working on my next novel, and drinking way too many Vitamin Waters (lemonade flavor and YES partially because I think it will make me healthy) and suffering from massive doses of writer’s block.  Please visit me at my website and drop me a line – people keep saying “You must be so busy your book is coming out” but really all I have been doing when not hard at work on my next novel (not really I just enjoy saying that a lot) is madly and passionately falling in love with Edward Cullen, the completely hot vampire in Stephanie Meyer’s four-book saga.  So do write because I’m planning on having a reputation of writing back. I hope you enjoy getting Schooled!


Anisha Lakhani

Schooled will be available for purchase Tuesday, August 5th.  You can visit Anisha Lakhani’s website HERE.  Anisha will also be over at The Debutante Ball grog (group blog) on August 9th.   

Guest Post ~ Author of Keeping The House, Ellen Baker

I have had so much fun reading KEEPING THE HOUSE and corresponding with author, Ellen Baker, on our interview and receiving her guest post for Planet Books.  At the end of the week we will learn whom she will be sending a signed copy of her breakthrough novel to.  Ellen has been so generous and that is even more apparent when I received her awesome, revealing and thoughtful guest post this morning.  I hope that you enjoy reading it and hearing what she has to say about herself and her experiences writing KEEPING THE HOUSE as much as I did.  Enjoy! 

KEEPING THE HOUSE evolved out of my experiences and fascinations over a period of about ten years, beginning when I was going into my junior year of college.  I’d always loved stories and loved to write – in fact, by this time, I’d already written two novels.  (Of course, I have to add the disclaimer that all writers add about their first works – they were awful – but I only mean to illustrate that I really loved writing and had a definite degree of stick-to-it-iveness.  As it turned out, it was all good practice!)  So, that summer when I was 20, I got an internship at a local historical society in a beautiful little town on the shores of Green Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, and I began to write a novel about a family called the Mickelsons who had lost a son in World War I.  It was 1919, and the family came to their summer home in “Stone Harbor, Wisconsin” for the first summer after the war and tried to pretend nothing had happened. 

I worked on this novel for several years, but meanwhile, the life that was unfolding for me would ultimately inspire – in bits and pieces – KEEPING THE HOUSE.  For example, after college, I spent a year working at a living history farm, where I learned how to quilt by hand, and spent many hours gathered around the quilt frame with my co-workers trading stories and gossip.  Dolly’s quilting experiences are loosely based on mine – though no one ever pulled out any of my too-big, beginner stitches!

Then, in March of 2000, I met Jay Baker, a soldier in the 101st Airborne, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  He was only 21 (I was a worldly 24) and told me before I left to drive back north – I was living in Door County again by this time – that he had fallen for me.  “Head over heels, I think is the term,” he said, with an endearing humility and a little laugh.  Three months later, we were engaged, despite the 700 miles between us.  We spent hours on the phone, and counted down to our usually monthly visits.  Each time we were together, the pain of separating became more extreme.  “One of us is going to have to quit our job,” he said.  “And if I quit mine, I go to jail!”  So, in the summer of 2001, I did.  I got hired back on at The Homeplace and moved down on Memorial Day, just three months before the wedding we’d already planned.  Jay was scheduled to get out of the Army that December, so I planned to live with him in Kentucky for six months, doing a lot of writing (plus, I had finished the 1919 novel and was trying to get an agent for it) and getting married in the midst of it. 

Well, the “getting an agent” part didn’t happen – I collected a folder full of rejections –  and the writing part didn’t work out much better, because we were married on September 8, 2001, and, after 9/11, we waited for word that Jay would be sent to Afghanistan.  And I learned that pinning my hopes to a soldier in a time like that was a bit like running myself back and forth through an old wringer washer, day after day after day.  Though I didn’t make a conscious choice to write about this experience, both Dolly and Wilma experience the same sort of helplessness – Dolly in the unwanted move to Pine Rapids and her consequent difficulties, and Wilma when her sons go off to war.

But I had one more stop before KEEPING THE HOUSE would come to be.  In 2002, just after Jay got out of the Army – it was an anticlimactic, near-miss of an ending, as he got out just about a week before his unit was sent overseas – I became the curator of a World War II museum in northern Wisconsin.  Part of my job was to conduct oral history interviews with veterans, and they told me things they hadn’t spoken of in sixty years.  I was honored to be the one that these men trusted with their stories, and I felt a real bond with them, or at least with the boys they’d been during the war (I often didn’t find out anything about what they’d done for the rest of their lives).  I would never have been able to write about the troubled JJ Mickelson without having known these veterans – though I should clarify (due to JJ’s frequent bad behavior!) that JJ is purely a product of my imagination.

Meanwhile, I was trying hard to fulfill my role as a newly-married homeowner!  In 2002, Jay and I moved into an old colonial-style house, and, much to my dismay, I suddenly began to imagine that I had to be a perfect “housewife.”  I found myself more concerned with whether the dishes were washed and the grocery shopping done than with any of my other goals.  Dust had never bothered me before, but now, seeing it gathered in corners seemed to me a representation of my personal failures.  As a person who had always enjoyed the life inside my mind more than real life, homemaking was decidedly not my cup of tea.  Yet, some women I knew were appalled by my lack of interest in cleaning, and Jay’s co-workers would comment disparagingly on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the lunchbox he’d packed – gasp – for himself.  To his credit, Jay would scoff at those who scorned me for not cooking and cleaning for him appropriately.  But, like Dolly, I tended to listen too much to what other people said, and couldn’t help but take the criticism somewhat to heart.

Ultimately, I never got an agent for the 1919 novel, and that turned out to be a good thing, because I decided to shelve it and start something new – a  novel that would concern my beloved Mickelson family during WWII (so I thought – of course, as it turned out, I would write about fifty years of their lives).  I also decided to give up my full-time job at the museum in favor of part-time work at a bookstore.  This allowed me to really pursue writing – I attended workshops, read, studied, researched, and met other writers who would read my work and give me feedback.  And, of course, I wrote and wrote and rewrote and rewrote.  Three years later, I had finished KEEPING THE HOUSE, plus gotten an agent and a two-book contract with Random House.  Those were probably the hardest three years of work of my life, and they were absolutely the best and most rewarding, too. 

Now, I’m working on my next novel, also historical fiction – my main characters are women shipbuilders during WWII.  They’re very strong women, but, like Dolly and Wilma, they’re conflicted about many things.  Every day, I look forward to seeing what they’ll do next!

You can read my review of KEEPING THE HOUSE and enter the giveaway that ends this Friday night HERE and catch up with Ellen Baker in our interview HERE.  Also, be sure to check out her website at as well as her MySpace page HERE.  She also created a MySpace page for her main character Dolly and you can check it out HERE.  Ellen has upcoming appearances through October and you can check out her schedule HERE. 

Guest Post ~ Author of House & Home, Kathleen McCleary

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of reading House & Home by Kathleen McCleary.  I absolutely loved it and reviewed it HERE.  Kathleen is now a Washingtonian (D.C. that is) but she left her heart in Oregon which is where this novel derived from.  I asked Kathleen if she would kindly write a guest post about her expereinces while writing House & Home for us here at Planet Books and she has graciously obliged. 

It still seems somewhat unreal to me that at age forty-eight, I can walk into a bookstore and find my book, the one I wrote, there on the shelves.
Writing my first novel was a little like stumbling off a curb in the dark. I started the novel not because I wanted to write a novel, but because I had just moved across country and left my home of twelve years and was in such a turmoil of grief and anger over the whole thing that I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Here’s what I can tell you I learned about writing during the almost three years it took me to write a novel:
-Try not to care what anyone else thinks. I got about 100 pages into my novel and suddenly realized that maybe I actually WAS writing a novel. I started to worry about what other people might think if they read it, whether or not I could ever get it published, if it might get savagely reviewed. I got so worried that I stopped writing, for almost six months. My husband finally gave me a piece of advice that I clung to like a shipwreck survivor: Just finish it. The act of actually writing an entire book is a huge accomplishment in itself, and something you can be totally proud of, regardless of whether or not it ever gets published.
-Listen to your readers. After spending several months writing alone in a room in my house, I had no idea whether or not my first efforts at fiction were good, average or god-awful. So I signed up for an online novel-writing class at There, I read other writers’ work, and posted my own chapters for feedback from the teacher and other class members. It was invaluable. While the writers were an eclectic group (genres included vampire fiction, chick lit, a CIA-thriller, and a detective novel), they all read my novel carefully and responded honestly. In response to their feedback I changed several key plot points, added dialogue, and worked to flesh out various characters. Now that the book is out in the real world, I love hearing from readers about what worked and what didn’t. I’m absorbing all the input and applying what I’ve learned to my second novel.
-Go for a lot of walks. Any time I got really stuck while writing, I went for a long, hard walk over a route with lots of hills. Puffing and sweating was a great release for me, and I got most of my best ideas and sudden insights while walking.
-Listen to music. I can’t write with background noise, so my room is pretty silent when I’m working. But when I’m walking or doing housework, I listen to music—Counting Crows, Martina McBride, Lyle Lovett, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen. They’re all terrific songwriters. I found that listening to the vivid imagery in song lyrics, and to the rhythm of the words, really inspired my writing.

You can learn more about Kathleen McCleary and her novel House & Home at her website  House & Home was featured in the Home & Garden section of  The N.Y. Times.  You can check out the article HERE.  Also, if you are interested in checking out the classes that has to offer just click HERE.

Interview With Author Ellen Baker

Author Ellen Baker of the newly released paperback Keeping The House ever so graciously accepted my Q&A request and kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer a dozen questions about her book and writing.  Ellen is currently promoting her novel, Keeping The House with the help of a book tour.  Her event schedule and more information about her and her book can be found on her website HEREKeeping The House was listed as one of the Chicago Tribune’s “Favorite Books of 2007”, was a featured selection of the Doubleday Book Club, and was selected as an “Insider Discovery” title of the Literary Guild.

To learn more about Keeping The House and enter in the signed copy book giveaway please check out my review HERE.  To refresh your memory, here is a summary of the book followed by my interview with the lovely Ellen Baker.

Summary ~ “When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.  Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and joining the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  Soon her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by a vacant house, owned by the once-prominent Mickelson family.  As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of the Mickelson men and women – and unravels dark secrets woven through the generations of a family.  As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of heroism and passion, of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war, and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.” 

PB:  What originally inspired you to write the family saga that became Keeping The House?
Ellen:  I was originally inspired to write about the Mickelson family when I spent a summer in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, during college, about ten years ago.  I was working at the local historical society at the time and learning a lot about the history of the area, and I found it so interesting that “summer people” came back to this idealized place year after year for a break from their everyday lives and concerns, especially since this was a lifestyle I’d never experienced.  I wondered what would happen to a family hoping to go back to their old summer way of life after suffering a terrible tragedy, something they wouldn’t be able to “get over” just by escaping to this gorgeous place.  The story expanded from there, and that original setting – the summer of 1919 following Jack Mickelson’s return from World War I – ultimately became just one chapter of Keeping The House.

PB:  Who was your first character and which one came the easiest to you to write a point of view from?
Ellen:  The Mickelson family came first, all at once – John, Wilma, Jack, Chase, Harry, and Jinny.  Dolly Magnuson came toward the end of the process, but she was the easiest to write about.
PB:  I have read that you admitted that Harry Mickelson is your favorite character.  Who is your least favorite?  Are you a character in your book?

Ellen:  I really don’t have a “least favorite” character; I imagine I feel about my characters the way I would if I had children – I love them no matter how badly they behave!  I don’t believe that I’m any character in my book, though of course they all contain elements of me.  I’m like Dolly in many ways, although I didn’t think so when I was first writing about her.  I’m more of a “sit back and think” person while she’s “act first and think later,” but we’re both dreamers and romantics and we both wish and strive for the impossible.  I think that Anne is probably who I wish I was… and Wilma is who I might have been had I lived a century ago.
PB:  You have a powerful attraction to the World War eras and have devoted so much of yourself to study and preserve this time in American history.  What about this period attracted you in the first place?
Ellen:  I’m not sure exactly where it began, but the more I learned about the first half of the twentieth century in America, the more I found it all so fascinating.  I love the fashion, the music, the way people use language.  I love the fact that technology is developing so rapidly and changing the way people live.  And I think that during the wars, life was lived at a very intense pitch.  There’s a lot of love and romance and a lot of violence and grief; I guess the contrast and the collision of all these forces are what fascinate me.

PB:  When you write, do you use paper and pen or a computer?  Do you have a time and place that you have to write within?
Ellen:  I use a laptop computer, and I like to be comfortable – so I’m usually sprawled out on the couch, with a cup of tea not far away.  I find that first thing in the morning is my best time to write, but I’ll write and revise all day long if I can.

PB:  What is your favorite part of the novel writing process?
Ellen:  I don’t think I could pick just one part of it – I enjoy the whole process.  I love research and character development, I love writing a first draft and being surprised by what happens, and I love editing and seeing all the elements of the story coming together into a coherent whole.
PB:  Did the story go the way you always thought it would or did twists and turns surprise you as you wrote them?
Ellen:  There were many, many surprises along the way!  When I started writing, I really didn’t know what the story was going to be, exactly, beyond the idea of following the Mickelson family through the two world wars.  I didn’t at all write the chapters of Keeping The House in the sequence they appear in the book now.  Some of the earliest scenes I wrote were about Elissa and Nick meeting at the dance, and about Wilma making pickles, as well as the World War I scenes from John’s point of view (including the one that now is on page 398!).   I’d actually been working on the book for almost two years before Dolly came on the scene.  That she became the centerpiece of the book – what I ended up structuring the rest of the novel around – was the biggest surprise of all.
PB:  You wrote Wilma Mickelson as a piano virtuoso.  Do you have a musical background?  If so, is the piano your instrument and what is your favorite piece of music to play?
Ellen:  I made Wilma a pianist because she needed to have an abiding passion, something she was conflicted about giving up.  I’m not a pianist – I just took a couple of years of lessons when I was about seven and eight years old – but I was pretty serious about the flute when I was in high school and into college, so I can identify with the process of practicing a piece to try to achieve perfection.  I’ve always liked playing the piano for fun, though, and I’ve enjoyed attempting to play Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, which Wilma plays (much more successfully!) in the novel. 
PB:  Have you ever made any of the recipes you researched for Dolly to prepare for her husband Byron?  Any favorites?  In your first years of marital bliss did you keep a cooking journal like Dolly?
Ellen:  You’re funny!  I haven’t made any of Dolly’s recipes, actually, but a bakery is preparing her Lacy Raisin Wafers for book clubs (people can visit my website to sign up to win some) so I’ve sampled those and they’re very good.  I had fun researching the recipes and planning the menus for Dolly and Byron… and when I was newly married I guess I did try to plan out each week’s menus and pay attention to what my husband liked and didn’t like, but I certainly wasn’t as efficient as Dolly!  I imagine if I’d been married in 1950 I would probably have been just like her, though, in the context of those times.  Fortunately for me, getting married in 2001, I was able to put most of my obsessive creative energy into writing fiction.
PB:  Throughout Keeping The House you have quotes from different publications from the first half of the twentieth century.  Which one did you find most outrageous?
Ellen:  The quotes from the Look magazine article “The Other Woman Is Often the Creation of the Wife” and the idea that if a husband is having an affair it is up to his wife to “make adjustments” and “be more cheerful and attractive than usual” seem pretty outrageous. 
PB:  On your MySpace page you have posted a picture of a banister and two portraits.  Was there really a Mickelson family and house or are these pictures of your own banister and relatives?
Ellen:  The Mickelsons are totally fictional, and somewhere, someone is going to be surprised that I stole photos of their relatives out of a yearbook-type section of photos in a history about a small town in Wisconsin!  It wasn’t my intention – I got the book to help me lay out the town of Pine Rapids – but when I saw those photos, it was clear to me that that woman was Wilma and that man was Harry.  I always rifle through old photos at antique shops, too, to see if I can find unlabeled photos that seem to be a character.  The banister photo was taken in a bed and breakfast that I visited.  I stole architectural details from many B&B’s in Wisconsin to design the Mickelson house.
PB:  What is the most interesting question you have received while on your book tour to promote Keeping The House?
Ellen:  I’ve received lots of really interesting questions, but one that sticks out in my mind is “What is the significance of the color red for Dolly?”  I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms – somehow I always just knew she’d be drawn to the color.  I remember when I wrote Dolly’s first quilting group scene, there was no question in my mind what she would be wearing – the flaring white dress with red trim and the bright red lipstick (which makes her feel conspicuous among the subdued ladies of the group).  But as a result of getting this question, I realized that red does symbolize Dolly’s passion and daring, and shows how different she is from the other people in Pine Rapids.

Guest Post: Author Susan Coll Talks About Her Home Town Strip

I am very excited and honored to have author Susan Coll grace us with a guest post here at Planet Books!  She is the author of three novels, A Love StoryROCKVILLE PIKE and ACCEPTANCE.  Susan has shared with us the thoughts and events that put her novel ROCKVILLE PIKE into motion here at Planet Books.

~ “Wacky, heartwarming, and deliciously smart, this novel ( A Love Story) of heartbreak and hilarity on the doctoral circuit is the intersection of Laura Zigman, Nora Ephron, and Richard Russo.” 

~ ROCKVILLE PIKE  “is a smart, witty, and funny read that revels in the joy of discovering what life has in store.”  It takes place in Rockville, MD where I attended community college for a couple of years and have loved to shop and dine since I can remember. 

~ ACCEPTANCE is “a comic chronicle of a year in the life in the college admissions cycle.” 


      Cover             A Suburban Comedy of Manners Cover     

                                      A Novel Cover


                                                   On Locality

      My last two books, Rockville Pike and Acceptance, were deemed “too American” by international publishers. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this—they are distinctly American, both in the specificity of their suburban settings and in the subject matter, but what strikes me as ironic is that I couldn’t have written either of these books had I not recently returned from six years living overseas. Newspapers routinely rotate their foreign correspondents so that they come to their subjects with a fresh eye, and I think it was a six-year absence from this country, and nine years away from the Washington D.C. area, that enabled me to view my surroundings, and the most routine aspects of daily suburban life, with a sense of wonder.

     Rockville Pike—the road, not the book—begins in Washington, DC, where it is known as Wisconsin Avenue, and it then stretches 41 miles, changing its name eight times as it straddles the border into Maryland and stretches north through the traffic clogged suburbs and ex-burbs and then into whatever patches remain of rural farmland. The Pike portion of the road runs through the eponymous town of Rockville, Maryland. Just say Rockville Piketo anyone familiar with the area and he or she will inevitably recount a recent journey to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or Circuit City, or to Best Buy, or maybe Toys R Us. You know this road, because there is one in every stretch of America, and possibly in every corner of the world these days. Even while traveling in India, about three years ago, one of my kids remarked that the road we were on, running from New Delhi to a rural village about an hour outside the capitol, looked like Rockville Pike, as it was dotted with shopping malls, gleaming new condominiums, and an overabundance of Pizza Huts.

    It was during a routine day of running errands along my own Rockville Pike that I had the epiphany that led to the creation of that novel. I remember quite clearly that it was a January afternoon, and that I was feeling somewhat sapped of spirit from all of the traffic and the prospect of my still long, dull, to-do list. I needed a break, and there, off to the left as I headed south, was the small graveyard where I had heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were buried. Tender is the Night is one of my all-time favorite books, and I decided to pull off the road and pay the author my respects. Fitzgerald’s family is originally from Rockville , and although he never lived in the area, he was nonetheless buried in the family plot at St. Mary’s church (although it is said that he was first buried at another local cemetery, and was later re-interred here after his daughter, Scottie, convinced the church to accept him despite the fact that he had not lived the life of a model Catholic). I stood there contemplating the strangeness of this locale, considering the fact that Fitzgerald, with no real connection to this area, had come to rest in the middle of a noisy, wildly busy, crisscrossing, confusing intersection, in this not particularly bucolic patch of  Maryland. I imagined how, many years ago, this road had been a dusty Indian trail, and later research revealed that James Polk and Andrew Jackson had traveled this road by stage coach, stopping at local inns along the way.  I looked again at his gravestone, which is inscribed with the last sentence of the Great Gatsby: And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  And then I looked up and saw a giant discount furniture store across the street, and I knew that this was going to be the subject of my next novel.

     Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think I would have seen this landscape in quite the same way had I been living in the same place all of these years, traversing that same stretch of Pike. I suspect that the giant discount furniture store (or really, all the giant discount furniture stores) would have become part of scenery that blurred in the background as I ran my errands, and had I looked out across the street from the graveyard—where I probably would not have stopped in the first place since it would not have seemed quite so novel—the presence of a furniture store would have struck me as the norm. I think it’s only because I had come to this landscape with a little jet lag of the soul after moving from New York to New Delhi to London to suburban Maryland in the space of nine years, that I was able to see what was peculiar about this juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, the buy-now-no-payment-due-for-a-year sort of discount furniture store in such close proximity the tombstone of one of America’s most celebrated authors, beside which sat an empty champagne bottle, a bunch of dead flowers, and a puddle of melted blue candle wax.

Karen, who has been exceedingly generous in asking me to write this guest blog, knows the Rockville area herself, and she asked me if I had any favorite restaurants along the Pike. I didn’t quite realize until I began to think about this that one thing that’s really wonderful about Rockville Pike these days is the availability of great ethnic food. There are at least six Vietnamese restaurants serving pho. There’s great Japanese at Hinode, plus a good new fast-food Japanese noodle shop in Congressional Plaza. There’s fabulous dim sum further up, which is worth the forty minute drive from my house. I can’t actually think of a good all-American place along the way, because in fact Rockville Pike, while maybe too American a book, has become a great, sprawling, international melting pot.


Author Bio from  Susan Coll was born in New York, and attended Occidental College, in Los Angeles. She currently lives outside Washington, D.C. ACCEPTANCE is her third novel.  She is also the author of the novels ROCKVILLE PIKE and KARLMARX.COM, and has worked as a freelance writer and book reviewer. Her articles have appeared in publications including the International Herald Tribune, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Washington Post. A short story set in India, Fire Safety Week, was broadcast on BBC World Service Radio, and the first chapter of the novel BRAIN FEVER, written with J.H. Diehl, appeared in the literary journal ENHANCED GRAVITY.