Guest Post ~ Pope Joan Author, Donna Cross

Pope JoanI recently received a lovely e-mail from Pope Joan author, Donna Cross.  I was very excited to find her e-mail in my in box and even more excited to learn that she was asking me to consider promoting a contest being held on her web site.  The winner of the contest will get to walk the red carpet at the film premier of Pope Joan.  I have a copy of Pope Joan and am thrilled to host Donna Cross here at Planet Books by way of her guest post.  Pope Joan is a great historical fiction novel about the legendary female Pope who, legend has it, held the position of Pope around 850 A.D. 

I hope you will go check out the contest rules and enter to win HERE.  Without further adieu, here is Donna Cross!  


DOnna Cross

The Heart of the Matter

When I asked Karen what she would like me to write for my guest blog, she replied, “About the initial intrigue you felt for Pope Joan and your reaction to the novel being picked up by Hollywood.”

Though separated greatly by time–it was over ten years between my “initial intrigue” for Joan and the novel’s optioning by Hollywood–these questions are deeply interconnected, for they speak directly to how I feel about my heroine.

I first came across Joan’s story in a piece of chance reading–a passing reference in a French book to “Le Pape Jeanne”–Pope Joan.  At first I thought this was an amusing typo, a “slip of the pen” that accidentally substituted “Jeanne” for “Jean”.  But a few weeks later, my daughter Emily had an assignment for school that required her to go to the library.  She was then too young to drive herself, so I had to take her. (She’s now an accomplished veterinarian, so you see how long it took me to write this freakin’ book!)

While Emily was off doing her research, I had time to kill.  So I wandered over to the New Catholic Encyclopedia to check out that odd passing reference.  Truth to tell, I didn’t expect to find anything.  But when there was an entry in the NCE for “Pope Joan”, I stood in that library with my jaw dropped open.  I couldn’t believe it–could not believe that such a remarkable story had existed for centuries–and I hadn’t even heard of it! 

I knew on the spot that it’s what I wanted to write about.  I thought then–hey, I still think–that it’s a “drop-dead” story, as they say in the book business.  I was astonished at my good fortune in having stumbled across it.

So what first intrigued me about Joan’s story was its secrecy, for it is one of the great lost mystery-legends of history.  What kept me interested was the woman herself.  She’s an inspiring example of female empowerment through learning.  In a time when it was widely believed that women could not reason and should not be educated, she was renowned for the brilliance of her mind and the superiority of her learning (some chroniclers describe her as a “prodigy of learning”, just like Mozart was a “prodigy of music”).   What a stirring story for our daughters, and all the daughters of the world (many of whom are still struggling for the right to education just as Joan did over a thousand years ago). 

pope_joan_movie_still 1

Over the long course of over seven years of researching and writing this novel, I came to admire my heroine Joan very much. So of course I was worried about what the movie would be like.  I took to heart the words of one fellow-writer who said, “Optioning your book to a movie company is like handing your child over to the Charles Manson day-care center!”  

I didn’t write the screenplay for the upcoming Constantin Film, but I helped with it (the screenwriter/director were very generous about including me).  And here’s what I learned:  each page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen time, so 140 pages equals a 2 hour, 20 minute film.  My novel is 400 pages long.  140 pages to tell a 400 page story–of course it’s impossible to fully realize any novel in movie form–unless you’re willing to sit through a 6 hour film!


All a novelist can hope for, when her book is turned into film, is that the movie stay true to the “deep heart” of the story.  The upcoming release by Constantin has certainly accomplished this, for the theme of female empowerment through learning remains intact–enhanced by the dramatic imagery of the silver screen.  Johanna Wokalek is brilliant as Joan, as is David Wenham (voted Sexiest Australian of 2007) as Gerold.  When he asks Joan to come away with him, sacrificing all that she has accomplished and  become, you REALLY feel her temptation!  John Goodman was born to play the part of Pope Sergius;  those who have only seen him as a comedy actor do not yet know how powerful he can be in a dramatic role. 


 I think that Joan herself, if she was anything like the woman I imagined in my novel, would be pleased at this re-telling of her story.  If it inspires even one young girl to stay in school, to work her absolute hardest in full exercise of her qualities of mind, heart, and spirit, then the movie will have done its job.  And so will I.

Guest Post & Giveaway ~ Best Intentions by Emily Listfield

I would love to welcome Emily Listfield to Planet Books and congratulate her on the release of her brand new novel, Best Intentions, available in stores Tuesday, May 5th.  Emily has written a guest post for Planet Books’ readers and shares some insight into what is happening in Best Intentions.  She also asks a pretty interesting question so read on to find out and enter to win a copy of Best Intentions


What would you do if you if these clues began to pile up?

Emily ListfieldIn Best Intentions, the narrator, Lisa, has been married to Sam for fifteen years. They  met in a college and now, both 39, they have two daughters they love dearly.  But their marriage is going through a down period. “Sam has seemed restive for reasons I can’t quite place,” Lisa says.  “It has grown  contagious, a malaise that has metastasized between us into a desultory low-level dissatisfaction, nothing I can touch, nothing worthy of accusation or argument, and yet.”  Slowly she begins so suspect he is having affair.  Here are the clues:
1.  Sam tells Lisa he will be working late but she when she listens to a message on his cell phone, she hears a woman’s voice, soft and intimate, saying, “I’m going to be a little late tonight.  Can we make it six-thirty? Same place.”
2.  Later that same night, she hears him whispering into the phone:  “I just couldn’t do it.  Not tonight.”
3. Sam, a business journalist, tells Lisa he is going to Chicago to interview a source for a story.  But when Lisa calls his office, she finds out the story was killed weeks ago.
4.  When Lisa confronts Sam and asks if he is having an affair, he denies it.  In fact, he has a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything. 
5.  But then Lisa discovers photographs of Sam with another woman (you’ll have to read the book to find out who) and suddenly it seems like a game change.

So here’s the question:  Lisa loves Sam and they have two young children she wants to protect. She’s known him most of her life – and he’s never lied to her before.   She doesn’t have absolute proof and she’s worried that if she confronts him she will lose everything. And yet….   What would you do?  Weigh in.  But while you’re thinking up your answer, ask yourself this, too:  How well do you really know the people you love?


Emily Listfield and her publisher, Atria, is providing a copy of Best Intentions for a giveaway here at Planet Books.  To enter to win, weigh in on Emily’s question, “Lisa loves Sam and they have two young children she wants to protect. She’s known him most of her life – and he’s never lied to her before.   She doesn’t have absolute proof and she’s worried that if she confronts him she will lose everything. And yet….   What would you do?  Weigh in.  But while you’re thinking up your answer, ask yourself this, too:  How well do you really know the people you love?”  The giveaway will commence on Sunday, May 10th at Midnight EST.

Part 1 ~ Q&A and Giveaway with Kelly Garcia and Takako and the Great Typhoon

I am so excited and pleased to introduce my friend, Kelly Garcia, and her new, independently released children’s book, Takako and the Great Typhoon.  Kelly has lived in Okinawa, Japan with her husband for three and a half years.  One year ago they welcomed their adorable baby boy into the world and with motherhood, Kelly set out on a literary adventure.  The outcome is Takako and the Great Typhoon.

  Takako and the Great Typhoon

Kelly has joined us here at Planet Books for a Q&A session and has also donated a signed copy of Takako and the Great Typhoon for a giveaway.  Due to the length of our interview, I am breaking up the Q&A into two posts.  They will publish simultaneously. 

First of all, Karen, since I know your passion for music I should share w/ you my play list as I sit responding to your interview questions: 

Single Ladies, Freedom (George Michael), Smells Like Teen Spirit, Papa Loved Mama, Nuthin’ But a G Thang, Thank You (Dido), Praying for Time, Womanizer, Sabotage, What is Love? (Haddoway…remember that?!), Say It Loud, I Like (Montell Jordan), Say It Ain’t So (Weezer), Kenny Chesney.

Should give you an idea of what generation I’m coming from anyway.  Okay, and onto the interview!

PB ~ I am so excited for you and your independent release of Takako and the Great Typhoon!  Would you please tell us what the story is about? 

Kelly ~ It’s the story of these two shisas (shisas being the lion-dog statues you find absolutely everywhere in Okinawa) that are brother and sister.  Their names are Takako (Tah-kah-koe), the little girl shisa, and Nobu(No-boo) the little boy shisa.  They live on a rooftop and it is their job as shisas is to stand guard at all times protecting their house from danger.  But who the heck wants to sit on a boring ‘ole roof all the time?  Not Takako.  She sees all of these wonderful things going on in the village below and wants to jump in and join the fun.  Nobu warns her that she would be breaking the Shisa Rule of working together and guarding the home if she left. (Boo!  What a party pooper!)  But Takako can’t resist temptation, follows a butterfly into the village and has a fabulous day…until, of course, something bad happens.  The typhoon!  That’s when the adventure really begins!

PB ~ How did this idea first develop and what made you think you could really make this happen?

Kelly ~ To be honest, I can’t remember how the genesis for the storyline originated, of the brother-sister shisas and Takako’s day in the village and the great typhoon. (Although I should mention my friend Kay gave me the idea of how to have Takako save the day in the end. Thank you Kay!)  My real focus was to create a story showcasing the little moments that are representative of everyday life in Okinawa, Japan.  In a way, the book is really selfish ‘cause it captures a very personal experience of Okinawa.  For example, the tree on the back cover is a tree down the street from my house.  The barbershop is around the corner.  And the scene where Takako chases the pickup truck is the view from the back of my house. 


It might sound silly, but I LOVE these little things.  After I had my son, making the book a reality became more important to me because I knew that he would have no memory of any of this.  We are living in Okinawa as a result of my husband’s work and our time here is limited to a few years.  In fact, we are leaving this summer.  I really wanted to be able to capture the feeling of love that this place has shown my son and my family, so that’s what this book is about.  But, it’s an exciting adventure story too, not all mushy-mushy sentimentality, so I hope that even folks who’ve never heard of Okinawa can enjoy it!
I’m digressing from the question! –
Okay, when I began sharing the book idea with people and was met with such a sincere, enthusiastic response, I felt this project could happen.  (Especially from my awesomely supportive husband!)  When Carmen, the illustrator, signed onto the project I KNEW it would happen.  

Karen @ Planet Books made this Shisa pair when she moved to Okinawa in '05 and took a pottery class.
Karen @ Planet Books made this Shisa pair when she moved to Okinawa in '05 and took a pottery class.

PB ~ For those readers out there who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Okinawa and may not be familiar with its culture, what is a “Shisa Dog?”

Kelly ~ It’s a statue that you see pretty much everywhere here.  I can’t exaggerate the popularity of this figure to Okinawa.  More popular than Starbucks in an American suburb, if that’s possible!  In my neighborhood you can find them at every turn: on rooftops, on gateposts, by doorways, etc.  They look like a mixture of a lion and a dog and often they come in pairs.  When they are paired, one has a closed mouth (keeping in the good luck) and one has an open mouth (scaring off evil.)  One is a male and one is a female. has excellent information about shisa lore and history.  It’s actually pretty interesting stuff.  Also on my website, I’ll be posting a VERY amateur walking tour video of my neighborhood with tons of examples of shisas in it if you care to have a look.

(For the rest of our interview and the chance to win a signed copy of Takako and the Great Typhoon, check out the next post on Planet Books.)


Part 2 ~ Q&A and Giveaway with Kelly Garcia & Takako and the Great Typhoon

(Here is the second part of my Q&A with children’s book author and friend, Kelly Garcia.)

PB ~ Have you always wanted to write a children’s book or was this a surprise to you?

Well, I suppose it was a surprise; although, I never rule out anything!  I find that I enjoy writing about foreign countries, travel adventures and interesting intercultural experiences.  I write about my culinary adventures in Okinawa on a blog called, but other than that have never really written seriously.  I guess though that this story is kind of a travel adventure in its own way…a “travel adventure fantasy folktale”!

PB ~ Takako does a lot of things while on her adventure. You use some terms that non-Japanese readers may have trouble understanding. Would you please explain some of the more foreign things that Takako does with her fellow islanders?

Kelly ~ Let’s see.  Takako plays gateball with the “obaasans (grandmas) and ojiisans (grandpas)”.  Gateball is kind of a croquette game that is very popular with the older folks here.  I can think of three gateball fields within about a five-minute walk of my house.  A “typhoon” is basically a hurricane that forms over the Pacific Ocean.  “Banyan trees” are these gorgeous twisty, gnarly trees that are found in Okinawa.  I’ve got some beautiful examples in my neighborhood.

In a few of the illustrations you’ll see these round things on sticks.  These are actually mirrors.  They are on almost every corner to help drivers navigate through the narrow streets without getting hit by an unseen car.  Very typical Okinawa.  Also, you’ll see a vending machine in one scene.  It may seem strange, but that too is something I would consider to be the quintessential Okinawa.


PB ~ Living in Okinawa myself, I know that your descriptions of the typhoon are pretty dead on. Thank goodness my Shisa dogs do there job well. What are some of the things your family does during one of these powerful storms?

Kelly ~ Not much, to tell the truth.  We have a huge water cooler, so we are set there.  I try and get some DVDs and books from the library for entertainment in case the satellite goes out!  We bring everything in the house from outside, but that’s pretty much it.  I don’t do a ton of extra shopping.  I guess I’m pretty laid back.  When I see the local Okinawans taking a storm seriously, that’s when I know it’s time to be careful!  But usually for them it’s business as usual.

PB ~ What was your favorite part in the development of your book?

Kelly ~ This is really hard to say.  Practically the whole process, apart from dealing with the folks in the shipping department at the printer’s, was interesting for me.  Writing the story itself was enjoyable because it was a creative challenge that shook the cobwebs out of my brain.  Also, my meetings with Carmen the illustrator, were fantastic.  I especially loved our first meeting after she finished her initial sketches for the book scenes.  Seeing how she brought the story to life with her pictures was pretty darn thrilling.  We talked through each scene and discussed the things we liked about them and ideas for changes to make them better.  I loved that collaborative aspect of it.  Being able to bounce around ideas with another person who was also enthusiastic about the project has been invaluable.  It was fun working with Erin, the graphic designer, too.  She brought me different ideas about page layout, fonts, book cover options and things like that.  So many things to decide!  But totally fun.

If I hadn’t gone the self-publishing route, I doubt I’d have a hand in any of that kind of stuff.  I’m sure it would have been a slicker/cleaner book if I’d gone through a traditional publisher, but I am learning SO much doing it this way.  Heck, I just built a website for the first time and right now I’m learning all the multitudes of things that go into book promotion.  Figuring everything out is actually causing me to lose sleep.  I have a to-do list about a mile long.  But I just love it!

PB ~ Do you think you may write a book that represents all the places you will live in the future?

Kelly ~ I don’t know.  I foresee myself having lived in a lot of places, so that might be tough.  This book, though, was written for my son, Gabriel.  So, if I have any more kids, I guess I owe each of them a book too!  Hopefully it’ll get easier each time I do it.


PB ~ How can people get their own copies of Takako and the Great Typhoon?

Kelly ~ They can click on www.shisastory.comand order a copy there via Paypal. If they live in Okinawa, they can stop by the AAFES Bazaar at the Foster Field House April 17th-19th.  Or they can email me at and we can work something out.

Also, you can get a sneak peak of the book on the website in a video my fabulous hubby put together (the image quality is MUCH better in person!  Carmen’s color is awesome!) Even if you don’t get the book, I’d be just as thrilled if you became a fan on Facebook (search Takako and the Great Typhoon) or mention it to some friends or rate the video preview!  Or e-mail me some nifty marketing ideas!  I’m really, really excited about the book and just trying to share any way I can.  Okay, enough shameless promotion from me.  If you’ve read down this far you deserve a medal!  Karen, thank you for your questions and your post!  xxoo — Kelly

You can learn more about Takako and the Great Typhoon, Kelly and life on Okinawa by checking out the website HERE.  To enter to win a signed copy of Takako and the Great Typhoon leave a comment and on this post and tell us your favorite children’s book when you were little.  The drawing will run until Sunday at Midnight, EST.  Good Luck!

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 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 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.

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.