Pepper the penguin

My good friend, the artist, Jean Rim, recently published her second children’s book with writer Ursula Bevan. Jean’s illustrations make these two very original children’s books, Sunny the Sunflower and Pepper the Penguin, books that children can’t tear their eyes away from.

I’ve known Jean for twenty years. We’ve gone in and out of each other’s lives over those two decades. But a funny things always happens with us. It’s always our art work that brings us back together after an absence, and we voraciously connect as though we never parted. When I see Jean after a long absence, it always seems like we effortlessly shed love and light into each other’s worlds. She’s a radical feminist artist, a healer, a gusher, a gentle soul and a rowdy chick who plays hard. We lost touch for awhile when Jean moved back to South Korea for a handful of years, but somehow each time one of my books came out, Jean appeared to celebrate with me and when she returned to New York, I made a point to come to her open studios, art shows, and now book readings. Jean’s paintings- currently carved-paint works of art- are stunning, and they are her primary artistic expression, but I’m so glad she’s put her energy into mesmerizing the kids too with her illustrations.

Last summer, I was on vacation with my family, visiting my father in the Philippines. Jean texted me out of the blue asking if I’d give an editorial pass to her new children’s book, Pepper the Penguin. She sent me several pdf’s of the book, the text and illustrations and I was able to spend a few days reading it over, making edits to streamline and clarify the text and one suggestion for an image that I felt was missing from the final lesson the book teaches, an albatross who helped Pepper find his way home. With a twelve hour time difference between us, it took a few days to communicate back and forth.

Jean surprised me with a special thanks in the back of the book. I’m as proud of that special thanks as I am of any recognition I’ve ever received. Jean has that way about her, that a smile and a playful comment, given with the bright twinkle that shines from her eyes, makes everyone around her feel special.

Here she is at her book launch at the Strand, with Ursula and with her friend Nancy, who is the third- generation owner of the Strand Bookstore. Congratulations Jean! I love you.

Check out her incredible works of art here too. The one titled Fairy Land, she gave to me as a gift recently and I stare at it on my wall for long minutes everyday. You may discover one that you just can’t live without.


kites in trees

I walk every morning in Mount Prospect Park, a block from my home, where my dog can run off leash for half an hour before I start my work day. I’ve visited this park for nearly twenty years, never as regularly as I do now, since we got this pandemic dog. Several days in a row this fall were extremely misty; the mist settled between the trees and sat on the dying grass and dirt. The sky white. And that mist changed my walks. All I could look at was the trees. The park has giant oaks scattered around a loop, a grassy field in the center of the walking path. These oaks are probably over a hundred years old based on their size and the fact that many of the apartment buildings in my neighborhood were built around 1905, the trees were probably planted with the buildings. They’re giants and their forked branches seem to reach toward each other on all sides. Without their leaves, in the late fall, and punctuated with this dense mist, I felt I could see them in glowing relief. And it seemed they had made effort, over decades, to hold hands with each other- trunks planted twenty feet apart, they had eventually accomplished a touching of branches, probably an underground mingling of roots too.

I noticed one tree had a kite stuck in its branches. The kite looks serviceable and still pretty with a rainbow of colors and as I imagined retrieving it, my eyes picked out another caught in the same tree. And then in disbelief, I saw a third and fourth. It was a kite-eating tree, like in a Charlie Brown movie. The tree held these four kites, higher than any parent could reach or kid could climb, and that was that. The kites would remain. For some reason it made me think of unfinished writing projects. Kites in trees. Serviceable, almost good, almost done, almost able to soar, but stuck in some branches. Unreachable. Many writers I know chronically have kites stuck in trees. That hasn’t been my MO. I tend to finish things after a very long time. I stick with one project over five or six or seven or ten years, until it’s done. My slow writing pace a different challenge than perpetually unfinished writing. But I think all writers share the experience of untouched dreams of projects, ideas for books, secret desires of what you would write if you could just… that are like these rainbow shreds of fabric stuck in a mighty oak. The funny thing is that it seems a safe place for an idea to hold. Perhaps let giant, old trees snag your early imaginings. They’ll keep them for you while you dally, or work too hard at other things, or even forget. They’ll hide them in foliage, or fly them high like unreachable flags in the mist, and they’ll safe keep them until you find yourself ready one day to fly your kite again.

revision, happy accidents

In June this year I received a publication offer for my third novel, CONFUSE THE WIND. The offer came from an independent press based in Athens, Greece called Vine Leaves Press. I’d been communicating with VLP for months and I was ecstatic to receive their offer. After the initial thrill quieted, I realized that I wanted to do a pretty serious revision of the book they’d finally agreed to publish. I had a call scheduled with an editor at Vine Leaves and I rehearsed how to explain the revision to her. What I feared was that she would say, that sounds like a big revision- why don’t you re-submit when you’re done. I decided that would be okay. I’d roll the dice. Revision is a huge part of writing, the majority of the endeavor. A final version of a novel only carries a shadow of the first draft in my experience. I’d already revised this novel many times. But, this was not something I’d done before. Found a publisher, received an offer, and then decided I had to revise again. I had my long talk with Vine Leaves editor, Amie McCracken. And she said two sentences that I’ll never forget. “That sounds like the same novel we’ve accepted, with some critical changes, some major revisions, but not a new book. Our offer would stand and you can have until December to revise it.” This call was yet another indicator of several I’d already perceived that Vine Leaves Press was a publisher I was going to be very happy with.

Five months ago I began a revision that if I called it a slog, would be a large understatement. I’ve re-written this book mostly after 10pm, on the fumes of mental and physical energy that exist after a day of a full-time job and raising two young kids. I think I’ve done three years of writing in 5 months.The joy of writing wasn’t the leading sensation of this re-write. But I knew every hour that what was happening was improvement, was closer to my truth, was the story that I had been trying to get to all along, but more of itself. And finally, something happened this week that made the revision a joy again. I always think that if a nugget of my writing does the intended thing and then something else that I didn’t intend but that cracks the book a little more open, I’ve achieved my best. This book has two main protagonists, a dad and baby-sitter. What happened this week was that a secret fell into place between the baby-sitter and the child she cares for, and the reader. Just them. This happened because I moved huge chunks of writing around to change the chronology of some key plot points and somehow in the shuffle, this event became something that no one knows about except these two characters. And I love it. It’s subtle and I will be curious what readers in my life will catch it. But it’s there and it was not quite intentional and a happy accident. It also brings me great relief and some returned thrills to know I’m only 20 pages from the end of this revision. Revision, even when you’ve begged for it, is very hard. And it is the only rewards I’ve really known in writing.

AWP 2022 in Philadelphia

Last March, my visit to AWP in Philadelphia ignited a new project, reconnected me with my writing group who I’d only seen via zoom for two years, brought the realm of non-fiction into my repertoire, and made me utter the words, I want to be a writer, for the first time in years. These four days totally dedicated to writing and books also created the physical possibility for me to receive an offer to re-publish my first novel, currently out of print, because those kinds of things happen over dinner and drinks, not out of nowhere. At AWP, I met and spoke to Melissa Febos, a writer who I consider crucial to some of the new writing I’m doing now.

Go. Go where you think you need to be. Good things will happen.

It’s been a difficult, painful two+ years for the entire world. Take the chances that come your way, take the chance of opening new doors within you. When you can, whenever you can, see the people you think about.

I’m going to keep trying to find myself in new places.

9/11 again

It’s 9/11 again. The babies born today in 2001, are legally adults today. Donald Trump has been our president for nearly three years. Three breathless and heartless years. I’m reposting a piece I wrote on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, that was in part about Maria, a blind Colombian candy vendor who worked in my office building. It took me a long time to get to know Maria, and I started to on that day.

This morning I greeted the newer blind candy vendor in the lobby of my building. A man I made sure to introduce myself to when he started.

But I’m feeling scared today that America is not a safe place for Maria, for immigrants, for refugees.

And on 9/11 I would especially like to feel that this was a country that held out its hand and was an enemy of tyrants, of zealots, of oppressive regimes.

There’s a long, long road to justice, to freedom, to equity. I’m staying on it and on the right side of history. I pray that in my lifetime I see the world around me move far down that road.


For the tenth anniversary of 9/11 the New Yorker published an extensive The Talk of the Town section with fourteen contributors from David Remnick, the editor, to a diverse set of voices including Ian Frazier, Nick Paumgarten, Lorrie Moore, Jonathon Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Ian Parker, Elif Batuman and several more- all reflections on 9/11.

Ian Parker’s piece was on oral histories taken by Columbia University’s Oral History Archive after 9/11. Many archivists went to Union Square to take oral histories in the days after 9/11. They were instructed that in the absence of a randomized system of selecting subjects, they should approach the person they felt least inclined to interview. In subsequent years a theater piece, A City Reimagined” was written and is now being rehearsed in Soho, the text taken directly from these 9/11 oral histories. Parker includes in his Talk of the Town piece three pointed testimonials.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I work at 90 Church Street, a federal office building next door, to the north, of the World Trade Center. The state department I work for moved into 90 Church Street in 2005, when the building was finally repaired from a hole that had let the elements in for four years. Moving our office into 90 Church was a symbol and an act of the state’s commitment to help revitalize lower Manhattan. They installed double-paned windows on our floors, because they were aware that the air quality wasn’t what it should be, 5 years later. 

Ian Parker describes a Colombian-born blind food vendor who was interviewed after 9/11. Before I see where the vendor worked, I wonder if this is my blind candy vendor. The piece goes on to say that she was indeed a vendor in 90 Church Street and that her oral history describes people running and screaming past her stall in the lobby, no time to close her storeroom, and the dreams she had afterwards of losing her hands.

Mary Marshall Clark, the Director of Columbia’s oral history department, contemplates this blind vendor’s dream while she listens to the rehearsal of “A City Reimagined.” She imagines the vendor is experiencing a re-traumatization of her blindness. Her hands are like her eyes, her dream is like becoming blind again.

This morning, as I entered the lobby of 90 Church Street, and saw the candy vendor in her booth, I remembered the piece I’d read last night. It was quiet and she was alone under the glow of bright lights in her booth. I came over and said good morning. “I think you are written about in this week’s New Yorker. Did you know that?” She smiled with a pleasure that seemed a little knowing, but said no, she did not. I said, “There’s a piece about people who were interviewed after 9/11 and I think you’re part of it.”

”Would you read it to me?” she asked. 

It took me a few minutes to find Parker’s piece in the magazine still in my bag. While I flipped the pages, she stocked chips and candy. I said, “I think it’s you, are you Colombian?” “Yes,” she was still smiling. I said several times, “One minute, I’ll find it.” I appreciated that she didn’t care that it was taking me time to find the piece. She wasn’t concerned about that. “It doesn’t say your name. What is your name?” “Maria” “I’m Rachel,” I said , still turning pages. While I located the exact paragraph that mentioned Maria, another woman came to buy something and said, “Hi, Maria,” reminding me how other people get friendly so much faster than I do.

When I was ready, I said to Maria, “It’s sad.” because it all came back to me, what she says about losing her hands, and perhaps she hasn’t thought about this since 2001. I began reading. When I got to that part and read her own dream to her, I asked if she remembered that, having that dream, telling them. She shook her head ambiguously. But when I read on, that her hands were her eyes, and losing them was like becoming blind again. Maria said, “Yes, yes! My hands are my eyes.”

She thanked me for showing her, by pressing her hands together. I said I’d come back later today with a copy of the article. I’m wondering now, where Maria went after 9/11 when 90 Church Street was struck and damaged and closed for years. And what did she do with her hands until she came back. I’ll ask her tomorrow morning. 

An Interview with Laura Catherine Brown: making form out of chaos.

Laura Catherine Brown and I have been in the same writing group for over ten years. In fact the two of us are the longest standing members of a group that has been meeting monthly in New York City for almost twenty years. I can’t recall what I noticed first about Laura. The impressions and discoveries that came in quick succession were that she is a brilliant communicator, damn funny, and a superior editor. Laura’s emotional intelligence makes all of her fiction glow. Her characters have voices that grab your attention from their first sentences. The author and vicariously the reader don’t just empathize with Laura’s characters, but feel strongly about them, often fiercely protective because Laura lays them bare and puts them through the wringer.

One of the keys to success of our writing group is that no one was friends before joining. Nepotism (or friendship) is not what gains you entry. We’ve joked that it’s harder to get into the Exiles than most grad schools. But that’s because it’s a lifetime membership. Once an Exile, we are allowed to socialize, and we fervently support each others’ book launches and readings, but on the whole, common daily friendships don’t sprout from this sacred writing group. When I first met Laura, I furtively showed up a yoga class she taught, and over the years, she and I would meet for lunch in lower Manhattan. In all seriousness, Laura is my friend, but first and foremost we help each other tackle the writing. I’ve said it aloud in group and I can say it aloud here. When I get home with a stack of edited copies of my manuscript, its Laura’s that I turn to first and fear the most. She will make me work as hard as she works, and over the years she has edited with as much generosity as intelligence, all of my work.
We often meet at Laura’s apartment, east of Union Square, for our monthly group sessions. We eat ordered-in Thai food surrounded by towering bookshelves. At Laura’s there is always very dark chocolate between manuscripts. And her two black and white tuxedo cats weave and lounge amongst us, providing their feline support to ease the exertion of receiving deep critiques of our work. On the enclosed balcony beyond her living room, I often steal glimpses of Laura’s writing desk. It appears to be a sacred and also utilitarian place. There’s a lot going on there with a large desktop computer and tidy but tall piles of books and manuscript pages. There are many notes taped up around the shelving and the monitor. I don’t know what they say, but I sure am curious.
When Laura and I conducted this interview earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that all of her answers surprised me. I’d read, and workshopped her most recent novel, Made By Mary, in the last four years or so, and when it was published in 2018 by C&R Press and I read the final published version, I was dumbstruck by how changed it was. I’ll let the interview itself reveal more about this dark, witty, searing, deeply touching, odd-ball novel, but I feel confident that you’ll find Laura’s novels, and even her insights here, to be surprising dives into the depths of humanity.
RSG: I’ve known you a long time and read several of your novels-in-progress, but when I was reading Made By Mary, I became very curious about your relationship to the Wiccan world. Is this something you have first hand experience with, or did you just do incredible research? It certainly feels very real.
LCB: I’m not a practicing Wiccan but I’ve participated in many Wiccan rituals and I have Wiccan friends. I believe, as the Wiccans do, that ritual is essential for marking life changes. I’m definitely a spiritual seeker, with a dose of skepticism. My personal belief system is porous and evolving. What I love about Wicca, is its woman-centeredness, which feels like home to me. I’m one of four sisters, no brothers and my life has been mostly female-filled. Wiccans are nature-based and believe in the power of the cycles of the seasons and the moon, and recognize the life force in all things animate and inanimate. I did a lot of research. I’m glad the Wiccan world feels real! It felt very real to me as I was writing.
RSG: As I read the book, I thought this would be a great read and even resource for anyone whose used a surrogate or has been a surrogate. However, by the end, I wasn’t so sure. What are your thoughts on that? Or perhaps you’ve heard from readers?
LCB: I’m not sure I’d use fiction as a guide for anything except maybe opening up my sense of what’s possible. I haven’t heard from any readers about the surrogacy situation, which I admit is a bit over-the-top. I haven’t been in a surrogacy situation, but I have experienced IVF (in vitro fertilization) and reproductive technology, which is invasive and expensive, and takes over your life when you’re in the thick of it. And I’ve heard from readers about their IVF experiences, mostly around its failure. IVF fails more often than it succeeds, and many couples will undergo the process multiple times. I say couples, but it’s the woman who takes the hormones, endures the injections and undergoes the frequent ultrasounds and early-morning blood tests. Yet, despite incredible technological advancements, at the heart of pregnancy and birth lies a mystery. I wanted to get at that mystery. At the heart of death lies a mystery, too. Where did we come from? Where do we go? Why are we here?
RSG:Do you think black comedy describes your writing in Made By Mary? I love the dark
comedy in all your writing and I think the book is often hilarious. You are very funny. I’m
curious about the defining of it as black comedy and how much you focused on the humor as you wrote.
LCB: I definitely think of Made By Mary as a dark comedy. I don’t actually focus on humor when I’m writing but funny people and funny situations arise in scenes and ideas, and in my life. I think I see everything through the lens of humor, as a way of coping with pain. Life is painful. Life is full of tragedy and failure and injustice and loss. Yet, there’s always something beautiful, some moment, some connection. We find ourselves in situations that we lack the resources and perspective to navigate, so we have to fumble through and wing it, and find a way to forgive ourselves and to forgive those around us. Often this process can be hilarious: mismatches, miscommunications, misunderstandings, all carry the seed of hilarity.
RSG: What do you hope readers take away from your fiction in general?

LCB: I hope the characters linger as living, breathing people who transcend my puny writerly abilities. I like to imagine them living their lives and making their often bad choices on another plane, independent of me, outside the book. That’s what I’d love readers to take away. Every story for me begins and ends in the characters. Even language is character.

RSG: I know you were a panelist at AWP earlier this month in Portland. What was your panel about? And how was AWP?
LCB: My panel was focused on navigating one’s life as a writer. I don’t have an MFA (neither did most of the panelists, and the ones who did have MFAs didn’t have the best experiences) I earn very little money from my writing. My job is not connected to the literary world. The panel was fun, and seemed to connect with a lot of people. It’s important to talk about money and the sacrifices many of us have to make in order to write. The AWP conference was amazing, exhausting, inspiring, stimulating and overwhelming and so much fun. There’s nothing like interacting with thousands of writers for an intense 3 days and nights, seeing old friends, making new ones and just immersing yourself in ideas about literature and writing and teaching and living as a writer. It’s a beautiful experience. It’s very hard to maintain a writing life when so many other imperatives press down: family, work, health, politics. Yet here we are, crazy and dogged and passionate, all of us still making time to write, still getting words down, still trying to make form out of chaos.

Los Angeles launch at Diesel Books

I kicked off July with a visit to DIESEL in Brentwood. This reading was so gratifying for a number of reasons. My ultra-supportive mom came with wine, cheese and crackers and fruit, and was even super gracious when kids in the store ate all the fresh figs and didn’t buy my book. Friends from the two high schools I attended in LA turned out for the event. College friends from Santa Cruz and NY friends and cousins who had moved to LA were there to celebrate. My husband Bill and our two sons came with me from NY and made the whole experience feel like home. Also, I wasn’t nervous. Apparently, I’m only nervous once, when I’m a book launch virgin and after that I just know how to have fun.

The fun was doubled by having a post-reading conversation with the irresistible and witty Julia Fierro. We talked and spiraled around our psychologies, why we write, what I hope this book means and also publicly observed that the fig tree is getting too much shade but is full of small birds nonetheless.

Eureka book reading at phatsy Kline lounge

Last Friday I had the privilege of having a reading and book signing in the gorgeous Eagle House Hotel, Phatsy Kline Lounge. The event was so warm, with a group of lovely friends and book lovers, who actually stepped out of the rare July sunshine to listen to scenes from PRACTICE DYING and drink some Friends With Benefits Humboldt Cider (so good!)

And the best part was doing this all in the company of my sister, Dana. She was such a fun and intelligent Q&A facilitator, even throwing in a big-sister curve-ball to keep me on my toes.

Authors, put Eureka CA on your book tours!

You won’t regret it.

author photo outtakes

A few weeks ago I met my friend Jena at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with both our one-year-olds. Before leaving the house I texted her, “I’m putting on some make-up in case you take my new author photo!”

Jena is a photographer and she took my last author photo for The Sign for Drowning.

I love how natural and relaxed the best pictures turned out. When truth-be-told, we were doling out snacks and milk bottles and babbling to two restless babies during the whole shoot.

These outtakes capture the mood perfectly.

My new novel, PRACTICE DYING, will be out in 8 short days!

First blurb came in!

Obtaining blurbs for your upcoming book can be an excruciating part of publishing. It’s up to the author to find the leads, have the contacts and make the requests. It’s a big favor to ask- the author whose recommendation you want, has to read the novel for starts. And then craft something useful and enticing to say about your book in a few short sentences. You write to authors you know, or have met once, or (yikes) have never met at all, and you ask really nicely. A few months ago, I went through this hard process, starting by choosing authors who’s work had some overlap with mine, traveled some similar territory, who it made sense to be associated with. Well, I have to admit, Leland is the least of these criteria. His work is darkly comedic- very comedic and satirical. But I kept coming back to him. His work has huge range, tells ridiculous, striving and poignant tales. He writes human beings- who you can see- sometimes naked- often tortured- very flawed. The more I thought about his work, the more I wondered if he’d blurb my book. I exchange work with Leland regularly in a monthly writing group we’re both in. And I also know him to be open, supportive and to the point.

From a writing retreat in a castle in Scotland, he recently sent me this moving and generous blurb. I am so grateful he did, and that I asked.

“Like the best novels, Rachel Stolzman Gullo’s PRACTICE DYING deals with life’s biggest questions, among them: how do we find the courage to live and love in the face of all our collective suffering? Full of surprise encounters leading to even more surprising developments, this is a novel for seekers, like twins Jamila and David, for whom every day is an urgent and beautiful quest for connection and enlightenment.”