Friday, June 24, 2016

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers # 185

June 24, 2016

When possible, read this newsletter online in its permanent location.



In This Issue

MSW Interviews Monique Raphel High
Quill: A New Queer Publication Series from Red Hen Press
Text of the 2016 JUG award presented by Cat Pleska to Marc Harshman
Reviews          Recommendations from Readers
Things to Read & Hear Online          Announcements and News
Coming Soon from Irene Weinberger Books         A Journal of Practical Writing

Article about saving drafts in the Journal of Practical Writing

Summer Special! E-book versions of Meredith Sue Willis's
Blair Morgan trilogy
 $1.99 each!

For a Free E-mail subscription to this newsletter, click below:


 Books for Readers # 185

This issue has an interview with a wonderful writer of historical and contemporary novels,Monique Raphel High, as well as reviews of books by Crystal Wilkinson, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Phil Klay.
Enjoy your reading this summer whether you are posing for a Kindle ad (reading in bright sunlight on a beach) or carrying an old paperback with a broken spine on the subway, or sitting in a wing back chair with a limited edition of poems on creamy paper with the French doors open to your English garden-- enjoy your reading!
                                                                            -- MSW

A Conversation with Monique Raphel High

  Monique Raphel High and I were in the class of 1969 at Barnard College, although we didn’t know each other then. We became personally acquainted at one of our reunions, and she was my literary agent for a while. She gave the book she was representing a superb revision.
  I am not going to explore her background and that of her family here, but she has a fascinating history, and one that she uses repeatedly in her fiction.  To learn more, see her website.  She was born in New York City to French parents and raised in Europe.  Her father is a scion of the de Günzburg family, ennobled by Tsar Alexander II and considered among the most notable Jewish dynasties in the world. Growing up, Monique knew film and literary celebrities and eventually went to Barnard, graduating with a double major in Renaissance Studies and English literature. She married Soviet psychiatrist/psychologist Grigorii Raiport, and with him wrote a book about methods of mentally focusing athletes that still has a following around the world.  Her second husband was Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Ben Walter Pesta, II, and she recently became engaged to Paul Harrison.
  Monique has published several excellent and popular novels and taught writing at UCLA.  She became a literary agent in the 2000's with offices in Beverly Hills, New York, Paris, and London.  This year,Penner Publishing has the good fortune to be bringing out new editions of her work, beginning withThe Four Winds of Heaven (which I reviewed in Issue #136  of Books for Readers ), a gripping and beautiful fictionalizing of her family during the Russian Revolution.

MSW:  Monique, an outline of your family’s history and your own life reads like the summary of an epic novel trilogy or a multi-part t.v. series: two continents; a rich and sometimes violent family past;  famous friends; New York and Los Angeles; courtroom drama. What out of all this living life made you a writer rather than, say, an actress or business woman or movie executive or lawyer?

MRH:  The answer to that is complex. I was a film brat, because my parents and two grandfathers were involved in the film world.  My mother’s edict always was: “Do not become an actress; that life will destroy you.  Stay away from our world.”  My father’s deep passion for running the business side of film production and distribution did make me think of becoming an executive, and my father had a number of young protégés. But I was an arrogant young woman: I wanted to succeed on my own, in my own field.
  Because I was reared in such a strange way, as an only child, a mini-adult thrust into my mother’s salons and accepted there as an equal, while, at the same time, prevented from going about my own life with friends my own age, I became more comfortable with the wits and literary people who gathered like moths around my mother.  I became an observer.  I would then weave tales about what I had observed, and by the time I was five, I was telling stories that later, at nine, I turned into handwritten novels and short stories.
            As for becoming a lawyer, my father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France at the age of 17, and having to give up his dream of entering the legal profession… yes, I was very drawn to that.  I would have become a lawyer had I not been mentored at Barnard by Professor Maristella di Panizza Lorch, who turned me, instead, into a medieval and Renaissance scholar.  At first I thought I would follow in her footsteps and enter academia.  But quickly, I started to ask myself, “Why would you spend your life researching and dissecting other writers, when you could be a writer yourself?” The answer was: I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to be that writer.

MSW:  That helps me understand your career path, but not a certain quality of your life I’d like to explore.  Following you from afar-- as a reader and social media friend-- I am struck by how you carry your heart on your sleeve, as the cliché goes.  Most writers I know, me included, tend to hold a lot back, whereas you always seem to be living full speed ahead.  Do you ever hold back?  Do you think this personal style of living has an effect on your writing?

MRH:  I wasn’t always like that, Meredith Sue.  I grew up very shy, and in my family, problems were covered up. Mother “didn’t feel well” meant that she was knee-walking drunk.  We hid our frailties.  I never even discussed the volatile nature of my childhood—the diva mother who was alternately “the good mommy who encouraged me to read and write,” and the “ghastly mommy who beat me, demeaned me, prevented me from blossoming into a normal teen” until well into my marriage to my attorney husband (in the late eighties).  I have learned that there is nothing to be ashamed of except cruelty and stupidity, and I try, sometimes failing, never to do something that will make me ashamed of looking in that mirror.  Having a crazy family has made me part of who I am.
     I realized early on that readers desperately want to connect with their favorite writers.  I would receive letters, then emails, then messages on my blog and Facebook pages that asked me personal questions.  Mostly, readers wanted to connect, to feel the person who had created characters they liked.  They asked me some of the questions you are asking now.  And I felt I owed it to them to answer fully and honestly.  Nothing shameful, nothing embarrassing.  But snippets of my life, bits and pieces to make them see how absolutely human I really was.
    I’ve been asked many times to write about myself and my life, but until now, I couldn’t do this.  I simply didn’t find myself that interesting!  So I place what I’ve learned, what I’ve observed, and how I feel into my characters.  Most often, readers and even dear friends think I’m the obvious protagonist, whereas I may be a supporting one with whom I personally relate. 
  Recently, however, my fiancé, Paul Harrison, has been encouraging me to explore comedy, and to use some of the episodes in my life as short stories in a collection. I think it might be fun, though I might have to use a pseudonym in order not to shock my public, which is accustomed to greater reserve and decorum.
  I can’t help being open.  It tends to make other people respond by being open back, and then, after hearing their stories, I gather new material.

MSW: I love that-- that your openness has opened people who openly give you their stories.  Beautiful!  I also want to ask about the part of your life when you and I were in the same place at the same time, from our extremely different backgrounds.  What was it like for you to come to Barnard College in New York City from Europe at the end of the 1960's?

MRH:  Oh, my God! It was a dream come true. Suddenly I could be the person I was, and I could thrive, make friends, wander through a new city, soaking up experiences.  During Freshman Orientation, I decided to explore Harlem.  I was followed and reprimanded by my Barnard Big Sister’s sweet boyfriend, although I still can’t imagine what was so “dangerous” about wandering uptown.
  Can you believe that I’d come to feel Europe was parochial, and that I found New York so much vaster and more mysterious?  And the accents!  Later, of course, the ’68 revolt was absolutely magnetizing.  We did what we pleased, what we ardently believed in, and we were young women, not girls, anymore.

MSW:   And then you began to write and publish.  If you were to recommend an order for a reader to approach your work, what would it be?  Should we start with Four Winds of Heaven, or elsewhere? 
MRH:  Yes, definitely, one should begin with Four Winds, because that is my family history. I would then read Thy Father’s House, because the house in question, a manor house owned by Napoleon III, lies at the center of the French branch of the Günzburg family.  The three cousins about whom I write are based on real cousins, or composites of several cousins.  The next book I would recommend reading is The Keeper of the Walls. Nobody who doesn’t know me would figure out that Prince Mikhail is really my father’s scoundrel of a dad, but it gives one an impression of how my grandmother, father and aunt survived World War II. The Eleventh Year and Between Two Worlds depart the most from my grandmother’s journals.  They fulfill my desire to dig deeply into Paris in the Twenties, and my personal fascination with that film world in which I grew up.  Additionally, my Russian husband is the star of Between Two Worlds, although, of course, his stardom arose through coaching the USSR Olympic team, and not through acting.
Last, I would recommend Encore, because it’s my favorite.  I started taking ballet at the age of two.  I wasn’t much good at it, but I loved it. Additionally, it depicts a truly liberated heroine, even though she came of age between 1905 and 1927.  Best of all, the best character I ever created, Count Boris Kussov, is based on my great-uncle Dmitri de Günzburg, who really did finance the Mariinsky Theatre and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and who certainly was bisexual.
Sexuality fascinates me, and so do the mores that allow, or prevent, that sexuality from evolving naturally.

MSW: I’m ready to continue my exploration of your novels!  Now, please tell us a little about your new project, a courtroom novel based on the work of your late husband, Ben Pesta?

MRH:  Irrevocable Trust takes place in Los Angeles in from 1985 to 1987—before Nazi criminals and camp survivors were too old to bring to life, and before DNA was used in court and Anita Hill saved women from sexual harassment. Yet 1985 is still the recent past that many readers can vividly remember.  Very little has changed since then, except, of course, from everyone’s familiarity with the Internet.
    I’ve had that title in mind for decades.  When my late husband practiced law, I used to watch him.  He was very much an actor, a courtly orator, and he could demolish specious arguments by sheer wit and irony, as well as impeccable research.  I came upon the idea of Irrevocable Trustwhen I became close friends with Kathy Perow, whose obsession for World War II stories and the Holocaust makes her the leading expert in my eyes in those fields.  One day, while visiting me during my late husband’s illness, she told me about child survivors, and how she listened to tapes of interviews of children who had been hidden by gentile families.  I asked her, “Were any of these hidden children kept by their new families? Did the gentile foster parents ever refuse to return them to their birth families?”  Kathy said she thought this had happened.  And so I decided to write the story of one of these children, and to make him come into his own through a series of cases that, as a Franco-American defense lawyer, he is forced to take on.
    I was terrified of writing a legal thriller.  Legalese isn’t one of the languages I thought I could speak.  But twenty-eight years with Ben had affected me more than I’d ever realized.  Once I began, I channeled his experience and even his words into the book, and I found myself totally fluent. Ben worked on some significant cases, and even had his name placed into case law.  Most of all, it was his ardent belief that everyone, even those accused of the most heinous crimes, deserves the best defense he/she can be given, that helped me create my protagonist’s value system.

MSW:  That book sounds like it’s going to pull together so many of your themes as well as your moral passion. I want to end this conversation, which is really only a beginning, with a couple of questions about your writing process, and your reading.  Could you speak a little more about the trajectory of your writing career?  You published books that were commercial successes and critically acclaimed.  There have been major changes in publishing over the last fifteen to twenty years.  What changed in your career?  Have you experimented with any of the newer ways of bringing your work to the public?

MRH:  Yes, I have. It would be foolish not to keep up with publishing trends—a little like a couturier choosing not to listen to what men and women want to wear right now, for the lifestyles the majority of them are choosing.  My historical novels needed to become accessible in eBook format. And so, I asked my literary manager to sell them to a publisher who would reissue them both as “real books” and eBooks.  That was Penner Publishing. Next step, obviously, will be to seek to make them available as audiobooks.
  What really has changed the most is my style. Readers today want fewer descriptions and more action, more drama. No one has the patience to be led up to peak points in small ballet steps. They want Olympic sprinting. So my sentences are shorter, carrying more punch, and I get to the point much faster and with more dramatic edge. My writing is more cinematic; I visualize my scenes as scenes on a screen. When I’m at the movies, I wear a special watch that lights up, and I press the mechanism that activates this each time the film hits a key scene—so I may learn how to build my books in the same way, with a pace that keeps up with readers’ attention spans.

MSW:   My final questions are about your reading.  No serious writer, in my opinion, is not also a reader.  And, unlike poor me, you are able to read in several languages.  So my question is, what books do you go back to for study and pleasure?  For me, it’s the Victorians– George Eliot, especially, but any Dickens or Trollope.  I’m also a fan of Mrs. Gaskell, and I am always rereading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in translation, of course. 

MRH: Oh, my! I too reread Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Meredith Sue.  Some of my favorite novels are French: Liaisons Dangereuses, on which two films were based (Dangerous Liaisons), is a brilliant novel of letters that explores evil, manipulation, and the mores of the French court in the eighteenth century (when the novel first appeared); Tant que la Terre Durera and Les Eygletières, by Academician Henri Troyat, who was, like me, a Russian Frenchman; The Red and the Black, by Stendhal; and Madame Bovary, the twin of another favorite, Anna Karenina.
   I think my favorite novels are a series by another French Academician, Maurice Druon, entitledThe Accursed Kings. I reread Fitzgerald, and yes, I reread Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Shakespeare… many times over.

MSW: Excellent– Maurice Druon– a new author for my To Read list!   Finally, for all of us who write and teach, please share the best writing advice you ever had, and the  best writing advice you ever gave.

MRH:  The best I received came from Epictetus: “If you want to be a writer, write.”  And the best I gave was read, read, read good books, but avoid all the how-to-write ones.  Each writer is an individual, with his/her own needs, obsessions, passions, and voice.  Simply because one writer, or worse, unpublished writing teacher, says you need to follow his or her specific yesses and nos, doesn’t help a new writer at all.  There is a format, yes.  But first, you have to know what you really want to say, and what medium fits your theme.

MSW: Thank you, dear Monique for your time and consideration!  May you write and publish many, many more books for our delight and edification!


The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is a fine old-style character novel of London and the English countryside just before the beginning of World War II.  Howard, who was married for a while to novelist  Kingsley Amis (and credited by his son Martin Amis with encouraging the younger man's writing), wrote many novels. This one begins the Cazalet chronicles. It moves admirably among many characters of all ages, doing perhaps especially well with the children. I liked its leisurely quality--appropriate to a novel of holidays at a family homeplace.
This is not meant to imply that it is in any way loose or sloppily written.  It just takes its time with a typical British confidence in its own story-telling, circling around the large cast of characters, trying them out in various combinations, checking in with what is happening historically at the same time.  It has a whiff of (without the difficulty of) Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Both have characters with a shared sense of language and imagery. In Woolf's, four young voices are present as streams of consciousness that blend into one another. Howard's characters share family idiosyncrasies, private references, and class culture, but the characters are vividly delineated. I liked both outsiders to the family like Zoe, the very young second wife of Rupert, who teases her way into an ugly date rape, and insiders like the cousins Polly and Clary who are respectively morally and literarily precocious. The common diction and mental landscapes are part of the strong group portrait.
I love the places and life style, too-- lots of improvised meals and out-door activities-- heaven for kids.
The book demands a reading strategy of stepping in feeling the book swirl around your ankles, then your knees, and right up to your neck. The fascinations are with its texture and threads of interacting personality. And oh those personalities-- even the minor characters (but are they really?) are sterling creations like the Cook and her dictator/busybody counterpart above stairs, the patriarch known as the Brig.
You have to love those British nicknames.

Redeployment by Phil Klay is a solid collection of war stories. It was a Ten-Best-Books at theNew York Times and a National Book Award winner. It has an interesting emphasis on soldiers who were there-- in Iraq, mostly-- but did not do all that much actually fighting, and on those suffering in the aftermath of war. Some of it is about trying and failing to communicate with civilians, some about trying to reconnect with those the point of view characters fought alongside.
"Ten Kliks South," the last story, is about a young artillery man after his first "kills," which are done from a great distance. He goes around base looking for evidence of who/what they killed. It's dryly horrifying in its blankness. 
I also especially liked "Prayer in the Furnace," from the point of view of a chaplain who has a loose, fraught relationship with a particularly haunted soldier. Finally, take a look also at Klay's essay, not in this book, but available online here.  Scroll down to "After the War, A Failure of the Imagination.")

The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson is paragraph-by- paragraph as masterfully written a work as you can find. It is rich with beautiful images of the generations of a family in a town called Opulence, with many graceful appearances of real birds and symbolic birds. One bird appears in the house just before a particular character's death. Wilkinson uses such common beliefs and folk ways as well as skillful touches of dialect to enrich her story.
The book centers on a pair of young girls growing up like sisters (and it isn't ruled out that they actually are half sisters). One becomes the kind of woman who uses her sexuality both for pleasure and to move through the world. The other is more conventional, but getting pregnant and having babies is central to everything in the story.
Most striking is the gorgeousness of the prose and the evocation of an African-American-Appalachian family and community.


NancyKay Shapiro says she has read all of Edna O'Brien and is "astounded by her. This book [LITTLE RED CHAIRS], written in her early 80s, is being called her masterpiece, and I'd have to agree except that I don't like the sense of diminishment of the other work that the word seems to imply to me. This was a compulsive read, and informed me about things I didn't know, as well as immersing me in a burbling exuberant fearless use of language that is O'Brien's specialty. It's a cruel story, in places nearly unbearable, which is part of its importance, but never less than beautiful."

Ernest BeckerJane Lazarre on Ernest Becker: "Long ago, I guess when it came out, I reviewed Becker's book [The Denial of Death] for the Voice. Just getting started publishing and reviewing during those early years, I remember criticizing it for not being sensitive to women's issues. The women's movement was just in its beginning heyday -- and [I criticized] some of the things he said about menstruation not specifying the differences in history of gender. I also remember admiring much of what he did say about the body, all much more profoundly dissected some years later by Dorothy Dinnerstein, who was steeped in gender issues as well as in the same wing of psychoanalysis as Becker-- the human body and its destiny."



Judith Moffett's science fiction novels are now available as e-books as well as hard copies. See her website and click on the left column book names. Judy writes wonderful, prize-winning science fiction but is also a powerful poet (see my review of Tarzan in Kentucky ) as well as translator from the Swedish and student of the work of James Merrill. All of her work is work reading.


Queer literature is often found in the side stacks, in the back of the bookstore, under "Gay and Lesbian." These authors are put into a genre that barely fits them, excluded from mainstream funding, and alienated by submission questionnaires and prying questions about identity and the underlying, "What are you?" Red Hen Press seeks to work against the negative politics of labeling while honoring and empowering authors who identify as queer.
Quill will publish literary prose by a queer (LGBTQ) author once per year, chosen by rotating judges through award submissions, with a $5 entrance fee and a minimum of 150 pages. The chosen author will be awarded $1,000 in addition to having their work published by Red Hen Press.
  • Submissions will open June 1, 2016 and close September 15, 2016.
  • Quill Mission: To publish quality literature by queer writers.
  • Guidelines: Prose, minimum 150 pages 
  • Deadline: September 15, 2016 
  • Submission Fee: $5
  • Award: $1,000 and publication by Red Hen Press
  • Inaugural Judge: Celeste Gainey
  • Submit here.


Open Road Integrated Media is a global ebook publisher and digital content company  thatpublishes and markets ebooks by legendary authors, including William Styron, Pat Conroy, Alice Walker, James Jones, and Laurie Colwin. Open Road also oversees a network of social websites built around authors, books, and the love of reading. It has now begun to acquire the backlist for digital editions of a number of Britain's greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. These writers include Beryl Bainbridge, Bruce Chatwin, Clare Francis, Patrick Gale, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Hammond Innes, and Piers Paul Read.
Open Road also offers an Early Bird special newsletter that allows you to get special prices and even free ebooks, such as a recent ebook of Alice Walker's The Color Purple for $2.99.



A Conversation About Keeping Drafts in The Practical Writer with Suzanne McConnell, NancyKay Shapiro, Diane Simmons, and Meredith Sue Willis.
Ed Davis has an insightful piece in his blog about men talking together.
Matthew Neill Null  on literature and West Virginia.
Suzanne McConnell's "Neighbors" is available online from The New Ohio Review and as a podcast.
Burt Kimmelman's article on William Bronk, "Our Anxiety in Reading William Bronk is in Talisman.
Ingrid Hughes's blog includes a report on a journey through serious mental illness.
John Birch, just retiring from a regular column in this newsletter, has been running a blog for the past few years, and it now contains several dozen of his fiction and nonfiction stories, many of which have been published here and there in the U.S. and Europe. See it at John BIrch Live at Blogspot.
Barbara Crooker's poems are updated often on her website.
Check out Cathy Weiss's website for writers and readers:



On June 11, 2016, at the West Virginia Writers Conference, Cat Pleska presented the JUG Award ("Just Uncommonly Good") to West Virginia's poet Laureate, Marc Harshman, with these words: "Choosing talented poets as laureates is an indication of the value society places on literature. Most states choose laureates, and the nation chooses gifted writers every two years. The state of West Virginia has chosen laureates for a long time, and we have been fortunate in the last few years that our poet laureate, Marc Harshman, diligently and honorably represents his and our respect for literature. Marc is a friend to all, a good man who says and writes beautiful words. His literary arts are prolific, deeply and thoughtfully written, sometimes with a fierce voice in his poems and at other times a gentle voice in his children's books. The depth and breadth of his literary accomplishments are astounding. But ever and always, Marc is someone we can point to proudly as our laureate. West Virginia Writers, Inc. is pleased to award Marc Harshman with its highest award, the JUG, which stands for Just Uncommonly Good.  Because Marc Harshman truly is."
Barry Zack has published his first novel, Jewish Lightning: the Book.
Joan Liebovitz's story"A Bad Day in the Promised Land," has been accepted for publication inPersimmon Tree.
Yorker Keith's novel Remembrance of Blue Roses is featured in the June 1, 2016 issue of the Kirkus Reviews magazine as one of about 40 reviews on Indie Books (independently published books). Fewer than 10% of the reviews are selected to be featured in the magazine (see page 140).
Marc Harshman has a new poetry podcast: Upcoming are Robert Morgan, Jeff Mann, and Maggie Anderson.
Matthew Neill Null's new story collection Allegheny Front is out from Sarabande.

Hamilton Stone Editions-- Now with BUY buttons!

Summer Special! E-book versions of Meredith Sue Willis's Blair Morgan trilogy $1.99 each! Through July 15, 2016 only! To get the special price, go to or smply click on the book cover below.  

At checkout, put in the coupon code below (not case sensitive) for each book.

HIGHER GROUND Code: REW50 Promotional price: $1.99 Expires: July 15, 2016
ONLY GREAT CHANGES:   Code: GP53X Promotional price: $1.99 Expires: July 15, 2016
TRESPASSERS Code:    SWS50  Promotional price: $1.99 Expires: July 15, 2016




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