Linda Gray Sexton, author of Bespotted, talks about her writing process


Linda Gray Sexton is an acclaimed memoirist, novelist and essayist.   Her most recent memoir is Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmations.   (Counterpoint Press 2014).   In 2011, she published the memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide (Counterpoint Press) and in 1994, published Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. She has also written several novels, including Private Acts, Mirror Images and Points of Light. She is  the author of numerous essays.  More at ,


1. What am I working on/writing? Or what book have I just finished writing?

I have just published a memoir called, Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair With Thirty-Eight Dalmatians this first week in September 2014. It is an account of the way these many dogs influenced my life, and my family’s life, since I was a child up right through to the present. It shows the joy, companionship and happiness dogs have brought into my life, as well as the story of the one Dalmatian who saved me from depression and suicide. I also show, breed and train these dogs and it deals with that world as well.

Right now I am working on a novel tentatively titled Sunday’s Magician. It is moving along slowly because I now have to take care of the publicity and publishing tasks that go along with having a book come out.

2. How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

I like to think my work deals with hard truths, with the exception of Bespotted, which is a lighter and more joyful book. Previously, I have published Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, which is about my relationship with my mother and how I learned to forgive her for her suicide, which occurred when I was twenty-one. Another, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, which covers the legacy of self-destruction that was left to me and examines my own bipolar disorder and three suicide attempts, followed the first memoir. Some people think of Half in Love as a sequel to Searching for Mercy Street. The final chapters in the book tell the story of my return to health, happiness and love—all that enables me to move on to write the later, lighter memoir, Bespotted.


3. Why do I write what I do?

I write candidly, in any genre, about the truths I find in life. I nearly always write about family relationships and the secrets we keep from one another—and even ourselves. I find it helps me to examine myself if I “tell it true,” as my mother said. Knowing that this is acceptable is liberating and enables me to scrutinize the psychology of others and myself.


4. How does my writing process work?

I work each weekday from nine o’clock to noon, when I break for lunch and do the errands of the day. At lunch I read at the same time I am eating, books that are generally lighter and more commercial, focusing on storyline and character. I resume in my office around two o’clock, reworking previous material rather than creating new, or, if I find myself with “writer’s block,” I read—generally “literature” that will help me hear the rhythms of my own work. Writing is a solitary act and I find I need a lot of self-discipline to be productive. Sometimes I write my first drafts on my laptop computer, and sometimes by hand on a yellow-lined pad of paper with a number two Ticonderoga pencil. These tools comfort me with their familiarity. If I have used paper, I then transcribe onto the computer, editing as I go. I love revising and editing and I hate creating first drafts. My first drafts tend to be awkward attempts and I refine, refine, refine over time. Generally each book goes through twenty or so drafts before I show it to a friend who is a writer, or my writer’s group. I then take their comments and revise before showing it to my agent, who critiques it once again and I make one further revision. She then takes it to my editor. My editor requires further honing and expansion in different spots before it is published at last.


Laura Pritchett Counterpoint Press Author

Laura Pritchett is the author of Stars Go Blue. She also authored Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which received the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and a PEN USA Award for Fiction. For Sky Bridge, she received the WILLA Fiction Award. She has had over 100 short stories and essays published in various magazines The Sun, Orion, O Magazine, High Country News, Salon, Desert Journal and others. Pritchett lives in northern Colorado and teaches around the country. More at


From the publisher:

Laura Pritchett is an award-winning author who has quickly become one of the West’s defining literary voices. We first met hardscrabble ranchers Renny and Ben Cross in Laura’s debut collection. In Stars Go Blue, they are estranged, elderly spouses living on opposite ends of their sprawling ranch, faced with the particular decline of a fading farm decline of a fading farm and Ben’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Then they discover a new horrible truth: Ray, the abusive husband of their daughter who shot her dead in the family kitchen, is being released from prison early. This news opens old wounds in Ben, his wife, his surviving daughter, and four grandchildren. Branded with a need for justice, they must each confront this man, their own consciences, and their futures. Stars Go Blue is a triumphant novel of the American family, buffered by the workings of a ranch and the music offered by the landscape and animal life upon it. With an unflinching look into the world of Alzheimer’s, both from the point of view of the afflicted and the caregiver, the novel offers a story of remarkable bravery and enduring devotion, proving that the end of life does not mean the end of love.




Readers will remember Renny and Ben Cross from Pritchett’s stellar first collection of linked stories, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado (2001). Life in the meantime has not been kind to the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working couple. Their daughter, Rachel, was murdered before their very eyes a few years back by her meth-head husband, Ray. Now Ben has rapidly progressing dementia, and Renny is left to tend to the ranch and her husband single-handedly. When the Crosses learn that Ray has been released from prison innearby Greeley, Ben leaves in the midst of a snowstorm to confront the man who ruined his family, armed with enough weapons to ensure his misery will end. When Renny discovers Ben is gone, she takes off inwhat is now a full-blown blizzard, uncertain that she will find Ben in time. There is more than just the bleak and unforgiving setting of the Rocky Mountain foothills to recommend Pritchett to fans of Kent Haruf’s similarly placed novels. Strength of character and simplicity of language comparably complement a rich underpinning of savagery and sadness as Pritchett sensitively navigates the end of a life and sublimely realizes its enduring legacy.


— Carol Haggas

“Stars Go Blue manages to be both warm-hearted and violent at once — a complex deeply-imagined family tale which finds unexpected gifts at its conclusion. Laura Pritchett is a writer who knows country life on the Rocky Mountain front range thoroughly and she conveys this physical world expertly, beautifully out of her long experience. Within this specific place her clear depiction of character and suspenseful delivery of story compel us to the last exact word.” —Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong and Eventide



A few things I talk about when I talk about writing: Or another fishing story

Thanks to Harrison Solow for inviting me to write about my work. Harrison Solow is an impressive scholar of Welch, a poet, a brilliant essayist, and author of a wonderful epistolary book of creative nonfiction (although it is also fiction!), Felicity and Barbara Pym.   Between 2006 and 2011 she was honored with eight writing awards.  She has been a Pushcart-nominee in both poetry and cross-genre and won a Pushcart Prize in non-fiction.

I’ll begin by discussing what I’m working on now–always a little dangerous because it’s important not to say too much. And talking about writing is like a fishing story. So much happens quickly and underneath the surface.  I don’t know if it’s possible to write non-fiction about writing fiction but I’m always willing to give it a try:

I’ve always written flash fiction and short stories, and I’m writing new ones. Flash fiction is great fun because it happens all at once, creates an instant shape and doesn’t interfere with a writing day. My latest short story, Anesthesia will be in the next issue of Gargoyle.  I’ll also be reading a story called Plan C at Litquake this October. And a new novel is dominating my life.  I’ve set it in an undisclosed country, and, as in Heidegger’s Glasses, (Counterpoint Press 2010 and 2011) it concerns a group of people as well as one character in a dilemma. When I work on a novel a key question for me is: What is narrative?   I know this might sound self-consciously post-postmodern, but I can’t stop asking the question.   I think about the stories we tell each other in conversations and I’m still looking for a form of narrative that feels as natural as taking a breath when we start to talk.   I’m not looking for what’s real or natural.  That’s impossible.  I’m looking for artifice that is natural–a fit for my voice and the way I see things.

How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

Continue reading

Story of a character–after she makes her appearance

Harriet Scott Chessman, who wrote  The Beauty of Ordinary Things, has invited me to do a blog post about characters. Harriet is an amazing person, intellect and writer.  There’s never a false note in her prose  Her earlier novels include Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Ohio Angels. Her  own thoughts about character are at


When I agreed to do this blog hop I felt slightly duplicitous, because I rarely think about “character.” In fact, all the questions I’m going to answer except for the first question are either things I knew only after I finished writing the novel or more than half-way through. I first meet characters as strangers.  And this is in my last blog post called Character: An Explosion Between Strangers.  

So  here are my answers–with full disclosure that I discovered most of them after I finished writing and they weren’t part of conscious character development.

1. What is the character’s name?  Is she fictional or historic?

My character’s name is Elie Schacten.  She’s purely fictional, although after I wrote the book, I realized she looks a lot like my grandmother Grace who died when my father was six. I’ve only seen pictures of her–and all the pictures were in profile. Later, though, I realized that my sense of her spirit permeated the book.  And long before I began to write the book, I heard a woman who looked like her, starting to tell me the story.

2. When is the story set? And where?

The story begins in Germany after the battle of Stalingrad, when Germany began to crumble.   It’s set in an abandoned mine converted into a compound that houses people who speak and write different languages and answer letters to the dead The mine is called The Compound of Scribes. and has been converted to look like a city street, with cobblestones, a sun that rises and sets, and constellations in the sky when Hitler was born.  The Scribes are all people who would otherwise have been deported to camps.

3.  What is should we know about the character?

Elie Schacten is a Polish Catholic who is the head of the Compound and envoy for the Scribes. She collects mail at the outpost and is responsible for all the supplies. Elie also works for the Resistance and ingratiated herself with the Reich in order to have more knowledge and more power.  She’s dauntless in her need to rescue. One thing that kept striking me about Elie was her need for secrecy and privacy.   It was a privacy I felt I had to respect.  In fact,  I only discovered the reason for it near the end of the novel.

3.  What is her main conflict?  What messes up her life?

 I have trouble answering these sort of questions  because no character has a main conflict anymore than a person does.  It’s fairer to say that Elie has an event in her past that’s too painful to talk about and leads to dauntless acts of rescue.  If she’s conflicted at all,  it’s a conflict between protecting people who are already safe and sometimes endangering those very lives to rescue people who aren’t safe. Similarly, I wouldn’t say her life is “messed up.”  I would say that complications occur because Elie has the kind of hubris that many of us have when we’re going out on a limb for someone we love, or doing something that we feel is for the common good. Namely, we adopt a kind of magical thinking, assuming that because our intentions are good all the consequences will be good.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?  Elie’s ostensible role is to rescue.

  If I told you her ultimate goal, it would be a spoiler.  Read the book  to find out.

6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it? Elie is in Heidegger’s Glasses.

You can order it from any bookstore or directly from Counterpoint Press.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?  And how can we read it? It was published in 2010 and 2011.  You can order it directly from Counterpoint Press or buy it or find it at a local bookstore.

Tagging five writers:

Next week, you’ll be hearing from five distinctive and talented writers.  They are (in alphabetical order):  Stacy Bierlein, Frances Lefkowitz, Paulette Livers, David Rocklin and Geoff Schutt.

STACY BIERLEIN is the author of the story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends (March 2012). She is the editor of the award-winning anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection (May 2008), and the coeditor of Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (October 2011). She is a founding editor of the independent press Other Voices Books and co-creator of the Morgan Street International Novel Series.

FRANCES LEFKOWITZ   is the author of To Have Not,  a Best Memoir of 2010, as well as personal essays in The Sun, Superstition Review, Good Housekeeping (!) and others. Her fiction appears in Tin House, Glimmer Train, Fiction, Frederick Barthelme’s New World Writing and other journals, and she’s received two special mentions for the Pushcart Prize and one for Best American Essays. The former Senior Editor of Body + Soul magazine, Frances is now Book Reviewer for Good Housekeeping and a freelance writer for Health, Martha Stewart’s Whole Living, National Geographic’s Green Guide, and more. She also teaches workshops, coaches writers, and blogs about writing, publishing, and footwear at At home in Petaluma, CA, Frances is writing a new memoir, A Wave of Her Own, about learning to surf at age 36.

PAULETTE LIVERS is a southerner living in Chicago. Her novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), set in 1969, deals with the effects of social change on a rural community during the Vietnam War. Learn more about Paulette and her work at and find her on Facebook at

DAVID ROCKLIN is the author of The Luminist and the founder and host of Roar Shack, a Los Angeles-based reading series. He is at work on a new novel, The Night Language. He is represented by Fletcher &

GEOFF SCHUTT’S Eleanor can be found as a character-in-progress at “This Side of Paradise” ( He has been awarded several grants for fiction-as-performance art, featuring interactive storytelling, and his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He currently lives in the Boston area.



Character: An Explosion between Strangers


For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant by “character”. In fact, the word still seems like an elusive function in an equally elusive calculus of fiction.    It’s a function with grave responsibilities: The main character, or characters,  must steer the story to shore or have a notable wreck. They must have conflicting motives–or (in simple language) things they want and don’t want. At the same time the writer is steering them, adjusting them, so the navigator isn’t really in charge.  Except for those times when writers say, “The character surprised me.”

This statement never seemed remarkable except  for the fact that the writer  seems surprised at the surprise when in fact all people—in and out of fiction—are unpredictable.

The innovative and radical psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, has said that when two people meet, a kind of explosion occurs.  I think everyone can relate to this because the explosion doesn’t have to cause fireworks:  It can be a small shudder, a tremor.  It’s the explosion of meeting a stranger and knowing that you are a stranger to the person you are meeting.  It’s also an interpersonal explosion because each person knows they are stranger to the other.

This happens for me with people in fictional worlds as well as with people in what we call “the real world.” And for me, this is the beginning of what we call “character” and feels much more like meeting a person

By explosion I mean something physical and kinesthetic—the kind you feel when a stranger walks into a room.  It’s the explosion of encounter, of sheer physical embodiment. And when this happens—invited or not—someone slips from being an imaginary person to what I’ve learned to call a “character” in my story.

Eventually, I make a contract with this person (or people):  They’re charged with steering the story and I’m charged with seeing that they do.  It’s a crooked contract because we each can hoodwink the other.  I’ll find out things about them that they don’t know and they’ll discover things things about me that I don’t know. They may change the course of the navigation and I may surprise them by adjusting the stars. We’re unacknowledged doubles, dancing in a funhouse mirror.

Even though this explosion happens in fictional space, it still feels like a literal explosion And when it happens in this space I want to follow them  because they’re literally, physically, separate from me.

In other words: It’s the explosion of otherness that makes me curious.  They’re only interesting at this stage because an explosion has happened between us.

This literal, physical curiousity, gets me to walk on their streets, enter their rooms, discover their hideouts.  I learn the physical map of their lives. I may not know what they look like. But I feel them moving through space.  In other words, they’re embodied for me.

Now and then I don’t allow the explosion to occur, just the way I might ignore someone at a party.   This happens most often with incidental people, or what we call “minor characters.”   I’m not snubbing them.  I’m just failing to take them into account, the way it happens when someone is introduced and I don’t quite pause, don’t give myself over, don’t allow a meeting.

Whenever I don’t allow this meeting—however minor—I get into trouble. The person wanders around the story without apparent purpose and I have to go back and allow the explosion.  It’s like: Yes! I’m going to meet you. And I’m going to let you meet me.

Having made the initial disclaimer about character, I am, after all, writing about a character for a blog hop. The person who invited me is the highly original and poetic novelist Harriet Scott Chessman who approaches character with amazing deftness  in The Beauty of Ordinary Things. Harriet  Chessman cares deeply about people in and out of fiction and her compassion, perceptiveness and respect for otherness illuminates her book, as it illuminates her earlier novels (Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Ohio Angels)

Her thoughts about character are at:



Someone Came Knocking


Some one came knocking

At my wee, small door;

Some one came knocking,

I’m sure – sure – sure;

I listened, I opened,

I looked to left and right,

But naught there was a-stirring

In the still dark night;

Only the busy beetle

Tap-tapping in the wall,

Only from the forest

The screech-owl’s call,

Only the cricket whistling

While the dewdrops fall,

So I know not who came knocking,

At all, at all, at all.

 (Walter de La Mare)

Ever since I’ve been a therapist, I think about people who are alone during holidays. When family surrounded me, I would think of clients who had no one to be with and nowhere to go.  This Thanksgiving I mentioned this to a few friends who felt I was spoiling the joy about being around people they loved.

Besides, you can always rent a Kurosawa movie, someone said.

Or curl up with a good book.

And why spend Thanksgiving with people you don’t want to be with, anyway?

That’s not what I meant, I wanted to say. I’m thinking about people who don’t have options.

On the evening before Thanksgiving I heard a faint knock on the door.  We live in a courtyard that’s so far back from the street kids miss us on Halloween.   The porch light wasn’t on.

Who is it? I called

No answer.

Who is it? I called again.

Again no answer

I opened the door to darkness.

Please, miss, said a wavery voice.   Please help me.

The voice could signal danger: A giant impersonating someone harmless.  An armed robber who worked in tandem with a nearly-inaudible voice.  Take the risk, part of me said.  Don’t,said another.  Close the door.  

If I hadn’t talked to my friends earlier, I would have closed the door. Instead, I turned on the porch light and saw an old man with a childlike face.   He had no teeth and was so thin his pants fell around him in folds.

How did you find this place?

I don’t know.  I just came here.  I thought you could help me.

He began to cry.

For a moment, I switched to a former therapist-mode.

You seem really lonely. You need people to talk to.

I know, I know. Highland Hospital. They kept me there like a jail.  They wouldn’t let me out.

Maybe you could talk to someone at a clinic, I said.


But it wasn’t advice he wanted.  It wasn’t even money.  Even so, I rooted around in my wallet and gave him what I had.  He cried again.

Just one thing, then, I said.

I know, he said.  Be careful.

Yes, I said.  Please be careful.

He walked down the steps holding on to the railing. His body was as wavery as his voice.

I told Keith when he came home.  I told him about my earlier conversations, about the feeling that I had to respond to whomever was at the door.

He was guided to you, he said. He was guided to test you.

You’re a software architect, I said. You never think like that.

I do now.

I never told anyone else about the man.   I was afraid they’d tell me I should never have opened the door.  He was casing your place.  He’ll be back.   Watch out.

The man never came back.  Now and then I think I hear a small knocking.  I open the door and no one is there.   The man was real.  And what he wanted was real.  Someone to cry with.  A handshake from a stranger.



The Mirror


Could I ever give my sixteen-year-old self advice?  Somehow I don’t think so—but I’ll try:


Whenever I think of being sixteen, I have an image that doesn’t seem (at first) like theright image  because it’s all about appearance::

Early spring in Pennsylvania: Because of a bout with measles, I’ve lost weight. And–as if my whole body has emerged–my hair, previously unmanageable, has become a long sleek pageboy. I spend hours (and hours) in front of my mirror, admiring the profile I always wanted.

Finally, I am beautiful. And I love being beautiful.  I can even stand my mother’s anger as she looks at my face.

Almost every night I climb out my bedroom window to meet my boyfriend.

Almost every morning I apply eye shadow a few blocks before school.

I also have a secret life under my bed.

In my house there’s always yelling and screaming. Sometimes it’s my mother yelling at me and throwing things. Sometimes it’s my parents yelling at each other. Their voices are so raw I hear the scrape of their hearts.

I am wracked by guilt about both of them:

For my mother, who can hardly get a meal on the table.

For my father, who is frightened of everything.

And for both of them, who wanted to be writers, and who hate me because I’m turning out to be that sort of animal.

I don’t want to be a writer. I simply am, against my will, writing my first story at eight, winning prizes at twelve. I have allowed myself a public life as a fiction writer because both of my parents once wrote poetry.  When I’m alone, I write poetry, too.

My secret life under my bed consists of eye shadow, fashion magazines, and an electric razor since my mother, although not a feminist, forbids me from shaving my legs.  There’s also the life of a beginning writer, hidden like a rat with a stolen egg:  Journals where I record my parents’ fights. Books my mother doesn’t understand and that my father (an English professor) resents because he doesn’t quite grasp. Kafka and Wallace Stevens are next to the eye shadow. Also poetry I’ve written.

My parents expect me to major in English and become a lesser version of my father–going on to teach high school but not for long, because I’ll stop working when I get married.  As for me, I know–without really acknowledging it–that I’ll become a writer.

When it’s time to go to college, I defy all three of us. Instead of English, I major in philosophy of science and learn the incantations of symbolic logic.  I’m less in love with camouflage (I shave my legs in broad daylight and no longer hide my books).  But I remain separate from what everyone–including me–thinks I should be doing. Philosophy helps me understand the breadth and limits of language: but–and to my annoyance–I often read it as a writer, remembering a passage in Hume where he leaps out of his philosopher-persona to describe himself sitting by the fire in his dressing gown. Nothing I’m doing quite fits and I most enjoy staring out the window.  But when I study philosophy in graduate school, I re-read William Blake and decide that philosophy has limits.

I quit school and become a proofreader. At Sports-Illustrated we work until four in the morning and get drunk on scotch.  I ride the subway home to save cab money and defy anyone to bother me. I live in a walk-up in the Village, read my poetry at literary events and start to study Zen. Zen feels right for many reasons, but one important aspect is cultivation of silence–the bedfellow of creative language.

Eventually, I become a therapist–a long road where I help people like my parents feel happier, and eases some of my guilt about them.  Eventually I teach in graduate writing programs, where I help people who (again like my parents) want to write–except they’re willing to learn from me.

Teaching eases my guilt even more. And one day I realize that I’ve become what I always knew I was, yet for many reasons tried not to be. It happens when I’ve published three books: I’m a writer. After all.

It’s been a zigzag path, interrupted by forays into fashion, and (via the women’s movement) forays away from fashion. It’s been reading Heidegger for a solid week in graduate school and emerging on West End Avenue stoned on his notions of time.  It’s been telling Tarot fortunes at parties and expounding about modal logic.

The path has also been about relationships–some that reified the pain and guilt I felt about my parents and some that were gifts.  Some that held me back and some that pushed me forward.  I also became the mother of an extraordinary son.

So what would I say to this sixteen-year-old, admiring her profile in the mirror, with a copy of Metamorphosis under her bed? I would say almost nothing: Because her tumultuous, painful, ecstatic zigzag path is taking her where she needs to be.

There are two things, though, I would want to tell her:

First: Trust yourself even more than you do. Trust your secret forays into fashion. Trust the books under your bed.  Trust sneaking out the window to see your boyfriend.  Trust the way you hear the ache in your parents’ fights. Trust your forbidden journals. And trust your elaborate camouflage.

Second: Thank you. Thank you for being brave enough to enjoy your image in the mirror. Thank you for your rebelliousness.  Thank you for being true to your path.


Original on© 2012 Thaïsa Frank

The Mirror by Thaisa Frank

Thaïsa Frank’s Bio:

Enchantment is Thaisa Frank’s third collection of short fiction and includes two semi-autobiographical novellas as well as thirty-three stories. Her most recent novel,Heidegger’s Glasses, takes place in the mythical haven of an underground mine during WWII, the safety of which is threatened by a courageous worker in the Resistance. It was published in 2010, reissued in paperback in 2011 and sold to ten foreign countries before publication.   She is also the author of Sleeping in Velvet and A Brief History of Camouflage, both on the Bestseller List of the San Francisco Chronicle. Thaisa has received two PEN awards and is a three-time Northern California Book Award nominee. Her stories have been widely anthologized–the most recent of which are in A Dictionary of Dirty Words, Harper/Collins Reader’s Choice and Rozne Ksztatly Milocsi.  She has published critical essays on writing and art and wrote the Afterward to Viking/Penguin’s most recent edition of Voltaire.

Thaisa Frank majored in philosophy of science and studied writing alone, turning down fellowships and working as a copy-editor, ghostwriter, and psychotherapist. An interviewer once claimed she also once was a psychic reader; but this was just a rumor, started by one of her characters

The Mole


(from Enchantment, Counterpoint Press, Best Books SF Chronicle 2012)



The Mole

He noticed the mole the only time they ever made love, a light blue mole, nestled on the inside of her thigh. It was delicate, translucent, and when he touched it, it felt fragile, like a mushroom.  He was an ear, nose and throat specialist, and hadn’t thought about moles in many years, but later, when they were sitting on his bed talking, it occurred to him that it might be cancerous. The mole was blue, and, from medical school, he remembered that blue moles were often malignant.  And so he looked at Sharon, sitting opposite him on his bed, wrapped in his shirt, her hair falling over to one side, wondering how to broach the subject.  She was a medical-technician–certainly she knew about such things and surely she’d be angry if he presumed she didn’t.  Also he had a feeling she didn’t like him very much:  She was a tall restrained woman of about twenty-eight, with a sense of smoldering inner heat he’d been unable to release, even for an instant.

“This is my kid,” he said, by way of entering into certain softness with her, a softness that might allow him to mention the mole.  He reached over to his bedside table and showed her a photograph of his son in his Little League   outfit.  “I’m divorced,” he said as he handed her the picture.  “My kid is eight.”
“Oh,” she said, lifting the picture, and looking at it without much interest.  “I guess I already knew that.”

After a while, she left, pausing by his collection of geodes, the only bright thing in his sparse apartment, and refusing his offer of a taxi.  He was glad he hadn’t mentioned the mole, but later, around midnight, he began to worry again.  He had never been interested in diseases of the skin—he preferred what was hidden, accessed through apertures and tunnels–but now he pulled out his old medical-school textbooks and looked at photographs of moles.  None of them looked like her mole: they seemed darker, larger, less fragile.  He went to bed reassured, yet the moment he woke up he remembered.  The mole was dark in his memory, almost black.

“For God’s sake,” said a dermatologist friend,  whom he’d cornered at the hospital, “she’s probably had it for ages, and if she’s a medical technician, she knows all about it.”  They were in the doctor’s lounge and he’d  told her the entire story.  “How old did you say she was? Twenty-eight?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t bother to ask.”

“You don’t know how old she was, but you noticed her mole—Dennis, you’re distraught. I bet you’ve been sleeping around too much.”  The friend laughed, and added: “It’s your divorce.  You should stay out of circulation for awhile.”

The conversation relieved him, but later that day, he went to the medical library.   Moles are like hieroglyphs, he thought, walking through the stacks like a sleuth–hard to decipher, crudely beautiful.  As soon as he opened the books (he did so secretly, with the sense of seeking forbidden knowledge) he felt sucked into a universe of moles.  Horribly, a small purple mole on the thigh of a young woman had turned out to be fatal, but eleven black moles on the back of a middle-aged man were benign. The more he looked at the pictures, the more Sharon’s mole changed shape and color in his memory.

“Did her mole have a hair on it?” his dermatologist friend asked,  when, for a second time, he cornered her at the hospital.  They were at the cafeteria, having coffee, and she looked at him with concern.

“I don’t remember. Why?”

“Because moles that have hairs on them are almost always benign.”

He closed his eyes. “I can’t remember.  It’s just a blur.”

“Why don’t you call her then?”

“She’d think I was stupid.”

“I think you’d live.”  She reached over and patted his hand.  He noticed that she was wearing an indigo scarf that looked lovely against her blond hair.  Also, she had a mole on the right side of her nose, a small brown mole  he hadn’t remembered seeing.

“Is that new?” he asked, touching it

“No, I’ve always had it.  Anyway, almost everyone in the world has a mole somewhere on their body. You, too, Dennis.”  And she touched a small brown spot on his wrist in a way that moved him.  He asked her to dinner, but she shook her head.  “You’ve just gotten divorced. Give it some time.”

It was too cold to walk home, so he took the subway, and as he stood there, being jostled with the others, he began to see  moles everywhere–erupting on faces, and on hands that weren’t wearing gloves.  Their owners seemed calm, impervious, yet as he looked at the moles,  he began to wonder if he had a moral obligation to speak to these people.  His small amount of knowledge felt like a burden and that night he dreamt about Sharon’s eyes staring past him towards a fixed and finite point–just like the eyes of certain terminally-ill patients who are able to see ahead to their very last moment in time. He woke in a sweat, and decided to call her, but the next day he changed his mind, and wrote her a letter instead.  He signed his full name–Dennis Gaviola–and he used plain white paper, not his doctor’s stationery:

Dear Sharon: I hope you won’t think me untoward if I mention to you that the other night I  happened to notice a mole on the inside of your thigh.  It was a small blue mole, and I only bother to write, because I know that blue moles can sometimes be dangerous. Although I’m sure you probably already know about it, I couldn’t walk around in good conscience without mentioning it to you. By the way, I really enjoyed meeting you and I hope we’ll see each other again.  Sincerely, Dennis Gaviola.

 He wasn’t sure about the phrase I hope you won’t think me untoward.  It had an oddly formal quality, and he decided to consult an old friend,  an editor, who lived in Boston.

“I think it’s ridiculous,”  the friend said, when he read him the letter on the phone. “For god’s sake, don’t ever send it.”

“But what if I took out that phrase?”

“It would still be ridiculous.”


“Because.  There’s nothing wrong with her. ”

His friend sounded remote, safe in a happy marriage.  “Terrible things can happen,” he continued, “but they’re never the things you worry about in advance.”

He didn’t mail the letter, but kept it by his bed, in its envelope, reading it over and over, trying to imagine that he was Sharon at the exact moment of opening it.   He always saw her reading the letter fully clothed, except for once, when she was wearing his shirt, and her reaction was always the same–contempt.  The letter became creased, began to look like a map, and twice he had to snatch it from his eight-year-old son.  Finally he stuck it in his dresser drawer, and read it only occasionally.   He never could decide about the phrase I hope you won’t think me untoward.

Later that spring he met, and had an affair with, a woman who had no moles.  Her name was Corazon Martinez, she was from Argentina, and an interpreter for the State Department.  He had vowed he would never mention moles in her presence, but one day, to his own amazement, he said to her: “You have no moles!” and she answered, solemnly: “I know.  I am completely unmarked.”  They were lying on her bed and Corazon sat up and looked at her skin as if trying to see it from a distance.

“Do you think moles are important?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Very. They’re like keys to unknown cities. I’ve always wanted one.”

That night he came home and tore up his letter to Sharon, bit by bit, piece by piece. It was like tearing up a love letter, written to him by someone else.  When the letter was shredded, he burned it on the stove, and finally, mercifully, Sharon receded in his mind. He forgot about her, forgot about her mole, and was surprised when  he saw her on the subway, about eight months later near Christmastime. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would still exist, living an ordinary life, yet here she was opposite him, holding packages, wearing a dark blue coat–still with that smoldering sense of unavailable inner heat.  She was staring into space and looked abstractedly, quietly happy.

The instant he saw her he remembered her mole.  Indeed he had a graphic image of it, nestled on the inside of her thigh, a hidden eye, a secret pearl, surprising other lovers or–maybe she was married now–her husband.  Sharon didn’t  notice him, didn’t even look his way,  and when she came to her stop, he waited for her to disappear.  But as soon as the doors opened, he found himself racing to catch up with her.  He reached her at the top of the stairs.

“Are you okay?” he said,  when she turned to face him. “I’ve been meaning to call. I’ve been thinking about you.”

“Oh, I’m okay,” she said, smiling. “Even though I’ve been to hell and back.”

“Was it your mole?” he blurted out, “was there anything wrong with it?”  He looked at her eyes, and noticed, to his relief, that they didn’t look like the eyes of a terminally-ill person at all.  They were relaxed, somewhat dreamy, and seemed to stare ahead towards an indefinite, undefined point on the horizon.  Now they turned to him, puzzled.

“My mole?” she said. “Is that all you can ask me about after all these months? Jesus.  No.  I mean I’ve finally gotten my divorce.”

“I didn’t know you were married.”

“You didn’t ask.”

“But you didn’t tell me!”

She smiled again, wryly, that heat still locked inside of her, and then she walked away, leaving him over twenty blocks from home.  He began to walk–quickly, fiercely, with the sense of some new and unnamed burden, having nothing to do with her mole, or with anything else he would ever be able to decipher.







The Customs Station of the Imagination


reading to dogs

These dogs have been drafted into a story called Reading to Dogs. But before 
they agree to be in it, they question customs officials about what they will have to
declare and surrender if they are in the story. 

Often when I give a reading or teach,  people ask me: Where does your material
come from?

Questions from students are usually about material in general. These are the easiest questions to answer because everyone has their own access to the pneumatic tube of the imagination–that  free-box of innovative language and untold. I find it staring out the window or walking down a city street or seeing a headline. Everyone finds this free-box a little differently.

But this doesn’t explain the details of the stories: How did the trunk in a corner of one story become a main character in another?   What happened to make one character drop out of the story and another character start to write letters? And where did you get this character?   These are the questions people at readings want to know. And my most honest answer is that I can’t tell them.  


I’m sure that if a story were on a real map, I could walk into it and find any one one of the parts  and remember something about its origin. But these parts got to stay in the story only because they belonged to the whole.S cenes, phrases, characters, plots—nothing is safe from being thrown
in the landfill.

In one sense,  I’m relieved that I can’t answer the question. This partly comes from a sense that
once a story is written it’s best to not analyze it,  release it to the world, and not analyze it.  The imagination works on what we call reality and redefines it. 

And yet the demands on the imagination are rigorous. They come from the “real” world, from the
writer and  from a sense of the potential reader.  In fact, I have a definite sense of a customs station at the border of writing where I have to surrender what I think already know–about myself,  my life, and what I think fiction should and shouldn’t be.  Then I have to bring in elements that I think are part of the story and will probably change to suit the demands that the story itself beings to make. And once something gets through customs, 
I don’t want to drag it back across the border into a linear (and made-up) explanation about where it came from.

Strangely–or maybe not so strangely– I notice that concrete answers to this question are rarely  satisfying. So when I say:  “I got this idea from here and this image from there,” there’s often a  slight sense of deflation in the questioner. The answer is like going to the back of a puppet show and watching the strings. It doesn’t touch on the elusiveness of the imagination.

Recently I wrote a story called Reading to Dogs. The passage through customs was rigorous:All the The dogs wanted to be in the story.  But they didn’t want to surrender important aspects of  dog-ness, like smelling the history of sidewalks or hearing extraordinary sounds.  They reached a negotiation with customs that I never understood.  I simply was grateful for their exuberance and their presence.




Elizabeth Stark Powers: A Passport to the World of Writing

bettaEizabeth Stark Powers is a beacon and anchor for many writers.  She is the author of Shy Girl, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. (She’s also finishing a complex and brilliant novel that I’ve been lucky to read in the early stages.)  In addition to writing, Elizabeth also has a unique coaching service called Book Writing World ( that works with writers through an ingenious combination of webinar and shared manuscripts. I was a guest on the webinar and came away impressed by Elizabeth’s insights and her deft ability with a group.  In addition to teaching, Elizabeth writes columns that are available to everybody. And even though I’ve published six books, I often go to them for solace becaEuse they remind me of what I often forget—namely that writing is hard and finishing is a priority.   I always come away with a phrase to remember:  For example: It is harder to think about writing than to write.  And Dialog is about rhythm.  Elizabeth was recently chosen to moderate the panel, Like Me/Unlike Me: Re-Imagining Women in Fiction at Pegasus on Shattuck in Berkeley on September 25th. (

Thaisa: Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview, Elizabeth.  I’ve read Book Writing World ( for a long time and I always look forward to your columns. You have a keen sense of what stops writers from writing and are able to articulate that in ways that are positive instead of punishing.   For example, in your column called Celebrated Chunks, Looking at a Writer’s Schedule ( you say that “meaningful work must have a daily goal that supersedes the overarching goal.” Can you elaborate on this?

Elizabeth:. The rush to the stable can stall progress, especially if the stable keeps ending up just out of reach. It’s the habit that matters for a writer, the daily dose you do, day in and day out, whether it’s any good, whether it contributes to bringing the project home. I don’t quite work this way myself, however. I am always aiming for the stable, but I am learning that if it’s up over another hill or out of sight around the corner, I still need to keep trotting.

Thaisa: That’s good advice. I know that I can get stalled by a novel that seems to be lagging yet write something short that I didn’t have in mind.  Also, you seem to know almost all the psychological hooks that writers use to hang themselves.  Were you always aware of them or did something specific get your attention?

Elizabeth: The combination of teaching and writing forces one to this awareness. Don’t you think so, Thaisa? I find I do my best teaching and my most sincere advising when I do it from my own edge, from the place where I am struggling. I guess I am intimately familiar with those hooks because on any given day I’m hanging from one or the other of them. When I sit down to write my newsletter, I have first to face the fact that to write about writing requires writing. Already I’m tangled on the hook, you see? So I start there—as my own bait I suppose, and see what I can reel in.

Thaisa:  You’re right—teaching and writing focus on awareness from either side of the woven cloth.  I noticed that you’re able to help many different writers, ranging from memoirists to writers of fantasy to writers of what we call “literary fiction.”  Do you find yourself leaning toward a particular genre?  For example, do you ever blur lines between what is considered “real” and “magically real” or “surreal?”

Elizabeth: My teaching and editing come from my deeper skill set as a reader. That is, I am a more experienced and advanced reader than I am a writer. And I am a gullible reader, too, which I think is the best kind for editing. You want to start out likely to fall for the characters, story and world, and from there find only what throws that gullible reader out of the tale. No need to hunt for writerly strategies or failings.

My first book started out with a whole magical twist, but I think the gender-bending (female-ish) hero was already magical to me and surreal to my grad school readers, so I ended up cutting the other magic, which was a bit more parlor-trick-y than substantial. But I was heavily under the influence of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion—“I’m telling you stories. Trust me” and Laura Esquovil’s Like Water for Chocolate—the movie more than the book, in fact, because the visual presentation of the magical realism pinned it down so much more strikingly. To see the impossible is a form of ecstasy.

Thaisa:I’m a gullible reader, too, so that reassures me! I know that you’re finishing a new book because I was lucky enough to read one of the early drafts.  Has your writing changed since you wrote Shy Girl?

Elizabeth: Oh my gosh—I hope so! I have studied craft a lot more. My ideas about writing went, especially, into my latest editing pass. I cut so much interiority and “telling,” and went with trusting the reader to get the story from the experience of the characters. Having lived a lot longer and had my heart broken more, I have a better understanding of people. I have more faith in the beauty of a transparent sentence than a language-laden one, though I can still fall for preaching and density. There’s now a book-in-a-drawer, too. Actually, a couple. Every writer should have such a drawer, right? You realize that nothing is more precious than the habit of work itself

Thaisa:You and Angie have two boys who are almost the same age.  How do you work writing into your schedule?

Elizabeth: Yes, they are six now. I get up early—about 5:30—and meditate. I usually sneak a little reading in there, too. It’s my “quiet time.” My kids more or less know that if they wake up then, they can sit with me and meditate or read, too. Turns out, they love quiet time with me, better than all my blah, blah, blah. After I drop the kids off at school (or while Angie does), I head to a café to write. After lunch I do work for the business and some afternoons and evenings, I teach. I’ve heard that full-time working mothers now spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home moms did in the sixties, and I believe it. My kids only get an hour or two of screen time each week and only on the weekends, so either Angie or I am with them when they are not in school. Thank god for grandparents. And I will say that my income doubled when they started kindergarten. Before that, I did a lot of writing after they were asleep—when I myself was nearly asleep. It does cut off the censor, that receding consciousness . . .

Thaisa:Wow. When my kid was little, exhaustion was one of the weirder and less appealing of perks. Meanwhile  you’re going to moderate a panel about women as they’re portrayed in fiction at Pegasus Books on Shattuck tomorrow evening. .  Do you have any pre-panel thoughts that you want to share?

Elizabeth: I’m not sure I’ll go into this during the panel, but my perspective is that all gender is a fiction. It is created, partly through our own conscious effort (from plucking and dressing and adopting mannerisms to silencing ourselves in some ways and giving ourselves permission in others) and partly through the shaping social forces do to us. We are looking at the “likeability” of women in fiction, and this begs the question of whether women’s interiority is ever “likeable”? It may be that the move from object to subject is in itself objectionable. That sounds too sweeping, a bit rhetorical.

I have never thought much in terms of liking or not liking people, and I’m not sure that all my friends are tremendously likeable. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? What I mean, instead, is that it is not to likeability that I am drawn. And the things that do draw me—intelligence, a going against the grain, creativity—often prickle.

Claire Messud’s book, which was at the center of the controversy that renewed this topic, contains an intoxicating anger that, in the end, turns out to have a perfectly reasonable cause. That was almost disappointing, because I think the unharnessed rage of the protagonist about the limits placed on her by the world and also by forces like time and the ankle-brace of childhood was dangerous and compelling and more significant than the bruising of betrayal contained in the plot. On the other hand, if it moves her into the happy ending of a maelstrom of middle-aged creativity—fabulous. That’s a heroine we’ve seen still less than the angry and bitter one, and yet a common-enough and lovely creature in the real world. Many of them people in my classes!

Thaisa: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I just want to add that having studied with you a couple of decades back and then having gotten to be in conversation with you from time to time, in person and as a reader, I am indebted to your own nuanced and wonderful thinking about writing. I quote you often—on the destruction of Tibetan sand drawings as a metaphor for publication; on the difference between understanding something and believing it. I am greatly looking forward to your blog!