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Entries in Q&A (5)


Writers on Wednesday -- Darin Strauss

Last year, I wrote this Favorites on Friday post about books so good you stay up late to finish them, specifically Darin Strauss' new book Half a Life. This is the essay-length memoir featured on This American Life, the book Elizabeth Gilbert called 'staggering and unforgettable'.

I was first aware of Darin at NAIBA conference last September when all the authors were invited to stand up and introduce their upcoming book in two minutes or less. Unlike me, who had grabbed what I thought was a packed suitcase from my DC trip but was in fact empty and left me scrounging around Atlantic City outlets late at night searching for something writerly to wear, Darin looked like a seasoned, veteran author. Which is to say he was wearing an air of authority, a serious expression and a really nice tweed jacket. If I remember correctly, there were even suede elbow patches. 

Half a Life was recently released in paperback and I had a chance to interview Darin, talk about his book and writing in general. Please enjoy the interview below: 


CKH: When one has a life-changing event like the car accident in Half a Life, it's easy to imagine that it colors many experiences with a broad brush stroke. How difficult was it to choose what to include and what to leave out when telling this story?


DS: It was hard, as any story is hard. I tried to think of it as a novel -- a story with an arc, and characters, etc. Then I tried to structure it that way. All the same, because it was all so close to home, I needed a lot of editing help with this one. A friend, David Lipsky (a great writer himself) was a HUGE help in this, and everything else.  


CKH: I read Half a Life in one breathless evening; I couldn't put it down. You have other books that are fiction and have very well-paced plots. What were the biggest differences for you between writing this and fiction?


DS: You're a nice woman.  I tried to minimize the difference. Only the obvious one remained, I hope, by the end: that one was invented, and the other was as close a representation of the truth as I could manage. Or, better to say it was the truth of my memory of the event. 


CKH: What is the writing process like for you? Which parts are your favorite and which feel more like work?


DS: It's all work. If it comes too easily, I'm generally suspicious of it. (And generally for good reason.)


CKH: There is a very moving scene in the book where you revisit the scene of the accident with your infant sons. What do you expect or hope they will learn about you when they read this story later in life? 


DS: Wow. I don't know. I don't think you can make any good book answer to one simple lesson. I hope it's a story they can relate to, and that they come to know their old man a little better. 


CKH: I picked Half a Life up off my nightstand stack because I try not to read fiction while I am in the first draft of writing a new novel. It's all about consistency of voice; I'm the person who starts unintentionally mimicking the accent of those talking to me. Do you have similar rules or quirks? 


DS: I try to read as much as possible, actually. I feel like if a lot of voices filter in, it'll make an interesting mix. If you have enough influences, the mix is original, and that becomes your voice. A little Bellow, say; add a little Nabokov and Lorrie Moore, a touch of Martin Amis and another of Hemingway; bake for ten years -- and voila! 


CKH: My brother was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness when we were both in college and I was afraid he would die when I was living abroad, working in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. All that year, I dreamed about coming home and carrying his dead body around with me for months to make up for the time I was gone, imagined taking his physical body with me through upcoming life events like a really macabre "Weekend at Bernie's". You mention feeling Celine's presence at important moments in your life. Do you still feel she is with you? Has the book being out, doing interviews, talking about her, brought her closer to your life or has it allowed you to make some peace and create some distance?


DS: I think both, in a weird way. I'm more conscious of her than I've been in a long time, because I'm often talking and writing about her. But the whole thing -- writing, talking about it, listening to people who've contacted with similar stories -- has been therapeutic.


CKH: I ask everyone this question; lots choose not to answer. Do you have a favorite word? Least favorites?


DS: 'Closure' is a least favorite. I like most of them, though, if they're used well. 


CKH: What has been the most surprising thing about the writing world for you?


DS: How inconstant it is; the same book can be a masterpiece in the Chicago Tribune and a dud in the Rocky Mountain News. Maybe it lost something on the trip west. 


CKH: I find I am more gentle with even my bad guys when I write now that I have kids--everyone was someone's future, someone's precious everything. As a father--how has this shaped your treatment of characters since having children? 


DS: I can still kill them off with relish, I hope. But it affects my choice of plots. My third book --- More Than It Hurts You, about a mom accused of poisoning her child -- might be one I'd choose not to do now. But I hope that's not the case. I actually like that book, at least in hindsight.


CKH: The week before my debut novel came out, I was completely shredded in the comments section of a guest blog on Lisa Belkin's NYTimes Motherlode column. While it was hard to read, I realized it was a gift since these readers were attacking me for a parenting choice, hitting me where I lived, questioning my abilities as a mother, and it made lukewarm reviews of my novel so easy to take--"So, what, you don't like my made-up characters?" Is it harder for you to read criticism for your memoir, for the laying bare of yourself and the real events in Half a Life


DS: It is, but people have generally been really nice, so I think I've gotten off pretty easy.


CKH: Last question, I promise. What's coming up next for you? 


DS: I'm doing a literary novel for Random House, and a young Adult adventure series with David Lipsky, the friend and genius-grade writer I mentioned above. 


* *** *

BIO: A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a winner of the American Library Association's Alix Award, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and numerous others, Darin Strauss is the internationally-bestselling author of the novels Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You, and the NBCC-winning memoir Half a Life. These have been named New York Times Notable Books, Entertainment Weekly Must Books of the Year, and NewsweekLos Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, Chicago Tribune, and NPR Best Books of the Year, among others. His work has been widely anthologized and excerpted. Darin has been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries, and he is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU's creative writing program.



I am so thrilled to be sharing Grant Schnarr's heartfelt and wondrous new novel, The Guardian Angel Diary, with readers this week. I was fortunate to get a sneak peek and chance to review this several months ago and I was immediately taken with Nicole's story and the honesty of her voice. I was up all night reading, and re-reading, and had to call Grant while frying up my kids' breakfast bacon the next morning to talk about it. This story is part inspiration, part revelation, part wake up call; all heart. My review runs just below Dr. Mehmet Oz's endorsement that we should all be talking to our guardian angels.

Dr. Oz and his wife have celebrated this novel and will be hosting their own interview with Grant on their Sirius radio show:




Dr. Oz Show
Friday, June 3rd
Noon to 1:00 PM EST
Sirius 204 and XM 111.

This week, Grant was kind enough to answer my questions below. Read on and enjoy!








1. I am always fascinated by the story behind the story--how did The Guardian Angel Diary come to life?


The Guardian Angel Diary (TGAD) started out as an idea to create a forum for providing an opportunity for me to share the knowledge and, uhem, wisdom I have accumulated over the years with people about the basic questions of life – Why am I here?  What kind of deity created me?  What happens when I die?  What’s the purpose of life?  Big questions.  I’ve seen so many books where the author had used a story of someone running into a mysterious sage, or a Native American elder, or visited a different culture, as a forum for just that.  So, in the beginning, that’s all I was looking for.  The idea of a sixteen-year-old girl talking with her guardian angel came out of nowhere.  Or, maybe the idea came from my guardian angel.  But once the idea came, well, everything started to happen!


The first shot at the book was pure dialogue between Nicole and her angel, and it was good, but the story hadn’t developed.  I hadn’t really tried to do that yet.  I knew she developed a brain tumor, and she needed to resolve everything she could about her life before the big operation, but the sub plots had not been created at all.  After the initial work with dialogue I sat down and meditated on the plot.  It all pretty much came to me right away when I gave myself a chance to listen inside, and be inspired.  Many of the stories are true, meaning they are based on true accounts, mostly of my life, and also of some others whom I have life-coached over the years, as well as pure fiction.  I studied and interviewed cancer survivors, and also relied on several teens who had shared with me their struggles with growing up during our life-coach sessions – all with permission.


It took three and a half years to write the novel, and finish the story, and literally, the ending was tweaked the day it went to press!  In fact, the original ending of the book was very different from how it ends now, and I am glad it took so long to finish the book, because it gave me time to actually see how the book should end, and every time I think about it I get excited – it’s so much fun!  



2. I was completely taken with how well you captured the voice of Nicole. It reminded me of Blake Nelson's "GIRL", where the reader is completely, believably transported into the narrative of a teenage girl. Was there anything specific that you read or listened to before writing to help you find that consistent voice? 


Having worked in the men’s movement and written the Art of Spiritual Warfare, based on the military general and sage, Sun Tzu, people do ask, “Where the heck did you get that girl voice of Nicole in TGAD?”  In some ways, it surprises me, that Nicole became so real, but I can trace some of it back to a few origins.  First, I grew up with four sisters.  Need I say more?  Also, having spent much of my career working and appreciating teens as a counselor, pastor, life-coach, and teacher, it came pretty naturally.  But this book was written differently than all my others.  I had to get out of town and be all alone to write this, and this was my biggest hurdle in writing the book.  I couldn’t write it an hour here or an hour there between job and family life.  I had to be alone for long periods of time, mostly renting or borrowing friends’ cabins in the mountains of PA, where I could sit with Nicole and her angel, and really allow them to come alive in my heart and mind, so that the writing would flow, and the characters could take on a life of their own.  It was a spiritual experience to do it that way, learning so much about life, as I explored it deeply through their conversation, and Nicole’s challenges and growth.  I cried a lot in those mountains.  I really did.  Most of the times when Nicole says, “Crying…”, no, every time Nicole took time out to cry, I was taking time out to cry.  And that’s how real this story is, because much of what she remembers really happened, to someone, to me, to someone I love, and she represents all of us, readers included.


One more word about that.  The voice of Nicole, though a very rugged teen, and owning something of a foul mouth (you should have seen the original manuscript which the editors made me tone down!), her voice was also the voice of a very innocent child, and that child talking to her angel, to God, was my child inside, and I think everyone has that child, and identifies with the child inside Nicole.  But this is the only book I have written that I can go back to again and again and never get tired of reading, because the final product is not me.  Nicole is her own beautiful, innocent, rugged, determined, loving self.  I love Nicole.  I really do.  I know readers will too.


3. TGAD is not your first book--how does it differ from what you have written before?


This is my first novel.  It’s also really from the heart and not written for any other reason except to share my heart and soul with others.  I don’t represent any church, denomination, belief system in this book but my own, and it feels real to me.  Other books of mine are teaching pieces, non-fiction self-help, or explanations of the philosophy of Recovery Program or the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, or presenting broad thought on the noble warrior from all cultures.  This book is pure heart and soul, and depth.  It’s not that all I’ve learned in the past isn’t in this book.  It is, but it’s freely given with no agenda except to share the experience of life and its value, and help people connect with all that is and be happy.  



4.  Give us a little history on how you came to writing--did you always know there were stories inside you? Which authors were your inspiration?


When I was in Fourth Grade I began my writing career with a humorous composition about my dad taking me to church, and everything going wrong.  The teacher actually called my parents in and kind of asked, “What’s wrong with that boy?”  I had no idea why there was so much fuss, but apparently even my first writing stirred up a lot of buzz.  In seventh grade I wrote a story about a boy who was called by a dark angel to go with him to heaven.  Again, dark.  But the teacher took me aside and told me it was promising, and actually asked me if I ever considered being a writer.  I did, after that.  He was instrumental in putting that idea in me.  


The really funny story though, and ironic, is that in my local church someone offered a $10,000 prize for anyone who wrote the first self-help book from a Swedenborgian perspective.  That stuck with me in High School and College, and when I got out I wrote that book, Unlocking Your Spiritual Potential, based on the twelve steps of AA, and Swedenborg’s teachings, which are very similar.  The man who offered the prize knew I wrote the book, and it was even published by a Catholic organization, Abbey Press, and did quite well, but he never acknowledged my achievement and I didn’t get the prize.  I really didn’t care at that point because my career had been launched and I was off and writing from the pure love of it, and that was fine with me.  A year after the man passed away, we were at a church convention, and his wife announced that the prize was finally going to be given to someone who had written a self-help book, and I was very excited.  Well, they gave it to a friend of mine, Ray Silverman, who had written the same sort of book as me on the Ten Commandments, very ecumenical, good book.  But I was, as Nicole would say, “Pissed.”  I never did find out why that happened, but family members confided in me that the man just didn’t think I had done it the way he wanted, and his wife had such a love for this other book that she went ahead and gave the prize to Ray.  Today Ray and I joke about it.  He’s still publishing, but I have him beat out by about five books, and I love rubbing it in his face that karma is on my side on this one.  It’s all in fun.  But you know, it’s all good, and perhaps not winning that prize spurred me on to write more on my own.  Six books later, and published in almost a dozen different countries, I’m proud of myself not giving up back then, and striving to write for the right reasons, like helping people, rather than for prizes anyway.  But that tantalizing offer did get me started.


As for influential authors, I like Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Lao Tsu, T.S. Elliot, John C. Maxwell, Thich Nhat Hanh, J.K. Rowling, Mealody Beatty, Dan Millman, Robert Bly, Robert Moore, John Lee, Stieg Larsson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Alice Sebold, Tony Jones.  Some of these are inspirational and some were more like, hey, if they can do it, so can I.


5. There is some theology woven into this novel, some truths that you are sharing, and the story is published by a religious press. Did you struggle with the balance of doctrine and plot?


TGAD is published by the Swedenborg Foundation, who published five out of seven of my books.  I’m grateful to have a good relationship with them, and there is certainly a solid Swedenborgian theme in the book, about a loving God, angels, and the reality of the afterlife.  But it’s funny.  I wrote the book, as said before, with the idea in mind that this wasn’t a sales job for any church or denomination, and it did not represent any theology except my own.  I submitted it to several publishers, and I was surprised the Swedenborg Foundation was interested.  When considering signing the contract with them, and going through a re-read myself seeing if this book was a good fit, I was surprised to see just how much it still did resonate with my religious roots.  Here I thought I was being a rebel!  But if you pay attention, some things are said in this book that resonate with a much more universal approach.  This book is for everyone, and I say a few things in here about the nature of God and revelation that I’m surprised some theologian-colleagues of mine haven’t jumped out of their chairs after reading it.  I suppose they probably haven’t read the book yet since it just came out!  Oh no.  If they read this interview, they’ll be sure to look into it!


I didn’t struggle with the balance between the lessons that are definitely in the book, and the plot, but it was a process.  I really wanted the wisdom of Nicole and her guardian angel to stand on their own, and remain with people.  That’s probably the most important thing, but the plot became so strong it really took over, and I think the balance is good.  In fact, I’m surprised that people who have read the book seem to be taken with the plot, and I really hope they also walk away with the message too.  


6. Tell us a funny story from the trenches of a writer's life... like the time I showed up to a reading and the only person there was a woman sleeping in the back who was mad at me for waking her up. Anything special come to mind?


The funniest and most difficult time was doing a book signing in Toronto.  Actually, the Toronto Star did a full page on my book, Art of Spiritual Warfare, which made the trip more than worth my while, but the book signing was a disaster!  I usually do a fairly emotional storytelling routine.  The people there were like zombies.  They didn’t smile, didn’t laugh, and didn’t move.  One woman’s phone went off during my talk and she just let it ring and ring right in front of me.  I just wanted to get off the stage and go home.  Finally I just stopped and said, “Am I in Toronto?  Or did I land in Quebec?  Because I’m beginning to think that I’m speaking English to a bunch of French speaking people who don’t understand a word I’m saying!”  They laughed at that!  Then it ended.  No one had any questions.  No one bought a book.  I still shiver when I think of that night!


7. Criticism comes with the game--how do you handle it? 


I’ve been a public figure for over a quarter of a century.  It comes with the territory.  Yes, it bothers me when people criticize, but I’ve gotten to a point where I can fairly easily brush it off as part of the business.  If it fits, learn from it.  If not, don’t even give it the time of day.  I’ve come to a point in my life where I just don’t have the time or energy to put up with critics.  Nine out of ten times the criticism reflects more on the critic than the criticized, and like I said, if there is something that I need to learn from it, I grab it, but then move on.  Love what you do and never look back.


8. What's on your iPod/reader/nightstand right now? 


I’m reading Love Wins by Rob Bell, Abandon by Meg Cabot, and a bunch of Swedenborg in connection with my teaching at Bryn Athyn College.  I always have the Bible on my night table, and I often read spiritual and self-help books, and only one or two good novels a year, like Chosen!


You probably weren’t asking about music but it’s a big part of my life.  My iPod has a lot of hard rock on it, like my band, “No Reserve!” on it, and the most awesome blues singer and player - Joe Bonamassa, also Led Zep, Soraia, A7X, Jimi H., Buckethead, Tool, U2, Stones, Rage Against the Machine, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Bowie, Bon Jovi, and I even have to admit – Metallica.  I also like new age music, Deva Premal, and am getting into some lighter stuff like Mumford and Sons.  


10. I don't want to give too much of the story away, but I was especially touched by the sibling relationship between Nicole and her brother. It rang true and was full of the love and affected ambivalence of teenage siblings--can you talk a little about your inspiration for this?


No, I can’t.  Because it is real, and it’s personal.  I’m glad you caught that.


12. This book has an obvious audience in young adult readers, but I also imagine there are many of us who will find the idea of someone watching over us very compelling and reassuring. Do you think this story has particular resonance right now? 


In light of trends, angels are the new vampires.  This book is riding the wave of a huge trend not only with teens and young adults, but also in growing interest in the afterlife.  A lot of new books are here or coming on the market with an afterlife flavor, Meg Cabot in Abandon, Heaven is For Real, Rob Bell’s Love Wins is about the afterlife, The Summer We Came to Life, a new release by Deborah Cloyed.  It’s a hot market, and I must say, I wrote the book for everyone, not just young adults.  Everyone can benefit from this book, getting connected to their own personal reason for being, comfort and hope for what might await them, and also get in touch with the depth of love and courage which Nicole so bravely manifests.


* *** * 


About the Author:


Grant Schnarr is a teacher, certified life coach, and pastor of the Creekside Church in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, and teacher at Bryn Athyn College. He is the author of several books on spiritual growth and recovery including The Art of Spiritual Warfare, published by Quest Books, which has been published in several languages on four continents. His other books include You Can Believe, Return to the Promised Land, Spiritual Recovery, and Way of Wisdom, co-edited with Eric Buss. 




Monday Musing -- The latest puppy photo and more....

Trying to keep these coming in small doses, so you don't get a stomachache from the sweetness...


Picture this bit of heaven snoozing in your arms.


And huge thanks to everyone who has been voting and making suggestions on the name game. We are circling ever closer. If you knew the antics that went into choosing the names of our children, including a game of air hockey, chip and putt, Maurice Sendak, a dear old friend and the honoring of many, you would understand that we take this business very seriously. 


For those interested in something more writerly, Therese Fowler, of the fabulous upcoming novel EXPOSURE is coming on Wednesday to talk about her hot, current book that is garnering all kinds of praise and buzz and next week, Q&A with a HarperCollins editor. 


Stay tuned! 




Writers on Wednesday--Rebecca Rasmussen

 This week I have the honor of bringing to you a brand new author of a brand new book that is making a great big splash in the literary world. The Bird Sisters made its debut yesterday and is receiving all kinds of fabulous praise. She is also surprisingly humble and genuine for someone whose novel is generating such a buzz. In getting to know each other, Rebecca and I have found we share a love of many things, including our kids, running and chasing words around a page. I am so thrilled for her as her book finds wings and makes its way out into the world. Below is a Q&A with this worthy new author!

What is your favorite quality in a person?


Kindness. Hands down. Depending on how you look at it, this world can be a tough place to live in. Being kind to other people can tip the balance in a positive direction. Even if it’s a small kindness—holding a door for someone, carrying a bag of groceries, or hugging a person who needs to be hugged—it makes a difference.



What is your least favorite?


Meanness. It’s just so unnecessary.



What is your greatest fear?


Flying. I am in the middle of working on this particular fear because I have to do so much of it this spring. The people who fall asleep on planes or read books or just generally look relaxed 30,000 feet above the earth constantly amaze me. I want to be like them. I really do. Maybe one day you’ll see me sleeping, and you’ll know I made it past this fear. But if you see me biting my fingernails and tightening my seat belt, I wouldn’t be too surprised. Maybe you can lean over and tell me it’s going to be all right.



Who is your greatest love?


My daughter and my husband. We are a little team, and I am thankful for the us-ness of us every day. Or at least I try to be. My daughter constantly amazes me with her adventurous spirit and her wild and creative imagination. She’s a good person to learn strength from. And my husband is a great supporter and calming force in my life. When I think something isn’t possible, he reminds me that it usually is.


What is your idea of a perfect day?


During my perfect day, it is spring. The flowers are coming up, and the breeze is warm, which I welcome after a hard Midwestern winter. My daughter and husband are with me, and we’re all walking to the park, where we’ll have a picnic and play. It’s a simple day, but it’s lovely to be sitting on green grass beneath a warm sun again.


What place do you love?


Wisconsin. The hills. The river. The land. I should have a t-shirt made up or a bumper sticker—that’s how much I love my home state. Or little cow earrings. Something.


If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?


I’d have liked to be an artist, but if you saw my stick figures, you’d know why that dream didn’t exactly work out. 


Which person, living or dead, do you most admire?


I admire Carol Shields so very much. She was one of the few writers who wrote beautifully about happiness and joy on an everyday level. She was smart and witty and full of humor. I am still sad that she passed away several years ago, but her writing still thrills me every time I pick up one of her books.


What are the words you live by?


Breathe. Deeply.


BIO: Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, forthcoming from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and loves to bake pies. Visit Rebecca at for more information or to order the book.


Interview with Leah Stewart

Leah Stewart, author of Husband and Wife conducted an interesting co-interview on CHOSEN  and Susanna Daniel's Stiltsville.

I am excited to pick up Stiltsville and I am hoping to read The Myth of You and Me, Leah's earlier novel about the loss of a female friendship on my way to DC next week.