Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
One thing that is not in my author bio is that I’ve followed a healthy plant-based diet for the past year. I went to the diet for health reasons and was right there when my acupuncturist suggested it. My partner and I had been thinking about going vegan for several years out of compassion for the animals and my need for emergency surgery for a kidney stone, a year and a half ago, pushed me right over the edge into making some changes.
After I went plant-based, I found out that the Unitarian Universalists have an animal ministry – and they advocate going plant-based for the animals and for environmental reasons. There are a number of reasons to go to a plant-based diet and a growing awareness. I’ve been a Unitarian for about six years and am a worship associate (lay minister) at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, Pa.
After a year of refining my diet – actually after two weeks of giving up dairy – I feel so good, that being plant based is the thing that I’m most excited about – apart from the fact that my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery was recently released from Adelaide Books.
There is a connection between my diet and my writing, of course. I have better mental acuity and more energy which is always good for writing!
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
When I was in about second grade, I wrote a story about a canoe floating down a river. I don’t remember much else about it – if there was anyone in the canoe or where the person might have been going. But I do remember that my teacher didn’t like it very much because nothing happened. When I was a young adult, I learned that the story was a Zen koan which in its simplest form is reflecting on the sound of one hand clapping.
Perhaps the point of the story was that it’s okay not to have a point or to disconnect from reality or from what is perceived to be reality. Maybe my meaning, if I had one, is that sometimes we just have to drift and be in the moment.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
The Unicorn, The Mystery is my latest published book (from Adelaide Books in 2020). I was inspired by a visit that I took to The Cloisters, which is in Manhattan and is now part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was in what is commonly called “the unicorn room” when the Muse descended on me. There were seven tapestries hung in that room telling the story of what is called “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” I was standing in that room when the thought struck me that, here’s an untold story.
I found out later that the story of what happened is still referred to as an “unsolved mystery.”
I wanted to know what happened, so I solved that mystery in fictional terms by having the unicorn tell the story in the unicorn’s own words. The other narrator is a young monk who lived in the abbey in the French countryside during that time in the late Middle Ages (around 1491) when the unicorn tapestries were designed and made. The tapestries were found in a barn – they were used to wrap potatoes – during the French Revolution and eventually they were bought by the Rockefeller family who donated them to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1938. The tapestries are worth seeing and the novel, The Unicorn, The Mystery is worth reading.
My last book that I finished writing is titled The Lens of Eternity: Love from Two Pandemics. I had always known that I was going to write about the photographer Berenice Abbott but, of course, I didn’t know that we were going to have a pandemic in 2020. I started the memoir in July of 2020 and am just now finishing it (in the fall of 2020) – giving it the final of several very careful edits. I was inspired to write about Berenice Abbott (known for her photographs of Manhattan in the 1930s many of which were published in her book Changing New York.) I knew very little about her and yet I was intrigued by her. When I started reading about her, I learned about her falling ill in the influenza pandemic in 1918 and being hospitalized for two months. She went on to live into her nineties but was sickly with lung ailments for her entire life. It was interesting how The Lens of Eternity came together.
My inspiration for The Lens of Eternity was my interest in the life and work of Berenice Abbott and her long-term relationship with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland which I found out about in my reading and research. I wrote the book so that the reader could learn about the highlights of Abbott’s photographic career and I also wrote about the politics of love: how do you say goodbye to a beloved partner? I also felt that the historic moment of the 2020 pandemic needed to be recorded. In the process of writing, I became a better partner and a stronger person.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
I wrote The Unicorn, The Mystery in a year. This was a far longer time period in which I have written most books. Before I started writing, I spent a lot of time doing research. I had a lot going on during this time, so I don’t remember exactly how long I was doing the research. It was probably close to a year. My father was dying and I’m an only child and was close to him. The fact that he was ninety-eight when he died, and I was in my late fifties just meant that I spent more time with him and grew more attached to him. I started writing the book a few months after his death. In a way, the writing – and creating my own alternate reality – got me through this difficult time. I actually owe the book to him. When he was still living, he knew I would be spending the week in New York on business – and he suggested that I go to the The Cloisters because he and my mother had gone there shortly after they were married.
There is a scene in the book where the unicorn talks about the old lion dying (historically the unicorn and the lion had a strong allegiance) and I remember feeling that the writing went deep and the emotions behind the words were strong. Because the writing took so long, I think of The Unicorn, The Mystery as my biggest canvass meaning that it took the longest time for me to write and research.
Some of the things that I was researching was everything about the Middle Ages (from how people thought and lived, down to what they wore and what their favorite gems were); the gnostic gospels (the Thunder Perfect Mind passage in particular); the literature of the time including Chaucer; and everything factual, historic, and imaginary about unicorns.
My novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books in 2018) only took three or four months to write in comparison. I was taking a class at the Unitarian church that I ended up joining and started reading the Bible. Reading the Bible wasn’t required but I had always wondered about it. I’m glad I read it because it explained so much of what our western society is based on. But then my mind started wandering and I started writing. THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders was born and then published by Adelaide Books. I received good feedback on THEY from all over the world. It was a novel whose time had come — and people were ready for it. I also received a fair amount (more than I thought I would) of online harassment. Ultimately, I think that was a good thing. It did show that people heard about the book and that it irritated them. I put all my responses to the harassment on my blog and sent posts out on Twitter. You never know when someone who needs the book is going to hear about it. This might include the relatives of the harassers. Some of them probably really need THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders.
I remember in my outspoken twenties, I declared that the Bible needed to be rewritten. This was before I was a serious writer, but I suspect that THEY was building up in me for a long time.
So, every book is different it terms of the time I spent writing it. When the muse descends, I honor it. I write books that need to be written. I teach writing part time at various places, and I always emphasize that it’s important to cultivate your inner voice and to follow your intuition.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
One thing that I have overlooked when teaching but which has just occurred to me is to allow yourself to have obsessions and to follow them. For example, when I was thinking about The Unicorn, The Mystery, I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the main museum which has a section on medieval art, when I told someone who worked there that I was looking for unicorns. The person may have thought that I was odd, but she took me exactly to where I needed to go.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
Years ago, I went through a period of drawing. I let the images enter my words. But the drawing kind of dropped away. Now I take regular walks and sometimes photograph interesting sights with my phone – so I guess I still am in the visual world. For the past five years or so I have started a regular yoga and meditation practice. The practice puts me in a healthy and creative frame of mind.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
There are so many authors I’m inspired by that it’s hard to pick just one or several. Of the author that I mention the most when I’m teaching, it would be Willa Cather, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Truman Capote. If had to pick just one favorite writer, it would be Sappho. I’m learning Greek now so that I can read my book of Sappho fragments and poems that I picked up in a bookshop in Athens twenty-years ago. Half the book is written in modern Greek and the other half is written in classical Greek. I started out as a poet.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
As I mentioned, I’m finishing up the edits on the memoir I started writing in July — The Lens of Eternity: Love from Two Pandemics. However, toward the end of this project another idea came to my awareness with a feeling of intense irritation that suggests to me that I am going to be writing another book next year. That’s something to pay attention to — that intense feeling of irritation. I don’t want to talk about the subject of the book because I consider it bad luck to talk about a future project. In practical terms, a writer never wants to “talk out” a subject.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
The Unicorn, The Mystery has a large pool of people who would be interested in it. Readers should be open minded to the LGBTQ community. The unicorn is actually a symbol of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer community because of its association with rainbows. I made up a partial listing of readers:
anyone interested in the Middle Ages;
anyone interested in unicorns – they were commonly thought to be real by people in the Middle Ages;
anyone interested in art – the book was inspired by the tapestries at The Cloisters (part of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art);
anyone interested in Greek and ancient Egyptian mythology – people in the Middle Ages were fascinated by the ancient myths;
those interested in alternative views of religion including the gnostic gospels – which were known in the Middle Ages;
those interested in nuns and cats; and
those interested in a good mystery and a good read.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
It’s important to show up. If you want to write, put yourself on a schedule and stick to it. Remember to give yourself credit for what you do. The hours you spend on research counts to your writing time.
What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
The late poet and prose writer Audre Lorde once said (rather fiercely) to her students, “don’t wait to be inspired.” I would add that when you are inspired, don’t ignore it. Write down your ideas and then follow up on them.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I read books on the subject of what I am writing. So, I just finished a slew of books about Berenice Abbott – and also looked at and read books about her photographs. I also review books for This Way Out, an international radio syndicated LGBTQ newswrap that is based out of Los Angeles. The last book that I reviewed was Armistead Maupin’s memoir titled Logical Family.
I read all types of genres, but I guess my favorite would be literary fiction and memoir.
I’m always reading, and I never thought to add them up. But I guess I read about five books a month so that would come to sixty a year, at least. Sometimes, I read the same book over and over. I always suggest reading a book that speaks to you twice — the first time to see what happens and the second to see how the author did it.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
I think curiosity is the most essential part of my writing. I write because I am intrigued by something – and usually I learn a lot in the process.
I want readers to remember to be open and curious to the writer’s journey – and also to their own.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
Write what’s in your heart and write the books that are important to you. Writing is a time-consuming endeavor — and you are going to stick with what’s most important to you.
I don’t consciously pay attention to trends. If there is a book that you want to read it and you can’t find it, then write it.