Melissa Face is the author of I Love You More Than Coffee, an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids...a little more. Her essays and articles have appeared in Sasee Magazine, Richmond Family Magazine, Scary Mommy, and twenty-one volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.
Craig and I have been married for seventeen years, so I should probably be able to recognize his voice at this point in our relationship, right?
My husband has three siblings, and he and his younger brother, Bryan, have always been told that they look a lot alike. And they do.
Years ago, when we were all living in Myrtle Beach, Craig interviewed for a position as a cook at Ultimate California Pizza. It went really well, and he was offered a job on the spot.
A few hours later, Bryan went in for his scheduled interview. “Didn’t I just hire you?” the manager asked Bryan. “I swear you were just here. Are you messing with me?” Bryan explained that he and his brother, who are actually four years apart, are often mistaken for one another. They really do look that much alike.
On the day of our rehearsal dinner, my cousin, Leslie, who had not seen us in a while, was so excited to see Craig that she ran over and hugged him when he got out of the car. She actually hugged Bryan, though. They really do look that much alike.
Craig and Bryan have similar sounding voices, too. When we first started dating, I hated calling the apartment they shared. If I asked to speak to Craig, he was the one who had picked up the phone. The times I felt more confident and said, “Hey, Babe! How’s it going?” The response was, “Uh, this is Bryan. Hold on, and I’ll get Craig.”
They really do sound that much alike. Plus, Craig and I hadn’t known each other for more than a couple of months.
What’s my excuse now, though? Now that Craig and I have been married for seventeen years? Now that I’ve known him and Bryan for more than two decades? I mean I obviously know my husband’s voice. I could pick it out of a crowd – or at least discern it from his brother’s.
Last weekend, Craig, the kids, and I went to Wilmington to stay in Bryan’s house while he made a few improvements and prepped for a new renter. The first night we were there, we stayed up past midnight, laughing and watching movies until we fell asleep on the couch. At some point in the early morning hours, I got up and moved to one of the bedrooms. I fell back asleep quickly but woke up again when someone stood in the doorway and said, “Oh. You’re in here.”
“Yeah. Want to snuggle?” I asked. “I patted the spot on the bed next to me.”
“Uh. That’s okay. I’m good,” Bryan laughed.
The next morning (and pretty much every day since then), we’ve had a good laugh about my mistake.
I swear – they really do look and sound that much alike.
Melissa Face is the author of I Love You More Than Coffee: Essays on Parenthood and a 25-time contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She writes regularly for Tidewater Family Magazine and Richmond Family Magazine and teaches English at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology. Follow Melissa on Facebook and Instagram @melissafacewrites.
Most writers have been advised at one point or another to write the book they want to read. Connie Biewald, author of Truth Like Oil, did just that. Fill your mug with something delicious, and join Connie and me as we talk about balancing a writing life, the joys of publishing, and the complexity of motherhood.
Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What are your favorite drinks and snacks when you’re writing?
Connie: Yes! I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but I definitely need that one large, strong cup when I get up. I like salty snacks–chips and salsa, especially–and leftovers. I love leftovers.
Me: Describe your inspiration for Truth Like Oil. Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?
Connie: My fiercely independent, white, racist grandmother was laid up in a nursing home being cared for by people of color. This dynamic interested me. I began to write the relationship of Hazel and Nadine. I went to Haiti to learn more about Nadine’s background and culture and ended up going back multiple times over the next decade. At that time in my life (2005) my younger son began making some risky choices. I’ve always used writing as a way to explore human behavior and relationships. I realized Nadine and Hazel were also mothers of sons and Chance, Henry and Gary entered into the story. I wrote the book I wanted to read–about Nadine coping with the terrible feeling of helplessness, as her son, a young person she is responsible for, makes his own scary decisions, and about how, as parents, we inevitably have to accept that our children’s lives are their own, not ours. We can’t (and shouldn’t try to) make them bend to our will, especially when they’re adults.
Me: How did you decide on this title? Were there others that were in the running?
Connie: The working title right up until a few months before publication was Heart of the Yam, a phrase from another proverb, “Only the knife knows the heart of the yam.” A thoughtful friend of mine pointed out that if I’m concerned about being a white author writing a Black main character in this current social/political climate, I might not want to have the word “yam” with its strong African associations so front and center. Truth Like Oil, another proverb used in the book, works well, and I like the fact that it’s from a proverb used in many cultures around the world.
Me: Are there any parallels between your life and the characters in your novel?
Connie: Yes–many, many parallels. As I said, I can certainly relate to the stresses of parenting. When I sat in a courtroom with my own son who is white, I saw a room full of people of color, including many who appeared to be recent immigrants. I thought about my own struggles navigating the system and wondered what it must be like for someone who doesn’t speak English fluently or feel as comfortable and privileged in the dominant culture. I have two sons and am always marveling at the complexity of their sibling relationship. I’m also dealing with an aging mother living in an assisted living situation. Then there’s the setting of Cambridge, MA. When people think of Cambridge, they often think Harvard and MIT and all that goes along with those institutions, but there’s so much more to our city. After setting my last three novels in a version of the Connecticut mill town where I grew up, I thought I should write about the city that’s been my home for the last 30 plus years.
Me: What has been your favorite part of this publishing journey?
Connie: My work with the developmental editor was very satisfying. She helped me cut 60 pages and the edits made it a much better book. Another great moment was when I first saw the cover design. I think it’s beautiful! I also appreciated reading the endorsements people wrote for the book–very affirming.
Me: What has been the biggest challenge?
Connie: The biggest challenge for me isn’t as much about publishing. It’s always how to keep the world at bay enough to sit down and write and to quiet the voices in my head that question the value of a writing habit. I spend hours and hours and hours and end up with a decent book, but I know I’ll never be a great writer, like the writers I admire. Shouldn’t I be doing something else with all that time? Yet I always come back to the reality that when I am writing regularly, I’m a happier person and more productive in all areas of my life.
Me: How has this differed from publishing your other books?
Connie: This was my first traditionally published novel. I self published my three previous novels with iUniverse. They did well enough, even won awards, but I always felt I hadn’t “really” been published.
Me: How do you juggle teaching, writing, and family obligations?
Connie: Grace Paley, my most important writing mentor, says that there’s no such thing as balance when it comes to these things, which takes some of the pressure off. During the school year it’s harder to carve out writing time. During the summer I might go to a residency where I can write all day. When my kids were small, I had one morning a week for writing, and I used it well. Now they’re grown. In theory I could write every morning for an hour or so since I only have to worry about getting myself out the door. Still, there are some stretches of time, when I can’t get myself going. I hope to establish a morning routine that will take me through this next school year. A daily habit keeps the characters and the book alive in my mind so that my subconscious is working on it all the time.
Me: What is the most helpful writing advice you have received to date?
Connie: Grace, again, said, “Keep your expenses down and never live with someone who doesn’t support your writing.” That advice has worked for me.
Me: What is a piece of advice you ignored in life that you are glad you did?
Connie: This is a very interesting question and I’m having a hard time thinking of an answer. I’ve always loved traveling and when I was younger and adventure was way more important than comfort, I took chances that now I might want to advise a young person not to do, but I don’t remember anyone actually telling me not to travel with barely any money, climb mountains in gold sandals, accept free meals from any religious cult that offered, bicycle alone down the Oregon and California coasts (no helmets back then), etc. No doubt there were people who would have advised me not to do this sort of thing, but they probably knew not to bother. I wouldn’t have listened.
Me: Is there anything else you would like readers to know? How can they find you?
This month I am thrilled to be chatting with my friend and fellow Bookish Road Trip administrator, Libby McNamee. Libby is the author of Susanna’s Midnight Ride: The Girl Who Won theRevolutionary War and the newly released Dolley Madison and the War of 1812. Join us as we chat about Libby’s writing life, research process, and plans for future writing projects! Huzzah!
Me: How often do you drink coffee? What is your favorite beverage?
Libby: I drink coffee every morning, but rarely ever finish a full cup. Although I love the aroma, taste, and ritual itself, it bothers my stomach, so I’ve got to pace myself. My favorite drink is seltzer water, any flavor, but I especially love grapefruit. At night I love an oaky (is that a word?) chardonnay.
Me: What about Dolley Madison? Would she have had coffee with us?
Libby: Oh yes, absolutely! Dolley loved socializing more than anything else in the world and believed in “politics by people.” Back during the War of 1812, America boycotted British tea for years, the second time around after the American Revolution. That is how coffee became firmly established as our national drink of choice! Huzzah!
Me: Tell us a little about your new book and how this time around feels different from your debut. Or does it?
Libby: When I wrote Susanna’s Midnight Ride, information on 16-year-old Susanna Bolling was extremely limited. However, there were tons of books on the American Revolution. With Dolley, it was the exact opposite. There was lots of information about her and fewer resources about the War of 1812. It was much easier to learn about her and put her in the context of the era in which she lived.
It feels easier in some ways because I am familiar with the process, but I find it just as anxiety-producing. Three years have passed, and things have shifted with the pandemic, so it’s been a much slower process, requiring a lot more planning and coordination. This time I am also releasing a Study Guide at the same time and including a number of blurbs at the front of the book, so that’s been a lot more to juggle.
Me: What was the research process like for this book?
Libby: It was fascinating! I never knew much about Dolley or the War of 1812, so it was quite eye-opening to learn about life in brand-new Washington City and the many challenges facing the Early Republic, only thirty years after the Battle of Yorktown.
I loved reading about Dolley and the time period, but I also had a blast visiting many historical sites–Montpelier, the James Madison Museum, the White House, the Octagon House, Fort McHenry, the Daughters of the War of 1812 Headquarters, the Navy Yard, Fort Washington, Scotchtown, Riversdale, and the Flag House Museum, among others.
Me: Why Dolley Madison? Why did you decide to write about her? What did you learn that surprised you? Is there anything you would still like to know about her?
Libby: I attended a lecture at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on Dolley Madison given by the CEO of Montpelier, and I was hooked! Of course, I had always heard about her legendary hospitality, but I never realized her brilliance in dealing with politics at a time when women’s roles were so limited. She was so much more than just a sociable wife. In fact, President Polk coined the term “First Lady” to describe her enormous role while giving her eulogy at her funeral.
Me: What age group are your books geared toward? What do you like about writing for younger readers?
Libby: My books were originally geared to upper middle grade (4th grade through 7th grade), but I’ve found they appeal to history-loving adults just as well. I only discovered my love of history when I was in my 40s, so I write for younger readers to draw them in at an earlier age. I want to show them that history can be very exciting and suspenseful. It’s not all boring memorization of dates, places, and people’s names.
Me: Tell us a little about your earlier experiences with writing. What did you work on before Dolley and Susanna?
Libby: I’ve always loved to write! Before writing full-time, I was a practicing lawyer. I served in the US Army JAG Corps for six years, living in Seoul, Korea and Tacoma, WA, with a stint in Bosnia. Then I worked in a large firm, a small firm, and a corporation before becoming a freelance writer. I wrote a traveling-with-kids column, as well as humor and cooking columns, along with lots of feature articles.
Me: What are your favorite snacks to have when you are writing? Do you keep a regular writing schedule?
Libby: Great question! I usually drink water (preferably seltzer) or Gatorade and eat fruit. Then when I take a break, I raid the pantry! Watch out, chocolate, here I come!
Me: What is a time period or individual from history that you would like to know more about?
Libby: I would love to know more about Elizabeth Van Lew, a high-society woman from Richmond, Virginia, who operated an extensive spy ring for the Union Army, reporting directly to General Grant during the Civil War. She also helped Yankee prisoners escape the notoriously horrible conditions and even hid them in her home, losing her fortune and becoming an outcast. She will be the subject of my next book!
Me: What are your favorite genres to read?
Libby: Historical fiction is definitely my favorite genre, followed by contemporary women’s fiction and literary fiction. When I’m craving some lighter reading, I love to escape into cozy murder mysteries.
Me: How can readers learn more about you and your books?
Libby: The best way to keep in touch is through my newsletter, Libby’s Monthly Dispatch, which has historic tidbits, quotes, recipes and reading recommendations. Please sign up on my website, www.LibbyMcNamee.com. I’m also on Facebook at “Libby McNamee Author” and on Instagram @LibbyMcNameeAuthor.
When Jenny True’s book was still in pre-order status, my friend Patty reached out to me and said, “I think you should check this book out. Looks like a great fit for your blog.” I reached out to Jenny and found that not only is her book hilarious, but she’s just a really freaking awesome person.
Jenny writes an advice column for Romper which led to the publication of her book, You Look Tired:An Excruciatingly Honest Guide to New Parenthood. Fill your mug with coffee (or tea) and join Jenny and me for a quick chat about breastfeeding, hiding from your kids, and why it’s not your fault that you feel overwhelmed and exhausted as a new parent.
Me: Are you a coffee drinker? Describe your caffeine habit.
Jenny: I hate to admit this, but I’m a serious tea drinker, and my go-to café drink is a latte — so it’s coffee-adjacent! During pregnancy I tried to abstain from caffeine but found it harder than abstaining from alcohol. Then I read Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and said, fuck that! Bring on the caffeine. During the pandemic I switched from one to two cups a day to one to two pots. Thanks, 2020.
Me: Describe your writing process. Any particular requirements for your space? What time of day are you most productive? What’s your favorite snack to eat while writing?
Jenny: I’m definitely most productive first thing in the morning, more so when I’m well rested (of course!). My head is not yet filled with distractions, and I can plow through entire drafts. If I have something complicated that needs my undivided attention, I set my alarm and make sure to do it first thing when I wake up.
I got my book deal in April of 2020, after California was in lockdown, so I wrote the whole thing during the pandemic. I wrote from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and my partner did morning child care to make it happen. I wrote on my laptop on the couch because I didn’t have a desk yet. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it worked!
I drink lots of tea, of course! PG Tips with whole milk and honey from the bees in our backyard.
Me: Your book title: How did you decide on it? Did someone actually tell you that you looked tired?
Jenny: I am so pleased to say that I hired my co-worker, an excellent copy writer, to brainstorm ideas, and she came up with it! I knew it was the one. So funny and relatable. I get comments on it all the time. Women laugh. Men: Crickets.
Me: Describe when you realized you needed to write this book.
Jenny: I’ve always wanted to publish a mass market book — I just thought it would be my novel. I stopped working on it when I was 39 and started blogging about my path to motherhood, which happened the next year. Through my blog, I got a job writing the pregnancy and parenting column for Romper, where I realized I had a platform that would make me more attractive to publishers. I thought, Now’s my chance! I really was motivated to finish a book proposal while I had that column (which I still do).
That’s the mercenary answer. The other answer is, I read a lot of baby books when I was pregnant and a new parent. They all gave the same kinds of information, although a lot of it was conflicting, and they all centered White, cisgender, heterosexual, married, middle-class women. WTF, I thought. At the same time, I was knocked on my ass by a ton of things I hadn’t learned from those books that apparently was common knowledge. My book is meant to be an antidote to that.
Me: Your subtitle is “An Excruciatingly Honest Guide to New Parenthood.” How is your book different from other parenting guides?
Jenny: Intentionally, I don’t address any of the issues the other guides do. There’s nothing about sleep, or breastfeeding, or bonding with your baby, or “getting back in shape.” I talk about the crime that is maternity wear, how sanctimonious other parents can be, what the squeeze bottle they give you at the hospital is for, how to react when someone touches your belly without asking. It’s meant to be funny, and a relief, and readable, and it’s full of charts and quizzes.
Me: What is one piece of advice you can offer parents?
Jenny: I’m an advice columnist, so what advice wouldn’t I give? Seriously, though, I want to tell U.S. parents that the system is stacked against you and it’s not your fault you’re exhausted and anxious and overwhelmed. You’re doing nothing wrong. The expectations on you are unreasonable.
Me: What is the worst/most obnoxious thing you were told when you were pregnant? As a new mom?
Jenny: I think the worst thing was what I wasn’t told. I wasn’t told about dysphoric milk-ejection reflex, for example, a breastfeeding condition that is not that fucking rare but that no one has invested money into studying, no one tells pregnant women about, and is so miserable it leads some women to quit breastfeeding. Also no one told me that postpartum anxiety is intense and more common than postpartum depression. I could have used a leaflet on both instead of multiple leaflets on postpartum depression, THANK YOU VERY MUCH KAISER.
Me: You wrote, “pregnant people’s bodies belong to everyone.” Why do you think people find it acceptable to touch a pregnant woman’s belly?
Jenny: I have to be honest: Even though I write about it in the book, I did not have a bad experience with this, because of my relationships with the people who did it. The problem is that a LOT of people really hate it, and other people need to err on the side of asking first, if they really, really for some reason want to touch your body. It’s especially layered when you get into people touching Black bodies. Why do people do this? Female bodies, and especially Black female bodies, have been seen as property since the beginning of time. You can’t extract that from the culture.
Me: Describe your research process for this project.
Jenny: I looked back at three years of blog posts for chapter ideas and anecdotes. I interviewed a midwife and talked to a doula, but mostly this is not a research-heavy book. It’s not even a real guide. It’s meant to make pregnant people and new parents laugh with the validation of being seen.
Me: You mention freezing in place when you hear the “pitter patter” of little feet. I won’t lie. I’ve hidden in the bathroom (more than once) to eat a candy bar. Have you done something similar?
Jenny: Oh, god, yes. I never, ever jump up to open the door when I hear my partner on the porch with my kid. I don’t want them to get inside the house any sooner than they need to. I go into battle station: closing any video window on my computer my son might beg me to watch, running to the kitchen to fill up my water or shove my tea in the microwave so I won’t have to talk to them while doing it when they’re inside the house.
Me: What’s a new mom product you wish you had been given? What was perfectly useless?
Jenny: I can’t think of a single product that was indispensable, but I did have to get a really good water bottle when I was breastfeeding because I was thirsty as fuck all the time. Someone gave us a side sleeper, one of those massive things you attach to the side of your bed that affixes under the mattress. It was huge and my kid didn’t like it. So that went into the garage until my neighbor got pregnant and I gave it to her. Same with a crib someone gave us. I hate to admit it, but we took it to the dump because we never used it, and you can’t resell those things or give them away to someone you don’t know because of liability and safety issues.
Me: Talk to us about work/life balance (can you hear me howling??).
Jenny: Never heard of it.
Me: Next project?
I want to write a funny book about menopause, but I haven’t gone through it yet, so I think I have time to rest on my laurels (famous last words!).
In her novel Landscape of a Marriage, Gail Ward Olmsted (Yes! A relative of THE Frederick Law Olmsted) quotes Fred as saying, “…in a civilized country, no man should be expected to walk, let alone interact with others before consuming a sufficient amount of coffee.” I have never felt so close to someone I’ve never met before! But unlike Fred, I do not typically have black coffee and pickles for breakfast. Perhaps that is the secret to years of enjoyable and productive work?
I am honored to have Gail with me for this month’s Coffee Chat. I hope you will pour a cup of coffee, however you enjoy it, and join us as we talk about the research process for an historical work, why it’s important to keep the reader in mind, and Gail’s definition of literary success!
Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What is your go-to beverage when writing?
Gail: I adore coffee, black and strong! I would drink it all day long if I could, but these days if I want to get a decent night’s sleep, I switch to decaf or water by early afternoon. I usually keep a Yeti mug of water nearby at all times.
Me: When did you first feel like a writer?
Gail: My first book is titled Jeep Tour, set in beautiful Sedona, AZ. I started writing it on a lark following a trip there with my family. It took me years to really focus and get it published. When that first shipment of printed books appeared on my doorstep, I knew I wanted to have that amazing feeling again and again. It never gets old!
Me: Describe your writing process. Do you outline? Does it change depending on the project?
Gail: Landscape is my fifth novel and the first historical work I’ve written. Since I was telling a story about real people set in a time I knew little about, I was very careful to learn what life was really like in the second half of the 19th century. I researched everything, and I created an outline to plot out the story – to keep it moving as it spans more than 40 years.
Me: In this book you give voice to a character who was hidden in the shadow of her husband. What was the most interesting thing you learned about her?
Gail: There has been very little written about Mary Olmsted, so I chose to create a compelling main character who could keep up with her workaholic visionary husband, give birth to seven children and figure out how to thrive in such a chaotic time. Landscape of a Marriage is the story of Mary’s journey which begins with a marriage of convenience, borne of duty and obligation, not romantic love. I needed to reveal her strength and compassion and love for her family and friends. I wanted to give her the passionate union that I felt she deserved.
Me: How long did you spend researching this project? What was the process like? Did you ever consider putting it aside?
Gail: I read every book and article I could find about Frederick Law Olmsted, and there are plenty. He wrote several himself! I tried to focus on his personal life but as he involved his family in everything he did, it was impossible to not get caught up in all of his professional accomplishments. I found myself writing a scene (actually a chapter) then going back to research the details- what Mary would be wearing, what the family ate for dinner and how they spent their time. Then I would make the needed changes or enhancements and move on to the next chapter. I never put it aside for more than a day or two for nearly three years!
Me: In your Author Note, you mention “writing the book you want to read.” Is the final product what you intended, or did some aspects change along the way? What is it like to read your own finished book?
Gail: I originally wrote Landscape in the third person, but I found I connected so much better with Mary and her life by rewriting it in the first person. I also edited the final manuscript and reduced the final word count by about 10%. I’ve since read sections or individual chapters, but never the whole book from start to finish. I am fairly certain that I never will.
Me: What other books do you want to read? In other words, what are some stories you still need to tell?
Gail: I’m working on a contemporary story about a disgraced assistant district attorney. She is attempting a career comeback as a legal advice blogger and is about to host her own daytime TV show. I love stories about redemption, second chances. This will be my sixth book and all of my main characters share that goal, that search for their ‘happily ever after.’
Me: If you could have coffee with Mary Olmsted, what would you ask her?
Gail: That would be a wonderful conversation! I would ask her to share some of her memories of traveling and some of her favorite places. She spent a good deal of time in Europe, went to California during the Gold Rush, and to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893. She lived in New York, Washington DC, California, Maine and Boston, moving her growing family along with her each time. I would ask her, ‘Where did you get your energy? How many cups of coffee did it take?’
Me: If you could offer your younger self some writing advice, what would it be?
Gail: I would remind myself to always keep my focus on the reader. At the end of the day, it’s all about them- their enjoyment, their connection with the characters and the story. Save the self-indulgence for journals and diaries, I would advise myself. Tell the story you want to tell, but make sure it’s one your readers will want to read!
Me: What is your definition of literary success?
Gail: For me, success is not about sales or rankings or how much money I earn, although I’ve got no problem cashing royalty checks. I do love to read a good review from a reader who ‘gets’ me and I have this fantasy that I’ll be sitting somewhere on a plane or a park bench and I’ll look over and see a total stranger reading one of my books and smiling. That would be fabulous!