Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Connie Biewald

Connie Biewald, Author of Truth Like Oil

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?

My website is:www.conniebiewald.com

A short interview with me about Truth Like Oil is available in the Here and Now archives.

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2021/06/16/truth-like-oil-connie-biewald

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Gail Ward Olmsted

Gail Ward Olmsted, Author of Landscape of a Marriage

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!

Enjoy!

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!

Purchase Landscape of a Marriage by Gail Ward Olmsted (Available July 29, 2021).

***Authors and publicists: if you would like a book considered for an upcoming Coffee Chat, please email melissaface2008@gmail.com.

Order I Love You More Than Coffee by Melissa Face.

Bold and Strong: Coffee Chat with Zibby Owens

Zibby Owens, host of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books podcast

In recent months, Zibby Owens, creator and host of the award-winning podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, has offered book recommendations on Good Morning America and had her upcoming anthology included in Town & Country’s list of 28 Must-Read Books of Winter 2021. Zibby is a fan of strong voices and excellent writing, and she is an advocate for busy moms everywhere. She recently created Moms Don’t Have Time To Lose Weight  – a podcast and private support group on Instagram for women who simply want to feel better about their bodies.

I am so happy to have spent a little time chatting with Zibby this month about the power of a good book, what she would do with an extra hour each day, and her upcoming anthology that will be raising money for a cause so close to her heart. Fill your mug with something yummy, and find time to read our interview!

Me: Are you a regular coffee drinker? What is your favorite beverage?
Zibby: YES. Three cups a day. Hard to admit it because in my head I only drink two a day, but I almost always make an exception for that third cup, so….  I prefer k-cup produced coffee at home to store-bought, although I typically drink Starbucks Breakfast Blend. Coffee is my favorite beverage. By far! 

Me: You’ve been called a book influencer and a top literary podcast host, among many other impressive titles. Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of? 
Zibby: I’m most proud of being able to help 60+ amazing authors create original works during the pandemic. While I released them on my website at the time, I’m now getting them out into the world in anthology form in Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology. I’m also proud of the fact that I could interview Alicia Keys without being so star-struck that I clammed up!

Me: Describe an early childhood experience or relationship with a book that influenced your love of reading.
Zibby: I remember finishing Charlotte’s Web, hiding in my bathroom after my parents had put me to bed, and crying. I didn’t realize how much books could make me feel until that moment (at age 8!), and I haven’t stopped craving that connection since.

Me: Moms barely have time to go to the bathroom, much less find long stretches of time for uninterrupted reading. When do you make time to read? How do you prioritize yourself and other activities you enjoy?
Zibby: Who says my reading time isn’t interrupted?!?! I’m interrupted constantly! But I just have to get back to it. I don’t lounge on the sofa mid-day reading. It’s more that I’m pacing outside the kids’ rooms while they protest bedtime each night for about an hour with a book in hand, reading as I walk in circles, or I’m listening to an audiobook in the car driving them somewhere, or I read at my desk while they’re in school. I also treat myself to a book before bed every night once they finally fall asleep. And, I’m divorced and remarried, so every other weekend I have a lot more time to myself to read. 

Me: If you were gifted an extra hour of free time at the end of each day, how would you spend it? 
Zibby: Replying to more emails. I hate when they pile up, and I wake up to an overflowing inbox. But if I’d gotten everything done (ha!)…. I’d spend it cuddled up next to my husband watching a movie or TV show. I can’t even remember the last time we did that!

Me: Why is the anthology important to you? What would you like readers to know about it?
Zibby: First of all, I’m donating all the proceeds to the Susan Felice Owens Program for COVID-19 Vaccine Research, so I’m trying to get the word out to get us all a vaccine option. My mother-in-law passed away from COVID last summer in a horrific six-week battle with it, and I want to spare other families from going through that. Also, it’s a work I’m really proud of. The words of these authors will help other readers out there connect, feel less alone, and, perhaps like the young me crying in my bathroom, feel emotions that sustain them. It’s a deeply personal work that exemplifies why I do everything I do: to connect readers to authors, to help the right person find the right story for them at the right time, and to help busy people –like moms! —  fit more reading into their lives. 

Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology will be available February 12, 2021. Order your copy here.

Purchase I Love You More Than Coffee by Melissa Face here.