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Describe your path to becoming a published novelist.
Long and rocky. I’d wanted to be a writer as a boy. In fact when I was in my mid-teens, using a manual Royal, I wrote a science fiction novel that was nothing more than a protracted exercise in serial plagiarism. But when I got to Yale I was so terrified by my classmates’ superiority and sophistication that I abandoned the ambition. Fifteen-twenty years later I took a summer writing class—again at Yale, though in a program that no longer exists. Kate Walbert, my teacher, sat me down and told me to take a year off and write a novel. I couldn’t do the former but tried the latter. Awful. It was savaged so badly at a workshop in lower Manhattan that I actually asked the cabdriver on the way back whether he knew of any bars that sold morphine. I never wrote another word in that book, but somehow found the courage to start another, The Rage of Achilles. An agent told me it had no future so I started American Neolithic. While we were initially shopping Am Neo around a small press took a pass on it but asked if I had anything else. So a scant nine years after I finished it, Achilles was published.
How is practicing law similar to writing? How do you balance both, plus running the YWC?
It really isn’t. And the balance becomes progressively harder to maintain. I will add, though, that trial practice was excellent preparation for running the YWC. The average malpractice case lasts around two weeks—like the Conference—and involves lots of parts that need to keep moving.
What’s the best advice a writing teacher or mentor ever gave you?
Don’t quit. And in view of my first answer it was obviously something I sorely needed to hear. In substantive terms, the best advice I ever got was from Tom Perrotta on American Neolithic: “Remember, this is Raleigh’s story.” Oh—right!
What advice would you give other aspiring writers, many of whom have day jobs, families, high-powered careers in other fields, and overloaded lives?
I don’t want to bum anyone out, but while I do think it’s possible to begin to write with a demanding day job, there comes a point where writing ceases to be a hobby and becomes the career. When that point comes, something’s got to give. For that reason I always tell young people who want to write not to go directly to professional school or a high powered job but rather to work on their art for a couple of years. It’s never easy to be broke, but it’s a lot easier in the twenties than the fifties.
What are you most proud of with regards to the YWC?
Collegiality. We have the most congenial, mutually supportive student body I could have hoped for. While we deliberately avoid anything that could foster competitiveness or lead to the development of a caste system, I think that we’ve also been extraordinarily lucky in that we’ve attracted people who are not only very talented but exceptionally nice.
What would you like to improve or add as you further develop the program?
We’re exploring a couple of different things. First is an intensive workshop for students with completed first drafts of novels or memoirs. The class itself would be limited to six people and each would have to submit fifty thousand words three months in advance. There will also be a surcharge to reflect the smaller size and greater faculty workload. Another possibility is online workshops during the academic year. We’re also actively discussing workshops or a sister program overseas.
What I’d like to improve in the present format is the organization of the pitch sessions. Next year I’d like to give our students a lot more information about the agents, editors, and indie presses well before their appearance and have them sign up for appointments.
Describe your writing routine and rituals.
I wish there were one. Both novels were written on Friday and Saturday nights. At home, so I encouraged my unbelievable supportive wife to babysit our nephews and niece out of harm’s way. And I’m ashamed to admit this, but cigars were involved. What I would do is write a couple of paragraphs and take a walk long enough to smoke half a small cigar. I’d then write a few more paragraphs and have the second half.
Revision follows a completely different pattern. I do that in the office from five to seven. Every day. No smokes.
How did you get the idea for American Neolithic and what was its composition process like?
My wife and I were in Boston. Why I’ll never know—she’s forgotten—she asked what I thought Neanderthals would be doing if any were alive today. And why I answered this way I can’t imagine, but I said, “I don’t know—something with rap.”
I started writing it during the second term of the second Bush and so expended a lot of energy lampooning the right and our imperial ambitions. This created a number of problems. First is that political satire doesn’t age very well. Second is that Obama’s election was thought to usher in the millennium, which left many publishers cold to a dystopian very near future. On the first point, I revised to eliminate the overspecific, so that that that very near future became a moving target. As to the second, the current administration obliged by proving to be no more friendly to civil liberties than its predecessor. In addition, for whatever reason there was an explosion of information about our cousin species during the first draft and revisions—the discoveries of the Little People of Flores, the presence of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, and the Denisovans, for example. So up until publication I kept tweaking the manuscript to reflect new science as it emerged.
Similarly, as the writing progressed, I started to take some of the book’s premises more seriously. At the time I began it, it was still far from certain that we had coexisted with Neanderthals. But it seemed to me that if we had, it would explain our inherent xenophobia—a racial memory of a time when we had competed for survival with a similar but different species. The more I thought about it the more evidence I found —or imagined—for that racial memory. For example, every culture has legends of semihuman earth dwellers like trolls, kobolds, or menhune— obvious standins for Neanderthals. And why else would we cling to absurdities like Sasquatch and the Yeti, if there hadn’t been a time when hulking almost-men lurked at the very edges of our settlements? These ideas started out as goofs, but as I worked them I became at least half persuaded they might be right
What are your thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of MFA programs for writers?
I don’t have one, so maybe I’m the wrong guy to ask. My understanding is that it’s almost impossible to teach unless you have one. I’m also told, though, that they’ve become so common that many academic programs are now looking for PhD’s. But two years with nothing to do but write sounds pretty good, and I think there’s a lot to be said for the acquisition of a common vocabulary—I’m still not a hundred per cent sure what an unreliable narrator is.
What are some of your favorite books/who are some of your favorite authors?
Books: Roughing It, A Moveable Feast, Julian, The Succession, Brideshead Revisited, The Big Sleep, Let the Great World Spin, Lush Life, The New Confessions, Joe College, The Alexandria Quartet, Lives of the Monster Dogs. Writers: Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Raymond Chandler, Evelyn Waugh, S. J. Perlman, Colum McCann, William Boyd, Tom Perrotta.
If you could have dinner with one writer, living or dead, who would it be and why? If you could have dinner with one literary character, who it would be and why?
Gore Vidal. I read Julian when I was far too young—twelve or thirteen—and it contributed enormously to my worldview, for good or ill. Later I came to appreciate him as a prose stylist of the first order, not only through his historical novels but through his essays and reviews in the NYRB. I sent him a copy of Achilles through his editor. He died immediately after. Coincidence? Maybe.
Character? Hmm. That would likely vary day to day. Possibly Philip Marlowe, if my liver could take it—he’s among the most distinctive and durable characters in American fiction. And good for some laughs as well. Raleigh owes him a lot.
Do you have a motto or epigram that you strive to live by?
“Fortune Favors the Brave.” From my namesake Terence.
Terence Hawkins’s latest novel is American Neolithic, of which Julia Glass says, “This book will break your heart. . .but read it anyway.”
He was born during an Eisenhower administration he’d rather not specify in Uniontown, PA. Through some inexplicable and never to be repeated series of errors he was not only admitted to, but permitted to graduate from, Yale University.
Not having learned from its mistakes, that institution allowed him to become the founding Director of the Yale Writers’ Conference, which annually brings more than two hundred writers from around the world to New Haven for two weeks of workshops and master classes. Its faculty includes the likes of Colum McCann, Nicholson Baker, and Rick Moody.
His first novel, The Rage of Achilles, is a retelling of the Iliad in modern prose. He’s also the author of many short stories, essays, and editorials. He lives in New Haven with his wife and muse, Sharon Witt.
I first learned of Tanya Selvaratnam’s The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and The Reality of the Biological Clock when she mentioned my book The Anti-Romantic Child in a lovely piece she wrote for the Huffington Post last January. She’d read my book when coping with a host of serious challenges– infertility, cancer, and a split from her husband-, and found solace in its honesty and its message that unexpected joy can come from extreme adversity. I then read Tanya’s book, and found it both an extraordinary memoir and a stirring call to arms for all women. Towards the end of her beautiful, brave book she writes “I hope this book touches people and inspires them to make changes in their world and in their lives.” It certainly did both those of things for me!
Here’s my conversation with the luminous and inspiring Tanya.
1. Tell me about the genesis of The Big Lie. Why did you write it and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
I got the idea for The Big Lie after my third miscarriage in fall 2011. Then, when I was forty, my doctor said, “The biggest factor is going to be your age.” After my first one at the age of thirty-seven, my doctor consoled me saying, “You have time.” I wondered, How do we define time? Less than three years had passed. I decided to write the book I felt I needed then, with the hope that it would help others.
Having been through my experiences, I want to make sure that other women are better prepared. I want them to have fertility facts at their fingertips and to think about their future fertility before it’s too late. I want women to know there are many ways to become a mother, and also that there are many ways to find fulfillment aside from being a mother. I want women to think carefully about why they should or shouldn’t pursue motherhood. I want them to be supported more in that pursuit by their partners, families, communities, doctors, insurance providers, and governments.
2. What is the reality of the biological clock and why do you think it’s been misrepresented by the media and by some in the medical profession?
Most people are aware that female fertility declines with age, but many don’t know what the odds of conception, miscarriage, and successful IVF treatment are at various ages. For example, at the age of fifteen, a woman has a 40 to 50 percent chance of conceiving naturally per cycle, but after age thirty-five, she has a 15 to 20 percent chance; and by the time she’s forty-five, she has a 3 to 5 percent chance.
It’s not that the information isn’t out there, but there are many confusing and misleading messages in the news about delaying motherhood. We see friends and celebrities at older ages having children, but we don’t know how much they might have struggled along the way. I believe it’s important to balance the optimistic scenarios with the heartbreaking ones.
As for the medical profession, it’s uneven which doctors proactively tell their patients about fertility statistics. There are many reasons for this variation. One is that OB/GYNs aren’t necessarily fertility experts. Another is that telling patients to think proactively about fertility might be viewed as an invasion of privacy.
When it comes to fertility clinics, again it’s uneven which ones make the statistics known and which ones don’t. These clinics are businesses, and they’re not adequately regulated. There’s a lot of money being made from keeping people in the dark about their chances of having a child through fertility treatment. I was lucky to have a fertility doctor who was straightforward with me. I remember her saying, “I could take your money and run, but here are your chances…” I decided not to freeze my eggs after 40 because the odds were so low of having a successful pregnancy.
With the media, a kind of telephone game can result from shoddy reporting and cherry-picked research. For example, the Washington Post recently covered a Boston University School of Medicine study, which showed that women who had children after age 33 without the use of drugs or fertility treatments were more likely to live longer than women who had their last child before the age of 30. Subsequently, the Daily Beast ran an article citing the Washington Post piece but left out the part about the women studied being a known fertile sample. The Beast piece also cited a statistic from Fertility and Sterility that 92 percent of 35- to 39-year-olds had at least one normal embryo to transfer after a single IVF cycle, but nowhere does the writer cite successful pregnancy rates through IVF for women in that age group (According to the CDC, it’s around 25% for women ages 35-37 and around 15-20% for women ages 38-40). The omissions are irresponsible and irrational. The writers are to blame, but so are the editors and media outlets.
Today, I received a letter from a stranger, a man who read my book and who with his wife had dealt with infertility. He made great suggestions, like legally mandated information sheets that include statistics about fertility, egg/sperm freezing, and assisted reproductive techniques. These sheets would be distributed to everyone by insurance companies, clinics, etc. He wrote that we need Right-to-Know laws with regard to fertility. I believe we can all be allies in advocating for measures like these that can correct the misrepresentations.
3. Tell us about the industry that has sprung up around IVF and egg freezing. What is the dark side of these ostensibly positive innovations?
When I was on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show in June to talk about the business of adding to families, Carmen Wong Ulrich, the personal finance expert, brought up that some IVF clinics and egg-freezing companies are behaving almost like the plastic surgery business. They don’t advise patients about the risks and exact statistics, and they don’t report their success rates accurately. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of money being made off of people thinking that science will give them a child. Globally, IVF treatment revenue is around $9 billion and that number is expected to exceed $21 billion by 2020.
In May, a representative from EggBanxx handed me a postcard that said, “Smart Women Freeze Their Eggs” and “Stop Your Biological Clock.” This is disturbingly false advertising. Egg freezing is expensive, has risks (I know a woman who developed serious OHSS, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome), and can require many cycles to retrieve an adequate number of eggs. Also, approximately 80% of IVF cycles worldwide fail. Yes, there are beautiful success stories, but we have a right to know the odds. Knowledge is power.
Among the dark aspects are the gestational surrogacy industry in places like India (where poor women are lured into carrying a foreigner’s child) and sex selection in countries like Thailand (according to a report by Reuters this month, about 10,000 cycles at a cost of around $15,000 each were carried out last year in Bangkok for clients from around the world). A recent news report claimed that couples from the UK, where sex selection is illegal, have traveled to the US for this service, too. There needs to be a global monitoring body looking into these issues, especially since fertility tourism is a growing business. In the same way that there’s a Hague Adoption Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption, there could be a convention on fertility treatments to ensure best practices.
4. What advice would you give college-age students about family-planning and careers? women in their mid-late 20s? 30s?
For college-age students:
1) Find out the fertility basics. Don’t expect someone (an educator or doctor) to tell them to you.
2) Take care of your body. What you do now could affect your chances of having a child.
3) Think about your goals. Do you want to be a parent? Under what circumstances? If you can’t have a child through natural delivery, would you consider adoption? Keep in mind that even if you might not want kids now, envision a time when you might change your mind. Are you prepared for if that moment comes?
For women in their mid-late 20s:
1) Pay more attention to all of the above.
2) Start exploring options for preserving your fertility, such as freezing your eggs, but keep in mind that this is not a guarantee of a successful pregnancy down the road and that it is expensive and physiologically taxing. If you are in a committed relationship, you could consider freezing embryos. If you want to have children with a partner, be open to a partner who will be a good parent. As a friend said to me, the criteria for a mate shouldn’t be simply whether the person “makes you breathless or makes you laugh.” When considering a serious commitment to a partner that involves having children, think and talk about your respective reproductive goals and parenting approaches.
3) Educate yourself by reading books such as Taking Charge of Your Fertility. You could also explore getting a fertility workup (including testing your AMH) with your ob/gyn.
4) Make sure you have good insurance, preferably a carrier that covers fertility treatments. Be aware that where you live and work is a major factor in your ability to afford having and raising children. For example, only fifteen states in America have mandated coverage for some forms of fertility treatments, and certain states have more accommodating parental-leave policies than others. You might want to consider moving or traveling to a different state or country that offers more affordable alternatives for fertility treatments and more family-friendly work environments.
For women in their 30s:
1) Pay even more attention to all of the above.
2) If you are above thirty-five years old and having trouble getting pregnant or have had a miscarriage, get yourself to a fertility specialist sooner than even your ob/gyn might advise.
3) If you are dealing with infertility and thinking of pursuing treatment, educate yourself. A good resource is Budgeting for Infertility.
4) If you have not had a biological child by the age of forty despite pursuing treatment, start considering other options for becoming a mother—for example, egg donation and surrogacy. Think especially about adoption.
5. What can gynecologists do and say all along the way to help women make well-considered, informed decisions about their fertility? What can parents tell their daughters?
There should be a chart of a woman’s fertility on the wall of every ob/gyn office. Spreading fertility awareness and making it specific (your chances at various ages of conceiving, miscarrying, having a successful fertility treatment, etc.) should definitely be part of ob/gyn protocol. It’s not an invasion of privacy; it can be empowering and enlightening to know the facts. It can also result in important discoveries about our health and our prospects for having a biological child. We’re told to start getting mammograms at 40 and colonoscopies at 50. Why can’t we be told to test our fertility in our late 20s/early 30s?
When my mother used to tell me to think about having a kid, it felt like an old-fashioned scold. I think there is no way around this feeling. But parents can give their daughters resources like Our Bodies Ourselves, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and personal accounts like mine so that the daughters feel like they have agency in discovering the information themselves.
6. One of the things I like most about your wonderful book is your effort to reduce womens’ guilt and shame over miscarriage and infertility. How can we as women best support each other and create a safe space for sharing and solidarity on these most charged topics?
Thank you so much for bringing this up. One of my main objectives was to normalize the discourse around miscarriage and infertility. When I started sharing my story about miscarriage and infertility, I was amazed by how many, in fact, most women had a story to tell—either their own or a friend’s. Safe spaces can be forged on an intimate level between friends; they can be developed in larger groups, like in workplaces or through informal support groups. Any opportunity for women to speak truthfully is a valuable one.
Another objective I had with the book was to strip away the guilt women feel about the choices they have made and to encourage everyone to embrace the multiplicity of ways in which people live their lives, either with kids or without. There is so much snarkiness and casual brutality in this world, especially with instantaneous and often unretractable comments online. I hope everyone becomes more mindful and respectful of various experiences and differing opinions. I love George Saunders’s commencement speech that was then published as a book. He talked about more kindness as what’s necessary in our world.
We are constantly pitching ourselves against the expectations of others and of society, and this sets us up for disappointment or failure. We’re operating in a broken system, one that was forged largely by and for men. In many ways, we need to reinvent it. There’s a great campaign called MAKE IT WORK, co-directed by Vivien Labaton, which launched in June. Subsidized childcare, more guaranteed parental leave, tax credits for fertility treatments… these are just some of the measures that the government can adopt to make the choice to have a child more feasible. We can join together to advocate for change.
7. Your own marriage crumbled in large part because of your struggle with infertility. What advice would you give other couples in the thick of an infertility crisis?
I was blindsided by my husband’s departure, and the timing was scary, a few months after my surgery to remove the tumors and a few weeks before I was to resume fertility treatment. The health struggles had impacted our experience of each other, but every couple goes through such struggles at some point. Mine just came quickly after we married.
In the months that followed after where the book ended (with his leaving), I pieced together other things that were going on, and these discoveries helped me close the door. I still wake up feeling like I’ve been punched in the gut, but I’m thriving in many ways and hopeful. Abandonment can blow you open to a life that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, as long as you keep your mind open and your friends around you. Kim Gordon is doing extraordinary work without Thurston Moore (I’m looking forward to reading her new book), so is Maria Shriver without Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I had started The Big Lie when I was very much together with my husband. When he left, I grappled with how much to reveal, but as I did more research on the impact of infertility on relationships, I realized it was important to address. Released earlier this year, a Danish study of 47,500 women showed that those who dealt with infertility and were unsuccessful in having a child after treatment were three times more likely to divorce or end cohabitation than women who dealt with infertility and were successful.
For couples dealing with infertility, I encourage them to talk to each other. Don’t be scared of the conversation. You can learn a lot about your partner and his/her values because of how he/she deals with these issues. Make sure you’re on the same page, and be there for each other. You are partners not adversaries. Perhaps seek outside help, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s in your nature to do so. There’s so much to gain from trying to work it out. But if you find that your visions for the future are truly diverging, then treat each other with the utmost care and kindness in breaking up. Don’t leave a trail of blood. You are both human beings.
8. How can we best support our family members and friends who are coping with a cancer diagnosis or cancer treatments? What’s the best and worst thing someone did or said to you when you were diagnosed and undergoing treatment?
Everyone deals with illness in a way that makes sense for themselves, and it’s hard to qualify best or worst. The worst thing is to drift away or do nothing. Even sending a simple note saying “I’m thinking of you” or “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” can make a huge difference. People’s characters show in the straits, and you can learn who’s a real friend in these situations. In my case, I was lucky in that most friends were there for me when I was down. I was also touched by people I didn’t know so well who reached out to me with such kindness. I felt everyone’s positive energy every step of the way, and I credit my friends with carrying me through not only the illness but also the divorce.
9. You have faced numerous hardships and crises with remarkable grace, courage, and resilience. What has helped you stay positive and balanced during this tumultuous and painful period in your life? (ie therapy, meditation, prayer, yoga, diet, etc).
Friends, art, and meditation, in that order. The first two kept me looking up and out. Meditation helped me look within. I started meditating two and a half years ago and still do so every day. There’s an app called Headspace, which is perfect for those wanting to get started on a practice. I think one of the next big cultural evolutions could be with regard to spirituality and mindfulness. More studies are coming out about meditation’s positive effects on our physiologies as well as psychologies. Unlikely proponents such as Dan Harris and Russell Simmons have written about the topic, and their books are entertaining reads as well.
10. How did your work in theater and your artistic passions help you cope with these crises in your life? More generally, how can art and an artistic bent or frame of mind help us to confront challenge, disappointment, loss?
The writer Suketu Mehta told me that an artist’s personal struggles can be “grist for the mill” for one’s art. In addition, I say “when life throws you lemons, make art.” I believe in turning adversity into action, and for me, making art is a form of action. I gravitate towards work, whether it’s producing a film, developing a theater piece, or writing a story, that represents me and what I believe, that the audience can have fun with, that can shed light on an important topic and possibly open the viewer’s eyes.
One of the jobs I have is working for Mera and Don Rubell, the great collectors of contemporary art. The advice they’ve given is “look for art that you don’t understand.” I try to apply this to the creation of art too, by tackling subjects that I don’t readily understand. Writing the book helped me grasp more what I was going through and helped me connect the dots within a larger picture. Whether it’s writing, painting, singing, acting, etc., expression through various forms can enable us to document and subvert the ruins and exuberance of life. When I look at art, I want to be inspired. Art, when it’s not simply created to sell a product or make a lot of money, can show us things that we otherwise might not see. It can teach us things about the world and ourselves.
Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, a producer, an actor, and an activist based in New York City and Portland, OR. She was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Long Beach, CA. She is the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock; and her work has appeared in Vogue, Bust, Paper, xoJane, Huffington Post, Pop and Politics, the Toronto Review, Art Basel Magazine, the Journal of Law and Politics, on Women’s eNews and CNN. Tanya has produced work by Gabri Christa, Chiara Clemente, Catherine Gund, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Jed Weintrob; and toured around the world in shows by The Wooster Group and The Builders Association. She has been a fellow at Yaddo and Blue Mountain Center. Tanya received her B.A. and M.A. in Chinese language and history from Harvard University.
I had been hearing more and more great things about Christopher Healy’s middle grade Hero’s Guide series, so I asked for copies of the books from the publisher. My eleven-year-old son, James, gobbled them up in a few days, and then wrote this review of the books:
The Hero’s Guide books are about four princes that are completely different from each other but must work out their differences when faced with challenges that none of them can accomplish on their own. The heroes’ strengths complement each other: Frederick is the talker and the one who can dazzle the enemy with words, Duncan is the oddball who is good at distractions and coming up with strange solutions that no-one thinks will work but often do, Gustav is the big and burly one who does not like to work as a team and loves punching people with his big muscly arms, and Liam is the well-loved strategist and daring sword-fighter; he tries to escape his vengeful princess who hates him for not marrying her and sends her bounty hunter, Ruffin the Blue, after him. The books are exciting, enchanting, and creative. They have become some of my favorite books ever. I would recommend them to anyone who likes fantasy novels, Disney, or just a good story.
QUESTIONS FROM JAMES: (11 years old)
How did you come up with the idea for this series?
I wanted to write a book about Prince Charming. Here we have this guy who shows up at the end of so many fairy tales—and whom all the girls in the stories instantly want to marry—but whom we know close to nothing about. I wanted to make Prince Charming a real person, with both assets and flaws (though maybe I went a little overboard on the flaw). I struggled for a while trying to decide which Prince Charming to write about, but I couldn’t choose—so I went with four of them.
How did you come up with the names for the princes?
Most of the characters names in the books have some kind of hidden meaning. In a few cases, I used baby-naming websites to look up the ancient meanings of names and then chose ones that fit the characters (Liam = “protector,” Frederic = “peaceful ruler”). With the other two princes, there are sort of hidden subliminal messages in the spelling. The word “gust” begins Gustav’s name, and he’s the kind of guy who blows into a room like a tornado and wrecks everything in his path. The beginning of Duncan’s name almost spells “dunce.” I know you only asked about the princes, but I’ll also mention that many of the other characters have names that sound like words in other languages, mostly German. For instance, “riese” (Reese) is German for “giant,” and “dieb rauber” (Deeb Rauber) translates to “thief robber.”
Which prince is your favorite and why?
This is such a tough question for me to answer, because after years of working with these guys, I feel like they’re my children. I will say, though, that Frederic is the prince to whom I relate the most. I too would love to have all sorts of daring, thrilling adventures, but I generally don’t—because I am either too afraid or too sensible, just like Frederic.
Which villain is your favorite and why?
Deeb Rauber, the Bandit King. I love writing this character. He is wicked and devious and despicable and cunning, but he’s still a child and can never completely stop acting like one. In my mind, he’s what would have happened if Bart Simpson were smart.
Are you going to write any more books in the series?
Three is the magic number. For now, at least. With this trilogy wrapped up, I’m moving on to other projects, but I love the world of Hero’s Guide and its characters, so I’d love to go back there again someday. There are tons of stories there waiting to be told.
What other books do you want to write?
My next novel is called The Worst Thing About Saving the World and it should be out next year. It’s about a normal, average kid who finds out he is the special Chosen Child whom an ancient prophecy says is destined to save the world. Then the earth gets invaded by creatures from another dimension and the kid saves the world, just like the prophecy says. But all of that happens before the book even starts. The book is about what happens to him afterwards. It’s hard to be a normal eighth grader once you’ve saved the world.
What got you into writing?
Reading. I’ve been an avid reader since I was very young. I love books. And just like a music-lover who wants to be in a band or an art-lover who wants to paint, I wanted to create stories of my own that could live alongside all the other people’s stories that I love so much.
QUESTIONS FROM PRISCILLA:
What are some of your favorite books for children? What books do your two children especially like?
A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh books will always be up there for me. Milne was such a genius with wordplay and those Pooh books are still some of the funniest bits of writing ever put to paper. My daughter, who is 12, reads constantly—several books a week. She recommends the Ever Afters series by Shelby Bach and anything by Diane Zahler. My son, who is 7, adores Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
What advice would you give an aspiring children’s book author?
When writing for kids, the worst thing you can do is to talk down to them. But you can’t just treat them like adult readers either. Children’s book authors need to be time travelers in a sense. They need to leap back into their preadolescent selves in order to properly judge their own work. Would 12-year-old me be game for this plot twist? What would sixth-grade me want to see happen next?
Share a story about how one of your books affected a young fan.
One of the best things you can hear as a writer is that your books inspired someone else to write. Stumbling across Hero’s Guide fan fiction online was one of the more thrilling things that has ever happened to me. And I will forever save the letter in which two girls adorably asked my permission to use one of my characters in a story they were writing for school. It happened most recently when I got an email from the parent of a child who’d seen a school presentation I did earlier that day; she told me that her son had come home that day and immediately started crafting his own fractured fairy tale version of the Three Little Pigs. That is just so cool.
Christopher Healy is the author of the Hero’s Guide trilogy—the Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (a NY Times Best Book of the Year), the Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, and the Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw—which is currently in film development with Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios. He is hard at work on his next novel, The Worst Thing About Saving the World, which will be followed by a new trilogy tentatively called A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, daughter, son, and ridiculous dog.
Publisher’s book description
Prince Liam. Prince Frederic. Prince Duncan. Prince Gustav. You’ve never heard of them, have you? These are the princes who saved Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel, respectively, and yet, thanks to those lousy bards who wrote the tales, you likely know them only as Prince Charming. But all of this is about to change.
Rejected by their princesses and cast out of their castles, the princes stumble upon an evil plot that could endanger each of their kingdoms. Now it’s up to them to triumph over their various shortcomings, take on trolls, bandits, dragons, witches, and other assorted terrors, and become the heroes no one ever thought they could be.
Book site: www.officialherosguide.com
One of my favorite novels of 2014 so far is YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, a literary thriller by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Here’s the description from the publisher:
Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: she lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended. Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: a violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.
I recently did a Q &A with Jean about everything from the genesis of her novel to her writing practice, parenting in a competitive and acquisitive culture to life in New York City to her exciting new endeavor bringing together authors and book clubs, Book The Writer. Read and comment on our interview for a chance to win a free copy of YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!
Where did you get the idea for this novel? How did you decide to make your protagonist a therapist and about-to-be-author?
I have a longstanding obsession with (to quote Senator Al Franken) lies and the lying liars who tell them. I tend toward the superego end of the spectrum, myself, and people who are unburdened by conscience are just fascinating to me. Most of us (not I) are sure that they can spot a psychopath, but psychopaths operate with general impunity, regardless. I wondered what it would be like to be completely ignorant of the true nature of someone you live with and think you know well. Then I thought: wouldn’t it be interesting if that ignorant person were someone whose profession it was to know human nature — like, for example, a therapist?
What were the special pleasures and challenges of writing a suspense thriller in which everything the protagonist thinks is true and holds dear is thrown into question?
Pleasures? I can’t say I took much pleasure in ripping my poor protagonist, Grace Reinhart Sachs, to little pieces. There were challenges galore — chief among them, not alienating every single reader who can see Grace’s life much more clearly than she can, herself — if she’s so smart about people (and she IS smart about people), why can’t she see what’s right in front of her? Hitchcock’s insight into suspense was that it sharpens as the filmgoer sees the threat that the character can’t. That’s true of fiction as well, but the dynamic is different. We know that even the most suspenseful film is going to be over in two hours, give or take. But a novel lasts as long as we want it to last. It was difficult to keep the balance between suspense and frustration.
What were your fictional or other inspirations for this novel? It reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith.
Actually I did read Highsmith while I was writing YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. I emailed my best friend, a devoted reader of mysteries (as I am not) after I finished THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY and said, in essence, “Where has Patricia Highsmith been all my life?” She said, also in essence, “This is what you get for pooh-poohing mysteries.” I’ve since read the other Ripley books, and other Highsmith novels, as well as Joan Schenkar’s great biography, THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH. She was a fascinating character and really knew Homo Sociopathicus well. (Please note: Homo Sociopathicus is a made-up term. I made it up, myself.)
Your novel is a biting social commentary on the acquisitiveness and competitiveness of life in contemporary NYC, and we both grew up in the less glitzy and more livable New York City of the 1970s. What do you miss most about the New York City we grew up in? What do you not miss?
There’s a lot that I don’t miss. The city is safer, cleaner, and on some level kinder than it was. It’s full of creative young people who are cooking up all kinds of wonderful things for all of us. At the same time, the incursion of the super-rich has decimated the middle class of my own Manhattan childhood. I hate that you’d need to run a hedge fund to buy something like the “Classic Six” apartment I grew up in on the Upper East Side. And the Upper West Side. And forget about downtown. Or Brooklyn.
Your book paints a very appealing picture of rural life outside New York City, but you yourself recently moved back into the city after many years in relatively sleepy Princeton, NJ. What drew you back to the city? What drives you most crazy about the city?
Princeton, NJ? Far from rural, I can assure you. Yes, we had a chicken (two until our dog killed one) and lived on a canal, but the malls (shopping and strip!) were just moments away. I came home because in my heart I never left New York, because I wanted to be closer to family and because I hoped my son would have a chance to attend my old high school. Also, I think New York is a great place to get older — walking is much better (for us, for the world) than driving. And living in cities forces us to interact with people. That may sound nonsensical, but suburban life is very solitary. You’re in your home or your car. You drive through a restaurant instead of going inside, sitting down, and having a conversation. I’m really glad to be back here.
What is your writing process or routine like? Do you write every day? Do you have set hours when you write or do you write only when inspiration strikes? Do you have special places you like to write, use special equipment? Give this new-to-writing-professionally girl some helpful tips!
I don’t know if you’d consider it equipment, but I freely acknowledge that I could never have become a writer without the advent of the keyboard. I learned to type in a high school basement in 1977, on an electric typewriter. It absolutely freed me to keep up with the speed of my thoughts. If I’d had to wait for a pen to move across a page (in my terrible handwriting) I would never have had the patience to write fiction. I’m in awe of the Austens, Dickenses, Woolfs and Brontes (all) who had to write…down…every…single…word…separately…
As for routine, it varies with where I am in the book, or whether I’m between books. I have long gaps between finishing a novel and starting the next, and I’ve found that it’s counterproductive to begin before I know what I’m doing. Once I’ve started it goes from slow and excruciating to quick and (almost) actually pleasant. I’m not one of those writers who actually enjoys the process of writing (who are they? I envy them!), but there are great satisfactions that come with doing work you believe is good. I feel very fortunate to have managed a career writing fiction, and I’m grateful for the readers who’ve recently discovered me, and especially for the ones who have been reading my work when it was much more obscure.
The novel is about, among other things, parenting in a culture of privilege, and you’re the mother of a college senior and a high school freshman. What is your best advice for other parents on navigating the tricky teenage years and raising kids of any age in our increasingly materialistic and superficial culture?
I’d never claim to be a perfect parent, and if my kids were answering these questions I’m sure they could give you a long list of things I did wrong, but there’s one thing I have no hesitation in saying was the right choice: I’ve never allowed a video game, Game Boy, X-Box, Wii or any other game playing device into my home. Our rule was: if you’re at a friend’s house and they have it, fine, but in this house: no. You can’t shut out technology entirely, and we wouldn’t want to, but staring at a screen and wiggling your thumbs for hours, days, weeks, months, years…how is that good for anyone, let alone a kid? As for materialism, I certainly appreciate beautiful things, but I refuse to pay for a logo. (If Ralph Lauren wants me to wear a shirt with his name on it, he should be offering ME money, not vice versa.) My daughter went through a designer phase but I’m pretty sure she’s coming out of it. She did make a rare request for a certain item of jewelry as a college graduation gift, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to get it. (College graduation? That’s a big deal.) My son could care less who makes anything he owns, except when it comes to filmmaking equipment. (His version of Nirvana is B&H Camera. He wanders around that place in a daze.) In the time he didn’t spend playing video games he became a filmmaker.
What are some of your favorite books of all time? some recent favorites?
I adore Thomas Perry’s novels, and read them immediately as soon as they are published. Perry is extraordinarily gifted at writing about pursuit and evasion. His protagonists are constantly thinking, planning, measuring, working things out. They are trying to stay a step ahead of whoever wants to kill them, or find someone who’s managed to hide in plain sight. The best book I’ve read recently is Lawrence Wright’s book about Scientology: GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF. I’m interested in religion in general and have a bizarre fascination with Mormon history. The best of the many Mormon-related books I’ve read are John Krakauer’s UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A STORY OF VIOLENT FAITH, and Fawn Brodie’s NO MAN KNOWS MY HISTORY, a biography of Joseph Smith.
Tell us about your exciting new endeavor, BOOKTHEWRITER.
BOOKTHEWRITER is a new New York City based service that sends great writers to the homes of book groups who are reading their work — not by phone or Skype but in person. There are about 100 novelists, memoirists, biographers, non-fiction writers and poets on the BOOKTHEWRITER site (including ORPHAN TRAIN author Christina Baker Kline, THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB memoirist Will Schalbe, novelists Carole Radziwill, Jane Green, AM Homes, Jayne Anne Phillips and Kurt Andersen, and Ilene Beckerman, the author of LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE), and all are available to visit book groups in New York City and the surrounding areas. (We have smaller lists of available writers in other major American cities — contact us for more information.) We also run “Pop-Up Book Groups” which are small, one-time gatherings with our authors that people can sign up for on an individual basis.
For booking and fee information, and to read about our writers and books: www.bookthewriter.com
To sign up for one of our upcoming Pop-Up Book Broups (with Christina Baker Kline and THE PERFECT SCORE author Debbie Stier): http://bit.ly/1hhsvBs
To be kept informed of Pop-Up Book Groups as they’re scheduled, sign up for our newsletter: http://bit.ly/P9gRip
Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of the novels YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, ADMISSION, THE WHITE ROSE, THE SABBATHDAY RIVER and A JURY OF HER PEERS. She has also written a novel for children, INTERFERENCE POWDER, and a collection of poetry, THE PROPERTIES OF BREATH. Her non-fiction has appeared in various anthologies and in publications such as Vogue, Real Simple, Reader’s Digest and The New York Times. She has appeared on “Books du Jour” (NYC) and Bloomberg TV.
ADMISSION was adapted for film by director Paul Weitz, and starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin. It was released in 2013.
Born and raised in New York City and educated at Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge, she lives in New York City with her husband, Irish poet Paul Muldoon, and their children. She is the founder of BOOKTHEWRITER, a New York City based service that connects authors and book groups. www.bookthewriter.com
THIS INTERVIEW WAS FIRST POSTED IN JANUARY 2013. I’M RE-POSTING TO CELEBRATE THE PAPERBACK PUBLICATION OF KATRINA’S WONDERFUL BOOK. COMMENT ON OUR INTERVIEW FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A PERSONALLY INSCRIBED AND SIGNED COPY, SENT TO YOU BY KATRINA!
A few months ago, I did something I almost never do: I wrote a fan letter to an author I greatly admire. I sent a message to Katrina Kenison, author of the much-loved parenting memoirs Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of An Ordinary Day, via her website, and to my astonishment, she responded almost immediately. Her warmth, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit were evident in this first letter, and we’ve since become great email friends, discovering numerous points of connection between us from our mutual love of the Betsy-Tacy series to our predilection for Steely Dan. I’m honored that Katrina agreed to answer questions I posed to her and share her hard-won wisdom, compassion, and luminous spirit with my readers here. This interview appears the same week that Katrina’s new book arrives in bookstores. Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment is my favorite of Katrina’s three books. It’s a remarkably honest, searching, poignant, and impassioned meditation on the challenges of mid-life and a testament to the subtlety and grace of its radiant author.
1) Tell me about the title of your new book: Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment. How did you arrive at this title and subtitle? Why call the story “an apprenticeship”?
I kept running across quotes by Joseph Campbell about “the hero’s journey.” Campbell suggests that all the world’s great stories and myths are essentially tales of transformation. The hero is called to change, to undertake some kind of journey which requires him to leave what he knows behind and venture into new territory. He resists, but eventually must summon his courage, accept the challenge and go, or else risk a kind of spiritual death. As soon as the hero commits to the quest, magical helpers or guides appear to assist him. There are numerous stages to the journey, hard lessons along the way, and eventually a return to the starting place, older and wiser, and now with some gift to share with others.
All of this resonated with me. I wanted my life to continue as it had always been, yet the more I tried to hold on, the more it seemed that everything I cherished was slipping away. My children grew up and left home, one of my dearest friends died, my marriage was shifting, I doubted my work, even my face in the mirror startled me: how could I look so old on the outside, when inside I still felt like a young me?
I wondered if there was a way to absorb all these changes with grace, to see them not as losses but perhaps as necessary challenges on the path. Campbell’s work, especially his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, seemed to point the way. But Campbell is writing about male heroes, male archetypes, male journeys. It seemed to me that women at midlife are called to embark on journeys too, and that perhaps by accepting rather than resisting the call to change, we have an opportunity to discover unknown parts of ourselves, to let go of what is outlived and explore new roles in our lives, reach toward new dreams. Not all journeys require suitcases and tickets. Sometimes the most significant journeys are the ones that lead us inward, to our own true selves.
I struggled for a long time with a subtitle. Anything that suggested that this was a book of answers, or that I had things all figured out, made me very uncomfortable! Anything that invoked age or, God forbid, menopause, made my publisher uncomfortable (seems there are still taboos, especially among marketing folk, about admitting that yes, we all do grow old). And then, like a gift from one of those magical helpers, the subtitle came to me and I knew it was exactly right. Every day we are lucky enough to be alive is an apprenticeship; the lesson, always, is contentment. Does anyone ever nail it, once and for all? I doubt it. I hope not. I aspire to nothing more than a good, long apprenticeship in contentment.
2) Your book begins with an initially sunny but ultimately difficult, painful, wrenching scene about the fragile peace and tenuous intimacy between you and your son as you drive him to look at boarding schools following his dreadfully difficult sophomore year in high school. What advice would you give to parents of a child who, like yours, is at an especially “vulnerable moment in his [or her] young life”?
Such a good, hard question. I hesitate to give advice to anyone about parenting. I can say I’ve come to believe that the greatest gift I can give my own children is my faith in them and in their journeys, difficult as those paths may be. I want my sons to know that I believe in them, in their resilience and their ability to create their own good lives.
Yet as the parents of a teenager who was clearly struggling, my husband and I also had to acknowledge that despite our best efforts, what we were doing wasn’t working, and that we needed help. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our children is to widen the circle, bring others in close, explore paths we’ve never considered walking before. To do that openly and without shame or recrimination is in itself a gift; it’s an acknowledgment that to be human is to struggle. Humility, vulnerability, compassion – it seems to me that this is the AP Curriculum for life, lessons as essential as any taught in a high school classroom. Lessons parents and children are sometimes assigned to learn hand in hand, as we move together into uncharted territory.
3) I still have three kids at home (two boys, ages 13 and 10, and a new stepdaughter, also 10), but I felt so keenly your anguish at being ” a mother without a child” as you became an empty nester three years before you were expecting to. I, like you, love being at the center of a bustling and loving family and sometimes wonder “if I will ever again experience the passionate aliveness I felt as the center of the universe for two little boys.” How did your apprenticeship in contentment involve not only discovering new interests and forging new relationships but also finding new outlets for your maternal energies and instincts, skills and passions? In other words, it seems that it wasn’t just about turning your attention away from motherhood or about shutting down the maternal force in you but rather about tapping into that maternal energy and redirecting it.
That’s absolutely right. For years, I felt certain that my calling was right at hand, the work of balancing career and family life and making choices that supported my primary commitment to my children. As a mother, writer, and editor working from home, I was happily rooted in one place, fulfilled and challenged without ever having to leave the house. But when the house was suddenly empty, and I could sit at my desk all day long, or not at all, and no one cared, I felt unmoored. For the first time in my life, I was lost and a little lonely, without purpose or even a shape to my days.
My first impulse was to throw myself into whatever activity presented itself, to get out of the house and stay busy and keep all my uncomfortable emotions at bay. The apprenticeship really began when I decided to stop moving. To sit still, and actually feel my feelings – discomfort, sadness, fear, and pain –and see what happened next.
4) My memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, is, as you describe yours, about “letting go of my own cherished vision of the way our family life ought to be”. How do you think parents can learn to let go, in small ways and large?
Accepting that things as they are is the way they are meant to be is an enormous spiritual challenge. Somehow we must find the faith to let go. Instead of our white-knuckled grip and our belief that if we just work hard enough we can shape life to our specifications, we are asked to surrender. To accept that perhaps there are forces at work in our lives that are larger than we are. For me, this seems to be the assignment of a lifetime. Surrender doesn’t come naturally to a nose-to-the-grindstone girl like me. One thing that helps is to pause and ask myself the question, “What is the loving thing to do here?” And usually the answer I come up with is not about bearing down harder. Usually it is about finding a way to let go a little more.
5) A large part of the book describes your month-long stay at Kripalu in order to become a certified yoga teacher; towards the end of the book, you also get certified in Reiki! I must confess that I’m not a yoga person, but I have a daily meditation practice, was a certified aerobics instructor in my early 20s (in part to get out of my head and teach/heal people via their bodies), and I’m a passionate believer in the healing power of touch. I love your courage, grit, and pliancy of spirit (not just body!) in becoming a certified yoga teacher and a Reiki master in your 50s! What emboldened you to try? What appeals to you about teaching yoga or doing bodywork? What can you do, achieve, enact via these modalities that you can’t via the written word? And how can your story inspire other women at mid-life to stretch beyond what they thought their profession, career, or life path would be and find new roles for themselves that not only nourish them but also contribute mightily to the well-being of others?
Going to Kripalu for a month was, first and foremost, about honoring a small voice inside me that I was more accustomed to ignoring. Yoga makes me happy, it is really that simple. And yet, because I’m not very athletic or flexible, and because I came to yoga very late in life and I’m not in any way a “natural” at it, I’d never allowed myself to really “go all the way,” to take it seriously.
The truth was, there was nothing I could think of that I wanted more than a chance to completely immerse myself in yoga, to be a student and study what I loved. Every time I’d ever entertained the notion, my inner critic had always been quick to say, “You don’t deserve this, you aren’t good enough.” The courage was really about listening, for once, to the other voice, the voice that said, “This is what I want.”
I am an introvert, very inclined and content to spend all day alone. Being in front of a group, working on a committee, speaking in public – these are huge challenges for me. I would rather be curled up on the couch, in front of my computer. But as I get older, and especially now that my children are no longer within arms’ reach, I am increasingly aware of the importance of physical touch. Connection that happens face to face and body to body to body and heart to heart, rather than through the ether. Reiki is a way to step out of the “thinking” brain and into the universal life force. I don’t “do” it; rather, I clear a quiet space and simply allow the energy to flow. Putting my hands on another human being, or even doing absent Reiki, which is kind of like praying, is a gift both to myself and to the other person, a way of opening to compassion and connection.
What I’m learning is that there are many ways to heal, many ways to touch, many ways to bring more love into the world. If my story inspires another woman to simply listen to her own quiet inner voice and pay it heed — whether that voice is urging her to write or to paint or to run for town office or to climb a mountain — than another worthy connection will have been made. Of course, we are all connected. And my story is your story, and vice versa. As we begin to recognize that, things get simpler: we see that our work, whatever it is, is love made manifest. And we begin to understand that anything, anything at all, done from the heart, makes the world a better place.
6) You describe conceiving of and teaching a memoir-writing workshop for local women in your home. For those of us not fortunate enough to be able to actually study with you, what words of wisdom can you share about how to “attempt the soul-searching work of transforming the stuff of [our] . . . lives into narrative”?
I think the first step is invisible, and perhaps the hardest of all. We must take that step even before the pen hits the page. And it’s really where the soul-searching begins – with the work of coming to believe, “My story matters.” I wrestled with these words for a long time, wondering if they were true. For months, I didn’t write anything. Then I finally went to a friend’s cabin in the woods, where there was no internet connection and nothing to do but sit with myself. I realized that finding a way to honor my friend who had died, by writing about what she’d taught me, did matter to me, very much. So I started there, by writing about her. And so it was that she gave me yet another gift: a doorway into the rest of the story.
7) Your account of your beloved friend’s struggle with and death from cancer is so poignant and powerful, as is your account of your and your father’s treatments for skin cancer. As someone who’s lost numerous loved ones to and has two close family members currently battling this insidious disease, I have a passionate interest in improving treatments and support for both patients and care-givers. What advice would you give to the family members or friends of someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer about how best to support their loved one? What do you think health care providers can learn from your and your friend’s experience? How can we as individuals and as a culture make what you call “the bustling, overpopulated country of illness, affliction, and surgical repair” a less harried, sterile, and tragic place?
My own brief day in the hospital for out-patient surgery was nothing, a mere blip on the screen. What it gave me though, as a visitor, was a fleeting glimpse of the territory that my friend, with her devastating illness, had inhabited without complaint for years. And what touched me, of course, even during my limited experience, were the moments of pure human kindness extended toward me in that busy, subterranean operating facility. Even there, with hundreds of patients being moved in and out, there were nurses and doctors who took the time to look into my eyes, to connect, to see me as a human being rather than as a patient in the 9 a.m. time slot. And still, it was a humbling, difficult day. It was also a reminder that we are all mortal, we are all vulnerable, and we need one another.
The best thing we can offer a loved one? Presence. Our own pure, compassionate, fearless BEING. There’s a difference between compassion and pity. Pity is all tangled up with fear and separation, the unspoken idea that “I’m just glad it’s not me.” As Stephen Levine says, “When your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.”
When the diagnosis is not good, fear is our first, most human response. Our challenge, then, is to begin transforming that fear into compassion – both for ourselves and for our loved one. And as we grow in compassion, we find that our ability to stay, to be with what is, deepens. And that’s what anyone who is ill needs from us: to know there’s no place on earth we’d rather be than right there with them; that we choose to stay, come what may.
8) With remarkable honesty, you describe the challenges your marriage faced when the children had moved out of the family home and you and your husband were compelled to reinvent your home life and to confront the ways you both had changed in the years since becoming parents. What is the best thing your husband did for you or said to you during this difficult period of readjustment and rediscovery. Why do you think your marriage survived when so many others founder?
It took a while for me to understand that I wasn’t the only one grieving what was over, not the only one who felt an emptiness after our sons were gone. My husband had lost something, too. And while I was looking outward, toward my own personal new horizon, he was assuming that finally the two of us would have more time for each other.
It should have been obvious, then, why we ran into some trouble: we were seeing two completely different movies. But it actually took a good bit of untangling. The best thing Steve did for me was let me leave home for a month with his blessing, even though he didn’t really understand why it was so important for me to go. And even though I also knew he was a little bit afraid – worried I’d go off and have some transformative experience that he wasn’t part of, and that it would change me, and create even more space between us. What happened was the opposite. Knowing he loved me enough to let me go made me more eager to come home and embrace what I already had. I think we both became more fearless, more willing to explore ways we can be together even when we’re apart.
9) At various points in the book, you mention favorite books and poets and thinkers, but rarely by name. Who are some of your favorite authors and thinkers? What are some of your favorite books? and can you name a few poems that especially speak to you?
In the early draft of the manuscript, I had many more quotes from authors I love and consider my guides. My friend Maude, who is in the book and also one of my most trusted early readers, said, “Take them out.” She was right; I thought I needed to include the words of everyone who’s helped me along the way, when in fact all I really needed to do was tell a story.
The work of Thomas Moore (who I do quote in the book) has been the single biggest influence on me. I don’t think I would ever have written a book at all if not for reading The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life when my sons were very young. Moore suggests that, in order to “re-enchant” our ordinary, mundane adult lives, we need to reconnect with the magical, enchanted world of childhood: secret places, nature, rituals, stories, the night sky, spirits and ghosts, silliness, wonder. It all made sense to me. But I suddenly wondered if my own sons, reading this book at age 40, would have any idea what he was talking about. It seemed possible that, without some clear intention on my part, and a willingness to move against the cultural current, my children would grow up with no enchantment in their lives whatsoever.
Suddenly I had a mission: to nurture my children’s inner lives as well as their physical beings. And then, I realized, I also had something to say: that we don’t have to be swept along by the pressure to do more, have more, achieve more; that early competence is not an insurance policy for happiness, that there are lots of different ways to define success.
I began to write, and we began to explore different ways of living, and the writing and the living fed one another. I wanted to ensure that our sons had time to just be children, to play and explore and get bored with themselves, to star-gaze and wool-gather, to wander and wonder. That meant taking some drastic steps and being somewhat counter-cultural – slowing down, saying no to organized soccer and birthday parties and TV and video games, creating rituals, preserving empty time, stretching myself, trusting myself, changing my priorities about what was important in our family life. Today, if you were to ask my sons what they cherish about their childhoods, I think they would talk about sleeping outside in the back yard on a blow up mattress with their dad under the stars, listening to Red Sox games on the radio, playing baseball in the back yard, exploring the creek in the woods.
And oddly enough, they have Thomas Moore to thank for that. He made me see that my real work as a mother was to care for the souls of my children, and that in order to do that, I’d need to care for my own as well.
Other guides: Mary Oliver, Joseph Campbell, Pema Chodron, and Ann Hillman, whose book Awakening the Energies of Love is something of a bible to me, a profound, demanding, multi-faceted book that I will never be finished with.
10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your approach to life?
“The purpose of the journey is compassion.” Joseph Campbell
Learn More About Magical Journey by watching this video:
KATRINA KENISON is a wife, the mother of two, a life-long reader, wanderer, and daydreamer. She is the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir, and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.
A former editor at Houghton Mifflin Company in New Haven, New York, and Boston, Katrina became the series editor for The Best American Short Stories in 1990, a post she held for sixteen years. She also co-edited, with John Updike, The Best American Short Stories of the Century. With her yoga teacher, Rolf Gates, she wrote Meditations from the Mat: Reflections on the Path of Yoga. Katrina has been a featured guest on Oprah and her essays have appeared in O The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, and many other publications.
Katrina lives in the New Hampshire countryside with her husband and sons and their border collie, Gracie.
Jeremy Abbott has long been one of my favorite skaters. Jeremy is a four-time United States Champion, a Grand Prix Final Champion, and a two-time Olympian. His first visit to the Olympics, in 2010, was a great disappointment, as he went in a medal favorite but finished a disappointing ninth. In just a few days, Jeremy will skate in his second Olympics, and my entire family will gather round to cheer him on. Jeremy’s skating is one of the major reasons my husband, who knew next-to-nothing about skating before we married two years ago, has become an ardent skating fan. Jeremy’s short program at the recent US National Figure Skating Championships demonstrated staggering technical ability, maturity, subtlety, musicality, and Jeremy set a new US record for a short program. Jeremy’s long program, in my mind one of the most mesmerizing, intelligent, and transcendent skating programs ever, made my fourteen year old son, Benj, exclaim “That was so beautiful and spiritual!” through tears as it drew to a close.
Jeremy’s family is known to be especially supportive, generous, and devoted, a model skating family who inspires others. Allison Scott is Jeremy’s extraordinary mother. I became aware of Allison via her blog, which provides a fascinating window onto the world of figure skating and is also a fount of wisdom for skating parents and for all parents. Allison is witty, smart, candid, and gracious. She is a wonderful ambassador for the sport of figure skating, a mentor to other skating families, a great writer, and a Mom who inspires me.
A few months ago, I wrote to Allison on Facebook and sent her two copies of THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, one for her to auction off as a part of a charity event Jeremy was performing in and the other for herself, in solidarity, Mom to Mom. On the eve of Jeremy’s first appearance in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, here is my interview with his amazing mother, Allison Scott.
1) Why figure skating? Why should we watch it, invest in it, root for it, and champion it?
If you talk about skating to people who are casual observers, many feel it is all about the sequins and the spandex. But skating is one of the most physically demanding and difficult sports because the athletes are trained to make it look easy. The realities: Eight times your body weight every time you land a jump. Three to four on ice sessions a day, six days a week with anywhere between 20-30 jumps per session. Top elite skaters are traveling 18 miles an hour going into a jump. They take off and land on 1/8″ of inch of steel, and as Michael Weiss pointed out, “AND you have to do it to the music!” Easy? No.
I’m not sure that proselytizing for skating in print would truly convert anyone. With our sport, as with most, seeing is believing. I have been witness to some pretty tough characters from a motorcycle group who came to watch a very early morning practice at a mall rink in Portland. Parents and coaches were concerned until we overheard them saying, “Man, that’s TOUGH!”
2) When did you know that Jeremy had a special gift and how did you support and encourage him in developing it?
Jeremy began skating at the age of two and competing in USFS Basic Skills competitions at age 4 1/2. At age 7, we made a coaching change to a woman who was new to the club. Peggy Behr had been a competitive skater who trained with iconic coach Lorraine Borman along side Rosalynn Sumners, her best friend. Peggy was the first to recognize Jeremy’s talent. She was the one in 1998 who suggested Jeremy relocate to a training center if he wanted to keep improving because Peggy felt she had taken him as far as she could. Jeremy did compete ice dance and pairs, but his heart was really with singles. When he finished middle school in Aspen, we relocated Jeremy to Colorado Springs where he lived a year with Andrew Speroff’s family. When a position opened up at The Broadmoor in public relations, we sold our house in the Roaring Fork Valley and moved. It has not been easy, but Jeremy never wavered in his love for skating; we never wavered in our support. When we had a parting of the ways with the coach in Colorado Springs and Jeremy decided to move to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to train with Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, we were the first to applaud the change and assist in the move. For Jeremy, each move has been a move forward. He has never looked back; neither have we.
3) What were some of the hardest aspects of parenting a gifted child? What was your toughest moment as a skating parent? What were some of the positives and blessings of parenting a gifted child? What was your most joyful moment as a skating parent?
There were a number of watershed moments that might be categorized as “the hardest aspect.” Many turned around into true positives.
Jeremy was bullied unmercifully growing up as a figure skater in a ski and hockey town. While he never even considered quitting because of it, we had many tearful moments and a few conversations with schools, as well. We always told him that success would be his best revenge. This came full circle in December when he returned to Aspen to do a “Thank You” show a week before the US Nationals in Boston. The show was a sell-out. When Jeremy was sitting in the lobby tying his skates before a practice, two young hockey players – about the age of the ones who picked on him years ago – came into the area. “DUDE! That’s Jeremy Abbott!” I could see Jeremy, head down, just smile. Later, they were clamoring for photos with him on the ice after the show.
Easily, the most difficult moment for me is one I have not discussed. It was in Vancouver. We were seated with heads of our federation during the short program. Jeremy was extremely nervous going into Vancouver; his comments about the overall experience are well documented in interviews. When he popped his triple axel – something he hadn’t done in more than a year – and then doubled the combination, he was devastated. We were seated near the Kiss and Cry and as he skated over he caught my eye and mouthed, “I’m sorry..” That was far and away the single most difficult time in our years of skating. It broke my heart that he felt that way. He earned his spot. He was an Olympian. My feeling is that you should never be ashamed or feel sorry for reaching the height of your sport and making it to that coveted place. As it ended up, Jeremy resolved to keep going for another four years, and now we are headed to a second Olympics with a favorite program he choreographed himself by the British rock group Muse. It is the third part of their piece called “Exogenesis.” It is called, “Redemption.” Enough said.
4) Jeremy is known as an especially musical, lyrical skater. I also think he could have a stellar second career as a top choreographer. Can you tell us what role music and dance played in his growing up and in your family?
Jeremy comes from a family of performers. My father was a television pioneer and the producer of the Perry Como Show. My mother was on NBC. Her father was an internationally recognized theater actor. My husband (Jeremy’s step dad, aka Mr “Go Alexander!”) was the emcee of Jazz Aspen, had a jazz show on radio in the Roaring Fork Valley and continues to do a jazz show on public radio as a volunteer in Denver. The kids constantly had music in their lives. Jeremy used to watch Gene Kelly movies with me. Gene Kelly was my favorite dancer. I met him when I was about 11 and I had an autograph book with his signature. I lost it in a house fire when Jeremy was about 2. Of all the things I lost, which was pretty much everything, the two things that affected me the most were losing my stuffed tiger and my Gene Kelly’s autograph. I still have dreams about finding that book, and I have a framed postcard of Gene Kelly on the street lamp from “Singing in the Rain” hanging in my bathroom.
I taught Jeremy basic ballroom dancing in our kitchen in Basalt by having him stand on my feet, however I take no credit. Jeremy was always interested in music and dance. I don’t know where that comes from; it is nature more than nurture, I believe. While Jeremy doesn’t play a musical instrument, he has edited his own music, as well as music for other skaters. In high school, he earned pocket money by cutting music, something he was taught by my husband. Much to my husband’s dismay, Jeremy became way better at it to the point of taking over his small business.
5) What do you hope Jeremy is remembered for? What do you think his most important contributions to figure skating are?
First and foremost, I hope he is remembered as being a good, kind and caring person. I hope he is remembered for helping change men’s skating under the IJS system, bringing back to this morass of math an “Old School” style that blends the art and sport of skating. It would be tremendous if that is his lasting legacy as he transitions out of competitive skating and on to performing and creating – for himself and for many future generations of skaters.
6) What is the most important advice you’d give to the parents of an aspiring figure skater?
Finish what you start. Not every skater can achieve what our son has achieved, but achievement in this sport can come in many different forms that don’t necessarily lead you to Olympics. Listen to your skater. If they are wavering; if they are ready to be done, let them be done. But like school, finish what you start. Test out. There is great satisfaction in getting that USFS gold test medal. If you skater keeps in the competitive side of the sport and truly loves it but isn’t on the podium, that’s okay. There is something deep-rooted that is making them skate. Help them find the people who can guide them into coaching, performing, judging, creating and choreographing, if that is what they want to do. I can’t tell you how many of Jeremy’s friends – ones we have known since they were little – are still in the sport, still loving it and now making a living at it. What more could you ask than to have something you love and to figure out how to make a living at it. That’s a blessing.
7) Although figure skating is an individual sport, the success of a figure skater depends in large part on the strength and cohesiveness of that skater’s team. The team can include parents, coaches, choreographers, costume designers, trainers, siblings, and more. What advice would you give skaters, parents, and coaches about how best to work collaboratively? What qualities and attitudes are important in building a successful team?
This is a complicated question and one that truly depends on the age of the skater, the level, and the disposition of the skater. One size does not fit all in this category. Success is a moving target and you have to be ready, as you do in any business, to assess and make changes if something needs to be changed. Change for the sake of change is not always the answer. It is very personal. As a skater becomes an adult, they really need to take on the responsibility of those decisions. No one knows better than they do what they need. It is sometimes difficult to step aside, but it is necessary.
8) Tell us about your blog. Why did you start writing a blog and what has the reaction to it been like?
I began my blog “Life on the Edge of Skating” as a personal diary, of sorts. I started it in the late summer of 2009 not knowing what was going to come, but I felt I wanted to chronicle the “Olympic Experience,” whether we made it or not. At that point, we were nearly 20 years into the sport, and I also wanted to record my personal thoughts, observations about skating parents, coaches, experiences and lots of other things. I don’t monetize my blog; I had no idea where it would lead me – or how many people would catch on and drag themselves along on my journey, which I thought may not extend past the 2010 season. Of course, I’m now 4+ years into Life on the Edge of Skating and the journey continues. While I have only have about 100 direct followers, I do track who is seeing my blog and it now goes literally around the world. The first ones to pick it up are usually Jeremy’s fans from Japan, but I have had views from countries that don’t even have skating. I’m always amazed at the power of social media. Once I tweet or post it, things start moving.
I will be blogging from Sochi, too. Our local paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, has asked me to blog for them about the Games from a parent/spectator perspective. I already told them it might be a bit erratic, but I’m happy and honored to be asked.
9) One of your most beloved blog posts was about coping with disappointment after Jeremy’s 9th place finish at the 2010 Olympic Games. Why do you think that post resonated so powerfully with others? How does it epitomize your general approach to parenting and to life?
I assume you are talking about the “Lemonade” blog. I try to have many of my blogs be “universal truths” that apply to life, not just skating. Life gives us lemons at many points throughout our journeys. It is what you choose to do with them that makes a difference.
10) Describe some of Jeremy’s programs and/or performances that particularly moved you.
Oh my, “Exogenesis” 2012 – the program we never really saw. Most people who follow skating know by now that 30 seconds into that program in San Jose, my husband passed out with what ended up being an afib attack but mimicked a stroke at the time. It was one of the scariest moments in my life. We still can’t watch the video on YouTube without tearing up at the drama that was playing out in the stands as Jeremy skated a nearly flawless program for his third title, totally oblivious of what was happening just feet away from him.
I have other favorites: Day in the Life, BEI MIR BIST DU SCHON (the “suspender” program choreographed by Benji Schwimmer, who also did “Spy”) La Vita es Bella was one that was an all-time favorite that never was fully realized because of persistent boot problems in 2011 that resulted in a switch to Jacksons. In thinking about it, I have loved all the programs since 2007 without reservation. My favorite show programs: Rhythm of Love, Hometown Glory, Bring Him Home (show version). Jeremy choreographed all those programs himself.
11) How do you, your husband, and Jeremy’s sister cope with nerves when Jeremy is performing? Any rituals or superstitions?
LOTS of superstitions! Jeremy’s sister Gwen always wears the pig hat she and Jeremy bought in 2007 in Spokane. She never comes to competition without it, which can seem a bit silly since she’s 34, but it is tradition. One woman who started out as a fan but is now a good family friend and sits with us at most competitions, started bringing a bag of Twizzlers with her. Most of the family takes one and eats it before Jeremy skates. I hold mine until after he’s finished. Don’t ask me why; I can’t explain it. Of course, there is my husbands booming, “GO ALEXANDER!” that has literally been heard around the world. It is an inside family joke that started in 2000, but the reason behind it will not be revealed until after this season is concluded and Jeremy moves on to a pro career. I have a pair of skating earrings Jeremy “bought” me (which means he picked them out and I paid for them) when he was seven. We in Vail for a competition. I’ve worn them ever since. At this rate, they may “retire” to the figure skating hall of fame once Jeremy’s season is finished, or I’ll have them made into charms for my new obsession, my Pandora bracelet.
12) Why do you think figure skating has declined in popularity and what do you think can be done to revive interest in the sport and art of figure skating?
I think many fans never recovered from the end of 6.0. They don’t like the “math” involved with IJS and they long for the days of Michelle, Peggy, Brian, John Curry and others who were true artistic/athletic representatives of the sport. It’s funny that the Asians get it, though. They sell out every competion and every show. They start fan clubs for skaters who are not from their countries. Jeremy has a huge fan base in Japan. He has fan clubs in South Korea, China and even Russia. It seems to be a “Western” problem with fans that they don’t understand and appreciate both sides of the sport. It’s sad.
13) Who are some of your favorite skaters (both throughout history and those who are currently amateur)?
There are so many from the past. I am fortunate to know and call friend those who are still with us. That is another blessing of this sport. Growing up I watched Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss Jenkins, Janet Lynn and Peggy Fleming. My greatest skating crush was on Richard Dwyer (Mr. Debonaire) who I saw in a show when I was a kid and who is now a great friend. I adored John Curry, Gary Beacomb, Charlie Tickner, Toller Cranston, Brian Boitano, Scott, Kurt, Jeff Buttle, Stephane Lambiel, Shawn Sawyer and the list goes on (and on…ad nauseum, but I’m old and there isn’t enough band width to keep adding).
Of course, there is Robin Cousins. First, last and always there is Robin Cousins – the person I alternately blame and adore for being the inspirational spark to Jeremy’s skating career.
For those guys currently skating, I have many but ask me in April. For the ladies, Alissa Czisny defines grace, class and style. I love Courtney Hicks for her enthusiasm and athleticism. I’m a big fan of Akiko Suzuki, not only for her talent, but for not giving up through all her personal trials. She embodies Olympic spirit. Again, there are so many. I absolutely love ice dance and I am in awe of pairs. There are so many teams I enjoy and applaud that would be the subject of an entirely new blog.
A current favorite and Team USA member is Jason Brown. I absolutely love, love, love him! He and Jeremy are going to be a great team in Sochi and we have become close to Jason’s family.
14) What are some of your favorite skating programs of all time?
Janet Lynn’s Afternoon of a Fawn; Paul Wylie’s Henry V; Kurt Browning’s Singing in the Rain (show program all-time fav!) and his Brick House. Scott Hamilton’s “Walk this Way” and the number he did as a salute to skaters like Dick Button (I think it was to William Tell Overture, or at least part of it was). Brian Boitano did a TV number outside on a mountain lake that was magical but you can’t find it on YouTube any more, which is sad.
15) What is your favorite figure skating move and why?
I don’t think it would be a surprise if I said a well-executed triple axel for obvious reasons.
16) How has the rise of social media affected the skating world, for good and ill?
Social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is wonderful to cut away a layer of communication and talks directly to what, in my industry are called the stakeholders. But social media affords a level of anonymity that can be dangerous and emotionally destructive. When you are on the receiving end of vicious attacks by unseen sources, it makes one take a step back and wonder if all this “transparency” is just that. I can tell you, as a professional PR person, as a mom and as a blogger, it is anything but transparent. There is perceived power in the shadows and the Trolls are willing to hide in the murky underpinnings of the social media bridge that connects all of us inhabiting this part of the internet world. My grandfather used to say he never read his reviews, though when a show he was in opened on Broadway, he would eagerly await the reviews while sitting at Sardy’s. Today, those reactions by the shadow people are instantaneous; their vitriol so venomous, their lies and disinformation so seemingly real, it is difficult to discern fiction from fact.
17) What Olympic events other than figure skating are you most excited for?
The team event in skating is new and I’m very excited for that. We have so many wonderful Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley friends and family in the X-Games inspired snow sports that would be my next choice. Finally, we watched the women’s Olympic qualifier in curling on NBCSN and I was so impressed with Erika Brown that I began following her on Twitter. I congratulated her and she replied. That’s class. I’d love to see a match live though I know next to nothing about the sport. It’s on ice; that’s good enough for me.
18) If you had to pick one quotation to summarize your philosophy of life, what would it be?
Life is not a dress rehearsal.
Jeremy Abbott’s Official Website:
Allison Scott’s Blog, Life on the Edge of Skating:
Great Photos of Jeremy for Team USA, a Model Olympian:
My late father, the eminent drama critic, author, and Yale Drama School professor Richard Gilman, was a huge figure skating fan, and he had a special soft spot for U.S. pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. He loved their balletic lines, their daring and flair, and their exquisite unison. Plus he thought they were absolutely adorable. I first fell in love with Tai and Randy, and with figure skating, when I was 8 years old and watched their thrilling 1979 World Championship winning performance with my father and younger sister, Claire. I put a picture of them up in my room, and when I danced in ballet class, I imagined extending my arms and pointing my toes with the subtlety and grace of Tai and Randy. Claire and I even talked about how Tai and Randy had a bond like the one we shared as sisters.
Almost a year later, giddy with excitement, my father, sister, and I gathered around the television on the night of the pairs short program at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics to cheer on our beloved Tai and Randy, but as we watched them skating around during the warm-up, anticipation turned to worry. We could see that something was off with Randy’s body and that their coach looked concerned. Claire asked my father: “Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s wrong with Randy?”, but my father just stared at the television screen with an expression of consternation. Then, in somber tones I will never forget, Jim McKay and Dick Button announced that Tai and Randy had withdrawn from the competition. Randy had suffered an injury that would not allow them to skate safely. Claire and I burst into tears; my father shook his head in disbelief and pulled us onto his lap. Watching, live, this devastating blow to Tai and Randy’s Olympic dream is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
Tai and Randy went on to have an extremely successful professional career, skating as special guest stars with the Ice Capades, appearing on numerous skating tours and in countless television specials. We never missed a Tai and Randy performance when they were on television. I cried again for Tai when news broke of her battle with addiction, and shared my father’s joy when he called to tell me of Tai and Randy’s induction into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1991. Through difficult times and triumphant ones, Randy and Tai were Forever Two As One, the title of their joint memoir.
Imagine my delight when Tai and I “met” last year via social media. She posted a comment on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall, I sent her a note, and we began writing to each other regularly. We have since shared our books with each other and become soul sisters. Tai is a role model and inspiration in so many ways. She is modest about her accomplishments, honest about her struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders, invariably optimistic and creatively fertile, and committed to mentoring younger skaters and supporting those suffering with addictions. She never rests on her laurels, is grateful for her blessings, and is a generous person who shares her wisdom (and good luck charms!) with others.
This bit from a poem by William Stafford reminds me so much of Tai:
“I embrace emerging experience.
I participate in discovery.
I am a butterfly.
I am not a butterfly collector.
I want the experience of the butterfly.”
Not only is the butterfly one of Tai’s totems but also Tai embraces emerging experience and participates in discovery better than almost anyone I know. Here is my Q & A with legendary figure skater and beautiful, brave, resilient soul Tai Babilonia.
Tell us about the experience of having to withdraw from the Olympics. How did you and Randy keep your partnership and friendship strong in the aftermath of that devastation? What did you learn from the experience?
That was one hell of a night, for all of us! It was a very confusing night for me, just because I didn’t know how serious Randy’s injury was. He and our coach Mr. Nicks thought it was better not to tell me everything in fear of it upsetting me in an already very intense situation. Randy was quite incredible through it all and he was the one in pain; he’s pretty tough and I never ever heard one complaint from him. He gave it his best shot and in the end it was completely out of his control. It was not meant to be. In a strange way it made our friendship/bond even stronger, whether we knew it or not. Hard to explain and I try not to analyze our unique & sometimes very dysfunctional relationship too much. I still can’t make sense of it a lot of the time. In the end I do know it all comes down to respect for one another. The 1980 Olympic experience taught us that on any given day, anything can happen. You keep pushing forward and never look back!
What are you most proud of in your skating career?
Well, I guess the obvious would be winning the World Championship in ’79. Being on two Olympic teams is something I’m also very proud of. Another highlight and a moment that I hold so close to my heart was when the incredible woman who had to bribe me to hold Randy’s hand back in 1968, Mabel Fairbanks, was inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997. I walked Mabel onto the ice when she received this honor and I have never been so proud and honored. Mabel is responsible for breaking the color barrier in figure skating. A powerful and important moment that I will never ever forget.
You and Randy have been partners and collaborators and dear friends for about 40 years! What are the most important elements in a successful partnership?
I think we hit the 45 year mark! I don’t count anymore, lol! The most important elements for our partnership are respect, support, having the same goals & of course being great friends.
What is your favorite Olympic sport other than figure skating and why?
I love tennis. My parents actually met on the tennis courts here in Los Angeles, my brother played, and my son, Scout, plays. I have recently gone to a few live hockey games, and I have a new appreciation for that sport, amazingly quick and really kinda beautiful to watch.
If you had to skate pairs with another male pairs skater, who it would be and why?
I have skated with someone else and he’s really talented , furry, uber popular & very much a legend/icon, his name is Snoopy! No seriously, I wouldn’t want to skate with anyone other then Randy, end of story! Forever two as one!
What is the most important advice you’d give to the parents of an aspiring figure skater?
What current amateur skaters (in any and all disciplines) are you a special fan of and why? (I think Adam Rippon is one, and I love him too.)
I absolutely adore Adam Rippon. He just had a very tough nationals and it was a definite eye opener for him. He has the talent and I hope he stays in another year. I’m a huge Jason Brown fan. And Polina Edmunds is a breath of fresh air, very old school & as we all saw a fierce competitor; I don’t get nervous watching her. I’m such a fan of both Polina and Jason: they have a very 70′s type feel to their skating that I absolutely love & welcome.
Why is pairs skating in this country in such disarray? What advice would you give pairs teams?
Two words… stay together!
What is your favorite figure skating move to perform?
I still really enjoy doing death spirals and never in a million years did I think I would still be doing them at age 54! Never say never! I love spread eagles & ina bauers too!
I love seeing deep edges and big open beautiful jumps. I’ll take a huge delayed axel over an ugly squishy quad jump any day!
What is your least favorite figure skating move to perform?
Don’t have one, I love all the moves we kind of can perform now, we have a total of maybe 5! Tee hee!
I have a difficult time watching the lady skaters do all those really unattractive spins. 99% of the ladies need to get into a proper ballet class now! and I’m a stickler for pointed toes!
How does it feel to be lifted and thrown on the ice?
Well, back when we were doing those tricks, it felt like I was flying and you definitely have to have trust in your partner.
How is a skating program a metaphor for life?
I think I’m still figuring this out even as I’m typing this.
How can being a skater prepare you for living a good, healthy, evolved life after your competitive career?
Kind of the same answer as above
What did it not prepare you for?
Fame and attention. I learned by making many mistakes.
Tell us about your son and your experience parenting him.
Scout is very much his own person and very independent. He will be 19 soon and I was not prepared for him to grow up so quickly. Scout is my biggest supporter & cheerleader.
What advice would you give to other people struggling with addictions of various kinds (to food, alcohol, drugs etc)?
Don’t be afraid to reach out. There are so many wonderful programs for all addictions and also know that you are not alone.
You are one of the most creatively fertile and multi-talented people I know, Tai. Tell us about some of your current creative and professional endeavors.
I really want to try everything. I have so many ideas swirling around in my head and I just go for it! There is the line of candy Tai Treats, my memoirs, still skating a tiny bit, making jewelry boxes and designing skating clothes, working as a correspondent for the TV show “The Insider,” working on building the “Tai” brand is what I really want to do. I’m happiest when I’m working and being productive.
Who inspires you? These can be public figures, other skaters, historical figures, people from your personal life.
Anyone who works hard, pays it forward and is respectful toward others.
Do you have a favorite quotation that distills your philosophy of life?
“Love many, trust few and always paddle your own canoe.” My grandmother Marjorie Babilonia would tell me this every time I saw her from the time I was a little girl till right before she passed away back in the 90′s.
Tai Babilonia is one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. With her partner, Randy Gardner, she won five consecutive US National Pairs titles (1976-1980), was a two-time Olympian, and is the 1979 World Figure Skating Champion. When Tai and Randy won Worlds, they were the first Americans to do so in twenty-nine years, and no US pair since has won the title. Tai and Randy were favored to win Gold at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, but on the night of the short program, had to withdraw due to an injury to Randy. They went on to have an extremely successful professional career, skating for three years as special guest stars with the Ice Capades, appearing on numerous skating tours and in countless television specials, and performing in some of the most prestigious venues in the United States and abroad, including a special appearance for Queen Elizabeth and as a White House guest of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. Tai and Randy were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1991. They published a book called Forever Two As One, a candid and beautiful coffee table book packed with photos and quotes from the world’s top skating stars and written as a thank you to all the fans worldwide who have supported them throughout their career. Tai skated with Bruce Jenner on the Fox TV show Skating With Celebrities and still performs with Randy and others. Tai is also an entrepreneur who has designed skating attire and has her own line of chocolate treats and a collection of one of a kind hand-made crystal-encrusted jewelry boxes sold at upscale stores in California. Outspoken and honest about her own struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders, she is an advocate and mentor for people struggling with addictions of various kinds and is proudly sober herself. She considers her biggest accomplishment her role as a mother to her son, Scout.
Tai’s website: www.taibabilonia.com
Tai Treats on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TaiTreats
Recent Article about an Earring Tai has Loaned Other Skaters for Good Luck:
Oxford Professor and poet Lucy Newlyn’s recent book William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All In Each Other is unquestionably one of the best books about literature that I’ve ever read. I reached out to Lucy after reading a newspaper piece about her book; she and I exchanged books and have since become virtual friends. I’m honored and delighted to present our conversation about everything from the Wordsworths to higher education, the therapeutic dimensions of literature to the creative life more generally.
Why Wordsworth? What about him especially appeals and is of interest to you?
Wordsworth’s poetry has always been a source of emotional and spiritual nourishment to me. I grew up in an atheist household, and although I had access to religion at school, it was primarily through poetry that my sensibilities developed. As a youngster I learned ‘Daffodils’ by heart; a bit later I came to know and love the ‘Immortality Ode’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’ – these poems are always there, like an underground stream, in my consciousness. Until I was 18, I lived in Leeds, a large industrial city in the North of England, but my family was lucky to spend a lot of time in a farming village in Yorkshire, where my responses to the natural world and the local community were shaped by reading Wordsworth. When I was at secondary school, Lyrical Ballads fascinated me: I was drawn to WW’s compassionate portraits of travellers, war-veterans, marginalised and homeless people, and I read the ballads again and again while listening to Pete Seeger’s protest songs on our record-player in Leeds. Later, as an undergraduate, I became absorbed in WW’s explorations of selfhood and imagination in The Prelude; and as a young academic I delved into his literary language, his dialogue with Coleridge, and his engagement with Milton. As I’ve grown older, what I have valued most is his concern with the healing processes of memory and mourning. My understanding of his genius has gone through many different stages, but I’ve never lost my astonishment at his power to ‘think into the human heart’ as Keats put it.
Can you describe your first encounter with Wordsworth?
I have two childhood memories in connection with him. The first is of my mother explaining to me, when I was very little, that she had named me ‘Lucy’ after Wordsworth’s Lucy, before reading aloud his beautiful poem ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’. The poem struck a deep chord with me. It was when listening to the last stanza that I first came to realise the finality of death:
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
The second memory is of being in Wensleydale with my family (I must have been about 11), and having the poem ‘Michael’ perpetually in my head as I got to know a local farming boy and his father. I think my happy summers in the Yorkshire countryside may be responsible for much of my lifelong passion for Wordsworth. He understood the sheer joy a child feels in exploring nature; and he valued the bonds of kindness that hold small rural communities together – I experienced these things in Wensleydale as a youngster.
What is your favorite Wordsworth poem and why?
For the last year or so, my favourite has been ‘Stepping Westward’, a beautiful poem written in response to a chance encounter between the Wordsworths and a woman walking near a lake in Scotland. I love the way the voice of the un-named woman comes out of nowhere, ‘What, you are stepping westward?’ prompting thoughts about home, and reminding us of the vulnerability of these two fellow travellers as they journey towards an unknown destination. The poem is full of stillness – evoking the almost total solitude that you can feel as a walker in the Highlands. Yet there is companionship, too – with the unknown woman who speaks so softly (‘The salutation had to me/the very sound of courtesy’) and with Dorothy, who walks alongside her brother. The poem uses the plural pronoun ‘we’ to signify Dorothy’s inclusion in this shared encounter, which she also remembered in her prose account of their Scottish tour.
When did you first become interested in Dorothy Wordsworth, as a writer and creative figure in her own right?
As a graduate student, when I was working on a D Phil thesis about the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, I studied Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal in detail. Of course I understood then how fascinating her writing is in its own right, as well as how closely her own creativity was bound up in her brother’s. But I didn’t do justice to this in my thesis (which became my first book), and it wasn’t until more recently that I decided to look closely at the full range of her writings, tracing the development of her prose in detail. I think this change in focus may have had something to do with events in my own life – the death of my sister, becoming a poet, and developing an acute awareness of creative community. In writing this new book, I was trying to make restitution to Dorothy for having ‘missed out’ so much of her story when I was a young scholar.
Explain the significance of your book’s subtitle.
‘All in each other’ is a quotation from a poem written by Coleridge in 1798, when he was separated from his close friends, William and Dorothy. ‘You have all in each other – but I am lonely and want you’, he wrote. The words betray a sense of exclusion, and a feeling of envy for their intimacy. I chose this quotation as my sub-title because I wanted to evoke the extraordinary strength of the Wordsworths’ bond, which lasted the entirety of their lives and prompted their intertwined writings.
What can William and Dorothy’s creative habits, pursuits, and their relationship to each other teach writers and anyone who aspires to a creative life?
I think the Wordsworths had a holistic understanding of life, from which any aspiring writer could learn a great deal. Their example teaches us two very important things. Firstly, that creativity is not a solitary pursuit; it relies on community, shared endeavour, generosity, and connection with the environment. Secondly, it teaches us that creative collaboration is most rewarding when it is prompted and/or accompanied by communal activities – walking, talking, enjoying and remembering things together. These activities can provide a powerful means of alleviating loneliness and sorrow, as the Wordsworths found.
The siblings were separated when they were very young by their mother’s death, and grew up apart – so although they had early childhood memories in common, many years of separate experience came between them. Once they were reunited, they worked as fellow-labourers to re-build a home and re-establish their family’s attachment to the Lake District. ‘Creative collaboration’ in their case was not simply a division of labour, with Dorothy collecting observations in her journal and William writing them up in poetry; it was a symbiosis involving every dimension of their lives as brother and sister: home-making, gardening, child-rearing, grieving, entering into the hardships and suffering of neighbours; caring for the local environment, looking after each other in illness and old age. Writing happened in amongst all this – the fruits of collaborative labour were not viewed as a species of property in which each contributor held a share, but as an exchange of priceless household gifts, signifying kinship, love, and gratitude to the natural world.
In the Preface to your book, you write: “Because I share the Wordsworth’s concern with homesickness– and their belief in the healing power of nature, memory, and shared creativity– my account of their life together has a therapeutic dimension, and is intended to be of some practical use and inspirational value to non-specialist readers.” Can you elaborate on the therapeutic dimensions of your account and how and why you hope your book will be of practical use and inspirational value to non-academic readers?
The Wordsworths spent much of their lives working through the trauma of early separation, finding consolation in each other’s company and coming to terms with the grief caused by their parents’ deaths. The loss of their childhood home in Cumberland was absolute; but walking, talking, remembering, grieving, and writing were therapeutic activities, enabling them to recover their communal identity. They saw the beautiful landscape that surrounded them in the Lake District as their spiritual home, and by living together in Westmorland for fifty years, they created a bond with the place that was restorative. When Dorothy developed Alzheimers, and was confined to her room for twenty years with arteriosclerosis, William cared for her and helped her to return in memory to earlier, happier times.
There are many things in the Wordsworths’ story that I find inspiring and uplifting. In writing about them, I think I was writing a personal story as well – about my own homesickness for Yorkshire, the grief I feel for my dead sister, and the healing power of memory. I didn’t know when I started that this book would turn out to be a biography, but as I worked on it the human story took over and became more important than anything else. Of all my books, this is the one that has mattered most to me. I hope that my readers might find the same kind of inspiration as I have found, in learning how the Wordsworths came to terms with loss.
How are these therapeutic dimensions not sufficiently valued in academia and higher education more generally?
Academic books can be dry and inaccessible, offering over-elaborated theoretical frameworks, critical exegesis, and scholarly apparatus. As academics, we are trained to distance ourselves from our subject matter. Detachment, rationality and critical distance are valued much more highly than empathy and emotional involvement. We write using the left side of our brains, cutting ourselves off from emotions, which are the well-springs of creativity.
The lines from Wordsworth’s “The Sparrow’s Nest” that I quote at the very end of The Anti-Romantic Child feature prominently in your book as well. Can you tell us about how and why these lines are significant to you?
In this poem, WW pays tribute to Dorothy’s role in his life, thanking her for all that she has given him, as his sister and dearest companion. There are many tributes to Dorothy in his poetry, but none so absolute and moving in their devotion as this heartfelt expression of gratitude:
“She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble care, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.”
William’s many poetic tributes to Dorothy were part of a highly developed system of gift -exchange which began soon after the siblings were reunited and continued over the entirety of their shared life. In my book, I look at the gifts anthropologically, as kinship rituals. The importance of these gifts was that they reinforced already existing kinship bonds, acknowledging the sister’s time-honoured place at the centre of the household. But I’m afraid that sounds a bit dry! I love these lines because they are a beautiful and deeply moving declaration of love.
Why do you think there is such resistance to Wordsworth on the part of so many readers? How would you relate contemporary resistance to and dismissals of Wordsworth to the kinds of criticisms and ridicule levelled at Wordsworth and his poetry during his own lifetime?
There are at least two anti Wordsworthian traditions, or ways of expressing dislike. According to one tradition, WW’s poetry is overly concerned with humdrum themes, adopting a childish voice and simple rhyme schemes to write about trivial, everyday matters: the sound of a bird, a conversation with someone gathering leeches, a nest found in a cottage garden. But there is also dislike that some readers expressed for his allegedly ‘conservative’ views. The targets of parody in this tradition are WW’s alleged smugness, his tone of moral superiority, and his betrayal of the radical cause. To writers like John Hamilton Reynolds (who wrote a famous parody of ‘The Idiot Boy’), WW was an arrogant turncoat, a Tory Anglican whose writing was empty and vacuous. Keats, who was a friend of Reynolds, once described WW as a poet who embodied the ‘egotistical sublime’. It is very hard to shift such unfair prejudices, once they have become entrenched. Many readers nowadays think of Wordsworth as lofty and removed: a solitary figure who wrote on elevated themes, preferring the company of lakes and mountains to people. They associate him with reclusiveness, an extreme dislike of urban life, a culpable resistance to modernity.
Why do you think Wordsworth is so vulnerable to parody? What is your favorite parody of Wordsworth?
Any great writer is vulnerable to parody, and the decision to parody a writer – taking time to craft an imitation which is both recognisable and humorous — is a form of homage. Wordsworth made his writing vulnerable to parody by writing great, distinctive poetry, which he supplemented with a series of prefaces, deigned to instruct his readers in the art of reading his work. His earnestness of purpose, and his clearly identifiable poetic persona, made him an easy target. My favourite parody of WW is by Lewis Carroll, ‘I met an aged aged man’, because it is so full of affection for and understanding of the poem parodied. Carroll takes the original storyline of ‘Resolution and independence’ – the poet’s encounter with a leechgatherer in a deserted place –and turns their edifying conversation into comedy. If you’re giving WW the benefit of the doubt, his conversation with the old man is a source of gentle irony long before Carroll gets hold of the poem. I think WW was an immensely subtle poet, often one step ahead of his critics. All Carroll had to do was to develop a thread already planted in the original poem, which he did brilliantly.
How can we make great poetry less intimidating and more accessible to people?
Priscilla, you have done so much that is exemplary in this field, and your enthusiastic followers will want to join me in thanking you for what you have done. How can I answer you but by echoing the tenets of your remarkable book, and your equally remarkable blog? We can – and should – make great poetry less intimidating and more accessible: by reading great poetry aloud to our children when they are very young; by giving it the same centrality in our (and their) daily lives as music; by enabling kids to engage imaginatively with great poetry throughout school; by working hard to ensure that everyone has access to great poetry on the internet, in public talks, and at poetry readings; by quoting it in conversation, emails, blogs; by holding as many literary festivals as possible to celebrate it; by writing about it creatively in books; by engaging with it passionately at every opportunity, so that people never forget its relevance to thoughts, beliefs, choices, actions; and by reminding everyone, in all walks of life, that they too can write. This last point is key. Once you begin to think of yourself as a writer – as someone who can craft language to create certain effects – you feel a greater kinship with the role models you emulate. They begin to seem less terrifyingly remote.
Tell us about your own poetry and how it’s been influenced by the Wordsworths.
I started writing poetry in 2000 — very late in life – because I had to. My sister died, and there was no other way of working through my grief. The discovery that I could create poems came as a huge surprise (and relief), because for thirty years I had been teaching poetry without any notion that I could be a creative writer. At first I wrote only about my bereavement, which was all-consuming. Later I showed my work to poet friends who encouraged me, and this led (eventually) to my writing on different subjects. My first collection, Ginnel, came in response to a second bereavement, when my father died. In this collection, I turned back to memories of my childhood in Leeds, where I used to play in the back streets with my sisters. ‘Ginnel’ is a Yorkshire word meaning a passage between buildings, and in the poems I explored the hinterlands of middle-class Headingley and working-class Meanwood, mapping out the terrain that I came to know intimately as a child. The collection is unashamedly Wordsworthian, celebrating the remembered places of childhood, and childhood as a place. It is filled with heimweh or nostalgia — a profound longing for home, of the kind that the Wordsworths experienced throughout their lives; and it is marked by the same kind of regional pride – the same intensity of ‘local attachment’ – that one finds in Dorothy’s journals or her brother’s poems. The collection is also pervaded by memories of my father and my sister, and is intended as homage to them both.
Since writing Ginnel, I have gone on writing poetry, and teaching in Creative Writing workshops: I regard being a poet as the biggest blessing of my life – second only to the birth of my daughter. This new creative role has led to different teaching methods and concerns in my research, as well as a whole new way of valuing literature and the academy. The fact that this transformation came in response to my sister’s death is in some ways disconcerting, in other ways uplifting. I find the pattern of loss and recompense deeply Wordsworthian.
Can you summarize the kinds of attitudes towards and arguments about the Wordsworths that your book is intended to revise, correct, or dispel?
Since the 1980s, much scholarship in Romantic studies has been recuperative, championing neglected female writers who presented an alternative to ‘the great Western myths of masculine power, of authority and fulfilment’ (Susan Levin, 1987). In the important work of reconfiguring the literary canon, critics have seen Dorothy’s writing in opposition to her brother’s – typically alleging a contrast between her ‘poetics of community’ and his ‘egocentric poetics’ (Wolfson, 1988). However, there is little evidence that gender difference caused ideological divisions between the Wordsworths, or that their use of different media expressed competitive aims.
A separatist approach to William and Dorothy’s relationship is fundamentally flawed, because of the incalculable contribution they made to each other’s writing. Their creative processes were bound up in joint activities. Whether they saw things alone or together, they discussed what they wrote. This was a context where much material remained unpublished, where work was read aloud, and some composition was done together, orally. Dorothy’s journals often recorded natural phenomena noticed with William or other members in the circle – Coleridge, Sara Hutchinson, or Mary Wordsworth. The journals contained observations and recollections that could be used as prompts for poems. In their turn, poems helped to form habits of observation and recollection in the circle. The boundaries separating one writer’s work from another’s become blurred under these conditions.
Many recent accounts of Dorothy’s work have suggested that her ability was under-valued by her brother, and that her domestic role circumscribed her creativity, but nothing could be further from the truth. The monolithic, egotistical model of genius that is still all too commonly associated with the name of William Wordsworth came into being because of some deeply entrenched misconceptions, which date back to his reception in the nineteenth century. The poet of the ‘egotistical sublime’ – one who lived in ‘the busy solitude of his own heart’, seeing ‘nothing but himself and the universe’ – was a straw man set up for adversarial purposes, and it is high time we dispensed with him. As I hope my book shows, WW was a poet of community, who believed with his sister that ‘we have all of us one human heart’.
What advice would you give to a young person who was debating whether or not to apply for a Ph.D. program in literature?
Think long and hard before you make this choice. You have to be outstandingly determined, ambitious, and focused on academic goals if you are going to make it in a ferociously competitive market. There may be better ways to develop your capabilities. By ‘better’ I mean more life-enhancing, more conducive to happiness – your own and others’. If you want to teach, be sure that you choose the kind of teaching that will best suit your temperament. If you want to write, be sure that it is academic writing you want to do. Above all else, make sure that you do not lose touch with your humanity and creativity, which are among the most important gifts you have.
Why should we read Wordsworth?
Because he wrote the following definition of what a poet can and should be; and because the body of work he produced collaboratively with his sister bears out the truth of this definition:
“[The poet] is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.”
Lucy Newlyn is a scholar-critic, a poet, a literary biographer, an editor, and an anthologist — but above all else a teacher. She read English at Oxford University, going on to hold lectureships at various Oxford colleges before being elected to a Tutorial Fellowship at St Edmund Hall in 1986, where she has remained throughout her career. She gained the title Professor of English Language and Literature in 2005, and in the same year became an Honorary Professor at the University of Aberystwyth. She is an Advisory Editor of the journal Romanticism, a Fellow of the English Association, and a Patron of the Wordsworth Trust.
Newlyn is an authority on Wordsworth and Coleridge, and has published extensively in the field of English Romantic literature, including three books with Oxford University Press and the Cambridge Companion to Coleridge. Her book Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay prize in 2001: ‘a signal contribution to British Romantic studies and literary theory.’ More recently, she has been working on the prose of Edward Thomas. She co-edited Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry with Guy Cuthbertson; and she is general co-editor of Edward Thomas, Selected Prose Writings, a six-volume edition for Oxford University Press. She is also a published poet. Her first collection, Ginnel, was published in 2005 with Carcanet; and her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and poetry magazines. She is Literary Editor of the Oxford Magazine, and she also runs an online Writers’ Forum for students, staff and alumni of her college.
When I was working as a literary agent, I was connected with Rachel Adams via an old friend of mine from Yale grad school, Columbia professor and writer Jenny Davidson. Jenny is one of the most brilliant people I know, plus she has great taste, so Rachel’s manuscript got bumped to the top of my To Read list. Thankfully, I loved it. Rachel and I had many conversations and editing sessions over email, and eventually I sold her brave, wise, and touching memoir, Raising Henry, to Yale University Press, but we never met in person until she invited me to discuss The Anti-Romantic Child with her students at Columbia last spring. I’m thrilled that Raising Henry has now been published; here’s the description from the publisher:
Rachel Adams’s life had always gone according to plan. She had an adoring husband, a beautiful two-year-old son, a sunny Manhattan apartment, and a position as a tenured professor at Columbia University. Everything changed with the birth of her second child, Henry. Just minutes after he was born, doctors told her that Henry had Down syndrome, and she knew that her life would never be the same. In this honest, self-critical, and surprisingly funny book, Adams chronicles the first three years of Henry’s life and her own transformative experience of unexpectedly becoming the mother of a disabled child. A highly personal story of one family’s encounter with disability, Raising Henry is also an insightful exploration of today’s knotty terrain of social prejudice, disability policy, genetics, prenatal testing, medical training, and inclusive education. Adams untangles the contradictions of living in a society that is more enlightened and supportive of people with disabilities than ever before, yet is racing to perfect prenatal tests to prevent children like Henry from being born.
And as Rachel and I have become friends and mutual admirers, so have our younger sons. Five-year-old Henry and eleven-year-old James attend the same school, and James is simply enchanted with Henry: seeing Henry is a highlight of his day, he includes Henry in his nightly prayers, Henry’s being able to attend his school was one of two things he said he was most thankful for at our Thanksgiving dinner. And so my questions to Rachel are followed by James’ questions to Henry and to Rachel. Post a comment and be entered in a drawing to win a copy of Rachel’s wonderful book!
BY PRISCILLA FOR RACHEL:
1) Tell me about your son.
What I most want your readers to know is that to say Henry has Down syndrome reveals so little about who he is and what makes him tick. Henry is an adorable, vibrant, funny five-year-old boy. He loves pretzels, chocolate, ice cream, and spaghetti. He loves to watch episodes from the original Muppet Show, which he can recite word-for-word, acting them out with a puppet on each hand. Henry’s favorite person is his big brother Noah, who he thinks is the most interesting, talented, hilarious boy around. He has a great sense of humor and a big, joyful laugh. He thinks every cause for celebration is a birthday. If I have to go out of town, when I get home he runs into my arms shouting “happy birthday, mom!”
2) Tell us about your academic work and how it prepared you to be Henry’s mother.
Becoming Henry’s mother was a humbling experience because I realized that nothing about my academic work had prepared me to care for him. That said, I did have more resources than most parents who learn that their new baby has Down syndrome because I had spent much of my career studying the history and culture of disability. I had a lot of friends who were professors of disability studies, and they sustained me during the anxious and stressful first weeks and months of Henry’s life. Because of my research, I also had a head start on finding resources to educate myself about Down syndrome. But whatever help I got from my background in disability studies, more important was the fact that having Henry in my life has transformed my understanding of what it means to be disabled and the kind of work I want to do in disability studies. Henry has taught me so much, and I look forward to continuing to learn from him as he grows and develops.
3) What types of therapy or therapeutic approaches have most helped Henry?
Before Henry was born, I had never heard of the Early Intervention program. In the weeks after his birth, I was amazed to discover that New York State, where we live, was home to one of the best Early Intervention programs in the country, offering children diagnosed with developmental delays ages 0-3 therapeutic support to help them reach their full potential, while educating their families about how best to care for them (all paid for by the state). This program, which offered Henry speech, occupational, and physical therapy, as well as a special educator and a social worker for our family, made an immeasurable difference in lessening Henry’s developmental delays. I can’t speak highly enough of the talented, patient, resourceful, and generous therapists who came to our home to work with Henry and educate our family. Early Intervention is such a remarkable resource to families across the income spectrum, and I am dismayed to see it being gradually eroded by short-sighted budget cuts. We need to urge our legislators to do what they can to protect this valuable and endangered resource for the generation of children coming along behind Henry and his peers, and to preserve the dignity and well-being of the amazing therapists who offer their services through the program.
4) What is the worst, most misguided, offensive, or otherwise disturbing statement you’ve ever read or heard about Down Syndrome?
Henry is a charming, delightful person and we have been lucky to find ourselves surrounded by very supportive people who have embraced him and recognized his worth as a person. Looking at the wider world, I am sometimes appalled by the ignorance and misunderstanding of what it means to live with Down syndrome. Instead of sharing a statement, I will share a situation: the wrongful death of Robert Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome who was killed by security guards attempting to restrain him when he refused to leave a movie theater after a screening of Zero Dark Thirty. Saylor’s death had everything to do with the lack of education and training offered to security guards, police officers, and others entrusted with public safety about how to deal with people with intellectual disabilities.
5) If you were invited to speak to a group of typically developing children of your son’s age in order to educate them about Down Syndrome, what would you want to tell them?
The most important thing I would want them to know is that Henry is mostly a kid just like other kids. He goes to school, has favorite foods and activities, and loves to spend time with his friends and family. Henry is likely to be able to do many of the same things as his brother, but he will probably do them more slowly. He is still learning to read. He can talk but sometimes it is hard to understand what he’s saying. And he needs help with doing things like getting dressed, putting on his shoes, and brushing his teeth.
6) What is Henry’s biggest fear or source of anxiety? What helps him cope with it?
Henry really is not a fearful person, sometimes to a fault. He loves new people and experiences and needs to be watched carefully because he does not know to be afraid of dangers like traffic, strange dogs, or subway platforms. That said, Henry can be overwhelmed by very loud, crowded places. In those situations, he will often turn to his puppets. Having a puppet on each hand and making them talk to each other is his way of tuning out an unwelcome situation.
Henry also hates to have his hair cut or his ears examined and cleaned at the doctor. For much of his life, we have just let him scream and cry through those situations. But as he grows up, we are more able to talk about what’s happening and prepare him with a conversation or social story. We are lucky that Henry is a very resilient person. No matter how awful the experience, he thinks it is hilarious to tell the story of it afterwards, acting out the parts where he screams and cries over and over again.
7) What is your biggest fear about Henry’s future?
As people with Down syndrome live longer and—due to better therapy, education, and health care–become more capable, I know they can experience loneliness and frustration. Being able to do so many of the things that typical adults can do makes them all the more aware of the ways their lives are limited, perhaps by not being able to drive, form intimate relationships, or find satisfying jobs. As we push Henry to develop to his full potential, I also worry that the more capable he is the more he might see how his life is less full than other adults.
8) What is your greatest hope about Henry’s future?
On the flip side of what I just said, I hope Henry will develop to his full potential and that will allow him to live a full, satisfying life—whatever that means for him—surrounded by people who love and support him. I’ve learned not to measure my hopes for Henry’s future by the conventional yardsticks and look forward to helping him find a life that allows him to flourish in whatever ways are right for his abilities and desires.
9) How is parenting a child with Down Syndrome like and unlike parenting a typically developing child?
The best advice I got just after Henry was born was from the author Michael Berube, whose son Jamie (also with Down syndrome) was 16 at the time. Michael reminded me that Henry was a baby first, regardless of diagnosis. One of the saddest misunderstandings held by expecting parents is the fear that their experience of raising a child with Down syndrome will somehow be lessened or ruined. Since I also have a typical child, I think I have a good basis to compare and can say that our experience of parenting Henry has been similar in so many ways—we feel the same love for him, the same joys and frustrations. We celebrate his accomplishments, try to work through his difficulties, and get just as mad when he does naughty things like writing on the couch or hitting his brother.
That said, Henry’s disability is real. His development is delayed and this means he is more dependent than a typical child. At age 6, he still needs us to help him get dressed and undressed, brush his teeth, and go to the bathroom. He is likely to wander off, so he needs to be watched closely. And because it is harder to understand his speech, we don’t have as much verbal communication with him as with his brother. He has also grown up surrounded by therapists and other adults working on his development. This means that his childhood has been more managed than that of a typical child and that we have spent more time contending with experts who have ideas about how we should be raising Henry. I’m not complaining: I’ve come to the conclusion that in an ideal world, all parents would have Early Intervention, regardless of whether their children are delayed.
10) What one thing can anyone do to help support people with Down Syndrome and make our society a more congenial place for them?
Support the right of pregnant women to complete and unbiased information about prenatal testing and its implications. I am a strong supporter of reproductive freedom. All women should have the right to abort a pregnancy for any reason. That said, I believe that much of the misinformation and prejudice about Down syndrome starts with pregnancy, an experience shared by the majority of women which is the primary (and often only) place that most people encounter information about genetic disabilities. When healthcare providers offer women limited and biased information about prenatal genetic testing, they stack the deck against people with Down syndrome and other genetic conditions. Bad information pushes more women toward abortion, and it also creates prejudices against people with Down syndrome and their families. As prenatal testing becomes increasingly widespread, safe, and earlier in the pregnancy, it is crucial that all women be given the most thorough and impartial information possible about why these tests are administered and what the results mean.
11) What are some other books about parenting children with special needs that you’ve found especially moving and meaningful?
I love The Anti-Romantic Child, and I’m not just saying that because this is your site! As a fellow scholar of literature, I loved the way it uses poetry to illuminate the story of Benj’s arrival. I also think it draws attention to a little known but significant form of disability, which is what made it meaningful to so many parents. I also love Michael Berube’s Life as We Know It, which was such an important source of wisdom and comfort when Henry was born.
Other really great ones: George Estreich’s The Shape of the Eye, Kensaburo Oe’s A Healing Family, Ralph James Savarese’s Reasonable People, Ian Brown’s Boy in the Moon, Penny Wolfson’s Moonrise: One Family, Genetic Identity, and Muscular Dystrophy, and Eva Feder Kittay’s Love’s Labor. There are also some really great essays out there that deserve mention. My favorites are Chris Gabbard’s “A Life Beyond Reason” and Marie Myong-Ok Lee’s “What My Son’s Disabilities Taught Me About Having It All.”
12) How can we make our educational system and our colleges/universities more accessible to students with disabilities or developmental disorders?
I am encouraged by the growth of programs that allow students with intellectual disabilities to attend college, and by legislation passed very recently that allows them to take out student loans. These programs can be very expensive. I hope that if they continue to increase and compete with one another, the prices might go down. What most professors don’t realize is that having students with intellectual disabilities on campus is a benefit because they can push us to think about ways to make our teaching more accessible. There are now many campuses that promote the principles of Universal Design for Learning not just for students with intellectual and learning disabilities, but for other kinds of non-traditional students like veterans, the elderly, and immigrants who speak first languages other than English. In the same way that we now install ramps and chirping traffic lights to accommodate people with physical disabilities, colleges and universities are just starting to think about diversifying the ways information is presented, the kinds of work assigned, and expectations about classroom behavior in light of a growing population of students with intellectual and learning disabilities, as well as on the autism spectrum. I would also love to see more attention paid to how to include such students more fully in the social and extra-curricular life of colleges and universities.
QUESTIONS BY JAMES, 11 Years Old
FOR HENRY FROM JAMES: What do you like about school? I like the snakes. Who’s your favorite Muppet Friend and why? I love Miss Piggy! She is terrific. What do you like to eat at lunch? Hamburgers What do you like to do for fun? I like to play with puppet friends.
FOR RACHEL FROM JAMES: Was it hard to write your book?
It is always hard to write a book, but this was the easiest book I have ever written. This is because the story I wanted to tell felt so important and I enjoyed doing a more personal kind of writing. I wanted my book to be finished so that I could share it with the world! Were you sad when Henry was diagnosed with a disability?
Yes I was, and (because we learned about his diagnosis so quickly) I am sad that the day Henry was born was filled with worry instead of celebration. I want to help new parents who come along behind me to celebrate the birth of children with Down syndrome, just like we celebrate the birth of any other child. What do you like to do with Henry?
I love to read books to Henry. I also like to cook with him (we make gluten free banana bread), and to take him to school on the bus. What is hard for you or Henry about his going to school?
As you know, Henry just started kindergarten. We love our new school so much that everything seems easy! Our teachers are so creative and welcoming, the other kids love Henry, and we have enjoyed meeting other parents. That said, it is sometimes difficult for Henry to participate in group activities and to stay focused on his work. We feel good that his teachers are working on helping him to face these challenges.
Rachel Adams is professor of English and American studies at Columbia University, where she is also director of the Future of Disability Studies Project. She is the author of Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Adams lives with her husband and two sons in New York City.
Dr. Mitchell Gaynor is a board certified medical oncologist, internist and hematologist and the Founder and President of Gaynor Integrative Oncology. Currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Gaynor also served as the medical director and director of medical oncology at the Weill Cornell Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine.
Dr. Gaynor has served on the Executive Review Panel at the Department of Defense – Alternative Medicine for Breast Cancer Sector- and the Smithsonian Institute’s Symposium on New Frontiers in Breast Cancer and the Environment. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer at hospitals, conferences, and universities throughout America and abroad and the author of five books, including two on the therapeutic use of sound and music.
Gaynor Integrative Oncology allows patients to integrate state-of-the-art allopathic medicine with nutrition and mind-body techniques, which Dr. Gaynor has pioneered. The practice also provides music-based meditation sessions and educational conferences for music therapy, yoga, chi-gong, and other alternative therapy instruction. Patients may participate in both group classes as well as see individual practitioners. Patients can thus incorporate meditation, healing sounds, guided imagery, and cognitive behavioral therapy, in concert with activities such as restorative physical therapy, aerobic exercise, chi-gong as well as botanical and nutritional counseling. This integrative program is the foundation for creating a healing partnership between doctor and patient. The latest addition to the healing arsenal is Crystal Sonic Therapy, which Dr Gaynor presented on the Dr Oz show this July.
I can personally testify that Dr Gaynor is an extraordinary doctor and visionary healer. His brilliance, compassion, and dedication have helped several members of my family who either have been diagnosed with cancer or are genetically predisposed to it. In addition, Dr. Gaynor’s sound healing CDs have been invaluable to me in coping with stress, insomnia, and creative blocks; I use them frequently to soothe, galvanize, and motivate me. I’m delighted that Dr. Gaynor has agreed to answer my questions about the CDs and to give free copies of the CDs to one lucky commenter!
How did you become interested in sound as a healing modality? And what specifically inspired and motivated you to create these CDs?
The CDs are the result of decades exploring the science and history of sound and music and healing. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was six years old and succumbed to the disease when I was nine years old. Her last two wishes were for my father to buy me a piano and to make sure I took piano lessons. I studied classical piano and progressed rapidly, playing in competitions and eventually learning music composition. Many nights after my mother’s death, the only way I could get to sleep was by composing music in my mind in order to drift off. I would then play the music and write it the following morning. However, by the time I was 14 years old, I had decided on a career in medicine and gave up playing the piano so I could focus on my math and science courses.
Many years later, I was given a Tibetan metal singing bowl by a Tibetan monk who was a patient in the early 1990s. These bowls are made of between seven and nine different metals, each vibrating at a different frequency. The effect is like church bells ringing simultaneously. I was struck by how the sound was felt throughout my body. I had been using guided imagery, yoga breathing, and meditation with my patients for years. I began combining these singing bowls with those techniques and the results were accelerated and more profound for patients. I began to travel to India to study yoga breathing, chanting and Indian music. I also started a charity that eventually funded two hospitals and an orphanage in the school in a very poor part of southern India. I then started using quartz crystal singing bowls that can be tuned to any frequency with great accuracy. They can be combined with precious metals such as gold and platinum as well as other minerals such as ruby and emerald.
I wrote The Healing Power of Sound, published by Shambala in 2002. I also made several CDs incorporating music therapy, Tibetan and quartz crystal singing bowls, guided meditation, and yoga breathing instruction. I called this music Crystal Sonic therapy.
The son of one of my patients, Jon Regen, recently composed a song written for his father called “Stay.” The song referred to his father having been given a terminal prognosis after being diagnosed with two cancers presenting simultaneously. The father had a connection to Dr. Oz who subsequently referred the patient to me. The patient was able to have successful surgery for both malignancies and is currently in complete remission. Jon wrote the song about the entire transformative experience in which his father was initially treated like a nameless number but was ultimately considered as a human being with a problem that required solutions and compassion. I hoped at the time that I would be able to make an album with Jon one day.
In March I received a call from a producer at the Dr. Oz show inviting me to appear as the expert on Crystal Sonic therapy. I thought to myself: “this is the opportunity to create an album with Jon.” I made the call to him and we soon begin working on “Change Your Mind,” which we created in under 24 hours. The harmony and resonance of the way we composed and played music was amazing! We subsequently composed two more albums, “Uplift” and “Peaceful Sleep.”
I continued the creative process and the joy of playing piano and keyboard returned. I had not played since I was 14 years old. I composed and performed 18 more songs for three albums: “Crystal Sonic Sound Sleep”, “Crystal Sonic Clear Focus”, and “Crystal Sonic Sampler.” For the last three CDs, I recorded the crystal bowls into a synthesizer and performed and wrote melodies using about 30 different bowls. I combined these with live natural sounds of quartz crystal singing bowls, nature sounds involving water, and a type of Indian drum called the tabla. The bowls used were from the “alchemy set” made by Crystal tones. They contained everything from gold, platinum, and Ruby, to rare earth minerals like kunzite and azetolite.
How do you incorporate these CDs and other kinds of sound healing into your practice?
I currently do meditation groups several times per month with my patients. During these groups, I play several of the quartz crystal singing bowls for taking the patients through guided meditation using imagery and yoga breathing which I studied in India. I also have a bio sonic machine- its use was demonstrated on Dr. Oz. I use this with each patient during initial consultations and follow up office visits. This machine allows the listener to hear music via headphones and experience music as vibration via a cushion which converts the music to corresponding vibrations. This cushion is moved over the heart and belly so that the listener has a whole new appreciation for music as harmonic vibration.
What are some sounds that are particularly aversive or detrimental to the immune system?
The human body is 60% water which is an excellent conductive medium for sound and vibration. Professor Emoto in Japan has done studies using x-ray crystallography which demonstrated that when water freezes its crystalline structure is influenced by sounds in the environment. Harmonious sounds yield crystals which are beautiful hexagons whereas disruptive sounds containing disharmony (yelling or cursing) yield crystals which have dysmorphic irregular shapes. One could presume that our bodies have been influenced by disharmony in our environment and our lives. We know from the field of neuro-cardiology that our heart rate variability changes with our emotional states. Stress causes a higher heart rate variability which is associated with decreased coherence in our brainwave patterns. This means that the hemispheres in our brain can either work in harmony or not. The electro magnetic field generated by the human heart is 5000 times stronger than that generated by the brain. This is why you can put electrodes on the wrists and ankles and see a nice clear EKG tracing; however with the electrodes placed on the skull you see only a very small EEG tracing. Therefore it is the heart that entrains the brain, not vice versa. Entrainment is a concept that was demonstrated by the 17th-century physicist, Huydgens. He studied pendulums hanging from clocks on a wall. He noted that the larger pendulum would entrain the smaller pendulums. The net effect would be that the pendulum motions would be equal and opposite so that enough that they “canceled each other out.” This is an example of nature moving toward harmony. I believe it is important for all of us to “re-tune” ourselves every day using Crystal Sonic therapy.
Who are some of your favorite musicians and what are some of your favorite styles and/or pieces of music?
“Have I Told You Lately” By Van Morrison and “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton are two of my favorite popular songs. The emotional intensity, love, and devotion are conveyed in both the words and melodies. “Stay” by Jon Regen is similar in style. John Lennon’s “Imagine” also ranks high amongst my favorites as does George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” In addition, I love Indian devotional chanting and music, and I have been influenced by the work of Philip Glass. The classical music that I began playing at age 9 is still a big part of my music library and includes Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart.
What are some other creative projects that you have in the works?
I am currently working on a new book which is almost complete called Dr. Gaynor’s Eco-Genetic Diet. It is a book about how micronutrients in our diet can affect gene expression. We are born with the genes that are given to us but the expression of those genes can change throughout our lives depending upon the nutrients as well as the toxins that we are exposed to. I was at Rockefeller University as part of my post-doctoral training studying nutrient gene interactions and the immune system. I was amazed at the fact that we really “are what we eat” and that with the best medical training in the world, nobody had ever taught me this. I embarked on a career combining genomics (toxicogenomics and nutritional genomics) with medical oncology and cancer prevention.
The concept of homeostasis and harmony applies equally to the mind-body aspect of my work as well as the nutritional. The endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems all must be functioning in harmony for optimal health. However, when one or more of these come out of harmony, disease results. Therefore, the foods we put in our body are as important for “re-tuning” as listening to Crystal Sonic therapy.
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