Celebrating the talented and award-winning novelist, Mitchell James Kaplan …



When I first heard all the terrific buzz about Mitchell’s book, By Fire, By Water, I knew I had to read it. What I didn’t know was that I would fall in love with the story and the writing, and then actually meet Mitchell via social networking. The intensity in Mitchell’s face is more than just a look caught on camera, it reveals the soul of a master researcher. Writing historical fiction can be daunting, and far too often details are either simplified or inaccurate—but not so with Mitchell’s stunning debut. By Fire, By Water is masterfully crafted and painstakingly researched. The characters have breath and blood and believability, and the imagery is vivid. I urge you to read it and see what I mean.


As if being an award-winning writer isn’t enough, Mitchell is also a pilot, screenwriter, and a classical and jazz flautist.


I recently invited Mitchell to be my guest on Bravo, and I’m delighted that he accepted. So please welcome the very talented Mitchell James Kaplan as he shares his thoughts on a thought-provoking topic.



Fiction and Empathy




Thank you so much, Beth, for having me on your wonderful blog. I feel honored.


The other day a college student asked me, “What, in your opinion, is the most important personal quality a writer can possess?”


I might have replied, “The ability to work hard without a boss,” or “a love of words.” Those qualities are certainly important, even necessary. What I said, though, was “empathy.”


He looked down, pursing his lips, and raised his eyes again. “What about Borges? What about Calvino? Are their books so full of empathy?”


“They’re more cerebral,” I admitted. “But you didn’t ask Borges. You asked me.”


“Well, what if you aren’t blessed with an extraordinary ability to empathize? Does that mean you can’t be a good writer?”


“I believe empathy is learned,” I told him


This is not an observation about psychology but about the power of the human imagination. I gave him an exercise. “Read the stories in people’s faces. You’ll discover worlds of feeling that were unfamiliar to you.”


In my view, the ability to imagine ourselves into others’ lives is what makes us human. The more we develop it, the more human we become. And just as empathy is a function of the human imagination, the failure to feel for others is a failure of the human imagination.


Computers, it can be argued, are capable of thought. They can play chess and win at “Jeopardy.” But while some clever A.I. scientist may come up with a way to simulate emotion, no one will ever convince me that computers are capable of compassion. That’s because computers have no imagination.


When Shakespeare, through the mouth of Hamlet, tells us that the purpose of theater is to “hold a mirror up to nature,” he is stating an aesthetic credo. The point of the play, and more generally of narrative, is not to call attention to the writer’s style or cleverness. It is to depict the world, and more specifically, the human world. (By “nature,” Shakespeare did not mean waterfalls and national parks.) The Bard knew that imagination and emotion, as well as intellect, are the salient features of that human landscape. Just think of his characters – Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet. All of them possess prodigious imaginative, intellectual, and emotional resources. That is what makes them memorable.


The novel is the greatest tool mankind has devised for developing the ability to empathize. Charles Dickens knew this. Writing about the condition of the poor in nineteenth century England, bringing his characters to life with emotion as well as intellect, he changed the world. For the middle class, the downtrodden became not just others, but full-blooded human beings. Changes in the economic and legal structures of British society ensued.


Similarly, Doestoevsky and Tolstoy humanized the Russian other for Western Europe. More recently, Mishima, Kawabata, and Arthur Golden opened windows onto the Japanese soul. Through literary characters, cultures and subcultures communicate their humanity. While envy, greed, and ignorance may bring us to the brink of war, our literary conversation delivers understanding and, in the best circumstances, peace.


In America today, novels continue to educate and entertain by extending our ability to feel for others whose lives might seem impossibly different or remote. What is it like to grow up as the daughter of people who, due to mental illness or just plain meanness, are incapable of love? Is there hope for such a girl? Beth Hoffman leads us into that girl’s world in her enchanting “Saving CeeCee Honeycut.” Why did a powerful Spanish courtier, who faced enormous personal issues, decide to risk his reputation and career by financing Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery in 1492? I have tried to recreate that courtier’s world in my first novel, “By Fire, By Water.”


When I read certain eighteenth and nineteenth century authors – for example, Austen, Dickens, or Hardy – I have the impression that either people felt more deeply in those days or writers were less afraid to emphasize their characters’ emotions. While I would hesitate to explain this using cliches about so-called movements like Romanticism or Modernism, I think it would be fair to say that during the first part of the twentieth century, an emphasis on irony became fashionable while strongly empathetic characters fell into disfavor. This change was in part a healthy reaction to “sentimentalism.”



Sentimentalism is not the same thing as empathy. Sentimentalism is simplistic and inauthentic. Human lives are rich, complex, and ultimately unfathomable.


We fancy ourselves rational, but a great deal of what we feel and do is not governed by rules of logic. Our emotions – our longings, anxieties, and moments of ecstatic contemplation – seem to spring from somewhere deeper or higher or elsewhere. Why, after all, do humans feel love or depression? In a perfectly rational world, all the biologically necessary functions (eating, reproducing, etc.) could take place without any subjective experience at all. The challenge, for the novelist, is to convey the vast tangle of human experience even while molding it within a dramatic structure that gives it shape and suggests meaning.




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Please visit Mitchell’s website HERE.

You can also find him on Twitter @mitchelljkaplan and on Facebook.




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Celebrating bestselling novelist and friend, Jenna Blum …

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I think it’s fair to say that the name Jenna Blum is familiar to many. Jenna is the New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us. And her latest release, The Stormchasers, is garnering widespread praise. Sharp, witty, lovely and generous, Jenna is, in a nutshell, a dynamo. And it’s a good thing she has so much energy because Jenna divides her time between between Boston, where she runs master novel workshops for Grub Street Writers, and Minnesota, where she writes in the town where her mother and grandmother were born.


In celebration of the launch of The Stormchasers in paperback, Jenna accepted my invitation to stop by Brava, and I’m so glad she did! So please welcome Jenna as she shares some important thoughts.






Last week marked the paperback launch of my second novel, THE STORMCHASERS.  A big day, to be sure.  My friends, publisher, fellow writers Facebooked the occasion, blogged about it, Tweeted and ReTweeted it.  I did some online and radio interviews. I had my first Twitterview.  I enjoyed every single second of this, as I enjoy all my time spent engaged in social media.  Yet part of me was looking over my shoulder, wondering: Is the book out yet?  Is it really out?


Eleven months ago, when THE STORMCHASERS was published in hardcover—May 27, 2010, a date I have emblazoned on my soul and also on a bumper sticker I display on my Jeep—I had a huge party.  I mean, huge.  It was like a wedding, or maybe like that Tom Sawyer funeral you dream of having because everyone you love in the world is there—and you just happen to be alive for it.  I planned the ‘CHASERS launch for weeks.  I flew people in from out of town.  I imported real stormchasers, my teachers and mentors, my storm family from the Plains, and made them wear special STORMCHASERS t-shirts so readers could pick them out of the crowd and ask questions. There were 500 people at the launch reading.  There were cheese curds with BBQ sauce at the party.  There were Dark & Stormies at the party.  There were Cherry Mash Martinis at the out-of-towners brunch the next morning.  My hair and ego reached new and astonishing heights.


There was also a very important, quiet moment the morning of the launch, before my hair had been teased to cumulonimbus proportions, before I greeted my family and friends and got to put on and enjoy the show.  I went to my local Boston BORDERS and there, on the New Hardcover Fiction table, was my book.


I picked it up, cradled it, smiled at it while drinking my coffee.  I had it. I held it in my hands.  It was real.


Like most writers, I get advance comp copies of my novel before it hits the shelves, so there is a little time to acclimate to this miracle, to put it on the shelf in my apartment and circle it and look at it over and over.  To undress it by taking its beautifully designed jacket off and look at the covers, the stitching, my initials on the front and the title and publisher’s mark on the spine.  To make myself cry once again over the dedication.  To open it to whatever page and marvel and say to myself, “Oh, yeah, I remember writing that line.  And now—it’s in a BOOK.  Wow.”


Still, this could be one of those weird miracles that happens to you when you write.  As in, sometimes a line descends upon you out of nowhere, inspiration that feels like grace.  Sure.  So why wouldn’t a box of books with your name on it, containing words you wrote, just appear at your apartment?  Sure, that could happen, too.


Seeing THE STORMCHASERS in a bookstore, though.  That meant other people could see it too.  And pick it up and buy it and read it.  That made it real.


I am now looking at the beautiful paperback STORMCHASERS on my shelves.  I’ve had some time to get used to it.  I’ve put the cover on my website, on my Facebook page, Tweeted about it, introduced it to friends and family and readers whose interest I am grateful for every day, whose comments sometimes make me sink to my knees, quite literally, in gratitude.  I’ve become addicted to the trailer for it.  (And I love that we live in a day and age when books have their own trailers, like movies.)




When I came back to Boston from my last promotional tour, driving around Tornado Alley doing ‘CHASERS readings, I went to get my coffee at my local café and saw something that froze me in mid-step, in horror and dismay.


My local BORDERS, across the street from the café, was gone.


The BORDERS I had first seen THE STORMCHASERS in, and my first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US, too.  The BORDERS that had featured THOSE WHO SAVE US as a Book Club Pick, a 2-for-1 Buy. The BORDERS whose staff had politely ignored me when every day, sometimes in gym clothes, sometimes in a “disguise” of dress and heels, I moved my books to prominent positions on the front tables.  The BORDERS I visited whenever I felt blue and wanted to reassure myself not only with the new adventure, the time-travel transport, promised by buying a new novel, but by being in the company of other people who loved books.  Other people wandering through the stacks with that bemused, distracted, I’m-willing-to-be-in-love expression.  Other people like me.


Seeing that BORDERS gone was like waking up and looking in the mirror one morning and finding one of your front teeth was permanently missing.


I should make one thing perfectly clear:  I am a GINORMOUS fan of social media.  I have had vehement, bordering-on-violent discussions with friends who believe social media is a waste of time at best and a menace to our collective human soul at worst.  It’s true that about Facebook and Twitter, as with most things, I was initially a Luddite.  I threw myself around proclaiming I would never use them.  Never, ever, ever!  Then, when my curiosity got the better of me, I ventured into the virtual realm and became an instant addict.  Now I Facebook and Tweet all the time.  I advisedly use these words as verbs, along with “Friend” and “RT.”  I could even fairly be called a Social Media Ho.  Why?  Not just because of the promotional aspect, although that is invaluable. What a great way to meet other writers, to find readers, to spread the word about books I love, including my own!  Yet also, I travel 300 out of 365 days of the year, and that is a conservative estimate.  There have been times, sitting in a hotel room in Long Island or Wichita or Dallas or Georgia, that I forget what state I’m in.  I feel far away from the people who love me, whom I love.  I feel untethered.  Except voila, if I go on Facebook or Twitter and tell the people there about the cool/ moving/ bizarre/ hilarious things I’ve seen that day, suddenly my iPhone starts chirping in my back pocket.  There it is, my community.  There I am, tethered.


And, increasingly, when I arrive at readings, the people there are my Facebook and Twitter friends, miraculously materialized in three dimensions.


I am more grateful for this than I can say.  As a pragmatist and as a fan, I accept that virtual communication is the primary way of the future. Digital books may indeed replace actual books, if not in my lifetime—and I certainly hope not—then in our children’s lifetime, or our grandchildren’s lifetime.  The print word may go the way of the typewriter or the record player.  And does it really matter?  Isn’t the important thing, as a writer, to get your ideas from here—your head—to there—your reader’s head? We write, at least I do, because we love our characters and their stories.  And in the desperate hope that somebody, someday, somewhere reads those characters and stories. Does it matter if they do so on a Kindle or in a book?  Does it matter whether they buy the book online or in a store?


It matters.


To me, it matters.


I am the kind of person who still has her dad’s typewriter on a shelf in the study.  Who still has all her vinyl, despite her mom saying, “What do you want to keep all THOSE old RECORDS for?”  (The 80s, man!)  I remember sitting in my childhood bookstore in Montclair, New Jersey, cross-legged on the floor, chin in hand.  Lost in hours of delicious, dreamy contemplation as I decided which book I’d buy with my allowance that week, what adventure I would take.


Moreover, all I ever wanted to do was write books.  I’ve wanted this since I was 4.  I’ve since spent over 3 decades trying to be good enough, to write things worthy enough, of getting them into print.  Print.  Meaning, if I worked hard enough, if I dreamt and worked and wrote and rewrote and polished and submitted and was rejected and submitted more and tried tried again, someday my words would be worthy of going from here—my head—onto paper.  With ink on it.  Between covers.  With a gorgeous jacket on the covers.  And from there to readers’ minds.


Now, I am trying to face the prospect of that print medium no longer existing.  If not now,  soon.  How, then, will I know my words are worthy enough for my readers?  After a lifetime of trying to earn the right to go through the my-head/ book/ readers’ heads prism, in a world when anyone can say anything online, how will I know I am worthy of being a writer?


That’s what bookstores, and books, mean to me.


Social media is here to stay.  I accept that.  I embrace it.  Celebrate it, even.  And I hope to see you online.


But please, folks, buy books, too.  Support your bookstores.  If only so people like me will know that when their books launch, in the real world as well as the virtual forest, they will make a sound.







Please visit Jenna’s website HERE.

You can also find her on Twitter @jenna_blum and on Facebook.

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Celebrating Jael McHenry and the launch of her debut novel …


I’m delighted to be featuring Jael McHenry on Brava today. In her novel The Kitchen Daughter, Jael has cleverly combined her love of the written word and cooking to create a highly origial story that’s already garnering praise. Jael is lovely, smart and talented, and she’s written a terrific book that I encourage you to pick up … immediately!


Jael blogs about food and cooking at the Simmer blog, and she is a monthly pop culture columnist and Editor-in-Chief of Intrepid Media, online at So please welcome Jael as she shares tidbits about the creation of her novel.


Cooking and connecting in The Kitchen daughter


When I write, I steal from life. Shamelessly. Joyfully. As a writer, I want to create something that feels completely compelling and real even though it didn’t happen. So even though it’s not autobiographical, The Kitchen Daughter is a novel that draws heavily on my life and my world and the things that are important to me.


The recipes that mean the most to me are family recipes, and I have very strong and powerful associations with those particular dishes – potato-and-cheese pierogi from the Ukrainian side of the family, Cornish pasties from the English side, and biscuits with sausage gravy, which is a family recipe from my Grandma McHenry, and that one’s actually in the book. There are 10 recipes in the The Kitchen Daughter, and it’s hard to say whether the characters or the recipes came first. They sort of developed together. But food really suffuses the whole novel – Ginny filters nearly everything through the lens of food, so she’ll describe how someone’s voice sounds like tomato juice, or their breath smells like bean water, and I don’t think I could have done that so thoroughly if I weren’t completely in love with food myself.


The idea about the food bringing the ghosts back came to me one day in the kitchen, which seems fitting, right? The sensory experience of cooking – the smells, the tastes – is so powerful, it made perfect sense to me that it could literally bring back the dead. Whenever I talk to people about the idea of ghosts being drawn to the kitchen by the smell of a certain dish, they almost always have a story for me about a particular dish they love, and it’s usually a family recipe. They’ll cook something, like their mom’s spaghetti sauce or their grandmother’s coconut cake, and they say it feels like that person is there in the kitchen with them. So in Ginny’s case I just made it literal. She starts out cooking in order to comfort herself, making her grandmother’s ribollita, which is an Italian bread soup. And her grandmother’s ghost shows up, with a cryptic warning for her, and when the smell of the food fades she fades too. Then when Ginny realizes that she can bring these ghosts back by cooking from their recipes, she has to decide whether that’s something she wants to do on purpose.


Ginny has Asperger’s syndrome, so she’s on the autism spectrum, which makes it hard for her to read social cues and body language. So she’s very isolated. In the beginning of the book, she uses cooking only as a way of calming herself. She likes to follow recipes, going step by step by step, and that’s soothing to her. For me, cooking is such a wonderful way of connecting with other people, I wanted to create this character who had never used food to connect before. It’s completely inward-focused. But can she use this same gift, this same passion, to focus outward and make connections with people outside her family? That’s one of the key questions in the book.



Please visit Jael’s website HERE.

You can also find her on Twitter @jaelmchenry and on Facebook.


Celebrating talented debut novelist, Kelly O’Connor McNees …

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We all know that talent and kindness don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but debut novelist Kelly O’Connor McNees has plenty of both. The kindness is easily recognizable on her lovely face, and to enjoy her talents, I encourage you to pick up her novel The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. Kelly, a former editorial assistant and English teacher, has created a clever mix fact and fiction in her debut by imagining what might have transpired in a summer lost to Louisa May Alcott’s history.

In 2010 Kelly realized a dream when her novel released in hardcover, and today she is here to celebrate the launch of her book in paperback! So please welcome Kelly as she shares the story behind the story …

Searching for the “real” Louisa May Alcott

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott imagines a fictional affair between this beloved writer and a young man named Joseph Singer, who would later inspire the character of Laurie in Little Women. But that’s just the novel’s premise. That’s not the big idea behind it.

Louisa May Alcott was a complex, passionate, and ambitious woman who is remembered for a single novel she wrote in 1868. Written for young readers, Little Women tells the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, whose father is away in the Civil War serving as a chaplain. As the story unfolds, the girls come of age under the wise and gentle eye of their mother Marmee. Each learns to overcome a weakness in her character, and, most famously, Alcott’s alter ego Jo finds a kindred spirit in the next-door neighbor, Teddy “Laurie” Laurence. He later asks Jo to marry him, but to most readers’ great surprise, she refuses.

A longtime admirer of Little Women, I began to read about Alcott’s life a few years ago and found myself completely engrossed by her. Very quickly I understood that I wanted to write a novel about her, but I had no idea how to do it.

The more research I did, the more apparent it became that Alcott’s voice was elusive. I realized that we take for granted the idea that we know this iconic woman—a woman who gave us a story that became an essential part of American girlhood. But it turns out we actually don’t really know her at all. I read several carefully researched biographies and found them captivating, but I couldn’t find Alcott’s voice there. Next, I turned to Alcott’s own letters and journals, and while her words offered a clearer picture, I knew it was incomplete. Alcott was famous in her own lifetime and, fearing the biographer’s eye, destroyed swaths of letters and journals.

It was through this struggle to truly see her that I came upon the question I tried to answer by writing this novel: How do we disentangle Louisa the person from Louisa May Alcott the historical icon? It’s easy to forget that she even was a real person. From 2011, we see her life story and all her accomplishments as inevitable, but I’m sure they didn’t feel inevitable to her. The 150 years of mythology between Alcott and us—the voices of academics who seek to put her in the broader context of American literary history and feminism, as well as Alcott’s own attempts to “edit” her legacy—is quite a lot for Louisa the person to carry on her shoulders. To render her in fiction, I knew I would have to try to strip all that away and get at who she was before she wrote the novel that would make her famous.

I began to imagine Louisa at twenty-two, when she was full of ambition and confidence but had received no confirmation from the world that her confidence was warranted. I pondered who she might have been then. I asked questions like, what kind of person, particularly a woman at this time, makes a conscious choice to believe in herself and try to achieve something without anyone telling her she can, or should?

She succeeded, so we say, “Of course—she knew she was destined for greatness.” But what if she had failed? Well, I wouldn’t be talking about her right now, but in some ways that is irrelevant. What interested me, as I tried to separate the woman from the icon, was not what she accomplished. It was her initial leap of faith, the decision to try to be the thing she wanted to be. That faith stemmed from something, a kind of determination, within Louisa herself. I felt if I could wrap my head around that, I had a place to begin.

Paradoxically, it seemed fiction was the only avenue through which I would be able to see her fully. And just what kind of story could I tell about this woman, a real woman holding equal parts doubt and hope, who is on the cusp but doesn’t know it yet? The answer, it seemed to me, was the commonest story of all: the euphoric and miserable experience of falling in love for the first time. For Louisa, as for many of us, this love would be a threat to life as she knew it. Whatever she did about it, whether she embraced or rejected this love, it would change her. My story, then, would be about how this love shaped her and her writing. It would be about the choices she was forced to make and how the echo of those choices might have appeared later on in Little Women.

On any given day we are, simply, the product of the choices we made on all the days that came before. Alcott’s accomplishments—writing a cherished novel, serving as a Civil War nurse and recording that experience in the fascinating Hospital Sketches, advocating for suffrage and abolition—were not ordained by history. They were not inevitable. To believe that is to deny the existence of the real woman, and the real woman is the essence of the story.

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Please visit Kelly’s website HERE.

You can also find Kelly on Twitter @komcnees

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