The Woman Who Smashed Codes: Jason Fagone on Writing

Originally Published on September 30th, 2017

Jason Fagone’s new book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, tells the remarkable story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a Quaker poet who taught herself to be a codebreaker. She was married to William Friedman, considered the godfather of the NSA. She first started solving codes to break up liquor and heroin rings back in the 1920s and became briefly famous after testifying against gangsters of the era, but then faded from public view. Over three years, Jason dug into US and UK archives archives and discovered that Elizebeth trained and led a group of codebreakers for the FBI that “wrecked the Nazi spy rings.” J. Edgar Hoover never gave Elizebeth and the team the appropriate recognition and their work was classified for years, until now.

I met Jason when he came out to West Chester Story Slam in 2015 with Chris McDougall, and Jason has become one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter (@jfagone). Jason is also the author of a book about competitive eating, appropriately titled Horsemen of the Esophagus. He has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others. I also just realized he has an occasional podcast called Kill Fee, which I have just subscribed to.

I wanted to ask Jason about how he came to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Jim: How did you first hear about Elizabeth Smith Friedman?

Jason: In 2014, after the Edward Snowden story broke, I started reading about the NSA. I didn’t know much about the NSA or where it came from, and whenever you read about the history of the NSA, you come across the name William Friedman — he’s considered to be the godfather of the agency, the one who started it all, 100 years ago, during World War I. He was a talented biology professor who abandoned that career to become a codebreaker. And in reading about William, I saw that his wife, Elizebeth, was also a codebreaker — two codebreakers, married to each other! I thought that was unusual and interesting, and I wanted to know more, particularly about Elizebeth, but I couldn’t find a biography of her. So I started digging.

Jim: Can you recall the key moment when you realized you had the material for a book?

Jason: I knew within hours of reading Elizebeth’s letters for the first time. Before she died in 1980, she donated 22 boxes of personal files to a private library in Lexington, Virginia, the George C. Marshall Foundation, and any researcher can walk into the library there and request to see her files, and that’s what I did. And I realized pretty quickly that I was looking at pieces of an incredible and untold American story. She left behind thousands of documents about her fight against smugglers and gangsters during the 1920s and 1930s, including her original code worksheets written in pencil. She left her earliest love letters to William during World War I, some of which were written in snippets of code and cipher.

I ended up staying at the library for about two weeks and going through all 22 boxes in a systematic way. By the end, I just thought, holy shit, I have to try to tell this tale, to do justice to what’s here. I knew it was a story about America’s first great woman codebreaker, a pioneer who was famous in her day but is now forgotten. But because Elizebeth was so crucial to the history and evolution of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, it was also a story about the birth and growth of American intelligence itself.

Jim: What’s a piece of advice you can give to nonfiction writers? Perhaps something you learned while researching and writing this book?

Jason: Sometimes the things you don’t find are just as important as the things you do. There was a gap in Elizebeth’s archive, a hole where World War II was supposed to be. I couldn’t find any documents from 1939 to 1945. The rest of her life was so well documented, but not the war period, so, I had to wonder, what was she doing in World War Two? And that question launched me on a search to locate her war files, which I ultimately found in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and which made it possible for me to tell that part of her story — she spent the war hunting Nazis. Particularly, Nazi spies.

Jim: Thanks Jason!

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is available at your local bookstore and is also on Amazon.


Bring It On Home: A Review

Originally Published on January 10th, 2019

Mark Blake’s Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin and Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager tells the life story of Led Zeppelin’s manager of Peter Grant, a man who lived a life that has become part myth and legend. Throughout, Blake tells stories such as Grant holding a promoter out the window by his ankles to get the money owed, but we never quite know if the stories told are in fact true. 

Peter Grant was born to a single mother and grew into a physical giant, and by his early twenties was acting as a bouncer at some of London’s clubs. He started working as a promoter and manager, and used his physical size to his advantage, often scaring club owners who tried to underpay the bands hired. Eventually, Grant started working with acts such as the Everly Brothers and Gene Vincent. Grant really learned the job while managing Vincent, who was known for tantrums and drunken rages which Grant had to diffuse. When Grant started working with the Yardbirds, he developed an affinity for Jimmy Page and realized the guitarist’s true talent, and decided to hitch his carriage to the young rising star. The two became great friends and confidantes.

Led Zeppelin was Jimmy Page’s band, and Grant managed the band on that principle. He negotiated deals with the record companies that gave Led Zeppelin total artistic control of the music production and album covers. These deals were unheard of at the time. In an even more brazen move, once Led Zeppelin quickly became a hot band, Grant demanded the band get a 90/10 split from ticket sales compared to the standard 60/40 split. Grant also played hardball, insisting the band be paid in cash before their shows, and he and his crew were often carrying around satchels with tens of thousands of dollars on them. He often had the band wait at the hotel until he was given the satchels with cash. Only after they were paid, would they hop in the limos to the venue.

Some people have referred to Peter Grant as the fifth member of the band. His work behind the scenes gave Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham the chance to develop and shine while he sheltered them from any distractions or legal troubles. Grant is said to be one of the last managers to have served the band first. Early on, he decided the band would not do TV appearances which helped foster their mystique. At times, Grant played up his reputation as a tough guy, and the rumors of his exploits to get his bands paid grew over time until many in the music business feared him. Images of Grant in the Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same reinforced this stereotype. How many of these stories were true, or grew through exaggeration through the years, is left unsaid. 

Success brought the band many temptations – including cocaine and heroin – and Grant and the crew did more than their fair share of coke. Drunken nights at the hotels with the best booze, the finest drugs and beautiful young women became common, and then a problem. When John Bonham died after a night of heavy drinking, the band was shattered and decided they could not to go on. Peter Grant was particularly fond of Bonham, and blamed himself for not being with the band that night when he possibly could have changed the tragic night. Blake also takes us into the creation of Swan Song Records, which Led Zeppelin started to produce other bands, most notably Bad Company. But when the music ended for Zeppelin, the money flow also slowed, and Grant became a recluse in his mansion, quietly removing himself from the music scene for years. Friends and family discuss the complicated man, and how he often regretted the hard ball tactics he used as a young man in the music business. In the end, months before his death, Grant received honors from the music industry. 

I’m a fan of Led Zeppelin but didn’t know the details behind the band, so I found Bring It On Home an interesting look at backstage lives of the band, and more importantly, how this man and his and strived to balance the art and business of music.

Burning Down the Haus: A Review

Originally Published on January 1, 2019

Tim Mohr’s Burning Down The Haus provides an unflinching glimpse into the punk rebellion of 1980s East Germany, and it is glorious.

From the first line, where Mohr documents the first punk as a fifteen year old girl in East Berlin, he details how kids first started recording punk songs heard on West Berlin radio stations, and soon started reading smuggled articles and photos about the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and other first generation bands. 

Due to the repressive state of East Germany, where the government breathed down the neck of its citizens in all aspects of life, the punk ethos flourished quickly amongst disaffected youth as a “fuck you!” Within months, East German punks started their own bands, practicing in basements and attics of abandoned buildings, squatting in spaces long unused.

Mohr has interviewed many of the punks and punk sympathizers from this era, giving the reader an inside look at the thoughts and actions of the band members and activists. He documents a punk singer named Chaos:

Now he had the band. This was something Chaos wanted to do, something he had to do. He had always felt hemmed in when he got angry, unable to run, unable to escape the rage and creeping dread. Now he could burn all of that out of his system. Give him a mic and he could channel that incandescent rage into a laser, leaving scorched earth around him, and at least a brief calm inside him. (pg 51)

The state responded harshly, at first harassing kids with mohawks and leather jackets in an effort to stamp down the movement. It didn’t work. The punks found unlikely allies in some of the churches, which offered safe spaces for meetings and shows, despite mounting pressure from the authorities. This is a world where the Stazi worked to flip members of the punk community into informants. Police regularly raided and ransacked band member’s apartments in an effort to find lyrics to songs that could be used to prosecute bands. Several punks were sentenced to prison for singing lyrics that criticized the government.

Despite being harassed, beaten and jailed by police, the punk ethos proved resilient, and Mohr captures the movement beautifully throughout the book, such as with this passage. 

Being a punk was completely different. Every fiber of your being was a dissenting opinion, an open affront to the system, a break from the future planned for you and everyone else, you were protest incarnate, twenty-four seven. (pg 98)

While people in the community may have thought the punks were strange, seeing neighborhood kids return from Stazi and police interrogations with bruises on their faces, they sympathized with the kids.

As punk music grew throughout East Germany like flowers in the dustbin, the youth began networking amongst themselves and became activists, often joining with churches and other peace activists.

It wasn’t just a case of punks shouting that the world was fucked. There was something constructive happening, too, with all the events, the squatted spaces, the network of contacts – the punks were finding free space and beginning to create an alternative reality, their own reality, their own world. ( pg 133)

The strength of Mohr’s book are in the detailed lives of the punks themselves. In addition to interviews, Mohr has combed through government files kept on bands and punks who were constantly under surveillance. He also documents funny moments such when a punk, wanted by authorities, dressed in drag to attend his father’s funeral. Mohr’s storytelling is very cinematic, and I could see this story be made into an amazing independent film.

Burning Down The Haus is a fascinating read about resistance in a repressive state run country, and definitely worth your time.

Starting with Goodbye: Lisa Romeo on Writing

Originally Published on May 1st, 2018

Lisa Romeo’s newly released memoir “Starting with Goodbye,” is about rediscovering “her enigmatic father after his death.” She first started exploring her relationship with her father through writing a series of essays, before turning her writing into a memoir. Lisa has also been published in BrevityLunch Ticket, the New York TimesO The Oprah Magazine, among many others.  I first met Lisa Romeo at the HippoCamp Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, where she has led energetic workshops that renew the writers’ spirits. My own father passed away when I was twenty years old, so I’m fascinated with the idea of how a parent lives on through the memory of their children. I wanted to ask Lisa about the process of writing her insightful memoir.

Jim: Your dad was generous with his children and others, but he wasn’t overly talkative. You write about how he’d ask the same few questions during a phone call before handing the phone to your mom. How did writing the memoir help you understand your father?

Lisa: When I used to try to talk to my father when he was alive, it seemed to take a long time and a lot of patience for him to loosen up in conversations that were serious. On the surface, he was a very friendly person, interested in others, easy to laugh with. But if you wanted to have a deeper conversation, that took time and frankly, I was impatient with him, rarely sitting still long enough. His first instinct seemed to be to deflect attention from himself and lighten the situation, and my first instinct is to get right to the point. We were mismatched as discussion partners.

After he was gone however, I got more curious about his small talk, and the ways in which he communicated by staying quiet. When I was writing about the grief process and what was going through my mind, I felt able to figure him out for the first time, to appreciate his communication style for what it was—not a way to push others away, but a way to assure himself that his counsel was valued enough in an exchange to offer his deepest thoughts and guidance and be taken seriously. Once I understood that, I had many “conversations” with him, or I should say, with his absent presence.

Jim: Your memoir started as a series of essays. Can you tell us about the moment you thought these could/should be a memoir? Was that a flash where you realized it was inevitable or did the thought strike doubt and fear at first?

Lisa: After I’d published a half-dozen or so essays on various aspects of this experience, and still kept writing more, I envisioned a collection of linked essays. By the time I had 13 pieces, I pulled them together, wrote a few more essays, and began to think of it as a book. Alas, others didn’t agree! I got very similar feedback from various people I trusted – a few publishers, a couple of beta readers, a mentor, and a book coach – along the lines of, “These are lovely individually but not as a book.” The advice was that it would work better as a more traditional narrative memoir.

I put off acting on that for a few years. An essayist at heart, I wasn’t ready to abandon the form (and I also worried it would take years). Finally, I realized that even if it never sold, I had to take the plunge and transform the essays into memoir, if only for the experience of doing so, to grow and develop as a writer and see what happened. As it turned out, the process was more fun than I anticipated, and took only four months. Breaking down those essays, having the choice to delete and move things around, opened up many new possibilities. The essays became kindling, not mandatory blocks, freeing me in many ways.

Jim: Towards the end of the book you state that if an unexamined life isn’t worth living, you believe that an unexamined grief is a bigger loss. I love that sentiment. We live in a culture where people don’t want to examine the inevitable death and loss. How has examining your grief changed your perspective on life?

Lisa: It’s had an unexpectedly calming effect, in the sense that death, grief, and end-of-life now seem much more normal to me, more of a regular part of life, which is how I think it should be. Unfortunately, in our culture those things are so often taboo to think and talk about. In some ways I’ve given myself permission to engage with these natural aspects of our human condition, and that has made them somewhat less scary. Aside from personal, selfish ramifications, I hope too that this experience has made me more able to talk with others about their death, grief, and end-of-life experiences, to be more compassionate and open minded; to listen more deeply.

Jim: Has your family read the memoir yet? If so, how did they react?

Lisa: Unless there are major issues I’m unclear about, I’m not the sort of writer who typically shares my work with others until publication. It’s my story and I tend not to want to hear others’ memories. I did ask my husband and older son to read the manuscript late in the process, and they had some helpful thoughts on final revisions. Where I was writing about my parents’ lives before I was born, I read some passages over the phone to my brother, and had my sister read some pages because they’re 8 and 12 years older than I am. As for reactions, I don’t know: I specifically didn’t ask if anyone “liked” what they read because I didn’t want to get caught up in making revisions to gain approval.

Jim: Your HippoCamp Class on Submission Strategy was motivation for us writers who don’t stay on top of submitting our work. What’s your one bit of advice for staying on top of the submission game?

Lisa: Regularity. Keep at it, a little bit here, a little bit there. Keep the pipeline filled. There’s no sense in having completed, polished (short) work biding time in your computer because you are wary about the outcome. That’s like rejecting yourself before you’ve even given an editor a chance to reject—or accept!

Jim: Thanks Lisa!

Read more about Lisa Romeo at her website. You can order Starting with Goodbye on IndieBound or Amazon.

Nomadland: A Review

Originally Published on October 15th, 2017

In Nomadland, Jessica Bruder explores a rag tag group of roving campers who live day-to-day, finding short-term, menial labor at places such as RV parks and Amazon fulfillment centers. Many have lost their homes and/or their retirement nest eggs in the 2008 housing debacle and have scraped enough money to purchase rusty RVs, retro-fitted cargo vans, or other homes on wheels. They have either decided or been forced to discard America’s consumer culture, and they seek to live off the grid and under the radar. This is an unsettling but fascinating read that raises questions about America’s future.

The most dystopian sections of this nonfiction book are those that detail the backbreaking labor of the “workampers” inside the Amazon fulfillments centers. Many of these laborers are in their sixties, some in their seventies. The pace and pressure inside these centers often leads to exhaustion and injuries. Bruder took a position in one such center but didn’t last very long, and the stories from inside these centers read like they are taking place in prisons or work camps.

Many of these “vandwellers” are people who have realized they can’t afford retirement in their homes and have decided to live on four wheels. They often find their inspiration in John Steinbeck’s writing, In fact, many of these travelers share dog-eared copies of Steinbeck’s book, “Travels with Charley,” and publish their own personal travel blogs. They keep in touch through Facebook groups, coordinating loose knit tribes that often gather for short periods of time in southwest communities with names such as Slab City, where they learn how to live frugally and help each other in this underground economy.

One of those featured in the book is Bob Wells, who “suggests vandwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order. Whether or not they chose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”

Bruder stumbled onto this Vonnegut quote which vandwellers share – 

….Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.

In the end, Bruder’s travels with this American sub-culture leads her to ask the basic question: “What parts of this life are you willing to give up, so you can keep on living?”

I’d classify Nomadland as dystopian nonfiction. I hate to suggest you should order the book from Amazon, so I’ll recommend you pick it up from your local library or independent bookstore.

Pennsylvania Scrapple: Amy Strauss on Writing

Originally Published on October 9th, 2017

For those of us who live in southeastern Pennsylvania, certain foods have achieved celebrity status, and chief among them is scrapple. Just the name rolls off the mouth watering tongue. Say it with me. Scrapple! Scrapple! Scrapple! Don’t think too much about the origin of the word.

Last year, I ran into my foodie writer friend Amy Strauss and was excited to hear she was writing a book about this delicacy. I can’t think of anyone better to tackle this project, as Amy has always been proud of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and has been a Philadelphia based food and drink writer and editor for over a decade. She has been published in  Main Line Today magazine, Town Dish, Beer Scene, Drink Philly, and more.

Pennsylvania Scrapple: A Delectable History was published on October 9th, 2017. I wanted to ask Amy a few questions about what it was like to write a biography of this regionally iconic breakfast meat.

Jim: What’s the best way to explain scrapple to someone who is unaware of this delicacy and has never savored the blissful taste?

Amy: First, it must be said, scrapple is not something you need to overthink. It’s delicious—that’s all you need to know! If you have opened your hungry soul to pork of any kind (bacon, anyone?), it’s time you gave scrapple a chance. It’s the king of breakfast meats! It hosts a textural playground unlike any other when sizzled in a skillet, wrapped in a crunchy coating and hidden with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth interior.

But, if you really want an education, here I go: like sausage, Scrapple is the culmination of multiple pig parts that are ground, melded together with flours and spices, and baked into loaves. It’s pork flavor is rich and delicious, and the concept itself is regionally specific to Pennsylvania. Our settlers invented it—and it’s managed to stick around through all these years! It’s sustained farm families through their hard working days. It was one of America’s first nose-to-tail products way before whole-animal cooking was “cool.” It is whole food, real food and if you grip up a hunk in a supermarket, you’ll actually be able to understand what’s in the ingredient statement. (Take that, hot dogs.)

Now, are you hungry for a slice?

Jim: Ha! Yes! When you first told me you were writing a scrapple book, it struck me as the perfect Amy Strauss project. How did writing this book come about?


Amy: It warms my PA Dutch heart to hear that “scrapple” and “Amy Strauss” has become somewhat synonymous. The project itself can be attributed to the greatness that is Twitter. Since writing about food for the last decade, I’ve been active in taking on assignments where I can dig into my heritage and the stick-to-your-ribs dishes associated with it. Of course, when publishing a new piece, I like to share it socially—and I recommend everyone to do so because you never know who is watching! Uhem, perhaps someone looking for the someone to write a scrapple book!

In short, Arcadia Publishing and their American Palate series had been exploring Philadelphia-area writers to lock into a scrapple book deal, and I just so happen to be the one they asked. Contracts, deadlines, edits, and several months later, we have ourselves pages and pages celebrating the porky delight. I wish I came up with the idea first—but I feel lucky enough to have been granted the exciting opportunity.

Jim: You obviously knew a lot about scrapple before this project? Is there a certain piece of scrapple history, or maybe a certain scrapple recipe, that you unearthed that blew you away while writing this book?

Amy: I’ve always had a great respect for the utilitarian nature of scrapple. As a meat bred from the desire to utilize the “leftover” scraps from a day’s butchering, it gets a bad rep. But, if you think about it, it was the farmhouse way to prolong your animals and feed your hardworking families. Not to mention, the end result has stuck around for centuries and it’s pretty damn spectacular.

One of the coolest things I discovered, as I sat piles deep in old Pennsylvania-German books at the Free Library of Philadelphia, was that the actual composition of scrapple was impacted greatly by the crops that grow readily in our dear Keystone State. The success of the Native Americans farming the corn crop contributed to German settlers finding it easily accessible in variations like cornmeal, which when combined with ground meat and other flour (buckwheat) and spices available, created a “meat loaf” unlike any other. When you appreciate how our ancestors lived and the craftiness that went into their cooking, it’s exciting to see how far we’ve come—especially from so little.

Flipping the page, I found it simply very cool to explore how differently chefs now weave scrapple onto their menus. Made with duck, chicken, goat, mushrooms, etc.—it’s everywhere and more delicious than ever!

Pennsylvania Scrapple: A Delectable History is available now at local book shops and on Amazon. Also – Amy Strauss will be appearing at the Scrapple Spectacular brunch and book signing at Grain in Kennett Square on Sunday, October 15th. Click HERE to see more about the event. Check our Amy’s website by clicking HERE.

On Writing: Terry Heyman on her McSweeney’s Obsession

Originally Published on April 27th, 2017

Over the course of the past year, my friend Terry Heyman and I have grown obsessed with submitting stories to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. We occasionally shared story ideas and drafts before revising and submitting, and of course, piling up a series of rejections. Some of my rejected titles included “An Open Letter to Those Who Share Political Articles from Non-Credible News Sources” and “The Hardy Boys – The Mystery of the Golden Shower.”

About a month ago, Terry “broke the code” and had a piece called “The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah” accepted. I’m not sure who was more excited – Terry or me! I wanted to ask her about the experience and the persistence in submitting stories.

Jim: Why an obsession with McSweeney’s?

Terry: I’m a huge McSweeney’s fan and I love their point of view. It’s one of the sites I visit daily. I would write posts with them in mind, imagining that getting accepted would feel like being asked to eat lunch at the cool table in middle school. Now you know something about my standing in seventh grade.

Jim: What were some of your rejected McSweeney’s submission titles?

Terry: “LIST: Things I Say to My Husband While He Watches the NBA Playoffs”

“An Open Letter to the Proud Mother of an Honor Student”

“The Case for Cheating on My Husband with Dr. Phil”

“Poll: Donald Trump Will Take Office as the Least Popular President Since Stacey Finkelstein was Elected Student Body President of Ogden Elementary School Almost Four Decades Ago.”

There have been quite a few.

Jim: You researched the editor, tell me what you learned?

Terry: One day I was surfing literary websites and I came across an interview with Chris Monks, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Unfortunately, he didn’t give away any secrets to getting published on the site. However, before reading the interview I had this notion that the editors were hipsters living in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but Chris seemed like an average middle-aged guy living a normal life. I also learned he had received a ton of rejections himself before finally getting on McSweeney’s. Learning those things made it easier to keep trying. The site didn’t feel as intimidating.

Jim: Persistence pays off. What kept you going?

Terry: When I first started sending out my work, I’d get mopey after each rejection. Rejections are unavoidable but it’s still hard. So I tried to focus less on the rejections and more on the accomplishment of simply creating another piece and sending it out. I still got rejected but I could see my progress—my writing was getting stronger. With each piece I was moving closer toward my goal.

Also, I have this compelling desire to contribute to “the conversation.” When I read about something unethical, harmful, or plain silly, it makes me rant, “This is crazy!” I go on about it to anyone who’ll listen. It could be about politics, celebrity, or relationships. The challenge lies in making my rants as entertaining as possible so someone will publish them.

Jim: Can you tell me a little about how you came to write the Kushner Haggadah and why that topic?

Terry: Like many people, I’ve been frustrated and frightened by this administration. But as a fellow Jew, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump fascinate me on a certain level. Jewish scholars have summed up the Torah’s lessons as, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So it’s hard for me to reconcile how two orthodox observant Jews can support policies that discriminate against others’ religions, given the Jews’ own history of discrimination in the world. Of course, religious hypocrisy is nothing new but I wondered what must Passover be like at the Kushner household? How do they rationalize denying healthcare to millions and putting corporate interests above clean air and water, among other things? Ivanka and Jared aren’t just the family of the President, they’re key advisors. So I imagined a perverse Passover Haggadah they’d use to justify their beliefs.

Jim: Do you have any advice to someone trying to write humor pieces?

Terry: About two years ago, I made a goal to get published somewhere else besides my own blog. I’d attend writing workshops and critique groups and while helpful, my work wasn’t growing. Then last summer I attended the HippoCamp Nonfiction Writer’s Conference in Lancaster and met an extremely funny and talented writer named Allison K. Williams. Allison was also a writing coach and I asked her to take a look at some of my rejected humor pieces. Right away she told me my pieces were too wordy and too nice. I didn’t need to explain the jokes to the reader, and if I was going to mock someone, then really mock them—don’t hold back. It sounds simple but once she said it, it was like a light bulb went off. Almost immediately, I felt my work get sharper, although it still took a few more attempts before I got published. For me, hiring a professional for an objective critique was money well spent. Friends may not be comfortable telling you harsh truths about your writing nor recognize them. 

Jim: The post has been shared over 56,000 times. Were you surprised by the response?

Terry: Shocked! Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this popular. It’s been amazing to read the comments on social media from strangers who enjoyed it and read it at their Seders. The flip side is that I’ve been trolled. It was really unsettling to have a stranger tell me I’m a horrible mother and anti-Semitic for writing the piece. Unfortunately, I think it’s unavoidable these days when political writing gets this wide exposure. There will always be those who see a different point of view as threatening. But I’m not focusing on the hate mail. I’m focusing on the folks who have shared the Haggadah with friends and even sent it to my Rabbi without knowing she’s my Rabbi!

Jim: What are you working on now?

Terry: I’m working on another satirical piece, this time aimed at celebrity culture and women’s bodies. Stay tuned. . .

Terry Heyman can be found on Twitter at @TerryHeyman and she occasionally blogs at Greetings From Insanity.

Review: Flannery – A Life of Flannery O’Connor

Originally Published on March 27, 2017

In the biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, author Brad Gooch provides a deep dive into the life and mind of one of America’s greatest short story writers. O’Connor’s grotesque tales astounded and often confused the public when they debuted in the fifties. She was noted for her fierce wit, biting humor, and her often naive characters who were doomed with violent endings. Gooch does a thorough job of detailing O’connor’s Catholic faith, her fight with Lupus, and the relationships that inspired her large than life stories.

The opening chapters lay the basic facts of O’Connor’s early life in Savannah and Atlanta, but the story really picks up as we follow Flannery through her stint at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where she really started seriously honing her craft while working on her first novel Wise Blood and started making connections with other fledgling writers of the period.

After her time at Iowa, Flannery was accepted to Yaddo, the artist colony in upstate New York, where she crossed path with diverse writers such as Patricia Highsmith and the poet Robert Lowell. (Little is said about her thoughts on Highsmith, but it’s amusing to think of the two women sharing meals at the retreat during their six week overlap.) As a conservative Catholic, Flannery was not too pleased with the carousing, drinking and marijuana use that often took place, denoting that at Yaddo, “the help was morally superior to the guests.” 

In 1952, while in her late twenties, O’Connor was diagnosed with Lupus and returned home to her mother’s farm Andalusia, where she surrounded herself with peacocks and wrote with a fierce discipline even as the disease slowly enveloped her daily life. In later years, she walked with a cane but still mustered the strength to visit colleges for speaking engagements, and even made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France to bathe in the “miraculous waters.”

Gooch provides insights to the inspiration for her stories, such as her longstanding friendship with a textbook salesman, which was based on their intellectual discussions on faith and wound up with one simple kiss, before he moved away and married. She turned her relationship with the salesman into one of her classic stories, Good Country People, where a Bible salesman (spoiler alert) does the unspeakable. Of her writing process, Flannery noted, “I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten to twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realized that this was inevitable.”

What I found particularly insightful was learning more about Flannery’s perspective on writing these colorful grotesque parables which have become a staple of Southern writing. “O’Connor said that modern writers must often tell “perverse “stories to “shock a morally blind world. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she said, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” 

The residents of Milledgeville gave Flannery mixed reviews. While excited to have a local celebrity, some locals feared they’d wind up in one of her stories. Throughout, we come to understand the relationship between Flannery and her mother Regina, who was supportive of her daughter though apparently flummoxed at her stories. She once asked Flannery’s editor, “Mister Giroux, can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” Giroux had to stifle his laughter when he realized the mother was serious and realized that Flannery sat frowning across the table. Still, Flannery and her mother attended mass religiously every day, and her mother cared for the writer in her final years. A friend noted later in a journal, “I’m convinced that she used Regina in some way as part of her worship. Regina was her cross. She was Regina’s cross. It worked.” 

Flannery’s Catholic faith did not hold her back from issuing statements of bold humor. Flannery quipped often one of my favorites being, as Gooch describes, “When asked about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Flannery replied, ‘It’s a wonderful children’s book.'”

Flannery comes to life throughout this compelling biography, and I learned much about her insights in writing bold Catholic stories with perverse characters who struggle in their daily lives. Her balance of writing about morals and faith may best be summed up with her proclamation of a favorite Southern City, when she said, “If I had to live in a city, I think I would prefer New Orleans to any other – both Southern and Catholic and with indications that the Devil’s existence is freely recognized.” 

If you haven’t read Flannery O’Connor, I recommend reading her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, before reading the biography Flannery. If you choose the biography first, I’m sure you’ll be reading Flannery’s fiction afterwards.

Review: The Nix by Nathan Hill

Originally Published on

The Nix by Nathan Hill is seriously funny. The novel follows a son’s attempt to learn about his mother’s hidden past – a journey which leads him to realize his mother, and his grandfather, both harbored secrets about mistakes they’d made early in their lives. While the novel follows the son Samuel’s quest, Hill also takes us back to his mother’s early years so we can view her accidental happenings from 1968, when she was caught up in the Chicago protests.

Hill’s prose is laugh out loud funny throughout the novel, though his descriptions can be a little long-winded. He really writes his character’s into absurd predicaments in which they can’t always extricate themselves. The cast of characters from modern times, a college student in Samuel’s class and a fellow video gamer, were great vehicles for espousing satirical commentary on modern day society.

The chapters reflecting the sixties counter-culture and his mother’s entanglements with a conning high school classmate before her brief escape to Chicago, showed a world where things aren’t always what we think they are. At times, I cringed for the young mother who was obviously being taken for a ride at times, yet I empathized with her also.

I enjoyed how the novel bounced around. Some of the connections between characters didn’t always work for me, but I was having fun so I stuck with it. Nathan Hill writes with an uncanny sense of humor, particularly about characters inflicted with such modern day ills such as video game addiction, narcissism and consumerism.

If you like laugh out loud funny in your novels, I recommend The Nix by Nathan Hill.

On Writing: Matty Dalrymple’s Rock Paper Scissors

Originally Published on March 2nd, 2017

After writing two novels in the Ann Kinnear Suspense series, Matty Dalrymple has just written a paranormal thriller called Rock Paper Scissors. Kirkus Review noted, “Dalrymple has written a fast-paced, complex thriller that can keep a reader engaged and off-kilter until its foreboding conclusion.” The new novel was published on March 3 and Matty is holding a launch party at Kildare’s in West Chester, PA on Friday, March 3rd, 2017 at 5pm.

Jim: What was your inspiration for writing Rock Paper Scissors?

Matty: I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of how someone who has an extraordinary ability deals with that in the context of the ordinary world. In the Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels, The Sense of Death and The Sense of Reckoning, that extraordinary ability is the ability to sense spirits. What would it be like to be on a dinner date and have the spirit of a dead person hovering over your date’s shoulder? What if other people learned about your ability and thought you were crazy or a liar, or, maybe more difficult, wanted you to be able to connect them with a dead person in a way that was beyond your ability? I get a lot of reviews of the Ann Kinnear novels along the lines of, “I usually don’t like paranormal novels, but I really liked this one,” because the story isn’t really about Ann’s spirit-sensing skill–it’s about how that affects Ann’s life.

I pursued that same theme in Rock Paper Scissors. Lizzy Ballard is a little girl, and later a young woman, who has the ability to cause strokes in other people when she’s angry. That ability has tragic consequences, and the story is in part about how she deals with those consequences. That ability is also of interest to people who want to turn it to their own nefarious ends, so that’s where the “thriller” part of the story comes in.

Jim: How was writing this thriller different than writing your mystery series? 

Matty: I always like to alert readers that the Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels are not mysteries in the “whodunit” sense. In The Sense of Death, you know right away who committed the crime and the story is focused on why he did it and whether he will get away with it–and how Ann’s ability leads her to become involved, unknowingly, with a killer. In The Sense of Reckoning, the story is about whether Ann will be able to avert a crime whose nature is implied but not made explicit until the very end.

I bill Rock Paper Scissors as a “thriller” because it is a little more action-oriented than the Ann Kinnear novels, but all of them include aspects of psychological suspense, and deal with people’s influences and motivations.

Jim: This blurb caught my attention. “Not since Carrie have we seen a character excite such fear in those forced to learn her terrible secret the hard way.” Robert Blake Whitehill, Award-winning screenwriter and author of The Ben Blackshaw Series. Being compared to Stephen King is high praise. My question is this – Is Rock Paper Scissors as gory as Carrie? 

Matty: Of course, I love any comparison to Stephen King, but Rock Paper Scissors is NOT the gore-fest that Carrie is. One way in which Rock Paper Scissors differs from Carrie is that Carrie is a story of extremes–Carrie’s mother is abusive, her fellow students are unusually cruel, and the trick they play on Carrie that triggers the final showdown is particularly hateful.

I feel that Rock Paper Scissors is a bit more subtle–the “good guys” are doing their best, even if their best efforts sometimes bring about undesired consequences, and even the “bad guys'” motivations are, I hope, understandable even if the reader can’t condone them. The Stephen King novels I love most are the more recent ones, like 11/22/63, where he has toned down the gore and violence and focused on the plot and the characters. I believe Rock Paper Scissors will appeal to that same audience.

Jim: People also should know you host a writing podcast where you discuss the craft of writing and publishing. (Thanks for having me as a guest!) Who will you be interviewing in upcoming episodes? 

Matty: Yes, that’s The Indy Author Podcast, and it’s available on iTunes and Stitcher. In the next episode I’ll be talking with Brandywine Valley Writers Group member Tony Conaway about the craft and business of short stories–what skills does a short story writer need that might differ from those a novel writer needs, and what are the available outlets for short stories? Some of my past episodes have been on screenwriting, with Robert Blake Whitehill; publishing image-intensive books, with Andy Schön; and creativity and motivation, with Alexandra Amor. And, of course, you and I got to talk about how Story Slam came about, and the importance of storytelling in fiction!

Jim: You have a book launch at Kildare’s on Friday, March 3rd. Any other book events coming up?

Matty: Because all my books, and especially The Sense of Death and Rock Paper Scissors are set in the Philadelphia area, I’m focusing on local events On April 1, I’ll be at Wellington Square Books in Exton from 10am-12pm signing copies of my books. On April 9, I will be appearing with three other thriller authors—R. G. Belsky, Jane Gorman, and Scott Pruden—at Kennett Square Brewing Company, where they will be pairing our books with one of their beers and a local cheese. On April 30, I’ll be appearing at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. And on June10, I’ll be on an author panel at my alma mater, Dickinson College. If people would like to be informed of events, I recommend they sign up for my email newsletter at, or follow me on Facebook.

Jim: Good luck with your book launch and thanks for answering my questions.

Matty: Thanks Jim!

Check out Matty’s books on Amazon or learn more about Matty’s writing and podcast at Likes