Elizabeth Flock, 31, lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a reporter for PBS NewsHour. A Chicago native, Flock previously worked at The Boston Phoenix. Her nonfiction book The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai chronicles three Indian couples that Flock encountered while living in Mumbai after graduating from Boston College.
On how she got the idea for the book: About 10 years ago, after I graduated college, I moved to Mumbai and got a job as a reporter at Forbes India magazine and worked there for two years. That’s when I met these couples. Due to a combination of being sort of homesick and restless and broke, I ended up living with a number of different Indian families. I was also coming off the heels of dealing with my dad’s third divorce and thinking a lot about why marriages work or fail. Living with these different couples, I got interested in Indian marriage, and I thought maybe I could learn some lessons from these people. I informally started asking them questions about their marriages. I thought maybe I would write a novel. But then I kept in touch with them, kept asking questions, and I returned full-time to the project in 2014. I then went on two long reporting trips and lived with the couples again, doing sit-down formal interviews for hundreds of hours. I lived with them, traveled with them, went to work with them. [The book is] about love in India right now and how the institution of marriage is being affected by a tremendous amount of social and cultural change. But mostly, it’s really about these three couples I got to know and their stories, which were really compelling to me.
On how writing the book changed her views on marriage: In the West, we think of arranged marriages as absolutely horrific. We look at it with some mix of skepticism and horror. I really feel like I learned some lessons from arranged marriages. Obviously, there are some really bad arranged marriages. But there are some really good ones, too. In the U.S., I think people have tremendously high expectations of partners in marriages that happen out of love. I think I learned a bit about maybe not doing that as much and maybe taking that person more where they’re at, which is something you sort of have to do with an arranged marriage.
On whether she had a strict writing routine: I didn’t have a good structured routine. A lot of it I wrote in Mumbai. But I also went to NYU and did a graduate program there, and I spent time at the Writer’s Room in Washington, D.C. It’s a bunch of writers who all work in this ramshackle place.
On how the couples featured in the book reacted to it: They read it and had different reactions. One of them said to me that when he first read it, he was upset because it’s so hard to read about yourself on the page. But we talk all the time, and have for years and years. I’m really close with them.
From The Heart Is a Shifting Sea:
Not far away, in Bhendi Bazaar, Sabeena, the second child of four sisters, and the liveliest and most beautiful among them, was given a nickname. Her father christened her Madhubala, after the actress who played the court dancer in Mughal-e-Azam—the woman whose dancing sent father and son to war. Like Madhubala, Sabeena had apple cheeks, strong, straight nose, and Cupid’s bow lips. She had the same eyes that danced below dramatic brows. She even had the same raspy voice and effervescent personality, in a house that desperately needed it. Sabeena lived with her grandfather, who was a tyrant, her mother and other sisters, whom she found dull, her brother, who had anger issues, and her father, whom she loved but who was strict with her. Outside of the movies, the actress Madhubala was barely seen out on the town. She never went to the big Bollywood parties or award shows, because her father did not allow it. It was the same for Sabeena, whose father rarely let her and her sisters out.
Portrait by Abbey Oldham
Richard Lawson, 34, lives in New York where he works as the film critic for Vanity Fair. Lawson grew up in Boston, and his newly published young adult novel All We Can Do Is Wait is based in Boston.
On how he got the idea for the book: I had this idea about [writing a book about] kids in a hospital following a disaster. [It] just kind of sprang into being. I thought maybe I could have it take place in Boston since that’s where I’m from, and maybe we could have the Tobin Bridge collapse. It’s Breakfast Club meets Grey’s Anatomy. These five kids descend on a fake version of Mass. General to find out if their loved ones have survived this bridge collapse, but they’re all dealing with some kind of personal trauma of a sort in their pasts. It’s about them processing the bridge collapse and their past traumas.
On how he managed to fit in writing a book while working full-time at Vanity Fair: It was something I was pretty certain I couldn’t do. [I thought] there’s just no way I’ll have the focus or the discipline, but I just somehow mustered it. I started writing it in January 2016. I turned a “dry January” into a “dry January, February, March, April.” I did not do anything social. I spent my weekends writing the book. I would come home Friday night, have a quiet night, wake up early Saturday, write all day. I was trying to do a chapter a day—I don’t know if I actually stuck to that—and then I would read back what I wrote that night and then kind of do that again on Sunday. I did that for about four months for the first draft. I pressed send on the email to my editor with the first draft attached and then left and got in a cab to head to Cannes for the film festival that same day. It was kind of a whirlwind. And then there were rewrites and revisions over the next, probably eight months.
On how hard it is to write about what you don’t know, even when you’re writing fiction: There was one character—probably not surprisingly a straight boy—that was the hardest to write. As a gay guy, I based all the girls in the book on people I’ve known in some way. There’s a gay character who’s somewhat based on me. But this straight boy—I was not really friends with any straight boys in high school. Trying to be sympathetic about that demographic—that was difficult. My first go at writing that character, it was too much of a critique of straight male culture. My editors were like, “He needs to be a little more sympathetic.” I had to go back and change his whole plot to make him more sympathetic. I think I pulled it off.
On why he opted to write for a young adult audience: From having friends who have done YA, I knew that it is a very fertile genre right now. A lot is getting published in that sphere, so it was a good opportunity. We could make a deal and have a book planned without me having written anything, which for a literary fiction novel, for “grown-ups,” I would have to go toil away for however long and then try to sell it. Most of us have some intense feelings about something that happened to us in high school and those primal feelings are still lingering however many years later. There’s a lot there to tease out. So, as much as it was time-consuming to write it, a lot of the emotions came easily because they were so accessible from my own past.
On writing about the city where he was raised, and getting it right: There’s a description of Jamaica Plain that’s particular about its history as being a neighborhood where older hippies who have kids live. I’m curious to see if sharp-eyed Boston readers think I got it right. Maybe I’m wrong about what JP is now. JP was such a formative part of my teenage years, because all my friends were from there, so I spent a lot of time there.
From page 1 in All We Can Do Is Wait:
IT WAS CLOUDY when the bridge gave way, about a hundred cars crossing the Mystic River on the Tobin. People who saw it said it just suddenly happened, but how sudden could something like this be? It must have been years of bad maintenance, years of some important part being worn away by rust or stress or time. Really, the only sudden part was the very end.
From far away, it seemed to go softly, one section dropping down, and then another, splashing into the river, dust falling like snow after it. Up close, of course, it was a different matter: a terrible, quick quak-ing and then the horror of plummeting. It was hard to say who was less lucky, the ones who fell into the water or the ones who fell onto Charlestown, debris tumbling on top of them. Was it better to be swiftly crushed or to slowly drown in your car?
It’s easy to forget, seeing a stream of cars on the highway or stuck in city traffic, that each of them represents a person, or several people, all trying to get somewhere of their own, home or to a meeting or to a funeral or starting out a trip. When the police and rescue teams arrived on the scene of the Tobin Bridge collapse, one of their first jobs was to determine how many people were involved. They needed to know who to look for, how many cars had gone in the water, how many had crashed down onto land and been buried by metal and cement. They needed some idea of the lives involved, of all the people they were searching for.
Portrait by Myles Ashby
Sam Graham-Felsen, 36, is a graduate of Boston Latin and Harvard University who now lives in Brooklyn. Graham-Felsen’s novel Green is a coming-of-age story that he says in many ways resembles his own experiences growing up in Jamaica Plain.
On how Green is a young adult novel, but also a story about racial biases: It’s about a white kid named Dave Greenfeld who is one of three white kids in his entire public middle school called the Martin Luther King School. It sort of starts out being about the alienation Dave feels being such an outsider and so different from his peers—the most obvious way being that he’s white. It ends up being about a friendship that he develops with one of his classmates, a black kid named Marlon, who happens to live in Jamaica Plain down the block from Dave in the housing project. It’s about their friendship and the way in which society puts all these social pressures on both of them that make interracial friendships really unnecessarily difficult. A lot of it is Dave’s own set of unconscious biases. But more than that, it’s about Dave just not being fully aware of how difficult it is for kids like Marlon—black kids in America—and the ways in which racism and structural barriers just make it really hard for Marlon to do the things that Dave can do pretty easily. The deeper narrative of the book involves Dave slowly waking up to how racism works.
On how he got the idea for the book: After college, I moved to New York with no plan. I worked as a waiter and got fired. I ended up landing an internship at The Nation and stayed on in a reporter/blogger role. I ended up writing about this young candidate people were excited about: Barack Obama. When the campaign officially launched, I ended up getting hired as Obama’s blogger. It was during the Obama campaign that I began to think about writing something loosely based on my own experience. I knew it was a topic that would let me explore race in America, which is something I was thinking about a lot working on the campaign. But I had no idea how to write fiction. I never wanted to be a fiction writer. I ended up going to graduate school at Columbia and getting my MFA in fiction writing.
On how much of the novel was influenced by his own experience growing up in Boston: I actually went to a public middle school called the Martin Luther King Middle School. There weren’t many white kids in the Boston public schools back then. Even though the middle school in my book is a fictional version of the school I went to, I decided to keep the name for obvious reasons. It felt powerful and sad and tragic that there are actually a lot of urban public schools named after Martin Luther King, the great visionary of integration, and those schools are generally incredibly segregated. One of the big narrative tensions in the book is that the two kids are trying out for Boston Latin. They’re taking the Latin exam and they’re incredibly stressed about whether or not they will get in. Dave’s parents are sort of committed progressives from Jamaica Plain, and he’s worried if he doesn’t get into Latin they’ll make him go to the local public school. For Marlon, the stakes are much higher because Latin is one of the few kind of steppingstones for a lot of kids who come from less privileged backgrounds. There aren’t lots of great options beyond Latin, and Latin is literally one of the greatest public schools in the whole country. It sends more kids to Harvard than any other school in the country. So it feels like this make-or-break thing. If they get into Latin, their lives are going to be amazing. And if they don’t, their lives could be terrible.
On his writing routine: I started writing it in the spring of 2013. For the most part, I wrote it outside of the MFA program. I wanted to write this novel so badly that I basically stopped working. I had some savings. I didn’t work. I would wake up every day in my apartment, and go to my desk, and try to start writing as early as possible. I always felt like it was helpful to start writing when I was just waking up, because when you’re sleeping you’re in a dream state. So I thought, let me start writing when I’m as to close to a dream state as possible, so I’m uninhibited.
On why he chose the book’s title, Green: First of all, Dave is a Jewish kid. He’s kind of embarrassed to be Jewish, because all of his classmates are Christian. So, he sort shortens his own last name, from Greenfeld to Green, as a way to deemphasize his Jewishness. So that’s the literal reason. But also, green is the color of inexperience, and this is a novel about inexperience. It’s a novel about a kid who is very slowly ripening, but who is still very much green. Green is also the color of envy, and Dave does envy people, and isn’t aware of the great privileges that he actually has. And last, he is really into money.
From page 52 in Green:
Nasketball is a game I invented to make up for my pathetic rise. Once Kev started tapping the backboard this summer, I decided I had to at least get net. I worked at it every day for weeks. I’m talking calf raises in the shower, wraparound ankle weights, fifty leaps a day, minimum. Nothing helped. All I ever got was air. I couldn’t take it anymore, so one day I lowered my adjustable-height hoop to its five-foot minimum, dragged Benno’s trampoline beneath the basket, took off for a tomahawk jam. Nasketball was born. It’s basically one-on-one, but there’s no traveling, the only way to score is to dunk in someone’s face, and every time you dunk in someone’s face, you yell, “Nasty!”
“I’ll show you,” I say to Marlon.
He grabs his backpack and we go outside.
I kick things off with a three-sixty and scream, “I’m nasty!”
“Green getting big!” yells Marlon.
He just said my emcee name, and I didn’t even push it on him. Green. It’s what they called me at camp a couple summers back. It took a while to grow on me, because I saw green as a semisoft color. But it was way better than my last name, it was way better than white boy, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a solid rap name, too. Green: the ultimate emcee aspiration, the tint of the dream.
Portrait by Tamar Steinberger