Monday, July 18, 2011

Author Christopher Herz on Writing and Life

The Last Block in Harlem

In spring 2010, I went to New York to attend the big publishing convention, the Book Expo America. My publisher had set up a book signing for A Scattered Life, my debut novel, which would be released that August.

That same week, I went out to dinner with several members of the publishing team and three other AmazonEncore authors, one of whom was Christopher Herz, author of The Last Block in Harlem. We've kept in touch since then, comparing notes about our book publishing experience and the differences between living in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Just recently, I mentioned in an email that my mother was going through a health crisis. Just a mention, nothing more. The next thing I knew, a package had arrived. Christopher had sent my mom a letter and some Black and White cookies. Wasn't that unbelievably nice? Neither my mom nor I were familiar with Black and White cookies, a New York tradition. The cookies were delicious and the thought behind it was greatly appreciated.

Not too much later, I heard that Christopher was having a tough week--a death in his family occurred at the same time he and his wife were moving house. Now I had the opportunity to reciprocate with a Wisconsin tradition. I sent Christopher and his wife a Kringle.

A long time ago, we'd talked about Christopher guesting on my blog, but he was busy writing his second novel, and I was doing some other stuff and the idea got lost in the shuffle--until now.

Christopher sent me the long awaited post just yesterday, in the form of a letter to me. There's nothing conventional about Christopher, I can tell you that much. If you love the style of writing in his blog post, you'll love his fiction and should buy his book, The Last Block in Harlem. It's currently on sale, so if you're inclined to buy it, do not tarry. Also, don't wait too long.

And without further ado--I'll let Christopher take over:

Dear Karen,

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for you for over a month and each time it comes out so wrong that I crumble the piece of paper from my typewriter and toss it on my floor.

In my head, I’m always writing on a typewriter.

I keep trying to figure out a way to show how our books, though so different, have a common theme. A connection. I keep looking for that connection. As we both know, sometimes looking for a way to make it all happen is the worst way to make it all happen!

Then, magically, you sent me a Kringle in response to the Black and White cookies I sent to your mother.

Now right there – right there people from Wisconsin and People from New York are asking themselves: What’s a Kringle? What’s a Black and White cookie? Though part of the same union, we don’t know all that much about each other.

Like both of those fine pastries, the ingredients are pretty much the same. Once we eat, we can tell exactly what went into the cooking. If they are any good, love of course, is the main ingredient.

It just has to be.

I guess the same can be said for literature. Though our covers are different, each book for the most part is just words on the page. They wrap around the reader and hopefully exhaust the voice that has been rattling around in our souls looking to leap into the lives of others.

I remember when we met over a year ago. Both of our books were about to get re-released to the world. For you, A Scattered Life was going to the lead the charge of your arsenal of stories, and for me, The Last Block in Harlem was going to make Harlem accessible to all.

We drank and talked about our neighborhoods, our books, our families and our journeys. We drank some more and slipped into our regional accents and drifted into what we were really all about. I remember sitting in that hotel bar and just watching people go by with you and the rest of the writers and marketing folks. Putting stories inside of their movements and making up conversations.

Afterwards, the realization of how the same we all were was warming. It may have been the vodka tonics, but I’m pretty sure it was the connection. Over this past year, we’ve written back and forth and talked about a Wisconsin / New York exchange program – A program where people get to live inside the worlds of places they don’t know.

Sometimes I look out over the city and wonder how to make such a thing happen and then, the other day, I realized:

The program already exists. In our books. It is through literature that people can leave their blocks, their neighborhoods and their daily routines and experience the lives of others. This is why the art of story is so important.

It allows us to open a stranger’s refrigerator door and peek into what is left-over from a family meal. Or what take-out was dialed up after a long day at work.
I’m not sure why I’m constantly looking for such connections to strangers. Perhaps that’s why I write the way I do: Looking for answers from my readers. Looking for, perhaps, an invite to their family table to eat what love is being cooked up in the kitchen.

Recently, I was working on a project called #Sundaymorningstory where people from all over the world sent pictures in and I created a narrative from that. Not surprisingly, or I guess most surprisingly (whichever way you are looking at the world), Wisconsin had the most participants week to week (Australia was a close 2nd).

I’m thinking of making t-shirts that read: Everyone should live in Wisconsin once in their lives. On the back it would say: Or you’re not living!

To go further with that, we should all have the opportunity to sit on porches, stoops, windowsills, rooftops, front lawns and living rooms around the world. However, until that lighting train free of charge to take us to these spots comes into existence, the traveling source will have to be literature.

Proud to be driving some of the trains with you.



Pale Rambler said...

An excellent assessment of the qualities and benefits of good regional literature.
Also, I have no idea what a Kringle is, but Black and White Cookies are superb, especially dunked in milk. Makes me a little homesick for Long Island...

Karen McQuestion said...

Kringle is good dunked in milk, too! Or at least that's how I remember it before I became lactose intolerant. :)

Coleslaw said...

Kringles look like King Cakes, although I imagine the pastry is different. I had to look up Black and White cookies despite growing up on Long Island. I swear I never saw one in my entire misspent youth despite living within walking distance of a bakery. How did that happen?

But yes, as Emily Dickens wrote, "There is no frigate like a book".

Bill B said...

OK, Christopher, your book description & the excerpts on Amazon hooked me - chalk up another Kindle sale! And I agree, books do let us live elsewhere vicariously, which makes the telling of the tale important. I hope you keep crankin' 'em out. Also, black & white cookies sound great. I'm salivating ... ~sigh~

Karen McQuestion said...

Coleslaw--I just looked up King Cakes and you're right--they do look like Kringle. I'd never heard of King Cakes before. It would be interesting to compare the two.

Bill B.--I'm sure Christopher appreciates the sale. I read his novel and now I feel like I've been to Harlem. Also, the ending of the book totally threw me for a loop.

christopher herz said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks so much for the support and picking up the book. Looking forward to hearing how you feel it.

As for the Black and White cookies - they are pretty amazing. My wife loves the black side and I enjoy the middle. There are more than a few blocks that have seen us passing them back and forth.

People have been sending in pics with them and the book from their blocks all over the world. Feel free to do the same.

Enjoy the neighborhood.


Jon Olson said...

I'll check him out. Thanks for the tip, Karen.

Jon Olson
The Petoskey Stone
The Ride Home

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

I loved this post. First, that you have found a kindred spirit, Karen. Second, Christopher's letter about how books provide us with windows into the lives of people from all over the world. That is one of the reasons I love to read so much.

Thanks to both of you for a great post.

Christopher Herz said...

Thanks Karen (x2) - We're all connected in some way. Literature might just be the thread that saves us.

That and a good pastry.


Bill B said...

Actually I still believe music will save us, but literature -- and a good pastry -- is on the same plane ツ

Karen McQuestion said...

Hey Jon, my mom is going to be reading your book, THE RIDE HOME, next! I told her she'd love it because it's suspenseful, gripping, and character-driven without being gory. She's not a fan of gore. Neither am I, now that I think about it. Just too squeamish.

Karen, you're right about kindred spirits. Get a bunch of writers together and you'll hear a lot of great conversation. It totally makes up for high school.

Christopher and Bill, I'm with both of you as far as music, literature, and pastry being our saving graces.

Brenda ND said...

Being from Wisconsin too, I still don't quite get an image of these black and white cookies. Are they like Oreos?

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Brenda--your comment gave me the nudge to add a photo of a black and white cookie, something I should have done to begin with.
A picture's worth a thousand words.

Christopher Herz said...

Ah -yes, there it is. People are pretty snobby about them here and have specific places they go to get them. Good stuff though.

1/4 of Kringle still in the freezer. Will wait until temp. drops below 100 to finish.

Karen McQuestion said...

IF the temp. ever drops below 100. Winter is now just a sweet memory...

Bill B said...

You're welcome to c'mon out to the Pacific NW -- I've had to have a fire in the woodstove. Hopin' to hit 70°today, maybe ...

Christopher Herz said...

Bill - you're killing me. I spent a few summer in Seatltle. My pop used to work for the Mariners - even threw the first pitch out at the Kingdome once.

It's 9:50 and still 97 degrees out here.

Bill B said...

Christopher - I feel your pain. Well, not really, but I did feel it a couple weeks ago when I was in WV -- high 90's & sauna-esque humidity. Difficult to breathe, let alone work outside. Hang in there. Work it into your stories. I started reading Last Block In Harlem (which I noticed was just dropped to $1.99 for Kindle version) on the ferry today, & I'm likin' it!

christopher herz said...

Bill - thanks for picking it up. Love it when the publisher drops the price.

If you like, feel free to take a pic with you and the book and send it on in. These folks did it:

Be creative. No sleep tonight. Karen, hope you don't mind my insomnia on your blog. Wife is away for a week. Heat. Schedule blow. Kringle pieces in freezer.

Karen McQuestion said...

You can post on my blog anytime, Christopher! Stay cool.

Linda Pischke said...

I'm a third of the way throug "The Last Block in Harlem" and can't put it down.

Christina said...

Christina Zawadiwsky - I'd like to review Christopher's book for Book Room - any chance of me getting a review copy? (Also, does your blog take Gravatar photos - I have one in Gravatar - but it isn't showing up here.)

Christopher Herz said...

Linda - Glad you're enjoying.

Christina - would be glad to get you a copy. My email is - Drop me a line and we can make it happen.



Karen McQuestion said...

Christina, I have no idea what Gravatar is--I guess it won't work with blogger if it isn't showing up. Now I'm off to ask Mr. Google what Gravatar is! Just when I think I'm starting to get caught up on this new technology...

Christina said...

Christina - - Christopher, I for one am glad that you like making connections with strangers (having done this also, my entire life), which will result in a review of your book that I'm now writing (will post the link down the line when it's finally up)!

Christina said...

Christina - - Christopher, I for one am glad that you like making connections with strangers (having done this also, my entire life), which will result in a review of your book that I'm now writing (will post the link down the line when it's finally up)!

Christina said...

Christina - - My review of Christopher Herz's The Last Block In Harlem is up now, and here's the link: