Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Caroline Leavitt - Is This Tomorrow







 Is This Tomorrow is a New York Times bestselling novel about being different, being an outsider, being an outcast. Set in the Cold-War 1950s, it follows the mysterious vanishing of a young boy in a closed neighborhood, and the fate of the Jewish divorced mother who's somehow suspect.





1. You have successfully written your tenth novel, what keeps your writing fruitful?
I wish I knew the answer to that. I think it is that I'm an obsessive personality. I'm always haunted by one thing or another and I worry about it, and can't let it go unless I somehow figure it out by writing about it.  I always think that I am writing about something that has nothing to do with me whatsoever, and then, around the 9th rewrite, I realize it's an issue that has been totally haunting me. Is This Tomorrow was a lot about how I felt growing up as an outcast in a working class town. The book I'm just finishing up now is about a girl I knew casually in high school who was murdered by her older boyfriend.

2. In Is This Tomorrow, why did you choose 1950's Boston as a setting?
I grew up in Waltham, which is right outside of Boston, and like Ava Lark and her son Lewis, my family was the only Jewish family in a working class Christian block. (It was the 60s, not the 50s, but I set it back a decade because the whole Cold War "us against them" mentality was so much more pervasive.) I learned early on that kids were not allowed to play with me because "I killed Christ." In grade school, I was given a test where the questions were things like, "What did Jesus say to Mary at the well? I had no idea, so I wrote, "Do you want a glass of water?" The teacher failed me! But I remember out much I yearned to be a part of something, and how painful that time was for me. I was mocked, ignored, and threatened to be beaten up in high school all the time! 

I thought I could make so much more of this by setting Is This Tomorrow in the 50s, because there was such paranoia around anyone who might be different. If you read too much? You were a Communist.  Did you use multi-syllabic words? Communist! The suburbs in the 50s were supposed to be safe, so why better place to have a child suddenly vanish? 


3. Ava and her son are powerful characters, how much of you is evident in their personalities?
I love Ava. LOVE Ava. I wish she was my neighbor--but the only thing we share is that we both wanted to belong and were both shut out. I am more like Lewis in that I worry about everything; I make lists of things to worry about (really! Isn't that pathetic?)  and in school, like Lewis, my teacher yelled at my mother for teaching me to read before everyone else knew how to read. Unlike Lewis, I was not directionless.  I knew early on that I was going to fight my way out of that neighborhood and be a writer, no matter what anyone said.

4. Why is it important that Ava is Jewish?
I wanted Ava to be a triple threat. Not only is she divorced at a time when no one got divorced, not even celebrities, but she works. No woman worked unless she was looking for a husband at a job, and to actually like your job or want to try to be something more was suspect. Being Jewish in a Christian neighborhood was even worse. I used a lot of my own upbringing for that! 


5. Was the plot inspired by real events?
Only as far as how I felt like an outsider growing up. The rest I totally made up!


6. How did you conduct your research and how long did you do it?
Research was the most fun. I hired two high school research assistants and I had a wonderful librarian I hired, but some of the most interesting things I found were when I just went on FB and asked, "Are there any male nurses from the 1950s? Any cops? Any pie bakers?" I got a huge response and I got to talk on the phone with these fascinating people. The cop was brilliant--he told me that in the 1950s, kids didn't vanish. They ran around to abandoned buildings and into the woods and no one worried. No one locked their doors. When a kid didn't come home, the cops treated it the way they would an adult vanishing--you wait. But with a kid, that's too late! I talked to a male nurse who was fascinating. He told me that not only did doctors smoke in the 50s while they were examining patients, but they also encouraged their patients to smoke, because it would relax them!

I found vintage pamphlets about Communism (How you can tell if your neighbor is a Commie! Does he laugh at jokes you don't quite get? That's because it's in code! He's a Communist!) and about how to survive the nuclear war that they knew was coming. (Wipe your feet before you go inside the house to get off the pesky radiation!) 

I also found fabulous vintage cookbooks. In the 50s, you were supposed to boil vegetables for about 45 minutes! And the most popular dish was a meat loaf train!  You shaped the meatloaf to look like a train and made windows out of celery and passengers out of peas!

7. Why did you choose this voice to tell your story?
When I write, I like to get inside everyone's head, everyone's point of view. I just want the experience to be raw, intimate and real.


8. What is your writing protocol and process?
I try to write every day, usually about 4-5 hours and then I'm exhausted. Plus I have a son and a husband, and I also teach writing online at Stanford, UCLA, the University of Toronto, and I have private clients (CarolineLeavittConsults.com). And I review for People and the San Francisco Chronicle. I am a big believer in structure, so I always map out my novels before I start to write, which takes me about six months, and then I have a 30 page synopsis,  which I continually rewrite and throw out right up to the 9th revision. (And yes, there are always 9 to 20 revisions!) 


9. Explain this quote by unknown: "Everyone has a story; telling it well is the key."
I think part of telling a story well has to do with making it alive and intimate, and making the reader feel as if he or she is living that particular story. To do that well, I think you need to know where to start, how to build tension, how to up the stakes, and how to end with what I call the never-ending story--which means that you don't want to tie things up neatly at the end. You want the reader to close the book and still be wondering about the lives of your characters!


10. What are you future projects and current muses?
My new novel, Cruel Beautiful World is due to Algonquin this March, so I am really working to finish. I don't believe in the muse. But I do believe in inspiration and craft. I always mention John Irving because he writes what I consider moral fiction--he isn't just telling a wonderful story about wonderful characters, he's making points about how to live better or differently in the world, or simply, how to deal with a crazy world.

Next up, I'm starting a new novel. It's too new to say anything about it without it sounding silly and ridiculous. I have to clasp it to my heart and hope for the best!


Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, plus ten other novels. Pictures of You was on the Best of 2011 Lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and was one of the Top Five Books on the Family and Love from Kirkus Reviews. She is a book critic for People Magazine and the Boston Globe. She teaches novel writing at UCLA Writer's Program online and mentors writers privately. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their son Max, in Hoboken, NJ. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Art & Poetry






                               
                                 Image: "The Ghosts of Under Milk Wood"  - Dan Llywelyn Hall, Artist


Dancing with Sylvia

Your words sink to the asphalt,

evaporate.

And would they ever,

the things you say,

Harden and congeal?

 In promises?

In secret pacts?



Surely, such abstract signs and sounds

Leave your tongue bereft of meaning



puddled lamplit

hush of your intention—shadows, shadows.



I could tell you,

Their flesh bears no substance.

Dark curves of letter, the lengthening vowel

haunting constant,

dark shadow on canvas.



The stars

Have such a gap to fill.



Such emptiness, blackness.



Would that your meanings erupt

Wet and molten

dorsal bone

Jutting, broken



Breaking through the scaly skin of language—

Fire-crested.



Woe to me,

who am instead

witness to

These dead, these sacrificed

Rising up like bile, like black tidewater.



Elizabeth Johnston



About the Poet: 
Elizabeth Johnston teaches writing, literature, and gender studies at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY. Her scholarly work centers on representations of female sexuality in literature, television, and film and has been published in a number of academic journals and edited collections, most recently in Disjointed Perspectives on Motherhood (Lexington Books, 2013). Slated for publication are three additional essays in Mythology and Modern Women Poets: Analysis, Reflection & Teaching (MacFarland, 2014), The Eternal Internal Gender Wars of Our Sisters (KH Publishing, 2014), and SLI: Studies in the Literary Imagination 47.2 (Spring 2015). Likewise, her fascination with representations of gender infuses her creative work; since 2011, her poetry has appeared in a variety of print and online journals and edited collections, most recently New Verse News (April 2014) and Mom Egg Review (April 2014). New poems written by Elizabeth will be featured in forthcoming issues of NonBinary Review, The Luminary, and Rose Red Review, and in the print anthology, Veils, Halos, and Shackles: An Anthology of International Poetry (Eds. Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay). She is a founding member of the Rochester-based writer’s group, Straw Mat and facilitates writing workshops at the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester. She lives in North Chili, on the west side of Rochester, with her partner, Brian, two daughters, Ava and Christina, and a menagerie of animals.

About the Artist: 
'Deaths and Entrances' An exhibition of paintings and prints by Dan Llywelyn Hall

6th - 13th September 2014
Coningsby Gallery
30 Tottenham Street
London, W1T 4RJ
Open 9am - 6.00pm daily
Free entry
The Dylan Thomas centenary exhibition of paintings and prints inspired by the writer's poetry and short stories.   

Website: http://deathandentrances.com/shop.htm

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Confessions of an Anti-Helicopter Parent


It's an honor this week to introduce a guest post by my old friend, Carol Ciliberti. This wise lady shares her Carol ideology on her own amazing blog: http://maximusred.wordpress.com/ Thank you, Carol, for offering your perspectives on parenting to the blog.





Confessions of an Anti-Helicopter Parent

As you can guess by the title, I am not a helicopter parent. I do not hover. Even though society says I should.

I was born into a large Irish-Italian family, the 5th of 6 kids. My parents were born at the tail end of the Greatest Generation, during the Depression and instilled a strong work ethic. It was not an easy life. My siblings span through the Baby Boom into Generation X (I’m an X-er). The socio-cultural impact of when each of us were born, combined with the influence of our own parent’s authoritarian style of childrearing heavily influenced how each of us parent today.

According to today’s social standards, I’m expected to be authoritative in the way I parent my 11 year old son. I’m supposed to run my house as a democracy since the research tells me this is the best way to protect my son from the pitfalls of life; drug and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, as well as low self-esteem. My son should feel special because he is Max. He should avoid being held responsible for his own actions because, let’s face it, the world is a scary place. I should shield him from disappointment and heartache. I should agree with him when he tells me that his teacher is mean, his friends are bullies and that life is unfair. I should edit his homework, have a home cooked meal on the table every night and insert myself into all aspects of his life. And I should feel guilty when I fail to do these things. Because, if I fail to follow the rules, I could ruin him for the rest of his life. (I’m here to tell you, that outside of the fact that my son is special because he is Max, I pretty much fail at all of these things).

I am a 43 year old single mother who struggles with this guilt every day.  A few weeks ago, early one morning, while sitting alone, a thought popped in my head. “You are a terrible mother”, it screamed at me. It was such a profound moment because it came out of nowhere. Nothing had happened. My ever smiling, ever laughing, straight A, introspective, thoughtful, happy go lucky son was the same child he had always been. And yet, in that moment, I was a failure.

Because I am trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I quickly went into damage control mode and made a mental list as to why I am not a terrible mother.

  1. Max is one of the happiest people I have ever met.
  2. Max is one of the most sensitive, introspective, thoughtful people I know.
  3. Max is one of the most well adjusted kids I have ever met despite his father and I splitting up 6 years ago, and enduring having to watch me lose both my brother and mother in a 1 ½ year span. Not to mention, he experienced those losses also.
  4. Max excels both socially and academically. His teachers love him and his friends want to be around him.
  5. Max confides in me. He still believes I’m the safe place to fall.
  6. Max puts up with my shit.

So, why given all of this evidence to the contrary, did a voice deep inside of me tell me I am a terrible mother? Outside of the internal psychological processes that go on individually inside all of us, we cannot deny we live in a world that judges every little thing we do when it comes to our children. And that world didn’t exist when we were being raised. The general social attitude towards parenting prior to 1980 was one that placed a certain level of responsibility on the children themselves to make good decisions, be independent, learn that life isn’t fair and that if you want to succeed, you will need to work hard for everything you get. Your parents didn’t show up unannounced at the school to demand to talk to the teacher if you got a bad grade. They asked you what you did to deserve that grade. They didn’t get mad at the coach when you didn’t make the team. They told you there were better kids that tried out. And they loved you anyway. They didn’t call your friend’s parents when you had a fight. They told you to go back out there and work it out. Someone, anyone, tell me…..what is wrong with that?

It’s hard not to be a helicopter parent in a world that tells you that you are failing to protect your child. I see it as quite the opposite. I have learned that the only way to get what you want is through hard work and perseverance. Of course, I have looked to others for support, but at the end of the day, every decision was my own.  It was a hard lesson. It still is a hard lesson. But I believe that my anti-hovering position will create a more self-reliant, appreciative human being. It already has. And for that I am thankful.

 






Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Guest Post: Fourth Grade



I am thrilled to introduce a guest post by Britt Lee. An brilliant woman who shares her unique perspectives on life with her blog: http://eastmeetsbreast.wordpress.com/
I was lucky to meet her about 28 years ago at a little spot called Unionville High School.




by Britt Lee

It’s possible my kid doesn’t entirely loathe school. It’s the wondering that’s nibbling at my peace and hollowing an area for dread and doubt in my belly. I distract myself with all of reasons he should love school—why isn’t he skipping to the bus stop with his backpack full of right answers? Doesn’t he know that with only a dozen days remaining, he can relax into the final moments of a grade he won’t remember in 30 years time? Is he truly excited about summer fun and different friends, or just anxious to put these last, tortured school days in the rearview? Is it really that bad?

Search me. He can’t seem to put it into words… only teary shoulder shrugs… the kind that let you feel the full weight of your parental shortcomings.

Fourth grade was a bit miserable for me, too. My teacher was weirdly formal and strict and everyone hated him. I was the new kid in school, and because I was very shy and way ahead of the class in writing and math, I was his fast favorite. The New Kid/Teacher’s Pet combo wasn’t ideal for making friends. This was also the year that a handful of girls decided boys weren’t gross and those odd, approximated couplings with them were in fashion. Yuck! Boys were loud and naughty and mean. Boys aimed for your face during dodge ball and called you names they learned from older siblings and threw worms at you. The only boy I was interested in was Ryan, because maybe he’d teach me how to do those cool three-dimensional drawings. But even he was, you know… gross.

I wanted to cry many days in fourth grade. I wasn’t bullied or harmed. I didn’t feel unsafe or unloved. I was just… unhappy. Was it really that bad? Well, if I remember it this clearly 30 years later, maybe so.

I’ve done my parental due diligence, making certain my little guy isn’t being bullied or harmed, and that he feels safe and loved. But even so, sometimes school—like a job or a relationship or the course Life is taking-- is just shitty. It’s difficult enough for grown folk in therapy to construct a thesis about Why Things Suck, and nearly impossible when you’re 10 years old. But how can I convince my child that salad days are ahead?

Search me. Instead I shared my own tales of Fourth Grade Nothingness--that I had the wrong jeans and few friends, how I made that weird teacher start hating me to right my reputation with the class mob, and why dodge ball is evil. I didn’t promise inevitable salad days for my gorgeous, smart little guy. In the moment, I don’t think that helps. For him, fifth grade is one million years away and he’s stuck in a purgatory between bells. I told him that it’s normal for school to be occasionally weird and awful and upsetting and boring because, for me, that’s how it was.

“So it’s… OK? I’m right to not like it?”

“You betcha, kiddo. Totally OK. Some people are jerks, some days just suck, and lacrosse is a huge pain the ass… but don’t use those words, or tell anyone I did.”

And then… the only utterance that could lift the weight of parental shortcomings: a giggle.


Today, my little guy dismounted the bus without any signs of dismay. There’s a new Avengers comic book waiting for him, there’s very little homework, and the only bad news to report was a forgotten jacket. The smell of lilacs is in the air, an always cozy home awaits, and a solemn promise has been issued: fourth grade will end. Maybe in 30 years time he won’t remember fourth grade, but I hope he remembers our shared complaints about it, showing him an alternate approach to the endurance of un-pleasantries that won’t shame him into false enjoyment or gloomy forbearance. No one can stop the clock! And with great luck, there will always be a kindred spirit who wants to commiserate… with a bit of humor and a few whispered, naughty words.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Abstracted Flower by Colleen Gianatiempo




                                 Abstracted Flower 30"x 30"                      Colleen Gianatiempo
                                 For Sale

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Glitter and Glue: Kelly Corrigan





     In the new memoir, Glitter and Glue, Kelly Corrigan uses her famous wit and candor to explore her relationship with her mother against the backdrop of a stint as a nanny to a motherless family in Australia. Kelly is becoming the resonant voice of Generation X women who grew up in the 1980’s.  Her 2009 book, The Middle Place, was a New York Times bestseller and her realistic and authentic first person voice detailed an experience with breast cancer as well as the amazing relationship she shares with her exceptional father, Greenie Corrigan. In Glitter and Glue, she explores a sometimes intense life with her mother, and comes to understand their complicated love as she cares for the Tanner family, who has lost a mother to cancer. After college, Kelly is on a youthful mission to explore the world and create her own insights on life, much to her practical mother’s chagrin. As a caretaker to young Martin and Amelia Tanner and companion to their older half-brother, Evan, Kelly gains some introspection regarding her mother who is the “glue” to Greenie’s glitter. In the vein of Michael Lewis, Corrigan is able to create her own narrative beside another tale of her travels in Australia. The style is conversational, sometimes sarcastic, and beautifully permeated by metaphor that feels authentic to the reader.  In difficulties with the willful and grieving young daughter Amelia Tanner, Kelly recalls,“The Guess Jeans Fight of 1984,” which will leave readers who grew up in the 1980’s chuckling. (Excerpt: https://medium.com/thoughts-for-thinking-women/e68bcbef1fc1). There is a rhythm and poignancy to her words and the book is one that will most likely be read in one sitting as it was for me.

     Author Ernest Gaines once said that he started writing of his childhood in rural Louisiana because he wished for books about his people. I feel as if Kelly is writing for my people because like me, she was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, summered in Avalon (a lovely part of the Jersey shore), and moved 3,000 miles away to the San Francisco Bay area where she became a mother. Not since I was a youngster reading the books of Judy Blume has a writer captured my feelings and thoughts on so many levels. I was so sad to put down this book that I reread The Middle Place which was even better the second time around. As a reviewer, I see a long writing career for Kelly Corrigan and hope her books will be adapted to film. Glitter and Glue is a special book on parenthood, coming of age, love, and loss which is written in a rich and realistic tone. Thank you Kelly for another jewel of a book and I hope you will keep them coming.




Thursday, January 16, 2014

Songwriters on Songwriting: Paul Zollo

















What were some early influences in your life that led you to pursue a career in music?


A great love of music from as early as I can recall. I remember well that there was nothing that moved me and sent me more than music. I had a little record player with a big cylinder in the center that played only singles – 45s. Which sufficed at first? My sister Peggy had a regular little stereo that could play LPs – and I remember lusting after it; the thought of being able to listen to a record anytime at all seemed like heaven to me.


My dad had great folk records I loved, like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie & The Weavers. And I loved AM radio and my 45s. I remember distinctly the first time The Beatles were on radio, and how different – and amazing – it sounded. It was the sound of their voices in harmony – the quality of those voices – and chromatic chord changes with minor chords like in “I Want To Hold Your Hand”- didn’t know technically at the time what that was, but I knew it was new. Different. And so powerful. The Beatles were a jolt of electricity to my soul.


Nothing meant more to me than music. Early on it was bands like the Stones, Monkees, The Association. I loved Peter, Paul & Mary. And Donovan! First record I ever bought myself was Donovan. And the first big concert I ever saw. My parents took my brother and me – the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. We had to wear jackets and ties! My brother, who is older, was so embarrassed. But I didn’t mind. I got to see Donovan! He was like a god. A young beautiful god.  


And Simon & Garfunkel were everything to me. I started playing guitar at 11 and writing songs right away, and very much in the sway of Simon and the Beatles. My first songs were imitations of their songs. Mostly in terms of the music and phrasing – and they were poetic, my songs, but really made little sense. Which is okay. I learned how to rhyme – how to phrase – how to construct a song. Clarity of content came later.


Then the Chicago folk music scene inspired me – which was amazing then in the early 70s. Steve Goodman, John Prine, Bob Gibson, Corky Siegel, Claudia Schmidt. I loved them all and would ask them – backstage, after shows - to listen to my songs. Bob Gibson liked one enough to ask for a tape of it, which thrilled me. And Goodman – he wrote “City of New Orleans” - gave me my first songwriting lesson. He let me play him a song on his big black acoustic. I played a very surreal, abstract song I wrote called “Troubled Winter.”  He said it was good, but that he “coulda written that whole song in one line.” Which was brutal but true, and from that day on I started writing good songs. Songs that made sense. Thanks Stevey for that. I have been on that path ever since.


 


How did you originally come to the vision that became your most celebrated work, Songwriters on Songwriting?


As I kid and after I was always frustrated by interviews with great songwriters – such as Dylan or Simon or McCartney – that asked very few questions about songwriting itself. And very little about music. Most journalists are not musicians, so they cannot speak about the music itself to any extent. But this is the subject about which songwriters know most.


So I came to Hollywood and formed a band called The Ghosters to do my own songs. And started hanging out at the National Academy of Songwriters. In 1987 they made me editor of SongTalk – which was their journal – I took the job with the aim of inviting the world’s great songwriters to talk in depth about the art and craft of songwriting, with keen focus on their body of work. To ask all the questions I always wanted to ask! The people there gave me a great honor, this job, and though they weren’t sure what I would or could do, they let me do it.


I made a big list of people I hoped to get interviews with. From the start, my vision was the one which is constant in the book – that all songwriters are to be included, that all “songwriters are links in a chain,” as Pete Seeger put it – and not to be segregated into genres or generations – although that is how the industry markets music.

So my very first issue of SongTalk reflects my aim – it had an interview with Frank Zappa! And also one with Livingston & Evans, songwriters of “Silver Bells,” “Que Sera” and other standards. That extreme – from “Silver Bells” to “Black Napkins” – that encompasses the whole aim.


Over successive years I was able to land many of the main interviews I had hoped for, and with so many of my personal heroes, including both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. From the start I always envisioned a book of these interviews – and I did the first one with Writer’s Digest books. That one was much smaller – then Da Capo Press in NY agreed to do a revised version – and they have published three beautiful editions of it. I am very grateful to Da Capo, because unlike most other book publishers, they keep a book alive over many years. Because of them, I am presently at work on Volume II, which will be complete in 2014.


Many of the artists that you interviewed in the book are notoriously press shy. How were you able to interview them?


Through many years of persistence – of what I call ‘polite pestering.’ One interview often led to the next. The great Van Dyke Parks, happy with the interview we did, asked if I wanted to talk to his pal Harry. He meant Harry Nilsson! I did. And many noticed previous interviews. My talk with Randy Newman got a lot of attention – as I love Randy dearly and really know his stuff – and he is very brilliant and also hilarious. It took years, but eventually Paul Simon said yes – and we did two long and in-depth interviews. Dylan noticed that one and said yes. He said, “You and Paul Simon talked a lot.” Tom Petty and many others saw my Dylan interview – the only one he ever gave on the art of songwriting – and such an amazing talk we had – he is Bob Dylan after all! – that led to many.


But mostly it took years of persistence – of pleading with their gate-keepers. It’s not easy to get directly to these people – you have to go through their people – and that is an art in itself. It is still my life. I am still trying to get certain interviews, as I compile Vol. II of Songwriters On Songwriting.
 


Among the many interviews, were there any highlights or surprises for you as a writer?


Of course! Being with Dylan, for me, was like being with Shakespeare. Just so monumental. Dylan saying to me, “The world doesn’t need any new songs.” Pete Seeger singing and playing banjo for me. Laura Nyro sharing SO much love and wisdom after years of resisting doing an interview. Harry Nilsson driving around the Hollywood Hills with me playing tapes of him and Lennon working on songs, and tearing up. Randy Newman making jokes just for me – and great jokes! And Randy playing new songs for me – like “Four Eyes” when it was new – thundering on his grand piano. Madonna, in answer to my question about why people don’t know she is a songwriter, saying, “Because they think I am a slut?” Alice Cooper being one of the sweetest and warmest guys I have ever met, and telling me his favorite songwriter was Laura Nyro! Then we both swooned over Laura for awhile. Willie Dixon showing me his BMI print-out of thousands of songs, as thick as a phone book. Frank Zappa inviting me to his home and playing me works in progress on the Synclavier. Sammy Cahn making up rhymes about me (“There’s Paul with his beard, he looks a little weird…”).Paul Simon kindly allowing me to play him some of my songs – and giving me a critique of each. Paul letting me watch his recording session during Rhythm of the Saints with Roy Halee engineering. Drinking coffee out of a glass with Bob Dylan cause Dylan said it’s better out of a glass. Dylan singing part of the song “People,” which Barbra Streisand sang. Watching a Cindy Crawford bikini photo shoot at a hotel pool from a hotel window with all 4 members of R.E.M. Sitting with Leonard Cohen in his home, paging through his notebooks of lyrics. Talking to Pete Seeger about Woody Guthrie, and delighting in this closeness to history. Meeting the mysterious and amazing P.F. Sloan, who had been missing in action for decades. Planting a tree on Vine Street in Hollywood, 1984 with the great Mose Allison (a tree that’s still there!). Talking to Brian Wilson as he lay on the couch like I was his analyst. Playing chess with Gerry Goffin and getting quickly beat! Eating tuna sandwiches and corn chowder with David Byrne at Ben Frank’s diner in Hollywood. Sitting with Leiber & Stoller in their office as they talked about the guy they called “Presley,” and his recording of songs they wrote, like “Hound Dog.”


And so many more.




What were the details regarding your collaboration with Art Garfunkel?


I had the great privilege and joy of interviewing him a few times, and he appreciated my “earnestness,” as he put it, and my deep knowledge of his work, and his contribution. I’ve always considered him one of the greatest harmony singers of our time, up there with McCartney and David Crosby. So I interviewed him first on the phone and the second time in Manhattan. We went out for breakfast, and he invited me to his apartment – back when his son as just a tot. He’s a very sweet guy, Artie, and a poet. And very smart. So I loved talking to him. When I was working on my first solo album, Orange Avenue, I wrote a song based on John Fante’s books called “Being In This World.” It’s very folky, and it was my dream to sing it with Artie. Well, that has been a lifelong dream of mine – to have that voice in harmony with mine on one of my own songs. So I invited him to do it, and he kindly agreed. He was coming out to L.A., so during that trip he came to the studio where we were working, Boulevard Sound, on Hollywood Boulevard, and he sang his parts.


And he was so great. He could have just done a part on the chorus, and that would have been wonderful. But instead he spent several hours learning my phrasing exactly by singing in unison with me, and then composed harmony parts for every verse and chorus. And we doubled each part – and on the bridge I asked him to sing an extra harmony part against just his voice, without mine – which he did – and the effect is so beautiful. It’s a dream come true for me, that song, to hear my voice with Art Garfunkel. I still haven’t gotten over it!  I grew up dreaming every day of being in that world – the world behind the microphone! In the mysterious and great recording studio! In the world where Simon and Garfunkel made their magic. So to go there – and to exit that dream with a record of Zollo and Garfunkel together – well, to me, there is nothing more magical.




How do you find inspiration for your music, songwriting, and photography? What keeps your work fresh?


There’s nothing more fun to me that creating some kind of art. Songs are the best of course – but I am seriously enthralled with photography – and taking and making great photographs to me is almost as fulfilling and fun as writing a song. And they feed on each other – taking photos and thinking in terms of visuals – of telling stories with pictures – is a great exercise for a songwriter, as the best songs use imagery and symbology to tell stories. So I am forever taking photos – and working on those photos – which inspires and triggers work on songs. And I also love recording – I do a lot of home recording as well as in the studio, and am finishing up my second solo album now – and that is as creative as writing the songs – in some ways more challenging and even more fulfilling. And I write about music – and work on book projects – and all of it is part of the same hunger to create something new.


 


But nothing to me is more fun – or more rewarding – than writing songs. Because songs have a special kind of magic. They get inside of people. You can carry them around. And when you work on them, you go into the song – you follow it where it wants to go. You might lead it down certain paths, but it makes the choices. And that process - when it is going well – is enthralling. There’s nothing better.


 


But it takes a whole lot of focus and energy. So you do need to stop. To take a break. But to keep the motor going, to keep the engine plugged in and charging.


 


Who are some of your favorite musicians, visual artists, and writers? Past and Present.


 


Writers: Scott Fitzgerald, John Fante, Jack Kerouac, Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas. Artists: Jackson Pollack, Robert Frank, Joseph Cornell, Diane Arbus, Edward Hopper, Rauschenberg. Musicians: Coltrane, Gershwin, Van Dyke Parks, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Dylan, Elvis, Laura Nyro, Simon, Beatles, Pete Seeger, The Clash, Stevie Wonder, Mary Lambert, Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Pretenders.


 


 


What advice do you have for people who struggle with songwriting and guitar playing?


Stop struggling. There is much in life with which to struggle. But music – and songwriting – is joyful. If you have a gift to write songs, recognize it is a gift and not a burden. If you subscribe to the myth that life must be in turmoil for you to write songs, get beyond that and learn to write when you are happy. It is a gift and if you can play music you are privileged. Recognize that the writing of a song – regardless if anyone ever hears it even – is a triumph of the human spirit, as Van Dyke Parks said. You are successful if you have written a song already – you don’t need the world to tell you so. When you understand that, you begin to understand that songwriting is not a struggle, it is a privilege. Which is not to say it always is a smooth ride. It isn’t. Like any creative endeavor, sometimes you try and try and get nowhere. But the only person in your way is you. If you want to make art – if you want to write songs – the only way to do it is by doing it.


Even among some fine songwriters I know, I see they do not honor the songwriter in them. They do not allow it to flourish. But that is necessary. You have to recognize that writing songs matters, and then structure your life in a way that enables you to write songs. This means making time. You have to give yourself real time – every day or almost every day – to do is seriously. If you consider it just a lark, something you do once in a rare while, you can remain a hobbyist. But if you want to be a serious songwriter, treat it seriously: allow yourself ample time to do it, and to refine. You need to give yourself challenges sometimes – or assignments if you will – and then carry those out. Decide to write a song about a certain topic – or a certain kind of musical feel – and then go for it. And finish the song. And it is paramount you finish, so that you establish with your own psyche that you are someone who finishes songs! If you keep starting and never finish anything, you have your own pattern in your way. So create a positive pattern. Finish the songs.


 


I asked Dylan if he finishes songs he doesn’t think will be keepers. He said absolutely. That maybe it’s a song for someone else, if not for you. In fact, it’s usually his simpler songs that have been covered a lot. So that makes sense.


 


But also it’s important not to really even start thinking if it’s a keeper or not. You need to keep that judgmental voice out of play. As Randy Newman said, “Don’t let the critic become bigger than the creator.”  Do not start judging it while you are in the midst of creating it, or you will destroy it. You have to remain open to the joy of the music, of the words, of the play between them. By which I mean have fun! I think songwriting should be fun. It sure is for me. 


 


What is your message for people of all ages to cultivate artistic creativity and imagination in their own lives?


To realize creativity takes all forms – and all humans are creative. Whether it’s painting a picture, or writing a book – or making a garden, or a story for your kids. A whole lot of people acquire stuff every day to make themselves feel better – but you don’t need to go to the mall. You can create something new in your own life. As kids, we’re all creative naturally – but a lot of adults relegate creative play to childhood – the whole realm of imagination – and feel that dwelling in this shared reality is what matters most. But it is healthy and right to play in the imagination. It’s often considered wrong to want to escape reality in any way – but it’s not, God designed us this way with many exit signs!  – and our minds are set up that way, to exist on many planes at once – we are in the present, in memory, in ideas, in fantasy, in humor – and we zip through these levels instantly and naturally. As a songwriter, I consciously delve into the unconscious to work on songs. Which I used to think an odd thing to do – to consciously try to reach beyond your own conscious ideas. Yet I realized we do it all the time – we daydream while people are talking to us! That is a natural aspect of being human. And a nourishing one. Much more so than constant and endless passive reception of input – whether it’s TV or some other medium. Which of course, I love and do every day of my life. But it’s a whole other dimension there for us, this endless river of creativity – and available to all humans all the time. Kids know this, but adults forget.


 


Please tell us about some of your current projects and the organic nature of your best known work: Songwriters on Songwriting?


I have been writing many new songs, both for myself and with my pal and frequent co-writer Darryl Purpose. We have three co-writes on his current album, and are aiming to write all the songs for his new one- and of course I do a lot of these songs myself. We have written quite a range of stuff already – including my first ever Buddhist song – a song about non-violence built around a beautiful Buddha story- it’s called “When Buddha Smiled at the Elephant [With His Heart].”

And I am excited that my first solo album on Trough Records, on which I’ve been working for several years, will be released in early 2014. It’s called Universal Cure – 13 songs I wrote and/or co-wrote – and with a bounty of amazing artists and musicians. The great Terre Roche – of the Roches – honored me greatly by singing on the song “Maggie.” Tomas Ulrich, one of this planet’s most gifted cellists, plays on that song. And I’ve got the Zollo Band throughout – featuring the amazing artistry of my dear friends Earl Grey – who both plays and sings a lot of harmonies on this – Aaron Wolfson, whos electric guitar leads astound me every time I hear them – several legendary drummers including John Molo and Mike Baird. My old pal Bobby Malone – who plays now in John Fogerty’s band – on keys. And much more.

I will do several concert and club tours in 2014 – including playing my hometown of Chicago in March with Darryl – and elsewhere.

I am also working on several book projects. Most prominently is Volume 2 of Songwriters On Songwriting. To answer your organic question. This book has organically expanded many times. Volume 1 was expanded several times, so we are now doing a whole new edition – with about 60 new interviews – including ones with Leiber & Stoller, James Taylor, John Prine, Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Don McLean, Loretta Lynn, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and more. Well, I hope more! I do not like to linger on the names of those great songwriters I have yet to interview, as it is maddening. But there are many. And my life and work will always seem incomplete to me until I do those. Yet I realized – after a few years – its best not to focus on that in public, as it’s negative – and better for people to see what is there than what isn’t. And what is there is substantial! I know that’s obvious, but anyone who does this work gets obsessed with the elusive ones – the missing links in the songwriter’s chain – so easy to go there. But better to celebrate what is there, and the work that is done. Martha Graham spoke about the “divine dissatisfaction” inherent in the soul of all artists. And that I share – and it is helpful and not to rest one one’s laurels (or Hardys, as Tom Waits would say).

But at some point all artists do need to stop, and reflect. And if possible – and it isn’t always easy – to revel in all that is done, and feel a measure of completeness and satisfaction. If only for a moment! Before we get back to work. 
 


I am hoping to finish Angeleno, which is my photo collection of portraits. Plus I am doing a book with Randy Newman, to be called Conversations with Randy Newman. I am thrilled about this; I have tried for years to get Randy to agree to do a book, and he has at last. I have interviewed him many times over the last 25 years, so the book will be rich with his thoughts as they have expanded and evolved. The man is not only a genius – he’s also hilarious, the funniest of any of the famous songwriters I’ve come to know.


 
Also doing a book with another amazing artist – Dave Stewart – or Captain Dave, as Bob Dylan calls him. He is a creative phenomenon, Dave is – making art in all directions – and totally fearless, as Dylan also noted. We are doing a book called The Ringmaster – which focuses on his songwriting – but branches out to the multitude of art he makes – and more. The man is even starting a bank, the First Artist’s Bank. He has written songs with so many greats – including Dylan and also Mick Jagger, Bono, Sinead, Orianthi, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and so many others. He’s one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. So I am excited about that as well.


 

Paul Zollo and Art Garfunkel collaboration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R9la0i7GEk