A Happier Hour with Sophie McManus & Helen Ellis
On Monday night, I had the privilege of hosting authors Sophie McManus and Helen Ellis for a Happier Hour Literary Salon here in my home. It was a robust crowd despite the wintry weather; we were all eager to hear Sophie talk about her novel The Unfortunatesand Helen talk about her story collection American Housewifeand a little snowy/slushy aftermath wasn't going to stop us.
Thalia from my favorite Upper West Side independent shop Book Culture was here to sell tons of books and thanks to our friends at Pasternak Wine, lucky guests swilled Prieuré de Montézargues Tavel Rosé, a delicious winter rosé wine (in gorgeous and graceful oversized bottles) from Rhone Valley, France.
And thanks to local chef Melanie Ann Cairns, we were all very well-fed with fresh and scrumptious bites. Think: mini braised short rib shepards pie, cranberry baked Brie canapés with rosemary and apple, butternut squash arancini, spinach and Asiago tartlets, mini sandwiches and crudités, brownies and apple pies (pictured below).
The highlight of the evening of course was cramming into my yellow living room to hear the authors speak. Both Sophie and Helen read selections from their respective books, but also they talked openly about themselves, their paths to publication, and the writing process. This is always my favorite part of the evening, when the real conversation begins, when all of us are able to glimpse the person beyond the page.
My mind is still buzzing from the rich and lively evening, but what struck me most powerfully was the story behind each success. Sophie's novel The Unfortunates, a brilliant story about a privileged family in decline,has received numerous critical accolades (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award Finalist, long listed for he National Book Critic's Circle John Leonard Award for debut authors, shortlisted for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, see the impressive list here). Helen's American Housewife, a series of bitingly funny and whip-smart stories, was published only a bit more than a week ago and has already hit the New York Times Bestseller List.
So, yes, success.
But this is where it gets interesting for me. Sophie told us that she spent eleven years writing and editing her novel. She admitted that she learned to write on this book, that early drafts look nothing at all like the final product. And Helen (The Real Housewife of New York (Who Happens to Be a Poker Star)), confessed that her writing road has been rocky in spots. She published a well-received novel called Eating the Cheshire Catin 2001, but has since struggled with writing, publishing books she said that no one read. So hers is a bit of a comeback story, and a wonderful one. Talk about inspiration.
Both authors spoke of learning to fail. Sophie said that spending so long writing a book in many ways taught her to fail and to handle failure and the lessons she learned spilled over into the rest of her life and "chilled her out." Helen touched on this theme as well, bringing in her experience as a poker player, and the attitude that "there's always another tournament."
The best part of Monday, of all of these evenings, was the feeling in that very crowded yellow living room. I mean look at this picture my dear friend Kelly Hoey snapped. So much laughter and life and love and warmth. I looked out over the sea of riveted, smiling faces and I thought: This is meaningful. This is about writing and books and strong and smart women supporting each other, but it's even more than that. The magic of these nights is truly hard to articulate.
Books. They are everything, aren't they? They allow us to see ourselves and escape ourselves, to try on new lives and go places we would never otherwise go. I'm so deeply grateful to all of the readers and writers and book-lovers in my life, including all of you, and including the two tremendous talents who flank me in the picture below.
Thank you, Sophie and Helen, for writing such fantastic books and for joining me and all of us on Monday night!
To learn more about Happier Hours Literary Salons, visit the site.