A Conversation with Tembi Locke

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Tembi Locke this month, whose debut memoir From Scratch hit the shelves just over a week ago, and it has already landed on the New York Times best-seller list. It is also Reese Witherspoon's pick for her Hello Sunshine book club!

Tembi Locke is an accomplished actor who has appeared in over forty television shows and films, including The Magicians, NCIS: LA, Animal Kingdom and Dumb and Dumber To. She is also a TEDx speaker, and her talk, “What Forty Steps Taught Me About Love and Grief,” traces her journey as a cancer caregiver. She is the creative voice behind The Kitchen Widow, a web series and grief support community that has received mentions in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Tembi's debut memoir From Scratch chronicles three summers she spends in Sicily with her daughter, Zoela, as she begins to piece together a life without her husband in his tiny hometown hamlet of farmers. Where once Tembi was estranged from Saro’s family, now she finds solace and nourishment—literally and spiritually—at her mother in law’s table. In the Sicilian countryside, she discovers the healing gifts of simple fresh food, the embrace of a close knit community, and timeless traditions and wisdom that light a path forward. All along the way she reflects on her and Saro’s incredible romance—an indelible love story that leaps off the pages.

Photo: Jenny Walters

Photo: Jenny Walters


Karin Gutman: When I first met you, you referred to yourself as a Grief Advocate. Can you describe what that is? 
Tembi Locke: It’s a term to explain the work I do as a public figure advocating for greater care and connection for family caregivers and grieving families, especially at end-of-life care. The work is born of my direct experience as a long-term caregiver, mother and now widow. I use my personal story to inspire people, communities and health care professionals to call on the art of comfort when it matters most.
Karin: What do you mean by ‘the art of comfort’?
Tembi: “The art of comfort” is a term that refers to the lost art of knowing how to comfort and care for another human being through grief and illness. I borrow it from Val Walker's wonderful book, The Art of Comforting.
Karin: You are an actor by profession, so I’m wondering if moving into the world of writing was a big leap for you?
Tembi: Writing was not a big leap because both acting and writing are, at their core, storytelling. As an actor, I tell a story through behavior using given circumstances. In my work as a writer, I do the same only the characters are on the page.

About three years into my husband’s diagnosis, I started writing to make sense of my lived experience as a young mother and primary caregiver. I thought that I would perhaps write a book on caregiving. That book never got written. However, FROM SCRATCH, as a fully formed book idea, began to come into my imagination years after his death, longer still before I gave myself permission to write it.
Karin: What is the underlying theme of the book? What is it really about?
The book is a cross-cultural love story set largely in Sicily. It has interlacing themes of family, loss, motherhood, identity, forgiveness and the search for home. And it is also a love letter to the natural world and the food I shared at the side of a chef. It has been called Eat Pray Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking and Under the Tuscan Sun. So there’s the sense of embarking on a journey of self-discovery. However, this is one that is prompted by deep grief and plays out through the lens of motherhood.
There is no way to prepare yourself for the internal landscape for life after death. Life is fundamentally different. The book is my attempt to make sense and meaning of such a deep and life altering love and then loss.

The title, FROM SCRATCH, also has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it is directly connected to the theme of food in the book. But it is also about building an improbable love and life from scratch and then having to start over from scratch.
Karin: Can you describe your process of writing the book?
Tembi: Blessedly, I work well with deadlines. Once I sold the book, I created a page count schedule and mini-deadlines in order to deliver the manuscript on time—literally pages per week/month. I dreaded the idea of falling behind or feeling any additional overwhelm than I already felt. So I held myself accountable by working with Shawna Kenney as my weekly coach. She kept me accountable to the schedule. Then I met my “pages per month” goal any way I could. Lots of espresso. Lots of time thinking about the book away from the page. It was challenging, I won’t lie. I often felt the pressure to get more writing in. I had panics in the middle of the night, but learned to use short chunks of time and submitted to the creative fits and starts of it all. And because parts of the story are emotionally wrenching, I also allowed for the light writing days or no writing at all. For me, excavating memory has to be a gentle process.
Karin: Did you document your journey as it was happening? Through your husband’s illness and after his death?
Tembi: I have journaled off and on my entire adult life. Those journals were instrumental in my being able to access memories, as were letters, texts, photographs and emails. I also had over five years of writings and essays from workshops and classes at UCLA.
Karin: What was the most challenging part of the process? The most rewarding?
Tembi: The most challenging part was psychologically convincing myself I could do this—so hard. And it was making peace with the very haphazard writing practice I had while also auditioning, working on set and being a mother. The most rewarding part was when I held a galley of the book in my hand for the first time. There is no feeling like it. I danced and drank champagne.
Karin: Since you’re writing about family, did you need to get permission from family members to put this story out in the world?
Tembi: I chose transparency. My book is set in two countries with three languages. I knew every family member would not be able to read the book. So I felt I had to tell them I was writing the book, share its intent, and be specific about the parts of their story that touched on my story. And, in certain cases, I asked some people if it was okay to include a specific detail.

Karin: Were you ever concerned about writing about your daughter?

Tembi: The book is a love letter to my daughter. I was always aware of her, as both a part of the story and as a future reader.
Karin: What did you discover about your story and yourself through writing the book? 
Tembi: I discovered a bravery I didn’t know I had. And honestly, that I am an awful mess during copy edits.


Meet Tembi!

Upcoming Book Events

May 17th / Los Angeles: Diesel Books Luncheon in Los Angeles, 12pm

May 18th / Pasadena: Pasadena LitFest, 3-4pm

June 14th / Houston: Brazos Bookstore, 7-8pm

August 7th / New York City: Bryant Park Reading Series, 12 pm

October 26-27 / Austin: Texas Book Festival

To learn more about Tembi and upcoming events, visit her website.

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A Conversation with Wendy Adamson

I'm thrilled to share that Wendy Adamson, a former member of the Unlocking Your Story workshop, is coming out with her debut memoir MOTHER LOAD on May 12th from Rothco Press. It is truly soul satisfying to witness a story grow from its tiny seeds into a full-blown narrative that can now be shared with the world. Hers is an affecting story of recovery and triumph from the dark depths of addiction. In our interview she shares how it feels to expose her truth to the world and how having a sacred space early on in the creative process was vital.

With over twenty years of experience, Wendy Adamson is a seasoned professional in the field of mental health and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. She not only has a vast knowledge of addiction, but as a sober woman, she has a deep understanding of the recovery process as well. With her Certification in Alcohol-Drug abuse from UCLA Wendy has been able to help hundreds of suffering individuals get the help they need.

Wendy is also a dedicated activist who has been instrumental in directing the vision of Hav A Sole, a nonprofit whose mission it is to deliver high-quality tennis shoes to homeless and at-risk youth. Using her writing, marketing and outreach strategies, Wendy has helped turn Hav A Sole into a thriving organization that celebrates Los Angeles as a caring and connected metropolis by building community through volunteerism.

As an inspiring speaker, Wendy shares a heartfelt message of hope as she candidly talks about her own addiction, before launching into how she turned her life around. With long-term sobriety, Wendy believes that only by telling our personal stories of recovery can we heal the shame associated with mental illness and addiction. Wendy is a passionate communicator whose goal is to invoke social change by de-stigmatizing the disease.  


In her new memoir, Mother Load, Wendy shows us how a little league, PTA mom can get dragged down the rabbit hole of methamphetamine when she has a psychotic break, shoots her husband’s mistress and ends up in county jail. 

That was over twenty-five years ago and thankfully, Wendy is still sober. For someone who seemed destined to end up a sad statistic of drug addiction, the fact that Wendy not only survived, but is a thriving, productive individual is a testament that transformation is possible.


Karin Gutman: Oh my, congratulations. I am beyond thrilled for you! Tell me, how long have you been working on your memoir — MOTHER LOAD — that will soon be released?
Wendy Adamson: Thank you so much, Karin. Honestly, I first knew I was supposed to write Mother Load 20 years ago. But it took 10 years to actually start working on it and another 10 years to finish it.
Karin: Can you share what it’s about?  
Wendy: In Mother Load, I show how as a little league mom I got dragged down the rabbit hole when in a drug-induced psychotic break, I shot my husband’s mistress in the arm which landed me in the county jail, when I was 38 years old, the same age as my mother was when she had her psychotic break and drowned herself in a bathtub. I was 7 at the time. While I was determined never to be like my crazy mother, it seemed as if I was following in her footsteps. 
Mother Load is a story about my undoing, and what it took to put my life back together again, so I could go on to become the mother I never had when I was a kid.

Karin: You were in the Unlocking Your Story workshop early on in the process. In what way did that writing space support you?

Wendy: Having a safe writing space was critical in my development as a writer. I had so much shame about shooting my husband’s mistress and the mistakes I had made as a mother, that it took me attending several workshops before I started to reveal some parts of my story in the class. Meanwhile, the structure, prompts and valuable guidance, made me feel more at ease as I developed some writing skills.

I remember the first time I shared my pages about the night I went to jail. I was so scared of being judged that my heart was pounding inside my chest. When I was finished reading I could barely look at anyone. But as we went around the room, all the women were so incredibly supportive with their feedback that it ultimately allowed me to become even more vulnerable in the class.
Karin: What were the most challenging aspects of writing your story?
Wendy: I grew up in a household where we were told never to talk about my mother’s mental illness. So, keeping secrets was a behavior I learned from early on. Even though my mother and father were long gone, to break the silence was a constant internal battle for me. There were times I felt like I was undoing the pathways that had been hard-wired inside my brain. I had to commit to sitting down every morning before work and write my truth no matter what.
What helped keep me focused was a deep desire to help others who were struggling with addiction or mental illness. I have read plenty of books about horrible parents written by the children, but I had never read a story of a mother who becomes determined to heal the family’s wounds. Since I work in an adolescent mental health treatment center, I knew it was a story that parents needed to hear.  
Karin: What have you discovered about your story through the writing process, something that you might not have been conscious of at the beginning?
Wendy: When I got sober I was extremely fluent in Victim-ese, blaming everybody else for what was wrong with my life. Through my speaking in juvenile halls or prisons and through my writing, I have been able to assign a new narrative to all the adversity I have been through. Nothing is wasted if I’m willing to use it as a tool to help someone else.
Karin: I believe that writing our stories is transformative. Is that your experience, too? If so, in what way have you been transformed?
Wendy: Sometimes when I was writing I would feel a conviction of being aligned with something greater than myself. It filled me with confidence instead of my usual self-doubt. I think the transformation occurred as I began to discover a deeply committed and focused woman inside me, who would go to any lengths to get the book done.
Karin: They say that writing is rewriting. How did you approach the editing process and getting the manuscript to a place where you were ready to share with an agent?
Wendy: I made so many mistakes along the way and did everything completely backwards. At first, I got an agent with a book proposal before Mother Load was even completed. While some of the publishers said they liked the story, they also said I didn’t have a strong enough platform to sell it. After a year of rejections, I let go of the agent and got busy finishing the book. As I lasered in on the emotional thread, a cleaner, more developed version of the story began to reveal itself to me. When I had a strong enough first draft I hired an editor to help me go through everything and sent pages to her every week. During that process there were entire chapters I had to eliminate because they didn’t move the story forward or it didn’t reveal anything new about the character. After I was done I tried submitting the completed book this time.
Karin: How did you land a publishing deal?
Wendy: After nearly 100 rejections from literary agents from New York to L.A, I was a little discouraged. Finally, I decided to submit my memoir to a small independent publisher by the name of Rothco Press. I was ecstatic when they told me they loved Mother Load and wanted to publish it.
Karin: How does it feel to share your life with the world? How did you get beyond any feelings of fear you might have had in exposing yourself?
Wendy: I still find myself vacillating between excitement, terror and fear. On the one hand, I am thrilled to have completed something that I can share with the world, but on the other hand, I still have some residual fear of being exposed. All I can say is the one thing that trumps any fear, doubt or worry is the deep desire I have to help others. There are so many individuals suffering out there like I did who need to know despite anything you’ve been through, it’s possible to heal your life.
Karin: Did you have to address any liability issues with people in the story who are still alive?
Funny you should ask. It was just last Thanksgiving that I saw my ex-husband and told him he was in my book, but that I had changed his name. He chuckled a bit at the notion that he would be in my memoir, but I’m not sure his new wife (not the one I shot) was quite that amused.  
I changed most of the names to avoid repercussions, but thankfully my two boys have turned into my biggest fans so I left their names the same.
Karin: Imagine yourself way back at the beginning of the process. What advice would you give her?

Wendy: Trust in the process. Find your voice and you’ll find your power.


Hear Wendy read an excerpt from her book at KPCC's Unheard LA.

To learn more about Wendy, visit her website and buy the book!

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A Conversation with Jule Selbo

I'm taking a slight detour from memoir, to learn about writing historical fiction!

My dear friend, mentor and colleague, Jule Selbo, recently released her book about the legendary explorer John Cabot. Jule has been instrumental in my path as a educator. As the former Chair of the MFA screenwriting program at Cal State University, Jule invited me to teach Story Structure to undergrads after completing my degree. It's no surprise that she says 'structure' is the thing she comes back to time and again, no matter what she is writing - a play, screenplay or novel. I wholeheartedly agree and highly recommend her book Screenplay: Building Story Through Character if you want to learn more about her approach. It can be applied to any story you're writing, not just a screenplay!

Jule Selbo is a tour de force! She has written feature films and television series for major studios and networks, and plays that have been produced in New York City and Los Angeles. In addition, she has written books on screenwriting and created the Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program at California State University, Fullerton, where she is a professor.

Jule's debut historical fiction novel, John Cabot: Dreams of Discovery, captures the life of the great explorer. As a child, Cabot dreamed of captaining a ship across a mysterious, uncharted Ocean -  from Europe to the riches of China. In the 15th century, the Turks had a stranglehold on the Silk Road, the only viable trading route from Europe to the Far East. There were promised riches and glory to the one who could find an alternate route to Asia. This is a story of a determined man who risked everything.

Karin Gutman: What drew you to write a book about John Cabot? 

Jule Selbo: A wonderful Italian-American man named Robert Barbera became determined that one of his legacies would be commissioning books on the Italians or Italian-Americans who contributed to America. His publishing arm is Barbera/Mentoris; he believes that books on actual people who overcame great odds to achieve goals can inspire. I was lucky to be hired to write two of these books—the first one is the story of Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) and the other is about Laura Bassi, a scientist in the 1700s in Bologna, Italy who, taking her cues from the newly coined era called the Enlightenment, became the first woman to gain her doctorate at the prestigious University of Bologna. And after many obstacles, she became the head of the physics department, paving the way for many women to receive higher education in Europe.

The story of Giovanni Caboto (he took the name John Cabot when he moved to England to get King Henry VII’s patronage) was a great challenge and that is partly why it appealed to me. Whereas Columbus was a bit of a braggart and attention seeker, Caboto kept his focus on two things: his dream of exploration and his family. Digging into his story, bringing the scenes and characters to life, researching the paths of other explorers and coming to an understanding of navigation and politics of the era—all of it was fascinating to me.
Karin: Had you ever written historical fiction? How did you approach the process?

Jule: I have been a history buff my whole life. When I wrote for George Lucas on Young Indiana Jones Chronicles we were asked to be as historically correct as we could be (that’s where the fiction comes in) as we brought young Indiana Jones to life. In one of my episodes, young Indiana hangs with Puccini during the first production of Madame Butterfly, in another he is with Bronislaw Malinowski in New Guinea (one of the first anthropologists), in another he learns to play tenor saxophone with Sidney Bichet. Of course, sometimes “adventure” was added and sometimes the adventure of the story was inherent—but the historical parts of the characters and era were true to the time.

As far as HISTORICAL NOVEL, yes, this is my first one.

How did I approach it? I spent many many weeks in research.  Then I would start to structure how I might tell the story.  My “boss,” Mr. Barbera, wanted a life to death story, so I knew I had a lot to cover. I needed to find, for me, what make this character “tick” and have the gumption to fight for his huge goal. Then I would go back to research. And write again. The Caboto book took about 9 months to write. I am a stickler for keeping it as “true” as possible. 

Karin: You call this a NOVEL versus an autobiography. How do you strike the balance between writing about someone’s life and taking liberties of fictionalizing it?

Jule: The most interesting challenge is making the characters “talk” and creating the scenes and pushing the story forward. The goal was not to go over 70,000 words. That’s about 230 pages or so. That’s not a lot of pages to tell a complete life story. But because my background is screenwriting, the word “cut to” kept coming to mind. The questions, “what are the most important scenes that will get him from desire to actualization? What characters do I need to add just to make the story work and give Caboto someone to talk to? What characters would illuminate his desire? I knew Caboto had a brother, and they stayed close all his life, but Piero never was a sailor. That gave me a clue as to who Piero (brother) was. I knew Caboto married Mattea and that she moved with him to England. It made me wonder, because this was unusual for a wife to move herself and family away from familial home. It made me think she might have been adventurous too and, unlike many women of the time, acted on her desires. And what did it say about their relationship and love for each other? So I don’t think of it as taking liberties as much as putting the clues together and fashioning a full persona.

I stuck to the trajectory of his life—his move from Genoa to Venice (getting in trouble there) to Catalonia and finally to England. I feel a duty to give the reader actual life facts wrapped in an “informative, exciting” read.
Karin: You have such a widespread background as a writer - plays, screenplays, textbooks, etc. What new things did you learn, or that surprised you, with this new genre?

Jule: How much I loved it. I always point to working with Lucas on Young Indy as one of the most fun and challenging jobs I had as a TV writer. The research, the facts, the history—bringing it all together in an entertaining way—it’s fun for me.

I learned a lot more about how to research and where to find credible facts and information. Surface google searches are not the best places to rely on. And academic resources will, sometimes, disagree with one another. Only in digging, digging, and digging can one come to a moment piece and decide how to put all the clues together.
Karin: What are some fundamentals of craft, the things that you return to time and again, no matter what you’re writing?
Structure. I believe in telling a good story and I do believe a good story has strong structure—to pull the reading audience along.
Karin: What do you hope that readers take away from this book?

Jule: That there were incredible explorers in this era. They were led by what they imagined could be. That navigation was in its raw form, but a desire to know how the world was shaped propelled dangerous exploration. That having big dreams is exciting and that even though they may take time to come to fruition, they can be reached. That a person’s worth has little to do with others’ perceptions, but with self-satisfaction.
Karin: What creative projects do you have cooking now? I know you’re always working on many things. Tell us something that you are EXCITED about!
Jule: My historical fiction novel on Laura Bassi—I think it will be entitled Unstoppable: Based on the Life of Laura Bassi—comes out in October. She was a scientist who broke through many barriers set to keep women out of higher education and science in the 1700s.

I am working hard to finish my first private investigator book based in Portland, Maine. My main character is a female ex-cop who had to leave the force for medical reasons and I love the character.

My women’s fiction/romance book Piazza Carousel, that I published independently a year ago, has been picked up by a publisher and will be re-issued this Fall and the publisher has me signed to do a sequel.

So my plate is full, but I am loving it!  

To learn more about Jule Selbo, visit her website.

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