Coming in January, 2018 – It Occurs to Me That I Am America

Now more than ever, we must ask ourselves: Who are the WE in We the People? In It Occurs to Me That I Am America, more than 50 bestselling and award-winning authors and artists consider the fundamental ideals of a free, just, and compassionate democracy through heart-stirring and often provocative fiction and art. I am proud to have contributed a piece to this unprecedented anthology, which is being published by Touchstone Books onJanuary 16, 2018, in support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) upon the one-year anniversary of the Presidential Inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington.


Learn more and pre-order It Occurs to Me That I Am America at


NEA Support

Love books?  How about the people who write them?  Writers, poets, historians and memoirists need your help.

Check out this fabulous video about the NEA’s literature grant: 

Next step?  Call, write, or e-mail your representative and tell them: “I’m a Republican [or Democrat or an Independent] who wants your help to continue funding for The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

Take three minutes of your life to say you think those who support culture are cool enough to earn your vote.

Click here to find your senators. 

Click here to find your representative.

Port Washington Library Book and Author Luncheon, 2017

Back in the earlyish-90s, I got a call from Poets & Writers.  Essentially, there was no time to dither.  Funding of the National Endowment for the Arts was under assault by Jesse Helms and Co.  Arts organizations had to fight back.  Poets & Writers (I’m now chairman of the board) was among the first to respond.

I was asked to put together a group of writers who would go down to Washington on their own dime – try to educate members of Congress about the Endowment, specifically the literary grant, which went to individuals, not institutions.  My group would visit the House of Representatives.  (The unlikely but delightful duo, Melanie Griffiths and Wendy Wasserstein, took on the Senate.)

Who volunteered to go?  Interestingly, not the authors of literary novels, the sort who frequently apply to the NEA for help.  It was mystery writers…not one of whom had ever applied for a grant.  Mary Higgins Clark, Walter Mosley, me and the late Ross Thomas; Ross wasn’t well, but he flew in from California anyway.

The anti-NEA folks were portraying arts people as Gomorrah-ites, conniving to put taxpayer dollars into the hands of writers who would mock-God-with-blasphemous-haiku, jeer at the flag, ridicule the nuclear family, and champion anarchy. 

Many Democrats were on our side, but there was no point in preaching to the choir.  So the Representatives with whom we met were all right-of-center Republicans, opponents of government funding for the arts.  They came from all parts of the US, but in my memory, they all sounded like Lindsey Graham. 

Since one of our group was a registered Republican, we made sure to stress our bipartisanship.  Because the members of Congress we were visiting were champions of the bottom line, the person sheparding us around introduced us not as artists, but as revenue producers:  “Together, these four writers have sold…”  It was some number we’d hurriedly calculated earlier.  I vaguely remember 36 million books worldwide, though it could have been 63 million.  To this day I’m not sure if I overestimated the sales of my Bulgarian editions.

We all had sense enough to dress as conservatively as we could bear.  But a dress-for-success suit only goes so far.  We went armed with facts about the cultural institutions in each Representative’s district that received Endowment funds.  Whenever possible, we brought up the names of local writers who’d received individual grants.  We made the point that most of these writers were not members of a snooty, East Coast clique, but ordinary people from every state the union – office clerks, waitresses, truck drivers, homemakers.  The grant money would allow them to stop working that second job, or pay for a babysitter, or help pay the rent on a room of one’s own.

We used whatever worked.  By the third Congressperson, we recognized the fact that some of our books had been made into movies was an attention-grabber.  By the fifth Congressperson, one of us would launch into a vignette about being on the set.  What did this have to do with NEA’s literature grant?  Gornischt.  What did it have to do with making us seem accessible, non-boring, and cool folk who at least had been in the vicinity of her red carpet? 

Well, Poets & Writers, along with the other authors and arts delegations, had some success against those who wanted to choke us to death with purse strings.  The individual literature grant survived.  We won that skirmish, but the fight to preserve our culture goes on.  If you care enough to come today to hear these two extraordinary writers, then you should care enough to call Congressman Suozzi or whoever your representative is and tell them: I’m a Republican or Democrat or an independent who wants funding for The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Domestic Terrorism, Red, White and Blue

­Here we are again, with the FBI and local law enforcement finally closing down a right-wing militia action. But they’ll be back: I know it. I studied it. Around 1995, the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, I got curious about the radical right – militias, the Christian Identity movement, white supremacists, freemen. I needed to know what my fellow citizens who were antigovernment, racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic were thinking – and doing.

I spent three years looking at right-wing websites, a revolting pursuit because of the raging hatreds and demented theories. The effort wasn’t to satisfy my curiosity, although I admit to being curious about why people who had never met a Jew in their lives wanted me dead. I was writing Red, White and Blue, my 1999 novel not just about the dementos, but about sane and decent Americans. As I reread part of the manuscript in my computer looking for a couple of quotes, I thought: “This is a terrific book. I’m so proud of it!” (See? It only took me seventeen years to get past my penchant for self-deprecation. Anyway, Red, White, and Blue, has two main characters:

If the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam had a one-night stand, guess who would have popped out nine months later? Charlie Blair, Special Agent, F.B.I. What an American!

Charlie’s from Wyoming, a Wasp brought up on a ranch. The other character, Lauren Miller, a reporter, is a Jewish New Yorker. Though they never discovered, the reader learns that they are actually distant cousins, descendants of a brother who hopped to train headed west (had to get out of town fast) and a sister who stayed in the East. Charlie has gone undercover in a well-armed, highly organized cabal of crazies. And Lauren travels to Wyoming to investigate (as it turns out) that very group. She observes

people can blab about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave till they’re blue in the face, but assimilated as she is, she suspects her fellow citizens, her sister Americans, believe that she, Lauren Deborah Miller, Jew, is not as authentic an American as, say, a librarian in Tennessee or a car salesman in Oregon – or a sociopath dribbling over The Turner Diaries in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. She wants to know why.

In my years of research and writing, I interviewed an FBI psychologist and Special Agents fighting radical right groups, a Wyoming state cop who investigated radical groups in his home state, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, and scholars researching the various radical factions.

Wyoming has always sang out to me, and I’d spent a lot of time there over the years. But talking to a local sheriff, a naturalist, a member of the cattlemen’s Association, a realtor, salespeople, librarians, riding instructors, and workers in slow food joints gave me more than information. I got their manners, language, unsolicited political opinions, and (most of the time) great kindness.

The best complement I’ve ever gotten on any book came with Red, White and Blue. I was at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference in the early 2000’s. A woman came up to me; she’d been brought up on a ranch in Montana. She said she bought the novel because she thought it would be funny, reading how a New Yorker messed up the West. Instead, she told me, she loved the book and added: “You really got us! How did you do that?” I shrugged: no idea. But looking back, I realize that during the writing, I became Lauren Miller and Charlie Blair.

My E-Experience


By Susan Isaacs

This is what it was supposed to be: a short mystery story that would be part of an anthology.  The only requirements were it had to be set within the last seventy-five years in New York City.  Piece o’ cake, right?

Right.  Except I don’t write a lot of short fiction.  The opening sentence is the voice of the piece, and it’s always a bitch.  Ten, twenty, fifty times: a stinkeroo.  Then finally voilà!  So I figure: “All that work?  I might as well write a novel.”

But what would become “A Hint of Strangeness” had to be short, whatever “short” meant.  This wouldn’t be my book; it would be a compilation by a group of mystery writers.  So abandoning my literary teacup for a wad of tough-dame Dentyne Ice, I wrote faster than I normally would.  New York City?  Fine.  I’d lived in three of its five boroughs, but chose Queens, 1963, because back then, it not only seemed so aggressively ordinary, it actually was.  My protagonist?  Marianne Kent, nineteen, a Wasp in a mostly Jewish, slightly Italian neighborhood.  Not exactly autobiographical, but when I was that age, I lived in the same part of the borough, Forest Hills.

I’d typed a quick outline.  That’s my M.O.  Also, a mystery needs a strong, direct narrative thrust and an outline keeps the writer on the path.  Whodunit, and why?  How are the scales of justice brought back into balance?  Unlike the Victorian novel, the mystery author can’t meander into fields of daisies or indulge in genealogical anecdotes or an extended tour of Keswick during lambing season.  Especially not in a short story.

Marianne is smart – an economics major at Queens College – and pretty.  So two pluses in her column.  Except that’s it as far as assets go.  Her father was killed in World War II and she was raised by a refined mother of meager means.  One chilly fall night she comes home after a wearying day at school and work, unlocks the front door, and trips over…A body.

If writing is ever a snap, it means the work is lousy: Or at least that’s always been true for me.  But writing A Hint… was pleasurable.  I not only like Marianne, I admired her, and I loved the chemistry between her and her best friend, Laurie Fishbein, a pre-med student.  So when the homicide detective in charge of the case finds himself at a loss, Marianne and Laurie naturally take up the investigation.

The short story grew.  Marianne tracks down a long-lost aunt; Laurie develops a neurasthenic mother by page 31 and a father who is not only broccoli king of New York, but a guy who seems a tad too familiar with the ways of the mob.  Etcetera.

As I was blithely typing page 70, I stopped with an Uh-oh.  I hadn’t finished the short story, and it was no longer a short story.  The characters had taken on lives of their own, met all sorts of intriguing people in the course of their investigation, and were finding out that Queens was perhaps not the bland borough it has once seemed.

After much detecting, some travel, and some really terrific research, Marianne Kent finds out who done it, why, and a great deal about herself.  And I had a novella.  I offered it to the publisher of the anthology whose initial comment, “long is good” was now “You’ll have to cut it in half,” which is like saying “You can keep the heart, but get rid of the left ventricle.”  Also, all along the publisher had been snippy about my Queens setting.  To him, New York City was Manhattan, and he insisted I write at least one scene set in that borough.

To me he was an ignoramus, and a pushy one, but I did insert a productive afternoon at the 42nd Street Library.  (Yes, Manhattan is often referred to as New York, but any mayoral candidate or third-grader knows New York City is also Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island.)

So what do you do with a novella you now own?  I’d never before written one, so I was clueless.  A lot of writers have them published in magazines or save them as the centerpiece for a collection of short fiction.  However, since I tend to write pieces of short fiction only once or twice a decade, I figured this was not my kind of solution.  So I showed it to my agent.  And he said: “I think this would be a good Amazon Single.  I want to send it to them.”

An e-book?  I was torn, though neither in the sense of ripping at my shirt collar because I felt a choking sensation at the thought of betraying my local bookseller by going digital, nor slamming down the phone and bellowing: “This must be bigger!  I will turn this novella/novelette/novelito into a tetralogy.”  No, my work was done and I liked what it was.  Okay, I did have a little guilt about the bookseller, and I didn’t like the notion of an empty space on the shelves where I keep my books and translations.  Still I replied: “Okay.”

Though some editors have been known to read a novel on a weekend, I expected the more usual pattern of twenty-first century publishing.  Dispirited employees at downsized houses with fewer assistants than in the previous century, schlepping a printout of a piece of writing back and forth between home and office for weeks, months, lacking the time or vigor to read it.

On the other hand, Amazon had not exactly downsized.  It was immense, powerful.  (In fact, mine had been an early signature on the letter a huge number of authors put out protesting Amazon dealings with the publisher Hachette. Amazon backed off: case closed.)  Still, when A Hint… was accepted within two or three days, I was astounded.  The jacket cover – not for any bound book, for there would be none, but to have the appearance of bookishness for marketing purposes – came about a week later.

Enright 3I’m a great fan of graphic art, but this cover with its crumbling Manhattan-like city looked as if it belonged on a dystopian novel for despondent young adults.  It lacked even a smidge of humor, which, to me, was what made Marianne’s narrative voice such a delight.  So I e-mailed the otherwise congenial person at Amazon and said something to the effect of “Feh,” albeit a bit more diplomatically.  After several back-and-forths, she agreed to speak to the artist.  My hopes did not soar, but a couple of days later, I had a terrific graphic cover with a bright-eyed intelligent-looking young woman on it.

During this time, the manuscript was on a copy editor’s computer, being examined for missing commas, awkward adverbial clauses, using “which” instead of “that” and the inevitable blatant errors… like a character  having “icy blue eyes” on page 7 and “his eyes, blacker than night, glowered as she extracted the dental floss from her makeup case” on page 46.  But with all the shrinkage in publishing, the work doesn’t go to staff,  but to freelance copy editors who are overworked and underpaid.

During my career I’ve had copy editors who have saved me from my own ignorance, like calling a couch–y thing a chaise lounge rather than a chaise longue, and my overeagerness to use “whom” when “who” was correct.  (It wasn’t all my bad.  I had a supercilious, literal-minded editor who changed my sentence, “the ground was encrusted with a brittle February frost” to “the ground was frozen” followed by red-penciled exclamation point that practically tore the page.)

This time I got a lot more than I expected.  The copyediting was well done, and fast, I think it took about three days.  I’m assuming it was done by an actual person, but for all I know Amazon has created a spellchecking, grammarian android to which they’ve given a human name.

Then one morning, a couple of days later, I got an e-mail that A Hint of Strangeness was up.  And indeed, when I looked at my screen, there it was.  No launch party, no book tour, and in fact, no book.  It might be depressing except for the fact that a lot of people are buying it, reading it, and for the most part, saying it’s terrific.  Not only that, there’s the pleasure of knowing it’s being bought and discussed by readers around the world.

[A quick note here: this is not how it goes with self-published books, as far as I know.  I have no idea how that procedure works, though I suspect it’s a more difficult process, though certainly not impossible.  There have been great successes in this area, but the authors who do best, I believe, not only have the writer’s gift, but an enormous amount of energy and persistence, plus a talent for marketing that I lack.]

So let’s just say I’m wistful about my e-endeavor.  No book, so in place of A Hint of Strangeness, I’ll have to put some Queens-related tchotchke on my shelf, a World’s Fair Unisphere in a snow globe or a Queens College course catalog.  Also, the physical gratification of holding a book, turning the pages, is lost.  There is far less satisfaction in holding up an iPad and saying, “This is mine,” than touching the glossy, heavy paper of the jacket, feeling the book’s weight in your hands as you offer it to someone.

On the other hand, while I may not love tech, I am exceedingly fond of it.  I got my first computer, an IBM Displaywriter, in 1979.  While some of my literary friends were extolling the sensual pleasure of pencil on paper, I was knocking it out on a keyboard, always willing to change it, make it better because I did not have to retype an entire manuscript.

Way back then, long before many of you were in utero, I said to anyone who would listen: “We’re hardwired for language and also for narrative.  It doesn’t matter if it’s carved into stone, hand-written on parchment scrolls like the Torah, bound into leather-covered tomes, stapled into comic books, typeset by a master printer or spewed out by a computer, or whisked through cyberspace onto your screen.  The medium merely gets it out there.

It’s the message – your story/novella/novel – that matters!!

A Hint of Strangeness

The Washington Post said, “Nobody does smart, gutsy, funny, sexy women better than Susan Isaacs.” 

Enright 3Add to that praise the adjective “strong,” and you’ve got Susan’s latest protagonist, Marianne Kent.  Her life may not seem thrilling – living with her widowed mother, majoring in economics, working in an elegant dress store after classes to put away money for graduate school – but she’s determined to make a better life for herself and her mom. 

One night, she comes home.  Hmm, no light over the front door.  That old fuse box?  Again?  Except when Marianne gets inside, she stumbles and immediately

“I comprehended I had not tripped over a book…. I prayed.  I forgot for what, but it came down to Please let everything be okay.  Maybe that my mother (because I had no doubt it was she) had just fainted from a high fever or low blood pressure and she felt cold because she was so close to the front door.”

Her mother has been murdered.  The NYPD is stumped.  Marianne’s father, an army captain, was killed in battle when she was a year old, and whatever other family she has are so distant she’s never met them. Whom can she turn to?

Marianne does what strong women always do: She turns to herself.  With help from her Laurie Fishbein, her BFF since second grade, she becomes her own private detective to solve the case of her lifetime.

Buy the Amazon Kindle Single

E-books and me

My first downloads on my new Sony Reader (back in the dawn of e-civilization) were the freebies: Hamlet, the US Constitution, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass. The Sony library at the time wasn’t exactly bursting with choices…

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