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"My memoir is a coming of age story that took place in during the fights for women’s rights, racial equality and the growing rage against the Vietnam war."

Interview: Elisabeth Amaral, Author of ‘Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup’

Elizabeth AmaralElisabeth Amaral was born in Brooklyn, New York. She has had multiple careers, including jewelry designer, co-owner of a children’s boutique (Czar Nicholas and the Toad), co-owner of a restaurant in Harvard Square (Duck Soup), and most recently a real estate broker in New York City. She has written a short story collection, When Any Kind of Love Will Do, two children’s books, and is working on a novel. She currently lives with her husband in Manhattan.

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup. When did you start writing and what got you into memoir? 

I have written since I was in college, but I never took myself seriously as a writer until I joined a Method Writing group in New York City in 2005. Two years later I self-published my first book, a short story collection called When Any Kind of Love Will Do, and followed it with a children’s book, Elodie at the Corner Market. The idea for my memoir, Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup occurred quite unexpectedly. I was attending a Writer’s Digest conference in New York City. I was next in line to pitch a mystery novel to an agent when I suddenly realized that what I really wanted to write about was my life during the mid-1960s and 70s. That first agent thought there was enough in my spontaneous three-minute pitch to request that I send him the first few chapters. He liked them enough to ask for more. I never thought it would take almost three years to complete.    

Tell us about your memoir.  

Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup is about the improbable journey taken by my first husband and me. We left our jobs and New York City for Boston in the mid 60s so that my husband could study mime. We supported Czar Nicholas 2ourselves and our infant son by selling our handmade beaded earrings on the street, which led to our opening an upscale children’s boutique, followed a few years later by our restaurant near Harvard Square. The book takes the reader through that amazing era and introduces the interesting cast of characters who were part of our lives. Ours was a mixed-orientation marriage that did not become obvious to me for several years. With my realization of that, at a time when homosexuality wasn’t widely discussed or even understood, my self-esteem plummeted and I began to question my own sexuality. That led me to make some unwise and dangerous choices. My memoir is a coming of age story that took place in during the fights for women’s rights, racial equality and the growing rage against the Vietnam war. In addition to the narrative, which is at times both humorous and poignant, my book also contains recipes from our restaurant, Duck Soup, plus photographs and recollections from people who were part that life. At the heart of the story are perseverance, family, and lasting friendship.

Did you have a mentor who encouraged you? 

Yes. Kathrin Seitz taught a Jack Grapes Method Writing class in New York City in 2005 and 2006. I was fortunate to be part of that strong and supportive group and it was Kathrin’s enthusiasm for my writing, plus her insight and advice, that gave me the confidence to write my short story collection. The publication of that, in turn, gave me the confidence to pursue my writing in my depth. 

Who is your target audience? 

People of the Woodstock era who remember the excitement and the protests, sit-ins, love-ins, be-ins, because the book captures that time. Young women finding themselves on the brink of maturity and looking for love. Those who are in a mixed-orientation marriage, or struggling with problems of sexual identity or self-esteem, or know someone who is. Anyone who lived in Cambridge during that time and remembers Czar Nicholas and the Toad, our children’s store, and Duck Soup, our restaurant in Harvard Square.

Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to write. Can you relate to this? 

Yes, I am intimately familiar with anxiety. However, with Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup (which are the names of the businesses we had in and around Harvard Square), there was a different kind of anxiety. As I mentioned, my mixed-orientation first marriage caught me by surprise while I was a somewhat innocent young woman of twenty-three. This was back in the 1960s when homosexuality wasn’t talked about or understood the way it is today. I wasn’t sure how to approach the writing of this for over a year, or how to finally describe the long-suppressed feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem that I experienced during those years. And I wasn’t sure how my writing about it would affect my first husband. I was determined to be honest and also to do right by him and everyone who appears in the book. How would I write about certain experiences and emotions honestly, without offending or hurting? It took me several additional months before I was able to work on parts of the memoir, because first I had to be honest with myself about how painful it had been. 

Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined? 

I used to have a writing schedule, from about 7 to 11 in the morning, and then I would go to work, selling real estate in Manhattan. Now I’m retired, and I have no schedule and far less structure to my day. I guess it’s fair to say that I enjoy an undisciplined discipline, because I do get it done, and I get it done on time.

What was your publishing process like? 

I had tried, briefly, to go the traditional route. The first agent wanted me to make the included recipes more specific, and to have fewer photographs. Another agent called my book a “little gem” but said it was not for her. I prepared a more comprehensive list of agents to whom I planned to send query letters, but before I had a chance to send them out I had a heart attack. During recovery I decided that I needed to see this book in print as quickly as possible, and on my terms. I contacted iUniverse because they had previously published my short story collection, and I liked the results. The editors at iUniverse gave Czar Nicholas, The Toad, and Duck Soup internal recognition, helpful, professional editorial and marketing advice, and after publication, a month of Google ads. My ex-husband supplied the cover photo of me and our ten-month old son, and I provided them the exact layout I wanted for the nearly fifty photographs and numerous recipes. Each step of the process was performed to my exact specification in less time than originally estimated. It was a great experience, about five months from start to finish, and my relief when I held the finished book in my hand was profound.

Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work? 

My website is www.elisabethamaral.com. There are links to my blog, which consists mostly of short, humorous, true stories about New York City real estate. There are also several stories about meaningful life events. The site provides links to several chapters from my short story collection, chapters from my memoir, and links to where the books can be acquired through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iUniverse.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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