Latest Posts

Shop Talk with Katherine Morgan of Grand Gesture Books

Katherine Morgan is the founder and owner of Grand Gesture Books, a new, online-only (for now!) bookshop that specializes in romance books. Grand Gesture opened in November 2023 and is based in Portland, Oregon. You can follow Katherine and Grand Gesture’s journey on Instagram.

What led you to open a romance bookstore?

It felt like a natural kind of instinct to do. I’ve been working as a bookseller at Powell’s Books for about four-and-a-half years. I currently still work there, running the romance section, and it’s always been my happy place, especially since I got into romance during the pandemic. There are so many romance bookstores, which is great, but very few of them are in the Pacific Northwest. 

I knew, based on how much traffic the romance section gets, that if there are this many people who are interested in it, there are going to be people who are interested that live in Portland, or Washington, and want to travel down. That’s when I got the idea: I don’t know if [a romance bookstore] is coming soon, but I know that if it does, I want to be the person who runs and owns it.

How did you come to love books enough to get into the business of selling them?

I’ve always loved books. I’m definitely one of those people who grew up using books as more of a coping mechanism, because I had some problems at home and in school. I was a lonely child. And so it was really nice to escape through these books, and make these new friends and not have to travel and do all these things. Over the years, especially from college till now, my reading had died down a lot, and I just wasn’t reading as much. When I got hired [at Powell’s], I was like, “Great, I guess I could start reading more.” And now that I’m four years in, I definitely have found the joy again of reading. 

I’m going to loop back a little bit. Why did you turn to romance during the pandemic?

It gave me joy when I needed it. And even a few years later, running [the romance] section gives me joy. Getting to meet new customers gives me joy.  

Speaking of joy, it’s still early, but what has been the most enjoyable or rewarding aspect of starting Grand Gesture Books in November 2023?

I worried when I started this endeavor that most of the support I was going to get was going to be through just my friends because they were being nice. But I would say the nice thing is that most people I engage with through the Grand Gesture account are people that I actually don’t know, strangers who are willing to share [my] content, or who are very much asking me about merch. Everyone has been so kind about it, and so interested.
What challenges have you had to work through while preparing to launch? 

I have this habit of comparing myself to others, as, you know, many people do. And there are quite a few romance bookstores. One just opened up in Vancouver, WA  [20 minutes from Portland], and they specialize in used books. It’s called The Romance Era, and they’re great! The owner [Ren Rice] is super lovely, and we’re actually friends now. So it’s been a really fun, yet interesting, moment where I have to say, “Okay, you have to stop comparing yourself to these stores that have been open for years. What can you do to make your store special?” I’ve been learning about that, too.

The nice thing about the store that I’m opening and the store in Vancouver is that they’re both Black-owned. And I haven’t had this happen to me, but the owner of that store mentioned that someone had come into [The Romance Era] and was like, “Oh, did you hear that there’s a new romance store opening in Portland that’s also Black-owned?  How do you feel about that?”

When we ended up talking about it, Ren had a really good insight: It’s not a competition. It’s great to have more stores owned by Black people, especially in the PNW, which is very white.

I think, sometimes, especially when you’re a person of color, you get into the mindset that there can only be one. Living in Oregon, and usually being the one Black person around in general, I have to get over that and say, “No. How can I make sure that we both succeed? How do we all work together to make sure that we all survive?”

How, if at all, does the ongoing environment of book banning influence the way that you select books? 

I really want to be able to highlight more diverse titles and diverse situations. The interesting thing to me has been, when I announced that I was selling romance novels, I did have quite a few people reach out who asked, “Are you going to sell LGBTQ romance novels?” It was a privilege of mine, where I told them, “Yeah, I’m going to sell those, but why would I not??” And then I had to take a step back and remember, there are book bans, and there are people who are not accepting of LGBTQ fiction, and fiction of marginalized communities. And I’m sorry, I just think [book bans are] the dumbest thing in the world. People don’t cease to exist because you stopped selling a book about them.

What’s on the horizon for you and Grand Gesture in the coming months or year? 

I’m going to have a conversation with someone about setting up multiple book clubs. We’re working on merch. I just am really excited to see where it all goes. I hope to be in a brick and mortar in six months. I want to hold myself accountable and hold myself to these deadlines, but at the same time, I have to be in the process of [understanding] things aren’t always going to go my way, or the way I think they should go. And I’m interested in seeing how well I can adapt to that as a business owner, but also as a person.

Black and Brown bookstores owners do the important work of curating, amplifying, and preserving the rich throughline of stories that feed us. They are vital members of our local and global communities. Where there is a movement, there are books. But who captures the stories of the booksellers themselves? In this column, SHOP TALK, profiling booksellers, Dara Mathis turns the lens onto Black and Brown bookstores around the world, honoring the journeys that bring them to our neighborhoods.

Melania Luisa Marte | Mama’s Writing

What recent writing accomplishment(s) are you most proud of? Was this accomplishment shared and supported by your children?

My 2-year-old was born on the day that my collection of poems Plantains and Our Becoming was sent off to auction by my agents. Looking back on that moment now feels so cosmic. This book of poetry feels directly intertwined with my story of motherhood. When I think of myself as a writer, I always also think of myself as a mother and it is so grounding to view my work from that lens. I always want my accomplishments to be a part of who I also am as a mother. I want my children to see me as an individual and to know that I lived a full life and did not allow the one-dimensionalizing of the patriarchy’s gaze upon women to flatten me not for one second. If I can accomplish that through daily action, that is what I will be most proud of. Plantains & Our Becoming has yet to win an award but to me, having a healthy toddler and mama whilst having successfully published a collection of poetry feels like the only win I truly need. The rest is just the cherry on top.

Tell about a time mom-guilt emerged (or emerges) in the midst of your writing process.

I reject mom guilt lol. I just don’t believe that mothers should feel guilty for taking time for themselves. In fact, not enough of us take time, many mothers I know should take more time for themselves. I am a really great mom when I am rested, recalibrated, and have taken time to do other things that I love outside of motherhood. I write and mother my best when I am rejuvenated and for both things, I need to constantly pour into myself.

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a mom, what would it be?

Do not be afraid of failure. I think before I became a mom, I had a lot of anxiety that maybe I didn’t have the mother gene. Or that I wouldn’t be a good mom. That I would be an anxious mom. But what I have learned is that what makes a great mom is what makes a great human. Are you making sure to check in on yourself and regulate your emotions? How do you respond to something that angers you? How do you ground yourself when you are triggered? How do you empathize with yourself and your child and others? How do you get some peace back in your home when the toddler is having a difficult moment? How do you show up for your community? How do you remember to always lead with love in your most vulnerable moments? Because ultimately how you treat others is a reflection of how you treat yourself and your child.

What topics, artistic channels, or forms have become present that were not there before in your writing since becoming a parent?

Motherhood has definitely brought many different characters into my writing. I am currently writing a novel that explores motherhood through the lens of five generations of women. And through the characters I have been able to unravel so many of the hidden stories in my own family.

Do you ever find yourself dealing with censorship as a mom-writer? Explain your thoughts on your children becoming acquainted with your work.

I don’t believe in censoring anything I write. Obviously I write what is appropriate for the genre but if I’m writing for adults then we are going to discuss grown folks business. There are topics that we have been made to believe children should not learn about especially when it pertains to social justice issues. But that is a lie. It’s impossible for anyone to be apolitical. And even the children need to know what they are up against and that they are human beings worthy of all human rights just as any adult. And when I write things for the children, I am careful to not reduce their autonomy. They deserve the same freedom of expression as anyone. They are also way smarter than we want to believe. So it is important to nurture their genius and not try to dumb them down.

How has parenting bolstered or inhibited your creativity?

Parenting has made me more creative especially because it has made me more fun. Children are light. And when we listen to the youth we evolve. When we suppress their evolution, we fail our future. They remind us that if we cannot dream, we will perish. If we cannot dance, we will be consumed by quicksand. If we cannot express, we will drown in our humanity. They remind us that joy is imperative. They remind us of why we love. They will be our savior, not the other way around.

Was there a noticeable shift in your writing before and after parenthood? If yes, how so?

The first few months after giving birth were shaky. My brain was not my brain and that was really scary. I had a hard time getting back into my creative self. It took me almost a year to find my voice again within my work. I feel as though, Now that my baby is a toddler, the fogginess has settled and I have been able to come back to myself in a more centered and divine way. And it has made the art of writing for me even more profound and of paramount importance to my identity and purpose as an artist.

How has the internet influenced you as both a writer and parent?

As a chronic-googler LOL I am definitely an information lover. I’m always curious to read and use the internet to help me become a better writer and parent. I love looking up writing prompts, or researching for my next story, or even looking up advice on different parenting techniques.

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

It is so inspiring and affirming seeing other mama writers do it all. Maybe not all at once! But, they definitely do it all and do it well!

How do you balance motherhood/parenting and finding the space to write?

I am grateful that I get to stay home with my child so it makes it much easier to sneak in time to write. Early mornings and nap-time is my sacred writing time.

Who are your writer-mama heroes? 

There are so many! My top five would be Toni Morrison, June Jordan, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade Bambara.

Melania Luisa Marte is a writer, poet, and musician from New York living between the Dominican Republic and Texas. Her viral poem “Afro-Latina” was featured by Instagram on their IG TV for National Poetry Month and has garnered over nine million views. Her work has also been featured by Ain’t I Latina, AfroPunk, The Root, Teen Vogue, Telemundo, Remezcla, PopSugar, and elsewhere. Plantains and Our Becoming is her debut.

Ten Questions for Jane Wong

What inspired you to tell this story? 

My mother! Everything I write and create comes back to her. My memoir is a love song for working-class, low-income immigrant women… I really wanted to spotlight her life and what I’ve learned from her. Her story is also my story. I also wanted to write a memoir that played with form – echoing migration itself. It’s non-linear and tonally textured… just like in real life, I wanted there to be moments where I’m laughing so hard to stop myself from crying. I also think we need more stories that refuse a singular voice; yes, this book is about me growing up in a take-out restaurant, but it’s also about my relationships with toxic men, what it means to fall in love with poetry, and the ferocious of matrilineal wisdom and clairvoyance.

What did you edit out of this book?

Writing a memoir is definitely a challenge in terms of what you keep in and what you leave out. I really wanted there to be a balance between in-scene viscerality, familial and historical research, sensory lyricism, and personal reflection. I think the hardest part was actually what to add in! As a poet, it was definitely new to me to sprawl across the page, at length. I had the memoir pretty planned out, but the last chapter “Astonished Enough?” came out of a conversation with my editor who suggested that I write about writing. I’m really proud of how this chapter links to other parts of the book – creating a constellation of how writing was/is a part of every life experience of mine. 

Jane Wong reading at Yu and Me Books

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion? 

When I sold the book to Tin House, the book was only about 90 pages; I had never written on a deadline before and I certainly knew it was “done” because it had to be! But that said, the book began in 2017, so I did have about six years of the book on the page/stewing in my head. I knew I wanted to begin and end the book with fruit. Writing the last few pages, with “Mangoes Forever,” it felt right ending with radical sweetness. After I finished writing the book, we went through quite a few rounds of copyediting, proofreading, and fact checking. I learned so much in this entire process, but I think the biggest thing that I discovered was that I wasn’t alone. So many incredible readers came up to me and shared their own moving experiences… it has been so powerful. I was so scared to share this book since it’s vulnerable, but the response has been full of care.

What was your agenting process like?

I sold this book without an agent, which was something that was a bit nerve wracking for sure. I am currently in the process of finding an agent that is the right relationship for me! I’ve learned that this relationship really has to be a mutual fit – to dream up the same vision.

Book launch at Elliott Bay Bookstore

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer? 

Ah, this is a hard question for me… I think my friends know I have very complicated feelings about money since I didn’t grow up with much. I’m actually learning how to spend money, which feels uneasy. I think the best money I’ve spent is being able to take out my friends and family for meals! Honestly, I’m in awe that I have the funds to have this laptop I’m writing on right now. 

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day. 

I’m laughing because I don’t have a routine at all. I teach full time and I don’t really write during the academic school year. I do write with my students if we are doing in-class writing and I’ll sometimes keep those lines/sentences. And sometimes I will take a bath and dream up some lines and then I let them swirl down the drain. I write as a result of generous artist residencies – only in the summer. In other words, I write during three months of the year. During those days, I usually end up writing in a flurry while eating a lot. I always have like 3-6 snacks near me. During residency, I’m always first when it’s meal time, haha! I don’t know why writing makes me so hungry. I tend to write in bed, regardless of there being a desk there. It’s all a blur, time wise. It’s definitely intense… it’s like I enter a portal. Another world. I will say I always need to take a walk, read, or laugh with a friend during those intense writing times.

Jane Wong’s Chinese book birthday cake

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

Listen closely. So close, it’s like listening to whale sounds under the ice. Listen to what isn’t being said. Listen to your own desires and fears.

Play with form. If you’re feeling stuck while writing, try a different medium of creation. Go play in the dirt and plant something. Go cook your favorite dish. Go draw the ant that’s crawling across the room. I find that doing something else creative helps me return to writing with more sensory focus and play.

Write the scene twice or three times, but from different perspectives and tones. I’m always intrigued by the shifting angles in a story.

Jane Wong’s mother signs Wong’s book

What does literary success look like to you? 

Literary success looks like readers making real connections with me and each other… sharing stories, sharing snacks. It means having stories that tend not to be spotlighted heard. It looks like feeling proud of what you’ve written! And my mom read/listened to my book and she liked it! That’s really what matters to me.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? 

Oh my goodness! To answer this might take an eternity. I actually write a lot about literary and artistic friendship in my memoir! There are lots of shout-outs throughout the book. At least here, I’ll point out two of my besties Michelle Peñaloza and Tessa Hulls. They help me become a better person, which I think (I hope) makes me a better writer. They tell me to be kinder to myself when all I want to do is be harsh. They remind me that I’m easy to love and it’s easy to love others. Though we are so different from each other in many ways, we share an earnestness that translates to the page. 

Reading at Mighty Writers in Atlantic City

Who are you writing for? 

Oh, I love this question. Other immigrant babies. Weirdos. Readers who also come from a similar low-income class background. In a way, I’m writing this for my younger self.

Jane Wong (she/her) is the author of the memoir Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City (Tin House, 2023). She also wrote two poetry collections: How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James, 2021) and Overpour (Action Books, 2016). A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships and residencies from the U.S. Fulbright Program, Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, Artist Trust, Hedgebrook, UCross, Loghaven, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and others. An interdisciplinary artist as well, she has exhibited her poetry installations and performances at the Frye Art Museum, Richmond Art Gallery, and the Asian Art Museum. She grew up in a take-out restaurant on the Jersey shore and is an Associate Professor at Western Washington University.

Ten Questions for Neda Toloui-Semnani

What inspired you to tell this story? 

The first time I tried to explain the contours of my family and, frankly, my grief was when I was in third grade. I wrote a little story of my father’s death, illustrated it, and then my teacher helped me bind it. I knew then that I’d write this book. Every few years, I’d tell it, again and again. On holidays and family gatherings, my mother or aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends would exchange stories, and I wanted to be the one to record some of them. 

Then, after my mother died when I was 31, it felt like the story I had to tell–a way to grieve her loss but also, a way to honor my parents, my family, and the whole of our community. It was also how I learned to write long-form.    

What did you edit out of this book?

They Said They Wanted Revolution has had several forms, but it really began as my MFA thesis. Hundreds of pages of research and reporting, various attempts to get scenes down were cut out. Honestly, there was more cut out than there was left in. 

Mainly, I took out stories I couldn’t verify – I had spoked to one Leftist revolutionary in northern California who told me an amazing story about how he smuggled guns from Los Angeles to Tehran, Iran. He used appliances and digital clock radios, he said. I still wish I could’ve gotten one more source on that to feel comfortable getting it in the book. 

I also edited out scenes I felt I didn’t have the skills to fully convey. One scene, for example, I finally get to my father’s grave for the first time. I’m 24 years old and completely overcome. I fell my knees and crying, and crawled to the grave. The amazing part was that the family members who were with me gave me space to lose my mind a little. Eventually, I got myself together. 

When I tried to write that scene, it felt overwrought. Its the adage, write from your scars and not your wounds. I think I have the skills and distance to write now, but I didn’t then.   

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

I don’t honestly remember how I knew I was done. I had a pretty tight outline, so when I reached the end of it, I sent in my draft. My editor was pretty distracted and ended up leaving the publishing house, which was really tough blow. I  felt like I ended up editing it myself even though another person, who was very talented and kind, helped me get it to the finish. 

In the end, I was done because there was deadline and a month later I had a baby. It was a pretty clear before and after. Since my memoir was reported, I literally learned a lot about myself–details about my parents and our families, developed skills around reporting and research, and how to be a professional writer. Then, when it was filed and going copyedits, I was recovering from a tough birth and figuring out motherhood. The book, I think, taught me patience and, probably, how not to take things so personally. 

What was your agenting process like?

Oh God, my agenting and publishing process were painful. My first agent ghosted me. The second clearly didn’t vibe with my work and handed me off to her junior agent. The junior agent was great and super supportive, but then she left agenting and handed me off again. It was great luck that four times was a charm.

It ended up being a great lesson, in the end. Agents are your first-round editors so, yeah, try and land one who is good at editing and writing; one who will champion your work, and know that they are providing a service, one they’re paid for handsomely. Actually, it’s a little dating: we rarely end up with the first person we go out with, and that’s a good thing. Know your worth, believe in your work, because no one else is obligated to do either.  

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

A couple things come to mind: every plane ticket, tank of gas, or train journey that got me to a place I was writing about has proved priceless. Even if the event I’m writing about is decades in the past, going to where it happened changes how I write it. There are surprises and details I couldn’t have known over the phone, or in an archive, or via Google maps. My job becomes easier in some ways. It’s becomes description, rather than invention. 

I also decided to get my MFA from Goucher College. It is a low-residency program with extraordinary professors, and I found my writing family there. I learned the pain and privilege of writing nonfiction with those people. People who inspire me and have made me a better, more fearless reporter and writer.

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day. 

It depends on the day or what I’m working on. I’m a print reporter, audio producer, and television writer; I write essays and sometimes fiction–I’m supposed to be working on a book proposal now–so it depends on the rolling deadlines in my life. 

Generally, for generative work, I have to write or, at least start writing, in the morning. Once there are words on the page and I have a narrative map, I can write into the night. This is a little different for news writing, but for longer, more complex pieces, it’s new stuff in the morning and editing in the afternoon or evening. Honestly, I wrote most of my book between 5 A.M. and 9 A.M.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned to set a timer if I’m particularly anxious. Normally, in the beginning of a project, I can write for 45 minutes. Then, I break. Then, another 45. I am less worried about time in the chair, than I am about words on the page. A lot of my work comes through in my revision process, and that only happens after there is something to revise. 

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

I think, writing begets writing. In other words, write a feature and then sitdown and write a script, and then write a poem and journal. In my opinion, writing is a craft more than it is an elevated artform–the only way to be a good craftsperson to do work. The great privilege of being writer or a reporter is that if you do it, you are it. No one has the authority to tell you that you’re not a writer or a reporter. So get to work. 

Figure out how to tell a story: watch lots of television and movies, listen to podcasts, read popular fiction. High-brow stuff is great and will teach you how to take risks in your sentences and in other ways, but the genius of storytelling is found in commercial spaces, where success is measured keeping people glued to a book or the screen. This is where character, story, and pacing are everything. Don’t be a snob. Study it.

Fail. Fail often. Fail spectacularly. Bathe in your rejections. It will build your resiliency. You’ll learn, get better, more determined, and, hopefully, kinder. Editors need determined writers, the whole system relies on us.      

What does literary success look like to you?

I don’t know, really. Am I successful because I wrote the book I wanted to write and got it published? Am I successful because readers have connected with it? Or because having written my book has given me confidence or because doors I didn’t know were there opened wide for me? My book wasn’t a bestseller but I am proud of it and of how it has made its way in the world. 

I think what makes me successful is that my book is just one thing I’ve done, not the totality of my literary career or ambitions. Having a future–or, rather, claiming my future in this often difficult space is its own kind of success.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I’m lucky enough to have quite a few author friends Kristina Gaddy, Nick Tabor, Stephanie Gorton, Jean Guerrero, Adam Valen Levenson, Rachel Dickinson, Theo Emery, Nilo Tabrizy, Porochista Khapour, Kati Standefer, Jana Pruden, Linda Yablonsky, Amanda Becker, and quite a few more. I think, mostly, they teach me how to be a better writer by being generous, patient, honest, enthusiastic, and kind. Most I met in graduate school, others in residencies, or through work. Each one is a working writer, so there is no real airy-fairy-ness. 

Writing is work. Work is hard. We’re our own bosses, and bosses often suck. It’s nice to have people who get that whoever said, “Do what you love and you’ll work a day in your life” was a lying liar.  

Who are you writing for?

Ultimately, I guess, it’s myself, always. I write news, features, and nonfiction in all its forms for those without a voice and to reveal hard truths about our world. I write fiction to remind myself how people persevere and, often, to laugh. I also write for my kid–so he gets to know me apart from being his mom.

Neda Toloui-Semnani (she/her) is a three-time Emmy award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Cut, The Washington Post, Kinfolk, New York Magazine, LA Review of Books, The Baffler, and This American Life among others. She wrote and produced television for VICE News Tonight. She holds a masters of science in gender and social policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a masters in fine arts in nonfiction from Goucher College. She was named a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA fellow in Nonfiction and a 2018 fellow with the Logan Nonfiction Program. Her acclaimed debut, They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents, was published in 2022 by Little A.